Read Adam Kirsch’s review of Robert Alter’s translation of The Wisdom Books (Job, Proverbs, and Kohelet).  That they serve as a kind of counterpoint to the world’s narrative as established elsewhere in the Bible is not a new observation, but one that Kirsch does well to point out — he points it out in the context of language — that of Alter’s translation and that of the literary merit of the texts themselves.  In terms of surface value, a line-by-line basic reading, they perhaps are contradictory.  They are even so in their broader sense — yet they are (and, more importantly, were, millenia ago) accepted as revelatory, just as were (say) the Psalms or the Torah itself.

All of these are, of course, different kinds of revelation: Torah as, in a strict sense, a legal-historical revelation; Psalms as a personal-poetic; then the wisdom books, discussing something more akin to man-in-general, but still a sort of personal-poetic revelation.  The question, however, still remains: can you have revelation that contradicts itself?  Does this revelation, as it may initially appear, contradict itself?  And then what — especially for one who, like me, is inclined to believe that truth is inherent and inhering in these books?

The seeming contradiction and its acceptance by the earlier (now ancient?) generations and its leaders points toward how we can and should (and must, at times?) read the Bible: not as a singular unswerving narrative, but as a mixture of voices, all trying to understand man and God from their position; all of which, the tradition holds, experienced revelation of some kind.  The literary truth of Job or Kohelet may seem to contradict the narrative truth of the Creation, as Kirsch notes of Alter’s translations: but this does not mean that neither is true, or that we must choose one or none.

Biblical truth is closely related to the truth we find in art and literature.  It is various and multiform but exists nevertheless.  What strengthens this truth to something beyond that which is found in art or literature is the idea of revealed truth, if one accepts it.  But the composition of the Bible — that it seems to contradict itself; that it leaves gaps and jagged edges; that the truths of the various books shout, at times, against each other and then with their opponent of a moment ago — is a kind of instruction from those who lived before us — from, in essence, the founders of the religion as a religion of a book — as to how we, millenia later, should read it.  Let the gaps and rough edges stand and try to understand them, and the whole, as they are, rather than try to sand them over into some immaculate unified whole that in the end becomes wholly uninteresting.

After all — even though Kohelet’s men and beasts are equals, unlike the man who is given dominion over beasts in Genesis, the “mere breath” that is all is merely the air which the same earlier book claims God breathed into Adam’s nostrils.  In the end, perhaps, the more interesting truths are those found in the gaps.

The repercussions of these reports from the Israeli army are, on a more universal perspective, fairly clear. It is, as Michael Weiss puts it, “demoralizing” to Israel’s supporters. So forgive me if I come at it from a much more particularly Jewish perspective.Let’s begin with this: there is no right for any particular generation of Jews to Israel. There are duties that Jews can perform best in Diaspora, duties that can only be performed in Israel, and duties that can only be performed by a Jewish state in Israel.  There is a need, for the fulfilment of earthly duties as a Jewish people, to exist at some point within a Jewish state in Israel.  But the Diaspora, or so the tradition goes, began because of failures on the part of the Jewish people within Israel. That is, we as Jews must be deserving – must live our lives in sufficiently holy ways so as to be deserving – of the chance to perform our duties and obligations as Jews leading a Jewish state in Israel.

This isn’t a call for perfection. Perfection isn’t a possibility within history. It is the simple statement that Jews – as Jews and especially as Jews in Israel – have an obligation to lead lives that strive toward holiness – which is demanded by the Covenant (which ought to merit a discussion itself, as the most terrifying part of Judaism).

Central to all this talk of “holiness” and “hallowing” (there is a reason for the preponderance of variations on the qof-dalet-shin root in prayer) is an understanding of the sanctity of a single human life. The world was created for no man individually but every man in particular. Not for the collective, but for the whole, individually. And that is why to save a life is as to save all Creation; to destroy a life as to destroy all Creation. And why the Sabbath may be broken to save a life, though the Sabbath is the holiest of days; its rules superceding the rules and rituals of all others.

Which is why, even without the reports out of Gaza, I would be concerned to see this opinion from the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Army:

“He has also said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath, when work is prohibited but treating the sick and injured is expected, is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred.”

It demonstrates an obsessive, exclusionist misreading of the concept of “Chosenness”: his would have it that Jews only have true obligations to other Jews and to G-d. Which is, suffice it to say, ridiculous – and borderline racist. He forgets the purpose of the Covenant: not that Jews alone might be “saved” and have some sort of millennial/eternal party with the divine, but (as the Aleinu, a prayer I suppose he recites at least as often as I do) has it (and has had it for about a thousand years): that, in the end, when “the words of the prophet are fulfilled” all will be united in love and worship of, and service to, G-d.  And considering that, it is utterly irresponsible – and hardly Jewish – theology to assert that there is a difference in sanctity between a Jewish life and a non-Jewish one. Though the nature of how that life is lived may differ, the sacredness of all human life is equal. There can be no difference in the sanctity of a Jewish life and a non-Jewish one.

So when you can read reports like these, published in Israel’s major daily

” ‘And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to … I don’t know how to describe it …. The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way,’ he [an Israeli squad leader] said.


“[‘Another squad leader from the same brigade’] said he argued with his commander over the permissive rules of engagement that allowed the clearing out of houses by shooting without warning the residents beforehand. After the orders were changed, the squad leader’s soldiers complained that ‘we should kill everyone there [in the center of Gaza]. Everyone there is a terrorist.’

The squad leader said: ‘You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won’t say anything. To write ‘death to the Arabs’ on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing: To understand how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It’s what I’ll remember the most.'”

And then see that this is not treated as an essential crisis of purpose by the Israeli government – that Avigdor Lieberman and his backers may hold multiple and important cabinet portfolios – is more than merely demoralizing. It is utterly devastating in that respect.

The State of Israel is a human political entity distinct from Am Yisra’el – I get that. But it is a political entity run by Jews, for Jews, in Israel. It cannot escape the essential Jewishness of its character. When it transgresses, it transgresses not just as a political entity, but as a Jewish entity. And from a believing, religious perspective, the Covenant will always be more terrifying and aw(e)ful than the United Nations; breaking it more a transgression than violating any Security Council decree.

When we – Jews, anywhere – behave like this, it is a violation of the Covenant. There is a right to defense, yes. But there is not a right to toss aside the belief in the essential sanctity of all human life, to toss aside our duty to lead hallowed lives as Jews, because of threats to safety. (And I acknowledge that I say this sitting in a Southern city a Jewish mayor and Jewish Congressman: a place, that is, safe for Jews, far from violence. It’s harder in Israel, and failure is human. But deliberate transgression is a far different matter than accidental transgression when threatened.)

To behave like this is a violation of the Covenant. And there is no fundamental right for any particular generation of Jews to Israel.  Juxtaposed, the two are truly frightening.

Will Herberg poses a situation in which a man is forced to choose between killing one man (an enemy aviator) or letting that man destroy an entire town by taking no action — both result in responsibility for death and violation of the sacredness of every life.  “Why is it he is compelled to violate the divine law?  The compulsive factors are obviously not of the natural order…” (Judaism and Modern Man, p. 217)  To answer, he brings up that (often problematic) line of Scripture: “The Lord visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children unto the third and fourth generations.”  His use might be more commonplace than I realize, but I find it fascinating nonetheless:

“What men have done at other times and places, what men do elsewhere in our own time, what we ourselves have done in the past, enter into the conditions that compel us to take life, to live by exploitation, to eat while others go hungry — just as what we do now adds to the burden of sin that will beset the men of time to come and cruelly restrict their freedom of action.  […]

“The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children not merely in the sense that one generation has to bear the consequences of the deeds of another — ‘Our fathers have sinned. . .and we have borne their iniquities’ (Lam. 5:7) — but in the far more important sense that the sins of the fathers create a situation in which the children, too, do evil, if only because, in the concrete circumstances, no course of action is open to them that is not to some degree infected with it.  There is no escaping the solidarity of sin because there is no escaping the solidarity of mankind.” (Judaism and Modern Man, p. 218)

Doubt, Faith, the Bible

March 3, 2009

Rod Dreher linked to this article by way of Biblical literacy, but what I found truly striking was Plotz’s confession of his struggles with God and the idea of God during and after reading the Bible:

“I began the Bible as a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic. I wished for a God, but I didn’t really care. I leave the Bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I’m brokenhearted about God.”

Then he ends by noting something important:

“As I read the book, I realized that the Bible’s greatest heroes-or, at least, my greatest heroes-are not those who are most faithful, but those who are most contentious and doubtful: Moses negotiating with God at the burning bush, Gideon demanding divine proof before going to war, Job questioning God’s own justice, Abraham demanding that God be merciful to the innocent of Sodom. They challenge God for his capriciousness, and demand justice, order, and morality, even when God refuses to provide them.”

Those Biblical figures called heroes, and pillars, and faithful, and righteous: they doubted. They struggled. Faith did not preclude that; those titles that they earned — could they have earned them without doubting? Would Abraham have been Abraham had he not negotiated for Sodom and Gomorrah? Moses, lost in the desert, doubted and struck the rock in his own name when bringing forth water.

There is an argument to be made that the struggle with doubt is among the most important aspects of faith. I think I would believe that, though I don’t harbor any presumptions about being the one to make it. But we oughtn’t confuse faith with mere belief — the one is a component, an aspect of the other, though integral to it.

“Our post-modern generation is beginning to understand this.  It is beginning to see that in the process of establishing his autonomy and gaining mastery over the instruments of living, Western man has managed to lose his grasp of the meaning of life, his control over the dark destructive forces within himself and society.  In gaining — or rather in trying to gain — the world, he has come very close to losing his soul.”

And, leading up to a proclamation of “the essential homelessness of man”:

“We stand confounded, perplexed, consumed with anxiety.  Everything has become problematical, everything has turned into meaninglessness, absurdity, nothingness.  But that everything is our existence, our very life.

“What does it all signify?  It signifies that, deceive himself as he may, man is never entirely at home in the natural universe of which he is part — and he knows it.”

Judaism and Modern Man, pgs. 8 and 15, respectively

Just sayin’.  His definition of “post-modern” is awfully similar to how PomoCo wants to define it.  And you should see him talk about contemporary–albeit to the 50s–psychiatry: if Tom More had the same occasionally over-the-top syntax and diction, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it in a Louisiana accent.

Admittedly, I’m not that far into the book, but at the rate I’m making margin notes referring to Lawler, Percy, etc., I’m inclined to thing there’s some sympathy — if nothing else — there.

Andrew posts video of MLK’s final public words, in which he seems equally confident in the eventual success of the Civil Rights Movement and that he will not live to see it happen; that (in hindsight, at least) he will die soon.  That speech has always brought to mind what is possibly the most striking passage in Elie Wiesel’s memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea, where he reflects on the deaths of Rabbis Saul Lieberman and Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Watching that footage made me go look it up:

“As I said, I wasn’t surprised.  Lieberman had acted strangely when I saw him last.  At the end of our lesson he had stood up and embraced me.  He was to leave that afternoon for Jerusalem, to celebrate Passover with his older brother.  I was in a hurry.  I was giving a lecture at Yale that afternoon.  He walked me to the door, but suddenly exclaimed, ‘Would you like to come back, Reb Eliezer?’  We went back and reimmersed ourselves in study. […]

“An hour went by.  Once again he accompanied me to the hallway, we embraced, and I got into the elevator, but my friend and master took me by the arm and said, “We still have time, Reb Eliezer, don’t we still have time?”  We went back to his desk, took our places, and opened the Talmud for another hour. […] I left with a heavy heart, for during the lesson I had noticed that his desk, always strewn with books, magazines, and papers, was entirely clear.  This unprecedented  fact brought another image to my mind.

“One morning, years before, Heschel had phoned me.  He needed me urgently.  I jumped in a cab and rushed to the Seminary.  Heschel opened his door  and, without saying a word, leaned his head on my shoulder and began to sob like a child.  Rarely have I seen an adult cry like that.  Still standing in the doorway, I noticed that his ordinarily messy table was neatly arranged.  We parted without exchanging a word.  Heschel died the next day.  Now Lieberman’s table was clear too.

“The Talmud tells us that the Righteous are warned of their impending death, to allow them time to put their affairs in order.  Heschel and Lieberman, each in his own way, were surely among the Righteous.”

It’s a story I’ve never known what to make of, but it is one of two or three passages that make me keep that book with me.  And, thinking on it this afternoon, it seems appropriate that King’s death should make me think of Heschel’s, and Heschel’s of King’s, different though they were.

Paul Dean, reviewing Geoffrey Hill’s critical writings in December’s TNC:

“If language is fallen, yet can be God-bearing, has it been redeemed, and if so, how? Was language, too, saved on Cavalry? (That is not a flippant question.)”

Though I’m not exactly of authority to hazard a response to that question in its particular form, I’ll do it anyway: If language is fallen, I wouldn’t place the fall in connection with Original Sin (as Hill, apparently, does) or, more specifically, with “the serpent’s use of specious argument to win Eve over” (as Dean does). Babel, rather, seems the proper setting for its (literal) Fall: the Fall involved punishment, but language was not punished until after Babel, when it was made imperfect and scattered out of a unity.

Of course, I have trouble with what I’ve just been saying, mostly because language of “the Fall” and “fallenness” isn’t something I’m perfectly comfortable with. They are, to my ears, inextricably linked with the idea of Original Sin-and therefore, like it, not Jewish terms. I understand them, of course, and have developed an aesthetic appreciation of the concept – I have to if I intend to live within the Western literary tradition (and have to if I intend to appreciate so many of the works on any meaningful scale). But to truly believe the language, one needs (I think) a Christian sensibility.

My preference is to couch discussion of post-Edenic existence in terms of loss, not fall. Between that and a (more Jewish) belief in an inherent imperfection in man (a state caused by not being divine, or The Divine, rather than resulting from a Fall), there’s enough common ground that I can read (for example, since his book is on my desk as I’m writing) Peter Lawler and sense that we agree on the present state of man’s fallibility and imperfection, while disagreeing on how he got there and where he’s going from there/how he’s getting out of it.

So I would say that language is less Fallen than humanly imperfect; that its fall from the peaks of Babel represents not a Fall but a brokenness — a loss, if you will, of wholeness.

And if we’re going to talk about the merits of the term “Judeo-Christian tradition,” or, more specifically, a Judeo-Christian political tradition, it stands to point out that the two traditions define the origins (and therefore the particular nature) of man’s imperfection differently. Such differing opinions regarding the meaning of the expulsion from Eden and the validity of Original Sin/whether we are specifically fallen, are not negligible, and any common conservative politics (as opposed to worldview or disposition), or (more aptly?) dialogue of conservative politics in/for a shared arena, can’t be established without some sort of contingent superstructure built (precariously?) above it – though that structure may merely be acknowledgement of this difference.

(I suppose you could argue that a similar endeavor is required for non-religious conservatives; though I wonder whether background in the Christian/Jewish/other tradition wouldn’t play an important role here – possibly so much so that merely being a non-religious conservative from the Christian tradition would provide more common ground – on this single matter – than if one were religious but coming from the Jewish tradition.)

Men, Women, Religion

December 21, 2008

While reading this piece (h/t Andrew) on religion and families, I found this curious link.  It, like its mention in the other article, has less in the way of answers than befuddlement, but it was still the most interesting part of Gottlieb’s piece, even though it was merely incidental.

I don’t have much in the way of thoughts; merely pointing toward them.  But I had noted from time to time that — outside of the Orthodox minyon (which I presume is roughly equal; I’m not certain), women outnumber men at services at school on Fridays and Saturdays.  I just thought it was a curious bit of student-body demography, but now I’m curious about whether it’s indicative of anything else.  Not that it’s going to stop the, “What do you mean we have a minyon?  There are only three men here!” jokes on Saturdays, just to see whose skin we can get under at 10 am.

There’s probably a correlation between higher religiosity in women and religious egalitarian movements.  And when you need ten men to hold the full service, and if men are dropping away but women still showing up, that may have something to do with it.  (I wonder if it got going faster/sooner in places with exceptionally small Jewish communities… I should try looking this up.)  Or, you know, it could have been feminism and equal rights and all that jazz.  Though in Louisville, it reputedly had a lot more to do with the older women simply deciding one day that they were not going to climb the stairs into the balcony anymore.  I think that service may have concluded in someone getting arrested; but this was sixtyish years ago, so I wouldn’t have been there.

George-a Maccabi

December 18, 2008

I was originally going to link to this story about George Washington and Chanukah as an “Ooh!  Cool!” type of post, but then I skimmed the comments and found this post, which is more or less a take-down of the historicity of the Chanukah-at-Valley-Forge story.  Still, I find it hard to read this:

In fact, rumor has it that General George Washington first learned of Hanukkah while at Valley Forge. The rumor states that General Washington was intrigued by a private’s odd looking candlestick. Upon questioning the private, Washington learned of the Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah. Allegedly the solder recounted to the General the history of Hanukkah, and how the holiday commemorated the victory of the Jews over a superior tyrannical force. As the legend goes, Washington then thanks the private by responding, “Perhaps we are not as lost as our enemies would have us believe. I rejoice in the Macabees’ success, though it is long past…It pleases me to think that miracles still happen.”

and not feel that it doesn’t merely fail to contradict the image I have of Washington, but fits in nicely and reinforces it.  Learned, magnanimous, hopeful, caring — I can’t help but imagine those words attributed to him in a deep-voiced genteel Virginia accent. 

So even if this story is false, which it well may be, the more interesting thing — to me, at least — is the commentary on our perceptions of Washington.  Washington the Myth seems fairly distinct from Washington the Man, and I don’t think people are generally all too worried: how many are really bothered by the fact that the cherry-tree honesty fable is, when you get down to it, a lie?

Washington’s status as a mythologized semi-demi-god of America is curious because it is entirely self-conscious on our part, and has been since shortly after his presidency, if not earlier.  The man had himself sculpted as a latter-day Cincinnatus, for crying out loud!  So little ahistorical tales like these can still be illuminating, just not in the ways we may first expect (especially if we’re expecting them to be historically truthful).  It makes the idea of Caesar’s “deification” appear much more plausible: it was probably only a more intense version of our own way of looking at Washington.

Religion and “Things”

December 16, 2008

“No, what bothers her is an ancient Presbyterian mistrust of things, things getting mixed up in religion.  The black sweater  and the ashes scandalize her.  Her eyelids lower — she almost winks.  What have these things, articles, to do with doing right?  For she mistrusts the Old Church’s traffic in things, sacraments, articles, bread, wine, salt, oil, water, ashes.”

–Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins

The two comments I recall from Hebrew school about conversion to Judaism are my rabbi theorizing about why more women than men convert (it has to do with the mohel and scissors), and that, in her experience, Catholics had an easier time adjusting than Protestants.  They were already used to ritual trappings; the change was from one type to another, not from absence to presence.

The ritual, for me, is key.  Through years of on-again, off-again faith and various spates of being somewhat “lapsed” (if you can have a lapsed Jew at all), I stuck with various bits of the ritual: no meat and dairy, no shellfish, no pork; wear a tallis when you pray; to your tippy-toes three times during the Kedusha, etc.  To an extent, Tevye shouting, “Tradition!” is perfectly reasonable; I’d rather he be able to explain the origins of the tradition, but mostly because I wish I myself were better able to speak with some authority.  The ritual is why I prefer more traditional to less traditional, and why I’ve come to sing along with all of the Aleinu despite my original (and, to a noticeable degree, still present) discomfiture about the content of the prayer: it is what Jews have said since, more or less, shortly after the Crusades.

So why the ritual and — just as important but more pertinent to the original topic — the ritual object?  The candles, the bread, the wine, the tallisim all ground us in the present and the physical world.  I think it’s best explained by the portion of the siddur drawn from the Biblical passage about wearing tzitzit/fringes (I forget book and verse, and am paraphrasing): Whoever thinks he does only right and just, and does no wrong, let his eyes fall upon the tzitzit and so remember his pride and imperfection.

That is, the ritual object has a purpose outside of merely being “traditional,” whether that object is a fringe on the corner of a tallis or Communion bread/wine (as a non-Catholic, I never know what the proper terminology from my perspective is) — to act as a barrier against what Percy would have called “angelism.”  Do not think you have achieved spiritual perfection; for in so doing, you reveal to yourself your failure.  Do not forget the physical for the sake of the spiritual.  The words attend to the soul; the tallis to the body; together, they are the ritual of prayer because together they treat the whole human.

“What have these things, articles, to do with doing right?”  They are reminders of the interconnectivity of body and soul.