I invite you into the world of imagination. I hope this excursion might help you to follow my thinking about history,a and sacred texts, and how people use and abuse them. Once you accept the premises, the conclusions are obvious. So this afternoon, you'll hear what may seem an interminable introduction, followed by a less than interminable main body of a speech. Now, to the scene.
Suppose that, one way or another, humankind finds some way to avoid blowing itself up, poisoning or overpopulating itself into extinction, and somehow manages to survive into the distant future. Granted, a very big supposition, be we've got to start somewhere. The year is now 4,000 C.E.. C.E., or "Common Era" is how scholars mark dates on the calendar, as "Anno Domini" - 'the year of Our Lord' - is so narrowly and parochially Christian. You are an archeologist with a specialty in that particularly amazing, though now remote period of ancient history, in which so much changed so fast for so many; the Twentieth Century. Your field is truly "Ancient History" from your perspective; after all, your subject is now two thousand years in the past. It frustrates you to teach the history of this intriguing era to your students at the University. School age children, of course, have no comprehension. After all, to a child - indeed, to many adults - once you tell someone that an event took place before anyone with whom they can readily identify was born - a grandfather, a great-grandmother perhaps - to many people's minds, it all just blends together as an inchoate mass known as "history". What fifth grade teacher is there who has not, for instance, tried his or her hardest to teach the basics of the American Revolution. In the class, a child raises her hand as asks, "Now let's see; George Washington ... was he before or after the Dinosaurs? The same thing happens even when telling kids about the World War II era; it happened before they were born, therefore it is "ancient history", no more or less relevant to their lives, they think, as the Crusades, Cleopatra or the Cretaceous Era of pre-history.
You, however, are a professional historian. You know how to put things into perspective. You've been on "digs" around the world, and have been in on some of the great finds of the era. You were the first to hypothesize that the teenagers of North America in the Twentieth Century must have all weighed about three hundred pounds for a brief period in the 1990's; why else would there be the remains of such normously baggy pants?
Your fellow scientists debated long and hard about what those white things were that people used to stick in their mouths, set on fire and suck on, until a very distinguished colleague found photographs in magazines of the time of a Camel doing the same thing, and you all realized at once that this of course, was nothing ore or less than a religious thing! A cult, it seems, centering around a certain "Joe Camel", whom so many seemed either to love or hate at the time.
It was you, in fact, who made the greatest archeological find of all. Sifting through the many layers of new civilizations which had sprouted over it, it was your team which dug up the remains of the first video-store. Viewing the Swartzenegger and Stalone films, you concluded that adult males of the late twentieth century were all very large, prone to fighting, and impervious to both bullets and high-speed car crashes. You also discovered a separate cache of these things marked, "Adult", and are amazed at what vivid imaginations - and abilities - some of those ancient people had. You excavate the ancient roads, and read the faint remains of the long-rusted signs. "Wow", you think to yourself; no one back then ever drove faster than 55 miles per hour, even though their cars could go at least twice that fast! What a puzzle!
Finally, and most puzzling of all is the discovery that all over the continent, there were large patches of lawn, with occasional sandy pits. Ancient men, and some women, used to traverse these grassy acres in funny clothes, holding iron sticks, swatting small white balls. Many of these were found buried deep in the pits where ancient man could not recover Many of the metal sticks were found snapped in half, which archaeologists suppose was a result of frustration and anger, and that it was at just such a site that the Great War of 2004 began. But that remains a mystery!
I could go on at very great length; maybe I have too much already, but the point is very important: in making assumptions about cultures which preceded ours, we must be extremely careful. Neither the texts nor the artifacts alone tell the true story. Everything must be read in context. When ideas and events are seen in isolation from their historical development, it is no better than looking at them through a carnival mirror.
With that introduction, I make my first point: If you want to know what modern, even classical Jewish attitudes are towards religious toleration, perhaps the last place one should look is to the Bible. That may be an odd statement to hear from a Rabbi, as my ordination is to "teach Torah", ostensibly based on the first five books of what Christians refer to as the Old Testament. "Torah" however, has a much broader sense than this as it has had for well more than two millennia. The word comes from the Hebrew root, "to instruct", and it is this sense which Jewish tradition holds dear. Post Biblical Judaism is based on an expansion, interpretation and even rebellion at times against certain parts of the ancient texts.
A famous teaching story from the Talmud illustrates the point. It comes from Tractate Shabbat in the Babylonian redaction:
"The Sages were arguing over the details, whether or not a certain kind of oven could be made kosher. Twenty of them said, "Yes, it is kosher", but Rabbi Elazar said "No, it ain't". "The majority rules", said the Sages. "To prove my point, if I am right, let God intervene. If I am right, let that carob tree over there uproot itself and move twenty yards". Immediately, the carob tree ripped itself out of the ground and walked, magically, twenty yards. "Carob trees prove nothing", the Sages replied to Elazar. "If the law is as I say, let the river over here reverse it's course", said Elazar, and immediately, it happened, just as he said. "Streams prove nothing", the Sages replied. A bit miffed, Elazar said, "If the Torah is how I interpret it, let the walls of this study-house collapse", and before he was done speaking, an earthquake occurred and the walls began to fall, but out of respect for the Sages, not all the way so that anyone was hurt". "Walls tell us nothing", replied the majority. "For is it not written in the Torah itself, in Deuteronomy: 'The Law is no longer in Heaven, so that you shall say, 'Who will ascend to Heaven and bring it down to us, that we might understand it'.
And it is not across the sea, so that anyone should say, 'Who will cross the ocean and bring God's word to us? No, it is very close to you. It is in your heart and in your mouth".
The Talmud continues that later that day, one of the Sages ran across a reincarnation of Elijah the Prophet - who, by folk tradition is always roaming the earth incognito - who told them that he had just come from the Heavenly Court, and what a scene was going on there! The Holy One was sitting on the Throne of Glory, laughing and clapping hands in delight, while all this debate about the oven had been going on. And what was God saying? "My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me!".
This is one of the classic and indeed crucial tales in the Jewish tradition. It teaches us that the law, in effect is a cat which has jumped out of the bag. Pandora's box is inexorably open. That a God who wills human freedom must make room for human logic and reasoning and can no longer be the dictator. It is one of dozens of such Talmudic teachings which emphasize a Torah which is more of a verb than a noun; it changes as the historical circumstances of the people change.
As Geza Vermes shows so wonderfully in his book, The Religion of Jesus The Jew, and as James Charlesworth in his work, Jesus in Judaism, both of which I would highly recommend, the religion taught by and practiced by Jesus was quite in line with this elastic notion of Torah. All of that got a bit lost after the advent of Christianity, which as many contemporary scholars conclude, is more a religion about Jesus than the religion of Jesus, which was Judaism. If I wander, it is for a purpose: when Jesus is pictured in the synoptic gospels as rebelling against various of the laws of the written Torah, his style may be abrupt and unconventional, but what he is doing is nothing more or less than the other rabbis of his time. Times had changed! Romans were in the land, making life miserable. The teachings of the Sadducees, the aristocrats, were inflexible and harsh. Both Jesus of Nazareth and the Rabbis whose opinions are recorded in the Talmud were dedicated to an elastic, evolving Torah.
And thus I can return, and reiterate: don't read a text in isolation! For instance, and directly related to our subject today, one can find all sorts of seemingly intolerant verses in the Torah, particularly in Deuteronomy. "When you come into the Land which God shall give you, and you encounter the native peoples practicing their idol-worship, this you shall do: cut down their sacred poles, flatten their sacred mounds, smash their sacred stones. For all these things are an abomination to the Lord your God".
Hardly a text which one would use, for instance, at an interfaith Thanksgiving service or an invocation at a civic meeting. It is flatly intolerant. In its defense, we need to understand the circumstances that existed when it was first set down in writing.If the consensus of scholars is correct, Deuteronomy is a product of the seventh century B.C.E., and reached its final form when the prophet Jeremiah was a young man, around the year 620 B.C.E., give or take a decade or so. At the time, Judea was a tiny, besieged Kingdom which had seen better days. Around it were the superpowers of Babylonia and Egypt, and everyone knew that one day, when the Big Boys would fight, the little guy - Judea -would get hurt. So too, the little country was a bit of a backwater. Many of its inhabitants were attracted to the cultures of the Superpowers. Just as Levis and McDonalds, rather than missiles and supercarriers, were the true vanquishers of the old Soviet Union. Think about it! The "cold war" over without a shot fired, not because we had the bigger nukes, but because teenagers in Moscow wanted Big Macs and 501's more than they wanted to serve the next Five Year Plan.
Ancient Jews were increasingly drawn to idolatry - as the Book of Jeremiah so clearly attests - because it was integral to the more materially successful cultures which surrounded the land. Only the Purists clung to the old faith of pure, unadulterated monotheism. Claiming to have found it in the basement of the Jerusalem Temple, where it had been hidden away since the days of Moses, they read Deuteronomy with passion.
Deuteronomy had predicted that apostasy would lead to destruction. Jeremiah and the other Reformers saw both wide spread apostasy and imminent destruction and concluded that one was the cause of the other. In brief, in their original historical context, the texts of Deuteronomy are not so violent. They are aetiologies - explanations of why things now are as they are - rather than the predictions and prescriptions they purport to be.
Now, it would be patently unhistorical to say that the Talmudic Sages knew or accepted any of this. They to saw history as static, and did not articulate much of what we might call the process of Historical Development. They, in contrast to myself, read the Torah not as pseudographic, or greatly edited document, but as the revealed and absolute word of God.
That said, it is even more amazing the liberties they took with these texts. One by one, through the use of legal devices, rabbinic decrees, and an incredibly complex system of hermeneutics, they made each and every one of these originally intolerant texts non-applicable. So we read in the most popular part of the Talmud, the section best known to the average Jew, known as "The Teachings of the Sages", the following ideas:
"The law of the land is the law". That is, unless the government tells you to commit some heinous crime, one is to obey. Sounds a bit familiar? Render unto Caesar ...
"Be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace". Remember Aaron, brother of Moses? Wasn't it he who helped fashion the Golden Calf! What's the deal?! The Midrash tells us that Aaron did so only to stall the people, who feared that Moses had died on Sinai, and they were actively considering a return to Egypt. Still, how could the Sages uphold as a model a collaborator in idolatry while observing the verse, "Cut down their sacred poles ... smash their sacred monuments, etc."?
Fact is, they could, because they actively chose the more peaceful paths through the scriptural inheritance bequeathed to them. While they remained fiercely monotheistic, the Sages who shaped modern Judaism two thousand years ago elected a path of moderation.
Another story, also from the Talmud: The rabbis debated how Jews should react to the incredibly barbaric and cruel "games" regularly staged by the Romans. Men would be given short swords to fight lions and other wild beasts to the death. The gladiator contests, all that. The majority said that no Jew should walk within half a mile of such a foul place. But Rabbi Nathan disagreed. He would go the games, and when the time came for the crowd to vote "thumbs up" or "thumbs down", he would always put his thumb up. "Who knows?", he said, "Perhaps others will see me and be led to mercy".
As absurd as it is, to summarize the encyclopedia size Babylonian Talmud, it is an extended study in compromise. How does one do business in an unjust world? When to allow divorce - an always tragic event - when people aren't perfect? And in this case - idolatry - how to take the written Torah, particularly Deuteronomy, seriously while at the same time, "being a disciple of Aaron, the peacemaker"?
At the rate at which I am plodding through Jewish history, it looks like I'll get to the year 1,000 sometime tomorrow, so I'll get into fast forward. Now that you know the paradigm, the details follow easily! In brief, Jewish culture in the Diaspora developed an attitude of, as long as the neighbors aren't killing us, we'd best leave them alone.Now, there is a hidden piece to it all. For especially after the second failed attempt to oust the Romans in the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 C.E., our people became a diaspora community, scattered all over six of the seven continents. In each, living as guests, and often, among hostile hosts.
It is almost absurd to talk of Jewish attitudes towards religious tolerance in the European Middle Ages, for instance. Jews had no power. We were kicked about at whim by every petty prince and bishop. When Crusading Christians set out to kill Moslems in the Holy Land, guess who lived right on the road to Jerusalem? The Christian knights slaughtered many more Jewish villagers in the Rhineland than they did Arab soldiers in what they called "The Holy Land".
When a long series of wars pitting Catholics against Protestants broke out - the thirty year war, the hundred year war, the war of the Roses - in every one, Jews ended up getting killed. When the Catholic Knights embarked on the Reconquista in Iberia, ostensibly to drive out the Moslems, so too, were Jews more often than not the victims. The Inquisition even followed us into the New World. Did you know that it was not officially called off in Mexico until just about a hundred years ago?
My point is not to whine and belabor the long list of atrocities committed by others, both Christian and Moslem, against Jews. It is that, for most of the past two thousand years, "Religious Toleration" has been a moot point for Jews. That is, we have been the powerless, needing the toleration. The last time Jews were in a position of "tolerating" another group was two hundred years before Jesus, and to tell you the truth, I don't think we did so well. If you want to know the grisly details, read the Book of Maccabees. It's not very flattering.
The challenge, the real test of all these lovely sentiments I cited from the Talmud, all the many texts which I could read in isolation which form an ode to idealistic civility, is first being conducted in the little laboratory in the troubled corner of the Mediterranean. It is in Israel, for the first time in two thousand years, where the hundreds of lovely statements in our tradition which stress toleration and universalism are pushed to the limit.
Our tradition tells us, for instance, that the Bible begins with the story of Adam and Eve not as a scientific history, but to teach that all human beings descend from a single ancestor, so that no one can ultimately say, "My fathers were greater than yours". Thus, Deuteronomy itself tells us, "You shall not abhor an Edomite in your heart", even though our Biblical ancestors would have had every reason to hate Edomites".
Lovely thoughts, but how much weight do they carry after yet another and another and another suicide bombing in a crowded marketplace? Innocent men, women, children, and babies ripped to shreds. Hundreds dead, thousands wounded, as plastic explosives wrapped in sacks of nails tear through flesh on city buses, cafes, movie theaters and the like in Jerusalem, City of Peace? I began my talk with the very extended fantasy, and let me remind you of its point.
Words on paper are important artifacts. They express a society's ideals, but not always its realities. Next time you are in a 55 MPH zone, observe that reality. I have a more than passing interest in the State of Israel. Some very close friends live there. So too, on a more global scale, it is the place wherein the people who somehow escaped the German murderers fifty years ago live, and their children and grandchildren. So too, the almost one million Jews from Arab countries who were beaten, murdered, raped, pillaged and finally expelled by their neighbors. So too, the almost one million who somehow kept their culture intact during seventy years of Soviet repression, and the fifty thousand starving Jewish refugees from Ethiopia.
More than an intellectual interest, because starting February first and into June of 1998, my family and I will be living in Jerusalem during my Sabbatical. My teenage son will no doubt go to the downtown cafes. My fourteen year old daughter may stand on the "Island of Peace" where last January an Arab gunman murdered a dozen Israeli school girls her age. My eleven year old son will ride the bus to school, another favorite target of Islamic fundamentalists whose views on Religious Tolerance are rather different, as this direct, exact quote reveals:
"During the last week in August, only a few days after the last suicide bombing in the Ben Yehudah pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, the Mufti of Jerusalem, the chief Islamic cleric of the city, and handpicked by Yassir Arafat, delivered in the mosque in Jerusalem the following prayer: "Oh Allah, destroy America, for she is ruled by Zionist Jews. May Allah paint the White House Black. Allah will take revenge on the colonist settlers who are sons of monkeys and pigs. Forgive us Mohammed, for the acts of these sons of monkeys and pigs who sought to harm your sanctity."
Suffice it to say that it is very hard to be "tolerant" when one's children are constant targets of murderers, whose blood passion is daily fueled at their Mosques.
Let me conclude by saying this, rather candidly. We Jews have an historical halo around our heads. We have been, for two thousand years, the victims of other people's intolerance. In a sense, that imparts a nobility. We have been the world's champion martyrs.
We are the heroes in Schindler's List. The U.S. government even saw fit to allow a Holocaust Museum to be placed in our national pantheon, the Mall in Washington, DC. We have historically been the innocents, to whom the Catholic, and Lutheran churches, to name just two, are finally issuing formal apologies. Corporately, we have in a sense, taken on sainthood.
That is what bothers so many people, I think, about Israelis, because Israelis no longer accept victimhood as their lot in life. After every terrorist bombing, Israel dutifully retaliates. Somehow, the world doesn't like it.
I am not here today either to defend Israeli government policy nor to venture my own half-baked ideas as to how the situation can be peaceably solved. I am not an Israeli citizen. My family has been in the United States for over a century; I am a fifth generation American. Especially here in Maine, we live in relative security, though after the World Trade Center bombing, haven't we learned that nothing is beyond the reach of the Jihad?
I believe that the best and only people to make those decisions are Israelis, the people who must live with the consequences of these decisions for more than the four months I will be there.
Yet it is something which I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention this afternoon. For we live in a remarkable age! A recent Gallup poll revealed something that would have been absolutely astonishing to my great-grandparents: 88% of Americans questioned said that they "wouldn't mind at all, or would welcome it if their child were to marry a Jew".
The overwhelming majority of Americans exhibit indeed, very little anti-semitism. Poll after poll tells us that traditional forms of anti-Jewish fanaticism in this country is now confined to the lunatic fringe, on both the left and right, but still, at the margins of society. A revealing story: when the Anti-Defamation League offered to send a few teachers to our Hebrew School last year to conduct a workshop for our teenagers on "Coping With Anti-Semitism", I tried to interest our teens, but to no avail. None of our kids - including my own three - had any interest. Why? Because they said, they had never experienced an overt act of anti-semitism here in Maine.
Stupid words, bigoted expressions, yes. But from kids who are clearly losers, at the margins of society. Like God, in the Talmudic tale I related, my great-grandparents must be clapping their hands with joy in heaven. Their parents, who fled pogroms in Russia to come here a century ago, could have never imagined such a place!
Prejudice Jews and Judaism is on the wane in this country. But Israel-bashing is not. Indeed, it is on the rise . In my walk through life here, I encounter many people who display great empathy with American Jews and Judaism, but who seeth with hatred at Israel, and especially, Israelis.
As I conclude, let me tell you this: the two are inseparable. Zionism is, as Arthur Hertzberg defined it, "The national liberation movement of the Jewish people". It is the grand experiment. Time will tell whether or not the people who have been the world's champion victims will, now that it has some military power and the ability to strike back, act at the same level as have other nations.
"Turn the other cheek", is a wonderful thought. One can even operate by that principle, as long as the physical fighting is only with fists. When it is with plastic explosives however, it just isn't very realistic. It is a religious text, an ideal. No one in their right mind would try it.
There's an old story. A woman visits the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, and sees in a single cage, a lion, and right next to the great beast, a little lamb. "Wow", she says, "You've fulfilled the verse from Isaiah, "and the lion shall lie down with the lamb". "That's right", says the zookeeper. "But how do you do it?", asks the woman. "Has the Messianic Era arrived and I didn't know it?" "Not at all", replies the zookeeper. "Every morning, we put in a new lamb".
I have taken an historical tack this afternoon because I think that history, rather than texts is the better predictor of human nature. Our peace loving, universalist texts have served us well, and told us that our suffering has been noble. The texts have reenforced the history, and the history has proven out the texts.
Now we are into a new era. Will Israel be just like any other nation, or will it be, in the words of Isaiah. "A light unto the nations?". Can it celebrate its own culture, while respecting its minorities, to a degree never shown to us? Can it do so when its own citizens are daily cut down by terror? Is that too much to ask of any people?
We have been, for so long, the lamb. Now that Israel has grown a few claws, and can roar as loudly as anyone else in the Middle Eastern jungle, we will see if it can behave any better in the role of lion than other peoples have been. Only time will tell.
Presented to the Maine Lodge of Research
September 199y, Auburn Masonic Temple, Auburn, Maine
Copyright © 1997 by the Maine Lodge of Research & Doug Weber
All rights reserved.