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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.

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The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIV

The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIV

The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIV

From Adam’s exile from paradise (exile), Noah’s redemption of the world (redemption), the exodus from Egypt (redemption), the first revelation at Sinai (redemption), the smashing of the tablets as Moses saw the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf (exile), the second revelation at Sinai (tentative redemption), the destruction of Solomon’s Temple (exile), the return of the remnant of exiles from Babylon and the building of the Second Temple (redemption), the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans (exile), Jewish historiography has been a constant story of exile and redemption. After the last exile, that of the Roman destruction of the Temple and the final crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 132 CE, Jewish practice fell into the hands of a small sect of sages who authored the Mishnah, the Tosefta and the two Talmuds. The interesting thing about these documents according to Jacob Neusner, is that in response to the Roman exile, the Rabbis chose to remake the whole of the Jewish experience into one in which they created a world of extant redemption existing outside of the time and vagaries of  the temporal world. The sages created an ideal world, a world that mirrored that which they expected a final redemption to look like, not a world in which the Jewish people were marginalized, persecuted and ridiculed by the gentiles surrounding them. In short, the rabbis created a utopian vision of redemption that could only be achieved by communal action.

For the rabbis of the fundamental texts of Rabbinic Judaism redemption was not an individual, personal act. One cannot be saved from exile as an individual, rather, the whole Jewish community, wherever they might be, could only be redeemed from exile through the group effort of each and every individual following the law to the letter. The more people following the laws of Moses and the rabbinical deciders the closer one comes to redemption; the sooner the messiah arrives to return things to the state of paradise from which Adam was initially exiled. Redemption, then, comes at a cost, the cost of blindly following a set of arcane rules and regulations, many of which cannot be understood at a rational level and, to complicate things even more, better than half cannot even be carried out because they refer to Temple practices, animal sacrifices, priestly cleanliness (or suitability to carry out priestly duties), and other laws regarding the unique practices of the Temple sacrificial cult. This model served the Jewish people quite well until the middle of the 17th century CE when Jewish mysticism began to emerge.

According to Gershom Scholem, Jewish mysticism sprang from a religious revival among Jews so that by the mid 1600’s a shift in the idea of redemption moved ever closer to the idea that once the messiah arrived, individual salvation was indeed possible and would precede any kind of group redemption that was the ultimate goal of the arrival of the messiah. This idea was vigorously opposed by those rabbis representing the status quo but that didn’t stop messianic cults from popping up. The most successful of these cults followed the life of Sabbitai Zevi, a Sephardic rabbi who preached some unique interpretations of the law and, through his disciples, notably one Nathan of Gaza, claimed to be the messiah. Even after Zevi was forced into apostasy by Sultan Mehmed IV when he was offered the choice between death and conversion to Islam in which Zevi chose conversion, the movement remained strong until the mid 19th century CE. Scholem contends that the Sabbatean movement was the precursor of the modern movement of Reform Judaism.

Through the last two thousand years, Judaism flourished in an atmosphere of utopian expectations. The historiography of Judaism stresses the communal responsibility to obey commandments and if that is done then all will go well. It tells a story of perfection spoiled, of exile, of redemption, of exile, of redemption and exile over and over again. Living in exile today, Jews around the world just celebrated two nights of a holiday of redemption from exile yet even within the story of the Exodus are buried smaller stories of exile and redemption, of failure to follow the laws and commandments and being forgiven as a group. The Passover Seder ends with the utopian words, Next Year in Jerusalem; not the Jerusalem that exists today, rather the Jerusalem that will exist once the Temple is rebuilt and Jews can once again offer burnt offerings to the God of Israel. I am not sure that is a world I would choose to inhabit.

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