Teleological Martyrdom and Messianic Drama: Thinking In Jewish XXIII
Teleology presupposes that there is a purpose to historical events; that things unfold as they are supposed to unfold. Add theology to teleology (without which much of theology could not exist) and one is presented with drama that both engages one’s imagination and fuels the very idea of martyrdom. In modern terms, if one did not ‘believe’ that God’s plan was not being carried out through one’s personal actions it would be impossible for one to construct a bomb filled with nails, ball bearings, nuts and bolts, strap that bomb to one’s chest and blow up a bus or hotel lobby or police station or whatever other target one had in mind. It is the very idea that the martyr is born of belief in a teleological purpose, spurred on by the further idea that God is behind that very teleological purpose, and that, furthermore, one particular person is the tool of God’s purpose that allows such heinous acts of zealotry to exist at all.
For some people it is difficult to imagine a world without a purpose; without a plan for physical and spiritual perfection. It is even more difficult to attribute such plans to individuals for to do so would be to be bestowing special features to human beings that border on the Godly. It is far easier to eschew the arrogance of human beings and attribute the planning of the eventual outcome to God who works in mysterious ways beyond all understanding. Easy then to claim that one is only the prophet of that God, that God revealed his secrets directly without need of intermediaries; hence, God’s revelation to Moses at Sinai, to Jesus, to Mohammad, to biblical prophets, to Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard and so on. It is easier to rely on the voices heard by these and other prophets than it is to claim that it was the human beings themselves who created the plan for God rather than God creating the plan for men.
Part of the problem as I see it is simple enough. It is difficult to believe in a teleological purpose and also acknowledge free will. If there is a certain unalterable flow to historical events, then all of the events, including the very mundane events, have outcomes known to God (or who or whatever lays these great and grandiose plans). If the outcomes are known to the planner but unknown to the ones affected by the plan then all that can be said about free will is that there is merely an illusion of free will; what purports to be a choice is nothing more than a predetermined path that impersonates choice but, upon further analysis, is the only available path because it is known by the creator of the teleological purpose.
What seems to have happened at the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, a time of great political and theological success for the development of Jewish thought, is that as the political will to remain apart from the Hellenistic world surrounding them fell apart, varying sects of messianic zealots began writing about the teleological end of times, turning that teleology into a rather diverse set of sects that espoused martyrdom as a cause celeb. Not unlike the martyrdom found in suicide bombers, this teleology of the end of days spread like wildfire among the varying sects of Judaism, what some have called Judaisms, so that there were entire groups of people willing to sacrifice themselves rather than submit to Roman or Greek rule, while others relied on the cult of the single martyr in which the individual sacrifice was sufficient to assuage the sins of the larger community. Still others relied on cyclical epochal history in which lessons learned had to be learned over and over again and again in order to prepare for the messiah yet to come. What came of all this messianic drama was rabbinic Judaism and Christianity (all other messianic orders seemed to have been wiped out due to lack of members after mass suicides).
In the end, it seems to me, that the result of teleological purpose turns one away from the notion of free will, choice and ethical behavior toward the zeal of the end of history and the restoration of humankind. Where is the responsibility in that? A far more ethical stance comes, not from following arcane dietary rules or confessing one’s sins for fear of punishment in some unknown afterlife described only by poets and essayists and not from people returning from the dead, but from an understanding that there is no purpose to the universe whatsoever, that there is no plan, no divine vision transmitted only to the select few; to the contrary, events are random and unplanned. History does not repeat itself, it does not work in some kind of mythic dialectic (Hegel and Marx be damned). Human beings make choices each and every day that alter the course of history in unknown and unexpected ways. It is always more efficacious to act within an ethical code of behavior, making choices easier, but it is not required. One thing is for sure, however, if one does not accept the idea of an ordered, purposeful universe it is impossible to strap explosives to one’s own body and blow up the world.