Sunday, September 15, 2013


The purpose of this two-parter (Part 2 follows immediately below) is to present some accurate information about ancient Jewish culture and array the facts against the misrepresentations we usually get from popular and academic writers. What does this have to do with Charles Darwin (besides the fact that everything is connected)?  All will be revealed.
It’s been bugging me for years. Why do I it? Why am I so obsessed with historical truth, with getting the facts right? It is such an anti-social thing to do. If you are going to be a pure truthseeker, that means uncovering the impurities of history and the people who inhabit it, as well as of those who claim to study it. Life and history are messy. Pure truth means impure revelations. To paraphrase what Degas said about painters, A truthteller delivers the truth with the same feeling as that with which a criminal commits a crime. The proper, social thing to do is what many academics prefer: To promote an ideology which ignores the facts about the origin of ideas, cultures, worldviews; the goal is to seek pure origins by fostering an impure pursuit of truth.
By the search for historical truth, I do not mean finding out the grand conclusions of history. Conclusions (Darwin was a racist, Jesus was a Jew to the max) are fairly uninteresting and uninspiring. It’s the evidence, the details in support of the conclusion that are so incredibly fascinating. I am obsessed with accuracy about the details and investigating the scholarship that insists on getting it wrong.
I could ask: Who is really obsessed here? The truthseeker or the falsifier? But I won’t ask that. Instead, I will just repeat: So why do I do it? Why do I commit myself to an anti-social way of life? Then one morning, as I woke up, it hit me: It’s the Jew in me. This was immediately followed by: It’s also the Socrates in me. (The Greeks and the rabbis are a powerful combination.) And it’s the Shakespeare. And the William Tyndale and Robert Chambers and Alfred Wallace and Muhammad Ali and Frank McCourt. And Bob Dylan who wrote, “Woody Guthrie was my last idol/ he was the last idol/ because he was the first idol/ I’d ever met/ that taught me/ fact t face/ that men are men/ shatterin even himself/ as an idol.”
All these thoughts (except the last one by Dylan, which I added later, but which has long been with me, more than a decade, and only by accident did not flash through my mind that morning) came rushing through my head that day several minutes after I woke up. And the reason why it began with ‘It’s the Jew in me’ is because of what flashed through my mind just before my groggy self decided to fully wake up: Scholars are not telling the truth about ancient Judaism. It’s a goddamned lie! Judaism was not a religion obsessed with purity. (Yes, these are the things my sleepy, waking mind ponders.) It was, even in ancient times, one of the most impure of religions. Utterly devoted to impurity.
Abraham is typically considered the first Jew, the founder of a new religion. Founder he may have been, but a Jew? Not quite, not exactly. He was a pagan, born and raised, and converted himself to Judaism very late in life. That’s the way the story goes and it’s the story, the historical memory, that I am concerned with in this case. Jews did not invent for themselves a pure origin. Philo, an Egyptian Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Jesus, called Abraham the first convert to Judaism and a model for all future converts.
Moses was born an Israelite, but he was raised Egyptian. Being Egyptian is what he knows. He knows nothing of Israelite culture. It is not until he is a young man that he feels the first stirring of a possible return to the Jews, then goes off to live in another land for many years before he makes a full return. Both Abraham and Moses straddle two cultures. They know paganism from the inside because it was their upbringing. They choose to become Jews, it was not handed to them as a family tradition. One pristine world of Judaism was not their lot in life.
Aaron, the brother of Moses, was born and raised completely Jewish. Besides being the founder of the priestly line (and it was on the priests that most of the burden of ideas about ritual purity fell), it so happened that in later Jewish tradition, he acquired the reputation of being a peacemaker. This will become important many centuries later, when a high priest insults two leading Pharisees, Shemaiah and Avtalyon, by addressing them as ‘sons of the Nations [pagans, gentiles]’, thus hinting at their status as descendants from gentile converts. The two Pharisaic teachers respond to this accusation of not being pure Jews by telling him that it is better to do the deeds of Aaron (i.e., deeds of peace) than to be descended from Aaron. The term ‘Pharisees’ (Perushim in Hebrew) is often translated as the separated ones, but Outsiders would probably be better. They directly gave rise to the rabbis who never lose that sense of what it means to be an outsider.
The idea of impurity in Judaism goes well beyond the life and origins of various well-known Jewish figures. It extends to the Torah, the gift of a Constitution from Moses, and to God himself. The Pharisees and rabbis never considered Torah a perfectly finished document. The rabbis give several examples of prophets amending Torah. Torah itself begged to be developed. It was a living Constitution. The rabbis too fiddled with it when they felt it was called for. The Torah was not a collection of laws as so many scholars incorrectly allege. It was a collection of constitutional principles. The whole basis of the Mishnah and all of the oral Torah is that the written Torah needs to be finished.
There is one rabbinic parable comparing Torah to portions of wheat and flax that a king leaves to each of two servants before leaving on a trip. The foolish one keeps his portions as is and gives back them back to the king upon his return exactly as he received them. The clever one makes a tablecloth of the flax and uses the wheat to bake bread, which pleases the king immensely. Mishnah, part of the earliest rabbinic oral tradition, is compared to the tablecloth and bread. (Essentially the same parable is told by Jesus at Matt 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27, only he uses a money metaphor, talents, instead of an agricultural metaphor to make the point that the master admires the servants who do something with what he left them and create more than they were given.)
Do something new with what I gave you, says the Jewish God. Faithfulness to the Constitution means to make it grow and adapt. Don’t return it to me exactly as I gave it to you—because, in a very deep sense, it is impure, and if you give it back to me in its impure state, you will be committing a sin. The imperfect Constitution needs completion and you have to complete it through debate. That is the point of both rabbinic parables (Jesus’ being the second one). This impurity is buried so deep in Jewish culture that it comes up everywhere you look.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

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