When History, Art and Antisemitism Clash.

Gail and I enjoy watching the excellent performances offered by the PBS TV series Great Performances. On December 1, 2019 their program was the remake of the Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” and I watched it for two reasons: I had seen its original production in New York many years ago and was interested as to how the remake of the show affected it. Second reason: Andrew Lloyd Weber having also produced “The Phantom of the Opera” in which our son-in-law Matt Goodman of NYC has been the clarinet chair from its very beginning. Thus my special interest in Weber’s works and the evolution in staging of “Jesus Christ Superstar,”.

You might wonder why any Jew would be interested in watching this kind of Christian show altogether? This Jew, and I mean myself, loves music and JCS. (from here on for the name of the rock opera) has, just like the Phantom, some very catching and pleasing melodies. This Jew, and I mean myself, holds one of two M.A. degrees in New Testament studies whose central object of study is the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a.k.a. Jesus Christ, within Christendom. I wanted to know how Jeshua haNotzriy, (his Hebrew historical name) and the other personages in the opera come across in the remake of the opera.

Almost all the Jews in the new version of the drama of Jesus’ passion week leading up to his crucifixion, are African-Americans. This includes Jesus, played brilliantly by John Legend. Pontius Pilate, the nasty Roman governor is a white man as is also Herod, the repugnant Jewish puppet king of Judea. Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ disciple and lover from the village of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee, as also a number of nameless male and female dancers, is a white woman.

Inevitably, the opera follows closely the New Testament text describing both the eventful prelude to and the actual crucifixion of Jesus/Yeshua.

One of the scenes describes the prisoner Jesus before the Jewish high council in Jerusalem. According to the gospel text, the chief priest and the council make an effort to incriminate innocent Jesus by accusing him of having spoken of himself as the messiah and son of God. This was considered a sacrilege deserving maximum punishment.

In this scene the high priest Caiaphas and the elders, because of their vestments and authoritative behavior, come across as a scheming group of men who are seeking Jesus’ death. In this portrayal the opera conveys rather closely the New Testament text.

While this is not the place to discuss the actual historicity of these proceedings and events as described in the New Testament which have been discussed by numerous scholars with different outcomes dependent on the scholars’ theological orientation, liberal or conservative, it seems to me that the lyrics of the opera, as also the pictorial representations, basically agree with the New Testament’s narrative.

The Christian bible’s passion narrative presents the Jewish population’s side of the informal exchange between them and Pilate as extremely hostile toward Jesus, their fellow Jew. Pilate, the historically proven scoundrel even in Roman eyes, finds no guilt or evil in Jesus and wishes to release him to the Jewish crowd. He purportedly asks the crowd assembled before hims what they wish should be done with their messiah: should he free him or should he condemn him to death. Needless to say, the historicity of this proceeding is highly questionable and hardly attributable to the almighty governor of Jerusalem and the province of Judea. According to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) the crowd responds to his offer with shouts of “Crucify him, crucify him…”

Without doubt this is one of two most disturbing pictures painted of the Jews both by the New Testament text and the opera lyrics. The shouters’ faces exude disdain, loathing, malevolence and hatred for the accused. To the onlooker these faces cannot help but convey to the audience the Jews as a highly repulsive group. Here also, the gospel words, horrible as they are, are amplified by the vivid visual portrayal of the crowd identified as belonging to Jews.

Jesus’ flagellation that precedes his crucifixion is not explicitly shown as it was in Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” In this opera, fleeting personages float through the air disappearing behind the suspended Jesus whose face, as these floating bodies pass behind him, cringes from the lashes he receives. The crescendo of the music accompanying this action, conveys to the audience the horrible pain and lacerations inflicted.

Jesus, hanging on the cross, is then graphically shown but his view gradually recedes while merging into a massive white cross which, becoming ever smaller, eventually disappears.

My description of what the screen showed, is very inadequate but will have to suffice for the reader. My attempts to find suitable words for the audio-visually powerful material in this case do not do justice to how well the movie of the rock opera succeeds in drawing the observer into the drama. In my opinion, this is a movie well done and to the best of my knowledge faithful to the New Testament narrative.

This said, I must raise a question that bothered me while watching the movie and has continued to do so many days after.

Does the movie we watched, i.e., the filming of the remake of the original Broadway show “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, brilliant as the performance of the actors and its staging are, incite the audience to antisemitism?

The question brings up the conundrum as to whether great art, known to have incited antisemitism in people in the past, continues to incite audiences to be antisemitic to this day and therefore should not be performed. The classical example of this issue are Wagner performances in Israel.

Wagner, an outspoken antisemite, wrote in 1850 an article Das Judentum in der Music or “Jews in Music.” In it he attacked the Jewish composers Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn and the character of Jewish music in general as shallow and spiritless. This article has been generally regarded as a major landmark in the history of German antisemitism. It should be added that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer. Concerts presenting Wagner’s music were unofficially banned but when performed, vehemently boycotted a number of times in Israel.

Jesus, allegedly betrayed by his own people and delivered into the hands of Rome that crucified him remains to this day the very cornerstone of Christian antisemitism. The above said, is not the revival of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” like pouring oil on a fire that unfortunately has continued burning for twenty centuries?

And so we are looking, in this case, at a clash between the performing arts, be it a Wagner opera or a modern rock opera based on the passion of Jesus Christ which, potentially and in all probability, incites audiences to Jew hatred, better known as antisemitism, even today.

Finally, let me admit that I enjoyed watching the rock opera on TV and was sucked into its plot. To have this happen to a Holocaust survivor suggests the danger inherent in its brilliant remake performance.

 

On respecting divided opinions

Gail and I recently had an interesting experience I want to share. After navigating hundred twists and turns on the road between Weaverville where we live and Lake Lure we arrived after an hours’ drive at the Lake Lure library where I was scheduled to speak earlier this month.

We did not know what to expect in terms of audience size. Our guess was a maximum of 40 people, perhaps less. Entering the program hall I was stunned to see every chair taken and a number of people standing on the periphery of the venue. Even the entrance hall was filled to capacity. It was time for me to start speaking.

The program’s title was “Witness to the Holocaust.” When I related how prior to our deportation to concentration camps our family was ripped apart I had to stop for a moment, as is usually the case notwithstanding the decades that have gone by since then, because it is that moment that emotionally is probably the hardest one for me to speak about. I was 15 years old. Men and women were separated from each other and each group was then further divided into old folk, middle aged people and youngsters. When this happened to our family, my mother ran after me, pleading, “Walti, do not leave us!” as if I had any choice in this matter. Before reaching me a SS man hit her over the shoulder and brutally pushed her back into a group of women. There was no time for either a hug or a last kiss.

“Now isn’t this is precisely what has been going on at our southern border, minus the lashes of the SS – of course! I.C.E., Mr. Trump’s lackeys, have also been tearing families apart, right? What a sham!”

The explosive applause by the audience stopped me in my tracks. It prevented me from continuing. “There are still decent people around,” I said to myself and then went on with my talk.

My lecture having come to an end, I asked for questions and comments.

The first person responding was a woman in the third row right in front of me wearing under her open jacket a T-shirt with the inscription “Yeshua” written in Hebrew script, meaning Jesus. She began trying to explain about how I.C.E. is doing only what they are ordered to do but did not get very far with her comment. A veritable explosions of shouts and boos cut her off. She did not have a chance. When the hubbub quieted down, the library person in charge of the program, ignoring her, asked for the next question and the program went on to its end without further incidents.

In retrospect, alas too late, it occurred to me that I should have calmed the group, reminding them that in a democracy all voices need to be heard unimpeded. I am so very sorry to have failed in this respect. I was stunned by the audience’s loud reaction but probably also carried away by satisfaction that there are still folks who stand up for compassion and decency and express it publicly. I’ll know better next time, I hope.

This incident also reminds me of the importance of having relations with others regardless of what their political orientation might be. “The Other” is not an object but a subject, just as I. It is “the other” for whom I must be grateful because it is only this vis a vis that makes it possible for me to be who I truly am.

The Jewish term mitzvah derives from the verb “to order” or “to command.” Interestingly, the word also means doing “a good deed.” During my several stays in Jerusalem I was struck with people approaching me and soliciting money. They do this in unabashed manner and I must admit that it turned me off. In Jewish tradition, doing a mitzvah is regarded very important. This raises a question. How would it be possible to perform a mitzvah were it not precisely for these men and their solicitations? Should one not be grateful for them for giving us an opportunity to be generous and to perform a good deed? On the other hand, does not doing the mitzvah also alleviate the poor person’s and his family’s suffering? All this suggests that, according to the Jewish tradition, both the giver and the recipient of mitzvah are blessed.

Needless to say, most of those beggars in Jerusalem probably have not considered the theological aspect of giving and receiving. Some undoubtedly are sincere with their requests for help. Others might not. But who are we to judge?

In any case, even at age 92 it is not too late to learn a lesson.

How fast, we Jews, forget!

The shameful treatment of would be immigrants to our country continues. While I have no high opinion of Trump, an understatement, it is beyond my understanding why he nurtures this venomous hatred against these people who flee to preserve their lives and the lives of their children. Is it all in the name of his white supremacist attitude, best expressed in the slogan of “Make America White Again?”

As a Holocaust survivor, I cannot help but compare Trump’s racism to that of Hitler’s who, in similar manner, sized up the threat of Judaism as a threat not only to Germany but to the world. One of his more famous antisemitic mentors, Richard Wagner, the great composer, expressed the threat of Judaism and the Jewish people by coining a new word: Verjudung, meaning something like “jewishing” the otherwise pure world…I hate to think what a totally white America would look, feel and act like!

Because of Jewish ethics and more particularly because of our past history in which we came to experience and hopefully to learn what rejection for ethnic reasons feels like and produces, Jews must not and cannot turn their back to migrants fleeing for life.

I am disappointed that on the local, national and international level few Jewish voices have been heard to condemn our governments’ treatment of these poor refugees at our southern gates. Have we forgotten what rejection feels like?

Here then are reminders:

Back in 1938 the plight of the Jews in Germany had become known. Rumors had it that Jews in Germany were sent to concentration camps. Auschwitz had not been built yet and so the worst had not yet happened. There was much talk about the necessity of creating safe havens for the Jews but talk did not suffice. There was need for action.

It was on President Roosevelt ‘s initiative that an international meeting was convened in July 1938 in Evian-les-Bains, France, to request commitments from the assembled nations to accept Jewish refugees from Germany.

And so 32 nations came together joined by 24 voluntary organi-zations that participated as observers. Also 200 journalists attended. Hitler endorsed the conference and even allegedly promised to help the Jews leave his country. It was reported that he said, “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [the Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

The conference ended in failure. With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic which offered help, none of the other participating nations made a commitment about accepting Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. For Hitler this was a victory as it seemed to demonstrate that no one desired an influx of Jews to their country. Useful propaganda!

Two months after Evian – the Sudeten was given to Hitler by British prime minister Chamberlain. 120,000 formerly Czech Jews became stateless. In March 1939 Czechoslovakia was occupied and 180,000 more Jews came under Hitler’s rule. Then came Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On September 1, 1939 WW II broke out. Holocaust and 6 million Jewish dead followed. Have we, Jews, learned anything from Evian? Do we not remember?

Our treatment of the refugees at our southern border is a test of American humaneness and civilization and we are flunking it.

The story of the Saint Louis Ship should be an other reminder for us Jews of our history of a people fleeing from destruction and being refused to be given a haven of safety and a secure life.

During WW II the ship, the St. Louis, owned by the German Hapag (Hamburg-America Line) was a German luxury ocean liner that carried over 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in 1939 trying to escape the Holocaust. The ship’s destination was Cuba in the hope that the refugees would debark and settle there. Having arrived there, the ship docked in Havana’s harbor but the refugees, with the exception of some Spaniards, Cubans and US citizens with Cuban visas, were not allowed to disembark. US government officials interceded with Cuba but to no avail. What now?

The ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, a seemingly very decent human being, now took the ship to the US and to Canada, trying to find a nation that would accept these Jewish refugees fleeing for their life. Both nations refused the ship’s landing in their respective harbors.

In view of these refusals, no alternative was left for the captain but to return to Europe. The UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and France accepted a few of the ships’ refugees. Unfortunately, the Nazis in their lightning fast war caught up with these Jewish refugees who thought they had escaped the clutches of Hitler. Statistics show that 254 of those who were forced to return to Europe were murdered during the Holocaust in Auschwitz and Sobibor. The rest died in various slave labor camps, in hiding or in attempts to evade the Nazis.

Let me end this blog by reminding ourselves that we Jews, too, were once on the run from death. Should not our empathy for these folks at our southern border motivate us to speak out loudly against their mistreatment?

I do not understand that Melania Trump, a mother herself, has not been willing or able to speak out for a more humane treatment of these suffering folk. Jared and Ivanka Kushner, both allegedly Jews, have remained silent. I do not understand that the fathers and mothers, employed by ICE, lend themselves to such inhuman treatment as separating children from their parents.

America, where are we headed?!

Jewish Origins Without Revelation (Part 3, final)

More remains to be said about this alleged God who supposedly made promises to Abraham and his progeny’s future conquest and possession of the land of Canaan which, at the time of king David had become a fait accompli. Who was this God and where did he come from? What about his becoming the one and only and unique God of Israel?

In a polytheism practicing religious environment such as was the ancient Near East in the second millenium BCE, the god who allegedly demanded the people’s obedience and worship, as well as recognition of him as the dominant God of the already existing pantheon, had to be properly identified so that his authority be respected by all.

To accomplish this feat, king David’s royal historiographers looked into the mythologies of the countries adjoining Canaan, north and south, Mesopotamia and Egypt. In both those areas they found myths and holy stories that lent themselves to re-interpretation in the light of the Hebrew tribes’ experience in the Exodus-cluster of events. It is probable, given Moses’ experience at the Egyptian royal court, that he remembered what he had heard there and shared this mythological material within the circles of the liberated Hebrew slaves, after Exodus and before his death.

King David, in an effort to justify the conquest of Canaan may have “unpacked” Moses’ Egyptian legacy and with some modifications, introduced it into Israel’s nascent constitution, the Torah.

One of several Egyptian creation myths was contained in what is known to us as a part of the Egyptian Memphite theology. This myth may have served king David’s purpose. Its theme consists of the mechanism of creation which reverberates in the Jewish Bible story of creation.

The myth tells that before creation there existed a watery void, accompanied by darkness, formlessness and invisibility. This sounds very much like the tohu vavohu in Genesis 1:2 which translates as “the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Then, just as the flood waters of the Nile subside and small hillocks of mud appear, the annual event making agriculture of that inundated area feasible, so also according to the creation myth, the primeval waters subsided and the first hillock of earth appeared in the middle of nothingness. On that hillock sat the creator god Atum whose name means that he was “all within himself.”

The phrase “all within himself” resembles the Jewish liturgical text, kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, adonay tseva’ot, melo kol ha’aretz kevodo, or in English, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory,” (Isa. 6:3)

Note: In Christian Church liturgy this acclamation of the divinity is called the “trishagion” (Greek: thrice holy).

God Atum then brings the other gods into being by naming them. That mode of creation sounds similar to the biblical text in which the biblical God brings animals to Adam, the first human being, so that Adam name them.

The Memphite theology goes even further in terms of being a prototype, as it were, for the biblical creation text. It states that Ptah, the god of Memphis, then the capital of Egypt,was “the heart and tongue of the gods.” Heart and tongue was the Egyptian pictorial way of saying mind and speech. “Indeed, all the divine order came into being through what the heart thought and the tongue commanded.” Interestingly, the biblical creation text echoes this Egyptian concept, “And God said, ‘Let there be light! And there was light.’ ” Creation, in the Genesis text, happens by means of the spoken word of God.

It is worth mentioning here that the Memphite theology precedes early Greek and Hebrew thought by 2,000 years!

It was clever on the part of David to refer in the Torah, Israel’s Constitution, right at its beginning, to the creation event and to credit Israel’s God, elohim, with that accomplishment. Interestingly, the name of the Canaanite chief god was el (plural elim or elohim). In the Genesis text, it is this elohim who is the creator of the world but in the Abraham- related narratives, beginning in Genesis 12, this god has acquired the unpronounceable name YHWH (often pronounced Yahweh, when probable vowels are added to the four consonants). Here lies a contradiction, in as much as the name YHVH, according to the biblical narrative itself, does not become known/revealed until the episode at the Burning Bush in Exodus 3:15 where God introduces himself as YHVH to Moses, an event, in all probability 500 years or more after Abraham.

In many Bible narratives the two names are joined to read YHWH-Elohim. By doing this, the creator God, the God who promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and the victorious God of the Exodus who defeated not only Pharaoh but also the Egyptian gods, are now united into one supreme divinity. No greater god than Israel’s God can now be invoked by anyone to quarrel about Israel’s having taken possession of Canaan. And scrolling forward in history, this also is this very god who has an intimate relationship with David, Israel’s king and author of the new Constitution, the Torah.

For David, the new monarch of the geo-political state of Israel, a state consisting of a number of tribes with each one having its own historical and religious past, unification was of utmost importance.

For Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE) about whom Moses had undoubtedly heard while at the Egyptian court, this too was a concern. His solution to the problem was the introduction of what we today call monolatry, the rule of a single supreme god. This was not elimination of the pantheon of gods but merely the multiple gods’ demotion to a lesser status. Akhenaten promoted the god Aton (or Aten) to the supreme position and incorporated the god’s name into his own: thus Akhen-aten meaning, “successful for Aten.” or something very similar. The symbol of Aten was the disk of the sun with each of its rays ending in the Egyptian symbol of life, the ankh.

From monolatry to monotheism it is only one step. It is an all important step. Promotion of one god to a supreme position and worship of that one god by all twelve tribes as the one and only true god would undoubtedly encourage and eventually establish unity, a precondition for the establishment of the United Kingdom under David. E pluribus unum.

How can this be accomplished? It is here that we discover David’s genius. Transforming the name el (singular) into elohim (a plural) but having this plural followed by both verbs and adjectives in the singular rather then in the plural, as is grammatically required in Hebrew, the MANY [gods of the tribes] are now changed into ONE [god].. This grammar-related process accomplished the transition from monolatry to monotheism.

The codification of the above grammatical procedure for religio-political purposes is clearly evident from the shema, the single faith affirmation of Judaism to this day. Stemming from the time of Judah’s king Josiah (640 BCE). It was he who instituted the so-called Josianic Reform which consisted of centralizing worship in Jerusalem. The text of the shema is found in Deut. 6:4 and reads in Hebrew, shema yisrael yhvh eloheynu yhvh echad. The literal translation of this text is, “hear Israel YHVH our gods YHVH one.”The usual English rendering of the sentence is, “hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”Without going into the intricacies of Hebrew grammar, the shema can also be translated as, “Hear Israel, YHVH is our gods, YHVH is one.” What might strike the reader is that the verb “is” cannot be found in the Hebrew text. Reason for this is that the verb “to be” in conjugated form does not exist in the present tense in biblical Hebrew. An example: to say “I am a woman” is in Hebrew ani ishah or “I woman.” Both the “am” and the “a” (the indefinite article) must be supplied by the reader.

The tradition calls for a circumlocution for God’s name YHVH. Why so? Because the name consists of four consonants only. Written biblical Hebrew consists of consonants only. The vowels must be supplied by the reader. This makes the reading of Hebrew biblical texts tricky and difficult. Besides, there was reluctance to pronounce God’s holy name. This explains the circumlocution adonay employed when the reader of Torah texts encounters the four holy letters of God’s names. The term adonay literally means “my lords” (1st person plural, possessive of adon, meaning “lord” ). Eventually, the term’s usage transformed it into a singular, followed by verbs and adjectives in the singular. It follow that in the shema two nouns in the plural are, on the basis of religious tradition, considered singular and treated as such. Once again, E pluribus unum.

Finally, where did the four holy letters of God’s name, YHVH (also called the tetragrammaton) come from? As far as the Bible is concerned, this was God’s name revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush in the Sinai. Among Bible readers it is rarely known that YHVH was not a complete newcomer to the Near Eastern pantheon. Excavations in the eastern Sinai at Kuntillet Ajrud in 1975-1976 yielded several inscriptions dated to the 9th and 8th centuries BCE in which blessing formulas involving the name Yahweh and Asherah are mentioned. On the wall of a tomb at Khirbet el-Quom the excavators found an inscription reading, “May Uri-Yahu be blessed by Yahweh my guardian and his Asherah.” Also ancient sanctuaries with primitive statuary identified as Yahweh with his consort Asherah were found in that general geographic area.

How and why this particular pagan divinity was adopted by Israel as her God and adapted into playing the major role in certain major historical events, we do not know. Much work dealing with these issues remains to be done.

The term Asherah occurs in the Torah text a number of times. While in the above mentioned excavations, Asherah is identified as Yahweh’s consort, the Torah speaks of it as a sacred pole that stood near Canaanite religious locations to honor the Ugaritic mother-goddess Asherah, consort of El. The biblical texts condemns these poles. So for instance Exod. 34:13 states, “Break down their [Canaanite] altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherim [Asherah poles].”

It might be of interest to mention that echoes of monolatry within ancient Israel survive within the Jewish siddur (prayer book) such as, mi khamokha ba-elim adonay, “who is like you among the gods, Adonay? In the amidah, the standing prayer, we read, barukh ata Adonay, Eloheynu melekh ha-olam, ha-el ha-gadol, ha-gibbor, ha-norah, el-elyon…:”Praised are you Adonay, our God, king of the world, the great God, the powerful God, the awesome God, the highest God…” Both texts suggest the existence of gods other than YHVH. Are these “errors” in monotheism caused by carelessness of editors?

To summarize, it is my belief that Torah began with King David’s plan to create a founding document for the United Kingdom. In trying to establish justification for the Hebrew tribes’ invasion and taking possession of Canaan and adjoining territories, he invoked God’s promise to Abraham, the head of a tribal group, to take possession of the land of Canaan. To establish this God’s absolute superiority overl the other gods in the tribal and Canaanite pantheon, he appropriated and adapted Egyptian myths of creation and combined these with tribal reminiscences/sagas, forming a pre-history that explained and justified ancient Israel’s hegemony over the defeated local population.

By conquering the city of Jebus, a city previously not conquered by any of the tribes, renaming it Yerushalayim or “Inheritance of Peace,” establishing it as capital and religious pilgrimage center of the newly formed kingdom, he succeeded in temporary unification of the tribes into a quasi-homogeneous geo-political entity.

The United Kingdom did not survive the reign of David’s son, king Solomon. It split into two entities after Solomon’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel, consisting of ten tribes and the southern kingdom of Judah, consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

Following the reign of 20 kings in the north, that kingdom fell to Assyria under king Sargon II in 722 BCE. Little or nothing is known about the fate of the conquered northern tribes.

Judah, in the south, following the reign also of 20 kings, was conquered by Babylonia in 586 BCE under king Nebuchadnezzar and a large part of the population was exiled to Babylonia. With the fall of Babylonia to Persia under Persian king Cyrus (538-529 BCE) the Judean exiles were allowed to return home and to rebuild the walls and the Temple of Jerusalem shortly after, but Jewish independence had been lost. With the exception of the roughly 100 years of the Maccabean Kingdom (165-64 BCE) the Jewish state ceased to exist until its rebirth as Eretz Yisrael, the modern State of Israel, in 1948.
*

Through the many centuries of Jewish exilic existence, Torah not only has survived but has kept its relevance and even religious authority for many Jews.

Much in Torah draws on the supernatural. As a person bridging the 20th and 21st centuries, I find it impossible to join in my superstitious ancestors’ belief systems. I fully realize, however, that had I lived in their times, I probably would have been on the same page with them. I find it simplistic to criticize past world views from the viewpoint of our times.

I do stand in awe of some of these ancestors’ insights. In my studied opinion the Torah did not originate in heaven and was brought down to us humans by a god or his angels. As I see it, our ancestors recognized certain truths, saw these as critical for the maintenance and well being of their society. As it happened, that wisdom was handed down to us as advice for the viability of future societies.

It was our ancestors’ observation of events and their consequences that helped them arrive at conclusions certain of which, if followed by us today, would undoubtedly improve the lives of many and perhaps even slow down, stop and possibly reverse our descent into planetary human self-destruction.

Reliance on some kind of a future supernatural intervention into human affairs to stop our tendency to self-destruct is counter intuitive and downright dangerous. It will not happen!

As I see it, the purpose of Torah, originally the Constitution and By-laws of a newly formed nation, is not so much about giving us information allegedly relevant about God but rather about a community that considered itself destined to bring enlightenment to the nations, something that remains to this day Judaism’s task and mission.

I continue to be impressed by a text from the Yerushalmi, The Talmud of the Land of Israel (Tj chag. 1:7) in which our sages (z”l) quote God as having said, “Would that they forsake me, but keep my Torah.”

This ends the mini-series.

 


Please send questions and/or comments through email. Thanks.

Jewish Origins Without Revelation (Part 2)

I will begin this essay by dealing in abbreviated form with Jewish origins. To ask about origins is to ask the question: where do we Jews come from? Where are our historical roots? What is the first documentary evidence about Israelite existence? Since the heart of Judaism’s existence is Torah and Torah is our source for the existence of God and his alleged special relationship with the Jewish people, we need to inquire about the Torah’s origins.

I will try to respond to the above questions drawing on both Jewish and non-Jewish scholarship.

It should be clear that in my effort at a non-supernatural reconstruction of Jewish history I will not deal with phenomena such as divine revelation or divine interventions in human affairs because, these belong into the realm of faith and not documentable historical events.

But even documentable historical facts call for interpretation and interpretation is not mathematics! It is always, at least to some extent, subjective because, like everything else in life, it is human and thus suffers from human existential limitation.

Let’s scroll back to the Near-East in pre-biblical times. In an extant letter within a correspondence between the ruler of a Canaanite city-state and his powerful overlord, a pharaoh in Tel el-Amarna, probably pharaoh Akhenaten (d. 1336 BCE), in Upper Egypt, we read, “There are marauding habiru tribes here who cause damage to our land and its farmers.”

While we do not have a response from this unnamed pharaoh, this sentence introduces us to the term HABIRU which, even without sophisticated knowledge of linguistics, corresponds by and large to our term HEBREW. The Canaanite letters forming the term Habiru are related to the Hebrew term ‘ivriy from which our word “Hebrew” is derived. Interestingly, the Hebrew ‘ivriy, in turn, derives from the Hebrew verb ‘avar which means “to move, crossover, pass over.” What do semi-nomadic tribes do? They move, they cross over, they pass over land.

The Habirus were semi-nomads. With their cattle they crisscrossed the land looking for fertile areas, settled here and there, let their cattle graze, and when nothing was left for the cattle to eat, moved on to the next fertile spot. No wonder that the local Canaanite farmers considered them intruders and asked pharaoh for help to keep the Habirus and their herds away.

It is likely that the earliest historical ancestors of the Hebrews were these Near Eastern semi-nomadic Habiru tribes. Avram, later to become Abraham, (approx. date between 2,000 and 1,700 BCE), who with his family and tribe had moved from Ur of the Chaldeans to Haran in Syria and settled there was subsequently told by the LORD to move on.

Genesis 12:1-3 is a seminal chapter for my thesis. It is here that the LORD (i.e., YHWH, name of God allegedly revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush in the Sinai peninsula) ordered Abraham to

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you…”

And so, according to Gen 12:4, “Abraham went, as the LORD had told him.” Thus, from Haran in Syria, Abraham’s family/tribe traveled south, to the Land of Canaan, allegedly guided by the LORD.

Some scholars suggest that the person of Abraham is a personification of a migratory movement. Semi-nomads migrate, remember! It is a well established fact that different Near Eastern tribes worshiped and followed their particular God. The time frame we are considering here is one in which polytheism was the generally practised form of religion in the Near East.

In the Bible, the stories about Abraham are followed by the tribal stories of Abraham’s son Isaac and his wife Rebecca. These, in turn, are followed by the stories covering the exploits of their son Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel whose twelve sons become the eponymous ancestors of the so-called Twelve Tribes of Israel. Their daughter Dinah did not become ancestress of a tribe.

Now to a quick forward in biblical history. The book of Genesis reports that the Twelve Tribes, during a devastating famine in Canaan where they had settled, migrated south to Egypt where there was food available and where they established themselves under favorable circumstances. Without going here into the details of many associated stories like, for instance, the Joseph narratives, we are told that eventually they became enslaved in Egypt. How so?

Upon arrival of the Hebrews in Egypt, an unnamed Hyksos-related pharaoh ruled over Egypt (the Hyksos invaders’ reign in Egypt: 1730-1570 BCE). The Hyksos people were of Semitic ethnic background, (like the Habirus/Hebrews), which explains the favorable welcome they extended to the Twelve Tribes, by now known as Israel. When the Hyksos’ relatively brief dynasty was terminated by one Ahmose who expulsed them and re-established the pre-Hyksos native Egyptian royal dynasty, the Israelites fell into disfavor. The biblical narrative conveys this development rather laconically: “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8f.) This unnamed new Pharaoh was in all probability Ramses II, a ruler generally considered to have been a megalomaniac, suggestion based on the ubiquitous statuary of his person found all over Egypt.

This is not the proper place for a detailed account of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. Based on biblical chronologies which do not agree with each other, approximately 400 years.

As a result of the alleged Ten Plagues which God brought down on Egypt, the last of which was the death of the Egyptian firstborns which included Pharaoh’s son, the slaves were released and traveled toward the land of Canaan, located north of the Nile Delta. Still scrolling forward, the liberated slaves stopped over at the Sinai desert where, on Mount Sinai, (exact location to this day not identified), according to the tradition, Moses received both the Written and the Oral Torah, containing among other laws, the famous Ten Commandments.

After Moses’ death, the liberated slaves under the leadership of Joshua, followed by the so-called Judges (military leaders), engaged in the conquest of the land of Canaan whose possession had been promised to Abraham and his posterity. According to Deut. 7:1-5, God’s promise of giving to the Israelites the land of Canaan took place as prophesied. It was fulfilled by means of what in our time would be called “ethnic cleansing” or the destruction of the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. It would seem that despite temporary setbacks here and there, in the end everything went as planned and the liberated Hebrew tribes, by slaughtering the natives in their land with God’s help, achieved God’s plan of coming into possession of the land of Canaan. It should be noted that apart from the biblical witness to these events, none is preserved in extra biblical documentation.

The two biblical books of Samuel tell us about the transition of the liberated tribes from functioning as a loose confederation to a monarchy, first under king Saul and subsequently under king David who became the intermediary between God Yahweh and the people Israel. The previous direct theocratic rule of Israel was now modified.

David was a very astute politician. Having conquered the city of Jebus, capital of the Jebusites, he established it as the political capital of the newly conquered country, as well as its religious center. This was accomplished by bringing the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments from Sinai, previously held by the various tribes in rotation, to this city and renaming it Yerushalayim, “Inheritance of Peace.” It was a brilliant move in as much as it brought the Twelve Tribes into a closer relationship with each other, both politically and religiously, the latter by means of designating the city as the pilgrimage center for the three ancient Israelite pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, (Passover), Shavuot (lit. “Weeks,” commemorating the giving of the Torah) and Sukkoth (Feast of Booths, a reminder of Israel’s desert wanderings).

Solomon, David’s son and successor, built the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem that took the place of the movable desert sanctuary (‘ohel ha-mo’ed or Tent of Meeting). This was undoubtedly a further effort to unify the tribes and to strengthen the newly created geo-political nation. As presented in the Bible, it was done in response to God’s desire to dwell in a house.

After Solomon’s death, the misbehavior of his son Rehoboam, resulted in separation of the northern and southern tribes and the formation of two distinct countries.

Note: The ten northern tribes, calling themselves Israel, fell to an invasion by the kingdom of Assyria in 722 BCE whereas the remaining southern tribes, calling themselves the kingdom of Judah, fell to an invasion of Babylonia in 586 BCE.

Back to king David now and my reconstruction of Israel’s history.

A newly established nation needs a constitution or founding document that conveys to its own country’s population, as well as to its geographical neighbors, the raison d’etre for its existence. Such a document explains the justification for its incursion into and its establishment in the geographical and political space held by its previous owners; the salient events in history that led to and legitimize the conquest; the civil and religious legislation that would from here on guide its society in its pursuit of daily life; last but not least ,the relationship between God, king, nation and each individual.

It is here that king David’s and king Solomon’s historiographers went to work. By combing through the Hebrew tribal records, oral and perhaps also written, they found treasures that lent themselves for such an undertaking. Scouring the oral and written histories of Mesopotamia, in the north, and Egypt in the south, as also the myths and legends of the conquered land of Canaan itself, turned out to be helpful.

Their most important discovery was the Abraham (the Habiru?) stories, beginning in Genesis at chapter 12. “Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… so Abram went as the LORD had told him.” According to Gen. 15, the commanding voice of the divinity said to Abraham, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess,” etc. And in Gen 15:18 a further promise, “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land from the River of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kennizites, the Kadminites, the Hittites, the Perrizites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

The divinity’s alleged promise to Israel now fulfilled, was incorporated into the country’s founding document or, as I call it, the Constitution of the new land of Israel – the Torah.

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