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


[continued from Part 1 above]
God himself loves to be challenged in Jewish tradition. He is not pure and aloof. Abraham asks him to do justice at Sodom and Gomorrah. Rabbi Nachman said that chutzpah (an Aramaic word) towards heaven can get results and Rabbi Shesheth said it makes you like a king (before God), lacking only the crown to complete the picture. Though chutzpah may have meant what it means today (a certain boldness and impudence), I think it may also have meant disrespect. Whether these rabbis were saying boldness or disrespect is sometimes allowable towards God, the point is that God loves a good fight—over principles and justice. God does not want fawning and subservience. If you are subservient to an impure God, then you become even more impure. The only way to beat impurity is to embrace it and constantly challenge it. God, this impure God, raises his children to think for themselves and not to be overly respectful of authority, not even his own. It would be absurd to worship impurity.
Rabbi Yochanan bar Nappacha once criticized another rabbi for constantly agreeing with him and praised his departed friend and colleague Resh Lakish who was always objecting to his points and forcing him to think more clearly. We understand Torah better when there is dispute. It leads to “a fuller comprehension,” Rabbi Yochanan said. Without Resh Lakish to debate him, he added, it was like trying to applaud with one hand. I think he meant that the way we applaud God is to give him vigorous disagreements which he loves listening to. Uniformity of opinion was never the original rabbinic goal, not for the best of them.
So there is God saying, Challenge me, disrespect me, mix it up with me. And there is Torah saying, Don’t parrot me; change me, if you have to, if justice demands it. Don’t put a false, stifling shroud of holiness over me. And I ask myself: Then why would I treat established academic tradition about Darwin or science or anything else any differently? The rabbis refused to make an idol out of Torah or Jewish culture. If you cannot get up the chutzpah to deal with scholars who idolize Darwin and get things wrong, what are you worth? Hillel was blunt about it: In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man. One might rephrase that in any number of ways, such as: In a place where there are no truthtellers, there be a truthteller. Something tells me I’d be failing Hillel and all of Jewish tradition, if I were any less blunt.
“A peculiarly human advantage is that memory sustained over generations allows us to diverge from the past, not only to mimic it … It may include the trying on, trying out, of materials and methods from other current groups not our own.” That is Gillian Beer from Open Fields. Not to mimic, but to allow divergence. The rabbis, so strongly under the influence of Pharisaic culture, accomplished this in a number of ways. One was their insistence that minority opinions be recorded. They give two reasons for this. One is what we might expect. They did not want someone to falsely claim that what was in fact a minority opinion was the majority position. We want to have a clear historical memory of the facts.
The second reason is unexpected. If we keep a clear memory of the judicial history, the minority opinion might turn out to be useful one day. The rabbis realized that the majority in a future generation might disagree with today’s decision. If so, they will need support and this minority opinion might be just what they need to take the community in a new direction. I think there was also a desire for truthfulness. They wanted people to remember that discord and disagreement was a part of Jewish culture. Nothing must be erased. Outside voices must continue to speak. The Pharisees had lived as outsiders to the establishment for so long, it became a part of their spiritual legacy.
Factual accuracy, or at least trying to maintain such truthfulness, can give us diversity and openness to possibilities—just because history does contain a lot more than we realize. It might even help us achieve justice which is probably more imaginary than real. A myth or an ideology aims at the exact opposite. Its purpose is to fix the past into a lie that can never be challenged and never be changed. The creation of myths about Darwin or any historical figure can only happen because the intellectual community has agreed to be dishonest about the facts. And if we believe it is important to expose myths, then we should keep in mind that it becomes easier to deal with other myths when we see one exposed in operation.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer