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History is Written by the Victorious…Perhaps Not: Thinking in Jewish 40

History is Written by the Victorious...Perhaps Not: Thinking in Jewish 40

History is Written by the Victorious…Perhaps Not: Thinking in Jewish 40

It is often stated, mostly by the victors, that history is written by the victorious not the vanquished. Perhaps normative history, whatever that may conger up as an image, but not all history. Vanquished people often cling to their own stories and their own versions of the past that are freely told among their particular group. There is, however, no general sharing of those stories or those narratives often because they remain in an oral tradition. There is one clear example of history being written by the vanquished, a written tradition that is millennia old, beginning with the first Babylonian exile so deftly explored by Isaiah and Jeremiah. After the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Temple constructed when a remnant returned to Jerusalem from Babylon about 500 years earlier, and the subsequent defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE when the People of Israel were firmly ensconced in the Diaspora did the rabbis collectively decide to write their version of the record of the Jewish people in multiple texts as a way to preserve their legacy for the world.

In addition to the Torah and the other writings of the Tanakh, writing which preceded the post 135 CE exilic writings, texts which became the foundational texts of the Jewish people, and, to a large extent because of their inclusion in the Christian holy texts, served as a building block for Christians, the texts following the Bar Kochba revolt took on a completely different character; one determined to preserve and protect the Temple cult while living in the world without a Temple.

The Mishnah completed in 200 CE is the fundamental work that was written in an attempt to codify Jewish practice and law while creating a utopian world that no longer existed. The Mishnah is attributed to Judah H’Nasi (Judah the Prince) is a complex document written in Hebrew (although not Biblical Hebrew, rather in a form that was more like the Hebrew of the 3rd Century CE, which attempted to explore all aspects of Jewish life and practice including ritual Temple practice, when and how to recite blessings, as well as civil law and the laws of the Sabbath among other things. Some have argued that Judah the Prince wrote the Mishnah at the request of the Roman governors in order for the governors to understand and administer Jewish Law to the Jews remaining in Palestine under their rule. Whether this is true or not is of little consequence, although it makes for an interesting conjecture. What is important is that Judah the Prince created a massive document outlining Jewish practice in the days of the Temple, a world that no longer existed, thereby stopping time and preserving a world which otherwise would be lost.

The Mishnah was, it seems, incomplete in the sense that there were many instances where the text did not address problems that might arise. Someone, for example, might come to his rabbi with a loaf of bread found in the street asking, “Rabbi, may I keep this loaf of bread to feed my family or must I seek out its true owner?” The answer to this question is unclear in the Mishnah so groups of rabbis separately in Jerusalem and Baghdad began to address these kinds of problems. Their arguments and decisions are codified in both the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud was finished around 400 CE while the Babylonian Talmud was not completed until somewhere between 600 to 700 CE. The Babylonian Talmud contains longer, more detailed arguments and generally carries more weight than the Jerusalem Talmud but both are an attempt to clarify the Mishnah where clarification is necessary. If no clarification is required the Mishnah is still primary.

Not to be outdone, later rabbis saw the necessity for additional commentary to the Talmuds. In the 13th Century CE, commentaries by Rashi and others made their way onto the pages of the written Talmud. It was Rashi’s goal to clarify the decisions of the Sages of the Talmud in plain language. Others, such as Maimonides (Shimon ben Maimon) who was deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle, attempted to put the whole of Jewish sacred texts into philosophical terms. Other rabbis followed until this very day creating commentary on the spiritual and legal foundations of Jewish texts.

What is clear is that the Jewish connection to the written word is both ancient and modern. It is a tradition that goes back four to five millennia and over time is a story of victory and defeat and victory again. It is a story of preservation, of timelessness. It is understood at a deep level the Jewish experience is one that is experienced by every Jew at the moment of its occurrence. When asked at the Passover Seder, “What does all this mean to you?” the response is as follows: “It is for me when I was a slave in the Land of Egypt that the Lord brought me forth from Egypt and delivered me to freedom.” That I was a slave, that I was brought forth a free person, that I was there; not that someone told me about someone who was there but that I was there to experience the Exodus from Egypt; not just to witness but to participate. I was at Sinai when the Ten Commandments were heard by all the people; not that I read about it or was told about it, no, I was there in the flesh and I will experience that once again this Wednesday when the Ten Commandments are read aloud in the synagogue.

The very nature of the cycle nature of the Jewish calendar is to be present, to experience that which was always already experienced. Time standing still for the past 2000 years yet repeating itself like clockwork year in and year out all connected by words on parchment, words that survive Diaspora and connect me to the very first anonymous person who decided to call himself a child of Israel and later a Jew in an unbroken lineage from that moment to this very moment.

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Reading Texts while Reading into Text: Thinking in Jewish 35

Reading Texts while Reading into Text: Thinking in Jewish 35

Reading Texts while Reading into Text: Thinking in Jewish 35

Somewhere between the end of the biblical codification, the redacting of those Jewish texts deemed important enough to be included in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and the rabbinical writings of the Mishnah, the Tosafot and the two Talmuds (Jerusalem and Babylonian) something happened to a Jewish understanding of the place of women. It seems the rabbinic sages were fiercely misogynistic, so much so that they turned a once open and, while never equal, respectful tradition of honoring women into a gender divided world, a world dominated by men so such an extent that women were often ridiculed in the Talmudic texts. I am not arguing that women were always treated equally in the Torah or the other codified writings, far from it. What I am arguing, however, is that women were often singled out as models of behavior, of sensual and sexual equals of their male counterparts, of leaders of the children of Israel and of examples of ethical and moral protectors of continuity for Jews.

One such story singles out Miriam, Moses’ sister. When the Pharaoh, the one who knew not of Joseph, issued a decree that all Hebrew male children were to be put to death, Amram, Miriam’s father, divorced Yocheved his wife. Miriam went to him telling him that he is worse than even Pharaoh because he is killing all future generations in his line. Amram went back to Yocheved, withdrawing his divorce, his get, and promptly sired Moses who would, of course, become the leader and emancipator of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt. In this story, Miriam is the hero not her father; Miriam argues for his return, shames him as she should and convinces him to return to his wife, her mother, not as an act of personal gain but one that insures continuity of the people who would become Jews in a short time to come.

When the Israelites cross the dry bed of the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea was a horrid mistranslation of the Hebrew) and then see the sea collapse over the whole army of the Egyptians, it is Miriam who sings and dances with the entire congregation of women in front of all the men. They are rejoicing that God has not only released them from harsh slavery but that they were for sure free of the Egyptians now and forevermore. It is not until the women singing and dancing and playing timbals on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds have finished that the men in the congregation are allowed to join them and sing the same song.

It is Ruth, the Moabite, who proclaims, “Whither thou goest I will go. Your God is My God…” and so on. A conversion for sure illustrating an important point. Being a Jew is not a matter of blood lines, of chromosomes or of genealogy, rather, it is a matter of choice. While I was born into a Jewish family, to a Jewish mother thereby making me a Jew according to Jewish law, I rejected the whole idea of religion in my early teens. This rejection continued until I was in my mid fifties when I made the choice to study Jewish texts to learn about that which I rejected. My Jewish education up to that point was what one rabbi referred to as a 3rd grade education. When I discovered Ruth somewhere along the way I understood that I had a choice, to be or not to be Jewish. It was the Moabite, Ruth, who convinced me to make the choice to recognize and acknowledge my Jewishness. It matters little whether Ruth was an actual person, whether she existed as “Ruth” or was hewn from an author’s experience as a fictive truth. When I read her words in the text I am listening to the words of someone recorded to be a Jew by Choice and that clearly reflects my own pathway. I didn’t get this sense from any other male character in the Tanakh. No it took a convert to convince me to make the choice to acknowledge my birthright.

Then there is Sarah laughing at God when he promises her that in her 90th year she will produce a son and that from his loins a nation will be born. This 90 year old matriarch hears God’s words and laughs out loud essentially calling God out. She gives birth to Isaac (translated as he who laughs) to commemorate her own experience. Was there an historical Sarah? Who cares? It makes no difference because I believe fiction to be quite real. Characters come alive on the written page whether or not they ever existed. In fact, they exist between the covers of a book and in the mind of the reader and that is quite good enough. Abraham, on the other hand, comes off as one lacking courage on many levels. First, when sojourning to Egypt (an interesting precursor to Jacob’s relocating to Egypt at the end of the first book of Moses (Genesis), Abraham is so frightened that his beautiful wife, Sarah, would be prized by Pharaoh that he passes her off as his sister, a cowardly act for sure. One is also left to wonder exactly what Sarah would have done had Abraham told her of his intention to obey God’s word and sacrifice his son Isaac. Abe, it seems, was too much of a coward to share this news with his wife.

There are so many examples of strong women in the Bible, too numerous to mention in this post. Yet all this disappears when the sages of the Mishnah through the two Talmuds lend their creative minds to the problem of gender. In those texts, women were relegated to a second class position. Their place was in the home, in the kitchen and pumping out babies. The sages were concerned, not with celebration and dancing, but with modesty and obedience. The doctors of these rabbinic writings redefined the role of women and their place within the entire structural makeup of the Jewish world for nearly two thousand years. While there are some exceptions to the rules applied by the sages, women were relegated into second-class status. To this day in the orthodox cults of Judaism, women are required to sit separately from men in synagogue, are required to cover their hair, dress modestly and cleve to their men. In the reform and conservative movements, however, women have regained the voice they had in the Tanakh, lost in the “oral Torah” and regained as these movements opened their doors to women as equals. I must admit, the synagogue with strong voices of both men and women is preferable to the separation required by those who fail to see the disparity between the “written” and “oral” Torahs when women are portrayed. Texts must be read critically, even texts that have somehow been declared as sacred if one is to understand the whole story.

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