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It Is All About How One Looks at History: Thinking In Jewish XXII

It Is All About How One Looks at History: Thinking In Jewish XXII

It Is All About How One Looks at History: Thinking In Jewish XXII

What constitutes history? Even historians artfully argue about the meaning of history and historical data. In a brilliant analysis of Jewish and Christian thought in the century or so post-Constantine, Jacob Neusner argues from this rather idea: Jews and Christians, using the same set of facts and the same analytical approach reached dramatically different conclusions. The outcome depended on how each protagonist understood the ultimate teleological meaning contained within the facts themselves. Christian authors chose to explain the series of events from Biblical Genesis to their own present day as the perfection of the teleological promise of redemption and salvation; that the past predicts the future. Jewish Sages, on the other hand, understood the past from Biblical Genesis to the present day as another in a never-ending series of retributions, punishments meted out by God for the failure to deliver what God seemingly wanted. On this view the events of the past held no particular sway over the teleological promise of salvation to come when the Messhah finally arrives, rather, the events of the past are merely mini-cycles of relative redemption and relative punishment getting people ready for the ultimate salvation offered by the Messiah who is yet to come.

Christian scholars saw the conversion of Constantine and the political triumph of Christianity as absolute proof that God delivered on God’s promise. They understood the triumph as everlasting and unchanging. God finally revealed his Messiah to the people and now all prophesies have come to fruition. Jewish Sages, on the other hand, saw the world quite differently. They saw the world in terms of epochs that were anything but permanent. Whatever the political conditions extant in the world today are certainly not the conditions that will be present in the future. Each epoch is thought to be a permanent, powerful solution to the political world but, in the final analysis, falls and is replaced by another overarching politic. With this in mind, Jewish Sages saw the political conversion of the Roman Empire as nothing more that the beginning of a new epoch, one with lessons to offer for the true coming of God’s Messiah. Both Christian and Jewish scholars understood the world in the same teleological and eschatological terms; history presents itself as a linear progression to the end of days in which salvation is the reward for all of human kind. Christian eschatology argues that this very opportunity opened itself to fruition with the advent of Jesus with true salvation coming somewhere down the road waiting for the Messiah to return to finish his work. Jews, on their part, rejected that very idea in favor of one that merely predicts that sometime in the future, but not now, salvation is guaranteed by the advent of the Messiah.

Making use of the same proof texts from the Pentateuch and other biblical writings and writing under quite similar teleological structures, Christian and Jewish scholars came to different conclusions regarding the meaning of the “triumph” of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. Their conclusions were, of course, structured to fit the overarching teleology that understood the historical as proceeding in a straight line from creation to the end of days. How they understood that line, however, influenced how they chose to examine the data they both had to work with. Both, according to Neusner, chose to see Genesis as prima facia evidence, factual documentation of God’s creation, relying heavily on that story as well as other Biblical stories to ‘prove’ their case. Christian scholars rigorously examined these stories as a linear progression from which flowed the entire history of mankind to the end of days culminating with the advent of the Messiah. No less rigorously, Jewish Sages, using precisely the same historical database found a very different, cyclical reading of the text. What happened in one epoch is bound to happen in another and the cycle will continue until such time as the Messiah appears.

So which side is right? Well, perhaps neither. Both arguments are based upon the single notion that history unfolds as a meaningful teleological story, a line that may be connected from the beginning of creation to the end of days. On the Christian side, that line appears to be linear, expressing the very idea that at each step along the way a progressive line is drawn to bring humanity closer to the salvation offered by the Messiah. On the Jewish side, that line appears to be cyclical, turning over and over, like a wagon wheel in the sand, presenting a slightly different political solution along the way to prepare humanity for promised salvation. But, what if history, the flow of independent events, most meaningless, are not connected to a teleological purpose? What if those events are simply random anomalies that, while perhaps occurring in bunches to look meaningful, are simply random groupings of insignificant long-term meaning? On this view, the world and its history appears to be more or less Jewish minus the teleology of the Jews. Governments rise and fall, what seems important at the moment is nothing more than the elevation of random ideas and events into immediately weighty issues of the day soon to be forgotten for the next weighty idea. The difference between the Jewish Sages cyclical view and this rather austere existential view is that for the Sages a teleological purpose is attached to the cyclical randomness of the unfolding of events while I suggest there is no teleological purpose at all to the randomness that materializes as meaningful history.

Of All the Rotten Luck…

Of All the Rotten Luck...

Of All the Rotten Luck…

Yes, that’s right, of all the rotten luck. Just a few days after my wife recovered from her very strange virus, the one having an effect on her knees, back and causing a significant and constant headache, I come down with some strange virus that has mimicked a kidney stone, caused incredible lower back pain, upper back pain, neck and shoulder pain along with some violent gastro-intestinal pain that, for the sake of decency, I won’t mention here. While those painful episodes are all giving up the ghost, the ones that still remain are related to the lower back and the GI system. Yuck, doesn’t this stuff ever go away.

Of course, there is a good side to all of this agony. I have had a great deal of time to devote to reading new texts, something I simply love to do because with everything I read I am better informed, have more at my fingertips to make responsible decisions about the very things that make a difference to me in my life. Sometimes, a book presents an argument that is, on its face, difficult to accept as being factual or well researched, sometimes arguments are forced and difficult to follow (always a danger sign of a dogmatic mind) and other times an argument seems so well situated in data that if the data being relied upon is true (often not the case) the argument is actually persuasive.

I am currently reading a monograph by Jacob Neusner, the famous scholar of Jewish Antiquity and ancient texts, as he approaches the historicity of the Jewish and Christian schism in the third and fourth centuries CE (the 100 t0 150 years post Constantine). Neusner never fails to surprise as he demonstrates through “what he knows” or, in other words, what can be supported by extant evidence and not by theological intervention on an otherwise fluid context of historical conditions, the shifting winds that brought Christianity to the gates of triumphalism while relegating Judaism to the posture of a utopian dreamscape waiting for the coming of the Messiah, while Christians ardently awaited the return of the Messiah in order that he complete his mission. Neusner claims that both Christians and Jews understood the Messiah and his coming in the same terms, based on the same biblical and post biblical texts varying only in the application of the lessons learned from those texts. An interesting proposition from the man who elsewhere argues that the Jewish Hillel and the Christian Jesus were one in the same human being expropriated theologically to serve specific needs outside of the historicity of the man extant.

As time passes, I hope to expand on these ideas on a regular basis. I just hope I can keep it together long enough to make a coherent thought.

From Teleology to Theology: The Separation of Space, Time and Action…Thinking in Jewish XVII

From Teleology to Theology: The Separation of Space, Time and Action...Thinking in Jewish XVII

From Teleology to Theology: The Separation of Space, Time and Action…Thinking in Jewish XVII

Once the foundation of analysis was laid out by the sages of the Mishnah and Talmuds they turned to the problem of holiness, of what is spiritually clean and unclean and how the lines of demarcation were drawn to insure that the actions of the community would, when properly practiced, form a holy space on earth. The sages rationalized from their own insistance that God created the entire universe with a divine purpose; that nothing happened without the purposeful intervention of a just and fair God for whom the purpose of creation is known. Human beings, in the sages minds, served as the ultimate teleological rationale for creation but that was merely speculation because nothing could penetrate the actual mind of God. They were also faced with the problem that rendered it all but impossible to understand the communal punishments as nothing other than the workings of a just God; for them the very thought of an unjust, capricious God was outside the realm of the possible. Their task, therefore, was to create a world in which the separation of the profane from the sacred could be achieved, if not in total at the very least as a conscious effort to mirror God’s heaven on earth. Their solution was to make clear distinctions of space, time and action (in terms of prohibitions) that turned teleology into theology.

These categories are made most clear in Tractate Shabbat, the volume of the Mishnah and Talmuds dealing with the laws of the Sabbath. By separating space into public, private and neutral (karmelis) the sages made it clear that the space surrounding man was made for different purposes and that these purposes carried with them a divine spark that must not be violated. The public space equates to profane space, the place where work is permitted while private space (defined generally as the place where one eats his bread) equates to spiritual or sacred space separated from that public or profane space by a set of laws that make clear how one is to celebrate the sacred space as holy. Once armed with the distinction of space as public or private (karmelis presented a different problem and is defined as neither public or private but neutral) the sages begin by offering arguments as to what can and cannot be transferred from public to private or private to public space on the Sabbath. The fundamental rule to be followed maintains that the household, the private space, is sacred therefore not subject to invasion from the profane space of the outside public world. Nor should the stuff that represents what is holy be transferred to the public world on the Sabbath. The absolute separation of space requires diligence on one day of each week, mirroring the culmination of God’s work in creation; in fact, the entirety of Jewish theology turns on the very idea that creation is relived in the sense that on six days there is disorder and chaos while on the seventh day sacred order is restored. The teleological idea of creation is thereby converted into the theological insistence that creation is the guiding miracle and that all others pale in comparison.

Separation of space is nothing if not the first step in the separation that guides how one thinks about the profane and sacred. The idea that time must also be separated into profane and holy is the second leg of this three legged stool. During the time between sundown on Friday to sunset on Saturday time stands still in the sense that the Sabbath is a day in which nothing happens that is not designated as holy prior to the advent of the Sabbath. No ‘work’ is to be done that benefits the worker. No utensil is to be used that is not properly designated for use on the Sabbath. This does not mean, for example, that one cannot keep food warm on the Sabbath so long as the flame keeping the food warm was started prior to sundown of Friday and not tended all day Saturday. If the fire had to be tended then a violation of the Sabbath occurs because the tender of the flame benefits from that action. During the sacred or holy time of Sabbath two criteria must be met when deciding whether or not the act is allowed. First, does the action (work) have a lasting impact when the act itself is finished. In short, is something being accomplished or are the results of the action taken merely transitory? Secondly, does the act benefit the individual actor or the larger community as a whole? If it does it is prohibited during the time designated as sacred and if not then the act is permissible. There are many arcane laws that seem to be arbitrary but when placed under the microscope of separation of space and time appear as consistent.

Finally, the separation of profane and sacred turns on the prohibited acts and the intentional violation of such actions in terms of atonement required and/or the communal consequences of mass violation of separation of profane and holy that befall the entire house of Israel. Here is where the teleological meets the theological head on. Contextually the sages of the Mishnah and Talmuds are struggling with the consequences of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and the abrupt, painful shift from the Temple cult of atonement sacrifices to the synagogue as a simulacrum of the sacrificial atonement through prayer. Because the Temple was destroyed, a great tragedy is imposed on the Jewish people by a just God (the other alternative is outside the possible) due to their profane actions, actions that angered their just God. It is ever more important after such a tragic consequence to become even more rigorous in as to how one practices one’s beliefs. Stringent laws apply to even the most mundane activities in order to assure that some time in the future God’s purpose will be revealed through the coming of the Messiah. Yet, all of the laws boil down to a set of principles that separate the profane from the sacred in such a way as to keep the distinction clear in the minds of the people practicing the acts of separation itself.

It is precisely here where the two Judaisms diverge. Rabbinic Judaism focused on the intentions of human beings to keep the law that led to the separation of sacred and holy from the profane. Christianity, on the other hand, placed all responsibility for separating the holy from the profane in the hands of the Messiah, the sin-eater, the person-God and all that was needed was a belief in the efficacy of this Messiah and all would be well with the world. Neither of these Judaisms could escape the stranglehold of the teleological idea of purpose nor the eschatological notion of the end of times when the teleological is fulfilled. The primary difference turns on how one defines the theological response. Rabbinic Judaism places the responsibility for atonement in the hands of human beings while Christianity places the very idea of forgiveness in the hands of their identified Messiah. In either case, the underlying assumption turns on the belief in the very idea that creation is purposeful, that there is a definite end to history as we know it and that the God in control is just and fair. To this I would argue quite the opposite. Creation is a random event that progresses (not in any linear sense rather in the sense that there is an appearance of progress) randomly to the universe we are privy to at this very moment. As to God’s justice, the evidence is simply not there and it is not good enough to not be able to contemplate the possibility of any other alternative.

While I am beginning to understand the rationale, that understanding is mitigated by a post-modern ethic that rejects teleological and eschatological responses to tragedy. The demands of separation of profane and holy are meaningless in the face of the randomness of the universe and, if there is a God at all, the capriciousness of that impotent God spreading tragedy, war and hatred across the globe. One need not separate the sacred from the profane, withdraw from the world or otherwise disappear into a quagmire of priestly regulations to live a moral or ethical life. All that is required is the ability to live in this very moment and announce to the world that “Here I Am!” expressing a readiness to be response-able for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation.

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