For my father

I think of you today, the night of Father’s Day,

Instead of, as usually, thinking of myself

As the father of my children.

My children!

Saying it is enough

To pull on the strings of my heart

As they say;

 

It is a physical feeling

One unlike others

 

I am almost certain

You felt it, too.

 

Certainly for your first-born

Son

Hans-Jürgen

Who was abandoned

Brought up by his Jehovah’s witnesses’ grandmother

In Berlin

 

He came to us,

Dazed, confused,

James Dean in his undershirt

Shaving in front of

The small mirror

Suspended on the wall

Of his basement room.

 

This became my domicile

Where the organ you bought

Replaced

What?

Love? Affection?

 

I kissed you

With the love of my mouth

You returned my warmth

With a stranger’s card

In your jacket pocket,

Found by my mother,

Your wife.

 

The gun

In the drawer of your bedstead

Fired blanks.

 

I appreciated the heavy burden

Of your life

Too late

to tell you.

 

I am puzzled

Now

But then, I thought

I knew.

 

But now,

I don’t.

 

Miriam Shenitzer’s putative life of Hannah Arendt. An introduction

The assembled images constitute an “archive” of sorts. As Jacques Derrida writes in Archive Fever, the arche of the archive alludes to both commencement and commandment.[1] The title of the visual archive, A putative life of Hannah Arendt, provides the directive on how to view the images. Like all historical evidence from which we attempt to retrieve or reconstruct the past, the visual archive of this putative life resists our attempts to impose prior knowledge, or prior assumptions, on the being that appears in the images, artifacts, and captions. We are to suspend our assumptions and allow for an encounter of a different life, a different personage, a different way of telling a story to take place.

Putative-Lives

Shenitzer’s putative life of Hannah Arendt intuits the “relatedness” of the self that Arendt sought to reassert in her thinking about what it means to be human. This “related” self––as Andrew Benjamin argues in a recent paper––“twists itself free from what (…) Heidegger criticized as a ‘metaphysics of subjectivity’.”[2] In place of the isolated self of the thinker, often invoked in iconic photographs that might appear on book covers, Shenitzer’s Arendt appears in an array of imagined figures and coincidental configurations. In the manner of a family album that neither fails nor succeeds in documenting the emergence of a character, while inadvertently documenting the styles, social habits, and historical contexts of a life, Shenitzer’s drawings and inscriptions capture the milieu, the aura, and the possibilities inherent in a particular time and a particular place. The particular time and particular place evoked in the putative life series is that of the 1920s and 30s, somewhere in Central Europe, somewhere in the “unbearable lightness of being” as Milan Kundera titled his breakout novel about private lives affected by the 1968 Prague Spring.

The putative life of Hannah Arendt is constructed from memory fragments of unknown origins that are nevertheless real and suggest familiarity. We become acquainted with a persona, a character, without being entirely sure of the knowledge conferred by this archive.

Defying the biographical convention that the early life of a personage adumbrates their eventual greatness, Shenitzer depicts the putative early life of Hannah Arendt as a set of ordinary moments, serendipitously captured and preserved in a visual archive of seeming trivia. This vindication of the everyday, the intimate, the fleeting moment, the odd relationship on the margins of a life, captures the tapestry of emotions and attachments that are often ignored, emotions of joy and disappointment and attachments of friendship and distrust that are here foregrounded as formative and normative in how we turn out as human beings. By retrieving, albeit virtually, the putative life of Hannah Arendt, Shenitzer’s visual archive vindicates the life of the emotions. Emotions and encounters constitute links and bonds between individuals where concepts and classifications fail us.

By creating the simulacrum of a putative life Shenitzer both asserts authority of access and memory preservation as well as relinquishes all claims to authoritative depiction. Gesturing at the ineffability of the true self, the putative life of Hannah Arendt denies as well as affirms access to the persona at the center of the series. The artist is thus in equal parts mystagogue and demystifier, enchanter and disenchanter.

For more information and to register for the opening symposium of A Putative Life of Hannah Arendt, see HERE.

For more on Miriam Shenitzer’s Putative Lives of Great European Thinkers go HERE.

 

[1] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression, transl. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago and London 1996), p. 1.

[2] Andrew Benjamin, “Being and Appearing: Notes on Arendt and Relationality,” Abstract, forthcoming in Arendt Studies. Online source: https://www.academia.edu/36652546/Being_and_Appearing_Notes_on_Arendt_and_Relationality (accessed May 17, 2018).

May 14, 2018

Today is May 14, 2018. By the Gregorian calendar, this is the day when, seventy years ago, the provisional government of Israel headed by David Ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence. As was pointed out in a post I recently saw on FB, the question of territory of the newly independent Jewish state was not defined at the time. The declaration of independence proceeded without a definition of the borders within which Israel would be a sovereign state. When the War of Independence was over, the boundaries of Israel, those that were not natural boundaries, such as the Mediterranean coast, were mere cease-fire lines. In the preemptive war of June 1967, Israel revised those borders once again. It was widely assumed at the time that this revision was going to be temporary, and that Israel had conquered territory only for the sake of trading land for peace. Then came the settlements. Advocated by left and right leaning governments alike, Israel consolidated its hold on the conquered territories by establishing military outposts, as well as by transferring civilian populations into the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank of Jordan. It started slowly, sometimes with, sometimes without the governments open support, but it took on a momentum of its own. Then came the 1973 war and its aftermath, the peace agreement with Egypt, which led to the first case of an evacuation of a modern Jewish settlement. The price for this peace agreement was high. It cost the life of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, who made a daring 1977 visit to Jerusalem where he gave a speech to the Knesset that effectively broke Israel’s isolation from the Arab world. It also presaged the hysterical scramble, triggered by the Oslo Process, to make the annexation of the West Bank irreversible.

What we see today started with Sadat’s visit: Israel is now an integral part in the strategic alliance of Sunni countries, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that opposes Iran’s growing influence across the Middle East, including in Iraq, which just elected a pro-Iranian majority in its parliamentary elections, Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Huthi rebels in the Yemen, and elsewhere. Today Israel acts with virtual impunity, violently countering Palestinian protests in Gaza, flying missions against Iranian military installations in Syria, and courting the most right-wing, evangelical, unilateralist, and even anti-Semitic forces the US has seen since the 1930s.

On this day, the US embassy was moved to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is claimed by Israel as its eternally undivided capital. To Jews, this is muvan me-elav, a matter of course. Even at the time, nearly forty years ago, when the Basic Law on Jerusalem was debated in the Knesset, many people advised against it. Why make a law that states what everyone believes is already the case? Doesn’t it rather achieve the opposite effect and make it seem as if the matter stated in the law was not settled a long time ago? But Jerusalem’s status is contested today, as it was then. The UN Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947, declared the area of Jerusalem, including the Christian holy city of Bethlehem, an international body, to be governed neither by Jews, nor by Arabs (read: Muslims). This vision of Jerusalem as a shared city was reiterated today, in a statement penned by my long-time friend Sani Ibrahim Azar, now Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land, who states the opposition of the ELCJHL “to the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, the Bishop continues, “is a very special city, holy to three religions, and therefore it should be a place of peace, justice, and reconciliation.” He calls for the ELCJHL’s partner churches to “urge their governments to respect the International Law concerning Jerusalem.”

This morning, I also received a note from a Jewish Israeli friend responding to a FB post I had posted yesterday, in which I said that “as a Jew” I was happy that Israel existed and that I “unapologetically love(d) Israel and my Israeli friends.” But I also expressed my “deepest sympathy to my beloved Arab friends, for whom Israeli policies mean unmitigated pain and humiliation on a daily basis.” I expressed confidence that there was a “better way” and that we all knew what that was. I ended by cursing those who are making Jerusalem their “toy.” (Also, at this time, Tel Aviv’s fun culture is celebrating Netta Barzilai’s win in the Eurovision Song Contest, with a song called “Toy.”)

Upon reading my note, my friend, who rarely posts on FB, copied and sent a note posted by someone earlier today. The post mentioned two American Jews who appreciated Jerusalem’s special status. One was Ivanka Trump who expressed her joy at being in Jerusalem at such an auspicious moment. The author of the post pointed out that sometimes it is people who come from the outside that need to remind those living in Jerusalem what a special privilege it is to live there. The other was my former colleague and friend, Elie Wiesel. The post quoted from a one-page ad in which Professor Wiesel had voiced what Jerusalem meant to the Jews. “For me as a Jew – Wiesel wrote – Jerusalem is beyond politics. It is mentioned over 600 times in the Bible, but not even once in the Qur’an. There is no prayer more emotionally stirring anywhere in the Jewish past than the one that expresses the yearning for a return to Jerusalem. (…) It is what connects one Jew to another in a way that is difficult to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time it is not the first time. It is a return home. I once heard it said in the name of one of the great Hasidic masters, R. Nahman of Bratslav, that everything in the world has a heart, and even the heart itself has a heart. Jerusalem is our heart of hearts.”

Another colleague reminded me today (without any connection to Wiesel or to Jerusalem) that Marx had called religion the heart of a heartless world, surely a backhanded compliment, considering the source.

Celebrating the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem on a day when dozens of Palestinian youths were mowed down by the live ammunition of Israeli snipers policing the Gaza border is the heart of heartlessness. Why could the ceremony not have been be paused, just for a minute, to pay at least a minimal amount of lip service to the humanity of those for whom today’s move adds insult to injury?

Today’s celebration reminded me of the time when Israel crossed the Red Sea on dry foot, while the Egyptian army drowned. When the angels in heaven were moved to join in with Israel’s shouts of triumphant jubilation, the Holy One, Blessed be He, commanded them to be still. “How can you celebrate, when my creatures are dying?” I wonder what sentiments were shared in Heaven today.

Maimonides and his modern readers: Adventures in Jewish Philosophy

Note: The following summarizes my approach to Maimonides for a seminar I teach at Boston University, which concludes tomorrow, Monday April 30. The students were prompted to present on a significant text from our readings, or on their term paper. I decided to set myself a task as well, namely, to articulate the arc of the course, and explain what I hoped to achieve. The result is perhaps the first step toward a prospectus of a book.

***

First, let me explain what I mean by “adventures.” Oxford Dictionaries (online) defines adventure as “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.” Its synonyms, according to the same source, are exploit, escapade, deed, feat, experience.

The etymology of the word “adventure” points to things one comes upon by chance, that entail risk, but also the notion of arriving and reaching a goal. It can thus evoke something hoped-for, and something unforeseen, in any case, it points to a sort of encounter with something of great affective value, something stirring the hope that the apprehension felt on the way will be surpassed by the experience of happiness at the end: home, the golden pot at the end of life’s rainbow. If we think of the adventure as part of a dramatic plot, the adventure story belongs in the category of comedy, which on balance offers a redemptive outcome for the hero, a happy end.

Another preliminary remark. In contrast to the adventure story, the “plot” of religions of redemption hovers between comedy and tragedy. The trajectory of the religious life is open-ended, like the novel.[1] In religions of salvation, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the prophetic revelation proclaims an unopposed monotheistic power structure that suggests the guarantee of a just outcome. But the concrete outcome is conditioned by human or divine choice. Religions of salvation offer a dynamic framework, within which the human being either chooses, or is chosen, to succeed or fail, making the outcome of our lives uncertain. This sting of uncertainty is meant to be balanced by faith or joyous submission to the verdict of divine judgment. Faith and submission imbue the believer with the confidence in divine forgiveness and ultimate reconciliation. The uncertainty of outcome may also lead to rebellion of those who, in their own eyes or in those of their fellow-religionists, despair of divine benevolence and succumb to the verdict of divine justice.

The above-mentioned religions are further complicated by the ambivalence of the object of special divine providence. Is it the individual, or is it the collective? (Buddhism is free of this ambivalence. The individual is here just as illusory, as is the world around them.) The Old Testament, or Tanakh, contains the material of both types of salvific religion. Torah, prophets, and the prophetic historiography of the Deuteronomistic school provide the blueprint for collective, i.e., political happiness/despair in the mundane realm of history and politics, whereas wisdom literature and many of the psalms provide a path for individuals to inscribe themselves into the plot of divine redemption.[2] The Book of Job and the pseudo-Salomonic work of Ecclesiastes/Qohelet belong in the category of skeptical wisdom that questions the efficacy of divine providence for the individual. This is precisely what secured their place in a canon that, for acute political reasons, wanted to emphasize and foreground the focus on collective redemption, in the sense of the restoration of the commonwealth.

What does any of this have to do with Maimonides and his modern readers or, more broadly, with Jewish philosophy. What is a philosophical adventure?

No one is born a philosopher. Some of us have stumbled on philosophy like the sleepy son of Strepsiades, for whom (and Aristophanes, his author) the editors of the ubiquitous Random House edition of The Complete Greek Drama show little affection. (See vol 2, p. 537). In other words, while we suspect that the pursuit of philosophy is somehow useful, we have no idea what we have gotten ourselves into until we become entangled in it. Enter: the philosophical adventure. At first it all seems like s suggestive soup of words, with a jumble of heavy concepts that offer a certain taste. Whether or not we like the dish, we are told it’s worth eating. And thus we take it in, wondering whether the meal will be transformative. A better analogy may be the first time we are prompted to consume a hallucinogenic drug. How will it go? An adventure in self-discovery.

Note that in imagining such an entry to philosophy we presuppose a certain configuration that resembles initiation into a mystery. There is an art of thinking (or just talking or speech-making, as its detractors suggest) into which we hope to be initiated. The paradoxical character of initiation is that, what we who hope to see or experience by ourselves (be it the gods, or a special place, a wonder of nature, or an illuminating idea), requires a guide: the novice requires a hierophant, needed for the wished-for encounter to be produced and experienced.

The Maimonides of the “Guide” (henceforth GP) serves as hierophant to those who turn to him to be guided from a state of “perplexity” to a state of clarity. The main difficulty of GP consists in the fact that it undertakes its task of hierophancy in writing. It is a book of instructions for a confused or perplexed reader, who aims to obtain clarity or, as Heidegger would say, “clearing” (Lichtung) which in German is a double entendre. It indicates light in the forest, where trees have been removed. The appearance of such a Lichtung is serendipitous. One comes upon a Lichtung on one’s wandering through the forest. Not everyone will arrive at such an auspicious moment of clearing. The condition of the possibility of finding it is that we enter the forest where we will soon be lost and in need of guidance. Hence the need for philosophical writing.

In our course, we repeatedly stumbled on the question of writing as the lesser of two evils and as always inferior to personal instruction. As I am writing this, I am reminded of the relentless push to increase the reach of academic instruction by means of digital communication. It seems to me, though I can’t be sure, that the virtual classroom is exactly this: a virtual classroom, i.e., a classroom that isn’t. Digital communication wants to extend personal and immediate instruction, the back and forth, the exchange of glances, the response to body posture, the attention to presence of the other, to a much larger “audience.” But audience presupposes speech and ears that are here de-materialized into a “monitorience” controlled by buttons, sidebars, and options to fast-forward and delete. I am quite certain, however, that Maimonides faced the same problem when he decided that the absence of his student Joseph required him to put his instructions for the perplexed in writing. It was an experiment in philosophical distance learning; more precisely, it was the first experiment in Jewish philosophical distance learning.

What are the secrets into which Maimonides wishes to initiate his readers? Are we still perplexed in a way that reading the Guide can be beneficial to us? Can Maimonides be our guide? Or do we approach Maimonides from a place where the questions that haunted him and his pupils are no longer daunting to us? In other words, are the mysteries of the Guide no longer compelling to us? Is Maimonides therefore only of historical, but no longer of philosophical, use to us? Has the “forest” of Maimonides been so completely mapped that we can no longer get lost in it, nor experience the thrill of a philosophical adventure?

I approach Maimonides by placing him, and us as his readers, in a certain company. This is not to say that I “contextualize” him, so as to explain him or his project. Historical antecedents and biographical context are important to get a “feel” for the intellectual and cultural preconditions of this (or any) thinker. This background helps us to see the generic aspects of an author’s writing more clearly. These generic aspects include references to the author’s own writings, or those of other writers and interlocutors that the author directs us to. This information is helpful to the work of understanding an author correctly, and to rule out the presumption of originality where an author merely repeats what others have already written, as well as the presumption of conformity where the author is original. Knowing what others wrote on the same subject also avoids the impression that great thinkers always work alone, rather than in conversation with others. By drawing attention to antecedents and interlocutors, our philosophical guide helps us to realize that philosophy is conducted among kindred spirits, rather than in splendid isolation. Philosophy does not begin from zero or an empty slate. By virtue of writing, philosophical conversations extend across time and place, allowing us to enter into a very special forest and to get lost and found in it: philosophical writing as an invitation to an adventure across times and spaces.

As Strauss points out eight centuries after Maimonides, philosophy begins when we read the “old tomes” again. Just how to read them with a mind that is awake and primed to ask the right questions is the first challenge.[3] Our guide wants the sleepy son or daughter of Strepsiades to awake from his or her slumber, just as Kant says of himself that he was awakened from his own dogmatic slumber by reading Hume. It is a kind of dogmatic slumber from which Maimonides wishes to awaken the perplexed, and guide them to perceiving a certain “light” with their own eyes; to glimpse it at first and then to proceed to a steady pursuit of a life in the light of truth, or at least of seeing clearly in the light that the truth sheds on the things we otherwise only perceive dimly. With these images, we enter into a metaphoric world Maimonides adopts from, and shares with, Plato. But is Maimonides’ goal the same as Plato’s? When they speak of light, do they mean the same thing? Is not Maimonides a student of Aristotle more than of Plato? And does he not affirm the Mosaic legislation as an unsurpassed event?

Before we go too far in this direction, let us flag another great divide. To entrust ourselves to the guidance of Maimonides in this adventure of metaphorical spelunking, we need to know whether we have access to Maimonides. This access is often denied. Maimonides is a remote object that we cannot see clearly. He is separated from us by time and distance, language, culture, and, most importantly, by his presupposition of the “medieval worldview.” He is also distant from us if, unlike him, we do not live under the political condition of compounded unfreedom indicated in the rule of the religious law of his own community and the oppressive circumstances of exile. We live in the “modern” age, an age characterized by a number of things that divide us from the medieval, just as the medieval–according to Maimonides–were divided from the ancients in some important respects. Reading Maimonides in light of Spinoza, Cohen, Strauss, and Arendt’s writing on the difference between the modern and the pre-modern “human condition,” sheds light on this divide. What separates us from Maimonides? What are the difficulties (prejudicial or actual) we must overcome as we approach his texts? How can we make sure we understand him? In fact, what is our goal or expectation in reading him?

Arendt provides us with a general introduction to the difference between the medieval and the modern worldview. Spinoza instantiated the conscious break with antecedent tradition that is characteristic of the so-called “radical enlightenment” of his age. One of the most eminent targets of his “un-reading” was Maimonides and his interpretation of scripture with the aim of reconciling the wording of scripture with the tenets of Aristotelian philosophical rationalism.[4] Cohen instantiates a new reading of Maimonides in light of the Kantian maxim of understanding an author better than he understood himself, which allowed him to bend Maimonides toward a critical idealism that Cohen saw as founded by Socrates-Plato. Strauss worked out a discipline of un-reading this modern hermeneutic, with the express aim of learning again to understand an author as s/he understood himself. Oddly, while it is Strauss who is often suspected to have “politicized” Platonic philosophy, Strauss’s critique of Cohen’s reading of Spinoza flips the presumed intentions of these authors, defending the good faith of Spinoza as grounded in his philosophy, while showing that Cohen’s attack on his modern antecedent – as well as his creative defense of Maimonides – were acts of politically motivated, willful misreading.

Maimonides prompted Strauss to speak of a difference between the natural difficulties of philosophizing, and an additional difficulty that did not exist for the ancients. That difficulty concerns the habituation to opinions, by which Maimonides means the proliferation of prophetic revealed legislation and of regimes based on such revealed legislation. According to Maimonides-Strauss, the fact of revelation and the fact of its political force creates an obstacle to philosophizing that we need to overcome if we wish to arrive at a proper understanding of the natural difficulties where, as Strauss writes, we can benefit, once again, from the guidance of the teacher of ignorance, Socrates. Strauss’s preferred image for our situation, as first articulated by Maimonides, is that we find ourselves in “a second, much deeper cave” from which we need to extricate ourselves. Strauss’s mature writings are an attempt to prompt his readers to extricate themselves from prejudices received by tradition, and arrive at a place of natural ignorance or freedom from all prejudice. More will need to be said about this later on. For now I want to flag the common trope of the cave and the quest for “extrication.” By speaking of “extrication,” Strauss may refer to the Hellenistic sculpture of Laocoon, famously described in an essay (1766) by the German poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (whom Strauss admired). The sculpture of Laocoon depicts the moment of agony of a priest and his sons who offended the gods and are punished by being entangled and crushed by sea-serpents. For Lessing, “the medium is the message.” The symbolic or allegorical work of art wordlessly represents the struggle for self-extrication that Strauss associates with the work of reading. Entangled by prejudice rather than mere opinion, the reader must struggle to rise from complete darkness to a place where we can begin to search for a Lichtung. In this reading, the modern Enlightenment (promoted by Spinoza and Lessing, a “Spinozist”) inadvertently generated a kind of eclipse of the medieval that, instead of bringing illumination, merely created a thick layer of prejudices. Strauss believes he can become a guide for the moderns who are safe in their prejudices and aims to raise a suspicion against the modern prejudice that we are insurmountably separate from the medieval philosophy of Maimonides.[5] He further believes that it is through the agency of Maimonides that we can free ourselves from the peculiarly misreading of Plato launched by Kant and Cohen.

Approaching Maimonides through a conversation with Spinoza, Cohen, and Strauss (rather than, say, Farabi or Averroes), I follow Strauss’s intuition. Like Strauss, I am interested in a philosophical conversation across time and convinced that we can benefit from reading Maimonides as a philosophical contemporary. This is not to dismiss Arendt and others who help us to become aware of the distance we must travers and the obstacles we need to overcome before we can benefit, once again, from reading Maimonides and benefit from his guidance.

[1] See Michael Zank, “Torah v. Jewish Law. A Genre-Critical Approach to the Political Theology of Reappropriation” in Allen Speight and Michael Zank (eds.), Philosophy, Theology, and Politics [Boston Series in Philosophy and Religion, ed. Allen Speight], Springer Verlag (2017), 195-221.

[2] This is speaking roughly and imprecisely. It would be more accurate to say that the psalms (of lament etc) project vindication in this life rather than reward in the hereafter. The latter idea is conceived in the context of apocalypticism, which combines personal and collective destiny and projects the promise of an afterlife to the partisan who remains loyal to the covenant as an individual (or member of a group) rather than to the nation as a whole. In this sense, the apocalyptic promise of vindication in the hereafter is an extension of, or variation on, covenantal prophetism, not an elaboration on the wisdom literature’s quest for individual virtue. The bridge between the latter and the later Christian doctrines of redemption is the Wisdom of Solomon, not the Book of Daniel. To be sure, Christianity absorbs both of these trends that continue to struggle within it.

[3] Two great variations on this theme come to mind: Wagner’s Parsifal and the parable of the four sons, from the Passover Haggadah.

[4] One of the first open disciples of Spinoza, John Toland (who gave us the term “Pantheism”) promoted the Socinian doctrine, which dismissed all Christian “mysteries.” Similarly, Spinoza deprives the biblical prophets of any claim to metaphysical or mystical insights into divine being, except for the utterly unmysterious teaching of a universal morality.

[5] See Zank, “Arousing Suspicion Against a Prejudice: Leo Strauss and the Study of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed” in Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) – His Religious, Scientific, and Philosophical Wirkungsgeschichte in Different Cultural Contexts, ed. by Görge K. Hasselhoff and Otfried Fraisse (Ex Oriente Lux: Rezeptionen und Exegesen als Traditionskritik, vol. 4) Würzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2004, pp. 549-571.

 

Moses as religious “kitsch”

A few days ago, we screened Die Slavenkönigin/Moon of Israel (Austria 1924), a film directed by Michael Courtace (aka Michael Curtiz) that was based on a novel by H. Rider Haggard that romanticized the biblical story of the exodus. You can watch the French version HERE. The screening served as a co-curricular event for a class on “Moses and Muhammad as Prophets” that my colleague and Islam-scholar, Kecia Ali, and I teach as a freshman seminar for the Kilachand Honors College at Boston University.

The students in our class are outspoken about their likes and dislikes. In this case, they liked the live piano accompaniment by Gerhard Gruber (see http://www.filmmusik.at/), but they were puzzled by the story. If it was about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, why was Moses such a marginal figure?

To make a long story short, let’s just say that “Moon of Israel” and other modern cinematic representations make something evident that may otherwise remain unnoticed. Within the context of popular western entertainment, Moses has been reduced to kitsch. For students unfamiliar with this technical term, here is a definition, borrowed from the Internet:

KITSCH refers to “art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way: ‘the lava lamp is an example of sixties kitsch’.”

There is no question that the Moses of “Moon of Israel” represents something like 1920’s religious kitsch. He is the proverbial “old man with a beard.” a synthetic image of an aged (and, hence, irrelevant) Christ, or even God, the Father of Christian iconography, himself, a figure recognizable from nineteenth-century biblical engravings; in any case, he is an emasculated and ineffectual figure even in terms of plot, which is now driven by two youthful figures who take on qualities once held by Moses himself: an “Israelitish” woman named Merapi (Maria Corda) who––through “faith”––calls forth the first plague on the Egyptians, and her Egyptian lover, prince Seti (Adelqui Millar), a social-democrat who humanizes the Egyptians by lightening the burden on the Hebrews.

Oddly or not, cinematic representations of Moses remained kitschy throughout the twentieth century, whether or not the intentions of the representation were serious or unserious. (The same may be said of the Muhammad of “The Message,” the epic non-representation of the Islamic prophet, released just before the Iranian Revolution of 1979.) Call it the Midas-touch of Hollywood. In order to turn something into movie-gold, it must first be sapped of its non-kitschy potential.

The precondition of Moses-as-kitsch is the reduction of religion to the level of entertainment. The political thinker Leo Strauss pointed this out at about the same time as Walter Benjamin wrote his famous essay on art in the age of infinite reproduction. Strauss worried that religion was no longer recognizable as such at the moment when it turned into a form of entertainment, even if was the highest form of entertainment. (I will look up the exact quote. Meanwhile, readers are kindly referred to my translation of Strauss’s early writings.)

Neither art, nor religion, the filmed Moses of Hollywood is a product of sentimentality, deprived of any true knowledge of “ultimates” (a nod to my colleague, Professor Neville) and divine authority. Take Cecile B. Demille’s two versions of the Moses/Exodus story, the original “Ten Commandments,” released in 1923, and the monumental remake of 1956, the most costly and meticulously researched spectacle of the time. The white-American 1920’s Moses is an apostle of temperance, the 1950’s Moses a vehicle of Cold War propaganda, proclaiming the gospel of freedom, made in America, over against the tyranny of the East,  represented in the figure of Rameses, played by the inimitable Yul Brynner. In both cases, the audience’s confused beliefs and their sentimental attachment to the prophetic leader of the exodus is exploited in the interest of clearly articulated social-political messaging. The biblical story is given contemporary “relevance,” while a contemporary agenda (more or less uncontested by the intended audience) is reinforced by what remains of the authority of the biblical figure.

I haven’t seen the new Museum of the Bible in D.C. but it will be interesting to see whether it manages to avoid the trappings of kitschification.

For further thought: Does the biblical narration of the life of Moses escape the verdict of kitsch, and if so, how? What about Philo and Josephus? To what extent are their respective apologies for Moses “serious” and to what extent do we owe the modern image of swash-buckling Mosaic feats of strength to their early attempts at romanticization? What about the Midrashic burlesque of Moses stuck in a pit by Jethro, in a kind of contest of the magicians? In other words, when and under what presuppositions was Moses ever not kitsch? This raises the question: when and under what conditions is religion “serious” rather than sentimental? Do we need to go back to the Aztecs to find religious seriousness? Or is the theatricality of religious ritual inevitably a form of entertainment?

On Paul

Jay Harris, in a review of Daniel Boyarin’s A radical Jew published in Commentary Magazine of June 1, 1995[1], cites Edward Gibbon to point out that the idea of Paul as a universalist transcending Jewish ethnic boundaries is, at best, only part of the story.

That Paul’s exclusivism was more “ecclesiocentric” than “ethnocentric” primarily means that, as the historian Edward Gibbon noted long ago, it was socially less narrow than some forms of Jewish exclusivism; but that is a difference in degree, not in kind.

Paul was also an apocalyptist who believed that faith in Christ was the only way to escape the coming wrath. That this way was open to Gentiles as well marks his universalism. That the path was defined by faith in the Risen Christ marks his covenantal particularism.

Much has been written to make sense of Paul. Protestant theology from Luther to Barth is replete with intense engagements with the theology of Paul. Modern secular intellectuals such as Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben as well have recognized Paul as one of the most profound and outrageous thinkers of the western tradition. Generation after generation has taken inspiration from his writings but also attempted to harness the words of this “radical” apostle and bend his words to their own doctrine. (Boyarin is no exception, except that he bends Paul’s words openly rather than tacitly to his interests as a postmodern and post-Zionist Jewish reader.) And yet Paul appears fresh from the piles of commentary and appropriation whenever one reads his letters.

Introducing Paul’s letters to first-time collegiate readers I was struck by three observations that I detail in the following. First, Paul represents a pre-70/pre-destruction voice of Christian discourse. This alone makes him unique among early Christian authors. Second, Paul’s reading of scripture is both instrumental and emblematic for the way in which his gospel inscribes Gentiles into the Judaic story of salvation. This assures him a place in the pantheon of hermeneutic genius. Third, Paul is an awkward fit for Jewish and Christian orthodoxies. This makes him a heretic to both, Jews and Christians.

  1. Paul’s pre-AD70 voice

First, what stands out to me is the fact that, in contrast to the Gospels and Acts, Paul’s letters, at least those widely considered authentic, represent a pre-AD70 voice that is unique among New Testament writings. For the most part, early Christian literature was forged in the crucible of the turmoil of the Jewish war and its aftermath, which left the Jews in public shame and the Christians scrambling to explain in what sense they were heirs to the Israelite dispensation without being counted among those rebellious Jews.

At the heart of this literature is the identity of Jesus, the son of God, son of man, and son of David of the gospels, but also the holy spirit present among the apostles after Jesus ascends to heaven and leaves his disciples in charge. The Paul we meet in this literature, i.e., the Paul of the Acts of the Apostles, is not the Paul of his own letters. It is a usable Paul who receives his commission from or in agreement with the original apostles.

The character of Jesus of the canonical gospels was shaped by these struggles to write the story of Christian origins into and out of a Jewish world that was at least in on respect more familiar to Paul than to the anonymous authors of the canonical gospels and acts. Paul was a contemporary and partisan within that world. His assertion to be an apostle by virtue of a divine calling challenges the privilege of the apostles as described in the (later) gospels. The post-70 gospels provide the students of the apostles with a usable past, a chain of authority from Jesus of Nazareth, son of God, man, and David, to their own contemporary leaders and beyond. None of that was of relevance to Paul.

As disciples of the Jerusalemite “poor” or evionim, they had access to authentic traditions of Jesus whose sayings and parables they heard from their teachers who were among the original apostles. Given the disruptions wreaked in Jerusalem by the punitive campaign waged by Titus, the disciples may have feared that the traditions they had preserved may be lost unless they were recorded in an orderly fashion. The evangelists’ job was to preserve and shape these traditions in keeping with the liturgical practices of baptism and eucharist and with the proclamation of the early Christians: that the messiah suffered and died according to scripture, was resurrected on the third day, and taken up into heaven from whence he will return to judge the living and the dead. Paul as well received that tradition and impressed it on his readers. (See 1 Cor 15). While Paul has no interest in the teachings of Jesus, he is familiar with the eucharistic elements of Christ’s passion  and persuades his interlocutors in and around Syria, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and Rome that Christ died and was resurrected according to scripture. Where he differs is in his mission to the Gentiles.

Like Boyarin, I believe much is to be gained by considering Paul as part of a conversation that indicates the range of Jewish possibilities of his time even though, in hindsight, Paul may be regarded as the unwitting founder of Christianity as a “world religion.” While to some, such as Paul’s student Marcion, Christianity was essentially a non- or post-Judaic religion that liberated men and women drawn to that very religion from its most egregious errors and falsehoods, Paul labored to keep the salvific dispensation articulated in his gospel from exploding the dialectic linkage between scripture and its true meaning as revealed in Christ. For Marcion, the Jews were already condemned, for Paul their “hardening” (Rom 11:25) was temporary.

Paul was not only an occasional writer but also an occasional thinker. Most of his letters speak to questions that arose after he left the communities he founded to travel to the next station on his missionary travels. (The exception is the letter to the Romans where Paul introduces himself to a community he did not found and that he is about to visit.) His discussion in Galatians of the problem of circumcision was occasioned by the confusion in the minds of the Galatians caused by emissaries from other apostles who insisted that the new brothers from among the Gentiles be circumcised in order to become full members of the community of the elect. Paul clearly thought otherwise. In the Letter to the Galatians he emphasizes that the apostles had never before obliged Gentile Christians to be circumcised. He also emphasizes the immediacy of his own authority and the divine commission of his apostolic office. In arguing against Gentile circumcision Paul cannot refer to it as an innovation and therefore odious in and of itself. Circumcision is, after all, the first covenantal obligation that applies to all male children of Abraham, according to the literal sense of scripture. Paul is therefore forced to make an argument from scripture as to why scripture itself may have obliged circumcision in the past but does not require it any longer now that the true sense of scripture has been fully revealed in Christ. He makes this argument in a world where Jews were still politically independent and where the apocalyptic expectation of Christ’s imminent return seems was driven less by a looming historical cataclysm than by an inner urgency to spread the gospel to the end of the earth.

By the time Paul writes his Letter to the Romans, the spontaneous and heated rhetoric of Galatians has matured into a comprehensive theory of redemption that makes room for both Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s apocalyptic urgency seems to have cooled as well. His plan is to complete his business in Jerusalem, visit Rome and go on to Spain. In the same process Paul honed his sophistication as a reader and interpreter of scripture.

  1. Paul and scripture

This brings me to the second thing that strikes me as interesting about Paul.

In order to bind god-fearing Gentiles and Jewish believers in Christ together into a single community of the redeemed Paul strikes a balance between an affirmation of Jewish roots and the justification of Gentile branches. His point is not as much supersessionist as it is inclusivist, as the roots and the branches are combined in a single living organism. This “tree of life” – in Romans 11 Paul speaks of an olive tree and wild olive branches – is also an apt metaphor for the manner in which Paul and other early Christian authors approach scripture. In some sense this is like pouring new wine into old skins, or a turning of water into wine. For Paul it is a matter of disclosing the hitherto hidden true meaning of scripture that not only preserves scripture but elevates it from letter to spirit (2 Cor 3:6).

Scripture, considered authoritative and immutable (i.e., no longer open to rewriting), provides the justification for Paul to argue that what appears like an innovation is not an innovation but a meaning always intended by scripture but unrecognized until the advent of Christ, an event that, in hindsight and only for those who are not blinded or read scripture with a veil before their eyes (as most Jews do according to 2 Cor 3:14), disclosed and revealed the true meaning of scripture. It provided the hermeneutical key to unlock the scriptures.

Paul’s arguments from scripture affirm the authority of scripture while scripture confirms his interpretation. Just as the Jews are not rejected as a whole or forever while their rejection of Christ makes room for the implantation or grafting of Gentiles into the “cultivated olive tree,” scripture’s literal referent (i.e., Israel) is reaffirmed by the fact that it remains real and valid (see Rom 9:1-6). The providential hardening of the Jews (see 2 Cor 3:14, Rom 11:7.25) to the idea that redemption extends to the believers among the Gentiles without making them into Jews does not erase their privileged position in this economy of salvation, though temporarily places them in a peculiar place (see Rom 11:11). What is curious about both the reading of scripture and about Paul’s way of doing theology is its temporality. The blindness or hardening of the Jews to the gospel of Christ that Paul sees as a temporary scenario, a providential ruse that allows the gospel to be preached to the Gentiles, later on hardens into a Christian doctrine about the Jews that cements their diminished place in society and forces them forever to enact their exile from salvation. But that is not Paul who preached faith, hope, and love as preparation for a return of creation to the ideal state that prevailed in the beginning. He did not imagine what came in fact, namely, the absorption of his all-important message of divine salvation into a new ideology of monarchic rule.

  1. Paul the heretic

The third thing that struck me as that it is more interesting to me how Paul compares with what became of the Christian movement than to argue whether Paul was a good Jew or a bad Jew, or whether his gospel was within or beyond the range of Judaic possibilities of his time. We take it for granted that Paul was a Christian. But Paul asserts that he wants to be understood as a Jew, even a good Jew, and better than most. We can accept this as an indication that, for Paul at least, the ways of Judaism and Christianity had not yet parted. His whole purpose is to argue that his mission to the Gentiles was the necessary extension of the gospel, just as the gospel was the true meaning of the scriptures. In other words, what he was doing was, in his mind at least, continuous with the meaning and essence of Judaism, biblical revelation, scriptures and divine purpose all along. He may have been operating on the margins of the Judaic possibilities of his time and to some he clearly crossed a line but in his own mind he was simply true to God’s personal revelation to him, which he understood as a prophetic calling. What is more interesting to me is the fact that Paul in many ways seems also out of the doctrinal bounds established by the later orthodox councils of the bishops. His Christology is adoption or perhaps Arian and it is not evident that he has a Trinitarian understanding of the nature of God. The exact relation between God and “our Lord Jesus Christ” seems of little concern to him. He is therefore neither a typical theologian in the later sense nor really orthodox. In a sense he is both a bad Jew and a bad Christian, when measured by the standards of Jewish and Christian orthodoxies. This makes him a skandalon, a stumbling bloc, a writer difficult to stomach if and when we are concerned with established orthodoxies. Even in his own time he caused consternation not just among the Jews who accused him of various transgressions and handed him over to the Roman authorities but also among the apostles. The Letter of James attests to the fact that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was offensive to the pillar of the church in Jerusalem. And yet Paul’s letters are in the New Testament. It is this fact, among others, that elevates this body of early Christian literature to the level of complexity we would expect from its inclusion in what we call the Bible.

[1] https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/a-radical-jew-by-daniel-boyarin/

The New Testament

I teach the New Testament as part of an entry-level college course on the Bible. My overall approach is to teach the Bible as literature. I start with canon and canonization, then work my way through the parts of the canons, from Genesis to Daniel, canonical to apocryphal and deutero-canonical, Iron Age to Hellenistic, all the while foregrounding questions of genre and literary form as a means of getting from simple content to historical context. I encourage students to distinguish between heroic and narrative time. I point, again and again, to the pivotal moments in Israelite and Judahite history that we can grasp and pin down, around which some of the datable chunks of texts, books, and editorial compilations revolve: the destruction of Israel, the destruction of Judah, exile and return, the transition from Ptolemaic to Seleucid rule, the beginning and end of Hasmonean kingship, the age of Herod and Roman rule.

Then we turn to the New Testament.

The four canonical lives of Christ can be classified as “lives” (vitae or bioi), biographies of a particular “illustrious” man, a saint of sorts. They can be compared, in form, to the Lives of Plutarch. Luke in particular follows the conventions of that genre. But reading the gospels after reading biblical wisdom and apocalyptic literature is not just a shift in genre. It is a rupture.

For those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, the New Testament is discontinuous with the old. It is a metabasis eis allo genos. To think otherwise is to be fooled by the triple power of codex, language, and habit. Just because New and Old Testament are bound in one volume doesn’t mean they’re one book. Just because they’re written and translated so as to resemble one another doesn’t mean they speak the same language. Just because we (Christians and Christian-acculturated others) are used to mentioning them in one breath doesn’t mean they’re of the same spirit.

It was not until today that I fully realized the scandalon, the powerful magic trick by which difference and discontinuity between these compilations are rendered invisible.

Not that Talmud or Midrash are any more continuous with “scripture” than the gospels and letters of the New Testament. Both traditions, early Christian and early Jewish, employed interpretive techniques and hermeneutical rules to make those ancient and time-honored texts of Moses, the Prophets, and Psalms (or Writings) say what they wanted to hear. Learned Christians looked to Philo of Alexandria for inspiration who allegorized the laws of the Pentateuch; the rabbis honed R. Ishmael’s thirteen measures of interpretation. Both communities became inured to the resistance of the literal and historical meanings of texts whose sanctity was affirmed by bending its meaning to the will of the competing interpreters. And yet, there are important differences between Jewish and Christian readings of the same texts.

1. Hebrew v. Greek

Though the language of the early Christians and the Jews of Judea and Galilee was the same admixture of Aramaic and Greek, the dominant idiom of Roman era Christian discourse was Greek (the language of Paul), while the dominant idiom of Roman age Jewish discourse remained Aramaic. While sayings attributed to Jesus may have circulated in his own native language and that of his disciples, they were soon translated into Greek and other languages, which was part of the point of the gospel’s urgent dissemination to the “ends of the earth.” The kingdom of god arrived in deliberate acts of breaking down language and other barriers between nations, social classes, and – in some cases – also between the sexes, to forge a new humanity that was one in Christ. The vehicle of dissemination of the good news was comprehensible speech, even as one of the signs of the holy spirit was incomprehensible speech.

The rabbis condemned the Greek language and regarded it as a means of self-alienation that should no longer be cultivated. This inward turn came with the renewal of Hebrew as the language of the new law, the Mishnah that took the place of the old as the New Testament did for the Christians. And yet, the Mishnah was promulgated in Hebrew, commented on in Aramaic, and linked to the jots and tittles of the law by means of elaborate exegetical moves. While the oral torah was often suspended from the old like a mountain by a hair, it remained connected through linguistic proximity, wordplay, and the unceasing gesture of honoring the law as one and the same, received by Moses at Sinai.

2. Nation v. movement

The Jews never ceased to be a nation. But what were those early Christians? The religion of the Jews was never anything but an ethnic religion that, in that sense, never offended Roman sensibilities. But what was that Christian “way” proclaimed by the apostles after the death and resurrection of Christ? Binding or not, rabbinic law was meant to unify the Jews within and outside the land of Israel lacking access to their national center, their central sanctuary, and any semblance of national sovereignty. In place of these accustomed forms of independence the rabbis of the late second and early third century created a system of legal autonomy under the auspices of Roman rule. For the next seventeen centuries, this became the dominant way of life and the means to preserve ethnic cohesion and continuity among the Jews. The basic understanding of the Jews as a covenanted community was rooted in and continuous with the Pentateuch, a document forged in the crucible of Babylonian exile and Persian-age reconstruction.

In contrast, the Christian “Way” transcends the boundaries of ethnic nationality, custom, class, and gender. It forges a new humanity that is neither beholden to Moses nor to Homer (Droge), neither Jew nor Greek, rich or poor, male or female, according to Paul. This angelic race anticipates the kingdom of heaven right here on earth. Those who proclaim it might suffer at the hands of powers beholden to Satan and his demons, but they hope to be vindicated either in this life or in the next. They are innocent of the conflicts between nations and they are no threat to the empire (“my kingdom is not of this world”). This innocuous proclamation, which is the gist of the gospels and of Acts, was forged in the crucible of years, during and following the violent suppression of the first Jewish rebellion, when Romans saw the Jews as a rebellious people, barely subdued by the Emperor and his son, Titus, himself immortalized by his brother Domitian.

But instead of proclaiming their complete independence of the Judaic dispensation, as Marcion would, the canonical gospels, the Book of Acts, the rest of the New Testament insist on continuity with the Israelite heritage as one of prophecy and fulfillment. Christ is not simply a spiritual being, as Christian Gnostics would have it, but the Son of David, promised and foreseen by Moses and the prophets, proclaimed through the ages, adumbrated and prefigured by the unwitting testimony of the ancients. Avoiding the odium of innovation, Christians presented themselves as heirs to the most ancient dispensation, going back to Adam, Abraham, Moses, and King David while disowning the stubbornness of the Jews.

Looked at from the outside, from beyond all the rhetoric aimed at persuasion, the Christians appear as a movement rather than a new humanity, a community of believers, a mystery cult devoted to Christ, buoyed by enthusiasm and charisma. Surely successful in forging a new way of life, yet one whose ultimate implications were neither as benign nor as irenic as they foresaw when they were without power or sovereignty of their own.

3. Continuity v. supersession

Perhaps the major difference between Jewish and Christian ways of reading their antecedent scriptures is that between those who assert historical continuity and subject identity and those who appropriate that same tradition while superseding those who are most obviously devoted to its substantive continuation. In this competition, because the Christian way became politically dominant, the spiritual appropriators of an antecedent tradition were privileged over the literal (“carnal”) appropriators of that same tradition.

There are counter-arguments against the stark disjunction between Christianity and Judaism. Despite their pious demurrals the Jews of Palestine were connoisseurs of Greek and Hellenistic civilization. And despite their claim to speak for the entire nation the rabbis had started as a movement of their own and faced competition from other heirs of the same ancestral traditions, among them the Samaritans (kutim) and Karaites. Finally, the oral law didn’t merely augment the written laws of Moses but ultimately superseded them. Very aptly, Susan Handelman (before her most recent turn to Israeli biblical literalism) praised the rabbis as “slayers of Moses.” On the other end of the spectrum, the fact that proto-orthodox Christians affirmed their roots in Moses and the Prophets created a complex continuity between Jews and Christians, progenitors and inheritors, mother and daughter religion. To be sure, the relationship was for the most part one-sided. The mother never acknowledged her daughter, and the daughter was not always inclined to honor her progenitor.

From a strictly pedagogical point of view it served me well to admit that I did not comprehend how this New Testament was rooted in the “Old.” Students were forced to argue whether and if so how the authors of the New Testament gospels and the Book of Acts made a compelling case for continuity between their proclamation and the earlier scriptures. Students  argued that the New Testament represented an “Act II,” a spirited argument that hopes for a restoration of an ideal state of Israel was fulfilled in the advent of Christ. I suggested that Jesus was at best a failed messiah, as he was killed. In the end the New Testament seemed to students like a “surprise ending” that sent the viewers back to what had preceded it to look for a foreshadowing of the end.

Pedagogically speaking I’d say this interpretation was a success. Students admitted that this surprise ending wasn’t as much foreseen as it was found in hindsight in texts that could also be interpreted otherwise.

 

The Bible: a trigger warning

On May 17, 2014, Jennifer Medina published an article in the NYTimes that may forever change the way we approach the teaching of literature in the college classroom. It deprived us of our innocence. Under the heading, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,” Medina points to a new form of self-censorship, called trigger warnings, that instructors are now widely supposed to offer students before exposing them to texts (in the wider sense of text that includes movies, for example) that might set off psychological triggers by describing or depicting racism, rape, violence against women, suicide and other types of behavior that may cause the reader or viewer to relieve traumatic experiences of their own.

Before we dismiss this trend as political correctness or a curb on free speech, we should admit that images, especially moving images, but also words and texts can hurt. Sometimes our own words hurt others. They often do so inadvertently. This is more than regrettable. It is a cause for concern. Aren’t we to provide a safe environment for our students and interlocutors, including those who may be traumatized or offended by things that ordinarily roll of our tongues without giving us pause? Perhaps that is the most valuable aspect of this conversation on the limits of speech. It gives us pause. It makes us think before we speak. Is this not what every decent wisdom tradition has always demanded?

Exposing students to graphic violence or pornography without warning and without a clear pedagogical rationale is inappropriate, though there may be a grey zone. I once inadvertently offended students in a class on Judaism when I read an excerpt from Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (without proper warning). I thought of it as a humorous illustration of Jewish family life, of stereotypes of ethnic family life. But that’s not how I introduced the excerpt, which was my mistake. There are many ways to offend students, and not all are pedagogically justified. Part of the problem is the lack of shared assumptions. Students are often ill prepared for a lecture that uses irony or sarcasm to get a point across. Powerpoints are never sarcastic.

When you teach a text or subject that is dear to students’ hearts, such as the Bible, for example, you are likely to offend. Perhaps it helps to start out with a trigger warning. This could run as follows.

Students should be advised that in this class we will be reading texts that contain offensive material. This includes fratricide (Cain and Abel), incest (Lot and his daughters), child sacrifice (the Binding of Isaac, Jephta’s daughter), rape (Dina at Sichem), adultery (David and Bathsheba), graphic sexual imagery (Ezekiel 16, a speech about Jerusalem as a harlot), erotic imagery mentioning body parts (Song of Songs), suicide (Judas Iscariot), divinely sanctioned genocide (passim), divinely sanctioned spearing or hacking to pieces (Pinhas, Samuel), implied homoeroticism (David and Jonathan), gay-bashing (Lev 18:22), lurid lists of forbidden sexual relations (Leviticus 18:6-18), masturbation (Onan), Satan (1 Chr 21, Book of Job, the New Testament), a deity trying to kill his own prophet (Exodus 4:24), angelic sex (Gen 6), a divinely ordained mass drowing of humanity (Flood story), and violent images about the end of the world (passim).

I realize just how problematic the Bible really is every time I teach it. Once I assigned Ezekiel 16 – the prophet’s derisive review of Jerusalem’s history from its origins as a bastard child of Amorite and Hittite parentage to its impending destruction at the hand of its “lovers” – in a course on Jerusalem. I advertised the passage as my favorite biblical text about Jerusalem. When we read it in class the next day – more precisely, as I was reading it aloud and commented on it – I was disturbed at the text’s implications, and at that moment I no longer knew why I had called it one of my favorite passages. Before we read the text I had shown the trailer of a film about Jerusalem’s only gay bar, a place where Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, secular and religious Jews, men and women, gay and straight all meet as equals, where it does not matter what they are. I showed the clip because it defied the sanitized images we had watched the day before when we saw the most recent National Geographic feature on Jerusalem at the Omni IMAX theater at the Museum of Science in Boston, which had ended on the note that it was not yet time for the three communities, Jews, Christians, and Muslims to meet. This view was presented by the three young women who served as guides to their respective communities. At the end of the film they convened at the same spot in Jerusalem’s Old City without interacting. The film about the gay bar was the perfect antidote. Here everyone met everyone, on the grounds of a shared human need for acceptance and community. Some students responded uneasily (by misplaced laughter) to the display of gay sexuality. Others expressed surprise that this kind of thing existed in Jerusalem, though they imagined that gays might be more comfortable in Tel Aviv. Most found it shocking to hear that during a gay pride parade a Jewish orthodox man attacked marchers with a knife.

As it turns out, Ezekiel provides a script for knifemen and religious extremists. He condemns Jerusalem for its pluralism. He takes it for granted that the proper handling of an adulterous wife is that she be stripped naked in public and stoned. The Bible is an uncomfortable anthology. A vademecum that always needed to be sanitized by the Jews and Christians who call it sacred. Sacred sometimes means scary.

 

 

Mosaic Law: It’s not what you thought

There was a moment in today’s class that should not go unnoticed. The reading assignment this week in RN101 The Bible was Exodus 19-34, Leviticus 18-20, and a bunch of chapters from Deuteronomy for Friday. Yesterday we looked at the framing of the Sinai covenant, the quasi theatrical scene in Exodus 19, the deity’s physical appearance and the curious denial and affirmation that Moses saw YHWH face to face. I pushed the text to saying that the deity can only be “seen” through the (text of the) law itself, which enjoins an imitatio of the divine attributes of action  YHWH proclaims as he passes by Moses. So far so good.

Then, today, I started with Leviticus 18-20, showed how it addressed the people as a whole rather than the Aaronide priests who are addressed before and after, explaining what “holy” means in Hebrew and pointing out that the difference or separateness (“exceptionalism”) of the Israelites and their deity is based in lawful conduct, whereby the laws (here and in the “book of the covenant”) are – give and take a few exceptions – quite reasonable laws, establishing a just society, and enabling the nation to live and flourish in the land they inherited from the unwise and unlawful people whom the land had “vomited out.”

At some point I had raised the question, what kind of law is it that the Israelites are enjoined to follow if they wish to succeed in the land YHWH was giving them. And at some point a student said, that the entire matter of the laws of Moses was completely unlike what Christians made of it, that it had nothing to do with trying to please God and everything with establishing a successful society, with laws conducive to social welfare and public order.

The way he formulated it, briefly and succinctly, I cannot reproduce. But it was such an “aha!” moment, such a crisp articulation of what I had hoped for the students to understand and to some extent had forgotten that that’s what I had wanted them to understand that it took me by surprise. I thanked the student for his insight and paused before I continued, to let what he had said sink in.

What do we learn from this? If you have a profound text and you get out of the way just long enough that it can speak, it will speak and students will hear. But they also need to have thought and known something, even if what they thought or knew was wrong or erroneous, in order to benefit from the encounter with the text, with the text’s resistance to their assumptions. They need to have been part of a pertinent conversation to benefit from surprising deviations from the expected, the already known. There are few things more rewarding than moments like this.

 

On Moses

We don’t know whether there was a historical Moses. As Jan Assmann wrote in his Moses the Egyptian, Pharaoh Amenophis IV “Akhenaten” was a figure of history but not of memory, while Moses is a figure of memory but perhaps not of history.

And yet, Moses, as a figure of memory, has exerted considerable historical “influence,” or better, the Moses figure has been vigorously received by multiple civilizations that based their worldviews on biblical figures, symbols, and motifs. Moses and the various Mosaic projects derived from or built upon Mosaic precedent and justified by Mosaic and ultimately divine authority are of fundamental importance to Jewish, Christian and Muslim conceptions of divine revelation, law, politics, liturgy, and even philosophical beliefs. Secular heirs to the Moses tradition as well have found meaning in the story of Moses and the Exodus. One of the most astounding modern works on Moses, Freud’s Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion went as far as casting Moses as an Egyptian, coming full circle, back to the biblical text and its possible implications.

In fact, Freud split the biblical figure of Moses into two distinct individuals, one Egyptian and one Midianite, neither one Jewish in an ethnic sense. The historical speculation at play in Freud’s writing is secondary to his primary impulse, which is to unveil the psycho-dramatic underpinnings of the great figure of Moses who represents the conflict Freud is interested in, that is, the great psycho-physiological conflict of filial love-hate, incestuous desire, and the repression of primal urges that, according to Freud, provide the psychic energy needed to produce civilized behavior. In that reading, our great myths and stories are veiled references to hidden and repressed desires rooted in physiological constants of our species: illusions that are products of displaced infantile wish fulfillment, the greatest such illusion being religion.

What do I mean by Moses as a “figure.” According to Erich Auerbach, the “figural structure” refers to a pattern of interpretation that is especially familiar from Christian readings that see important moments in the lives of Christ and the saints as prefigured in personages, moments and events from the Old Testament. I am using “figure” in a slightly less specific sense. For one, I use it to suggest that the biblical Moses is never simply the character in a story that can be understood solely from the details of its canonical telling or that is entirely coherent or compelling from within the literary framework of that story. Moses always points beyond himself and outside of the story in which he appears, if Exodus and the rest of the Torah constitute a story at all. By echoing the lives of other great heroes of the ancient world, Moses points to what is familiar from, and prefigured by, other heroes and therefore invites comparison and recognition of a known genre of heroic biographies that, in this case, include the story of the rise of Sargon of Agade and the tale of Sinuhe the Egyptian. But by virtue of Moses’ reception and retelling in light of other “great man” traditions, Moses also fails to remain completely embedded in the story of his life as contained in the Torah. Moses belongs as much to those who supply additional detail and interpretation and who rearrange his life in light of new interests and sensitivities, who remake Moses into a character without necessarily abandoning his significance as a great figure. More cipher than defined personality, Moses comes to embody different qualities to different adopters of the biblical tale of this prophet extraordinaire. Freud’s reading is only a recent example in this long history of extracting new meaning from Moses.

We need not make up our minds in advance whether Moses existed or not. The Moses we have is the Moses of Scripture, of the Bible, especially of the Five Books of Moses. This starting point is not a simple one. It is doubled by the fact that Moses appears as a figure in a book attributed to Moses: Moses the actor and Moses the author. And even if we don’t follow tradition in ascribing the Torah to Mosaic authorship, there is still the suggestion, in the Torah, that Moses wrote, perhaps not the entire Torah as we have it, but perhaps parts of it: the laws deposited with the Ark of the Covenant and the Song he composed and sang toward the end of his life, at the fields of Moab, in the hearing of the Israelites, at the time when he passed his authority as their leader to Joshua as his successor. In the biblical book that bears the name of the latter, Joshua is said to have committed himself to following the instructions of Moses (torah asher tsivah Mosheh avdi) as well as to study this book of instructions (sefer torah ha-zeh) day and night so as to do everything that is written in it, etc. This brings us to the important question of how Moses and the Book of Instruction (sefer torah) appear across the canonical and deutero-canonical writings outside the Torah, a curious subject in its own right.

Moses is mentioned outside the Torah, but not as frequently or consistently as one might expect. The canonical order of books suggests that the Torah of Moses was there first, that it preceded and authorized the conquest of Canaan, that it was known to the tribes and their judges before the rise of kingship in Israel, that it was deposited in Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem generations. It is the divine law that always should have been followed. But the first time that we hear of a sefer torah (literally “a scroll of instructions”) in the Book of Kings is late in the kingdom of Judah, when Josiah of Judah, upon reaching adulthood, orders repairs to the royal temple in Jerusalem (2 K 22). Prior to this inventio (accidental coming upon a sacred place or object), the scroll that emerged during these repairs and that the king has authenticated by court prophetess Hulda was utterly unknown, its content does not correspond to the Torah of Moses as we have it, and Moses is not directly associated with it. Moses was known in Judah, and he is mentioned in Judahite prophetic books, including once in Micah, once in Jeremiah, and twice in Trito-Isaiah, where he is remembered as the “shepherd of his flock” and associated with the miracle of the parting of the sea (see Isa 63:11-12). In Micah 6:4, Moses appears alongside Aaron and Miriam in a reminder of the Exodus tradition. In Jeremiah 15:1 he appears as an intercessor like Samuel. On the other hand, the 8th-century Israelite prophet Hosea speaks of the Exodus from Egypt (Hosea 11:1 “From Egypt I have called you my son”) without mentioning Moses, much as in the rabbinic Passover where Moses is completely eclipsed. While Moses is therefore part of Judahite tradition, he remains marginal until he is associated with writing, specifically the writing of Torah.[1] In pre-exilic Judah, Moses was remembered not as the author of a book but as the fashioner of a powerful bronze object that served to avert the plague. (See 2 K 18:4 and cf. Num 21:4-9).

Only later, when Jerusalem is reestablished under Persian rule and Ezra, priest and scribe, assembles the Jews at the rebuilt temple do we hear of a public reading of Torah that moves the people to tears. The Torah as we have it, as Julius Wellhausen argued more than a century ago, seems more like the result of the long history of Israel described in the above brief summary rather than its precondition. In other words, to get a historical handle on Moses we mustn’t be fooled by the canonical order of books. The figure of Moses who leads the Israelites out of Egypt, the House of Slavery, to the cusp of the Promised Land, is a figure of Torah, a book of laws and instructions received in the desert but meant to be studied, day and night, and diligently hearkened so as to do it, so as to merit the land YHWH has promised to the forefathers of the nation. Remaining in that land inherited once before, a long time ago, is contingent on the observance of Torah, of living by a law that, as it says in Deuteronomy, is so very good that it will be the envy of your neighbors. Life-enabling laws that provide the foundation of a successful society but that will be a witness against you should you ignore it. The relevance of this narrative for the community of returning exiles cannot be overestimated. In so many ways, exile and return, Torah and the persistence of the Jews, have remained the most important source and characteristic of the Jewish experience. The figure of Moses, by whose mediation the Torah was received as a book that henceforth accompanied the Jews on their migration through history, pales in comparison with the divine lawgiver and the covenant made at Sinai between YHWH and Israel. As a result, Moses’ absence in much of Scripture is not very noticeable. The voice of the prophets stands in for him, though he was the chief of the prophets and there was none like him. The glaring absence of Moses from most of the canon barely matters. The rabbis crafted a liturgy of the Passover festival, which celebrates the Exodus from Egypt and that, in lieu of a temple to which a Jew could make pilgrimage, is to be chanted in the house at night around a table set with symbolic foods. In the traditional Haggadah or story of Passover, Moses is never mentioned. Not even once. We can only speculate why. Suffice it to say at this point that this was not an inevitable choice. Samaritans who celebrate the Passover until today as instructed in the Torah by slaughtering, boiling, and consuming lambs at night on the mountain of Garizim, their ancestral sanctuary near the West Bank town of Nablus, regard Moses as the greatest manifestation of divine power (hela rabba).

Not so the Rabbis. Rabbinic Judaism developed a different Moses, one who has more affinity with the rabbis themselves as students of Torah. The Moses of the Rabbis varies. In some stories he is shown heaven and hell, in others he sits in the back of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom like an ignoramus who has no idea what this genius is talking about. When he is told by his neighbor that he is interpreting the Torah of Moses he is satisfied. When he is shown the martyrdom of Akiva, he is abhorred. Moses, the clueless. The rabbis, as Susan Handelman famously put it, were “slayers of Moses.” Freud was neither the first nor the last Jewish reader fascinated with Moses and obsessed with making sense of his life story. Conversely, it is by way of Moses that Freud found a way of expressing his own Jewishness. Without Moses, no Judaism.

Moses, the sometimes obscured and sometimes venerated, is more than Judaism, more and other than what Jews and Samaritans made of him. This is one of the most curious facts in the history of civilization. Without the sting of the law, no Pauline or Protestant anomism. Without Moses, neither Jesus nor Muhammad. How did Moses turn from the figure of Exodus, Sinai, and forty years of wanderings in the desert into the paradigmatic lawgiver and model for offices and personages in the Christian and Muslim faiths? It has been pointed out that such appropriations significantly misread the biblical text and its original intentions, but the same can be said of Jewish appropriations as well. Everyone misreads Moses. And only by misreading Moses can one make sense of Moses. The question is rather why would they try to make sense of Moses rather than of other great figures of the past. The Mosaic revelation was strikingly successful. Though rebranded in a number of important ways, sometimes reduced to a preliminary or intermediate stage in the history of divine salvation and sometimes surpassed by further acts of divine revelation, Moses remained the touchstone and measure by which those surpassings were judged. Only by being more than Moses could Jesus be Jesus. Only by being different in comparison with Moses could Muhammad be the seal of the prophets.

 

[1] I am ignoring here those stereotypical mentions in the Book of Kings that suggest that the law of Moses was known to the early good kings of Judah (David in 1 K 2:3, Solomon in 1 K 8) and to the later good kings, incl. Amaziah/Uzziah (2 K 14:6), Hezekiah (2 K 18:6), indications why Israel was carried into exile (2 K 18:12), why Josiah excelled as he did (2 K 23:25), and the like. Most of these passages can safely be attributed to exilic or post-exilic authorships. The great exemption from this rule is 2 K 18:4 where Hezekiah is said to have removed nehushtan (“bronzey”) from the temple as an idolatrous object fashioned by Moses.