From Bar Hedya to Charlie Hebdo: the power to shape the world is in our hands

In the Talmud in tractate Berachot (56a) we learn of Bar Hedya, the interpreter of dreams, who would give a favourable interpretation to the one who paid him, and an unfavourable interpretation to the one who did not pay. The third century amoraim Abaye and Rava went to see him, each claiming to have had the same dream, and Abaye paid him whereas Rava did not. The Talmud records a collection of his interpretations to each man, where Abaye is told of all the wonderful things that his dreams portend, and Raba is told only terrible outcomes. Subsequently Rava revisited him with new dreams, and still was given terrible news of his future, some of which the Talmud records as happening. Then finally Rava went to him and gave him money for the interpretation and suddenly his future looked rosy – he would be miraculously saved from danger, he would take over Abaye’s role as teacher par excellence (which again we know happened). One day Bar Hedya was travelling with Rava in a boat, when he said to himself “why should I accompany a man whose dream I have interpreted to mean he will be miraculously saved from danger [and therefore I will drown] and so he quickly got off the boat, letting his book fall as he did so. Rava found the book and looked into it to find the words “All dreams follow the mouth”. Rava exclaimed “you wretch – it all depended on you, and you gave me all this pain”….

The narrative reads with almost comedic intent, although real tragedy ensues. It seems to be an empirical experiment by two scholars as the power of dreams and their interpretation – are they really prophetic foretellers of the future or do they have no power over us in the waking world? And is the dream itself the power or the interpretation and understanding of the dream?

I was reminded of this passage as I read article after blog post, social media comment after theological discourse in the last days, trying to make sense of the terrible murders at Charlie Hebdo.

I believe in religion. I believe in the power of religion to do good in the world. I believe it is one of our most important tools to visualise and to create a better world. I understand religion to be designed to take some of the most frightening and frightful options away from human choices. When Moses quotes God as saying “Li nakam ve’shilem” (Vengeance is Mine, and recompense) (Deut 32:35) this is not describing a hateful angry and punitive God, but is taking away the obligation of vengeance against one’s tormentor from the person and ascribing it to God. Religion transforms our mortal powerlessness and allows us to let go of our frustrations with what we cannot change, in order to address ourselves to our lives with the power and abilities we have. We leave to God the things we cannot face or cannot deal with, and we move on.

All religions do this essential thing, albeit in differing ways. They function to give us the head and heart space in order that we are able to forward the aspirations expressed in every religion – the treating of all others with respect, the working for a better world, for peaceful living together, for growing our own souls….

Every religion has its foundational myths and texts, and every foundational text shares and restates the basic premise that every human being is of absolute value, and how we get on with each other is of absolute importance, and that there is a bigger arena than we can see or even imagine from within our own contexts.

Every religion has within its foundational texts and myths texts of horror which seem to sacralise violence against individuals or nations; every religion also has within its foundational texts and myths texts of hope and assurance, which mandate loving care of the other, and the search for peaceful living together, valuing each other’s humanity.

And so to the blogs and articles and social media comments which everywhere protest that murderous things done in the name of religion or people of faith or in defence of God are distortions of that true religion, the result of false teaching, and the reassuring quotations from Hebrew Bible or Quran or New Testament are applied to the arguments. Because, as Bar Hedya knew, everything is open to interpretation, and it is the interpretation which gives the power to the text/dream rather than the text/dream simply standing on its own. Every religion can defend itself with its texts of hope and love for the other, can gloss its texts of terror as being of a particular period or not meaning what it seems to mean. The Jewish teaching of every word or verse having a ‘pardes’ of possible interpretations and exegisis: (the pshat- plain meaning of the word/s; the remez – allusion or hints of deeper symbolic meaning; the drash – enquiring or comparative meanings; and the sod – the esoteric and mystical meaning) surfaces the importance of understanding a text in as rich and complex a way as we can, for this is what will ultimately create the meaning of that text for us within our own contexts.

So when I read of the apologetics for whatever a particular religion has done now/ someone has done in the name of a particular religion, part of me is so grateful for these urtexts of shared values and aspirations towards love and justice for all, and part of me is furious and wants to scream out to the writers – well that may be in your sacred book, but why are people not interpreting this original intention of religion for the sake of justice and humanity and valuing others above all? Why are people instead interpreting their religious texts for the purpose of murder and hatred and violence and repression of otherness? Why are people oppressing others or murdering them in the name of their God?

We cannot rely on the texts of hope in our sacred literature and ignore what Bar Hedya knew – that how we choose to interpret the basic text matters even more than the text itself because it gives us the power to ignore what our religion is for and to weaponise our traditions to use against others. Everything has to be in the interpretation, and the reality is that the interpretation we allow to prevail at any given time isn’t the most “true”, it is the one most amenable to the power of the time. We choose to allow interpretations that let us hate the other, or ignore their plight, or suppress or even oppress them. We choose to allow the interpretations that mean that people murder others in the name of their religion. We choose the interpretations that give us a sense of power over others. Our urtexts may be screaming out that these interpretations are not what were intended, but until we hear the voices of modern scholars of every religion both admitting to our own texts of terror and neutralising them, until we hear the voices of religious people refusing to accept teachings of hatred of the other, we will be stuck with the teachers of hatred, the radicalisers of those who feel powerless, the focusers of chaotic feelings of aimlessness and anomie where no good future can be envisaged let alone aspired to.

It is time to admit that the interpretation of our texts have a real power, and to give those who interpret them the necessary tools to understand that it is in their hands to bring forth the future into existence.

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