In 1953, the brilliant scholar Dr. Theodor H. Gaster published “Festivals of the Jewish Year: A Modern Interpretation and Guide.” It was updated in 1961. It is about the Jewish festivals and the Sabbath, their description, origin, and comparison to other ancient festivals. In six chapters of his 308 page book, Gaster discusses how Judaism transformed ancient festivals, about the three seasonal festivals, New Year and Yom Kippur, the four fasts, three minor holidays, and the Sabbath. Whether a reader agrees with his views about the festivals or not, two things stand out. A person can accept his thoughtful but seemingly untraditional interpretations and still be an observant Jew, and even if the person rejects his views out of hand, his views can still stimulate thinking and cause readers to appreciate their own long-held opinions better. I will mention three of his ideas.
Gaster (1906-1992) was unafraid of thinking outside the box. He was a British-born American scholar who was the son of Britain’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi. He received well-deserved praise for his many books on religion, the Bible, ritual, myths, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and more. He is well-known and praised for his one-volume abridgement of James Frazier’s important classic 13-volume work, The Golden Bough (1959), and his last book Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament (1969). He is said to have known 32 languages.
The first of the two ideas from “Festivals of the Jewish Year” that I will describe is that Gaster suggested that the Torah “is dynamic, not static, unfolding itself continuously throughout the ages.” Its interpretation is “achieved gradually though the insights and perceptions of successive generation.” This is the meaning of “The Oral Torah.” The Oral Torah are the many changes made in the understanding of the Written Word. When tradition states that the Oral Torah was given at Sinai together with the Written Torah, it means, in our modern way of speaking, that right from the beginning, when the Torah was promulgated, it was taught that new interpretations would, indeed should, be made in future generations. Thus despite the written words, slavery and sacrifices were discontinued, an “eye for an eye” was interpreted as monetary compensation, cities that worship idols are not destroyed, to mention just a few of multiple examples. Thus, because of the many reinterpretations, today we speak not of Torah Judaism but Rabbinic Judaism.
A second Gaster view is that many ancient Jewish beliefs should not be taken literally, nor were they meant to be taken as stated. The words were simply ways of saying thoughts that fit the way people expressed themselves in the past, and we can accept the ancient ideas using our language of today which will make the beliefs acceptable to us. An example is the concept of the Oral Torah discussed above. Another significant example is that when the ancients talked about God speaking to humans, they did not mean that they heard a divine voice, they meant that “any code of laws which professes to set up a universal standard of human living must represent a link between the human and the divine—that is, must derive its authority from man’s apprehension of what the basic scheme of the universe really is.” Today, in modern language, we would say that Natural Law is the ultimate source of human legislation. The ancients used more primitive terms to state what we understand today, but their terms did not make the idea primitive, “at most, it makes the language antique.”
A third idea is that Gaster traces Jewish festivals back before the Bible to its remote and primitive stages and shows how and why the festivals developed “better to recognize the permanent truth behind the changing forms.” He adds: what is “distinctly Jewish about them is the manner in which they have been transformed and reinterpreted.” Thus even though some Jewish festivals are similar in some respects to non-Jewish ones, we can see that each culture attempted to express what they considered significant universal truths in their own language, using the idioms of their culture and time. Thus it is helpful for us not to ignore the practices of other cultures but to seek the truth they were trying to express and we will thereby come to understand our version of the festival and why we think it is expressing a universal truth.