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Understanding Mitzvot and Layered Responsibility: Thinking In Jewish 33

Understanding Mitzvot and Layered Responsibility: Thinking In Jewish 33

Understanding Mitzvot and Layered Responsibility: Thinking In Jewish 33

In the Torah portion for the first weekend in May are both blessings and curses, blessings for obeying the commandments of God and curses for failing to obey those same commandments. The blessings are rather benign, like causing the rain to fall (during the rainy season), while the curses are obscene ranging from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to mothers consuming their own children. Commentaries on Torah struggle to make sense of all of this and still maintain the fiction of a loving and benevolent God. On the one hand, the commentaries focus on the blessings and curses as community or societal in their implementation arguing that any individual judgement is reserved for the world to come when the soul returns to the realm of the Absolute Other, a world beyond all understanding in this world. Others argue that the blessings and curses are attached to individual actions and that one cannot judge for another whether one is being blessed or cursed. How, for example, can one call a wealthy man blessed if he lives his life in fear of the loss of his wealth or a poor man cursed if he lives a self-satisfied life of family and friends.

In either case, the argument suggests that there are three levels of obedience in this world. The first is naive obedience, obedience without understanding because it is what one is supposed to do. The second level is obedience because the very act of obedience is satisfying to one’s ego, a selfish act of obedience backed by long hours of study and understanding. Finally, there is the selfless act of obedience, an act that when undertaken, is less physical and more spiritual, almost like the very idea of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism. This phasing argument posits that one follows commandments not only because they are commanded by God, although that is a good enough reason, but, rather, because they are indeed carried out for the benefit of the actor outside of the realm of the Godly. In short, obeying the commandments of God are good for you rather than good for God.

The argument goes on to provide for the caveat for performing mitzvot (commandments) that if there were no God then performance would be a wasted effort, that only because there is a God, one who issues commandments in the first instance, that one is obligated to follow them. But wait…if this were true, if there truly was a creator God demanding that one follow this particular set of rules, then how does one account for the simple fact that many and varied faiths, both monotheistic, polytheistic and non-theistic (which is different than atheistic) religions and value systems have a large body of rules to follow, rules that, in the final analysis, separate believers from non-believers of a particular prescriptive faith? I would argue that the polyglot of religious beliefs that at some level or another require strict adherence to a set of rules are all constrained by the same problematic, that they and they alone possess the ultimate “Truth” which, in turn, eliminates all other competing faith based systems as either untrue, irrelevant or both. On its face, this is an argument from exclusivity, one that fails to consider competing alternatives as valid. It is also an argument that turns inward, using its own writings as proofs rather than analyzing writings from competing systems if only for the purpose of elimination.

The argument also presupposes the total exclusion of atheism, the rejection of a creator God based on extant evidence, suggesting that atheists have no moral compass upon which to base an ethical or moral life, that without the threat of punishment or the compensation of reward in some world or another to come there is no reason to behave toward one’s fellow-man (or animals for that matter) with compassion. Without the underlying threat of reward or punishment one would be free to pursue one’s basest nature without a second thought. Conscience would not exist and even if it did it would not have any impact on one’s behavior because the only life that matteres is the life we are living. This argument is, at best, a stretch. Some of the most ethical people I know are atheists as are some of the most vile while some of the most vile members of society are staunch members of one or another religious organization as are some of the most ethical. It seems to matter little whether one believes in a creator God or not as to how one chooses to live one’s life. Ethics are not a matter of fear of punishment or reward. To the contrary, living an ethical life is a conscious choice, one governed by the desire for social justice and fair play. Without that sense of compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves there is no ethic that reasonably can be called ethical.

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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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