Free speech: An open letter to President Trump

Dear Mr. President,

An executive order promoting free speech and the freedom of thought across all institutions of higher learning should be welcomed by all. As Boston University President Robert A. Brown put it at a recent gathering in anticipation of your executive order, what you are telling us to do is what we are already doing.

Boston University, like many of its peers, is a place where we cherish the open exchange of views and ideas. The only restriction we place on the freedom of speech is that it should not promote hatred and violence. Would you agree that this is a meaningful exception to free speech? Should we not promote what one might call “measured” speech?

Freedom of speech should not be an excuse for careless expression of views that promote goals that are contrary to the mission of higher education, a mission that is universally agreed on. That mission commits us to the promotion of excellence in teaching, research, and service, so as to promote the best in ourselves and in our students.

The university’s commitment to the pursuit of truth is the reason why we teach our students to distinguish between knowledge and rhetoric, between the search for truth and sophistry. Free speech on campus does not mean “everything goes.” It means that we need to learn how to challenge one another’s orthodoxies, and to do so respectfully, not for the sake of winning arguments or promoting political causes, but so as to arrive at a better understanding of the world we live in and of which we are a part. Freedom of thought is not an ideological orientation. It is a necessity of human survival.

Respectfully,

Michael Zank

Professor of Religion

Boston University

The Ilhan Omar Affair

Can a Muslim American politician be critical of Israel and her American supporters without being anti-Semitic?

The answer to this question is obviously: yes. There is no question, or there shouldn’t be one. First of all, it doesn’t matter whether she is Muslima, Christian, Jew or something else. Religion should not be considered in such matters. Her criticism should be judged on its merits, and maybe on its ulterior motives, but not on her religious affiliation. The fact that the US Congress has Muslims representing Muslims and others, and that she is a woman, should be compounded causes for celebration. Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee and daughter of a Somali refugee father (her mother died when she was two) makes this country ever so slightly less absurdly European white male dominated. Her deviance from this norm is part of why she is paying a steep price for her outspokenness. It’s also why others on the new left have been declaring their solidarity with Omar, even though her comments about Jews and supporters of Israel were needlessly offensive. Which brings us to the next point.

Can a Muslim American politician be critical of Israel and her American supporters without being anti-Semitic? One would hope so. As Tom Friedman wrote in the NYTimes, one can be a Jew from Minnesota, criticize AIPAC and loathe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and not veer into anti-Semitic territory. One might counter that the reason why Tom Friedman can say things that Ilhan Omar can’t and not be accused of anti-Semitism is simply that he is Jewish. But non-Jews have been able to criticize Israel, Israeli policies, and Israeli politicians without accusing Jews of dual allegiance, or insinuating that American support for Israel is bought by Jewish money (“the Benjamins, baby”). Ilhan Omar has complicated matters by apologizing for some of her remarks. But then she soldiered into the next faux pas. And so observers are puzzled: is she just inexperienced and blurts out things people around her say without thinking, or is she calculatingly appealing to her base? Either would be bad.

Now, on a scale from 1 to 10, how important is any of this? If we went by the amount of stuff written about this affair we would think that Western civilization itself is on the brink of collapse because of Ms. Omar’s annoying statements. People on the right see her remarks, and their defense by the left, as heralding the end of the exceptional status of Israel in American politics. Some would consider this a good thing, whereas others believe it is a sign that the America we know and love is doomed if we don’t speak up now and condemn the Congresswoman from Minnesota for her defamation of those of us who support and love Israel as the sovereign nation state of the Jews. (It should be allowed to ask since when and why Israel has become so central to the American narrative. In fact, that’s exactly what Ms. Omar is asking. She’s just not pointing her question in the right direction. It’s not the Jews, baby.)

After days of soul searching, reading around, and discussing how to respond to Ms. Omar I am left with the feeling that we are wasting our time. We are dealing with a case of hyper-moral narcissism. Why can’t we cut her some slack and let the matter die down? She will reveal what she is made of. We will find out what she really thinks. There are many bigots in Congress. Why shouldn’t some of them be Muslims?

Meanwhile we should all go back to working on some of the things that really matter: ending the humanitarian crisis at the southern border; working on getting HR1 through the Senate; exerting oversight over the many systemic abuses of power by the executive branch; having a decent human being elected to the presidency; and unite everyone behind the Green New Deal. Jews, Somalis, Muslims, Christians, queer, straight, what does it matter if we destroy our planet ? Now get back to work, everyone.

A lecture on tolerance

Epic Poetry and Jewish Peoplehood

In the following considerations I take my cue from Hermann Cohen’s aesthetic theory, as presented in Sebastian Wogenstein’s informative book on “tragedy and Judaism from Cohen and Levinas” (Horizonte der Moderne. Tragödie und Judentum von Cohen bis Lévinas. Heidelberg: Winter, 2011). Similar to Myriam Bienenstock’s more recent monograph on Cohen und Rosenzweig (Alber 2018), Wogenstein takes his point of departure from Hegel’s early theological writings, zeroes in on the aesthetic problem of tragedy (its coming into being in the age of Solon and Aeschylos, and the political and religious issues that arise from it), and thus sets the stage for a discussion of modern Jewish thought as a “critique of the critique critique” (to quote The Young Karl Marx movie), or rather as an inspired replique to Hegel that avoids the aggressive (anti-Jewish) dialectic and provides a more capacious interpretation of aesthetics, politics, and religion as mutually constitutive elements of the cultural consciousness.

So much as an explanation of where I am coming from right now. For the remainder of my review of these and other fairly recent books on Cohen you (and I) will need to wait for its publication in Modern Judaism.

What I am interested in right now is this. Wogenstein describes (on pp. 66f) Cohen’s analysis of the epic poetry of Homer (in Ästhetik des reinen Gefühls), showing that it is epos which creates the self-perception of an aggregation of people as a nation (Volk). In other words, according to Cohen, nationality is a product of art rather than nature. It transforms an aggregation of people from a variety of origins into a political unity. In an aside, Wogenstein’s Cohen also mentions that it is impossible for modern nations to produce epic poetry as the epos presupposes the “foggy world” (Nebelwelt) of myth. (Little did Cohen know that there was going to be a close imitation of myth employed in the production of modern hyper-nationalism, or rather, his entire theory aimed at the prevention of such a thing.)

While the ostensible subject is the creation of a Greek national identity from a variety of tribes, it intrigues me to think about how his theory might apply to the Torah and the Jewish people. This is not idle speculation. The parallel is not far fetched. Jewish peoplehood is, and always has been, based on a national epos, the Torah. Jews refer back to the Torah as the point of national origin whenever there is a crisis in the unity of the Jews, whenever the unified origin and character of the Jews as a people or nation is in question.

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The Torah itself claims a dual origin of the Jews. Genesis describes a world of related nations emanating from the loins of Abram (“exalted father”). Exodus describes the moment at which the descendants of Jacob/Israel as well as the mixed multitude that eloped with them from Egypt are covenanted at Sinai and hence constituted as a political nation. In Genesis, the Israelites are a product of nature, but so are others. Their natural origins are not what distinguish the Israelites. In Exodus, the Hebrew slaves are not the only ones blessed by the escape from Egyptian forced labor. Once again, their natural unity is negated and their predisposition to serve as a “chosen nation” is entirely questionable, as evidenced in their general behavior toward Moses. The Book of Numbers makes it abundantly clear that, in terms of their disposition, the Israelites are the same before and after Sinai. The only thing that has changed and that provides the precondition of their future success is the order those assembled at Sinai accepted and placed upon themselves.

Christian and Muslim interpreters of the Israelite epic story of origin always emphasized the natural deficiencies of their biblical antecedents. Jewish tradition eventually placed the origin of the Torah of Sinai to before the creation of heaven and earth and hence into a nebulous world of myth. In medieval mysticism, the “mixed multitude” was forgotten in favor of the notion that Israel achieved a special ontological status at Sinai, an extra soul that made Israel alone into a human being in the full sense. The lower the social status of the Jews, the more assertive their ontological status. Not so in the Torah.

The Torah satisfies another characteristic of epic poetry. It strips the narrative of origins of its topical, contemporary aspects and transposes the story of unification into a time long ago. Quoting Cohen (as cited by Wogenstein p. 68, my translation):

Proceedings and actions are depicted as events [Begebenheiten] and, in terms of tense, placed in the past, a most distant past. Any current interest is eliminated, and therefore stripped of anything personal or transitional of the political present.

It was this sentence that jogged my recollection of S. David Sperling’s excellent book, The Original Torah. The Political Intent of the Bible’s Writers (New York 2003), which argues that the Torah was, in fact, an allegorical representation of Iron Age political realities set in a distant past. The most persuasive textual evidence Sperling provides for this provocative thesis is the obvious parallel between the Deuteronomistic narrative of the sin of King Jeroboam I and his two sons and the alien fire carried before the LORD by the sons of Aaron. To seal the parallel between the Deuteronomistic account of Jeroboam and the story of Aaron, Sperling adduces the Golden Calf incident and its suggestive connections with the establishment of the sanctuary at Bethel. Sperling makes no statements about the redactional history of the Torah where we find the favorable story of Bethel of Genesis 28 and 35 side by side with the negative story about Aaron and the bull images of Exodus.

It is surely not easy to reconstruct the editorial history of the Torah, but it is less difficult to match some of the narratives with realities and recollections from the history of the Israelite and Judahite kingdoms as well as to recognize the needs of the period of reconstruction following the exile and the reestablishment of Jerusalem as a temple city as reflected in biblical law. It has long been recognized that there are echoes of all the major epochs of Israelite and Jewish nation-building in the Torah. It is as if the great epic narrative of common origin and covenanting continued to be worked out as the political community was forced to reconstruct itself over and over again under changing circumstances. And every time, it was the epic narrative of origin that had to accomplish the task of unification: not only of the nation or community, but of its complex and disruptive past. It thus provided not just a single epic story that bound people of different origin together, but it became a record of a series of revolutionary changes in the constitution of the nation whose origin it narrates. It is precisely the composite nature of the Torah that reconstitutes and repairs the nation by collecting the fragments of national history and institution-building into a single continuous narrative.

Belief, Unbelief, and the College Study of Religion

When people ask me what I teach, and I answer “religious studies,” I am always compelled to add that this has nothing to do with theology, and everything with the Humanities. Aside from the fact that I don’t wish to appear religious when I am not, I also want my work to be taken seriously as a kind of “scientific” inquiry; “scientific” here in the sense of the German term Wissenschaft. Humanistic research into the sources, truth claims, and effects of religious beliefs is guided and delimited by the fundamental assumptions of all Humanities, which is that religion is one human form of self-expression, community-building, and world-representing among others. The starting point of academic religious studies is therefor our methodical irreligion.

When we study the so-called “western” religions, the major subject of our research is a legacy of prophetic revelation present in form of texts and claims to their divine origin and authority. Revelation is the subject of our humanistic study of religion. The question I want to consider in the following is whether the fundamental assumption of the humanistic study of religion is adequate for the study of its subject.

To avoid any misunderstanding, let me emphasize that I am not raising this question because I believe in divine revelation in the sense suggested by the plain meaning of our foundational texts. My intention is not to defend the truth claims of any or all religions. Rather, I have come to experience our methodical questioning of the truth claims of revelation as less than self-evident, as in need of its own methodical reexamination. I add, for purely autobiographical self-indulgence, that this question has been with me since I first set foot in the lecture halls of the academy. What justifies our attack on the beautiful world of religious belief?

In order to avoid the aggressive gesture of an attack, some of us prefer to say that their study of the revealed religions “brackets” the truth claims of their subject and deals with religious myths, symbols, and rituals exclusively as “phenomena,” i.e., with experiences represented in linguistic and other forms of symbolic representation. Things as experienced and communicated are always open to critical investigation even as the actual subject of the experience remains elusive. This approach veils any skeptical or negative attitude toward the truth-claims of religion on the part of the investigator behind a screen of methodological limitation: human comprehension as too limited to judge divine realities as such. This was Kant’s solution to the problems of metaphysics, a solution that did not prevent him from making far-reaching assertions about the ethical content of the Christian religion, or on the lack of religious cum moral function of Judaism.

Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831

To invoke Kant in this context means to invoke the German Enlightenment. Instead of drawing a clear line between scientific knowledge and religious belief, as did the radical Enlightenment of Voltaire, Toland, Hume, and others, Kant and the German idealists took it upon themselves to interpret religion as a symbolic representation or anticipation of rational truths, in however limited or distorted form. Their starting point as well was the denial of any knowledge of revelation as revelation, in other words, their negative starting point was their lack of belief in revelation as such. If there is no revelation, there is no compelling reason to consider Judaism, Christianity, or Islam as revealed religions or as more or less adequate representations of revealed truths or revealed laws. (The latter difference ought to remind us that the debate on the content and character of Judaism and Christianity is more complicated than what I suggest here. See Mendelssohn, Jerusalem.) They are merely the more or less deficient, or more or less perfect, expressions of the “spirit” (Hegel). Once reduced to the level of humanity, revealed religion is open to be criticized for its all-to-human causes and effects. There is nothing to prevent us from seeing religion as the excrescence of socio-economic forces (Marx), as the means of repression of our natural desires for dominance (Nietzsche) or sexual pleasure (Freud), or means by which we satisfy our need for belonging (Durkheim).

This point of departure for the modern study of religion has been challenged by the “renewal of orthodoxy” (Strauss, Preface to SCR), following the Great War. There is now a clash between two contrary assertions, both of which appear equally grounded in axiomatic assumptions, namely, belief and unbelief, rather than ignorance and knowledge. With Goethe, Strauss argued that these two positions (belief and unbelief) are not equivalent. Only one of them is original, namely belief, whereas the other one is a mere negation of belief, without a constructive first assumption of its own. (I am aware that Blumenberg argues otherwise. Strauss’s overall project may be described as the attempt to retrieve a position where the fundamental difference is no longer that between belief and unbelief but between knowledge and ignorance.)

To reiterate, the point of these considerations is not to defend religion but to draw attention to a fundamental problem of justification that arises from an unresolved and often unstated first assumption we bring to the teaching of religion in the context of the Humanities.

One of our responsibilities as teachers of religious studies in the context of the Humanities is coeval with one of the founding principles of the Humanities, that is, the modeling of habits of critical thinking. Critical thinking requires thought to turn on itself. It asks questions, such as how do we know, and what makes us so certain? The largely forgotten origin of this modern school of critical thinking is the method of doubt, first articulated by Renée Descartes in his Discourse on Method. In order to know, we must subject all of our opinions and assumptions to doubt, so as to arrive at an unquestionable starting point. Descartes argued that this starting point is doubt itself, which leads to the presupposition of our existence as thinking beings, or being grounded in thought. (Note: Strauss points to a difference between opinions, which were the problem addressed by Socrates/Plato, and prejudice, which is our problem, namely, since the advent of our “revealed” religions in the world of human culture, an insight Strauss associates with Maimonides, Guide I, Introduction.)

Subjecting our convictions to doubt means to cast doubt on doubt itself. In this particular case, casting doubt on doubting the reality of revelation, which has turned into an unquestioned conviction. This is not to assert that revelation is “real” in a more acute or different sense than anything else is “real.” (See Hermann Cohen on the “judgment of reality.”) But the methodical subjection of the “real” to an idealist critique, as in Kantian and post-Kantian idealist philosophy, cannot methodologically deny what orthodoxy and neo-orthodoxy assert, namely, that it is perfectly legitimate from “beyond the limits of mere reason” to assert revelation as an actual event, an actual experience, and hence a claim to an absolute obligation. It is this legitimate challenge to the limitation of what can and may be said about revelation that makes it appear problematic to impose an unbelieving (including idealist) framework on the discourse on religious truth that takes place in our classrooms.

To proceed in our approach to questions of God, revelation, and religious beliefs of this kind without taking this challenge of the authority of critique into consideration, means to proceed uncritically.

(To be continued.)

Speaking in Tongues

The Book of Acts tells the story of how the good news of the risen Christ spread from Jerusalem to Rome. The anonymous narrator, identified by tradition as Luke, one of Paul’s Gentile travel companions, shows why the gospel proclaimed by the Peter, John, Stephen, and Paul was perceived as compelling and persuasive. The proclamation is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit that is manifest in the new manner of living practiced by the “brothers” (NRSV adds “and sisters”), by the extraordinary ability of the apostles to speak in public, and by other manifestations of divine empowerment, such as healing the sick and driving out evil spirits. The transformation of the timid disciples into capable apostles of Christ occurs in the famous scene of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit that appears like tongues of fire over those assembled at the Upper Room in Jerusalem, on the occasion of the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) or Pentecost, seven weeks after Passover, the time of Christ’s death. This configuration is not accidental. Passover celebrates the exodus of from slavery, while the Feast of Weeks marks the covenant of Sinai, the revelation of the Torah. Acts uses this liturgical correlation to make a point. The followers of Christ are given to understand that the same divine authority that liberated the Jews from Egypt and revealed the law to those assembled at Sinai stands behind the eschatological realization of a scheme of redemption and revelation in which those who receive the good news are taking part at the very moment they receive it and carry it forward.

Something else happens on Pentecost. The twelve apostles, corresponding to the twelve tribes assembled at Sinai, assembled in the Upper Room where Christ had held his last supper, begin to proclaim the gospel in languages that they had not been taught. This happens the moment the Spirit is poured out over them. They speak in tongues. Devout Jews “from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” overheard the apostles and commented on what they witnessed in either of two ways. Some were baffled to hear the gospel proclaimed in their own language, a phenomenon called xenolalia. Others dismissed the phenomenon as mere glossolalia or drunken gobbledygook, saying, these people are full of new wine; an unwitting attestation of the truth (cf. Mark 2:22).

The sophisticated narrative of the miracle of the Pentecost cast the beginning of church history as an eschatological reversal of the confusion of languages at the end of the primordial history of Genesis 11. It also had the curious side effect of sanctioning the practice of glossolalia. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul attests that he himself engaged in this practice more than others, but refrained from it when there was no one to interpret. Glossolalia returned in the beginning of the 20th century, when the modern Pentecostal movement took off in American revivalist congregations, and it has since spread across the globe as one of the fastest growing Christian movements. (See https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-58/rise-of-pentecostalism-christian-history-timeline.html). In contrast to the reticence of Paul to practice glossolalia in public, contemporary “charismatic” Christians cultivate this enthusiastic practice as part of their manner of worship.

As a teenage born-again Christian I was persuaded that, in order to complete my initiation into the full scope of Christian faith, I needed to receive the “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” Without it, my Christian life would be incomplete, or so I was told by members of a family that was leading retreats popular among some fellow-believers in my hometown and across the region. I already had a rich Christian life. In addition to the local Protestant church where I was active as a Sunday school instructor, I had discovered a world of private gatherings for the purpose of Bible study, prayer, and mutual edification. We formed prayer-circles (Gebetskreise) that met before or during school, and we attended retreats (Freizeiten), where we forged connections with believers elsewhere. This made us discover that believers are everywhere. We gave, and enjoyed one another’s, home hospitality and experienced what it means to be part of an interconnected international intentional community. I gained status in those circles by the fact that I liked to sing and play the guitar. This made me a leader. Every time I introduced myself to a new group or a visiting pastor, I gave testimony of how I had accepted Christ as my personal savior and what my life was like before. Whenever I mentioned that my mother was Jewish I was told that this made me “a son of Abraham according to the flesh,” in addition to being “a son of Abraham according to the spirit” by virtue of my faith. This made me feel special.

And yet, I was told, my life as a Christian was incomplete without the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I had been baptized as a child into the local Protestant church. At some point I also underwent an adult baptism as an expression of faith (Glaubenstaufe), something I knew full well was considered a heresy by my church. It taught me that when it comes to God’s command, one must obey it even if it means going against human conventions. Acts like this have certain social and psychological effects. In social terms, one loosens one’s ties with one’s community of birth and ties oneself closer to a secretive circle of initiates. Because it is a joint transgression of those who baptize and those who receive baptism, it forms a serious bond between hierophant and novice. In psychological terms, this type of secretive ritual heightens one’s sense of self importance. It does not make a person humble but it instills an intense pride in having achieved a kind of spiritual peak. The same is true of the baptism with the Holy Spirit.

In order to receive the Holy Spirit someone else who already received the Holy Spirit must pray with you while laying his or her hands on your head or shoulders. God willing, the Holy Spirit will enter you like a warm stream that fills you with an extraordinary sensation and a feeling of elation. The sign that the Spirit has entered you may or may not be that you will henceforth be able to speak in tongues. I chose the time and the people I trusted the most in order to receive the Spirit, a married couple who exuded an extraordinary aura of holiness, calm, and mutual love. They were the same people the sister in Christ whom I loved and trusted the most had chosen for the same purpose. Following our baptism with the Holy Spirit, we were both able to be in a communion of prayer that was unlike anything we experienced with other people. At least that’s what it was like for me.

Looking at paintings depicting the miracle of the Pentecost, I am struck to see a woman at the center of the scene. The Virgin Mary is mentioned in Acts 1:14 as being among the apostles and the brothers of Jesus. She is not explicitly mentioned in connection with the Pentecost, but later tradition must have placed her there or she would not have been painted into those depictions. In fact, where the mother of Christ is included, she occupies center stage and she, too, receives the Holy Spirit.

 

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I eventually stopped speaking in tongues. I gave it up when I renounced my baptism with the Holy Spirit. This came after I discovered, that my feeling of intimacy with God was closely linked with being with my fellow believers. When I found myself by myself or surrounded by regular people, I had nothing to say to them. No testimony to give. No bias confirmation about my extraordinary qualities. This came as a surprise and it planted the seed of a suspicion in my mind that much of what I had thought of as God’s voice in me might have been merely the product of self-suggestion.

Giving up on the Holy Spirit is something one does not do easily or take lightly. After all, Jesus says that the only sin that cannot be forgiven is the sin against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29). Once again I prayed with someone, in this case, an itinerant preacher whose mission it was to liberate people from the scourge of the false belief in the baptism with the Holy Spirit. I told God I did not want to insult him, but if the baptism I had received was wrong I asked God to take it away from me. The prayer worked. I felt relieved. Letting go of the baptism with the Holy Spirit enabled me to once again communicate with my fellow human beings without first consulting the spirit within me for guidance. I could simply be me again. Many years later, when I first read Martin Buber’s description of the I-Thou relationship, it resonated with me because I felt it described what I had retrieved when I renounced the baptism with the Holy Spirit. Being baptized with the Holy Spirit, at least in my case, had the effect of alienating me from others. It put me at a distance from other people. I could no longer encounter people for who they were. After all, I knew something special, and they didn’t. I was in on a divine secret, and they were not. I was in, and they were out. There was a wall between me and others that I had no reason to break down. It was a kind of holy arrogance that I have since come to abhor. Letting go of the Holy Spirit was like an angel giving up her wings, or an immortal person becoming mortal, for the sake of being able to live a full-blooded, fully embodied life.

The only foreign tongues I still speak are those I’ve acquired the hard way, by studying languages. I still practice xenolalia. I do it every day by speaking, and writing, the language of others.

Hanukkah: hiding in plain sight

Hanukkah: eight nights and eight lights, ma’oz tsur, chocolate money, dreydldreydldreydl. Latke parties and gaudy decoration. What’s not to love?

When it comes to the great miracle of light, people regularly miss the point. The rabbis made sure we did. The last drops of pure oil that was needed to rekindle the seven-branched candelabra at the temple in Jerusalem were barely enough for one day, but — a miracle! — it lasted for the eight days needed to prepare new the oil so it could once again burn in perpetuity. Nice. But a nes gadol? The parting of the sea was a nes gadol, but this? Really?

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The lighting of the menorah, the songs, and the sweet jelly donuts cleverly distract us from asking too many questions, except, where’s the applesauce? This makes an interesting contrast to the biblical festival of Passover. When it comes to the Parting of the Sea, the rabbis encourage questions. The more you discuss the better. Why these laws and why those laws, where does this come from, how do we know that? Questions upon questions before you are even allowed to eat! Not on Hanukkah. Say a blessing, light the menorah, put it in the window, and eat a lot of greasy food. But don’t ask, what is this about?

Hanukkah is not a law of Moses from Sinai. The rabbis inherited the celebration of national heroism from the days of the Hasmonean priest-kings who ruled a resurgent Jewish commonwealth from about 142 until 63 BCE . The rabbis kept the festival of lights but they got rid of the Books of the Maccabees. Removed from the curriculum, just like that. Why?

Was it because the Hasmoneans combined kingship and priesthood? But they didn’t rule as kings over the Jews. Herod the Great was the first to do that, and his relationship with the Hasmoneans ended badly for the Hasmoneans. (“Off with their heads!”)

Was it because they were too Hellenistic themselves? True, the Books of the Maccabees came down to us in Greek, not Hebrew, and most of them were written in Greek, as propaganda literature for Greek-speaking Jews and Ptolemaic society in Alexandria, asserting that the Jews didn’t rebel for fun. The bad Seleucids made them do it because one of them (who also once threatened Alexandria) interfered with their ancestral laws. Jews don’t make revolution. They just, with G-d’s help, restore order. Very peaceful. In fact, three of the Books named for the Maccabees are not about the Maccabees at all, but they tell stories about the horrible tribulations that preceded the rise of those noble saviors of the fatherland, times during which the Jews proved to be not just courageous resisters but pious sufferers, martyrs for their ancestral laws. In other words, essentially peaceful and marvelously pious.

Why then didn’t the rabbis like them? For one, they adopted nothing written in Greek, which they regarded as alien wisdom. Maybe all the talk about immortal souls rubbed them the wrong way, too. What was on their minds was not immortality, but resurrection. Why not immortality? Simple. Since Ezekiel 37, resurrection meant national revival. To speak of the resurrection of the dead allowed the rabbis to pretend that their eschatology was purely individual and personal, whereas it may have been code for national revival, at a time when such could not be openly sought. After all, the rabbis were peaceful subjects of the Roman Empire.

Perhaps we can pull a Maimonides here. What if the true meaning and intention of rabbinic eschatological teaching was lost when people started taking the external form of expression of rabbinic teaching for its inner meaning? What if the meaning of a metaphor of a personal hereafter was a coded form of political hope? What if the fence around the Torah aimed to preserve the people as a nation at a time when other means of national self-assertion were unavailable?

The preservation of Hanukkah in its distorted, peaceful, and unheroic form kept the flame of the Maccabees alive. It would not be the only case in Jewish history where the lighting of candles at a particular time symbolized something different from what was openly acknowledged.

Apage, Satanas!

It’s been a long time since Junker Jörg, aka Martin Luther, threw an inkwell at the great adversary who had no difficulty catching up with the feisty former Augustinian monk hidden away at the Elector’s fortress Wartburg, even though Luther had grown a beard.JunkerJörg But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about the eclipse of the great enemy himself. In an age of health, wealth, and near full employment, few of us are plagued by the devil, never mind ink spots on the wall.

Like everyone else, Lucifer is now a young and chic, soul searching character in a show, now in its fourth season, that was originally broadcast by Fox, then cancelled, then saved by Netflix. Here is the Google summary, which speaks for itself.

Based on characters created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg, this series follows Lucifer, the original fallen angel, who has become dissatisfied with his life in hell. After abandoning his throne and retiring to Los Angeles, Lucifer indulges in his favorite things (women, wine and song) — until a murder takes place outside of his upscale nightclub. For the first time in billions of years, the murder awakens something unfamiliar in Lucifer’s soul that is eerily similar to compassion and sympathy. Lucifer is faced with another surprise when he meets an intriguing homicide detective named Chloe, who appears to possess an inherent goodness — unlike the worst of humanity, to which he is accustomed. Suddenly, Lucifer starts to wonder if there is hope for his soul. Yeah.

I first heard about the show from the students in my Bible class when I tried to elicit some reactions to our reading of the classic tale of Satan’s fall in the Latin “Life of Adam and Eve.” (See Prof. Gary Anderson’s resource page on the subject.) I realized that Satan is no longer of immediate interest or concern. Setting aside Rosemary’s Baby, which some of us agreed was still a pretty potent horror movie, Satan seems a pretty lame proposition. It is difficult to say why Catholic baptism rituals still contain an abjuration of Satan and his works. We discussed demon possession for a little bit, but it was the first time that I felt that Satan was no longer of real interest to anyone. No one was afraid of moral corruption, everyone seemed comfortable in a world where evil was simply the result of morally deficient human agency. So we were confronted with the task of trying to understand just what kind of place Satan occupied in the minds and lives of people who used to take the devil serious enough to invent apotropaic rituals to avert him or his minions entering one’s house or one’s soul.

What we came up with was this. While no one seems afraid of the devil, we still have our own type of suspicion and fear of hidden back-worlds. Where some fear a Jewish world conspiracy, others fear the “deep state,” or other forms of secret forces that want us ill and prevent us from achieving our common goals. In other words, we can still fathom the function of Satan, even if our fear of the unknown has taken new forms. We are still often fearful of a world full of unseen forces of evil even if these forces are no longer mastered by a great fallen angel. We still like to project our fears on persons unknown, i.e., when it comes to thinking in terms of global conspiracy, we are still “personalists,” even if, in other respects, we are comfortable with thinking in terms of trends and statistics. Perhaps this is the key to the whole matter. People who believe in a personal God have a hard time believing that evil is not caused by a person or persons. Even when we no longer project our fears onto the screen of heaven or hell, we still project our fears on people, on anthropomorphic chimeras. Cursed one too many times, Satan may have finally left us. But all this did for us was to unmoore our projected fears and transfer them to new objects no less difficult to localize and hit in the head with an inkwell.

 

Life of Adam and Eve. Some comments

Life of Adam and Eve:

A Comparison between the Greek and Latin Versions

The “Life of Adam and Eve” is one of the most popular stories across the Christian Middle Ages. No other work, aside from the Bible itself, is preserved in as many manuscripts and in as many languages. (See http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/anderson/iath.report.html)

The text (in its various versions) was extremely influential. It gives us some of the back-story missing from the biblical account. Put differently, the imaginative expansion of the biblical version influenced the way people have since read the biblical story. Details provided by the Life of Adam and Eve include instructions on rituals of burial (ApMos), penitence (Vita), the kind of fruit eaten by Eve (ApMos), visions of heavenly and earthly paradise, the quest of Seth for the rood of life, and the fall of Satan. The story fleshes out the biblical original in a manner consistent with belief in the resurrection of the body as an eschatological event. Generally speaking it brings the biblical story in line with the apocalyptic framework that was popularized in Palestinian Jewish literature in the second to first century BCE and also influenced early Christian writings.

  1. The Greek Version “Apocalypse of Moses:”

A Popular Drama Promoting Belief in Resurrection of the Dead

In my view, the Greek “Apocalypse of Moses” may be described as a popular drama aimed at the dissemination of the belief in the resurrection of the body, along with the soul, on the Day of Judgment, a belief which, in the late Second Temple period, was not universally accepted among the Jews. (See Acts 23:6-9, where Paul, in a speech defending himself before the Jewish Sanhedrin, is said to have exploited a debate between Pharisees and Saducees on the question of the existence of angels and belief in resurrection.)

I refer to ApMos as a “drama” in order to point to a number of stylistic characteristics that distinguish the Greek version from the Latin and other medieval manuscript versions (Armenian, Georgian).

  • The Greek version could be staged very easily
  • The sequence of events and speeches follows a logical and convincing order
  • The psychology is moving and not primarily didactic (as, in contrast, is the case in the Latin),
  • The plot is clearly built around the themes which are promoted: hope for divine pardon, the doctrine of the atoning power of one’s own death, and the belief in the resurrection of body and

A few more general observations on the Greek version.

  • The mysogyny prevalent in the Latin version is virtually absent here. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since, in the Greek version, the point of the story is not to blame the first woman (and implicitly all women) for a cosmic catastrophy that can be repaired only by a patrilineal and patriarchal tradition of intercession, represented by Adam and Seth. Rather, the condition of mortality is taken as a fact, and its eventual remedy concerns all human beings, originating as it does in divine compassion for Adam, the primordial human being.
  • The most powerful protagonist of the Greek version is not Satan, but God, who is depicted in two radically distinct aspects: justice and Both of these attributes are dramatized in a convincing way. For example, God’s stern judgment is presented in a grand scence concerning Adam, Eve and the Serpent, and God denies Adam’s last requests. But then the scence subtly turns. At first, God prevents the banished Adam from receiving any kind of mitigation of his punishment. Then, as the gates are closing, Adam no longer even addresses God directly, but seeks the intercession of the angels. Finally, God responds. He fulfills Adam’s pious request for sacrificial material [a reference to Eden as a samctuary, to be emulated on the outside?] and provides Adam with the seeds necessary to survive “out there.” Similarly, God’s mercy emerges when everyone but Seth is asleep (a fairytale motif) and God himself approaches the dead Adam, tenderly bemourning the death of his beloved.

Underlying the Greek version (possibly based on a Hebrew original) reflects a Hellenistic [Greek speaking] Jewish milieu that is familiar with the Septuagint (LXX) but may not already have bought into the idea of resurrection.

Christian symbolism is entirely absent from the Greek version, and there is no emphasis on rituals of penitence, as in the Latin, Satan does not function as an anti-Christ. In contrast to the Latin, which foregrounds the saintliness of Adam (efficacy of his prayers, extreme acts of fasting and contrition, etc.), the Ap Mos is written from Eve’s point of view. The depiction of Satan is traditional and, ultimately, marginal. At the center is the culpability of human beings, the justice of God, and the mitigating attribute of mercy, which resolves the drama in the promise of resurrection, prefigured in the “astonishing pardon” of Adam.

  1. The Latin Version, or: Don’t let a theologian rewrite your screenplay

The Latin story of the Life of Adam and Eve starts out from a situation of lack, emphasizes the incapability of the major players to address that lack, recounts the origin and nature of this incapability, and hints at the great salvation that will, exactly 5500 years later, resolve this condition. The Latin and the Armenian/ Georgian all seem to follow this schema roughly. The Armenian/Georgian does so more coherently than the Latin. In this structure, these versions follow the classic folk-tale structure which guided stories as ancient as Gilgamesh’s battle with Humbaba, and various versions of the Canaanite combat myth which in turn passed on its elements to the story of the Exodus (cf. Forsyth, The Old Enemy). Yet, in the Latin especially, the dramatic elements and devices found in the Greek are neglected in favor of didactic glosses, explanations, and the insertion of moralistic elements such as an all good Adam (in essence the prototype of a Christian saint) and an all bad and easily duped Eve.

Where the Greek version makes the reader, listener, or theatre audience participate in hope-raising secrets, hitherto known only to Seth and Moses, the Latin reader is given the latest theological summary of why we all deservedly suffer, who has redeemed us, and what we need to do in order to prove ourselves worthy of this redemption.

The real heroes pitted against each other are Satan and Adam/Christ; Eve is duped twice and God is the regnant king who has gracefully sent his divine messenger (no less than his only begotten son) to make up for the mess created by Eve, while Adam somehow manages to keep his hands clean throughout. Adam, not God or the angels, is in charge of his own burial and death, the heavens darken by themselves (as in the case of the crucifixion) upon Adam’s death; Seth rather than Eve is the visionary of a truncated angelic rite. Seth also actually carries home the Holy Rood (part of the legend of the True Cross), and Adam imparts a vision to Seth, which even the most uninformed reader recognizes as a stereotypical, almost perfunctory, version of the holy story.

The redactor’s lack of interest in plot development emerges for example in 22:2 when the big problem of life outside Eden, namely the lack of food, is resolved only in passing, after it had been completely ignored.

The Latin Vita seems to work together a number of earlier versions and sources that hardly add up to a convincing piece. While the redactor, for example, is privy to a version which has Eve in a meditative position, typical for Hekhalot visionaries, before she recounts her vision of the angelic liturgy, in his editing this posture is made to look as if Eve were asleep and weakened while the (truncated) vision is revealed to Seth. Mysogyny and Christian doctrinal baggage have managed to turn a beautifully told story into a hodgepodge of dull morality scenes.

 

 

 

 

Paul: Jew or Christian?

Is Paul a Jew, or is he a Christian? This is the wrong question. For Paul, a Jew was not the other of a Christian. For him, Gentile was the other of a Jew, and Christian was the way to resolve this difference. Both, Jews and Gentiles, are equally called upon to escape the coming wrath. The fact that Gentiles accepted baptism and received the holy spirit did not erase the difference between Jew and Gentile. Being himself called to proclaim the good news to the Gentiles, Paul never ceased to be a Jew. But he ceased to consider being a Jew as an advantage when it came to the question of righteousness. He or she who is under the law is not considered righteous or blameless before God because of being under the law; and he or she who is not under the law is not considered sinful or condemned, as long as they acquire the “faith of Jesus.”

Why is all this so difficult and complex? Whence the confusion of the Galatians and the need to say it over and over again in sometimes the same, sometimes different words? What made Paul’s message difficult to comprehend? Or was it not difficult to comprehend but difficult to trust?

Here are some further characteristics of his message.

  • Paul remained an apocalyptist. From beginning to end, Paul proclaimed a way for the Gentiles to escape the coming wrath. He invited them to the way of Christ, preaching the word of the cross, of the death and resurrection of Christ that made Jesus into a “place of atonement” (hilasterion), inviting both Gentiles and Jews to change their thinking (metanoia), and put their trust in faith, rather than in the works of the law.
  • From beginning to end, Paul’s message revolves around Gentiles who are somehow already within the orbit of the Greek body of Jewish texts that he cites as proof of the truth of his message.
  • The question of where this leaves the Jews is not clear from the beginning. Paul’s position shifts: from the roundabout condemnation of the Jews as enemies of human kind of 1 Thessalonians, to the radical dismissal of the old covenant in Galatians, to the irenic position of Romans: one God for both Jews and Gentiles; a prerogative of the Jews because of the oracles (i.e., scripture); and a divine mystery playing itself out in their (temporary) rejection of Christ, which is the providential condition for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Without the temporary blindness of the Jews (cf. 2 Corinthians: whenever Jews read Moses they do so with a veil before their eyes), the Gentiles could not be grafted as wild shoots onto the noble olive tree.