Let me ask you a purely academic question: Hello?
— Dean Blehert

Thursday, December 22, 2005


From a discussion with a friend about Jews, Christians and Holidays. It's just me bloviating, and I know many will disagree with me on this stuff. That's OK. I'm not really trying to push an agenda here, just working out and working through some views on the subject:

[Note: I'm Jewish, but minimally observant. That is, when with family, I go with the flow.]

As for duration, Jewish culture is stuck on the subject: how Jews as a people have outlasted all those empires; though I don't know how valid that is, since I'm not sure that most modern Jews are any more connected to 1200 BC Jews (genetically or otherwise) than, say, contemporary Chinese are connected to 1200 BC dynasties.

Certainly there's some truth to it, because Jews were isolated and, for centuries -- really over 1000 years of rapid change elsewhere, while Jews lived in Ghettos -- were culturally reactionary. This is true of any group isolated from other groups. What was odd about it (in the case of Jews and perhaps Gypsies and a few others) was that Jews (until the 18th century and really, for most, the 19th century) managed to remain isolated as a culture while living in and among non-Jews of the mainstream culture and being in commercial and personal contact with it.

That odd combination of being persecuted by and being indispensible to the mainstream culture is unusual. It's partly a result of the stress among Jews on literacy, on being "people of the Book", on each individual reading the Bible him or herself in a world where the Christian ideal was that most people be illiterate so that religion could be explained to them by priests; and where non-clerics who ventured to learn to read scripture were considered a bit dangerous. What's odd is that the Jews, largely isolated in their Ghettos, were, in many ways, provincial compared to their Christian neighbors, but at the same time, because of their stress on literacy, more sophisticated.

The preoccupation with duration seems to me a primitive carry-over, based on biology. The Old Testament God doesn't promise transcendence, seldom hints at it or at anything spiritual (maybe Job has some hints, the Psalms), but nearly always promises that "your children shall be more numerous than the grains of sand on the shore or the stars in the heavens", while blessings stress "may your days be long in the land" and may you have a lot of offspring and good crops and peace in the land.

But duration (lasting through time) is the keynote: arguments about whether sins are remembered only unto the third generation or shall be "on your descendents forever", etc. It's all about offspring (from Abraham and Isaac onwards). No wonder Judaism was so heavily victimized by eugenics! After all, it's not just the Nazis, but orthodox Jews who stressed to such an extent that Judaism was genetic: It's not easy for someone who's mother isn't Jewish to become Jewish, particularly among the most orthodox. Couple that genetic bent with the "chosen people" thing, and Jews historically have given their enemies a wicked sword.

(Yes, I know the standard explanation: That we've been "chosen" to take on responsibilities, that it's an onus, not a gift, etc. But the way the prophets put it goes right into something that, to me, seems as basic as nearly every primitive tribe's name meaning, in their own language, "the people," while their generic word for outsiders suggests that they are not quite people. For example, when one prophet [Amos, I think] scolds the Jewish people for not living up to their convenant with God, he asks them why should God consider them any better than the Ethiopians [the Cushites]? Whatever spin we now put on "chosen", it has always been linked to a "covenant" -- agreement with God -- that says if we live up to it, we'll have lots of descendents, prosperity, peace and DURATION: We'll outlive as a nation (or culture) the empires that abuse us.)

I suppose in the early days of conquest of Canaan, where Joshua's armies wiped out whole city states, Jews used justifications not unlike those of Hitler -- the idea of being a superior people (based on genetics), etc. There were also idols, paganism and other bete noirs to justify this view, but since Jewish theology is almost entirely body-based (including circumcision of males as a sign of the Covenant), it all ties in to a notion of, if not racial, than familial or lineage superiority.

Not to equate us with Nazis, which seems to me far more extreme than what I'm describing above; I'm just stressing the almost-never-mentioned similarities. And the main point is that Jewish superiority is always linked to having lots of offspring and enough material goods to have prosperity for self and offspring, having one's line of descendents extend over time and produce huge numbers, living a long life oneself, etc.

I suppose most of these ideals characterize all agrarian peoples, the struggle for enough to live on, for children to help with crops and hunting and defense, etc. And the preference of one's own family and lineage over "strangers" is nearly universal -- though NOT in some of the religions of our day -- at least not so monolithically.

From my Jewish upbringing I was prepared to be very negative about the New Testament, but when I first sat down to read the Gospels, back in 1966 or 1967, I was amazed (especially in Matthew and John) at how much more spiritual truth I found in it than in the Old Testament. (Note: I'm not speaking of Christianity now, but of Matthew and John. The points I found most impressive in those Gospels have little to do with Christianity as it is practiced, as far as I can see. Reading "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew, for example, I could understand why Tolstoy had been so shocked by it, to realize that the Christianity delineated in that sermon bore so little resemblance to anything he found in what he knew as Christianity.) (Of course, I'm not an expert on the New OR the Old Testament -- read all or most long ago, but not closely or recently, so it may be that what most impressed me in the New Testament can also be found in the Old, with, perhaps, just a difference in what is emphasized.)

Much of the success of Christianity had to do with Paul's realization that spiritual awareness was far more important than race, birth family, circumcision, etc. Most of the early Christians considered themselves Jews and felt they should restrict their activities to persuading fellow Jews to follow Christ's teachings. They felt that anyone non-Jewish who became a Christian should be converted to Judaism and circumcized. Paul is known to have gone to Jerusalem to argue against this view (with some of the other apostles -- e.g., James -- supporting it). Eventually Paul's view became what we now call Christianity -- a de facto thing, since he went out and spread the word like mad ("preached to the gentiles") and started up churches all over the place and kept nagging them into toeing the line with his epistles (letters), until Christianity had obviously burst its Jewish seams.

[Note: I've read (in a history of Judaism by Paul Johnson) that at that time, many people in Rome were looking for a way out of paganism and considered Judaism -- as known from the many cultivated and assimilated Jews living in Rome and elsewhere in the empire -- a rather attractive, sophisticated religion. Many influential Romans had come to respect it. The point is that what led to the Western world becoming Christian, rather than Jewish, had less to do with differences between Jewish and Christian views of God and morality and ritual than with Paul's radical move in spreading Jewish beliefs and values (for, subtracting the Jewish biological bent, most of Christianity was still a form of Judaism) to the gentile nations via Christianity.]

So what part of Judaism did Paul reject? It isn't that he thought a man could also be a "son of God" (the part some Jews tend to harp on as idolatrous -- and many Christian sects have been troubled by it too), because Jewish sects have had some pretty wild ideas, yet remained Jewish, and even the early Christians, though somewhat persecuted in Jerusalem, were still considered a Jewish group. No, the main thing Paul rejected was the racial side of Judaism, the importance of genetics, of Judaism surviving through the off-spring of Jews, no person being Jewish unless born to a Jewish mother, etc.

The down-side of this was that Christianity became a religion of theology, with theology senior to action. Jews stressed action, but didn't differentiate well, often, between ritual action and love-thy-neighbor action, so that Judaism is a religion where, usually, people can argue theology freely and argue fiercely about the nature of God, etc., without ever coming to blows, but go nuts about whether or not someone holds his pinky finger the wrong way while performing a ritual (though still, not usually, killing each other over it).

While Christians, when they argue about ritual, are not arguing about doing something the traditional way, but about theological implications: Is the bread Christ's body or symbolic of it or something in between or what? In the first 2 or 3 centuries of Christianity, Christians killed 100s of thousands of Christians over such issues -- far more than the Romans martyred during the pagan centuries of the Roman Empire.

This seems to me where Paul lost sight of the ball: He let the concept of spiritual awareness (so clear in John) be altered to something called "faith", a word vague enough to comprehend anything from a rote statement of doctrines to a strong opinion to a certainty that God loves us more than he loves the rest of humanity to knowing one is inspired by God because one is throwing a fit to, in rare cases, some sort of awareness that one is a spiritual being, knowing it as simply one knows one's own face by touching it.

Faith has other drawbacks as a criterian: A Catholic can do all sorts of things wrong if he confesses and if he has the right "faith". This has its pluses (nice to have a way to unload guilt and make amends) and its minuses. One of the big minuses is that you can see action, but testing faith requires prying into a man's thoughts and beliefs, and that is usually done by torture. Also, this means that the qualities in a man that are most basically required to be self-determined to have any spiritual validity are forced on a person. You can force a person to hold a belief. You can't force a person to become more spiritually aware, which is to become more oneself, not more what others would have one be.

Jews confuse right action with right ritual (and include as part of ritual all sorts of genetically oriented things), and Christians confuse spirituality with right beliefs. Of course, Christians can go nuts about ritual differences and Jews can go nuts about theology; I'm just looking at the main thing each stresses.

Islam seems not to stress genetics (Blacks, Chinese -- all are welcome), though they do have that body stress -- for example, circumcision and longevity and offspring -- more than Christianity. But it's hard to look clearly at Islam these days since what we see of it is mainly the most fundamentalist side, something that's always been around, but perhaps is not representative.

Both Jews and Christians have produced very spiritual and wise people, but as religions, overall, seem to me to get stuck in dramatizing their lies. And the main lie in Judaism, from the start, seems to me to be the thread of materialism (the stress on persisting on earth over a long time, the stress on genetic purity), because it tells us that we are bodies. The other side of this is the notion of a God whose beingness has so little to do with our own. It's as if all the spirit in the universe is God's monopoly. He's the big spirit. We're creations. What more can we expect than to persist like well-designed meat. (I'm sure this sounds like heresy to many, but there are numerous respected Jewish and Christian thinkers, prophets, etc., who recognize that the spirit is NOT the body and is immortal. One obvious reference is the opening section of the Gospel of John.)

Most of the day-to-day operation of Judaism's religious leaders in Christ's day involved a huge high-priesthood with thousands of servants operating a giant temple (it covered, probably, several of our current city blocks) where the main activity was handling sacrifices of animals and keeping the priests and their servants well-fed and wealthy. It was basically a huge, incense-sweetened abattoir. It wasn't all rabbis splitting hairs and coming up with humane interpretations of scripture.

Empire after empire falls, but the Jewish people goes on -- as do many rocks.

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