Few events in Jewish religious life are more ubiquitous than the rite of Bar/Bat Mitzvah (or
What is it?
Let us start with terminology.
So, what is
[Judah ben Tema] taught: At 5, [one begins the study] of Scripture; at 10, the Mishna; at 13, the mitzvot; at 15, the Talmud; at 18, marriage; at 20, an independent livelihood; at 30, full strength; at 40, understanding; at 50, sageness; at 60, old age; at 70, the fullness of age; at 80, strength; at 90, frailty; at 100, it is as if one had already died and passed from the world.
The entire passage is schematic. A particular quirk of the Mishna in general is that it is written for those who already know what it is saying. A good contemporary comparison might be the notes a student takes during a college lecture. If you were at the same lecture, the notes make complete sense. If not, then you have to guess a lot about the meaning of them. We therefore have to speculate on what is actually intended.
Some features of the passage seem probable. What the Sage appears to convey is the significance of certain ages in one’s life as derived by interpretation of biblical verses. This deduction is most clearly expressed in the ages 70 and 80. They are given in the well-known section of the Psalm 90: The span of one’s life is three score years and ten, or by reason of strength, four score years. [Note, the original Hebrew merely says “seventy” and “eighty.” Most of us know the Psalm through its King James rendering.] Medieval commentators sought to draw the Scriptural connection to the other ages, suggesting, for instance that study of Mishna and Talmud are simply a doubling and tripling of the age in which one begins study of Scripture itself.
“At 13, mitzvot.” The medieval commentators suggest, through some rather creative reasoning, that the number is derived from the age of Jacob’s third son, Levi, when he joined with his older brother, Shimon, in avenging the rape of their sister, Dinah (Genesis 34). Specifically, a verse (25) relates: …Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each [‘ish] took a sword. The key word is ‘ish, man. Thus, commentators deduce that at the age of thirteen, Levi qualified to be called a man.
I wish to be clear about what I think is happening here. A passage is recorded in a fifth or sixth century text that offers the age thirteen as being connected to mitzvoth (commandments). Its intrinsic meaning is elusive, but by the time of the commentators (11th – 15th century) a concrete understanding of the assertion has emerged. At age thirteen, a child becomes an ‘ish, that is, an adult or more specifically, a non-minor. Jewish practice exempts minors from certain responsibilities. At some point, however, a person moves from the status of minor to that of adult. By the Middle Ages, then, the Jewish community had conclusively established that this transformation takes place on a boy’s thirteenth birthday. This is Bar Mitzvah.
“Today, I am a man!” So goes the old line regarding Bar Mitzvah. The sentiment is true, but only in the narrowest sense. At thirteen, a child is supposed to be mature enough to appreciate obligation and responsibility. Look at the entire passage in Avot. Thirteen is fully five years away from marriage (at 18) and career (20) that are conventional indicators of adulthood. The overarching concern in the tractate is not a biological maturity%mdash;it is not puberty—but rather emotional and intellectual growth. Sometime during the study of Mishna, but not yet at the age to tackle Talmud, a person should be prepared for the responsibility of the mitzvot.
Bar Mitzvah, not Bat Mitzvah! Within the context of traditional Jewish thought, the concept of obligation is different for men and women. All Jews, regardless of age and sex, are obligated to refrain from prohibited activity. No Jew can have a ham sandwich, or eat a cupcake on Passover. Affirmative obligations, such as reciting the Shma each morning and evening, tend to be the responsibility of only adult men. In this context, the formal obligations that fall on women do not change with age. A girl is virtually Bat Mitzvah from birth. A concept of Bat Mitzvah has nonetheless come into being within the past century, even for some Orthodox Jews. I will comment on this development later.
Becoming Bar Mitzvah, at least since the early Middle Ages, has only required becoming thirteen years-old. It is automatic, just as at age twenty-one, when can buy a drink in a bar. In Jewish communities in northern Italy during the fourteenth century, a practice arose of marking the becoming a Bar Mitzvah with a public ceremony. That which we call a
The Big Event
How is a
The act of becoming bar mitzvah is thus similar in structure to registering to vote on one’s eighteenth birthday. It is doing something that could not be done the day before. Jewish tradition has established formal acknowledgements of the act. Actually, the principal acknowledgment is a se’udat mitzvah, an obligatory feast. A
Before dealing with this interesting and challenging requirement, let me touch upon one other tradition. At a service in which a child is called to the Torah for the first time, the boy’s father recites a prayer: Blessed is the One Who has released me from responsibility for this [person]. The prayer has been eliminated from non-Orthodox prayerbooks. It nonetheless frames a fundamental way in which
Yesterday, if you were to break a neighbor’s window, your parents would have to pay for the damages. Tomorrow, you would have to pay. On the other hand, if yesterday you scored a 100 on a math test, your parents would be congratulated. Next week, you would get all the credit.
In reality, a thirteen-year-old has changed very little from day before the
For most families, the cost of a
I spent a number of years serving a large congregation in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Occasionally, congregants would come to me to discuss plans for having the
Areas such as the Hudson Valley are thankfully free of such competition. The affairs surrounding a
The age of thirteen, as I have already noted, is at best the very beginning of becoming an adult. The foundational passage from the Mishna indicates as much. The ages of eighteen and twenty are set for marriage and a livelihood, markers that much more definitively express the independence associated with adulthood. Thus, thirteen, rather than being “Today, I am a man,” is more “Today, the possibility of becoming a man is now in view.” In my opinion, the purpose of the service is to exemplify this development, both literally and symbolically.
The service of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah can be as minimal as being called to recite the blessings over the Torah, or as extensive as taking responsibility for the entire service: leading the worship, reading the entire Torah portion and Haftarah, and delivering a d’rash, a thoughtful sermon or speech. At Vassar Temple, I have settled on the students leading a portion of the worship, chanting the maftir (3-5 verses at the conclusion of the Torah reading), the Haftarah, and delivering a speech. This, however, is the default expectation. Some students do more, some less.
The principal concern is not what a
Adulthood entails responsibility. It is the ability to take on assignments that cannot be dispatched quickly and easily, but rather take determination and some hard work. In most cases, the execution of the
Let us step back a moment from
The symbols of the wedding ceremony are unique to the occasion. Other than the appearance of a thirteen-year-old child on the bima, there is nothing distinct inherent in a
The Bat in Bar Mitzvah
The notion that a girl would celebrate becoming a Bat Mitzvah was literally unthinkable throughout much of Jewish history. The fundamental purpose of the rite— when it actually became a ceremony— was to acknowledge the obligations a boy had in fulfilling certain mitzvot. Since these obligations never were intended to fall on a girl, the very idea of Bat Mitzvah was meaningless.
The first challenge to this structure arose from the development of a reforming movement among French and German Jews in the early nineteenth century. Reformers attacked the traditional concept of mitzvah, and in doing so attacked the ceremony of Bar Mitzvah. Yet, the early Reformers, so intent on doing away with the Bar Mitzvah service, also recognized the secondary significance of a rite of passage into adulthood. They therefore initiated an important and far-reaching innovation: Confirmation.
As first conceived, Confirmation was designed to solve a number of perceived deficiencies. The Reformers found little meaning or value in treating each child individually as they reached the age of thirteen. There was nothing ‘magical’ about that birthday. More significant, in their eyes, was the culmination of a year of learning. Thus, children at the end of the conventional Bar Mitzvah year of Grade Seven eschewed the individual service, and rather came together for a communal celebration. In this fashion, it was not only the boys but also the girls who would participate in this new ceremony.
Confirmation has persisted to this day, almost exclusively however, within Reform congregations. The Conservative and certainly the Orthodox Movements have never adopted the practice. Over time, the Confirmation service has moved to older grades—tenth grade is a norm—but has continued to be a communal celebration and sort-of graduation exercise held at the end of a school year. Indeed, many congregations devote the service on the Festival of Shavuot to Confirmation. The occasion is apt, both due to the timing of the holiday in late May or early June, and the purpose of the festival to commemorate the giving of Torah.
As a rule, throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Reform synagogues avoided the Bar Mitzvah service in favor of Confirmation. The question of establishing Bat Mitzvah was therefore moot. It should not come as a surprise that the first celebration of a Bat Mitzvah did not take place in a Reform Temple. In 1922, Judith Kaplan, the twelve-year-old daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, was called to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah in Kaplan’s Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) synagogue. SAJ, still on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is the first congregation’s in Kaplan’s Reconstructionist Movement.
Kaplan was an Orthodox trained rabbi who taught at the Conservative Movement’s rabbinic seminary. In having his daughter become a Bat Mitzvah, Kaplan was staking out a position distinct from both Reform and tradition. As opposed to Reform, he felt it was important to preserve the institution of
Kaplan also decided that Bat Mitzvah should not be precisely the same as Bar Mitzvah. Thus, he had his daughter become Bat Mitzvah at the age of twelve. Girls do, in general, mature both physically and emotionally, faster than boys. If, in Kaplan’s thinking,
I do not know how long a wait there was between the first and second Bat Mitzvah, or when a girl was first called to the Torah in a congregation other than SAJ. In time, however, the institution of a ceremony for girls propagated. First, it was among followers of Kaplan, (The first Bat Mitzvah ceremony in Poughkeepsie took place at Temple Beth-El under Rabbi Zimet, who was greatly influenced by Kaplan’s student, Milton Steinberg.) then through Reform and Conservative congregations. Even the Orthodox, including some rather conservative Orthodox rabbis, began to support Bat Mitzvah as a rite of passage. It remains unacceptable in most traditional congregations to have a woman be called to the Torah, so the Bat Mitzvah observance normally takes place as a Sunday luncheon, with the girl preparing and delivering a d’rash.
Traditional Bat Mitzvah observances, whether in the sanctuary during a Torah service or otherwise, still tend to take place well before the thirteenth birthday. While earlier maturation for women is normally cited, I think the principal reason is as I suggested for Kaplan; to highlight that Bar and Bat Mitzvah are different. Reform congregations (including Vassar Temple) strive to make no difference at all. The rite of passage is not biological; it is fundamentally symbolic, and the symbolism is the same for boys and girls.
Navigating the Contradictions
The old saw “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” aptly fits the occasion of
Most of the impact is within the family. A practice that was not a part of my own childhood experience involves the lighting of candles, usually around a birthday cake, during the
Virtually the entire onus of the occasion falls on the child and parents. The child must learn what is required in order to take part in the service. As noted above, this takes focus and endurance. The parents must make all of the arrangements; not only every aspect of the reception, but also seeing to it that the child actually does the preparation. Even with classes and a tutor,
Yet, for all this focus on the family, the synagogue is the medium in which the event takes place. A child does not become bar/bat mitzvah into a family, but into a congregation. Virtually all congregations, Vassar Temple included, establish criteria for having a
Becoming an adult (Jew).
Jewish parents—or, not infrequently, the Jewish grandparents whose child has married a non-Jew—feel a powerful need to acknowledge the sheer chronological fact of
What I am describing is, of course, a form of Jewish identity with virtually no content. Yet,
In the early twenty-first century,
And when the party is over, then what? In the final analysis,
The path to
If, on the other hand, the end is to take one’s place in the Jewish community, then all or most of the prerequisites are carried over and are incorporated into adult life. Rabbis, including myself, like to say that
In the end, the choice is: did the child have a
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Recently a familiar Jewish joke passed by my desk. (By the way, the traditional definition of a Jewish joke is one that no non-Jew will ever understand and every Jew has heard before.) It was a variation on this classic:
A fellow buys a new car and goes to an Orthodox Rabbi for a blessing: “Will you recite a b’rakha over my new Mercedes?” “Sure,” says the Rabbi, “once you tell me—what’s a Mercedes?” The fellow then finds a Reform Rabbi and asks, “Will you recite a b’rakha over my new Mercedes?” “Sure,” is the reply, “once you tell me—what’s a b’rakha?”
The joke is doubly cruel, employing two stereotypes: 1. Orthodox Jews are ignorant of basic secular knowledge, and 2. Reform Jews are ignorant of basic Jewish knowledge.
Stereotypes are cruel, but not irrational. They are established by widespread perception. Thus, it might well be the case that in general Orthodox Jews are better informed of certain things Jewish and less informed of certain things secular than Reform Jews.
The most obvious and prevalent conclusion we may draw from these popular images is that Orthodox Jews are somehow more Jewish. From one point of view, this position is absurd. Consider: who is more pregnant, a woman in her fourth or a woman in her ninth month? Being Jewish is a quality that is not affected by quantity. Once one is Jewish, one cannot be more or less a Jew. But, being ‘more Jewish’ generally means being more knowledgeable in Judaica, more committed to the Jewish people, more authentic in one’s Jewish practice, more concerned about the future survival of the Jewish people, more really Jewish.
The perception is powerful. Many Orthodox and Hasidic institutions draw substantial and generous support from non-Orthodox Jews, members in good standing of Reform and Conservative congregations. Occasionally their contributions rival or exceed the level of giving to their own synagogues and movements. Why is that? Better marketing? No, I would rather suggest that many givers justify their gifts on the grounds that the Orthodox institutions need it more. They are less well endowed by the donations of their own constituency (who are thought to be poorer), and they are, after all, the Jews who are really preserving Judaism into the next generation. Thus, Reform and Conservative Jews come to believe that not only does Orthodoxy need it more, they deserve it more.
I am not writing in order to denounce or demean Orthodoxy. Nor am I going to suggest that it is not all that important for Reform Jews to be more knowledgeable of Jewish traditions and practice. The fundamental issue at hand is the divided souls of so many non-Orthodox Jews: the discomfort with the Jewish bona fides of their own life style, and the easy acceptance of the greater worthiness of those who choose to live as Orthodox. Reform and Conservative Jews are real Jews, not only as a biological fact, but also in that their idea of what Judaism is all about is absolutely authentic. In some elements, it is more true to Jewish ideals and values than Orthodoxy itself.
At very least, Reform and Conservative Judaism should be the primary recipient of support by Reform and Conservative Jews.
The Struggle for Terminology
The first problem is one of terminology. Let me give an example: One of the most contentious political and moral issues in American society is the question of abortion. How do we refer to the two principal forces in the debate? Those who argue that abortion is tantamount to murder are called ‘pro-life,’ ‘anti-abortion,’ and ‘anti-choice.’ Those who promote a woman’s control over her own body are called ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-abortion.’ Note that some of these terms have a more positive resonance than others. ‘Pro-life’ implies that the opposition is ‘anti-life.’ ‘Anti-choice,’ on the other hand, assaults the American value of freedom. So, in the abortion debate, each side tries to control the terminology of the argument, claiming that they are ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice,’ while the other side is ‘pro-abortion’ or ‘anti-choice.’ How we express our opinions reveals much about how we think or feel.
In the debate over Jewish authenticity, Orthodoxy has appeared to win the terminology battle hands down. Our conventional understanding of everything Jewish pertains to traditional Jewish ritual items and practice, which are far more associated with an Orthodox life-style. I can suggest a few reasons for this situation, and will in a moment. First, take note that “conventional wisdom” has the virtue of being wise, and the deficiency of being conventional. Orthodoxy has the upper hand in conventional Jewish terminology, but that is quite different from being the standard of authenticity.
Now, why do we tend to equate Jewish with Jewish tradition? For one, all we know of Jewish ritual is the halakhah, rabbinic law. The most religiously indifferent Jew will acknowledge candles on Shabbat, matzah on Passover, a talit during worship and a mezuzah on one’s door as uniquely and explicitly Jewish items. Things and practices Jewish inevitably start with a body of Jewish tradition.
A second—closely related—reason is that we have a tendency to understand Judaism as a fixed something; a box, if you will, filled with all sorts of objects and practices. In order to be “more Jewish,” one takes more things out of the box. In this conception, what is Jewish is in the box. Nothing is added to the box, and nothing ever disappears from it. Some items—the sacrificial rites performed in the days of the Temple, for example—remain stuck in the box, no longer performed, but not condemned as ‘non-Jewish’ either. What about such innovations as the increased role of women in public Jewish life: serving as rabbis and cantors, or the creation of such ceremonies as a b’rit for baby girls? Orthodox Jews will denounce them as un-Jewish assimilationist fads. Non-Orthodox Jews might defend them as responding to contemporary needs, but when challenged as to whether they are really Jewish, might very well respond, “that is beside the point.” After all, they are not in the box.
A Detour into Philosophy (Feel free to skip if you wish)
The position that Judaism is some fixed thing is referred to in philosophy as realism. Realism is the point of view that the essence of reality is the concept, the idea. Consider a table: When you look at such an object you can see it has a certain height, a certain shape, a certain color, a certain degree of hardness, etc. You recognize, however, that none of these qualities—size, shape, color, material—are necessary for defining the object as a table. They could all be otherwise. The ‘table-ness’ of the table is therefore not found in what you actually see or feel, but rather in your ability to access the concept of “table.” The concept is the real table; the color, size, shape, etc. are simply accidental instances of this particular object before you.
If the concept is real, where is it to be found? Plato, the principal proponent of this line of thinking, suggested that it resided in a world of ideas, a place that could be reached only through the power of thought, but where all pure concepts exist. When Plato’s idea-world was combined with theology, creating medieval philosophy, concepts were to be found in the mind of God. And God, the Creator, is the ultimate reality.
Plato’s philosophy has been very influential in religious thought, but there are other systems. In opposition to realisim there is nominalism, a system promoted by Aristotle. This is realism turned on its head. Concepts are not real. Rather they are the abstraction (which you recognize as the term opposite to ‘real’) of groups of individual perceptions. We see pieces of furniture that are flat surfaces supported by a number of legs. Some are large, small, round, rectangular, made of wood, plastic, metal, etc. Each object is a little bit of reality, and we learn to name (hence nominalism) the common features that they all have as “table.” No pure table actually exists; just the abstract concept to which we have applied this name.
Aristotle’s system was also combined with traditional religious thought. Rather than accessing the mind of God in order to discern the objects of reality, we are the recipients of a God-given ability to abstract from reality (the individual bits and pieces of God’s creation) a comprehensive understanding of the world.
Both the points of view established by Aristotle and Plato, however, reinforce a notion of Judaism as fixed thing. Either it is (Platonic) the pure concept as found in the mind of God, or it is the pure abstraction formed by the activity of God-given reason on the reality of the world. Aristotelianism does allow for greater creativity in determining exactly what is Jewish (what is in the box).
Aristotelian Jewish philosophers—Maimonides is the prime example—were aware of this flexibility, and utilized it in order to suggest modifications in Jewish belief and practice. If Maimonides could employ such philosophic insights toward determining proper Judaism, could not every Jew? When Maimonides published his philosophic tome, The Guide to the Perplexed, many conservative authorities denounced him for opening out—democratizing—Judaism. Their argument was on two fronts. First, they castigated Maimonides for explicating such an approach to Jewish practice and belief. Second, they were particularly upset that the work was written in Arabic, the vernacular language of most Spanish and North African Jews of the twelfth century, instead of Hebrew, the language limited only to Jewish scholars.
Maimonides was not as subversive as his critics contended. Although its rendering in Arabic made the Guide more accessible to non-Hebrew scholars, its technical language still made it a difficult work for anyone not especially learned in Philosophy. Ultimately Maimonides—and most of his Aristotelian colleagues—upheld another Platonic concept, namely that authority resides exclusively in a leadership made up of those who have the talent and education to understand truly God’s will. In the end, Maimonides wanted to preserve the classic structure by which the Rabbis had the right and responsibility of determining proper Jewish conduct.
There is a third system of philosophy worth discussing. This is idealism. Its origins are not in ancient Greek thought, but rather in the early modern era in the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel. Idealism proposes that reality is not presented, neither in the pure concept nor in sensory perceptions. It unfolds. The combination of repeated observation and repeated rational thinking leads to a more refined, and therefore more accurate understanding of what is real. Our current perceptions and concepts are only approximations on the path to the ideal.
In the ancient and medieval systems of philosophy, reality is timeless. It is just there, in the fixed laws of nature, or in the eternal order of God’s will. Idealism introduces the role of time. Thus, Judaism might not be something that simply is. Judaism might be a process of becoming. With idealism, we move from orthodoxy to a notion of reform.
Out of Time, Out of Sight
Orthodox Judaism is established by a certain mind-set. There is nothing particularly wrong with the point of view, but there is nothing fundamentally Jewish with it either.
One component of this mind-set is that Jews, as Jews, exist outside of time. This stance is not a repudiation of history, or even of Jewish history. History however has been temporarily suspended, and we are currently living within that suspension. History is not to be conceived as the human history of the rise and fall of nations and kings, or the development of science and technology, but rather as religious history, or the history of God’s interaction with the people Israel.
This account of time begins with the Creation of the world (perhaps even before the Creation). It continues through the history recorded in the Hebrew Bible (Tanach), which is distinguished by the presence of the divine spirit on earth. When, following the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, the divine presence removed itself—the age of prophecy was over, and with it biblical history. Yet, God’s direct relationship with Israel persisted as long as the Temple stood. Then, the Temple was destroyed. The vital link between God and the Jewish people was cut off. History, as far as the Jews were concerned, was cut off as well. It will only resume when the Messiah comes and the Temple is rebuilt. (In conventional Jewish thought, the coming of the Messiah does not mark the final judgment and attendant end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. Instead, it is a restoration of God’s original promise to Abraham, with history now picking up where it left off in the year 70 C.E.)
All of the great events of the past two thousand years—the printing press, discovery of the New World, landing on the moon, Monday Night Football—even the Holocaust and the re-establishment of the State of Israel, are irrelevant in the context of Jewish history. [Orthodox Zionists will demur regarding the founding of the Jewish State. It, in and of itself, is not a mark of a return to history, but it does indicate that the return is imminent.]
This point of view is nuanced and sophisticated. It distinguishes between the chronicle of humankind, which includes the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and the development of a better cup of coffee among its significant and trivial events, with decisive human history, which is determined by the will of God. All sorts of events have occurred over the millennia, but we are no closer to our hopes and dreams of a redeemed world (universal peace and prosperity) than we were when the sages Hillel and Shammai taught. Hence, the Orthodox feel fully justified in claiming that, as Jews, we are currently outside history. We are marking time until time itself resumes. Until then, it is our task and responsibility to preserve Jewish practice and thought just as it was left for us when the Temple in Jerusalem stood. Of course, with the destruction of that Temple, there are many things we cannot do as Jews—the sacrificial service, for example—but, we must continue to study these practices in preparation for their resumption.
The Orthodox position, however, is fundamentally at odds with Jewish thought. It divides body—the natural everyday experience of human beings, or that which makes for human history—from spirit—the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. In one of the more familiar passages in the Torah, near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, we are taught that Torah itself is neither in Heaven nor across the seas. Torah must operate in the real concrete lives of people, and those lives include living in time, in the currents of history. Thus, Orthodoxy’s effort at preserving Torah has the unintended effect of corrupting it.
Shver tzu zein a yid
Intellectually, Orthodoxy is on thin ground. Emotionally, however, it has a powerful lure. Most Jews are not Orthodox. The traditional lifestyle—maintaining a kosher home, avoiding most activities on Shabbat, always wearing a head covering, davening regularly, and so on—is intriguing. Most Jews are not at all prepared to act in such a manner, and therefore wonder about those who do. We feel as if they are sacrificing something in order to preserve Judaism. And thus, we tend to regard the Orthodox with a mixture of awe, respect and envy.
One certainly should not demean Jews who choose to be Orthodox; one should not mythologize them either. In the modern world, life-style and practice is substantially a personal choice. It emanates from the individual’s own interests and needs. Jews choose to be Orthodox because they want or need to be so. It is not a matter of self-sacrifice but of self-interest. Shver tzu zein a yid, “it is hard to be a Jew,” goes the old saying. But it is no harder to be an Orthodox Jew than any other type.
Some apologists have argued that being a Reform Jew is actually harder, since it demands a constant balance between an affirmative Jewish identity and a worldly humanist vision. This position, I believe, is equally wrong. Modernity is emancipation: it is the freeing of the human soul to make certain decisions about what to believe and how to live, including the freedom to reject modernity itself! We are the sort of Jew—Orthodox, Reform, secular, etc.—as a result of birth and nurturing, the availability of economic and educational options, and most of all, a fundamental existential will to be what we wish to be.
[Of course, not all of our choices are based on ease or expedience. For the most part, all of us do things that we find difficult—physically, intellectually or emotionally—to do. We undergo this sacrifice, however, for the sake of our larger wishes or interests. As a result, after some time, those painful tasks that we feel obligated to undertake begin to become easier and more natural.]
It is, nonetheless, hard to be a Jew. This is true for two reasons. First, there is the burden of history and heritage, and the challenge of being a permanent minority people. To affirm oneself as a Jew—regardless of practice or belief—is to concede that one is set apart. Some choose to do this defiantly, placing a hat or yarmulke on their heads and displaying the tzitzit dangling below their shirts. Others are more reticent to engage in physical displays of identity, but by virtue of their affirmation, must deal with their acceptance of distinction in other ways.
The second reason is that choosing to be a Jew entails choosing to have a particular vision about how one should live as a human being. The details differ as one moves along the spectrum from liberal to orthodox, but the fundamental vision of participating in the repair of an unredeemed world remains constant. A few years ago, I was sitting in a seminar with one of my teachers. We were about to study some classic text, a passage from the Bible or Talmud, and a few participants reminded the professor that we had not first recited the blessing in preparation for study. In response, my teacher quipped: Sometimes I find it hard to be the sort of Jew I wish to be.
So it is with all of us, again regardless of practice or belief. Our vision concerning our own personal conduct, a vision informed by our Jewish self-identity, is occasionally difficult to live up to. There is always more to learn, more to study, more discipline to build into our lives, more care and concern we can show to both family and strangers; more that we can do in order to be the Jews we wish to be.
The challenge of being Jewish, which is the challenge of being human and being true to oneself and one’s heritage, is made no easier or harder by being Orthodox or Reform. The non-Orthodox envy, respect and feelings of discomfort for those who espouse a traditional life-style is both natural and misplaced. It is natural because there seems to be a component in the human psyche that tends to see the grass as greener somewhere else. It is misplaced because that greener grass is not ‘over there’ in Orthodoxy—at least not for us—but rather inside us, in our sincere efforts to be better Jews and human beings than we are.
Orthodox Jews probably have similar attitudes regarding a liberal Jewish lifestyle. How do each side respond to these feelings? Some act on them, and change their practices and approach to tradition altogether. The evidence is overwhelming that many more Orthodox Jews become liberal or secular than the reverse. There is nevertheless movement in both directions. Others act on them in a different way by actually striving to improve themselves in accord with their Jewish vision. Some repress them, and try not to think much about being Jewish except in the way they currently are. A significant number get angry, seeing the other side as subversive, attempting to undercut one’s own Jewish lifestyle, and perhaps all of Judaism. And finally, some feel guilty. My impression of the contemporary Jewish world suggests most (but hardly all) of the angry are Orthodox, and most of the guilty are Conservative and Reform.
Judaism is the ‘ism’ of the Jews. From its first articulation in the Hebrew Bible, Judaism has comprised three components: God, a people and a land. The biblical history describes the early dynamic of these relationships: from a deity deeply and personally involved in the lives of individuals to a powerful, emotionally and intellectually real but physically withdrawn divine presence; from a family wandering in the desert to a confederation of tribes to a unified kingdom; and from a foreign place occupied by ‘primitive’ nation states to a gained, then lost, then regained homeland.
The biblical era ends, and the land is (temporarily) lost once more, but the relationship between God and a people continues to develop. The people transform once more from a national entity to a world-dispersed faith community. Throughout all these changes, they were able to maintain a sense of cohesive unity. Thus, certain movements—Samaritans, Essenes, Karaites, and Shabbateans among others—would arise to challenge a ‘mainstream’ understanding of Jewish thought and practice. Each would be put aside. Some of their features might be absorbed into the mainstream, but anyone who persisted in defining themselves by these movements would simply be ignored as if they were no longer Jewish. In time, the movement disappeared, or, as in the case of Samaritans and Karaites, their tiny communities are considered the followers of some other religion.
Then the Jews entered modernity. For many reasons, the cohesiveness that held the people Israel together as faith community began to weaken. By the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish religion had developed its three principal Movements of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. The old pre-modern vision of one Judaism for one Jewish people persisted. Each Movement, however, has felt that it embodied the ideas and principles of that one Judaism. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox all understood themselves to be the legitimate heirs to the Pharisees; that is, the natural and appropriate development of Judaism into the twentieth century.
Thus, each Movement has had a period of “triumphalism.” This is the term used by the seminal Jewish sociologist Marshall Sklare in order to describe the feeling proclaimed by a movement that all rival movements are out of step with the needs and interests of the people, and will shortly die on the vine. Sklare observed that in the heyday of progressive idealism toward the end of the nineteenth century, Reform Judaism had its triumphal period, certain that within a generation or two all ‘modern’ Jews would be Reform. Conservative Judaism’s triumphalism was in the 30’s-50’s, as it was certain it represented the combination of modern outlook and traditional practice that appeared to be sought by the Eastern European immigrants who had come to define the Jewish community. And in the generation following the Holocaust, a period of intense criticism of the concepts and institutions defined by progressive modernity, Orthodoxy enjoyed a revival, and with it asserted its own triumphalism, based to some extent on the failures of modernity.
You will note that Reform had its triumphal period the earliest; Orthodoxy’s is the most recent, and appears to persist to this day. The late nineteenth century certainty on the part of Reformers has clearly been shattered. Not every Jew is going to be Reform. Equally obvious, however, is the fact that Reform Judaism has not withered in the face of this ‘loss.’ Indeed, the Movement has grown dramatically in the number of affiliated congregations and adherents over the past quarter century. The history of the Movement has rather given Reform an appreciation of pluralism. The unity of the Jewish people cannot be found in the unity of Judaism, but instead in an acceptance of the different approaches to Jewish identity and to a response to God’s will.
The persistence of Orthodox triumphalism is due in large part to its sheer survival. Most observers, as late as the 1960’s, viewed any continuation of an Orthodox community as an anachronism, a stubborn insistence on a form of Judaism that was completely out of step with the aspirations of virtually all Jews. The observation was simply wrong. The declaration of the death of Orthodoxy was, shall we say, a bit premature. And thus, to its doomsayers, the Orthodox true-believers have had every right to gloat and feel a certain measure of vindication.
The poet Anthony Hecht wrote: “Merely to have survived is not an index of excellence./Nor, given the way things go, /Even of low cunning.” Orthodoxy survives today, not because it is triumphant, but because the predictors of its demise were wrong.
Real Reform Jews
Orthodoxy is a real form of Judaism; not the real form. In order to maintain the Idea of Judaism, it must sacrifice the World for Jews. Orthodox Jews claim that their own sense of obligation as the exclusive standard of Jewish practice. Self-reference becomes the only reference. This is the Orthodox prescription for Jewish survival. It can be respected and understood, but it should never be accepted as the sole authentic path to a Jewish future.
Reform Judaism is also a real form of Judaism. It struggles with obligation, authority and tradition, but in doing so, it opens Jews up to fundamental aspects of Judaism. First, it returns Jews as Jews to the dynamic forces of history. Thus, it reasserts the threefold relationship between God, Israel and the world. Further, it makes us aware of the dynamic force of God; an ongoing process of learning more about ourselves, the world about us, and our obligation as Jews to bringing about its redemption in accord with God’s will.
The finest elements of Reform Judaism are:
The elements are good not merely because they are upheld by the Reform Movement, but because they represent ideals of Judaism itself. Ideals are difficult. Most Reform Jews hardly live up to the principles of Reform Judaism, but our failures should not be an indictment of our ideals.
You have decided to be a Reform Jew. If you wanted to be Orthodox or Conservative, you would be so already. The choice poses its own challenges and rewards. It is as difficult as being Jewish, and as fulfilling as being Jewish. And it is as real a Jewish decision as being human and true to one’s heritage and beliefs.
By the end of the Book of Genesis, the people Israel have been established as the family of Jacob. Along the way, a number of personalities drop out. Among them: Abraham’s nephew Lot, and Jacob’s daughter, Dinah; the former is not in the direct line from Abraham to Jacob, the latter, one would surmise, became part of her husband’s community. Ishmael and Esau, on the other hand, could conceivably be part of the covenantal community, but are not.
The narrative is hardly dismissive of these two sons and brothers. Their opportunity, or lack of opportunity, to receive the blessing of their fathers is described with care. The Book of Genesis is not scientific history. It is rather what we might call an extended midrash; a creative telling of the origin of a people whose actual origins have been lost in the mists of history. It is a powerful literary document; imagined and legendary, perhaps, but also a deeply insightful document of how, in the formation of a people, some participate and some do not.
We will begin with a close reading of the text, and then consider the subsequent intertwined fates of Israel with Ishmael and Esau (Edom), a history that continues today in the form of Jews, Muslims and Christians.
The Ishmael strand begins with Sarah as she offers her slave/servant Hagar to Abraham (Gen. 16:1-2). [More accurately, the narrative involves Abram and Sarai. Their names are changed in the next chapter.] Hagar is introduced here as an Egyptian, indicating that she had been acquired during Abraham’s stay in Egypt (Chap. 13), and was not part of the entourage that initially left Haran. Abraham silently complies with Sarah’s offer, and Hagar becomes pregnant. Sarah’s immediate response to this news is not joy or celebration, but rather anger and resentment.
The reaction is both surprising and unexceptional. Sarah had made the initial offer, what else was she expecting? Hagar’s pregnancy, on the other hand, reinforced that the problem in conceiving was all hers, and could not even in part be laid on her husband. Sarah was moreover stuck with the arrangement. Having established a surrogate contract, she was obligated to care for the pregnant woman until the child was born. Hence, her immediate action was irrational but predictable; she blamed Abraham for the situation.
We should note at this point, the incidence of employing a surrogate mother presages the later story of Jacob’s wives and handmaidens. Rachel, in particular, presses her husband to have a child by Bilha. The story here (Chap. 30) has Jacob initially miffed by the implied accusation that he is somehow at fault for Rachel’s barrenness. When Bilha becomes pregnant (Jacob being as compliant as Abraham had been) and gives birth, Rachel rejoices. Sarah’s sense of her own loss and inadequacy has been transformed into Rachel’s celebration in her contribution to Israel’s destiny.
Reacting to Sarah’s accusations, Abraham turns the responsibility back upon her. She handles the situation by embittering Hagar, inducing her to leave the camp and try to make her way back to Egypt. Stopping at a spring, she has an encounter with God. [The text actually says that she sees a mal’akh; an angel or emissary of God. In post-biblical writing, angels are conceived as having an existence independent of God. In the Bible, however, all mal’akhim represent an incarnate manifestation of God’s will. To meet a mal’akh is functionally equivalent to meeting God.]
Hagar is told to return to Sarah and endure her hostility. She is told: “I will greatly multiply your descendents; they will be too numerous to count (16:10).” The language is essentially identical to God’s promise to Abraham. (See, for example 15:5.) The immediate impression is, therefore, that Ishmael will be the son through whom God’s covenant with Abraham will be fulfilled.
The divine word however continues: “He shall be a pereh of a man [properly, an onager, or free-range donkey. Most translations like to use “wild ass,” but the connotation is somewhat misleading.]; his hand shall be against all and the hand of all shall be against him (16:12).” The evident meaning of the oracle is that Ishmael (and the Ishmaelites) will be an independent people — a nation without borders — resistant to alliances with other nations. The language, however, is also the reverse of God’s initial promise to Abraham: “I shall make your name great, and it shall be a blessing; and I shall bless all who bless you (12:2-3).” Hagar learns that the child she will conceive will be blessed, but not with the blessing of Abraham. Hagar has been privileged with an encounter with the divine, and memorializes the spring where the oracle took place as Be’er L’hai Ro’i [The Spring where the Living God Looks Upon Me].
The divine oracle that Hagar receives is then repeated to Abraham. After Hagar returns and Ishmael is born, God tells Abraham that Sarah will also bear him a son (17:16). Abraham literally considers this news a joke; Sarah is already 90-years-old. God persists, informing him that Sarah will indeed have a son, whom they will call Isaac [“the grand joke”], and who will be the one who receives the covenant. Ishmael, as already noted to Hagar, will also be blessed.
The Ishmael story continues after Isaac’s birth, when Sarah sees him ‘playing’ (m’tzahek) with Isaac. Sarah insists that the boy and his mother be thrown out of the camp. Abraham is initially upset at the prospect, but receives permission from God to submit to Sarah’s wishes. The narrative continues: “Early the next morning, Abraham got up and took bread and a waterskin, and handed them to Hagar, placing them and the boy on her shoulder (21:14).” Ishmael is no less than fourteen-years-old, and hardly has to be carried. The language, however, presages the telling of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. [“Early the next morning, Abraham got up…he took the wood for the offering and laid it on Isaac (22:3,6).”] In this case, Abraham is apparently sacrificing Hagar with her (their) son as the material for the offering.
Intimations of sacrifice are not only found in the foretelling of the Akedah. Both occasions that Hagar is sent out of the camp have the feel of “goat for Azazel” described in the Yom Kippur ritual in Leviticus 16. The high priest Aaron takes two goats, and by means of lots, determines that one will be sacrificed to God upon the altar in the tabernacle (mishkan), and the other sent out into the wilderness as an atonement. The fate of that goat is unknown to those who remain in the camp. Its sacrifice does not require it to be killed, but rather to venture out carrying, so to speak, the burdens of the people, and thus allowing them to move on re-inspirited in their lives. Hagar goes out, carrying, so to speak, the burden of Ishmael, so that Isaac (the future of the people) may move on in his life.
Instead of traveling toward Egypt, Hagar just wanders until the water is used up. She weeps, not over her own imminent demise, but rather over the expected death of her son. The narrative makes a point of having Hagar move away (“the distance of a bowshot”) from Ishmael. Again, we can sense a foreshadowing of the distance between Sarah and her son, Isaac, when Abraham takes him away to be sacrificed. Once more, a mal’akh appears and announces that “God has heard the cry of the lad where he is (21:18).” Hagar weeps, and yet it is Ishmael — whose very name is “God hears” — whom God hears! When Hagar first left the camp, she was before a spring and saw God. This time, she is before God and sees a spring.
Rebecca, like Sarah before her, is initially barren. When she does become pregnant, she finds herself in physical distress, and calls out to God, “why me? (25:22)” God answers that she has twins who are already struggling with each other. Ultimately, however, “One nation shall prevail over the other, the elder shall serve the younger (25:23).” Like Hagar, Rebecca is privileged with a divine oracle, and like Abraham, she knows the fate of her two children. Sarah, on the other hand, is the object of divine oracles, but never has a direct encounter herself. Yet, in the literary parallels that exist between the stories of Ishmael and Esau, an intertwined Sarah/Hagar as Abraham’s wife is the counterpart of Rebecca.
The twins are born with Esau being only barely older than Jacob. A midrash depicts the two children as being like two pearls dropped into a narrow vase. The first one in would be the second one out. With this image in mind, one can ask who is truly the older, and who the younger? [Note an even closer and more ambiguous birth order in the story of Judah and Tamar’s twin sons (Gen. 38: 27-30).] Esau is quickly depicted as being an outdoorsman and Jacob as a homebody. Thus, a parallel is drawn to the onager Ishmael, and the younger, more homebound, Isaac.
The Ishmael story, as already noted, includes only a brief reference to a relationship with Isaac (the odd expression of ‘playing’ will be discussed shortly). The Esau tale also includes just one encounter between the brothers, but it is more extensive: Esau’s selling of his birthright to Jacob for some lentil stew and bread. The incident concludes with the statement: “thus did Esau disdain his birthright (25:34).” We see an intimation of the Esau narrative turning the Ishmael story on its head. Even before he is born, Ishmael’s lot is to be one who is independent, disconnected from the family of Abraham. Esau, on the other hand, affirmatively chooses to disassociate from the family of Isaac.
A climactic moment in the Esau saga takes place with the scene in which Isaac summons him to receive his covenantal blessing (Chap. 27). The scene is depicted with drama, suspense and not a little artifice; it is a set-up. Isaac, now functionally blind, announces to Esau that he will receive the blessing, and then sends him away on an errand. Rebecca conveniently overhears Isaac and prepares Jacob to take Esau’s place. Jacob is resistant, but Rebecca insists and declares that she will take responsibility if the plot misfires.
Rebecca, like Abraham, knows something about the fate of her children that her spouse does not. Abraham makes no use of this information. When pressed by Sarah to have Hagar and Ishmael removed from the camp, he is initially upset even though he knows that Ishmael will be all right, and that such an arrangement serves to fulfill the promise that the covenant will pass through Isaac. [A midrash suggests that Abraham had to endure ten trials. Perhaps the final trial — being called upon to sacrifice Isaac — arose from his hesitation in having Ishmael move on.] Rebecca, on the other hand, affirmatively acts upon her knowledge. She pushes Jacob into doing what the oracle had told her must be done.
For Jacob to receive this blessing, he must cover his arms with hair and present his father with a meal of wild game. The previous depiction of Jacob cooking was a presumably meatless lentil stew. In the story of Cain and Abel (Chap. 4), Abel’s offering of produce was preferred over Cain’s of livestock. Now, it will be the meat offering that is a key to the blessing. With hair and the meal, Jacob is putting on an act; he is playing Esau.
Ishmael had been playing. While many commentaries will assume this means sexual impropriety, it might be better to read the text as suggesting that he was attempting to act like Isaac! Ishmael had already received his blessing, although it was given by God first to Hagar and then to Abraham. He would become the father of twelve princes. Even though Sarah is not privy to the knowledge of the fates of both her surrogate and natural sons, she intuits that it is not right for Ishmael to become more like Isaac. In the matter of Jacob and Esau, however, their fates have not been decided fully. The oracle Rebecca received was not explicit. Both she and Isaac (who uniquely shared in the naming of their children — Abraham named his children, and Jacob’s wives name his) must intuit who is the more worthy recipient of the blessing. It is the one who is most capable of being like both twins. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau (27:22).”
Jacob thus receives Isaac’s blessing with the words “May God give you of heaven’s dew and earth’s bounty (27:28).” The prayer concludes: “May those who curse you be cursed, and those who bless you be blessed;” a recapitulation of God’s promise to Abraham. When Esau returns, he learns that Jacob has already received their father’s blessing, and insists on a blessing of his own. Isaac ultimately complies, and uses virtually the same formula: “Behold, of earth’s bounty will your dwelling be, and among the heaven’s dew (27:39).” He then states “you will live by the sword,” hence intimating that Esau’s fate is like Ishmael’s, one of independence within the community of nations. [Some readers of Isaac’s words to Esau have suggested that the word “of” should be understood as privitive — away from — as opposed to the partitive “of” in Jacob’s blessing. The land of Edom, however, is subject to similar rains and productivity as the land of Israel. It makes more sense to treat the words to Esau as a blessing as well.]
Indeed, all four children are blessed. Isaac and Jacob are called upon to become great nations fulfilling Abraham’s covenant with God, and Ishmael and Esau are called upon to become numerous peoples who, though outside of the divine covenant, are also separated from all other peoples. Abraham, however, blesses neither of his sons; it is God who blesses them both. God blesses neither of Isaac’s sons (at least, not at this point in the narrative), and it is Isaac who blesses both. The mothers, far more than the fathers, propel the proper child toward their destiny. Yet, both fathers are placed in difficult positions with fateful choices.
Little noted, but I believe of great significance is the sense Genesis imparts that neither Ishmael nor Esau spurned a covenantal blessing. On the contrary, they both seemed quite willing, even eager, to receive it. [This conclusion is reinforced by reading Ishmael’s “playing” as wanting to take his brother’s place.] Ishmael was passed over principally by God. Esau, on the other hand, was simply not as worthy.
The book of Genesis establishes a motif in which decisions move from the divine will to human choice. God determines the fate of Abraham’s family, and in doing so, tests Abraham’s willingness to accept that fate. The family of Isaac, however, must determine their own future. God’s role is not eclipsed, but not decisive either. In the final “act” of the book, the saga of Joseph and his brothers, the divine hand is completely absent.
From Persons to Peoples
A close reading of Genesis reveals a sophisticated interlocking of storylines and motifs. The narrative involving Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac contains structural parallels and passages that presage the stories of future generations. The entire exercise highlights a carefully organized literary saga. The construction of the legend produces insights and deep truths that overwhelm whatever actual ancient history might be at the heart of the telling.
One final parallel: the stories of the individuals, Ishmael and Esau, and the generational line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all conclude with twelve. As God had already informed Abraham (17:20), Ishmael is described as the father of twelve sons, nisi’im [princes or chieftains] of clans who come to reside in the region south of Canaan (25:12-18). Esau’s progeny is provided in a complex section (Chapter 36) that contains at least four genealogical charts. One passage (36:9-13) tells of Esau’s three wives, lists twelve descendents by name (children and grandchildren), and adds one more child — Amalek — born to a concubine. This passage is quite similar to Jacob’s twelve sons by four women, plus one daughter.
The descriptions of Ishmael and Esau’s descendents are each placed in the text following the death and burial of their fathers. Hence, Ishmael’s story ends with Abraham, Esau’s with Isaac. The text makes no effort to record the deaths of either individual. Rather, the person becomes the people: Ishmael is replaced by the Ishmaelites and Esau by Edom. Legend is transformed into history. Whatever historical truth value can be assigned to the tales of Genesis, there is little doubt that Ishmaelites and Edomites did indeed exist.
Moving forward through Scripture thus reveals the biblical authors assessment of Ishmael and Esau (Edom) as national entities. This historical-sociological reality certainly affects in part the creation of the Genesis legend; it also has a dynamic of its own.
With only a very small number of references, Ishmael essentially disappears from the narrative. The nomadic people known as Ishmaelites are as distant from the story of the people Israel as Ishmael himself was from Isaac. Can a people who are called “those whom God hears” be so marginal to the narrative? I will return to this question later.
Esau/Edom, on the other hand, is mentioned throughout the Bible. The Edomites, unlike the Ishmaelites, are a settled people. While Ishmael’s sons were called chieftains (maybe a better term would be “sheiks”), Esau’s are kings. The land of Edom is substantially east of Israel, comprising the hill country of central and southern Jordan. Edomites also evidently claimed possession of the southern Negev (west of the Aravah rift that runs from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Eilat.
The complex of genealogies in Genesis 36 gives some insight regarding the biblical authors’ understanding of this kingdom. First, they believe that the kingdom of Edom preceded any unified kingdom in Israel. (Verse 31: “And these are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before a king reigned over the people of Israel.”) The list itself is a jumble. There is no indication of a unifying dynasty. No ruler is described as the son of the preceding king. Capital cities also move around. The overall impression is of a kingdom that is held together by strong (and/or ruthless) leaders, rather than an overarching stable political system. The comparison of the northern kingdom of Israel to Judah comes to mind.
A text that is probably older than the Genesis genealogies, the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), includes this enigmatic passage: “O Eternal, when You came forth from Seir/Advanced from the country of Edom (v. 4).” While some scholars suggest that the reference follows one opinion that Mt. Sinai is located somewhere in the hill country of Edom rather than on the Sinai peninsula, I believe one can fairly interpret the verse in line with the Genesis material. God took care of establishing Edom while the Israelites were in Egyptian servitude.
The Book of Judges, as a whole, sets out Israel’s pre-monarchical history, describing a series of conflicts with the neighboring nations. It is most telling that none of these conflicts were with Edom. Indeed, the judge Yiftah (Jephthah) justifies his battle with the Amorites by contrasting their behavior to Israel’s peaceful relationship with Edom. (Yiftah’s account is in Chapter 11, reflecting the narrative found in Numbers 20-21.)
The relationship changes significantly after the Israelite monarchy is established. The Book, II Samuel, describes David’s aggressive expansion of the kingdom, including the conquest of the lands of Edom. The Davidic “Empire,” however, does not last long. Solomon grants autonomy to most of the neighboring peoples, but does maintain control of the Negev down to Eilat.
I Kings 11 provides an intriguing narrative. The text first claims that David’s chief commander, Joab, had put all the Edomite males to the sword. Only Haddad, a member of the royal house, survived and found sanctuary with the Pharaoh in Egypt. When he learned that David had died, he petitioned the Pharaoh to permit him to return to his homeland. Pharaoh appears initially to be reluctant to let Haddad go, but relents. The anecdote — only eight verses long — brims with inverted references to Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. Haddad, like Moses, survives an attempt to put all the males to death. Pharoah treats Haddad kindly — similar to an earlier Egyptian king rewarding Joseph — going as far as finding him a wife among Egyptian nobility. Finally, Haddad goes before Pharaoh to say “let me go.” And Pharaoh complies!
The mixing of elements of the Exodus story with Haddad is worthy of its own separate analysis. In the context of this paper, we should note that the segment begins with a pronouncement of God’s anger at Solomon over his indulging his foreign wives with shrines to their gods. Solomon has become like a Pharaoh, the king of Egypt is acting like Jethro, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, and the Edomite takes the role of Moses.
I believe the overall purpose of this strange passage is to critique Solomon as he drifted (in the eyes of the author of Kings) away from his covenantal relation with God. Edom is employed — along with the inverted references to the sojourn in Egypt — in accord with Isaac’s words to Esau: “…your brother shall you serve. But when you move away, you shall break his yoke off your neck. (Gen. 27:40)” [The parallel history provided by a different author in II Chronicles 9, makes no reference to Solomon’s turning away from God, and thus has no reference to Haddad or Edom.]
Edom is mentioned briefly a few more times in the histories (both in Kings and Chronicles). Specifically, the Judean king Joram had to put down an Edomite revolt, and that a late Judean king, Amaziah, confronted and defeated an Edomite army in the “Valley of Salt.” Both of these references (II Kings 8:20 and 14:7) suggest the ongoing dispute over Negev territories that remained in Israel/Judah’s control. The Valley of Salt seems to refer to the broad canyon south of the Dead (Salt) Sea, an otherwise natural border between to the two nations. It was site of an earlier victory by David (II Sam. 8:13).
Edom is no longer mentioned in the historical narratives. The impression is left, however, that tensions over the border between the two kingdoms is never quite resolved, particularly who can claim control over the Aravah from the Dead Sea down to the Gulf of Eilat. In time, the issue was substantially rendered moot by the Babylonian conquest. The kingdom of Judah was disbanded, and while the exiled Jews were able to return to their land and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, they remained under foreign (Persian) control.
Scripture is silent regarding the fate of the bordering kingdoms — Aram, Moab and Edom, among others — that certainly were also absorbed in Nebuchanezzar’s conquests. Two books of the Prophets, however, provide a hint. As a rule, literary prophets sought to distinguish Israel’s fidelity to the one ineffable God, by engaging in a systematic condemnation of the pagan kingdoms. Thus, Edom was mostly treated as just one of the many nations deserving of reproof. (The absence of mention of Edom in the oracles of Isaiah is a curious exception.) Obadiah and Malakhai, on the other hand, specifically single it out.
Obadiah is a very short text, just 21 verses in length. The prophet, who was a contemporary of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and experienced the fall of Jerusalem, might very well have produced a much longer work, but only these verses were considered worth preserving. The focus of the entire book is therefore on condemning Edom and praying for its ultimate downfall. Malakhai is conventionally considered the last of the prophets. He preached at the time of the rebuilding of the Temple by Ezra and Nehemiah (500-450 B.C.E.), perhaps as much as a century after Obadiah. Only three chapters of the prophet’s writings are preserved (not considerably more than his older colleague), and the only nation to receive condemnation is Edom.
This focus on the part of the two prophets suggest something about the uneven treatment of Judah and Edom by the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar, in contrast to the Assyrians who destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, asserted hegemony over lands conquered by demanding tribute and obeisance, but otherwise keeping political and cultural norms in place. When Judah defied Babylonia in 597, Nebuchadnezzar deposed the king (Zedakiah), sent some of the leadership into exile, and looted the Temple, but did not upend the kingdom’s autonomy. That would occur eleven years later, after a second revolt. We may also surmise that the Babylonian ruler, removed some lands from Judah’s control and passed them on to more compliant neighboring kingdoms. Certainly, Edom could have regained the disputed lands of the Aravah. Perhaps, it received even more land after the fall of Jerusalem.
When the Persians permitted the Jews to return some fifty years later, Edom was hardly induced to give up the formerly Israelite land in possession. Again, other kingdoms might have also been beneficiaries of Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment, but they would not also be the recipients of Israel’s ire that was reserved for Edom.
Most biblical scholars will date the final editing of Genesis to roughly the time of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Both Ishmael and Esau, however, are brought to bear many centuries later. Rabbinic texts (third or fourth century C.E. and later) will encode Imperial Rome, and then the Roman-backed Church as Edom. Both Jews and Muslims, beginning in the seventh century, will connect Ishmael with Muhammad and Islam. The associations, I believe, are uncannily apt.
Referring to Christianity as Edom is, of course, purely Jewish terminology. The Church has never applied the term to itself. From the point of view of classic rabbinic thought, the designation reflects the condemnation of Esau/Edom expressed in Obadiah and Malachai. We can see in the appellation, however, a much more complex understanding of the relationship between the two faiths. Both rabbinic Judaism and Pauline Christianity arose out of the same source — biblical Israel — and are products of the theological upheaval of the first century. Fundamentally, they are twins. Their paths diverged, and yet their histories remained intertwined. Finally, Esau, who sought and indeed received a blessing from his father, nonetheless spurned the birthright. Christianity broke with the familial-historical connection to Israel, and became pure religion.
Muslim tradition holds that the Quraysh, Muhammad’s tribe, were descendants of Ishmael (Isma’il). The Qur’an asserts that Abraham (Ibrahim) journeyed with Ishmael to the region of Mecca, and rebuilt the Ka’aba, a cube-shaped structure purported initially erected by Adam and subsequently fallen into disuse.
One of the more intriguing passages in Qur’an is the retelling of the ‘Akedah, Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son. In Sura 37, the story is told in a schematic fashion, and the son’s name is never mentioned. At the beginning of the quranic passage (99-110) Abraham prays to God for a child. His prayer is fulfilled, but when the boy reaches an appropriate age (the text says, when he is old enough to work — say, thirteen), Abraham tells him of a dream in which he is commanded to sacrifice him. The boy complies as an act of obedience to God. In response to both of their faithfulness, the obligation is rescinded and a substitute provided. The story ends with the statement: “And We gave him (Abraham) the good news of Isaac…” The implication, I believe, is clear. Ishmael is the son who undergoes the threat of sacrifice, and the reward for Abraham’s faith is the birth of Isaac. (I am thankful to Rabbi Reuven Firestone, a teacher of Islamic literature, for this reading.)
The Qur’an thus imagines a reinforcing relationship between Ishmael and Isaac. (The text is silent about their mothers, who play such a central role in the Genesis account. One might note, however, the etymological connection between Hagar and Hegira, Muhammad’s escape from Mecca to Medina.) The Hebrew Scripture, in its way, also reaffirms this relationship.
Following the ‘Akedah, Isaac seems to disappear. The story concludes (22:19) by relating that both father and son returned to Beersheva, but only Abraham continued to reside there. Isaac appears again when Rebecca arrives. The text notes (24:62) that he was living in the vicinity of Be’er L’hai Ro’I, spring at which Hagar had encountered God. Isaac consummates his marriage in the tent of his late mother, Sarah, but after joining with Ishmael in burying their father, he returns to the spring (25:11). After the trauma of near-sacrifice, Isaac finds comfort with his older brother.
With the death of Abraham, as noted above, the story of Ishmael also substantially ends. Ishmaelites are mentioned in only a couple of places in the balance of the Bible. While even the Qur’an acknowledges the continued struggle of the progeny of Isaac, through Jacob, with the effort to uphold their covenant God — a history that Scripture records as filled with both righteousness and rebellion — from Ishmael to Muhammad, there is silence. Abraham’s older son did indeed receive God’s blessing, but unlike his half-brother, he somehow could not pass it on. The will and reality of the One God remained buried for roughly two millennia, until Muhammad was able to retrieve it.
~ ~ ~
Martin Buber noted that in the Hebrew Bible “the history of the world comes to us as the history of Israel.” The early history — the Genesis tales of the Patriarchs — serves to establish two overarching themes that will be followed throughout the rest of Scripture. They are the story of an idea: One God, Creator of all, transcendent and ineffable. And the story of a family that becomes a people and struggles to accept this challenging and difficult idea. In the saga of the family, two sons seem to be lost. In the cunning of history, however, it is better to suggest that Ishmael and Esau did indeed accept the covenant, but each in both similar and distinctly different ways, could only carry that idea within themselves. The loss was not of the idea, but rather of the family, the history. In time, however, through the legacy of Esau and of Ishmael, the history that was Israel did indeed become the history of the world.
Pre-Viewing Mel Gibson’s “The Passion”
“The Passion” opened on Wednesday, February 25, 2004. This essay was written before its opening. Its purpose has been to frame an understanding of the film before it is viewed, rather than critique it in a review.
It is as it was
“The Passion” was certainly one of the most discussed unreleased films in years. The chatter began last Spring, when a panel of Catholic and Jewish scholars questioned the historicity and approach reflected in a shooting script of the film. The noise grew louder as the film received viewings before selected, mostly politically and religiously conservative groups, with many Jews and liberal Christians being barred. And certainly one of the high (low!) points in the hype came with a report that Pope John Paul II had commented “It is as it was,” following a special Vatican preview. The Vatican has since denied that the Pope or anyone else had said anything, and John Paul has steadfastly maintained its own counsel since.
For a brief while, however, “it is as it was,” was seized upon as an endorsement for the veracity of the film. The first question to ask, then: can “The Passion” be deemed to be an accurate depiction of the events that took place in the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life? Before taking the question seriously, we can ask just what sort of scholarly integrity are to expect from a person whose principal stake to fame are the Lethal Weapon movies? But, let us be serious.
This question can be understood in two ways. First, does the film comport with the historical record of the events that occurred in Jerusalem in the early mid-first century? To answer this form of the question, we need to refer to reliable historical data. What have we at our disposal? The specific actions are depicted in only one source book, the Christian Bible. Normally historians do not like doing history with only one source. While the details of Jesus trial and execution are only to be found in this one record, there are other texts that can corroborate or discount the general features of the story. I will get to a discussion of this material at the end of this essay, but before doing so, let me provide the second form of the question.
Does the film comport with the details of the written record, whether that record is historically accurate or not? Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is a pretty close reading of Tolkien’s book. Obviously, 1300 pages of literature are not fully covered even by ten hours of film, and the difference between written text and film requires certain necessary liberties. Nevertheless, Jackson’s movie and Tolkien’s book are a good fit. Can we say the same about Gibson’s movie and the biblical record?
One does not have to see the film in order to recognize the problem that arises from this question. The last half-day of Jesus’ life is depicted in four separate versions: the four Gospels of the Christian Bible.
By way of comparison, consider attempting to film – say – Noah and the flood. The text for this event is to be found in Genesis, mostly chapters 6 and 7. Needless to say, this is not a historical record. Even more to the point, a close reading of the text reveals that it is actually two documents. Biblical scholars refer to them as the ‘J’ and ‘P’ documents. The two represent somewhat different traditions in the telling of the story. For instance, in one version the flood is created by forty days of continuous rain. In the other, it is caused by the bursting of the ‘walls’ that hold back the waters of the firmament above and the seas below the land. The two versions, however, have been carefully blended together by a later redactor. The editing job is good enough, that one has to be looking for the multiple documents in order to split them out one from the other. As a result, a filmmaker can produce a single coherent and reasonably accurate portrayal of the Noah story.
Now, return to the last hours of Jesus. Each of the four Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) give their own version of the events. We may note a number of points of commonality among all of them: Jesus was arrested with the involvement of Jewish leaders, Peter denies knowing Jesus, Pontius Pilate examines him, releases Barabbas, Jesus is crucified along with two revolutionaries, and his cross labels him ‘King of the Jews.’ Beyond these points, there are all sorts of variations. Further, the information provided by the Gospels in total is very schematic. I doubt one can make a full-length film from just the Genesis text, yet the story of Noah and the flood is quite detailed in comparison to any one account of Jesus’ trial and death.
I think we can conclude that no definitive narrative can be created out of the text(s) of the passion of Jesus. The film must fill out in some creative fashion the account given in the Gospels.
If the filmmaker must guess or extrapolate details, he can still claim to produce a historically accurate film. Certainly, this is Gibson’s intent, and thus we can take up the question of reliable sources. In this case, we do indeed have more than the Gospels to draw upon. There are the Latin and Greek documents that give scholars a rather full understanding of Imperial Rome in the first century. These texts do not speak directly about Jesus, and only touch incidentally on Jerusalem and Judea, but we can deduce certain truths about the role of procurators and the level of political, military and religious control exercised by the Empire. The other sources that illuminate first century Judea are—surprise!—Jewish. They include rabbinic literature (midrash, Mishna and Talmud), the historian Josephus (an invaluable source), the Dead Sea Scrolls, and some material stored in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo (known as the Cairo Genizah).
This is a wealth of material that gives us both a rich portrait of first century Roman occupied Judea, and a context in which one can evaluate the historicity of the Gospels themselves. In an addendum to this essay, I will briefly construct a historical presentation of Jesus’ trial and death. At this point, it suffices to point out the logical contradiction that Gibson faces in attempting an accurate film.
In brief, history is one thing, and theology is another. This statement cannot be truer with respect to sacred texts. Consider, for example, the ‘history’ of the Torah. There are certainly events presented in the five books of Moses that are depicted as truly happening. The authors of the Torah, however, were not eyewitnesses to these events. They trust and believe that all they wrote down actually occurred, but they also knew that the factuality of the Flood, or Joseph in Egypt, or the crossing of the Sea, was beside the point. They were not recording these events for posterity (they probably thought they did not have to bother as the stories were so popular and enduring), but rather attempting to teach in religious terms what one should learn from them. The fundamental question is not ‘what happened and how,’ but ‘what does it mean?’
The very same thing can be said about the Gospels. None of the authors were eyewitnesses to the events that happened before they were born. They accepted the factuality of the stories they had heard, but they were more interested in framing these stories within a new religious context. Again, it was not what happened, but what it means.
History, as we understand it today, did not exist as a discipline when either the Torah or the Gospels were put to writing. Historians utilize different (sometimes contradictory) techniques for drawing historical truth out of a document. A filmmaker, however, has to make a fundamental decision: either search for the historic elements of a biblical tale, or reflect one’s own expression of faith. Gibson, by his own admission, has chosen the later. In doing so, he is no longer attempting to depict what might have happened according to the best historical evidence, but rather what one should believe based on the lessons he is drawing from a theological text.
The Crucifix and the Cross
Mel Gibson is not presenting history, but this failure is not particularly important. Films might be “based on a true story,” or “suggested by true events,” and we viewers know that we are getting an imaginative depiction. What really is being revealed on the screen is the creative mind of the filmmaker. I now want to ask, what is Gibson attempting to depict, and in what way should this be a concern to Jews?
All I know about Gibson’s intent is what he has said, and I have no reason to doubt his forthrightness and honesty. First, he wants to portray as directly as possible the pain and suffering Jesus endured in his last hours. Both Romans and Jews were involved in Jesus’ death, but he claims that he wants the viewer to feel implicated as well. We all killed the messiah. This is the essence of the filmmaker’s intent. All fine and good, but we still have some fundamental problems to confront.
First, there is the intentional fallacy. Just because an author or filmmaker articulates what exactly he or she has in mind in the presentation of their work, the reader or viewer might see something quite different. What Gibson wants (and does not want) us to get out of the movie is almost beside the point. We are going to walk away from the film with our own impressions.
Gibson has been clear that he does not want to single out the Jews as primarily responsible for Jesus’ execution. On the other hand, he is not shying away from depicting Jews as being involved. How confident can he be that his presentation will be so clear that ordinary viewers will be able to distinguish between Jewish involvement and Jewish responsibility? There have been a number of reports from previewers that scenes focusing on the culpability of the High Priest, and having Pilate wash his hands of guilt, were indeed made. Frankly, I expect the final print to refrain from any explicit accusation of the Jews. [Since the film has now been released, my earlier confidence has turned out to be overly optimistic.] Yet, neither Mel Gibson nor I can predict what conclusions filmgoers are going to reach when they see any involvement of Jews at all. All I can expect is that Gibson not wash his hands of the matter, either. He cannot say, ‘I can’t control individuals reactions, that they will believe what they wish to believe.’ This statement is true, but immaterial. If people respond to the film with assertions, ‘Aha, The Passion does show that the Jews killed Jesus!” Gibson must be forthright in stating that that is a misinterpretation of his intent.
The issue of anti-Semitism is really a minor one. Those harboring anti-Jewish animus will not need the movie produced by the star of Conspiracy Theory in order to stoke their dark thoughts. If the film represents a crisis, it is not in Christian-Jewish relations, but rather in Christianity’s relationship with all non-Christians.
Western Christianity split into camps about 450 years ago: Protestant and Catholic. The Catholic Church had, and still preserves, as its dominant symbol, the crucifix. Protestants changed that symbol in a very fundamental way. They took a depiction of the dying Jesus off it, thus turning it into the cross. For non-Christians, the distinction is virtually invisible, but it is quite important. The crucifix portrays Jesus’ suffering and death as the central symbol of Christian faith, while the cross is vacant, representative of Jesus’ resurrection and salvation.
In the earliest days of the Christian Church, the notion of the risen Christ was dominant. Jesus’ resurrection was emphasized, pointing toward the imminence of the “Kingdom of Heaven.” As described by the historian, James Carroll, in his Constantine’s Sword, a shift took place when the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the official faith of the Roman Empire. Constantine himself was probably quite indifferent to the religion – his mother, Helena, however, had become a devoted seeker of Christian relics – but he did see the unifying value in bringing everyone under a single religious devotion. Moreover, by changing the focus from resurrection to crucifixion, Constantine could better demand sacrifice and risk of life on the part of his troups. The Church therefore became the Church Militant.
Nothing was more important in Christian thought than Jesus’ death. Through his suffering and sacrifice, a broken and wicked world could be redeemed. No personal sacrifice on behalf of the Church (or the king as a national embodiment of the Church) was unacceptable, and no act, including murder, on behalf of the Church was out of bounds. Fired by this article of faith, Popes could send hundreds of thousands of soldiers marching across Europe in four Crusades.
The centrality of the symbolism of the crucifix began to change under the Second Vatican Council. While crucifixes have not been replaced by crosses in Catholic Churches, the idea of love and compassion, concepts associated with the both living and resurrected Jesus, were brought forward. The Passion, with all its fierce and dark power, was either reinterpreted or, in the case of many Passion Plays, eliminated altogether.
And now Gibson has brought back the Passion with a vengeance. Life, once more, is returned to death; salvation to suffering; compassionate love to bloody sacrifice. All this in the age of clash of civilizations! It is not the Jews who have to be concerned about the passions that are aroused by “The Passion,” it is all of us infidels. As we have been told again and again, by Gibson and supporters of his film, the movie emphasizes that we all are guilty for the death of Jesus. What they do not say: us Christians, of course, have been forgiven.
In the final analysis, Mel Gibson and his passions are a Christian problem. Alas, it is dangerous and perhaps inevitable one. In these days of intense religious chauvinism and ‘clashes of civilizations,’ Christians may choose once more to wave the bloody cross of death and, not salvation, but damnation of those who do not believe. Or they may return once more the Pauline vision of rebirth and salvation. If they tend to opt for the former, all we – that is all of us who do not profess to Christian soteriology [salvation through Jesus], and perhaps even Christians who do not sufficiently believe – can do is duck.
As I noted, the conflict might be inevitable. Arrogance and demagoguery seems to be in vogue. It is not just emanating from the White House. As I write this, Vladimir Putin is consolidating his grip on Russia, and the feeble fires of democracy in Iran are barely flickering. Maybe, “The Passion” will bring these ugly passions to a head and lead to their dissipation. May it be God’s will.
Addendum: What Really Happened?
When confronting the question of trying to determine what really occurred at some time and place in history, we need to consider a pair of issues first: How do we know anything happened; in other words, that the story we have received is something more than just a story? If we are confident that the event took place, what is the method we should employ in order to distinguish fact from fiction?
In an answer to the first question, which can be framed as ‘did Jesus really live, preach and die on a Roman cross?’ I think we can say yes. First, on what basis should we disagree with the proposition? There were Jewish preachers in first century Judea (Israel), and people—maybe as many as a quarter-million inhabitants of Judea—were crucified. Second, we have a non-Gospel source of the existence of Jesus: a reference in the history written by Josephus. On to the second question, methodology.
The biblical text tells a story. The historian then attempts to evaluate the truth-value of the story. All historical accounts, we know, are a mixture of objective representation of the actual occurrence and personal bias that consciously or unconsciously alters the tale. The historian’s task is to determine just what the narrator’s biases might have been, and in what way they cause the related tale from deviating from objective truth. (Note that objective truth itself is probably impossible. After all, the historian also has biases.)
The historian might go about the task at hand by triangulating: take two or more eyewitness accounts and, in discerning their differences, determine what contributed to the distinctions, what it says about the eyewitnesses and about the event itself. A second method is contextualization: the historian places the event itself within the larger cultural and societal picture. What are the principal social and philosophical forces at a time, and how would they serve to frame the depiction of the event in question. The event of the crucifixion of Jesus requires this second method.
The Gospels are the sole depiction of the life and death of Jesus. All of them were written fully a generation or two after Jesus. Although none of the Gospel writers themselves were eyewitnesses, we can assume that they did draw upon the narrative accounts of those who knew Jesus personally, and were with him. These accounts would have been second or third-hand, but they certainly would have contained the basic features of what really occurred.
One more critical aspect of the Gospels is that between them and the actual historical Jesus was the Apostle Paul. Paul’s understanding of Jesus, which can be drawn from his Letters (Epistles) and the Book of Acts (attributed to one of the Gospel writers, Luke), is a fundamental and unmistakable influence on how all of the Gospels treated the narrative accounts they had at their disposal.
The historian’s task is to take the Gospel narratives, and utilizing all first century literature at their disposal, establish the context in which the distorting influences on the accounts can be separated from the depiction of the actual events. The “history” that I am about to provide has been taken primarily from two works: What Crucified Jesus? by Ellis Rivkin, and The Mythmaker by Hyam Maccoby. Both, the works of Jewish historians, were written in the mid-1980s, well before the current controversy. As non-Christians, Rivkin and Maccoby were capable of some critical distance. The soundness of their historical reconstruction has been affirmed by Christian scholars.
Rivkin and Maccoby take somewhat different approaches. Rivkin relies to a great extent on the writings of Josephus, while Maccoby focuses on an analysis of the Christian Scriptures. Thus, they diverge in their speculation as to what really happened. They nonetheless agree more than they disagree.
A Historical Reconstruction
The brief answer to the title of Rivkin’s book is that the Roman Imperial system crucified, not the Jews, or any particular individual or group of Jews, or even the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Jesus’ death, as was the case with every crucifixion, was a matter of Roman political calculation. All of the Gospel’s attest to a sign being affixed to the cross, “Jesus, King of the Jews.” The key word is ‘King,’ a clear indication that Jesus posed a perceived political challenge to Roman hegemony.
One may raise a few questions here: Could there nonetheless have been Jews who opposed Jesus on religious grounds, and would have attempted to frame that opposition in political terms that suited Roman interests? Is it not possible that Rome’s execution of Jesus was done in order to appease a local population during unsettled times?
The answers lie in determining whether Jesus said or did anything that Jews would consider worthy of execution. And whether Rome ever felt obligated to appease local populations. Scriptural and historical evidence suggest that in both cases it is no.
The rabbinic and other Jewish literature portrays a religiously diverse population in Judea. By the beginning of the Christian era, the Pharisees had risen to dominance. Pharisees promoted the idea of both a written Torah and an oral Torah of teachings that originated from God speaking to Moses at Sinai. They also argued on behalf of bodily resurrection for the righteous in the world-to-come. Finally, they were strong supporters of free inquiry and the value of disputation. At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were substantially divided into two schools of thought, that of Hillel and of Shammai. While the two schools agreed on written and oral Torahs and resurrection, they differed on many ideas, and even certain ritual practices. Their disagreements were not condemned, but rather celebrated. Further, while the Pharisees would have been more fundamentally opposed to the ideas of such Jewish groups as the Sadducees, whose chief proponent was the High Priest, they never engaged in any effort to suppress opposition.
The Sadducees, and the High Priest, were clearly opposed to the religious vision of the Pharisees. They, in turn, never made any effort to take advantage of any influence they had within the Imperium to oppress their opponents. If Jesus was indeed put to death because of religiously objectionable ideas, we would almost certainly have evidence within the Jewish literature of other Jews executed on similar grounds.
The real divisions within the first century Jewish community of Judea were political. They principally had to do with the dominance of Rome. Since the reign of King Herod toward the end of the previous century, Jews had been feeling keenly the loss of the political independence that had been achieved by the Maccabean revolt. Herod’s rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem was especially controversial. While the Temple was one of the largest and most magnificent buildings in the Empire outside of Rome, Jews wondered whether it was a true successor to Solomon’s structure, or a sacrilegious edifice actually attesting to the glory of Rome. The presence of an Imperial eagle over one of the gates did not help matters.
The main feature of the debate was: should Rome be confronted actively, or should Jews rely on God to bring about the restitution of Israel’s national independence? Within this overarching debate, there were a number of positions. Some supported active defiance. (By the year 66, this position won out and the Jews were in full revolt.) Some promoted a more passive resistance that entailed withdrawing as much as possible from public activity that could be construed as supporting Roman hegemony. And others sought to divide themselves intellectually and emotionally: rendering that which is Caesar’s unto Caesar, and that which is God’s unto God.
The divide between active and passive opposition to Roman rule was most significant. The ‘pacifists’ could either attempt to remain as neutral as possible regarding the activities of fellow Jews to throw the Romans out. They could promote separation of Jewish faith from the reality of Roman governance. Or they could cooperate with the Romans in order to maintain stability in the land. The High Priest was in this last camp. Josephus notes that if a High Priest tried to act independently of the Roman governor, he would be sacked from his post, and replaced with someone more pliant.
Sometime around the year 30, Jesus was caught, tried and executed for fomenting opposition to Roman rule. Depending on how you want to read the sources—here Rivkin and Maccoby diverge—Jesus was an overenthusiastic Pharisee, one who thought that he himself was the messiah (christ in Greek), in accord with some elements of Pharasaic thought, and who would lead the Jews to a newly restored commonwealth of Israel. He would not have feared the prospect of crucifixion, expecting either that God would save him before death, or bring about his resurrection in order to complete his task.
Or he might rather have been more eccentric, part of what Josephus called the Fourth Philosophy (after Pharisee, Sadducee and Essene). He was a charismatic who employed a self-image as an Elijah-like prophet, but his message was deeply pacifistic and accommodationist. Jewish tradition must be internalized as one learned to endure, Isaiah and Jeremiah-like, the indignities of Roman rule. Although his preaching did not entail opposition to Rome, his popularity and the crowds he attracted led the authorities to consider him dangerous. Given his self-identification with the biblical prophets, who were willing to suffer for the sake of God’s truth, Jesus accepted his gruesome fate.
(I stated earlier that Josephus does mention Jesus. It is a curious citation that focuses mostly on his brother James. Jesus is simply noted in passing as one who had been called a messiah. Josephus possibly knew nothing more about him or did not consider his story particularly unusual. After all, there were many others, before and after, who proclaimed themselves messiahs.)
Whether Jesus can be placed fully within or just outside the Pharisaic Movement, he would not have raised much ire among the dominant group of Jews of the time. Pharisees would certainly have engaged in argument with him, as they did with everyone else. Nothing – absolutely nothing – in Jesus’ philosophy would have been considered outside the pale of acceptable Jewish thought. This includes claims of prophecy or messiah-ship. Many Jews might have thought he was wrong, but that is quite different from considering him un-Jewish.
The High Priest and his coterie would certainly have opposed Jesus, but hardly on religious grounds. The positions of the Pharisees in general were already quite objectionable. Jesus was a threat, either by his direct challenge to Rome, or the simple disturbance he raised in the populace. The High Priest was both philosophically and by dint of self-interest concerned about docility in the Jewish population. Jesus had to go.
The decision to crucify Jesus was solely in the purview of the Roman authorities. Pilate would have had very little compunction about executing this person. He sent thousands to their deaths. Rivkin, however, gives a fascinating twist to the story of the procurator placing the onus of the execution on the Jews. It was a psychological game. Jesus had drawn a following as a purported liberator. Pilate would have considered it in his interest to get the Jews, who knew that their fate was in the procurator’s hands, to disavow publicly this self-proclaimed messiah.
A Final Word: The Twisted Tale
Jesus lived, preached and died as a Jew. His death was one of many that occurred as part of the Roman attempt to maintain control and obedience within this eastern enclave of their empire. How, then, does the Gospel tale twist to suggest that Jesus’ death was due, at least in part, to his opposition to Jewish leadership of his day?
There are two parts to an answer. One is that the Gospels were written during or after the Jewish revolt against Rome. It was in the interest of the writers to achieve some separation between their religious beliefs and those of the Jews (or, more accurately, of the leadership of the Jewish revolt. It is hard to tell whether any of the evangelists identified themselves as anything other than Jews!) For this reason, the Pharisees, already a virtually anachronistic term as the rabbinic era was coming into its own, became the principal enemies of Jesus.
The much more significant reason, however, is Paul. The Apostle Paul, who lived and preached in the generation between Jesus and the Gospels, fully altered all subsequent understandings of just who Jesus was. Paul never met Jesus. Hyam Maccoby makes a strong argument that he was a gentile from Tarsus (perhaps in Asia Minor), who grew up in a family of ‘God-fearers,’ those who believed in the One God of Israel, but did not become Jews. Paul, however, engaged in conversion, and might have become associated with the office of the High Priest, particularly as it sought to defend its interests of keeping Jews loyal, or at least docile, within the Empire.
The dramatic change came when he experienced a vision of Jesus. This was not the living Jew who preached throughout Judea, or even the one who suffered on the cross. It was a vision of the heavenly Jesus, revealed no longer as a human redeemer, but rather as the divine Savior. Paul probably knew all the stories of the charismatic leader who had been crucified, and for whom followers were still awaiting his return. The vision (and subsequent revelations) put all this history into a radically different light. Jesus’ earthly mission could no longer be understood purely in terms of Judea and Rome. It now had to be explained as being meaningful to all God-fearers, particularly those who were not Jews. In this context, Paul affected a fundamental break with Pharisaic/rabbinic Jewish thought. He proclaimed Jesus as bringing God’s blessing to those who had not accepted the Torah. Indeed, through Jesus’ sojourn on earth, the Torah itself had become superceded.
Paul’s vision, and its translation through his letters and speeches, created Christianity. One can argue that without this vision, the reality of the One God of Israel would have been far more difficult to propagate to a potentially believing gentile world. The stories of the human and wholly Jewish Jesus were also filtered through that vision, turning history into theology.
The rest is, of course, history.
Thoughts on Religion, Resentment & Rage
Certain events are seared into a collective conscience. To Americans of a certain age, you can ask, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” and they can give you a precise answer nearly forty years after the event. We know that we will be able to do the same thing with the question, “Where were you when the World Trade Center was hit?” for decades to come. These events not only become chiseled into our memories, they also serve as a shocking wake-up call, a sudden realization that certain assumptions about civilization and society have to be rethought or re-examined, or inchoate ideas and feelings now crystallize.
I was on a train traveling down the Hudson Valley toward New York City when the first of the towers began to collapse, and the train was turned around. My focus on September 11, were the upcoming Jewish High Holy Days, for which I was planning to give over a large part of my sermons to the ongoing unrest in the Middle East. My problem in constructing my remarks centered on how to draw Jewish religious values into a discussion of the political and strategic events washing over conflict between Israel and Palestine. After 9/11, my focus turned much more to the politics inherent in religious values.
Here are some observations and conclusions on religion and modernity, and the passions that arise from their not-quite mutual co-existence.
I. Modern Religion
Religion, Love and Hate
The world is filled with hate, fear, resentment and murderous rage. It is also filled with love, generosity, sacrifice and righteousness. The Israeli historian, Yehuda Bauer, in his assessment of the roots of the Holocaust, noted that human beings are the distinct species of creation capable of the greatest cruelty and the greatest compassion. Religious sentiment is apt to be at the root of both. Religion tends to promote the highest forms of doing good. It also exhorts its adherents to hate evil. And there’s the rub. Good and evil are the two sides of the same coin: the measure of one’s righteous actions is also the measure of another’s wickedness. The more intense and narrow one’s religious vision the clearer it becomes as to who should be rewarded and who punished.
This component of religion is probably universal. History has witnessed incidents of violence and destruction in the name of virtually every religious creed. Jews, of course, are hardly immune. The central issue here is not whether one religious tradition is more virtuous than another, but rather, what capacity does religious consciousness have to overcome the paradox of righteous destruction. Does religion inevitably lead to validating hatred in the name of universal love?
You might guess that I do not raise this as casual question. I like to think of myself as a religious person. Further, I would like to be more religious, more intense in my fidelity to the canons of my traditions and the values of my faith. Could it be, however, that my tolerance of others is due precisely to the fact that I am not too religious?
But what do we mean when we call one ‘religious’? We are wont to define religiosity as adherence to some doctrine or discipline. All religions have texts: either sacred literature that reflect the will of the divine, or manuals that point toward right action and right thought. These traditions are important, but they are also fixed. The more one attempts to follow literally their directions, the less one is capable of personal discretion. Hence, we tend to see the greatest intolerance and willingness to harm or denigrate others among the most orthodox of a religion.
Religion, however, is not to be found in the texts alone. Religious thought and action is also created by community—the living, dynamic interaction that constantly (if not always consciously) re-interprets and recreates the ancient norms. In Judaism, the authority of God and the authority of human will are mediated as B’rit [covenant]. The Torah is therefore extended first through the Talmud, and then interpreted over and over again in Responsa literature.
Catholicism establishes its covenant as between God and the Church, and extends it through papal pronouncements. Protestants engage in conferences and conventions. Each of these is informed as much by the real interaction of human beings—who respond to the contingent circumstances of their times and needs—as to the ultimately unchanging and timeless divine text. The more we are attentive to this aspect religious thought—finding the godly in the human—the less isolated are we, and the less suspicious and resentful of those who do not quite fit into our sacred ideals.
I have referred to these mitigating factors in Judaism and Christianity. Eastern religions, primarily Hindu and Buddhism, share some of these dynamics. What about Islam? We will come to Muslim thought in due course.
Religion and Modernity
The community that acts to mediate God’s will is a ‘sacred community,’ a community of believers. In a world awash in faith—the Middle Ages—the interaction of human beings could be reinforcing, even as it transformed ‘traditional’ thought. Then, about 500 years ago, the medieval era itself transformed into modernity. Belief was challenged, and the community fragmented. One result was the Protestant Reformation that split one group of Christian believers from the Catholic Church. But note that Protestantism fragmented as well into a variety of synods, presbyteries and creeds.
Modernity introduced something into general culture, and the results were broadly appealing. From its sources in European society, the components and features of modernity—chief of which is technological development—spread throughout the world, impacting upon and challenging every culture and social order.
The process of modernization in Europe and elsewhere was hardly smooth. Conservative and reactionary forces fought it at every step. Often found in the middle (more often, in the lead) of the opposition was religious leadership. Not only is modernity a departure from tradition, held so dear by religious expression, it is also an apparent departure from religious goals and ideals, paradigms that were articulated in the ancient (and manifestly pre-modern) sacred texts. Thus, to this day, religion is the most accessible basis, intellectually and emotionally, for opposition to modernity.
Our everyday use of language feeds into the problem, because we identify modernity with secularization, and secularization with the denial or disparagement of religion. As Reform Jews, however, we know that religion itself can modernize. How? “Modern” religion incorporates intellectual features of modernity. It does not simply take them on like sewing new pockets onto a jacket. Rather, it searches for and finds some compatibility, some resonance, between the force of modernity and the teaching of the sacred tradition. We usually call the process “reinterpretation.” In this way, the lessons and discoveries of modernity (Darwinian evolution and the antiquity of the universe are very good examples) are “found” to be present all along in the ancient texts, when they are properly read.
We can, of course, read almost anything into those texts. Shakespeare understood this when he had Antonio, the merchant of Venice, say: “The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” This is a struggle we all engage in—Jew, Gentile, liberal, conservative—how to integrate the ancient words so that they have contemporary value, and to do so with integrity that does not do violence to the text. We occasionally succeed and often fail, and we struggle on. We have, however, some tools to help us. Let me focus first on the Hebrew and Christian Bible.
The Torah and the Gospels both suggest blueprints for a “return to Eden.” They are provided within a historic context that is manifestly unredeemed. The Torah is given to a people in the midst of a wilderness. The subsequent historical narrative marks mostly the failure of Israel to live up to those demands. The Hebrew Bible thus ends with the people having returned from a punishment of exile, given the opportunity to start over again. The Christian Bible posits the condition of humankind as so far from its messianic promise that God has to sacrifice “His only Son” in order to wake humanity up to their sinfulness. Scripture concludes with a vision of some future redemption (the Book of Revelations) that has no precedence or model in human history.
For Christians and Jews, the past (and present) can only be prologue to some future ideal. The lessons of the past are mostly negative and cautionary, telling us how not to live. Although there is a recurring romanticism of some idealized “good ol’ days,” especially in deeply conservative circles, even the reactionaries have to concede that the ol’ days were only good, but not perfect. They could only be an intimation of a better future. History constantly provides lessons, but not answers. The sacred texts point toward truths that even the texts themselves do not contain. Religion therefore calls upon its adherents to transcend themselves; not only to break from sin, but also to break from the past.
This description of religion is drawn from modernity, for it employs the fundamental building block of a modern attitude: self-consciousness. In modernity we are aware of our selves. Something exists, and each of us have it, that can make determinations about truth and value (right or wrong, good or bad) that is essentially independent of everything else that exists in the universe; independent even from God! Modern religion, including most versions of Orthodoxy, accepts the reality of the self.
In the modern world, however, not all religion is modern. At this point, we need to take up the special problems and burdens of Islam.
II. Islam and the Modern West
Arab Nationalism and the Rise of Islam
There is certainly resistance to modern thought and ideals throughout the world. No entity has been more disapproving, to the point of violence, than Islam. The terror of September 11 is only the most recent and most spectacular instance of Muslim inspired attacks on Western interests. Violence in the Philippines, Indonesia, Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechnya, Macedonia, Nigeria, Sudan, Algeria and Israel, have all involved Muslims in opposition to Christian, Jewish or Western-inspired interests. Islam is, of course, as devoted to peace as any other religious system; the name of the religion itself is based on the Arabic word for ‘peace’ (sala’am, shalom in Hebrew). Yet no religion has been as deeply and consistently embroiled in wars of every kind over the past quarter century. What is going on?
Before tackling this issue, let me comment on one significant and related trend that has taken place in the Middle East, the decline of Arab nationalism in favor of Islamism. Arab nationalism and Zionism arose as popular ideologies around the same time, the beginning of the twentieth century. They were both the result of powerful Western ideological forces. Thus, both were indebted to the concept of nationalism, an idea that developed in and seized Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They gained adherents among Arabs in opposition to the colonization of the Middle East, and among Jews in reaction to the outbreak of anti-Semitism. Both imperialism and anti-Semitism were in turn ramifications of nationalism itself.
Arabs and Jews conceived of their national movements as overarching. For Jews, it made no difference where you came from or how observant a Jew you were. For Arabs, it made no difference if you were Muslim or a follower of another religion (except for Judaism, which represented a direct conflict.) In its most radical ideal conception, Zionism expected all Jews everywhere to converge and live in the Jewish State. Arabs expected to create a single Arabic-speaking nation from Spanish Morocco to Iraq.
The One-Arab-Nation ideal was powerful and enduring, promoted most persistently by Egyptian pan-nationalists, of whom the late President of Egypt, Gamal Nasser was the foremost proponent. For a brief while, Nasser was able to forge a single political entity of Egypt, Syria and Yemen—The United Arab Republic. The UAR fell apart in the 60s, and Nasser died in 1971. Pan-Arab nationalism endured, perhaps with less ardor, but continued to founder on the competing dreams of individual strongmen (Hafez ‘al-Assad of Syria, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, in particular) to be the single unifier of the Arab people.
Perhaps the 1979 revolution in Iran that brought about the fall of the Shah signaled the beginning of the end of pan-Arab nationalism. Iran is not an Arab country, but the success of the Ayatollah Khomeini represented the first serious attempt at forging a true post-colonial Muslim republic. From that point on, it was no longer pan-Arabism that would be a dominating ideology, but the broader ideal of Islam resurgent (commentators call it “Islamism” in order to distinguish it from Islam as a religious creed.)
Islamism and Arab nationalism are deeply interconnected. The Qur’an is an Arabic document that must be recited and properly studied in Arabic. Thus, Arab culture and sensibility has penetrated cultures of every country where Islam is dominant—from Indonesia to sub-Sahara Africa. In the Arab world itself, being Arab and being Muslim reinforce each other. The rise of Islam over Arabism, however, has lead to two significant developments. For one, such otherwise secular leaders as Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein have had to refocus their rhetoric in order to claim status as great protectors of Islam. Second, the status of non-Muslim Arabs, as well as non-Muslims in most Muslim nations, has been degraded, thus often engendering violent conflict.
Islam and the West
The change from pan-Arabism to Islamism has been exemplified in the September 11 attack. Whether Osama bin Laden is the mastermind behind the terror or not, we can be reasonably sure that there was a radical Muslim source. Further, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is an important stimulus, but the motivations for the attack go far deeper. This was not an attack on the United States as supporter of Israeli interests, but rather an attack on the very symbol of modern western civilization and thought.
The deep-seated conflict between Islam and the West is quite ironic. Muslim thought is borne out of the western religious tradition: Christianity and Judaism. Moreover, for the first five hundred years after Mohammed—the period that witnesses the spectacular growth and spread of the religion—Islam was the very epitome of Western thought, far more western than Europe itself. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Muslim produced some of the world’s most advanced art and architecture, technological development (particularly the hardening of iron into steel), and were the principal preservers and promulgators of the classic Greek philosophic tradition. Islamic countries from India to the Iberian Peninsula were meccas (also an irony) of tolerance and diversity. All in all, the Muslim world was centuries ahead of Christian Europe, sufficiently so that it is appropriate to call Europe during the 5-700 years following the fall of Rome as truly being in the Dark Ages.
Then it all changed. Sometime in the early 1200s, Muslim leadership turned its back on ancient Western modes of thought (just as the Christian world was beginning to embrace it), declaring it as hopelessly out of step with the ideals of Islam. The extraordinary cultural advantage of Islam began to peter away. True, powerful and culturally advanced Islamic empires were established in India and Iran as late as the sixteenth century. With respect to Europe, a last hurrah was the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in the mid-1400s. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, virtually the entire Islamic world had been colonized by Europe.
At this point, Western thought is reintroduced to the Muslim East, now in the form of secular modernity. It is fashion and food, technology, materialism and such ideas as nationalism and socialism. In brief, it is some of the most superficial and most destructive qualities of Western life.
Thoughtful and fairly observant Muslims survey the situation. What is the West? It is the source of the colonizing and demeaning of their lives and heritage. It is the purveyor of values and practices that are inimical to their culture and teachings. And it is the repository of material well being, and of individual freedom and initiative. The West is feared and envied; hated and found inexorably alluring.
What do Muslims Want?
Like Christianity, Islam is a comprehensive theological idea, and thus it is conceivable within the bounds of Islamic thought to argue that every human being needs to be Muslim in order to achieve any sort of personal salvation. Such chauvinism, like aggressive Christian missionizing, certainly exists and is heard publicized by one cleric or another now and then. Also as with Christianity, it is the subject of intense internal debate with many Muslim thinkers considering such a position at very least impolitic and impractical.
Far more common would be a notion of Muslim separatism. A Muslim might claim that all of humanity is not, nor need not, be Islamic, but Islam should have exclusive and undisputed control over the community of the faithful. The terror attack on the U.S. clearly arose out of this attitude. The ultimate aim of the attackers was to rid the Muslim world of all non-Islamic influence, whether it be the cultural and economic ‘imperialism’ of the U.S. and Europe, the presence of U.S. military bases on the soil of Saudi Arabia, or the existence of an independent Jewish State within their midst. That Americans, Europeans, Indians and East Asians choose not to become Muslim is not their concern at all. Indeed, they might be willing to establish and maintain forms of ongoing peaceful relationships with a non-Muslim world, but only if the Muslim world itself is permitted to be substantially pure.
The terrorists represent the most radical expression of this point of view; a willingness to engage in pitiless and relentless war on behalf of the purification of Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam). This however is ultimately a matter of tactics. Separatism, I believe, is fundamentally the most pervasive attitude of faithful Muslims. For the most part, Muslims prefer peace to war, and therefore will articulate their ideals in spiritual rather than physical terms. Yet, they are drawn away from the West. It remains inexorably Dar al-Harb, the House of the Sword. There simply is no place for the non-Muslim, intellectually or spiritually, within the orb of Islam.
A Modern Islam?
This is jihad. Muslim authorities repeat continuously to a non-comprehending Western population, jihad is not a military engagement with the ‘infidel,’ but rather a spiritual quest for personal purification and re-affirmation of the principals and practices of Islam. [A better term is the verb form, ijtihad, indicating that it is a process rather than an event.] Jihad, in this sense, is no more a threat to non-Muslims, than are Jews going on kallot (retreats) for the sake of reinforcing their Jewish identity. The problem, as I see it, is not jihad (except in its violent forms), but rather what happens after it. To what ends is jihad a means, or is jihad an end in itself? I have noted two attitudes on the part of the Muslim world: chauvinism and separatism. Is there anything else?
At first blush, the answer is: maybe not. The first five to seven centuries of Islam was marked by extraordinary expansion. Muslims fanned out of Arabia, bringing the teachings of Mohammed and the Qur’an to the non-Arab world. Muslim thought therefore both had to adopt elements of these foreign cultures, and adapt to being established in places where all the peoples would not necessarily convert to its teachings. During the time of its ascendancy, Muslims had little difficulty assuming an outward-looking and tolerant attitude.
Then the expansion bogged down, eventually coming to a virtual halt. Muslims, not remarkably, concluded that their lack of success was due to the acquisition of ‘foreign’ and therefore corrupting influences. This attitude marked by a severe criticism of the current state of a religion or culture is hardly unique. The cultural historian Jacques Barzun has referred to it as Primitivism. It is the perception that an enterprise has gone off on the wrong track, and thus must return to first (primitive) principles.
Martin Luther therefore attacked the Church as being deviant from the true lessons of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. Both the Hasidic movement of the eighteenth century and the Reformers of the nineteenth challenged the rabbinic establishment as misconstruing the real principles of Torah. Reform in general can be characterized by the urge to go back to the beginning in order to start over again. Muslim leadership in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries committed Islam to just this sort of Reform. Islamic Reform, however, was very different from Christian and Jewish Reform. For Jews and Christians, Reform ushered in the benefits—and very real drawbacks—of modernity. For Islam, virtually the opposite occurred. A development into modernity was thwarted.
The difference is found in the nature of the beginnings of the three faiths. The Qur’an is very similar to the Bible (Hebrew and Christian) in its visions of a model society. Unlike Moses however, who was left on the banks of the Jordan River as the Israelites began their occupation of their Promised Land, or Jesus, who died with only a few disciples following him, Mohammed emerged from the cave in which he received Scripture and created a powerful kingdom. Prof. Yvonne Yazbek Haddad, in an essay called “Current Paradigms for an Islamic Future” (in Religion and the Authority of the Past), comments about the effect on Muslim attitudes of having such an event in their past. She describes standard Muslim thinking:
“God’s final revelation, the Qur’an, is his unerring word; consequently its teachings are valid for all time and all places and binding on all Muslims for eternity. The Prophet was a perfect man, sinless; his life and works as well as his practice and teachings are guidelines for all life on earth. He established a perfect state in Medina from 622 to 632 C.E., during which time the revelation of God guided every aspect of community…Prophetic time is ideal time, and as such Muslims must constantly strive to approximate, if not replicate, its just order.
This is the burden of Islam. Unlike Jews and Christians, Muslims have a belief in the reality of a certain past: the concrete historical reign of the prophet Mohammed. Thus, the past does not merely inform and guide the future, in a fundamental way, the past is the future.
Muslims seem to be caught in a ‘time loop.’ All paths into the future lead to an idealized past. All elements of the present must be judged by the perspective of that past. Self-consciousness, the touchstone of modernity, is severely compromised. The self operates in an eternal present; it perceives everything in the context of the here and now. The past (and the future, for that matter) has no place for the conscious self. Hence, if a return to the conditions of the Prophet’s perfect state is to be achieved, the dictates of the self must be curtailed.
All religion, dependent as it is on a tradition that promotes emulation of the saints of the past, has difficulty with the modern notion of a Sovereign Self. And for good reason: the unrestrained self is a form of paganism. It is not only a challenge to religious principles, but it is, in my opinion, the basis of the worst features of the modern world: its propensity toward racism, colonialism, totalitarianism and despoliation of the environment. As noted at the beginning of my thoughts, the restrained self—in the form of community—mediates against the worst features of tradition: its propensity toward intolerance and condoning hatred in the name of love. All religious thought therefore struggles with the problem of the self. No major religion, I believe, has a greater struggle than Islam.
The intrinsic Muslim discomfort with the self leads to an inevitable confrontation with modernity. If Muslims wish to avoid actual struggle—and who wants to fight all the time—then the obvious solution is self-isolation.
Throughout the world, we see evidence of Muslims wanting to be left alone. There are political and military struggles in diverse places as Chechnya, Albania, Western China and the Philippines. There are also the sophisticated intellectual arguments for Islamic authenticity that entail a non-reductive opposition to Western thought. Yet, the globe has shrunk. Muslim separatism has become increasingly impossible. For better or for ill, the forces of modernity have seeped into every corner of the globe, bringing technological development, cultural diversity and corruption, if you will, of tradition.
What do many Muslims do? They compartmentalize, attempting to define and restrict the features of modernity to some limited aspect of their lives. Compartmentalization, however, is violative of personal integrity. The result is often corrosive. Iran attempted both to establish a pure Shi’ite Republic and to continue its participation in the world energy market. The result is often lethally divided government. Yet, Iran is far better off than the repressive societies that mark virtually the entire Arab world, each of which struggles mightily with the “pact with the Devil” they have made in attempting to manage some economic and political relationship with the modern West.
A Modern Islam!
Much of the Muslim world is dominated by the orthodoxy of a seven-hundred-year tradition that views the contributions of the West with suspicion and scorn. That orthodoxy, however, has now been confronted with the fruits of its own contradictions. The freedoms and material benefits of modern western life are extraordinarily alluring. Muslims, along with the rest of the world, are drawn to it, even as their faith teaches them to reject these ‘gifts’ as inexorably corrupting. Islam leaves them suspended between envy and fear, attraction and repulsion. What an excellent formula for resentment, depression and murderous rage!
While this rage was directed mostly at the edges of modern Europe—in the Balkans and Russia, or in Muslim lands over and against authoritarian and secularized leadership (think especially of the late Shah of Iran), or even against Israel—it could be substantially ignored or rationalized. Now it has been directed in the most spectacular fashion against the symbols of the Modern West, its military and economic might. It can no longer be ignored.
The attack, however, is not as much a crisis for the West as it is for Islam. The terror of September 11 was very upsetting. It shattered lives and disrupted a national economy. Yet, in the full scheme of things, it was a pinprick. New York City, the nation as a whole and the modern world will recover rather easily. Within a month of the tragedy, most of the city and the country had returned to normal social and economic activity. Not everything, however, returns to normal. Western society can no longer remain oblivious to the rage smoldering in the heart of the Muslim world. And this is where the crisis for Islam begins. The Muslim world can no longer be oblivious to the rage residing at its heart either.
This rage cannot be assuaged by the West. While the anger and resentment continues to exist, all the West can do is defend itself. (The means of defense is hardly military alone. The easiest line is and has been economic. We—the modern West—will continue to pay the Muslim world off, and to overwhelm them with the superficial but irresistibly attractive baubles of fast food, escapist entertainment, knock-off fashions and the like. I do not mean any of this in a derogatory way. It is simply the path of least resistance.) Ultimately Islam must cure itself. It must find a way of making peace with modernity.
The good news is that the effort has already begun. The voices are few and far between, and more often than not, they are being drowned by conventional thought. Moreover, the task is daunting. Professor Haddad described in her essay how difficult it has been for Muslim intellectuals to have any influence in the Middle East:
Caught between renaissance and reformation, between the critical study of history and events and the confinement of orthodoxy, the Muslim intellectual found the prevailing atmosphere stifling…The task of intellectual reflection, especially using the rational methodologies developed in the modern West, is an increasingly problematic business in the Islamic world…[Arab intellectuals] have been caught in a pincer of fear between the politicians, who are suspicious of their endeavors, and the masses, who are not ready for their intellectual output.
Haddad does not state explicitly but implies that intellectuals are not only the objects of suspicion, but have also become suspicious of themselves. As committed Muslims, they are as weighed down by the past as anyone else. The past keeps steering intellectual reflection away from the modern West: “the real issue…is whether the quest for an authentic Islamic life in the modern world can be grounded in any authority but Islam.” When the answer is ‘no,’ Islam becomes its own standard of evaluation. It is wholly self-referential, resisting everything outside of it, learning nothing.
This critique can be laid at the feet of all fundamentalisms, but that is not the point. In Christianity and Judaism, fundamentalism is opposed by a substantial movement toward liberalism. The two poles—liberal and orthodox—then act in a dynamic relationship so that the total religious enterprise neither neglects the timeless verities of its tradition nor turns its back on the ongoing march of everyday people through history. Islam has resisted the establishment of a liberal movement.
Such a movement must answer ‘yes’ to the “real issue” noted above, and this means the application of the same sort of scholarship that questioned and evaluated the divine origins of Jewish and Christian Scripture, be brought to bear on the Qur’an. This scholarship, moreover, must not only take place in the university—so manifestly an institution associated with the modern West—but also in recognized Muslim seminaries. Yet, despite all the difficulties and countervailing forces, just such scholarship is taking place. I personally hope that, following the profound shock of September 11, more thoughtful Muslims will begin to listen to these voices.
Violence represents the rawest of emotions. This is no less true for the counterviolence that an initial attack might create. Highjacked airliners slam into the towers of the World Trade Center produce enough grim anger to send bombs slamming into the Afghan countryside. Anger, however, is not the only feeling pervading our post-9/11 existence. Most of us feel revulsion; a fundamental sense of aversion to the rage and the violence that feeds upon it. We want to reach out, not in order to strike someone, but rather to engage with them in some expression of common concern and empathy.
We know we feel it, and we know Muslims in our community feel it as well. The events of September 11 have created a unique opportunity to take advantage of the experience of an abstract evil that has thrown us together. Over the past century, Jews in America have moved from being practitioners of minority religion to participants in a “Judeo-Christian” heritage. We no longer feel that we adhere to exotic practices or beliefs. Muslims, however, are exotic; that is, until 9/11. The Muslim community can no longer be treated as somehow separate from the fabric of American culture. The Muslims, in turn, can no longer treat themselves as separate either.
The time for dialogue and engagement has begun. Resentment and rage must be replaced by understanding and acceptance. In the words of sage Hillel: If not now, when?
A Parliament of Voices
The State of Interfaith Dialogue
This paper was written as a report on behalf of the Dialogue Committee for the Parliament on World Religions. The Parliament was held in 1993 as a centenary celebration of the first World Parliament of Religions which was part of the Chicago Columbia Exposition. The Dialogue Committee, which I chaired from 1989-91, brought together Jews, Christians (Catholic and Protestant), Unitarians, Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Bahai, Native Americans and Theosophists, who discussed and implemented interfaith dialogues in preparation and promotion of the Parliament itself.
Given the increased interest in reaching out over religious and denominational lines engendered by the terror attack of September 11 and its aftermath, I have edited the original report and offer it as a call for renewed and effective dialogues among faith communities today.
A very early “Peanuts” comic depicted two girls conversing about the latest exploits of Charlie Brown. One told the other how she had watched Charlie being chased by older kids across the schoolyard when, all of a sudden, he turned around and organized them into a discussion group! For a long time, I have sensed that those who have engaged in interfaith dialogue are following the path of Charlie Brown: attempting to turn historic and often natural hostilities into opportunities for interchange and growth.
Dialogue between members of different faith communities, in the fashion to which I am referring, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Opposing religions, on the other hand, have been in direct contact with each other for millennia. These encounters can be categorized as mostly competitive. There were disputations, in which one faith would attempt to argue its superiority of philosophy and practice over that of another. There were ritualized contacts, principally established by a dominant religious authority, that would define or delimit the rights and prerogatives of other faith communities within its domain. And there were religious wars. None of these of encounters could be typified as mutual. Even when the purpose of meeting was not overtly hostile, the agenda of the two (or more) communities were rarely the same.
A significant example of such multiple purposes in interreligious encounter is the World’s Parliament of Religions, convened as part of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. The World Parliament was a unique and watershed event It typified, on the one hand, the classic mode of interfaith assembly, and yet portended, on the other, new models for contact among religions.
The World’s Parliament of Religions was one of a series of World Congresses that were planned for the World’s Fair that would mark the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World. Its organizers, led by the Rev. John Henry Barrows of Chicago’s First Presbyterian Church, saw the Parliament as an opportunity to showcase the moral and technological superiority of the West, highlighted by liberal Protestantism, to the benighted adherents of more conservative forms of Christianity and to the Eastern faiths. Representatives of non-Western religions—particularly Vedantist Hinduism and Sinhalese Buddhism—seized the opportunity afforded by the Parliament in a very different way. For them, it was a chance to engage in an internal dialogue between the tenets of their ancient faiths and the demands of modernity.
The Parliament was an enormous success. The eight days of speeches and presentations proceeded with very little tension and discord. About 4,000 people, mostly Midwesterners of course, attended the various meetings. For virtually all of them, it was their first contact with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Bahai (which had only recently been organized) and even Jews. Given the cross-purposes that representatives gave to their participation, the World’s Parliament of Religions could hardly be called an exercise in interfaith dialogue. It undoubtedly laid the groundwork for such efforts to take place in the Twentieth Century.
There have been sincere and sophisticated projects in interreligious dialogue for the past few decades. In the United States and Western Europe, in particular, advanced work has been done in Christian/Jewish encounter. A library can be filled with books detailing dialogue among Jews, Catholics, mainstream Protestant and evangelical Churches. At the same time, conferences and colloquia of delegates from religious judicatories representing many of the world’s religions have met with increasing frequency, in order to discuss common concerns of faith, reconciliation and peace.
Far more rare are dialogues that reach out, both beyond the familiar confines of Christians and Jews—to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahai and Native Americans, for instance—and also go beyond religious leaders and scholars, in order to bring in the interests and spiritual sensibilities of the layperson. While a large body of literature exists that both enumerates the principles of dialogue and discusses the scholarly underpinnings (theology/philosophy, sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc.) of comparative religion, it has rarely been brought to bear when ‘normal’ (non-scholar and non-professional) adherents of religions outside of Judaism and Christianity are brought into the encounter. Here are some of the fundamental issues that true interfaith dialogue must confront.
Secular vs. Religious
Among the most significant literature pertaining to interfaith dialogue is the correspondence between Franz Rosenzweig and his cousin and teacher, Eugen Rosenstock. Writing to each other during the early years of World War I, Rosenzweig would become one of the seminal modern Jewish philosophers, and Rosenstock would make an impact as a liberal Christian thinker and religious novelist. While they sought to defend and explain their own religious positions, they also implicitly recognized that the real issue was not one of Judaism versus Christianity, but rather that of Religion versus Paganism.
All individuals who engage in interfaith dialogue—particularly non-professionals—must recognize that their encounter takes place in the context of a secularized world; a world which suffuses and informs most of their own lives. The benefits of secularization are undeniable. They include the encouragement of pluralistic democracy, economic expansion and technological innovation. Secularization, on the other hand, has led to almost unbearable contradictions in terms of values and purposes; the results of which have been an explosion of violence that have made the twentieth century the bloodiest in history.
And what about Religion? Religious identity and expression has been placed in a most uncomfortable and paradoxical position. In Western style culture (which has for the most part been successfully promulgated throughout the world), religion has been privatized and isolated. Religious practice and thought is separated out of other spheres of everyday existence: political, economic, educational and even social. The spiritual life is set in opposition to the practical life. Those who wish to resist the advances of Western secularized culture tend to follow one of two courses. They either isolate themselves from society, or they turn to a conservative and militant religious structure that gives them both a value system and the organizing forces needed in order to combat the enticements of Modernity. The result of these twin poles of fragmentation and reaction is that Religion, as a political or intellectual force, acts as either the foundation for destructive, violent or hate-filled chauvinism, or as a polite irrelevance. Both roles can be understood as the result of the triumphs of modern paganism.
The contemporary interfaith dialogue must therefore seek to help participants see themselves as not just adherents of a particular faith community, but rather as religious beings in a world that tends to demean or demonize religiosity. All modern religions consider Peace, Justice and Reconciliation to be of the highest value, and yet religion is so often identified as the impetus for conflict. I believe that this sad state of affairs might be overcome, at least in part, through the sort of religious/secular integration that takes place in dialogue.
Comparisons and Contrasts
What is the purpose of interfaith dialogue? A better question is: What should the purposes of interfaith dialogue be? Undoubtedly, a common goal is found in learning something about another’s religion. This practice of information sharing is necessary and valuable, but it is only the most preliminary element of any truly useful dialogic engagement. Much of the data regarding a religion—its basic beliefs, sacred calendar, method of worship, rites and rituals—can be obtained from a book.
More significant, however, discussion about the religion is impersonal; an obstacle to dialogue. When questions of the form: “What does your religion say about…?” or “How does your religion deal with…?” are posed, they are inevitably answered by participating clergy. After all, who knows more about the history, thought and practice of the denomination in question? The religious leader (minister, rabbi, imam, monk, priest, etc.) moreover, is not so much answering as a professing member of the faith, but rather as an official spokesperson. He or she has simply taken the role of a talking book.
Dialogue is not between religions. It is among people who identify as and adhere to the tenets of particular religions. When the dialogue program recognizes this obvious but often overlooked feature, then the encounter may begin to find its central purposes. Each interfaith encounter has to create its own purpose for being, but the objectives can nonetheless be generalized into a few key concepts.
First, the dialogue is built on the awareness of commonalities. It may seem a banal observation to note that all participants in the dialogue share in humanity. Yet it is through one’s humanness that one feels the fundamental need for rootedness, a context for existence, ways of articulating answers to the near-inarticulate question of “Why . . . anything?”
It is here that dialogue begins. At first glance, what could be so radically different as—say—Christianity and Hinduism? Yet, the similarities become apparent when a Christian and a Hindu, each responding through their faith to the most basic issues of humanity, come in contact. Precisely when we find the common questions—for instance: How do I deal with my mortality? What do I do to impart faithfulness to my children? What am I attempting to do when I engage in meditation or prayer?—then the encounter moves from teaching and learning, and it becomes dialogue.
Comparisons of religious tenets and practices, however, are only a beginning. However much the participants might be fundamentally alike, the striking feature of dialogue is the differences, and it is in the differences that the purpose of dialogue is manifested.
Difference is the great paradox and challenge for dialogue. In the final analysis, the distinctions among adherents of various faith systems are quite arbitrary. They do not represent biological characteristics such as the color of one’s hair or skin. For the most part, they are the result of accidents of birth into a certain culture, family or society. Or, particularly in the case of converts, an ineluctable spiritual disposition toward a certain tradition and practice. One cannot make a sound argument for exactly why, in a democratic, non-coercive society, I am a Jew, and you—for example—are Buddhist. This is simply the case.
The challenge for dialogue is therefore to avoid the liberal and natural effort of attempting to bend the two faith systems toward some admixture that would represent “the best qualities of both.” It is a fruitless, misleading and potentially divisive task. Dialogue must rather be an act of reconciliation; a coming to grips with the very reality of the different way of thinking and being human that is represented by the dialogue partner.
Dealing with differences is the most difficult element of the interfaith dialogue process. Virtually every theological structure is predicated on the notion that it contains a pathway to fundamental Truth. How can my faith system permit yours to be anything but, at very best, an approximation of the way to Truth, and—more likely—a misleading deviation from godliness?
Participating in a dialogue therefore requires a critical frame of reference. The participant must be prepared to uphold commonality, but reject universality. Commonality, as noted above, is the acceptance of the common humanity of the dialogue partners, and thus the ability to engage in a mutually understandable conversation. Universality—the promotion of certain ideas, concepts and perhaps even practices as binding on all people—on the other hand, serves to change dialogue into negotiation or confrontation.
The key to successful interfaith dialogue, then, is found in an acceptance of particularism. And a sure purpose of the experience becomes finding a way to be at peace with one’s own articulation of faith in a world where the majority of humankind believes otherwise.
A Call to Dialogue
This is the everyday condition of virtually every American and an increasing number in the world: one’s normal contacts and interactions brings one constantly before someone of another faith community. Are each of these encounters occasions for interfaith dialogue? Hardly, but it does give one pause.
So much is lost in the inability to dialogue. We tend hear another’s expression of religious concern as a challenge or threat, and therefore learn to repress our own spiritual needs and quests. Public discourse remains adamantly secular, and religious speech is either private or reviled. The circumstance is not only sad—that opportunities for interpersonal contact is lost—but it can also be lethal. Even before the events of September 11, we witnessed interfaith violence (Kashmir, Nigeria, Indonesia, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and even scattered incidents throughout North America) betraying an unwillingness and inability simply to talk.
Real dialogue is not easy. In over twenty-five years of involvement in interfaith encounter, only a few dialogues that I have either formed or participated in could be evaluated as truly successful. Both sides must be willing to open themselves up; to hear the sincerity of expression in the other, and to respond with sincerity—that is, with self-honesty—themselves. Those that worked, however, made all the efforts worthwhile. While dialogue is demanding, starting one is not. All it takes is making the private—our interior religious needs and interests—public.
And all it takes is willingness to begin.
Talking to Christians
Suppose you have a long-time neighbor who has, more often than not, treated you shabbily. The neighbor has occasionally insulted you, belittled you, even sometimes has caused bodily harm. These indignities highlight a long history of cordial, if distant relations, with a few instances of generous kindness thrown in. Then, one day, the neighbor comes up to you and announces that he has become acutely aware of his poor behavior. He has been giving some thought toward understanding the roots of that behavior, and he promises to be much more warm, pleasant and supporting of you in the future. Indeed, there does seem to be some indication of a change. Now, what should you do?
I believe most considerate people would say that one should acknowledge the neighbor’s change for the better. This is easy; but what do you say, and when do you say it? After all, the neighbor really hurt you, spiritually, emotionally and physically. Is the profession to change, and the actually changes you have seen enough to warrant an acknowledgment that now things are really different? Perhaps, you should wait a little longer in order to see if the new behavior is not a temporary aberration. Or, maybe you should merely nod, a bare acknowledgment of the apparent situation in order to encourage continued good behavior. Or do you simply do “the right thing” and forthrightly state your appreciation for your neighbor’s good sense and change of heart.
Sometime over the past summer, a group of Jewish leaders and scholars decided to follow the last option. In a full page spread in Sunday (Sept. 10) New York Times, a distinguished group of Rabbis and Jewish academicians organized by the Institute for Jewish & Christian Studies published a declaration they called Dabru Emet [Speak Truth]: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity (you can find the entire document and some reactions to it by putting doing a ‘Google’ search). The declaration was composed by four distinguished academicians and signed by a variety of rabbis and Jewish professors from Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist backgrounds. (A personal aside: The Director of the Institute, Rabbi David Sandmel, was a student of mine in the late 1970’s at Ohio State University.) Let me summarize the document, suggest reasons for the timing of the document, and provide a critique of it. From the onset I should note that I would have signed the Statement. A number of individuals prominent in the field of Jewish-Christian relations did not sign it, suggesting that the Statement does not have universal approval.
Summary of Dabru Emet
Dabru Emetcomprises a preamble and eight assertions regarding the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The preamble explains why the statement was composed in the first place. It notes, as alluded above, that Christianity’s historic attitude toward Judaism has been none too good: “Christians have tended to characterize Judaism as a failed religion or, at best, a religion that prepared the way for, and is completed in, Christianity.” Over the last 40 years, many Christian denominations have engaged in a formal reassessment of their theological stance regarding Judaism, and have renounced their historical positions. Most prominent among these Church projects has been the work of the Catholics, beginning with the seminal 1965 Vatican pronouncement, Nostra Aetate. Since then, Catholics have issued further statements refining and promoting their respect and acceptance of Judaism as an appropriate religious expression for Jews, and a number of Protestant authorities—Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and others—have followed suit with declarations of their own. In the light of this background, the Statement declares: “We believe these changes merit a thoughtful Jewish response.”
The Statement goes on to assert eight points: 1) Jews and Christians worship the same God; 2) Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book (Bible); 3) Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel; 4) Jewish and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah; 5) Nazism was not a Christian Phenomenon; 6) The Humanly Irreconcilable Difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture; 7) A new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice; 8) Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace.
The preamble thus gives a general motivation for the creation of the Statement. I believe we can surmise why the declaration was publicly issued in September, 2000. The choice of September, I believe, most relates to the Hebrew month of Elul, a traditional Jewish time for introspection and reflection (heshbon hanefesh). 2000 is also, of course, a millennial year with some significance to Christians.
We can add one more unstated motivation for the Statement. While Christian groups, particularly the Catholic Church, have moved forthrightly and dramatically away from their historic positions of “perfidious Jews” and “Christ-killers,” a number of prominent Jews and organizations continue to fault the Churches for not doing enough. The Churches are criticized for any professed support of Palestinian national rights, or are viewed suspiciously as engaging in pro-Jewish sentiments as part of a tactic in their missionary efforts to convert Jews.
The Vatican is especially attacked. As the most formally organized of Western Christian organizations, it is viewed as giving with one hand and taking with the other. Nostra Aetate and subsequent papal pronouncements are deemed as weak and hesitant. Recent Church apologies regarding their role during the Holocaust and the Pope’s visit to Israel are attacked as not going far enough. The critics then feel that their suspicions regarding the sincerity of the Church is confirmed when it raises Edith Stein (the Jewish-born nun who died in a Nazi death camp) to sainthood, and beatifies Pope Pius IX, who at very best was insensitive to the Jews.
“Two Jews, three opinions!” The Jewish community is hardly equipped to speak with one voice, and the carping at Catholic Church and Christianity in general is not without either emotional or substantive merit. The loudest voices among Jews seem to be the skeptics and naysayers, thus those who do recognize considerable improvement in Jewish-Christian relations over the past few decades feel that something public had to be said.
Determining an Audience
Dabru Emet is written in plain and forthright language. Although a whole library can be filled with volumes on Christian-Jewish relations, the Statement avoids engaging in qualification and complex expressions that might better reflect the variety of Christian and Jewish approaches to mutual interaction and dialogue as they really exist. The strength of the document is its simple and fundamental analysis of the relationship between Christians and Jews. Its weakness can be found in the same thing; as a straightforward basic message, it necessarily leaves out much of the subtleties that must characterize Christian-Jewish dialogue.
I would guess that the authors of the Statement did indeed give careful consideration to what the document would and would not say. The principal concern was to articulate that major Christian groups have made significant steps in reworking historic and damaging theological attitudes toward Jews and Judaism, and that both Christians and Jews should be aware of the common basis for continued dialogue and cooperation. With a full page in the New York Times, the authors and the organizing group (Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies) are clearly attempting to speak to both Christians and Jews. Moreover, I believe the authors are assuming that its target audience is among the more thoughtful members of their respective faith communities.
This assumption is a critical one because it allows the Statement to communicate certain issues and challenges without actually saying them. To state them would have moved the document away from its basic purpose of what fundamentally connects Christians and Jews, to what has yet to be worked out. Assumptions are dangerous things. When they are misplaced one’s purpose is usually not only thwarted but backfires. Some very prominent Jewish leaders therefore probably chose not to sign on to this Statement because they were not prepared to accept the thoughtfulness of its readership.
Issues and Challenges
Dabru Emet is a foundation text. As much is indicated at the bottom of the NY Times ad, where readers are invited to explore an expanded discussion of the issues in a book edited by the document’s four authors and Rabbi Sandmel. We are not supposed simply to read the Statement and say “that’s that,” but rather use it as a basis for further discussion.
I will therefore conclude with a few remarks on the more salient discussion points. (I hope and expect that these comments are covered in the book mentioned above.)
1. Christian and Jewish vs. Christian and Jew. The document is entitled “A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity.” It then speaks to Christians as members of a Christian Church; that is, as human beings who profess to Christianity. In return, it purported to be on behalf of Jews, meaning those human beings who profess to Judaism. Thus, the entire document operates within the realm of theology. This leaves unsaid the intrinsic asymmetry between the terms “Christian” and “Jew.” In brief, any person, regardless of birth, nationality, culture or language can potentially be Christians if only they will profess to a certain set of beliefs, while on the other hand, there is a set of people who, regardless of nationality, culture, language or even belief (within certain limits), are deemed to be Jews.
One can only compare apples to apples, so the document must frame Jews and Christians as members of two faith communities. Yet the asymmetry is nonetheless indicated in two of the more controversial points of the Statement.
2. Christians and Israel. The Statement declares that “many Christians support the State of Israel for reasons far more profound than mere politics.” What does this mean? A number of conservative Christian denominations hold on to apocalyptic dreams of the “end of the days” being ushered in by the return of Jews to the Holy Land. In this context, Jews are just an instrument of a Christian eschatological creed, leaving open the assertion that the Jewish religion has failed, or at best been succeeded. Yet, when Christians set aside this sort of thinking, just what is their religious (as opposed to political) understanding of the relationship of Jews to Israel?
Pope John Paul II’s visit to Israel in spring 2000 highlights the ambivalence of both the Catholic and the mainline Protestant Churches toward the Jewish State. Save for Pope Paul VI’s virtual clandestine pass through the Mandelbaum Gate that divided Jerusalem in 1965, John Paul’s trip was the first formal papal visit. This visit not only came 52 years after the founding of the State, but over 20 years into the administration of the most traveled Pope in history. The Churches are clearly uncomfortable with the existence of Israel.
This difficulty is less with Jews and Judaism than with the notion of a Jewish State. In the minds of many well-meaning, liberal and humanistic Christians, Israel is a confessional State. That is, it is Jewish in the same way that the ayatollah’s Iran and the Taliban’s Afghanistan are Moslem, or the American religious Right would like the U.S. to be Christian. This is the understanding of Israel as the State of Jews as a faith community. Most Jews recognize, however, that the Zionist enterprise does not proceed from the claims of a Jewish religion, but rather from the self-understanding of the Jews as a historic People.
Thus, when the authors of the Statement assert that “Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish People upon the Land of Israel,” I believe they are actually challenging Christians to work through theologically the covenanted claim of the People Israel on a certain land, as opposed to the control by the Jewish faith community of a certain State.
3. Christianity and the Holocaust. Perhaps the most controversial assertion in the Statement is: “Nazism was not a Christian Phenomenon.” If the authors of the document are challenging Christians regarding Israel, they are challenging Jews with respect to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. The Statement hardly hides the historic reality of Christian anti-Jewish animus, but the virulent anti-Semitism of the twentieth century was fueled more from non-Christian forces. National Socialism in Germany drew its worldview, and with it, its murderous attitude toward Jews, from a twisted reworking of pagan sources. The Catholic and other Churches can be appropriately indicted for dishonorable action during the years of the Third Reich. One can even argue that the Churches, in their apologies, still have not fully come to grips with their wrongs. But, Jews do have to distinguish between Nazis and the Church.
The Statement, however, is probably too circumspect in describing Christian culpability. It sets out that Christianity traditionally viewed Judaism as either failed or succeeded. It says nothing about Christianity’s attitude toward Jews: from the Christian point of view were Jews merely stubbornly in error, or were they congenitally sinful? There is ample historic evidence that the Church’s position occasionally strayed into the latter. And it is precisely this determination regarding the intrinsic character of the Jew that provided the roots of modern anti-Semitism.
All this being said, the Statement in distinguishing between Nazi philosophy and traditional Christianity challenges Jews to distinguish between what is contingent and what is inherent in Christian thought. Church teaching can degenerate into anti-Semitism—the theological groundwork for such an attitude does exist in Christian Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers—but it does not have to. Judaism is clearly a theological problem for Christians, in a fashion unique from Christian attitudes toward all other faith communities. It is a problem that most Churches have gone a long way to solve. The Statement notes to us that even if we believe they still have a way to go, the Jewish community ought to acknowledge the steps have been taken.
The Last Word
The eighth point in the Statement is a call for Christians and Jews to work together on behalf of justice and peace. This might strike some as platitudinous. I believe however that it has a more serious purpose. In the modern world, the greatest challenge to liberal Christians and Jews (the Statement is addressing them—us—and not the more Orthodox/Fundamentalist elements) is not their attitude toward each other, but rather how to maintain their religious convictions in a secular world.
We live in a world that tends either to demonize religion or render it irrelevant. Thus, violence and terror, such as in Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Indonesia, the former Yugoslavia or the Middle East, is connected to religious passions. This is certainly a problem, but individuals of a more liberal religious bent have the opposite concern. Consider the repeated response to Joseph Lieberman’s frequent comments about religion in public life: Not all religious people are moral, and not all moral people are religious. True enough, but then we must ask: Does being religious in modern secular society make any difference at all?
That is the final challenge of the Statement Dabru Emet to both Jews and Christians. Has religion today been reduced to personal piety, or is it the basis for redeeming an unredeemed world? You—Jews who have committed yourselves to a liberal synagogue—are invited to work this issue out.
After the Fall
Taking Stock of a Mid-Term Election
Here are a few relevant pieces of information from the 2010 election:
Much of these points of data can be explained by common sense and following conventional historical trends. The party out of power almost always wins the mid-term election. Electoral interests are highest during Presidential years, and then drop off significantly. Only those who are particularly motivated do vote, and those most motivated are the opposition, wishing to recoup the losses of the last election. Occasionally, the inevitable drop in support is mitigated by good economic conditions. It is only exacerbated by a lousy economy. Assuming there are no disasters in the next two years, the Democrats will rebound; not necessarily recapturing the House and maintaining the White House, but certainly adding more seats than they have now.
Jews remain overwhelmingly liberal. I have discussed this phenomenon before. [See “Notes on a Silly Season.”] Usually, a significant drop in support for Democrats — and this year is one — can be connected to that portion of Jews who consider support for Israel tantamount, and wish to “punish” a President who is being less than supportive. Obama, particularly in light of his rocky relationship with the Netanyahu government, has consistently been challenged — mostly unfairly — on his pro-Israel bona fides. Compare this year with 1980. Reagan captured nearly 40% of the Jewish vote, when Carter was perceived as been at best indifferent to Israel’s well-being. In 1984, although Reagan had been rather good to Israel, and the overall American economy was doing well, his Jewish support dropped. Consistent Republican support for Israel has been much more dependent upon their own base of conservative Christian Zionists.
Tea Party Muddle
The most dramatic development in this year’s campaign has been the rise of a loosely organized faction, the Tea Party. Although no more than 15-20% of the electorate, they have had a powerful impact on the Republican Party and the government in general. Tea Partiers are mostly operating from impressions and feelings. This comment is not presented as an insult. As I have noted, most Americans have better things to do than give a great deal of thought to politics and governance. Virtually all of us have voted for individuals although bereft of much information about them or their policy positions.
In the case of the Tea Party, the principal feeling they carry is that government is too big and too intrusive. They also sense that it is corrupt, tending to prop up those with great wealth and influence, before doing anything for the “little guy.” The evidence for these attitudes has been in the huge sums given out by the Federal government for bailouts and stimulus plans that have driven up the budgetary deficit. Further, there was the battle for health care reform — dubbed mostly by its opponents as Obamacare — that: 1. appeared to be corrupted by the open process of deal-making and compromises, a process that in the past might have happened by closed doors; 2. the legislation that demands everyone carry insurance, which seems to be an imposition on individual choice; and 3. the plans to make the entire package affordable by finding savings in the Medicare programs of roughly $500 billion over the next decade.
All of these observations are basically correct. The Tea Party Movement would probably have petered out shortly after the healthcare legislation had been signed if the economy, particularly employment, began to grow. In the absence of any significant sense of a “bang for the buck,” the Movement now represents an influential, perhaps determining, block within the Republican Party.
Tea Party positions are hardly internally consistent, as typified by the slogan, get your government’s hands off my Medicare. The Movement has backed itself into a corner by pushing for balanced budgets but with tax cuts and preservation of that $500 billion in Medicare. The devil might be, as usual, in the details, but the general impression endures; government is out-of-control, too big and destructive of our personal freedom. We are left with some important questions: Is government too big? Can it be too big? Can it be too small?
I think that traditional Jewish thought is useful in this discussion, but not in a conventional way. One of my essays (“Mine and Yours”) analyzes a classic rabbinic position on personal and communal ownership. The mishnaic era (3rd to 5th century C.E.) text shows a clear though qualified bias toward communal practice. The ideal system, the Sages suggest, is that of the kibbutz. Later rabbinic literature moves away from this ideal, responding to the needs of a competitive market. Indeed, the principles of capitalism are fairly enshrined in medieval Jewish practice.
From the start, a communal socialistic economy was an ideal; as the text says, this is the way of the saint. A community of saints, or at least a relatively small community can sustain an ideal communal existence. Larger systems, particularly mixed ones that involve market contact among strangers, cannot be sustained this way, at least if there is going to be any personal freedom and choice of opportunity.
Taken as a whole, the Jewish thinking on communal and personal ownership creates a scale. When the society is small and relatively simple — an agrarian (farmer) or pastoral (herder) community — the organization can be either libertarian or communalistic. Either, everyone is substantially responsible only for themselves or their families, or everyone is responsible for everyone. The rabbis prefer, but do not mandate, the latter. As societies grow larger and more complex, neither the pure libertarian nor pure socialistic alternative is possible. When the common order (government) gets too large, it becomes oppressive. When it gets too small, it starves everyone but the wealthiest from needed services.
The Tea Partiers, I think, might actually recognize this acute balancing act between socialist and libertarians. They sense that government can get too large and intrusive, but with their fears about a cut in Medicare, they also sense that government is necessary, not only for the brute functions on order and security, but also for insuring the foundations of a well functioning society. Most in the Movement are operating on spotty impressions and feelings. They are, however, the surface of a serious discussion on the necessary size of government. It can indeed be too large, and it can also be too small. Unlike the Goldilocks story, there will probably never be a ‘just right.’ American society is very dynamic and constantly changing. Government will therefore continue to feel both too intrusive and too underfunded at the same time.
Large-scale reversals in an electorate suggest an inherent instability within a society. Currently Americans are anxious and have a palpable sense that things are getting out-of-control, or more to the point, out of their control. American troops continued to be mired in Iraq and Afghanistan; nothing seems to be able to stop Iran from pressing forward with the development of a nuclear weapon, or North Korea from acting like a spoiled two-year-old. China is a growing economic juggernaut. The economic and military standing of the U.S. in the world seems to be severely reduced.
Some people bemoan the end of the “American Century,” the eclipse of American centrality in world affairs. Others jingoisticly crow about the U.S. being the greatest, as if simply saying it fiercely and often enough will belie all the comparative statistics of the U.S.’s world standing in such areas of quality-of-life and educational attainment. Needless to say, the circumstances are not as dire or as sanguine.
First, the U.S. has an awfully long distance to fall in order no longer to be the world’s most powerful nation. Its accumulated wealth and military might continues to dwarf even China. Further, as a culture and society, the U.S. is considerably more stable than either China or India. Both of those nations are beset by nearly intractable divisions in languages, cultures, regionally uneven development. It is not difficult to imagine both countries literally breaking up into smaller political states — not unlike the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, or Czechoslovakia — sometime in the next century. Despite the real divisions in the U.S., it is virtually impossible to foresee any breakup of the nation. Japan had its moment. The European Union had its. Now, China is enjoying its time as the principal challenger to American dominance. Perhaps, someday the U.S. will indeed be eclipsed, but it is not going to be anytime soon.
Yet, something is wrong in the country, and the 2010 election indicates that Americans are well aware of this, even if they have little idea of what to do to fix it. The problem might be deeper than decisions about taxes and spending. It might not be specific to the U.S., although it is probably more acute in America than anywhere else.
Modern complex societies are capable of maintaining social stability promising growth and opportunity. Without growth, every person’s gain would come from one (or more) other’s loss. Sooner or later, the system could only be maintained by oppression and then break down. Growth, however, requires space and unused resources. You can see where this is going; particularly in advanced nations such as the U.S. and western Europe.
Society’s dependence on growth puts a strain on more than the environment. For the past thirty years, U.S. dollar inflation has been rather low. It was consistently in double-digits annually in the 1970s, and had a brief spike in the last decade. Otherwise, it has had a small effect on purchasing power. Nonetheless, the cost-of-living for most people attempting to maintain a middle class lifestyle has risen dramatically. The problem is not an economic one per se, but social and psychological.
Technological innovation in recent decades has made a number of products available and affordable for personal use. Early versions of these innovations — hand-held calculators, personal computers, flat-screen TVs, hybrid auto engines, etc. — were quite expensive, and could only be purchased by those who enjoyed the prestige of being an early adapter to the new product, and had the financial means. Prices then began to moderate, and the new “must-get” item became more generally affordable. Yet, and this is the important consideration, the product was still significantly more expensive than item it would replace. Inflation remains low, but Americans feel a need to “trade up.”
The rise in spending has long been known as “keeping up with the Joneses.” Some sociologists call it an “escalator.” One is interested in appearing materially to be like the ones who are an economic rung above, and thus, one’s needs continue to rise. Hence, the floor-space in the average new home has increased over 50%, and the cost of an average (in constant dollars!) as nearly tripled over the past thirty years. Simply put, over time, we pay marginally more for the same thing, but pay a great deal more for more.
The escalator cannot go on forever. It might well have come close to its limit with this most recent crisis. A major contributing factor is that for most Americans, their earnings have not risen beyond inflation, even as their spending has increased. In the 1970s, it was still possible to maintain a middle-class living on the strength of a single breadwinner. In the next decade, a household needed two income earners. Although the economic expansion of the 90s might have eased the pressure a bit, by the end of the decade, two incomes were not sufficient. People resorted to borrowing, particularly on the equity of their houses. The system, as we well know, popped.
History is full of epochal changes in which society and cultures are transformed. None of these changes happen very quickly, except in the context of the full sweep of history; nor are they smooth and without real pain and loss. Right now, we might be in the midst of the twilight of one epoch and the commencement of the next. The shift began a few decades ago, bringing about the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the development of South and East Asia, especially China. It has rocked Africa, South America, and particularly arid zone from Morocco to Pakistan. North America and Western Europe, with the benefit of very deep cultural and economic resources, have been least effected up to now.
Now, we see the stirring throughout the West. Inexorable change usually brings about inexorable resistance, an arch-conservatism that will display itself in mostly nihilistic forms; being fundamentally against: against immigrants, women, gays, government, taxes, banks, corporations, and, of course, anyone who is perceived as being against them. The language is conservative (“preserve our way of life”) or reactionary (“take back America). The present is terrible and the immediate past might not have been much better, but both are far more preferable to an unknown future. Thankfully, this is the United States with its deep and cushioning resources. Thus, the Tea Party resorts to angry words and ballot activism, rather than the self-immolating violence of ‘al-Qaeda.
Negativity is a passion that ultimately burns itself out. The pre-Socratic Greeks used to argue that the only constant in the world is change. Jews, who posited that are indeed other constants — God, for instance — nonetheless accepted the endurance of change. At the end of Fiddler on the Roof, as the shtetl of Anatevka is being dismantled, someone turns to the rabbi and plaintively asks, “would not this be a good time for the Messiah to come?” The rabbi responds, “we will have to wait for him some place else.”
Jewish tradition does not quite embrace change. After all, the ideal of Shalom is a sort of quiescence, and change is always disrupting. Yet, Jewish tradition does not resist it either. The upheaval of 2010 is indicative that a substantially indistinct future is being pressed upon us. We can either curse the darkness or light a candle and prepare to usher it in.
Yours and Mine
A Rabbinic Approach to Economic Systems
I am not a finance specialist, nor the son of a finance specialist. Well, I might be the father of one. Nevertheless, when the U.S. economy seems to be disintegrating before our eyes, many would deem it appropriate, if not necessary, for the Rabbi to say something. So, here I go:
First, let me establish the boundaries of my remarks. The principal role of a Rabbi is to be the one who knows the sources. Jews turn to rabbis at certain points of stress or questioning and look for answers, or at least, insights that might point toward answers. The Rabbi’s responsibility is to elucidate what Jewish tradition, practice and thought has to say. In the following remarks, this is what I am going to attempt to do.
Prescription proceeds from perception. We decide on our actions as a result of how we see the situation. For this reason, the solution to the current mess-whatever it may be-is controversial, because experts neither agree on precisely what the problem is nor how we got into it in the first place. To oversimplify (but not too much), some economists will assert that the problem is in the absence of proper regulation and oversight; that controls that were put in effect in order to pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression, have been relaxed by past acts of Congress, ignored by the current Administration and overwhelmed by the introduction of new investment instruments that bypass whatever regulations still exist. For them, the solution requires reinforcing and updating the regulatory process.
The conflict is not a matter of facts or evidence. Each side marshals the facts that serve to bolster their side of the argument, and if not ignore then devalue any evidence that gets in the way. My focus, therefore, is on perception, specifically a Jewish perception. What may Jewish sources suggest about how we should view-not so much the current financial crisis-but rather the way in which a people’s economy should operate.
Introducing Our Text
A logical place to start is in the Torah. This is a useful starting point given that much of the Torah is given over to a presentation of the Social Weal, that is, the establishment of a proper Israelite society. Indeed, the principal focus of Torah is justice, both legal and economic. But, Torah is a blueprint for an ideal society. Although the Book of Deuteronomy contains an admonition that God’s instruction is neither too obscure to understand nor too difficult to do, the classic rabbis recognized that this claim is true only if all Israel lived up to the better selves. “A kingdom of priests and a holy people” is the description in Exodus — but not a community of saints!
The central and enduring value of Torah is to be found precisely in its idealism. Its principles and precepts represent just what sort of society to which we ought to be aspiring. Everyday life tends, however, to be filled with compromises. We need to set our sights a bit lower.
Thus, I invite us to turn to the rabbinic literature where Jewish society is pictured in all its nuanced and complex reality, and where the aspirations of the ideal are mediated by brute reality and experience. The main compendium of the writings of the classic Sages is the Talmud, a massive text. There is one text, however, that serves as a ground for classic rabbinic thought: the Tractate Avot.
Avot is found in the middle of the Mishna, an early third-century compendium of the Oral Torah, a tradition that God relayed much of the divine will orally to Moses, who then saw to it that this aspect of God’s expectations for the people Israel would be passed on in the same manner through the generations. In the uncertain period following the failed Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome, this tradition began to be committed to writing, and was ultimately compiled, in part, into the Mishna.
Tractate Avot is unusual and special in a number of ways. First, it contains no controversy. While virtually every other tractate records differences of opinions on matters of the Oral Torah, Avot presents a series of unchallenged aphorisms on the part of the Sages (Avot). A second significant difference is that the aphorisms are not Torah in the conventional sense of being commandments or directives. The Tractate serves another role. First, it establishes the authority of the Sages by drawing a direct line between their teachings and that of Moses. Further, it provides the ethical underpinning by which the rest of the Oral Torah is to be observed. Coming, as I have said, in the middle of the Mishna, and particularly in the middle of the section that deals with criminal and civil law (the “social weal”), Avot is the underpinning for all Jewish thought and practice regarding civil society.
The significance of this Tractate has hardly been lost through the ages. The siddur (prayerbook), which is basically the handbook of Jewish thought, includes Avot. In traditional Jewish practice, each of the six chapters of the Tractate would be read and studied during the six weeks following the end of Pesach and leading up to Shavuot. (The Gates of Prayer included selections from the Tractate at the beginning of the prayerbook. A more abridged version is found in the new Mishkan T’fila, and are also included in the Reform Movement’s prayerbook for the home, On the Doorposts of Your House.)
With all of this as background, let us turn to the relevant passage in Avot:
There are four kinds of human beings. One says: “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” That is the average kind, but some say it is reflective of Sodom. Another says: “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.” This is the rube. “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.” This is a saint. “What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine.” This is the wicked one. (5:10)
Who am I? Who are You?
The passage, as you can see, is short but extraordinarily rich and insightful. I need at the outset, however, to clarify a translation difficulty. The word “you” (“yours”) is consistently rendered in Hebrew in the singular. The passage deals with the fundamental relationship: me and you (the single individual who I am now regarding). This is only the beginning.
Who is the “you” that I am regarding? It is one of two fundamental possibilities: either a companion or an adversary. I may regard “you” as being very much like “me,” and therefore create the concept of “us.” Or, I may view “you” as competitor or adversary, and therefore create the concept of “them.”
Before saying anything more on the subject, let us consider “I.” The passage begins with the assertion that there are four types of human beings. Where are these four types to be encountered? The answer is: in ourselves.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has related the story of the Zen master who, after years of meditation, has determined that most important issue for him to contemplate is “Who am I?” And when he arrived at this decision, a voice arose from the very depths of his soul: “Who is asking?”
Human beings are complex creatures. We cycle through different ‘selves.’ If we are aware of this innate reality, we might be able to repress those selves that we do not wish to be, and bring forth those we prefer to relate to the world.
Hence, overarching the entire passage is the message contained in its first words: there are four kinds of human beings. The four kinds represent the complex of the ways each of us regard the Other: are you with me or against me? Are you “us” or “them”? As we proceed with the analysis, we see the notions of cooperation, competition and attitudes that stretch between them.
Mine and Yours: The Qualities of Society
We are ready now to regard the passage. The most provocative statement is at the beginning, so instead of reading the four kinds in the order given, I am going to reverse them.
“What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine.” This is the wicked one [rasha’].
This assertion, which should strike anyone as reasonably obvious, gives me an opportunity to clarify what might be meant by “mine” and “yours.” At first blush the reference is to material possessions, but the implication can go farther. It can refer to one’s person in the sense of expanded or contracted freedoms of choice. “What’s yours is mine” suggests that I claim that you have an obligation to me in order to fulfill my wishes or desires, but you cannot assert a reciprocal obligation.
The wickedness of this position is not founded merely in greed. It is rather the desire to dominate. The Other (“yours”) is dehumanized into a commodity for one’s own use. Each of one us becomes a rasha’ when we deny or ignore the personhood of the one standing before us.
“What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.” This is the rube [‘am ha-aretz].
‘Am ha-aretz is a difficult term to translate. When found in the Bible, it refers to country folk as opposed to city dwellers. Rabbinic literature provides a negative connotation to the term: they are ignoramuses, or at very least, uneducated sorts. The original meaning, however, continues to lurk beneath the connotation. An ‘am ha-aretz, by virtue of being a rural person, is incapable of keeping up contemporary trends; he is inherently unsophisticated. For this reason, I employed the term “rube.” A rube, however, is not a fool (or at least no more or less foolish than anyone else.)
Asserting that “mine is yours and yours is mine” is not a measure of foolishness, but rather indicative of disdain for the work of one’s own hands. The rube is bedazzled by the riches of the city and begins to denigrate his own worth. It is a ‘grass is greener’ complex, where whatever the other person has must certainly be better than what I have. We all fall into this state of mind when we lose confidence in ourselves and in our ability to contribute to society.
The rasha’ oppresses others, and the ‘am ha-aretz oppresses oneself. Both circumstances, if allowed to persist, are clearly debilitating to society. Although each of us have tendencies that lead us to wish or attempt to dominate others, or conversely to lose faith in ourselves, we readily recognize that these are characteristics to resist. We can now proceed to the final two categories.
“What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.” This is the saint[hasid].
This stance is the exact opposite of the wicked. For the rasha’, the Other (“yours”) is merely an object to be used and exploited. For the hasid, the Other is fully human; an object, yes, but of love. (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) One can give to this Other with the same sense of confidence that one gives to a spouse, a son/daughter or a sibling. It is not with wariness or even with pity, but rather with the sense that my gift benefits all, and therefore benefits myself as well.
Societies like this can work. One of the best examples is the Israeli kibbutz. As in the case of my comments regarding the Torah, the success of such societies is dependent upon saintliness. Within the pioneering spirit of nation-building that was the foundation for the formation and development of the kibbutz, the idea of mutually reinforcing communal generosity managed to hold together for a relatively long time. Ultimately, however, the spirit began to wane, and with it the classic structure of the kibbutz.
Saintliness is a precious and not easily renewable commodity. In the case of “what is mine is yours and yours is yours” we can see two interlocking elements that serve to erode what might be our best nature. One is the inability to distinguish between the “you” who is one of us, and the “you” who is one of them. When we help a fellow human being who is appreciative (one of us), our material generosity is returned with spiritual satisfaction. When, however, we are exploited or, worse, played the fool by our acts of compassion, we tend to become cautious and cynical.
Equally important as an element that erodes our efforts to be saintly is our irrepressible ego. We inexorably take pride in our possessions and tend to use them as a measure of our worth. In the final analysis, we like having things that we can call “mine,” and do not easily give them up. With this in mind, we turn to the last quality:
The Banal and the Monstrous
“What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.”
The best that one can say about a society where everyone respects everyone else’s possessions is that it is average. Average, however, is not bad. And, given the need to call something our very own, it is inevitable. The surprising element attached to this quality is the opinion that it represents the inhabitants of Sodom. Sodom was utterly destroyed. The wicked are condemned and even punished, but rarely are they consigned to extermination. What are we to make of the assertion that a clearly average state of affairs may also be deemed as monstrous?
The unforgivable sin of Sodom was inhospitality. The people of Sodom were incapable of treating outsiders as anything other than “them.” The Other was exclusively and permanently an object of either suspicion or exploitation. Inherent in the attitude “what is mine is mine and yours yours” is the notion that “you” are not part of “us.”
The rabbinic statement therefore becomes a warning. Society, as an element of its normative condition, must value personal ownership; such is human nature. If, however, ownership is not simply tolerated, but rather is treated as a high value, then conditions will tend to deteriorate into warring camps: dog-eat-dog competition in which the fabric of society unravels. Genesis records that Sodom and the Cities of the Plain were pummeled by divinely ordained fire and brimstone. We might better understand that they burned themselves out in exhausting and ruinous competition.
Rabbinic thought, summarized in this passage in Avot, asserts that human communities must naturally work to restrain such deleterious tendencies as oppression of one group by another, or of feelings of the lack of self-worth. These attitudes are very real, but it is also very clear that they are wrong. A much more pernicious wrong, however, is to be found in the otherwise normal notion of ownership. When ownership turns into The Ownership Society, then it has signed its own warrant for destruction.
Society ought to be founded on concepts of generosity and compassion. We come into the world owning nothing, and will leave it in the same way. All that we possess is but lent to us. Such are our highest ideals. They cannot be the norm; we are simply incapable of persisting in sainthood. They must not be abandoned either. When we are not reaching for our better selves, then we indulge in the banal.
And ultimately the banal becomes monstrous.