Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Collapsing Second-Level Stories, the Torah, Sheakepeare in Love, Ellery Queen, and Sherlock Holmes

There is obviously a difference between the story within a text and the story of the creation of the text. The story within Romeo and Juliet involves two teenage star-crossed lovers. The story of the creation of Romeo and Juliet involves Shakespeare writing a play in the 1590s. Let's call the story within the text a Level 1 story, and the story about the writing of the text a Level 2 story. The Level 1 story does not have to be true, but one can intelligently discuss it as if it were true. For example, one could ask why Romeo fell in love with Juliet, even though they did not actually exist.

But we generally think of a Level 2 story as historical. If we asked why Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, we would presumably be having a factual and historical discussion. But not necessarily. The movie Shakespeare in Love cleverly presents a fictional Level 2 story about Shakespeare writing the play, with bits of that Level 2 story showing up at the Level 1 story in the play itself. 

This is a useful way of thinking about the Torah. Pretty much everyone -- regardless religious belief -- agrees on the Level 1 story in the Torah: the creation of the world, the flood, the covenant with Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, Mount Sinai, commandments, wandering in the wilderness, and Moses's Deuteronomy speeches. 

But people disagree about the Level 2 story. The traditional Level 2 story is that God gave the entire Torah to Moses. This gives the Torah its authority; it is literally the word of God. The modern scholarly theory is that the Torah was written later by multiple authors. And under this account, there are multiple understandings of its authority or lack of authority. It could be inspired by God, or contain deep wisdom, or being the beginning of a continuing divine revelation, or contain historical truths and folktales, or just be primitive folktales with little relevance today, or some combination of all of the above. Most Reform and Conservative Jews believe some form of this latter account, but still believe that the Torah is authoritative for various reasons.

In traditional services, when the Torah is taken from the ark, the congregation points to it and says, "V’zot haTorah asher sam Moshe, lifnei b’nei Yisrael al pi Adonai b’yad Moshe," which means "This is the Torah that Moses placed before the people of Israel, God’s word through the hand of Moses." This is the traditional Level 2 story. I understand why Orthodox synagogues say this, but why do Conservative and even some Reform synagogues say this? 

The answer might be the collapsing of the Level 2 story into the Level 1 story. And the Ellery Queen and Sherlock Holmes provide an interesting contemporary (more or less) example. 

Suppose we think of the full Level 1 story of the Torah as not just the text itself, but also the account of the writing of the Torah. Thus, one could speak meaningfully about Adam and Eve, or the Tower of Babel, or Bilaam's donkey even if one did believe that these were actual historical events (the same way one could speak about Romeo). Similarly, one could speak of the writing of the Torah itself the same way. We could say God and Moses wrote the Torah as part of the Level 1 story, without making a claim about its historical accuracy. 

Ellery Queen did exactly this. The Level 1 character Ellery Queen was a mystery writer who lived with his father, Inspector Richard Queen of the NYPD. Inspector Queen found himself investigating cases, and Ellery tagged along and solved them. The fictional Level 2 story is that Ellery wrote about these accounts and published them as books. But this Level 2 story gets collapsed into the Level 1 story; the writing of the books is implicitly part of the story. The actual historical Level 2 story is that two cousins (Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) co-wrote the stories using the pseudonym Ellery Queen. 

Sherlock Holmes stories follow the same pattern. Watson is a character in the story and the chronicler of Holmes's adventures. But Arthur Conan Doyle actually wrote the stories. 

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