It was strange to hear the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, October 31, quote the Book of Joshua as justification for taking scientific experts off of a committee — but it’s also dangerous. And it has deep implications.
Here is Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, said when he invoked the Bible:
“Joshua says to the people of Israel: choose this day whom you are going to serve. This is sort of like the Joshua principle — that as it relates to grants from this agency, you are going to have to choose either service on the committee to provide counsel to us in an independent fashion or choose the grant. But you can’t do both. That’s the fair and great thing to do.”
The Book of Joshua happens to be about more than whom you are going to serve; topics include the difficult and complex process of entering the Land of Israel. The verse Pruitt is quoting is interesting because of the part of it that Pruitt didn’t quote — and that’s the part which casts those who don’t “serve” as evil.
For the record, here is Joshua 24:15 in the English Standard Version translation, published by Good News Publishers, which uses the phrasing Pruitt quoted:
“And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
But there are more essential concerns here than mere Biblical accuracy, the omission of “evil,” and any reference to serving the Lord when it comes to the EPA and scientists.
It is that the Torah is being trotted out to put a holy tinge on the dirty work of this administration — namely, the expulsion of people who know stuff. It is that the Torah is being used as part of an all-out attack on knowledge itself.
Scientists have certainly noticed that they are under attack, and they were understandably aghast at the concept of banishing scientists from scientific decision-making.
“Frankly, this directive is nuts,” Al Teich, a research professor of science, technology, and international affairs at George Washington University wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News.
“There is an important role for citizen advisors who are not experts in a scientific field and who represent various constituencies on advisory committees. But they should complement, not replace the experts. Disqualifying the very people who know the most about a subject from serving as advisors makes no sense.”
Professor Teich’s quote fascinated me. “Disqualifying the very people who know the most about a subject from serving as advisors” is in some ways what happened to the Torah itself.
Many widely read translations of the Torah were made by translators with limited or no Hebrew, and little to no knowledge of Jewish text and thought — and most crucially, no desire to acquire any. The translation of the Bible was, perhaps, the original attack on knowledge.
That attack led to moments like this, making a fraction of a verse into “the Joshua principle” — a dumbed-down, soundbite version of the translated Torah. And if this kind of bizarre glorification of non-knowledge is starting to feel familiar, it is because this latest celebration of not-knowing as fairness — or in Pruitt’s language, “fair and great” — echoes other similar dangerous statements by Trump administration officials.
Consider the recent Civil War fracas, when John Kelly, the White House chief of staff and a retired Marine Corps general, claimed that an inability to compromise caused the Civil War. Ta-Nehisi Coates wisely used the word “stupid” to describe Kelly’s comments, and wrote an article in The Atlantic recommending five books to make people less stupid about the Civil War.
The word stupid is appropriate.
It is stupid to ignore the role of slavery in the Civil War. But it also involves something more sinister: a desire to totally avoid knowledge.
It means, in plain English, never reading historians’ work, never consulting an encyclopedia, and never thinking about what the Civil War was. And that’s not that different from avoiding a deep journey into Hebrew — the language of the Hebrew Bible — while translating the Torah. That avoidance led to millions of readers around the world accepting the translated Bible as the Bible, and never thinking about who the translators were or what translation is.
Naturally, ignoring the role of Hebrew in the Hebrew Bible meant never reading the rabbis, and ignoring centuries of Jewish thought and commentary. The consequences of that kind of intellectual avoidance have been disastrous; the infamous mistranslation featuring Moses with horns is a prime example.
Devilish Moses reveals a lack of understanding of how Hebrew works, and a lack of desire to find out. But something else — something beautiful — is also true, and has been for quite some time.
The Torah’s complexity, in Joshua and other books, has been a key part of keeping the Jewish people alive. For centuries, study of the Torah, in Hebrew, created intellectual giants. I don’t know if it’s even possible to recommend Five Books to Become Less Stupid About the Torah.
I therefore empathize with Coates as he winnowed down his recommendations to just five readable books on the Civil War — because what is under attack right now is not just knowledge, but complexity. And complexity is a Jewish issue.
Torah scholarship is about understanding the depths of a subject — an ancient language, the roots of that language, and the layers of context, kept alive by centuries of argument and discussion. Commentators routinely spent decades on their Torah commentaries, considering ambiguities and contradictions. One thing is clear from reading commentary: the Torah is the ultimate anti-soundbite. It is a long argument for complexity.
That’s why Pruitt’s remarks are particularly disturbing.
We cannot let the Torah be quoted in the continued demonization and banishment of those who know—those who understand complexity—from the public sphere, and we cannot accept veiled or unveiled references to knowledgeable people as “evil.”
We certainly can’t let the anti-knowledge campaign be disguised in Biblical wrapping — and misleading, part-of-a-translated-verse wrapping at that. To paraphrase Pruitt, the Torah as a symbol for the pursuit of knowledge is “sort of like” a principle.
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel &Grau). Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner