Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Jewish Gospels, by Daniel Boyarin: a review

Boyarin argues that when Jesus claimed to be a divine being as well as the anointed king, he was saying something other Jews would understand and find normal. From Boyarin's perspective, the difference between Jesus' followers and other Jews was not that he claimed to be the unique Son of God but that most Jews didn't think he was that guy.

I'm not a biblical scholar. I'm a Jew, immersed in the Judaism of the 21st century CE. So, the challenge for me reading this book was to try to imagine myself in the 1st century, before most of what I know as Judaism had taken firm shape.

Unlike some of the other reviewers, I had no problem with the idea that Jesus kept kosher (the title of chapter three). It even made sense to me that he might have been aghast at the new ways of keeping kosher that the P'rushim (later called Pharisees by people who couldn't read Hebrew) introduced. These forerunners of the rabbinic movement had the radical idea that all Jews could live in a state of ritual purity--not just the priests--and that ordinary activities like cooking and eating could be made holy. On Boyarin's reading, Jesus was a conservative, saying "Don't add new rules to what the Torah already prescribes." I can't verify his reasons for saying that, but it seems plausible to me, perhaps because to my mind it makes the rabbis look as revolutionary as I think they were.

The idea that there were a lot of different ways of being Jewish at the time, and that Christianity was just one of them for centuries, also makes sense with what history I know.

Given that, there may even have been Jews who think what Boyarin thinks they thought: that the Messiah, son of David, would also be a divine figure. Boyarin uses ingenious readings of Jewish texts that are minor (Daniel) or totally obscure (First Enoch, Fourth Ezra) today, to back up this point.

According to his reading of these texts, "Son of Man" (ben adam, in the Hebrew) actually means a figure shaped like a man who sits on a throne at the right of God and then descends in the clouds to earth, to rule. "Son of God" actually means the divinely chosen ruler, who is a son of God the same way a bar mitzvah is literally a son of the commandment: he's under God's authority. (That is my comparison, not Boyarin's.) At some point, the two became identified.

Boyarin argues that these texts set up the expectation of a divine Messiah, that Jesus said he was that person, and that the Jews who rejected him understood what he was saying--it wasn't an innovation to them--but denied his claim to be The One.

This is completely intriguing, but I am dubious, for several reasons.

1. Boyarin cherry-picks the verses that support his argument.

2. When he comes across verses that seem to contradict his thesis, he writes them off as an editor trying to bring an unruly original text back into line. You can do anything with a text that way!

3. That picture of an orthodox editor implies that the view that the Messiah was NOT a divine figure was always the dominant one. The Christological idea that Boyarin says is "Jewish" may always have been as strange to most Jews as "Jews for Jesus" are to most Jews today.

4. Boyarin gives no evidence that Daniel (which was eventually included in the Jewish canon, or Tanach, but has no role in the liturgy) was widely read at the time. (A stray part of me wonders if Boyarin wants "Daniel" to be important because it's his first name.) Some of the other books he cites are only extant in the literature of the Ethiopian Jews. It may be just my ignorance, but I have no way of knowing whether those books were circulating in first-century Palestine or not--and Boyarin doesn't tell me. So is he making an argument that people in that time and place would find recognizable?

Finally, let's say for the sake of argument that Boyarin is right in every respect. I can understand why that would be important to a historian. But why in the world would it be important to the rest of us?

Judaism and Christianity may have parted ways later and over different issues than we used to think--but they did part. They have been separate religions for at least 1800 years now. Since the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, Jews have been persecuted in the name of Christianity. (I hasten to say that there have also been individual Christians who were great friends of Jews, even putting themselves at risk to do so.)

Harking back to a time when followers of Jesus were a recognized but minor Jewish sect does nothing to bring us closer together. Understanding where we are and how we differ today is a more productive path for Jews, Christians, and (I would add) the other children of Abraham, the Muslims, too.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Davening the Lord's Prayer

My parents used to sing us to sleep every night.  One of the songs that took a regular turn in the repertory was The Lord's Prayer, the Perry Como version, I think. And this could have been strange. We were a Jewish household, holding onto our identity in a nearly all-Christian suburb of Pittsburgh. The song is based on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Yet it seemed perfectly natural and in tune with what we believed.

Ten pages of The Misunderstood Jew, by Amy-Jill Levine, explain my childhood experience to me. Those are the pages where she shows, phrase by phrase, that the "Lord's Prayer" is made up of concepts that are entirely Jewish. In fact, she suggests that Christians would understand the prayer better if they knew more about its historical context. Follow this with me.

"Our father in heaven": Jews in the first century used the term Abba ("father") regularly, and even today Avinu (our father) is a common term in the Jewish prayerbook. Back then, it was also a political statement: a rejection of the Roman Caesar's claim to be the father of all his subjects.

"Hallowed be your name": every Jewish prayer service includes repetition of the Kaddish prayer, which begins "Magnified and sanctified be [God's] great name." And name in Hebrew is not just a word or a sound but the expression of God's active energy in our lives.

"Your kingdom come": this expresses the Jewish wish for the olam ha-ba, the "world to come," which is not an afterlife but the kingdom of God during the Messianic period. Again, this is a bold rejection of Rome's claim to be the ultimate sovereign.

"Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven": because the kingdom of God will create a world of justice and peace, here, where we live, and not exclusively in a spiritual realm.

"Give us this day our daily bread": Levine argues persuasively that this translation, in its redundancy, is missing the point. She would translate it "Give us tomorrow's bread today." Tomorrow's bread, for which we hunger, is precisely the Messianic age.

"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors":  This is a Jewish idea as well. We help those who are in economic distress, which would have been the only reason to take on debt in an agricultural economy. We believe that God will help us in our distress and keep us from paying all that we owe for our actions, whether they are sins ("trespasses") or just falling short of the mark.

Levine says, "The Greek phrase usually translate as 'Lead us not into temptation' is better rendered 'Do not bring us to the test.'" If the Roman empire would persecute you for practicing your religion and give you a good job if you would renounce your people and your traditions, that is a test that no one should have to face. Jesus knew that, and ultimately had to face that inhuman trial himself.

"But deliver us from evil": better, "the evil one." Satan in the Jewish tradition was the prosecuting angel when we were put to the test, always arguing that we had failed. For first-century Jews facing the trials of the Roman empire, it must have felt like an evil enemy pursuing them at every turn.

So, what I learn from Levine is that we could understand the "Lord's Prayer" this way:

Avinu malkeinu, our father in heaven, the way that you use your power in our lives is holy. Bring about the world to come, the Messianic age, so that what you have commanded us will be our actual everyday lives. Let us taste that world now. Don't hold our wrongdoings against us. Be merciful as you have told us to be merciful. Especially, don't let worldly powers put us in a position where we have to pay a terrible price for doing the right thing. Release us from their justice which is no justice. You are our only God and ruler.
If Jesus were alive today and prayed this prayer, as a Jew I would respond, "Amen!"



Thursday, December 11, 2014

What You Should Know about CIA Torture

Can you handle the truth?

Then here it is, in simple language:
The CIA engaged in pointless sadistic practices against people many of whom had nothing to reveal anyway, and they lied to Congress, the White House, and the press to keep on torturing people.


7 Key Points From the C.I.A. Torture Report (in the flat language of the New York Times)

  1. The C.I.A.’s interrogation techniques were more brutal and employed more extensively than the agency portrayed. 
  2. The C.I.A. interrogation program was mismanaged and was not subject to adequate oversight.
  3. The C.I.A. misled members of Congress and the White House about the effectiveness and extent of its brutal interrogation techniques.
  4. Interrogators in the field who tried to stop the brutal techniques were repeatedly overruled by senior C.I.A. officials.
  5. The C.I.A. repeatedly under-reported the number of people it detained and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques under the program.
  6. At least 26 detainees were wrongfully held and did not meet the government’s standard for detention. 
  7. The C.I.A. leaked classified information to journalists, exaggerating the success of interrogation methods in an effort to gain public support.

The Talmud and the Internet, by Jonathan Rosen: a review


Growing up in Pittsburgh and attending the pretentiously titled School of Advanced Jewish Studies, I took a bite of Talmud. Not even a mouthful: just enough to taste. And it has nourished my curiosity forever.  Read this book if you want to whet your curiosity too.

Like me, author Jonathan Rosen finds the form of the Talmud even more intriguing the intricacies of its content. It's the original hypertext.

The Mishnah is at the center of each page, a set of oral traditions about how to read and practice what we find in the Torah that were finally written down between 180 and 220 CE by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi to keep them from being forgotten. The Gemara comes below, giving four centuries more of debate about what how those traditions make sense and what they really mean. More commentaries are arranged at the bottom and along the sides: the medieval scholar Rashi and his disciples especially. That's not even getting into the entirely separate books that comment on the Talmud, from Maimonides' Mishneh Torah to the latest one hot off the press.

As Rosen points out, these commentators hold lively discussions, even when one of them is rebutting another who's been dead for centuries. They don't confine themselves to any genre. Legal discussion rubs shoulders with etymology, moralism with fable. They remind him (and me) of nothing so much as weird and unpredictable discussions on the Internet--especially the more unbridled Internet of 2001, when this book was published.

Rosen is both incisive and evocative when he makes the case that Talmudic discussion is the lifeboat of the Jewish people. When the destruction of the Temple by the Roman empire cast Jewish life adrift, it was in these discussions that we made our home.

Rosen is elegiac when he looks at 21st-century Jewish life, changed forever by both the Holocaust in which some of his grandparents died and the acceptance of the Jews into secular society, and of secular society into Jewish identity. Can we find ways to transmute our existence in new circumstances as the creators of the Talmud once did? Or will the culture that he and I hold dear fade into memory? Or both?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

State of War, by James Risen: a review

Things you'll learn, or be reminded of and still shocked by, if you read State of War by James Risen:

  1. CIA Director George Tenet got and kept his job by sucking up to power.
  2. The CIA specifically avoided asking President George W. Bush for authorization to use torture, providing him with what the spy trade calls "plausible deniability."
  3. The NSA started large-scale spying on Americans almost immediately after 9/11/2001, "The Bush administration...swept aside nearly thirty years of rules and regulations" to make this happen.
  4. George W. sent clear signals that he wanted a pretext to go to war with Iraq. People who helped him get one were rewarded. People who warned that the intelligence was being skewed were punished. There was nothing like an objective assessment of the facts before we went to war.
  5. The U.S. had every reason to know there was no active nuclear program in Iraq.
  6. To claim there was a bioweapons program in Iraq, the U.S. relied on sources that the Europeans clearly told us were wrong. 
  7. No one had a plan for what to do in Iraq after the war except for installing a president from the outside, a man (Ahmed Chalabi) that no one inside Iraq trusted. When that proved unworkable, they had to make it up as they went along--all the while pretending they were winning.
  8. By going to war in Iraq, the Bush administration took its eye of Afghanistan, which became the biggest exporter of opium in the world...sending a lot of the poppy right here to the U.S.
  9. The U.S. turned a blind eye to the ways that Saudi Arabia played both sides in the "war on terror."
  10. The U.S. may have helped Iran advance its program for obtaining nuclear weapons. 
Risen focuses on the first term of George W. Bush, but he's scrupulous about pointing out when a problem actually began in the Clinton administration. He puts too much emphasis on individuals (Bush vs. Saddam Hussein, Tenet vs. Rumsfeld) and not enough on mistaken assumptions of U.S. foreign policy.

Still, this is a powerful book. I wish I, and everyone else, had read it when it came out!