Friday, June 29, 2007

I'm continuing a series of reflections from my reading of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's Jewish Literacy. Some of these reflections, like this one, take us far afield from the topic of the book, but I have found many of his comments and stories to be applicable elsewhere. Case in point today. In the section on "Destruction of the Temple", Rabbi Telushkin notes:

The Temple’s fall, more than any other loss, signaled to the Jews the final failure of the revolt. The Talmud speaks of Jews who went into a permanent state of depression, who “became ascetics, binding themselves neither to eat meat nor to drink wine. Rabbi Joshua got into a conversation with them and said to them: ‘My sons, why do you not eat meat nor drink wine?’ They replied: ‘Shall we eat meat which used to be brought as an offering on the altar, now that the altar is no more? Shall we drink wine which used to be poured as a libation on the altar, but now no longer?’ He said to them: ‘If that is so, we should not eat bread either, because the meal offerings have ceased.’ They said: ‘[That is correct, and] we will manage with fruit.’ ‘We should not eat fruit either, [he said] because there is no longer an offering of firstfruits.’ The ascetics responded that they would manage with other fruits. Rabbi Joshua said, ‘But we should not drink water because there is no longer any ceremony of the water libation.’” To this they had no answer, whereupon the pragmatic Rabbi Joshua advised them: “My sons, come and listen to me. Not to mourn at all is impossible, because the blow has fallen. To mourn overmuch is also impossible, because we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure.”
There are some Christians, Jewish or not, who believe that it is wrong to observe Christmas or Easter because of their alleged pagan origins. I happen to be Jewish, and there is much about Christmas and Easter that is foreign to the Jewish culture. But to observe the birth and the resurrection day of the Messiah can be a wonderful thing. And actually, the pagan connection was likely that the church took over -- co-opted -- the pagan holidays to sanctify them. Nevertheless, some will insist that by virtue of a pagan connection in the first millennium, they are off bounds today.

To that, I offer a variation on Rabbi Joshua's argument:

"We shall not celebrate the Messiah's birth and resurrection because they were transformations of pagan holidays."

"If that is so, we should not call the names of the days as we do (Sunday, Monday, etc.) because they are named after pagan gods and celestial bodies."

"That is correct. We will manage with saying, 'first day,' "second day,' 'third day'" [as is actually done in modern Hebrew].

"We should not say that either, because English was a language that developed among pagans."

To this they had no answer.

From my mouth to God's ears. I'm sure though, that the anti-Christmas folks will have an answer even to that.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Ironies of God

Rabbi Telushkin, in the section of Jewish Literacy on “Albert Einstein (1879-1955),” writes:
There is a certain delicious irony in the fact that Nazi antisemitism—responsible for chasing both Einstein, Meitner, and hundreds of thousands of other Jews out of Germany—also guaranteed that the Axis would lose the Second World War. If not for Nazi antisemitism, Germany would likely have been the first nation to develop the atom bomb, and the history of the world would have been radically different.
Is the hand of God in this "irony" of history? Sometimes it is dangerous to read theology into history—there is always someone who is sure the latest catastrophe is God's judgment. Yet in Genesis, the Joseph story recounts how Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery. There, Joseph became known to Pharaoh as the only one who could correctly interpret Pharaoh's dreams. As a result, Joseph was elevated to the second highest position in Egypt. By divinely given foresight, Joseph knew that the entire area would be devastated by famine within a few years, and so devised a plan to store grain. When the famine finally came, Joseph was enabled to save his family by selling them some of the grain which had been set aside. As Joseph remarks to his family in chapter 50, verse 2: "And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive."

Irony? Yes. God's hand? Yes. It's dicey to read off divine intervention from the headlines, but the Joseph story assures us that God can take tragedy and turn it into something that results in good. Maybe we can't trust our interpretations of the lastest disaster, but we can certainly trust God.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On Jewish Loyalties

I’ve been going through the book Jewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in preparation for some classes I’ll be teaching this fall on Judaism and Jewish history. It's a superb resource and a great overview of all things Jewish. I thought it would be helpful (for me, maybe for you) to regularly blog on what he has to say.

So today's thought comes out of Rabbi Telushkin’s article on “Louis Brandeis (1856-1941)” which includes this, on Jewish loyalties:
Brandeis aggressively criticized Jews who expressed fear that support for Zionism would call their loyalty to America into question. “Multiple loyalties,” he cogently explained, do not necessarily imply “mutually exclusive loyalties. A man can be loyal to his family, his city, his state and his country, and need have no fear that these loyalties will conflict.” Today, some three quarters of a century later, American Jews still cite Brandeis’s formulation to counter accusations that those who work on behalf of Israel are guilty of having dual loyalties [pages 412-413].
This fear of divided loyalties was also part of early Reform Judaism’s resistance to Zionism, as Telushkin explains elsewhere:

Reform Jews feared that Zionism’s insistence that Jews should live in Palestine would call into question Jewish loyalties to their native lands [“Neturei Karta,” p. 335].
Jews who have come to believe in Jesus but insist they are still Jews claim loyalty both to the Jewish people and to Jesus. And they claim loyalty both to the Jewish people and to all people who follow Jesus, Jewish or gentile.

Brandeis was no believer in Jesus, but one wonders if he would have extended the dictum—“Multiple loyalties do not necessarily imply mutually exclusive loyalties”—to the case of Jesus-believing Jews. Or would he have said, as many do, that for a Jew to be for Jesus is an oxymoron, like vegetarians for meat?

Oxymoron or multiple loyalties? What do you think?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Before Its Time

I've just re-read The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem, noted Polish science-fiction writer. It's one part Brave New World, one part The Matrix, with a bit of Alice in Wonderland thrown in for good measure. This 1970s book was prescient, foreseeing many of the current dilemmas of bioethics and transhumanism. There's a lot of talking points that can could out of this for a group discussion. Besides which it's really quite funny; I had to stop myself from laughing out loud in Borders over my latte. (The last book that had that effect on me was Rabelais' Gargantua in something that was billed as "the lively modern translation.")

What's the future hold for followers of Jesus? For Jewish attitudes towards him?