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Archive for the tag “Rabbinic Judaism”

Reconciling Mythology with Reality: Thinking in Jewish 43

Reconciling Mythology with Reality: Thinking in Jewish 43

Reconciling Mythology with Reality: Thinking in Jewish 43

In their provocative book, The Bible Unearthed, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, drawing on the most recent archaeological research present to the reader a stunningly new vision of the rise of ancient Israel and how the Hebrew Bible served as a powerful mythology for the Judean kings beginning with the rule of King Josiah in the middle of the 8th century BCE. What Finkelstein and Silberman argue is that the Torah and the historical writings from Joshua through Kings I and II provide a picture that is more mythological than historical. Their argument is based on both archaeological data and practicability; could the events recorded in the Bible actually have occurred, do they pass the giggle test.

In terms of the mythological argument, Finkelstein and Silberman present a case that suggests that many of the events have an 8th century BCE contemporary feel that seem to be supportive of Josiah and his ambitions. Many of the “historical” stories presented use 8th century BCE geographical references to cities and peoples that could not have existed in the 15th century BCE when the stories were said to have occurred. Perhaps an example is in order. When the exodus from Egypt is said to have occurred, the People of Israel (they were not yet Jews) took the long way around, wandering in the Southern Sinai for 40 years. Had they taken the Northern route across the Sinai, along the Mediterranean Sea the people would have come in direct contact with a line of Egyptian fortifications which surely would have created an Egyptian response, if only to document the rabble of Israel leaving Egypt. There are any number of Egyptian documents extant today that mention the travel of many peoples but there is no mention anywhere of a rabble of 600,000 people, former slaves in Egypt, leaving as a whole group to cross the desert. To confirm the historicity of the Bible there must be other confirming data, either Egyptian records or archaeological discoveries; neither exist. Crossing the desert with so many people is also beyond reasonable expectations. Small groups of nomads for sure but the population of a small nation crossing the desert and surviving is beyond the capacity of human beings without leaving significant archaeological evidence behind. If the evidence is not there the historicity of the stories fails.

What Finkelstein and Silberman argue is that trying to understand the Bible as an historical document of the development of a people is not supported by the historical or archaeological evidence. It is, however, supported by inferential evidence as dating from the reign of King Josiah, a time in the mid 8th century BCE of great power shifts and an accompanying religious revolution. The evidence found in the historical place names in the Hebrew Bible through Kings II have a corollary in the historical record of that time period as found in documentary evidence from outside of the Judean Kingdom and from the archaeological data dating from this time period as well. Understanding the Bible as a cobbling of extant mythological stories and a political document supporting the ambitions and activities of King Josiah and his immediate successors is a more accurate view.

All that being said, the staying power of the texts is nothing less than extraordinary. The mythology of the Torah and the histories took on a life of its own surviving to this very moment as a guide to ethical practice in the world. It is a book of actions leading to understandings, even if those understandings are quite different and perhaps unrecognizable by those of 8th century BCE Israelites for whom the stories related to their contemporary lives.

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What, You No Longer Post on Saturday? Thinking in Jewish 41

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.
Exodus 20:8-10 Jewish Publication Society Translation

What, You No Longer Post on Saturday? Thinking in Jewish 41

What, You No Longer Post on Saturday? Thinking in Jewish 41

While the Torah is specific that the sabbath is modeled on God’s six-day creation myth (although the Torah would not think of this as mythology even if I do), an effort so difficult that even God had to rest from his labors, the authors of the Torah understood that such a human mirroring of Godly behavior is not necessarily all bad. Of course, there are some pretty drastic punishments described in the Torah for willfully choosing to not honor “the sabbath day and keep it holy” up to and including death by stoning; of course, the Torah is a product of Bronze Age justice which, in our modern eyes seems a bit over zealous.

That all being said, the fundamental premise upon which the very idea of a day of rest could be included in Bronze Age thinking is, it seems to me, extraordinary. Spending too much time at work and not enough time at play is detrimental to one’s health and well being, but we know that now because of scientific research into things like stress and disease. Three or four thousand years ago, thinking along these lines must have been understood as somehow a bit off center. In order to get the job done, in order to actually get people to take a day off, the very idea that the orders originated with God or that human beings were but imitating, in some small way, the behavior modeled by God, coupled with the overt threat of serious consequences for failing to do so, must have been enough.

But, it seems to me, there are other reasons to take a day off, to not work, to not engage in activity that mimics the efforts of work. While the definitions of work have changed significantly over the ages (there are 39 categories of “work” discussed in the Talmud. According to Wikipedia, “these thirty-nine melakhot (prohibitions) are not so much activities as categories of activity. For example, while “winnowing” usually refers exclusively to the separation of chaff from grain, it refers in the Talmudic sense to any separation of intermixed materials that renders edible that which was inedible. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish. (Gefilte fish is a traditional Ashkenazi solution to this problem.”)), there is enough reason to consider just how these activities may or may not be applied to our modern society. What then? I decided to begin to explore these categories not as a religious obligation but, rather, as a secular Jew living in the modern world. This decision was not taken lightly, rather as a response to what a well respected Reform Movement Rabbi, Arnold Wolfe, argued that before absolutely rejecting mitzvot (commandments) outright, one is obliged to try them on for size. He discussed the mitzvot as gifts, packages distributed on the road and found in one’s path. Pick them up and try them out deciding for oneself whether or not they work for you. So my exploration of sabbath commandments begins with writing and publication. Since there is a prohibition against writing I simply decided to stop posting on Saturday, the traditional Jewish sabbath.  There is also a prohibition against lighting a fire. Since the advent of electricity and electrical power, the very act of flipping on a light switch is understood as a violation of that prohibition, so much more so for exciting electrons in a computer.

The Illusion of Time made Cyclical: Thinking In Jewish 37

The Illusion of Time made Cyclical: Thinking In Jewish 37

The Illusion of Time made Cyclical: Thinking In Jewish 37

I have written about time as an illusion; that all that exists is the very moment which is always already gone. Time, in this sense, is the always already present. While one creates traces of memory as one passes through this very moment and one has the ability to project into the future, to create a future that may or may not be, the fact remains that existential time is only this very moment. Now, there are surely other ways to explain time and one is particularly Jewish.

Generally, time in Jewish thought is based on the idea of seven, seven days, seven weeks, seven years, seven groups of seven years. In each of these cycles, the seventh part is a sabbath, a day of rest governed by strict rules for what can and cannot be done during that day, year, or jubilee year. These cycles are the cycles of life with the foundation of them all resting on the creation myth where God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. In the human being’s desire to become God-like, it follows that we should act as God acted. The seven-week cycle, the counting of the Omer, is spelled out in the Torah as is the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year. The Sabbatical and Jubilee year  place a great burden on the people in that the fields cannot be worked, no food is produced so the only available food is that which is stored for future use. Poor planning and the people starve while good planning keep the people well fed during these periods of fallow.

Additionally, there is a rhythm to the seasons. Celebrations, holidays occur at specific times during the year: Springtime celebrates the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah; Fall celebrates the harvest as well as the process of amends and redemption focused in the spirit of the High Holidays; Winter brings the celebration of the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah. In between, but measured by the calendar falling in their appropriate times.

Measured together, the cycles of daily life to the annual cycles of holidays high and low, time in the Jewish perspective is focused backwards. We celebrate the historicity of the people who have called themselves Jews since the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai with a long historical record flowing backward toward Abraham, the patriarch who was ordered to leave his home by the creator God and follow all the instructions and he would be the father of a great nation. Going further back in time we look to Noah and before that Adam (roughly translated as man) and Chavah (Eve). It matters little to the celebrations fixed in time whether or not there was an historical Adam and Chavah, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Judah (the reason we are called Jews), or any other figure represented in scriptural texts. The fact that they appear in stories meant to provide lessons for living an ethical life makes them real. The fact that generations before me, for at least 2500 years, perhaps longer, looked to these figures and these holidays as representations of living a Godly life confirms the value of the mythology.

The cyclical nature of Jewish time and the singularity of existential time must be reconciled. The nature of Jewish time, in this sense, may be seen as a community trace of memory, a utopian trace  for sure, allowing members of the community to constantly and consistently look back across Jewish history that, at each repetition, provides new and fresh insights in the flow of life. The illusion of time creates room for cycles that build understanding through the textual references that constantly are studied and re-read.

Close to every Jewish life one finds a strong connection to study and texts. That those texts that are often read ritually is not important, that they can and must be read critically is. Reading these texts at the appointed times, another cycle present in Jewish time, helps one explore the foundations in the text which is quite different that merely reading the texts as a ritually appropriate act. While I am not a religious Jew, I find great connections to the texts of my ancestors, to the melodies of prayer, of the sing-song rhythms of reading and studying the texts with a melamed, a teacher, deeply attached to the text allowing that text to come to life. Texts and time are intimately connected.

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I started the “Thinking in Jewish” series of posts by numbering each post with a Roman numeral. This numbering system is antiquated and cumbersome and I am, quite frankly, tired of the whole mess. So from this day forward I will number the “Thinking in Jewish” posts using Arabic numbering system which means that the next post will be labeled 32.

There is a question I want to answer for the readers of this blog. It comes up from time to time in the comments which makes it a worthy topic to blog about. It centers on what on earth my atheism and the posts in the series “Thinking in Jewish” has to do with my prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment. Along the same lines I have seen a strange undertone that seems to be asking what is an atheist like myself doing commenting on Jewish thinking in the first place.  So here goes…my best effort at talking about these issues as I blog away.

Begin at the beginning. When I heard the words no one ever wants to hear, the words that may indeed harken the beginning of the end of life, the words “YOU HAVE CANCER” it has a sobering effect on the way one chooses to look at the world. In my professional life I was a Professor of Language and Literacy at a Midwestern state university. My professional interests gravitated toward the study of the teaching of writing so that middle school and secondary school teachers could better teach their students the skill of writing without effort. Blogging, then, seemed like the most natural thing I could do to both help me focus on the fact that I now have a disease that may contribute to my demise. Kubler-Ross was wrong in my case. I grieved over the possibility that my life was coming to an end but I quickly accepted that as a fact that may or may not be true. My job now was to come to grips with how I intended to live the remaining years (or months whatever the case may be) of my life.

As an atheist, I rejected the idea that there is a creator God that is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent. My own observations of the world and my deepening understanding of Jewish religious texts, however, caused me not to reject my own Jewish roots. I am a Jew, I have a Jewish understanding of the world, of time and space, of ethics and morality. I simply don’t attribute any of this to a creator God. one that is angry, demanding and punishing. As a post-Shoah (or post Holocaust although Shoah is a better word choice) Jew, where 6 million of my nation perished at the hands of Germans in an unspeakably horrible genocide (perhaps religicide is a more apt descriptor) for no other reason than they were Jews in Europe, made the very concept of a benevolent and omniscient God improbable and the very idea than an omnipotent God would not put a stop to the horrors of the camps, gas-chambers and crematory ovens would make this God either a sadist or rather than omnipotent, simply impotent and unworthy of worship. The other possibility to consider is that there is no God to be omnipotent, omniscient or benevolent, a possibility I find more convincing than any that includes God or religion at the center of the a discourse.

While sick and waiting for testing to be completed to determine what course of treatment for my prostate cancer would be recommended, I decided that learning how to ‘think in Jewish’ would be a good way to think about the potential end of life. It was a clear choice. The Christian story makes absolutely no sense to me. The same can be said for the story of Islam although that one is easier to swallow perhaps because it was formed in the same region as the Jewish story while the Christian story, while originating in Palestine, is essentially a European take on the very idea of monotheism. That being said, I thought it best to stick with what I know and simply become better at understanding where and how the religion of my people developed. The story, especially when told in the light of the ultimate schism of Jewish and Christian thinking and the response of both to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, is fascinating. I do not intend to go into that schism here but the response of the triumphal Christians and the defeated Jews of the first three centuries CE paints a picture of quite different approaches to the self-same problem.

What I found as I studied and read more deeply was that the ethics of Judaism played a great role in the way I had been living my life for years. There was embedded in the literature constant reminders of obligations to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, for those less fortunate than we might be and there is always someone less fortunate than yourself no matter what your current situation might be. I don’t recall who said this but it is appropriate here. It goes something like this, “I cried out because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.” Sure I had cancer, but I still had hope and that hope lay in the hands of skilled physicians, men of science, who would do everything possible to make the remainder of my life one filled with the absolute joy of living. In the end, the men of science told me that surgery would cure my cancer and while there are some unpleasant side effects of the surgery, my life will not be disrupted to any great extent. I am now writing as a cancer survivor, one experiencing the unpleasant side effects and it is truly a small price to pay for many more years of life.

That being said, I decided to continue this blog because my personal struggle with ethics and evil in this world has become an important part of my life. Sure, it didn’t begin when I was diagnosed with cancer but that diagnosis brought it to the forefront of my being-in-the-world. That is why I continue to blog about my encounter with life in general and sometimes about health related issues that seems to arise as a result of my experience with cancer.

So no more Roman numerals and I’ll continue to make my thinking visible to me (and to you) on this blog.

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. The latter said three things: Be patient in administration of justice; develop many students; and make a fence for the Torah.
Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 1, Mishnah 1

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

The Jewish world was fundamentally altered during the late stages of the Second Temple period, the Roman occupation of Palestine and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. During the last phases of the Second Temple there were several competing Judaisms, including the Pharisees, the Essenes and any number of mystical, messianic cults that were an integral part of the Jewish World. The destruction of the Temple was, however, a death blow to the Temple sacrificial cult where the blood of animals afforded the giver of the sacrifice absolution from his or her sins. In the days following the destruction of the Temple, the various Judaisms began to form more permanent structural and theological attitudes. Christianity went in one direction while the birth of Rabbinic Judaism took a completely different turn. While both of these Judaisms used specific language to make their case, I wish to concentrate on the language of Rabbinic Judaism most clearly revealed in the Mishnah quoted above.

One of the problems the Rabbis had to deal with was the issue of continuity, how were they in a direct and unbroken lineage from Moses to the present day. Moreover, they had to wrestle with the problem of how their writings fit into the lineage of the revelation at Sinai. To help explain the latter problem, the Rabbis of the Mishnah, Tosefta, and the two Talmuds engaged in the fantasy of the two Torahs; the written one and the oral one. But what gave the oral Torah authority? The answer devised was simple; it too was revealed to Moses at Sinai. That brings us to the issue of proving lineage from Moses to the present day to which the Rabbis answered that the Torah was revealed to Moses by God himself (both oral and written) and passed on in a direct lineage to us making us the recipients of the revelation. Implied here is that so long as the Torah is passed down, studied and understood by following generations, the lineage remains intact. The language used is self-serving in the sense that it supports the contention of the Sages that they are the true and only recipients of the Torah because they are a part of that succession. The problem with self-serving language, however, is that it simply doesn’t stand up to that which is now understood about the historical development of the Jewish people. It fits into a neat package, almost a marketing package, that solipsistically turns in on itself to prove its very existence but this vision fails when subjected to a deeper understanding of the times.

The second half of the Mishnah raises other kinds of questions. Much of the Mishnah, the redaction of Jewish Laws attributed to Judah ha’Nasi (Judah the Prince) deals with the underlying structure of solving legal problems that arise from time to time. It is much like a casebook in law. The first instruction, to be patient in the administration of justice implies that the “oral” Torah is a work in progress, not a fixed document revealed to Moses at Sinai and passed on as described in the first part of this Mishnah. The implied flexibility in the application of the law suggests that the law as “oral” Torah was not revealed at all but hammered out by human beings to meet the needs of the day.

The instruction to make a fence for the Torah is also related to the very idea that where a vague commandment is made in the written Torah, it is the job of the oral Torah to both describe how one complies with the commandment but also that this description must take on a more or less conservative modality in the sense that anything that appears to be like the commandment is also either forbidden or required in order to be sure that the commandment itself is fulfilled. The fence could not have been revealed at Sinai because only through the discourse of debate among learned Sages could the fence be built. Another reason to reject the very notion of the two Torah fantasy. The language reveals a deep discord between that which is and that which is to be accepted as a fundamental belief without questioning the validity of the claim.

The instruction to develop many students is a practical one. The more students one develops, the more likely it is that the message will be preserved. Interestingly, some modern day research suggests that these Sages, the Rabbis of the Mishnah and other documents, had only a handful of students, perhaps no more that 15 to 20 at any given time, perhaps even fewer. In this context the 12 disciples of Jesus actually makes some sense. The idea that one develop students is one that preserves the message while providing for the possibility of new interpretations as new problems are faced. This language is practical; it also implies that the “oral” Torah was not a revelation but, rather, a growing body of literature redacted to compliment the written Torah itself.

The language of the Sages, the Rabbis writing the core documents of Judaism outside of the Torah and the Tanakh, is contradictory. On one hand it suggests a direct revelation from Moses to the present day while on the other it seems to support the idea that the authors recognize their own role as interpreters, authors, and commentators making the written Torah come to life. I do not find this unusual. These kinds of contradictions are found in all religions because they otherwise their beliefs could not be explained. Stories are created to respond to that which we don’t know but I find in far more interesting to uncover the fundamental truths contained in the stories while not being concerned about who or what put them out for public consumption.

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him

There is a Zen saying that goes like this: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. The foundation of this saying is to remind us that if someone seems to have all the answers to all the questions, they don’t have any answers at all. I was reminded of that saying last Monday night when I sat down for a traditional Passover Seder and the leader of the Seder presumed to know everything. It was rather tedious having to listen to his zealotry as he fumbled through a Haggadah different from the rest of us trying to find a place we could all agree on. It was tedious to listen to the polemical insistance that the story being repeated was an actual experience witnessed by millions of Jews in Egypt and at Sinai around 3200 years ago.

I must admit being a bit impatient with the leader, who was trying to equate my relationship with a Chabad Rabbi and his relationship with the Chabad. When I tried to explain to him that my interest was more or less academic and not religious or spiritual he was arrogant enough to tell me I was wrong and that no one goes to the Chabad unless they are interested in spiritual development. When he presumed to know my personal motivation I demonstrated my own impatience by telling him that the stories that survived to form Rabbinic Judaism are simply made-up, redacted and crafted by the redactor to create a theosophy matching the politics of the exile after the rise of Christianity and the defeat of Bar Kochba; that it is impossible to ignore the political reality and still understand the surviving mythology.

At that point I was told that he and I are exactly the same. We come from the same religious experience. In point of fact, nothing could be further from the truth. True, we are about the same age, we both have prostate cancer although mine is currently in full remission while his is, unfortunately, not, we both attend the Chabad (but not for the same reasons) but there the similarities end. I am an atheist, a Jewish atheist but an atheist nevertheless while he is conveniently religious (only when it suits him). I am curious about the form of argumentation used by the post-exilic sages because it is a fascinating academic exercise to understand the thought process as the core documents of Jewish thought were created but I do not accept these documents as anything other than an effort to explain that which is difficult to explain. He takes the documents at their face value asking no critical questions as to origin, political considerations or relationships between Jews and Gentiles as these documents were being created. I could go on about differences but I think I have made my point.

I generally find those people who presume to speak for others to be both tedious and arrogant. Perhaps the two cannot be separated in any meaningful way. In this particular case, I was also angered by the presumption that this man decided what my personal motives might be and how utterly wrong he was. His error was compounded by his failure to listen to any explanation of my motives that I offered. I soon became tired of the whole affair and began to respond to him with the following, “I can’t believe you swallow this made up BS hook, line and sinker!” For that I probably should ask for forgiveness but I probably won’t because I only see him on rare occasions any longer.

What I find is that I have far more questions than I have answers. I don’t presume to speak for anyone other than myself when I write. Sure I try to write persuasively but I don’t expect anyone to simply accept my arguments at face value. I write to construct tentative answers to difficult questions offering up my musings for comments and critique. After all, isn’t that how we learn to understand each other. Only when there is a single-minded zeal does the process of understanding get interrupted falling into ruins. So keep the conversations lively and if you meet the Buddha on the road…Kill him!

 

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.

Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV

The historian acknowledges that answers are not contained in the questions and effects in the causes. There is in history an indefinite space for freedom and surprise, where human genius and blind fate…exercise their power above any deterministic constraint. Yet, thoughts and ideas cannot be understood historically apart from the social setting in which they were born and apart from the people who produced them.
Gabriele Boccaccini, Roots of Rabbinic Judaism

Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV

Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV

Midway between Fargo and Grand Forks North Dakota is a roadside billboard advertising the Bible as “Complete, Unchallenged, Settled.” The very idea that a collection of texts, some related and some quite distinct from one another and redacted into a normative collection that is revered by some but not all between 2,500 and 1,800 years ago, is totally settled, completely unchallenged and a perfectly complete statement of the world and everything in it is, on its face, nonsensical. Bronze Age manuscripts tell the story of a particular people living at a particular time, subject to political and social pressures unique to themselves and their times. They do not reflect the Truth or even the truth for all time prior to and to still be realized. To be completely understood they must be understood in the context (political, social and economic) in which they came to be in the first place. Because the collection of texts that form Scripture are often contradictory it is crucial to understand these contradictions in terms of the chronological order in which they came to be as well. To blindly accept these collections of stories, rules, diatribes and histories as the revealed work of a deity is to turn a blind eye to the politics and social structure that created them.

Now I don’t claim any special knowledge of or expertise in Biblical scholarship; what I do claim is the ability to read and comprehend what Biblical scholars have written, the arguments they make and the ability to make rational judgments as to the reasonableness of the arguments put forward. The application of rationality to the myriad of problems posed by Scriptural texts is necessary if one ever hopes to understand the motivations of those writing the texts in the first place. Understanding motivations as a product of the times when the documents were produced goes a long way to understanding the intellectual history of the documents themselves.

Boccaccini, in his 2002 book, Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History, From Ezekiel to Daniel, makes a strong case for the development of the Rabbinic Judaism we are familiar with today has its roots in the Babylonian diaspora and the return of a group of exiles to Jerusalem in the priestly followers of Zadok, the Zadokite priests, who re-formed normative Judaism through textual and political innovations that overturns the very notion that Rabbinic Judaism was well formed at the earliest phases of the Second Temple. In Boccaccini’s analysis, the revolution he attributes to the Zadokites begins in exile after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon and gathers steam as the Zadokite priests rebuild the Temple along completely new organizational principles. This revolution continues through the Maccabean period, strongly influenced by the mediation of the Pharisaic movement that gains momentum during the Roman occupation of Palestine. By the time of the Roman destruction of Herod’s Temple, there were many Judaisms, the two most prominent being Rabbinic Judaism and Christian Judaism with the final schism occurring at around the time of Constantine.

Boccaccini analyzes contradictions in texts, especially contradictions in priestly lineage, that all tend to revise the contradictions into a tight historical lineage giving the appearance of being more-or-less continuous. At one point he writes that there is no better way to convince people to join in the revolutionary efforts than to convince them that this is the way things always have been.

Far from being the revealed word of YHVH, Rabbinic Judaism’s Scriptures are cleverly redacted to serve the priestly class that wrote them, complied them from multiple sources and reflect the political, social and economic realities of the times in which they were written. Understood in this way, it is easier to read the documents for what they are, a manifesto proclaiming the emergence of a priestly cult that, over time, adapted itself to life without the place of priestly sacrifice into a cult that relies on the combination of prayer and adherence to a specific code of practice which acts as the simulacrum of Temple sacrifice.

Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X

Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X

Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X

In 70 CE the Romans, during the First Jewish-Roman War, destroyed the Temple, the center of the sacrificial cult that, over time, became the rabbinical Judaism (as well as the Christianity) we know in today’s post-modern world. Because I am at least nominally Jewish, I don’t much care about the schism that separated Jews and Christians from one another other than as an historical fact. My concern is to understand just how Temple Judaism morphed into rabbinical Judaism and why.

Jacob Neusner makes an interesting case for that development in his exploration of the corpus of rabbinic texts that comprise the heart of rabbinic Judaism. He offers the context of historical events and the response of the redactors of the Mishnah, a code of religious obligations attributed to Judah ha Nasi (Judah the Prince) completed in 200 CE. Without going into too much detail about the form, structure or rhetorical tools used by the rabbis of the Mishnah, the core of Neusner’s argument is simply this: the rabbis, responding to the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE) where an independent Jewish state successfully expelled the Romans only to fall to Rome once again in 135 CE, organized the emerging rabbinic cult by creating a corpus of textual material that was designed to mirror the Temple Cult while creating an ahistorical context by which one became holy. The Mishnah itself paints a picture of sanctification that is set in a context of timelessness, a universal mirror of this very moment, the only moment that counts, by setting down permanent obligations for every aspect of life from farming to business transactions with the underlying intent to provide Jews with a framework for living a life deemed sanctified and holy without regard to the ebb and flow of historical events. The rules, the obligations, applied in good times and in times of tyrants, across all seasons of the year by providing an absolute framework for living come what may.

In the 130-year period dating from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and including the expulsion of and banishing from Jerusalem, the Bar Kokhba Revolt and the re-colonization of Israel by the Romans, the Mishnah took its final form. No longer able to find spiritual comfort in Jerusalem, the rabbis of the Mishnah responded by making Jerusalem live in the hearts and souls of Jews through the eschatology of the messiah to come, the anointed one who will restore everything to the way it is supposed to be including the restoration of the Temple cult in Jerusalem where burnt offerings to the creator God could, once again, serve to purify and cleanse the world of sin.

The logic of the Mishnah, therefore, is not to concentrate on events that occur and influence the way one defines the world one lives in. To the contrary, the logic of the Mishnah is to eschew existential time, to divorce obligations from the context of place and time by making the obligations of human conduct so routine as to become internalized and thereby transformed into an ethical, moral and holy life; a life guided by creating a holy place for the messiah, the anointed one, to appear.

The rabbis of the Mishnah, in short, created a world that spiritually was a simulacrum of the Temple cult, substituting behavioral obligations for animal sacrifice. Regular prayer and rabbis substituted for sacrifice and priests. Rules of conduct posited along with alternative possibilities demonstrated that the Law of the Mishnah was universal and timeless; that following the law was essential to the very existence of the world as well as the world to come, no matter what the externals of life might look like. It mattered not what governing authority was in power, what wars were being fought, what diseases were extant; Jewish life was lived both temporally and, even more importantly, spiritually by living the law.

Neusner’s argument sheds a great deal of light on how one reads Jewish textual material. By the simple act of considering the context in which the texts were written, what externals they were responding to, helps place their zeal into the proper perspective. I want to suggest that a similar crisis is facing rabbinic Judaism today, in the era post-Shoah (post-Holocaust). The genocide of six-million Jews at the hands of the Nazis coupled with the independence of the State of Israel places great strains on the very understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Time will tell just how this internal argument plays out. I’ll just keep on studying and reading and writing and, just perhaps, some clarity will emerge.

 

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