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Sunday, September 8, 2013
Religion ...

I recently finished a second listen of the Teaching Company course on the Bible’s Old Testament, by Prof. Amy-Jill Levine. I first heard it several years ago, when I was only interested in getting a general overview of what went on before the Gospels. (Obviously I grew up in a Christian tradition; but not in a Bible-thumping tradition, as I grew up in the Catholic faith. Perhaps that’s why I’m trying to catch up on Bible study!). This time around I focused more on the history of Israel, on what the Tanakh can tell you about Judaism and the Jews. Perhaps it is appropriate that I finished the course just before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (which was celebrated this past Thursday).

So, over the past few weeks, I sat through (or mostly stood, while making dinner or ironing shirts) the great stories of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob (my namesake!), Moses and the Exodus, Aaron, Joshua, Deborah, and Samson; then on thru the kings, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon, then the split of the two kingdoms with the fall of the north; then the rise of the wise prophets, Elijah, Elisha, and Amos; followed by the Exile, Isiah, the Restoration, and the rise of the priests; and finally, the Diaspora, Job, Esther, Jeremiah, Daniel and the growth of apocalyptic expectations (setting the stage for the coming of Jesus of Nazareth). All are great stories indeed, but this time I was listening for meta-themes regarding the formation of the Jewish people and the roots and development of “what it is” about Judaism, about its “social mindset” (if you will). And yes, there was definitely some of that to be had in Professor Levine’s lectures.

One of the most significant “mindset” things that I took away was something of a wise weariness developing amidst the Jewish tradition over the centuries (not entirely my own idea, Professor Levine does suggest it in Lesson 21). I.e., something of a growing “we’ve seen it all” attitude. The Jewish nation had its great hero-deliverer (Moses), its decentralized wise rulers (the Judges), its kings and kingdoms, its powerful and victorious armies, its share of humiliating defeats and domination by foreign powers, its warning prophets, its powerful priestly cult and its lavish rituals centered about a grand Temple on a mountain, its philosophers and wisdom teachers, its guerrilla commandos seeking asymmetric battle against powerful oppressors, its ascetics (e.g. the Essene community at Qumran), its repentance preachers promising an end of time in short order . . .

Yes, the Jewish tradition indeed had seen it all by the year 0 (and was in store for a whole lot more over the coming 20 centuries). And given how seriously the Jewish elders have always taken their stories and traditions, given their unyielding emphasis on study, it has never been difficult throughout the two millennium following the close of the Tanakh to find at least one person in every Jewish community who embodies all of this in his or her own life. Someone for whom the 3,000 or so year-old story of Israel very much lives in their heart.

Given this age-old wisdom and weariness, it becomes easier for someone like myself, who was raised to seek deliverance and salvation from Jesus through the Church, to make sense of the Jews’ supposed “rejection of (or failure to recognize) Christ as the Messiah”. It becomes easier to understand how a first-century strain of Hebrew apocalypticism could be customized and shaped over time as to attract the loyalty of Mediterranean non-Jews (and later, the northern “barbarians”) who increasing were losing faith in their once-great, now failing Roman Empire. For the Jews of the time, who never really gave their hearts to Rome, it was easier to regard the growing Jesus movement in the Second and Third Centuries as something a bit too elaborate, too complex, too much like something they tried in the past, which eventually turned out not to be the ticket to a return to glory. I.e., no easy way back to the land of milk and honey, Jesus and his well-intentioned disciples notwithstanding.

Despite its own elaborate traditions, customs, rituals, and political manifestations old and new, there seems (from this outsider’s view) to be a core notion amidst Hebrew elders — that the formula for the survival of the Jewish people and the Jewish way isn’t all that complex. It’s basically about maintaining strong community bonds, studying and passing on the old stories in ways that yield eternally fresh insights on human nature, keeping reverence and humility before the Holy One, and respecting the Golden Rule. Oh, and don’t be a slacker; get out there and find something to do that you will be really good at — treat your life as a gift and make the most of it. All this is something of an ultimate pragmatism (like Confucianism), and yet it doesn’t give up on the holy. It’s such a strong, self-organizing “meme” that it never needed a powerful chief executive officer (e.g. the Pope) and a central command body ruling a world-wide network (e.g. the Vatican and the bishops) to preserve it. And that still holds today.

I’m not here to put Christianity down. I’ve stated many times on this site my opinion that the weight of historical evidence, bolstered by modern psychological, sociological and economic insights into human doings, points to an exclusively human Jesus who inspired a human Jesus movement. This movement, as it became less Jewish and more Greek-influenced over time, eventually emboldened itself to proclaim Jesus as the literal manifestation of divinity itself . . . wrongly, but perhaps for reasons that are not entirely without some “rightness” to them.

So, even though I will not proclaim Jesus as the True Son of God and Cosmic Savior, I still find some sympathy and see some goodness wrapped up within the Christian tradition that does so proclaim that. Perhaps I hold much sympathy and see much goodness in it, even if its core doctrine is a myth, not what we could consider “truth” by modern standards.

E.g., I still choke up a little every December when I hear the heart of the Christmas story summarized in a line from a David Haas song (Be Born in Us Today): “instead of power shown as might, a tiny baby is your light”. I mean, NO, it’s not literally true that Jesus of Nazareth was born from a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem about 2000 years ago, sometime in the wee hours of December 25th; NO, it’s not literally true that God sent Jesus into the world in order to bring about its salvation. And yet . . . there’s still so much beauty in the idea that the birth of a child is the start of the world’s redemption. Versus another tale of some bloody holy war of old, which various religions (including some strains of Judaism, given the many battles of the Old Testament) still espouse at least in part as historic evidence of God’s glory and dominion (and showing the exclusive righteousness of their own way of seeking God’s beneficence).

So for now, religiously, I’ll stay what I am . . . a solitary man (tip of the hat to the Neil Diamond song). I’ll keep on going to my local Zen center every week. But neither will I ever entirely banish the Christian tradition and the Catholic faith from my life, given that they still enmesh some basic goodness despite the untruths welded into their scaffolding. Furthermore, given some sketchy evidence that potentially points to a bit of Jewish heritage in at least one line of my own family tree, I will also remain interested in Judaism, even though I am mostly a stranger to it. I will also seek the important truths and goodness contained within Judaism’s own flawed (but unfailing) walls and tilted foundations. It breaks my heart a little bit that these two traditions, the two closest to my ancestry, are still fundamentally at odds over Jesus. The more I ponder it, the more I can see why both sides feel as they do. If only both sides could see likewise. Maybe someday . . . but not in my lifetime.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:37 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I can understand your interest in Judaism and the fact that it breaks your heart that the two traditions are at odds. I myself have often felt that the Old Testament and the New Testament flow together as one whole. I’ve never understood how there can be a separation between the Jews and the Christians.

    It always amazes me how quickly a “movement” started by one person can so quickly turn into an institution that has its “rules that *must* be followed” or people are thrown out from the group. (I think of St. Francis who was thrown out of his own group he established as one example. I’m also sure today Jesus would be thrown out of Christianity because he wasn’t “Christian” enough.) That holds for so many different groups – not only Jews and Christians, but almost any kind of religious group. (Maybe the Brethren, Quakers?, are more tolerant of others that most.)

    In the end I think some people never really *have* a group to structure their lives; it amazes me how a lot of young people today have grown up with absolutely no structure. My thinking is that when children are young they benefit much from a religious structure of some kind, doesn’t really matter which one it is. But children need a structure to rebel against when they are teenagers. Given that rebellion, a lot of people will “settle” on some particular group they tend to follow, may change that group over the years, searching for exactly what meets their needs.

    Perhaps of most importance for the person is the search rather than sticking to some particular group/religion.

    Then again, I’ve known people for whom the search is frightening. They seem to need a structure that tells them how to build their lives. Who is to say which is better? I really don’t know, and I doubt it matters. What is important is that each person respect the other(s) and in that resulting search or holding fast to a structure the person involved meets his/her needs and grows and develops as a human being, evolving into who and what he/she is to be. MCS

    Comment by Mary — September 9, 2013 @ 10:32 am

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