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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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Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

As I think about the common threads between Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida I am struck by the structural adherence to things particularly Jewish in nature. While there are many disagreements between these two French thinkers, there is an undertone that appears to be shared, each commenting on the work of the other that ties back to foundational Jewish morality. The foundational text that ties their thinking together is found in some form or another throughout the Torah and Tanakh paraphrased as follows: You are obligated to care for the widow; the orphan; and the stranger for you were once strangers in Egypt, strangers in a strange land.

From this text, Levinas works out a philosophy placing ethics as the first philosophy, before ontology and epistemology. For Levinas, each human being has the ethical responsibility to care for the welfare of the other (person) without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation. It is a duty of rememberance, of recalling one’s own sojurn as stranger in need, as well as a duty of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other (person). Based in the biblical cry of HININI (Here I AM!), the response provided by all those called directly by God from Adam to Abraham to Moses, Levinas suggests that the HININI is an announcement, one that tears into the fabric of complaciency, creating an opening, a proximate space, from which one can wait for the cry of the other and then respond to that cry.

Levinas universalizes the Torah, taking it out of the specifics of the story of the Israelite slavery experience in Egypt, making the obligation to care for the other conditional on the slavery experience placing it into a universal framework of ethical response-ability framed as a human and not merely a Jewish obligation. Anyone may make the announcement HININI without having to have lived through the experience of slavery, of being a stranger in a strange land. To the contrary, all one need do is announce and wait for the cry of the other. The Torah obligation is conditioned on an existential experience and appears to actively require one to seek out the widow, orphan and stranger; the obligation to do so rests on a personal experience of redemption; a movement from exteriority to exteriority, from group experience to the obligation to be of service for the exteriority of the other. The universal obligation travels a different path, from the interiority of the self to the exteriority of the other without turning on the experience of being othered.

Derrida takes up much the same theme when he addresses such divergent ideas as what is meant by hospitality and giving of gifts. Derrida’s project takes up a thread similar to Levinas’ notions of reservations and expectations. For Derrida the host and/or the giver of gifts acts in such a way as to have no reservations about the act of hosting or giving and does so with no expectation for reciprocation. In short, the act of hospitality and the act of giving is an act of selfless interiority expressed as exteriority. Another way to think about this is to suggest that the act of hosting or the act of giving does not carry the burdensome question for the host or giver of ‘What’s in this transaction for me?’ The host or giver does not engage in a contractual relationship with his or her guests or gift receipients, rather, wherever possible, the act of hosting or giving should be wrapped in the weeds of anonymity so as not to falsely create an appearance of obligation.

Like Levinas, Derrida’s approach is a universal one but unlike Levinas, it is unlikely to be understood in terms of the specifically Jewish reference to either the HININI or to the conditional obligation to care for the widow, orphan or stranger. I, however, am not convinced that Levinas did not have at least some impact on Derrida’s thinking about the ethics of hosting or giving.

In the final analysis, both Levinas and Derrida argued for an ethics of responsibility, an ethics that is unconditional, without reservation, and without expectation of reciprocation. It is the very impossibility of this ethical demand that makes it so compelling.

 

Three Problematic Texts: Thinking in Jewish XX

Three Problematic Texts: Thinking in Jewish XX

Three Problematic Texts: Thinking in Jewish XX

There are three problematic texts I wish to discuss. Job, Jonah and Kohelet. Each of these texts, most likely written during or just prior to the Hellenistic period in the Levant, approach the problem of God in similar ways. Job and Jonah turn the same question upside down while Kohelet simply views the problem of God in the light of pure skepticism. Job, a righteous man, is debased by an all powerful God who acts capriciously taking away everything to see if Job will curse him. Sure, in the end the redactors of the text create a happy ending and Job gets back everything he lost in double measure, but the text raises questions of the capricious nature of Godly promises. Jonah looks at the same question turning it on its head. In Jonah, God is angry at his prophet who is unwilling to test the power of God existentially by refusing to carry out God’s instructions. Escaping to the sea, Jonah is sacrificed by the pagan crew of the boat upon which he travels. Once again the ending belies the intent of the story, that an all powerful God is also not bound by promises or covenants. In Kohelet, the question of God is put in terms of whether or not the intervention of human beings can influence the regularity of nature  or is the whole of nature (God) both fixed and immutable.

Taken together, these three texts are problematic. Foremost is the question of God’s capricious nature. If, in fact, God can make a promise which God himself does not intend to keep then trusting in God is unwarranted and perhaps even unnecessary. Promises that are made carry the weight of ethical actions, compliance is a moral and ethical and even a legal obligation. If human beings are expected to be bound to their promises, all the more reason God, acting as a primary exemplar, should be obligated. But, apparently God doesn’t think so. For Job, a righteous man, God, on a bet, deprives him of everything: wealth, friends and family. This act is capricious in the sense that as a righteous man Job follows all of God’s commandments, lives up to his obligations under the covenant between God and the Children of Israel, but God doesn’t see fit to honor his end of the obligation that he, himself, entered into with Moses at Sinai. Rather he breaks the covenant and punishes Job, a righteous man, who, even in the face of extreme punishment, refuses to curse God.

Jonah points to a different characteristic of God’s capriciousness. In this case, Jonah, a prophet of God, cannot bring himself to carry out the instructions of God to go to a place and warn the people there of God’s anger. Instead, Jonah attempts to escape to the sea where, in his anger with Jonah, God causes a great storm nearly sinking the boat upon which Jonah is escaping. The sailors on the ship identify Jonah as the problem and offer him up as a sacrifice by throwing him overboard; God sees this and in spite of the fact that the sailors are Gentiles (in this case idol worshipers) God stops the storm. Once again the redactors of the text create a happier ending by saving Jonah and allowing him to complete his assigned mission but that part of the story was likely added at a later date as the book of Jonah was being considered for inclusion in the Tanakh. Here, the message is that the covenant is breakable by God and only by God even though Jonah is frightened and unable to do his assigned duty. To read this any other way is to do an injustice to Jonah. How many of us could, for example, hear the call of God as Abraham  heard the call to sacrifice his own son to God and actually go so far as to be perfectly willing to carry out the command.  The only fair reading of Jonah is to assign to God a capricious need to reject the covenant he himself created when it suits him rather than being careful to abide by that very covenant when it is most difficult to do so.

As to Kohelet, the text questions the ability for human beings to know the wonders of God. Nature has its predictability while God is totally unpredictable. The righteous often suffer while the wicked often thrive, and if nature is truly predictable then what is the point of being righteous? While Kohelet never questions God’s existence, he does question the need for worshiping that God who has clearly no tolerance for ethics or morality.

Given that the redactors of both the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Bible felt the need to include these books as part of the scriptures, one must ask why? Did not the editors of these two bodies of scriptural literature see the problematics involved with these three books? I think they did or, even if they didn’t, they should have. To create a picture of a God that is not bound by the promises that God is said to have made, to project a God whose capricious nature curses the righteous and rewards the non-believer, to understand God as rewarding the wicked while punishing the righteous as well as being unable or unwilling to allow for intervention in natural affairs, is to call into question the very nature of that God and to call into question the need for human beings to worship him. To my mind, these three books, taken as examples of a single problem, point toward the response-ability of human beings as tied directly to the random nature of the Universe in which we reside. God is made entirely irrelevant even where fairy tale endings are attached to make the text more palatable.

Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI

Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI

Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI

According to Jacob Neusner, religions come in two forms. The first relies on a personal and immediate connection to their god or gods and may or may not rely on a written scriptural foundation; rather the emphasis is on the idea of personal salvation or enlightenment that comes from experience. The second, relies on a compilation of written texts that outline one’s relationship with god or gods focused heavily on the exegesis contained within the sacred textual books. This latter form of religion connects through historical referents rather than through personal experience and relies almost exclusively on the written word. Neusner places Judaism in the latter category. In arguing this position, Neusner places an emphasis on the Tractates of Talmud Bavli or the Babylonian Talmud as the re-invention of Judaism that the Sages of Talmud Bavli completed in the year 600 C.E., at roughly the same time that the Moslems conquered much of the Middle East and the Mediterranean coast of Africa along with large portions of the Iberian Peninsula, a time period that saw the end of late antiquity and the beginning of the so-called “Dark Ages.”

What Neusner is quick to point out; a point he repeats quite often, is that the re-invention of Judaism did not take place by offering mere commentary on the texts that preceded the Talmud Bavli, rather, the re-invention completely subjugated all other documents that came before it as secondary to the Talmud Bavli. The Talmud Bavli was intended to be the definitive take on what it means to be a Jew in the world. In order to take up this task, the Rabbis of the Talmud Bavli connected it to the already accepted lineage of the Torah itself, the Mishnah, the Tosefta and the Mishnah, as an expanded connection between the written Torah and the Tractates of the Talmud Bavli. Neusner’s argument, while foundationally connected to the tradition attached to the Talmud by the Sages who redacted the document, insists that the document is much more than that; it is the re-imagination of the very foundational structure of Judaism.

All this, Neusner argues, occurs through the formalized use of language, rhetorical technique and the application of two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, to stress specifics of the rhetorical. First, the Sages dissect the Mishnah, on the surface a compilation of laws, but on a far deeper level a text that focuses on the crisis created in Judaism by the destruction of the Temple (and thereby the destruction of the Temple cult of animal sacrifice) and the rabbinical response to that destruction, by picking and choosing how they will comment on the Mishnah itself.

Neusner argues that the Mishnah provides the bricks of response to the period beyond the Temple itself while the Talmud provides the mortar and internal structure of the newly created rabbinical response (a new Temple contained within the structural formality of the Gemara or commentary on the Mishnah) to the absence of a sacrificial alter. The Mishnah is written in middle Hebrew, the Gemara in Aramaic with a smattering of biblical Hebrew thrown in when proof texts from the Tanakh, the Torah plus the Histories and other writings (the Jewish Bible if you will), are used. In this structural formalism, middle Hebrew indicates the foundational aspect of the law, Aramaic provides the reader with the thread of discussion and argument that ties the law to the Tanakh with proof texts interspersed to cement the argument written in Ancient or Biblical Hebrew using Aramaic structure and grammar.

Taken as a whole, the Talmud Bavli connects the practice of rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism practiced in much of the world today, to the beginning of creation by insisting on a direct line of communication from Moses at Sinai to the Rabbis and ultimately to the Jews through the rabbis. The Talmud Bavli also incorporates all of the texts, both biblical and rabbinical into one long textual platform that is then connected by a particular three-fold formalism of argumentative dialectical discourse: First, the statement of the Mishnah being commented upon thereby setting the stage for further commentary. Second, commentary that is directed directly or indirectly at the particular questions that arise from the generalization of the Law contained within the Mishnah, an act of clarification. Finally, the rabbis of the Talmud Bavli ignore the Mishnah entirely and pursue ideas that are loosely connected or perhaps not connected at all to the Mishnah’s approach to the Law and present a dialectical argument that may or may not result in clear results. When read in this way, Neusner argues, the Talmud Bavli becomes more than an arcane document, rather, it provides one with a foundational tool for thinking in Jewish, a method that provides one with a way of thinking that, while apparently different that that of philosophy, is foundationally similar to philosophic inquiry.

I actually look forward to seeing Neusner’s analysis unfold as I continue to read and study Jewish rabbinical texts including Talmud Bavli.

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