Crowd ponders the good, bad and ugly of Bible

It wasn’t a Pilates class or a pop music concert that drew the huge crowd to the Osher Marin JCC on Sunday. This crowd came for a day of Torah! Torah! Torah!

The San Rafael JCC’s “Bible by the Bay” was billed as a daylong celebration of the “multicultural heritage of the Bible.” Several hundred attendees sampled from 23 breakout sessions, all taught by top-notch scholars and sages, and each meant to tap a little more wisdom from the Tree of Life.

A nighttime concert and Bible reading event followed.

From the latest on the Dead Sea Scrolls to wine, music and homosexuality in the Bible; from recent archaeological finds to “What Would Moses Drive? Biblical Environmental Ethics,” this first-time event offered some truth for every sojourner.

In his class “Murder and Mayhem: Violence in the Bible,” Rabbi Daniel Kohn began by citing Cain and Abel, the kids from “the first dysfunctional family,” as he put it. Kohn noted how several figures in the Torah, including God, are not immune to rage. He jokingly recommended an anger-management course for some of them.

The jokes continued in Doron Nesher’s class “And Sarah Laughed: Is There Humor in the Bible?” The noted Israeli filmmaker saw a strain of humor in the oral storytelling tradition out of which, say some, the written Torah emerged. One example: Nesher cited the Jacob and Esau story. (“His mother covers him with fake hair and stew!”)

Nesher saw humor in many aspects of Jewish life, including ritual circumcision (“Is that really the place to have a covenant with God?”). He then told a story about bumping into his original mohel. The rabbi asked Nesher to drop his drawers to see whether he’d done a good job. Nesher obliged, and after a moment’s contemplation, the old man said, “Nice work … not mine.”

A slate of Bible-related activities for children had to be canceled because too few kids attended. But for the handful who did come, Chabad of Marin Rabbi Hillel Scop taught them how to be Torah scribes, helping the children write Hebrew letters with feather pens and ink.

Rachel Biale, Osher Marin JCC director of community education and organizer of the event, taught a class on “Ancestral Home or Occupied Territory: the Bible in Israeli Politics.” She quoted conflicting Torah passages that mark the borders of the land God gave to Abraham. One places it from “the Nile to the Euphrates.”

Biale stressed how factions cite conflicting passages to support their points of view. For example, Scripture urges alternately the slaughter of previous inhabitants of Canaan; other passages command kindness towards the stranger.

In one session, U.C. Berkeley Professor Ron Hendel touched on an explosive issue: Was there really an Exodus? He avoided giving a direct answer, but noted that at least one verse in Torah, claiming that 600,000 Israelites escaped from Egypt, was demographically impossible.

He also questioned why God would send 10 plagues to afflict the Egyptians. “Why not send just one good one?” asked Hendel. “It’s because the number 10 makes for a good story.”

On the other hand, scholars know that some slaves of unknown number or ethnicity escaped from Egypt. They know that Egypt exacted tribute from outlying dominions, including Canaan. The brave tales of returning Canaanites may have inspired the locals, perhaps providing the seed of the Exodus story.

Said one student, “We came up with a good story and we stuck to it.”

By day’s end, attendees headed home hungry for more knowledge. Said Laura Sheppard of Berkeley, “This was a very inspiring afternoon, to have all these wonderful scholars and diverse subjects.”

Added Janet Lipsey of San Rafael, “This event was really intriguing and well organized. I’m constantly fascinated and nourished learning about Judaism.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.