Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Bruce Ritter case

The other night while strolling with a friend in midtown Manhattan I chanced to pass by Covenant House, a charitable institution that helps runaway youths. I remembered that I had once given money to the institution, before the disgrace that enveloped its founder, Rev. Bruce Ritter, in 1989-90. As this affair was a precursor of the pedophile scandals that have since rocked the Catholic church in America, it is worth reviewing the circumstances.

A member of the Franciscan order, Rev. (John) Bruce Ritter (1927-1999) began a one-man outreach to homeless youth in Manhattan’s East Village during the “flower-child” era of the 1960s. To further his work he founded Covenant House in 1968. At its height, Covenant House operated in fifteen cities with a $90,000,000 budget, reputedly spending three times what the federal government did on runaways. Father Ritter's work was held in high esteem by the public, the news media, a multitude of donors, and by president George H. W. Bush, who cited it as one of his "thousand points of light." Father Ritter himself was sometimes mentioned in the same sentence with Mother Teresa.

Ritter was noted for his empathy with his young charges, though some noted that this affinity seemed to extend particularly to attractive white boys. He called the teenagers in the Covenant House “my kids,” “nice kids,” and “gorgeous kids.”

In December 1989 Kevin Lee Kite (born 1964), a former hustler and gay porn actor, claimed in a New York Post interview that Father Ritter had diverted some $125,000 in Covenant House funds to support him in return for sexual favors. Kite also asserted that Ritter had provided him with papers that allowed him to assume the identity of Tim Warner, a young boy who had died of cancer. Subsequently three former residents of Covenant House--Darryl J. Bassile, Paul Johnson, and John Melican--came forward, stating that they had been involved in past sexual relationships with Father Ritter.

Kite's accusations opened the door for financial scrutiny of Covenant House which led to charges of financial impropriety stemming from the use of a $one-million tax-exempt Franciscan Charitable Trust. In his earlier work in the East Village Ritter had found that it was sometimes necessary to circumvent normal procedures in order to support his work. As Margaret O’Brien Steinfels explains, “the priest's aversion to red tape and oversight, beginning with his relationship with his religious brethren, served him well in working his way around the maze of child welfare regulations. He was a priest but not of the Archdiocese of New York, which had no authority over him. His Franciscan community, based in New Jersey, let him live beyond the confines of its walls, perhaps because he was a difficult person but probably also because he was a self-sustainer at a time when religious orders were losing members and trying to adjust to changes in the church.”

Laudable at first, this free-wheeling approach to funding and regulations created a bad precedent. At all events, Ritter established the Franciscan Charitable Trust in 1983, apparently without the knowledge of his Franciscan order or of the full board of directors of Covenant House. The fund was not registered with the state of New York, nor did it file returns with the IRS. The harsh reality was that the trust, ostensibly set up to support the charitable work of Covenant House, served mainly as a conduit to make substantial personal payments to Kite and others.

Curiously, the Covenant House board eventually found no serious financial impropriety, even though they uncovered extensive evidence of sexual misconduct. As a result, no charges were filed by the district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau or state attorney general Robert Abrams. In view of what we later learned from the priestly pedophile scandals, this looks like a cover-up--a partial one, at least--on the part of the overseeing authorities. Fiscally, they failed to do their duty.

Still denying the allegations, Ritter resigned from the charity and the Franciscan order in 1990. Ritter eventually retired to the small town of Decatur in upstate New York, where he died of cancer at the age of 72.

I do not know what has happened to Kevin Lee Kite, the whistle blower. Clearly he was an sleezy individual. Yet sometimes information that is valid derives from unsavory sources, as we have seen in the more recent scandals of James McGreevey, former governor of New Jersey, and John Edwards, former senator and aspirant to higher office. This repellent origin must not serve as a pretext to disregard the allegations. If that were so, all that a person who had been involved in an improper relationship would have to do would make sure that the information was revealed in an unsavory manor. Then the person would be “home free.”

Whatever the source, the information must be fully investigated. In the Ritter instance it looks as if the investigation was incomplete. to say the least. In addition to having sex with minors, Ritter was guilty of embezzlement and abuse of authority.

At all events, Kevin Kite deserves credit for helping to encourage others in the United States to report priests who were involved in inappropriate relations with those in their care. In the sequel the Ritter case proved to be but the tip of the tip of the iceberg.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

La Passion de Simone

The other night (August 13) I attended the American premier of an oratorio by the prominent Franco-Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Entitled “La Passion de Simone,” the work concerns the life of the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil (1909-1943). The soprano Dawn Upshaw evoked both Weil and a sympathetic commentartor on her in a series of French texts. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra provided a rich wall of sound.

Ages ago (well, half a century to be precise) I read the works of Simone Weil with rapt attention. In the wake of Jean-Paul Sartre and his Existentialism, there was a general enthusiasm for things French. Together with many of my contemporaries I dreamt of going to Paris to live.

There was a deeper reason for my interest in Weil. Having been brought up in an atheist family, I was experiencing some pangs of religious longing. In her questing Weil sought to bridge the two religions, Judaism and Christianity--though her religious interests did not stop with those two. She was also a well trained classical scholar.

Who more precisely, was Simone Weil?

She was born in Paris in 1909 in an agnostic household of Jewish origin. She grew up in comfortable circumstances, as her father was a doctor. Her only sibling was the noted mathematician André Weil. Through much of her life she stoically endured many physical ailments, never allowing them to interfere with her quest for knowledge. Her brilliance, ascetic lifestyle, introversion, and eccentricity limited her ability to mix with others, but not to teach and participate in political activism. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about political movements of which she was a part and later about mystical experience.

A proficient student, she learned ancient Greek at the age of twelve. Later, after reading the Bhagavad Gita, she learned Sanskrit. Like Ficino and other Renaissance savants, her interest in religions was universalist: she attempted to understand each religious tradition as expressive of transcendent wisdom.

In 1928 Weil finished first in the entrance examination for the École Normale Supérieure; Simone de Beauvoir, her famous peer, finished second. After taking her degree in philosophy, Weil taught philosophy at a secondary school for girls in Le Puy in central France. Teaching was her primary employment during her short life. Most of the writing for which she is known was published after her death.

Weil was active in radical politics. She participated in the French general strike of 1933. The following year she took a twelve-month leave of absence from her teaching position to work incognito as a laborer in two factories, believing that this experience would allow her to connect with the working class. Her poor health and inadequate physical strength forced her to quit after some months. In 1935 she returned to teaching, donating most of her income to political causes and charitable endeavors.

In Italy in the spring of 1937, she experienced a kind of religious ecstasy in the church of St. Francis of Assisi, leading her to pray for the first time in her life. She experienced another, more powerful, revelation a year later and, from 1938 on, her writings became more mystical and spiritual, though not discarding their focus on social and political issues. She was attracted to Catholicism, but declined to be baptized; she explained this refusal in letters published in Waiting for God.

Weil did not limit her curiosity to Christianity. She was keenly interested in other religious traditions — especially Greek and Egyptian. She was also attracted to Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. She believed that all these traditions and others were valid paths to the divine. By the same token, however, she opposed shallow religious syncretism, holding that it effaced the particular essence of the individual traditions.

In 1942 Simone Weil was able to make her way to London, where she joined the Free French effort. The punishing work regime she assumed soon took a heavy toll; in 1943 she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Yet she refused special treatment because of her long-standing political commitments and her ascetic detachment from material things. In sympathy with the privations of the people of occupied Europe, she limited her intake of food. After a lifetime of battling illness and frailty, Weil died in August of 1943 from cardiac failure at the age of 34.

Since my encounter with the works of Simone Weil in the immediate postwar years, the French thinker seems largely to have dropped out of sight in the English-speaking world. Yet she is still widely read on the European continent, where her spiritual quest still resonates. A splendid scholarly edition of her collected works is under way in France.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Two rabbis, two paths

In previous postings I have drawn attention to the resistance pervading most Jewish religious circles as to receiving the findings of the Higher Criticism, as well as to the persistence of allegorical readings of the scriptures that stem from the Middle Ages. This resistance is rooted in the uniquely Jewish concept of the Oral Torah, an entity that ranks with the Written Torah (that is, the Hebrew Bible as we have it) as an equal partner.

The Higher Criticism, otherwise known as the historical-critical approach, emerged full blown in mid-nineteenth century Germany. It is in that time and place that we would expect to find the formative stages of the Jewish confrontation with these findings of modern biblical criticism.

In this context two figures were of exemplary importance: Abraham Geiger and Samson Raphael Hirsch, both rabbis.

Abraham Geiger (1810–1874) is credited with laying the foundations of Reform Judaism. He sought to remove all nationalistic elements (particularly the "Chosen People" doctrine) from Judaism, stressing it as an evolving and changing religion. His studies of classical philology and oriental languages at the Universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Marburg eroded his faith in the traditional Judaism in which he had been raised. This experience induced a simmering crisis, leading eventually to his conversion to reformist ideas.

Geiger’s doctoral dissertation concerned the incorporation of Jewish elements in the Koran. In this way he heralded the enterprise of examining the interaction of the foundational documents of the three Abrahamic religions. I honor his example, because in my own way I have sought to pursue this comparativist path.

As a rabbi in Wiesbaden, Geiger began his program of religious reforms, chiefly in the synagogue liturgy. For example, he abolished the prayers of mourning for the Temple, believing that, as German citizens, such prayers would appear to be disloyal to the ruling power and could possibly spark Anti-Semitism. Rather than create a new religious orientation, Geiger’s goal was to change Judaism from within. His work found reinforcement in the work of other reformers, such as Samuel Holdheim, Israel Jacobson, and Leopold Zunz.

Geiger also took up the study of the New Testament, maintaining that Jesus was a Pharisee teaching Judaism. While this particular view is no longer tenable, he nonetheless ranks as “the first Jew to subject Christian texts to detailed historical analysis from an explicitly Jewish perspective” (Susannah Heschel, “Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus,” 1994, p. 2). The Wiesbaden rabbi was a forerunner of today’s Jewish scholars who have offered their own interpretation of the New Testament (see my posting “Jesus the Jew”).

In keeping with the dominant trend of nineteenth-century historiography, Geiger emphasized the narrative of Judaism as an unfolding reality--as a story of progress in short. Yet his investigations of Jesus and his times led him to conclude that Judaism reached a kind of perfection towards the end of the Second Temple period, that is, in the time of Jesus. This seems contradictory.

The liberal Jewish scholar held that the rabbinical writings found in the Mishna and the two Talmuds represent a kind of ossification, one partly shaped by Christian pressure. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, these writings were not an ornament to Judaism. By and large, most later rabbinical scholarship has not followed him in this denigration, for it continues to regard those early rabbinical collections as the foundation for the Oral Torah, and thus on a plane with (if not superior to) the Written Torah.

We turn now to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888). When they were university students Hirsch was a friend of Geiger’s. Later they diverged sharply.

In 1830 Hirsch was elected chief rabbi of the principality of Oldenburg. During this period he wrote his "Neunzehn Briefe über Judenthum" (Nineteen Letters on Judaism), which were published in 1836. This work made a strong impression in German Jewish circles because it was a forthright defense of Orthodox Judaism in classic German, supporting all its traditional institutions and ordinances. Other publications critiqued the nascent Reform trend.

Hirsch’s approach to the hermeneutics of Jewish religious documents is of particular interest. In contrast to the historical-critical approach, he emphasized the symbolic interpretation of many Torah commandments and passages. Hirsch sought to defend the traditional understanding of the Written and Oral Law against the rising tide of historicist criticism (see his Commentary on the Pentateuch, 1867-78). He held that the Oral Law was revealed before the Written Law and is not dependent on it; the Written Law (the Bible as we know it) is merely a summary of the Oral Law--a kind of set of Cliff’s Notes, as it were. In Hirsch’s view, there can be no true understanding of the essence of Judaism without marshaling the full resources of the Oral Law. Its looming presence must always be acknowledged in any interpretation of Scripture.

In his extreme view, Hirsch held that the origins of the Oral Torah preceded the Written Torah in time, so that it takes logical precedence. This exaltation of the Oral Torah (which is in fact a purely human contrivance assembled for the most part from Mishna and Talmud) finds many echoes in Orthodox circles today. Even those who do not accept the primacy of the Oral Law tend to accept the component material as essential. That is, they reject Abraham Geiger’s critical view that these texts are secondary and in some respects distorting. Rather they view the Oral Law, as embodied in Mishna and Talmud, as the indispensable corollary and perfection of the Judaism of the Tanakh. That is, after all, what being a Talmudic scholar means.

It is a truism that Judaism is a text-based religion. But which texts? I have never attended classes at a Jewish theological seminary, but clearly Mishna and Talmud--the basic ingredients of the Oral Torah--would figure prominently in the curriculum. Many, perhaps most instructors in these schools of rabbinical training would hesitate to adopt the extreme view of Rabbi Hirsch that the Oral Torah precedes and therefore controls the Tanakh. By the same token, however, few would seek to reduce Mishna and Talmud to the role of mere commentaries.

For a moderate view of the role of these post-Biblical texts, one may turn to the book of a Jewish layman MIchael S. Berger, “Rabbinic Authority” (New York, 1998). Setting aside, as he does, the “totalitarian” claims for Talmudic authority., Berger asks why one should still follow the rabbis of the first several centuries after the destruction of the Temple. The reason is, he argues, because rabbinic authority has become central to Jews' way of life--a way of life that "can provide a sense of overall purpose to one's activities; it can create or deeper feelings of community with other Jews; it can offer guidelines for behavior and a relative certitude with respect to moral and other sorts of dilemmas; and it can supply a person with a connection or rootedness in a millennia-long tradition." One writer has pointed out that Berger's conception is analogous to the legal argument for the principle of stare decisis (that is, that a judicial decision or set of such decisions has become so ingrained in the legal system that it should not be overturned).

Michael S. Berger acknowledges that rabbinic authority means different things for different communities. For most traditionally observant Jews, rabbinic authority entails complete obedience to the halachic tradition first put in writing by the Sages of Mishna and Talmud. Yet even the least traditional Jews defer to rabbinic authority to some extent, for otherwise Reform Jews would not honor rabbinically ordained holidays such as Hanukah and Purim.

Hanukkah, from the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration," marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of Antiochus IV in 167 BCE and commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil." These events lie outside the canon of the Hebrew Bible, and in consequence the festival cannot be derived from that text. Hanukkah is mentioned in the deuterocanonical books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. It was the Talmud, however, that established the special significance of Hanukkah, laying the foundations for the modern commemoration.

Purim commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people of the Persian Empire from Haman’s plot to annihilate them. While the events are recorded in the book of Esther, which is recognized by Jews as a canonical book, the celebration of the festival is not noted in the Hebrew Bible itself. As with Hanukkah, Purim owes its status to the interpretations of the rabbis, as Berger points out.

Thus even for Reform Jews there is no easy way of renouncing the injunctions of the Sages in the Mishna and the two Talmuds. Over time the textual basis of Judaism has come to embrace these documents. Moreover, once one acknowledges this incorporation, as most authorities within Judaism do, there is no way of avoiding some descent down the slippery slope. At the base of that slope awaits the Leviathan of the Oral Torah.

Contrast the case with Christians who are, many of them at least, free to say “Forget about Augustine and Thomas Aquinas; forget about Luther and Calvin. I will go by the words of Holy Scripture alone.” To be sure, this is not an option that is universally exercised. It is mainly Protestants who do so, while Catholics are still bound by papal authority. The point is that recourse to the Sola Scriptura principle is possible for many Christians. By contrast, for observant Jews such a focus (the Sola Scriptura model) is not available. It is not an option because the inspired words of the Sages are not simply commentary in the sense honored by classical and Christian hermeneutics. Instead, Mishna and Talmud are in fact Scripture. The exalted status these writings have attained makes it functionally impossible, within the bounds of Jewish tradition, to separate the Bible from the accretions that have attached themselves to it. This means that subscribing to these principles precludes an independent and unprejudiced effort to try to discover what the Hebrew Bible really means. The reason is that one always has the Sages looking over one’s shoulder. It may seem paradoxical, but for some centuries now significant progress in understanding the Hebrew Bible has been made chiefly by non-Jews. Since the Protestant Reformation it is been possible to isolate the Scriptures from their accretions and (eventually) to examine them according to the principles of the Higher Criticism. These achievements, accomplished essentially by Protestants, are Christian resources that observant Jews have found it difficult to emulate.

Seeking to protect the integrity of the Jewish tradition, Samson Raphael Hirsch and the rabbis who allied themselves with him heralded the rejectionism maintained today by many rabbis. They believe that the adoption of the historical-critical method would erode the historical foundations of Judaism--possibly leading to its destruction.

To be sure, prominent lay Jewish scholars, such as Richard Elliott Friedman and Hershel Shanks, fully recognize the findings of modern scholarship. By and large, though, the same is not true of rabbis, who even if they privately accept some of the findings of the historical-critical school are not eager to share these views with their congregations. Some even speak mockingly of the “alphabet soup” of the J,E,D, and P analysis of the Pentateuch. Theirs is a serious case of denial.

Unfortunately, these antiquated views circulate today not only among the Orthodox, but also among Conservative and Reform rabbis. To all intents and purposes, the continued flourishing of the Hirsch approach to hermeneutics works to isolate official Judaism from modern currents of biblical scholarship, which are proceeding apace in other quarters. This outdated view also serves as a barrier to the acceptance of modern findings regarding the actual history and faith of the people who wrote the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. Finally, the approach hinders the attempt to understand the interaction of all three sets of Abrahamic texts, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim--the task that underlies these postings.



Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Joe Klein blows the whistle

Joe Klein is a respected mainstream journalist and columnist, best known for his novel “Primary Colors,” an anonymously-published roman à clef portraying Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Guggenheim Fellow, Klein is now a contributor to the Time Magazine news group.

In a recent column he has ventured to take on the neoconservatives, with special reference to their conflation of the national interest of Israel with the national interest of the United States. Here is some of what Klein had to say on Swampland, his blog on the Time website:

“There is a small group of Jewish neoconservatives who unsuccessfully tried to get Benjamin Netanyahu to attack Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, and then successfully helped provide the intellectual rationale for George Bush to do it in 2003... Happily, these people represent a very small sliver of the Jewish population in this country... I remain proud of my Jewish heritage, a strong supporter of Israel... But I am not willing to grant these ideologues the anonymity they seek... I believe there are [sic] a small group of Jewish neoconservatives who are pushing for war with Iran because they believe it is in America's long-term interests and because they believe Israel's existence is at stake. They are wrong and recent history tells us they are dangerous. They are also bullies and I'm not going to be intimidated by them.”

Needless to say, these observations provoked a flurry of angry rejoinders, some implying that Klein is a “self-hating Jew.” (I remark parenthetically that one should not have to declare one’s Jewishness to decry, as I do, the attempt by the neoconservatives to hijack American foreign policy to serve the interests of another country--for that is indeed what has been happening.)

In this matter there has been much self-censorship, motivated by fear of reprisals. Few have been willing to speak out. Fortunately, that era seems to be ending. Today there is an emerging consensus--at least among some commentators--on the following points. The implementation of the Bush administration policies in the Middle East has had disastrous consequences for the United States; Israel is also less secure as a result of these policies. Further, the neoconservative clique played an essential role in providing an ideological foundation for these policies. Within that neoconservative world there operates a prominent and tightly knit group of Jewish figures who are ideologically motivated by an old-school Likudist view of Israeli interests. In short, they are Israel Firsters.

Recent years have witnessed a failure within the mainstream, Jewish and non-Jewish, to acknowledge the presence of a particular Jewish neoconservative story line, and then to challenge that story line as being fundamentally flawed in its reading of both American and Israeli interests. One of the causes of that vacuum was the abuse of the term anti-Semitism. The mere threat of being so labeled has had a chilling effect. Commendably Joe Klein has stood up against this intimidation. Perhaps he should have added though that much of the problem stems from evangelical Christian allies of Likudism in this country.

In his Daily Dish blog Andrew Sullivan offers some shrewd comments, somewhat offset by his initial admission that he and Klein supported the war (though apparently Klein had more reservations). Sullivan goes on to say: “in the neocon mind, there is almost no area in which it is even possible to conceive of America's interest being different from Israel's.”

He goes on to note that many astute Israelis--and many American Jews--opposed Bush’s attack on Iraq. However, this point is not relevant to the neoconservative claim that the interests of Israel and the US are identical, and that this shared interest mandated an attack on Saddam Hussein. Too many people, including Andrew Sullivan, bought into this argument. I note parenthetically that at one time Sullivan was the editor of the New Republic, an openly Likudist weekly.

Still, let us follow him a bit further. “The salient question, to my mind, is therefore: is there any point in future policy toward the Middle East that we can conceive of America's interests not being identical with Israel's and so set up a conflict with the neocons in which this unhappy squabble could be salient? I can see one imminent--the desire to occupy Iraq for the indefinite future and use it as a military base for regional and global power, as [the columnist Charles] Krauthammer dreams of; and one looming--the prospect of a nuclear Iran. On the former, it's striking how virulently a man like [Senator] Lieberman wants to keep American troops policing the Muslim Middle East in perpetuity--especially given the brutal experiences of non-Muslim foreigners occupying the West Bank and Iraq. There are non-Israel-centric reasons for doing this, of course, but they are increasingly fragile when it comes to America's national interest... [W]hy on earth do we want to become a second Israel, occupying Muslim lands for ever? Israel may believe it has little choice on the West Bank. That does not apply to the US in Iraq.”

Andrew Sullivan further remarks, “[o]n the Iran question, there can be little doubt that waging a pre-emptive war on the Persian regime is now the principal policy objective of the neocon right. To elect McCain is almost certainly to endorse a new war with Iran within the next four years. Again, this could be justified on the grounds of America's interests and not Israel's. But again, the case is getting a little harder to make. The world and the West can live, after all, with a deterred and contained nuclear Iran. Israel cannot. McCain and Lieberman hold the [bellicose] Podhoretz position on Iran; Obama is a few pragmatic notches away. Those notches--minor to most observers--nonetheless render Obama unacceptable to the Jewish right. Even after his AIPAC speech.”

These are good points. Yet there is one important flaw in Sullivan’s argument, and that is his assumption that we should not look back, but only forward. If we don’t look back at the way we were manipulated into launching the unnecessary and disastrous Iraq War, how can we arm ourselves adequately against present and future manipulation?

There is an even more fundamental issue. Have the interests of the United States and Israel ever been fully and completely aligned? During World War II, Britain was our closest ally. Yet President Roosevelt and others in his administration recognized that in some ways the British were acting contrary to American interests. As we know from Lord Keynes’ mission to Washington, Churchill’s government operated under a similar assumption that mirrored the American one.

These days, however, we are asked to believe the fairy tale that the interests of the United States and Israel are always in perfect synch. Why should they be? It is glaringly obvious that this fairy tale, now coming under attack so late in the day, serves only the purposes of AIPAC and the Israel Lobby.

Friday, August 08, 2008


This evening we will witness (via TV) the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. They are scheduled for the eighth minute of the eighth hour of the eighth month of the eighth year.

To mark this occasion a sometime NY Times columnist, Ben Schott, has produced an op-ed with various serendipitous facts concerning eight, and those who have been fascinated by the number. Among the latter is the crazy Syro-Roman emperor Elagabalus (d. 222), who give banquets with 8 old men, 8 bald men, 8 men blind in one eye, and so forth.

We also encounter a list of 8 virtues expected of a Knight Templar, 8 causes of anger, and other such.

But in all his rummaging about Schott misses the fundamental discovery that launched octomania in the Western world. That is the finding of the basis of the musical octave ascribed to the early Greek thinker Pythagoras, who determined that if two bars, one half the length of the other, were struck, the difference in sound would be a full octave. This regularity, Pythagoreans felt, united the larger world, the macrocosm, with the microcosm of everyday experience. In a word, it disclosed the Music of the Spheres, and that music was bssed on the number 8.

Eventually the Christians gave the matter a new twist, when they adopted the seven-day week. As the start of a new week, the number 8 represented a new beginning--a resurrection, as it were. It is for this reason that Early Christian baptisteries were usually eight-sided.


Thursday, August 07, 2008

Jesus the Jew

In a previous posting I concluded that the idea that Jesus did not exist was not viable, though it is true that we know far less about him than we would like to. Yet whether Jesus was mythical or real, it is clear that this individual was a Jew.

I can just hear some irreverent reader exclaiming: “No sh-t, Sherlock. When did you get the first clue?” In recent memory, of course, there have been various forms of denial. Fortunately, the Aryan Jesus, propagated by the anti-Semite Houston Stewart Chamberlain and by implication in Hollywood blockbusters, is no more. A more subtle version, still cherished in various Christian quarters, holds that Jesus’ critique of Judaism was so radical that he in fact departed from his ancestral faith In other words Jesus, ceasing to be a Jew, was the first Christian. Most New Testament scholars today, however, believe that many features of organized Christianity as we know it reflect a process of mythologizing that took place only after Jesus’ death. The apostle Paul is usually regarded as the prime culprit in this enhancement, though this view probably overpersonalizes the process. As far as we can determine, several different grouplets in the Jesus movement, including some strongly influenced by the pagan environment, were involved in the transformation of Jesus from a human teacher to a god.

What then is the evidence that Jesus was a Jew? In fact the four canonical gospels lay it out. From his birth Jesus was raised a Jew. He was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2.21) and bore a common Jewish name, Yeshua, “he [God] saves” (Matthew 1.21). In fact, scholars have determined that Yeshua was the fifth most common male Jewish name of the time. Joseph was the second most common male name and Mary the most common among women. As the English scholar Jonathan Went notes: “this in itself is sufficient evidence to throw doubt on the recently found tomb of 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph,' as it is like finding the gravestone of Mr and Mrs John Smith!”
The child Jesus was presented to the Lord in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2.22; cf. Deuteronomy 18.4; Exodus 13.2,12,15) according to Mary's period of uncleanness (Leviticus 12.2-8). A sacrifice was offered for him, a pair of doves and 2 young pigeons, indicating that his family were not wealthy (Leviticus 12.2,6,8; Luke 2.22-24). Thus Jesus was raised according to the law (Luke 2.39).

After this point, however, matters become murky, owing to the inadequate documentation for the “missing years” characteristic of the canonical Gospels. Owing to the general problem of the late date of supplementary documents, attempts to fill this gap in with the apocryphal gospels are unconvincing. Jesus’ family, and indeed most of his associates, were what we would nowadays call “working class.” Jesus’ father was either a carpenter or (less likely) a stone-mason. It is therefore improbable that Jesus could have received an elite Jewish education, starting with the reading of the written Torah at the age of five. In fact, it is not certain that he could read Hebrew, though he probably had some proficiency in written Aramaic and perhaps some Greek. The citations he makes from the Hebrew Scriptures (not always quoted accurately) were most likely derived from oral sources. This is what is meant, I think, by the information that by the age of twelve he was found in the temple precincts "both listening and asking questions" (Luke 2.46). The fact that the authorities there “were astonished at his understanding and answers" may reflect surprise that someone of his underprivileged background could make such progress.

These examples must suffice to prove the point: yes, Jesus was indeed a Jew. To be sure, one must be wary of anachronism, imagining the visible Jesus on the model of some pious Hasidic resident of Brooklyn, with all of the distinctive clothing and bodily features that neoteric avatar evokes. To be sure, modern Judaism in America is capacious and varied, with four major divisions: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. Yet the historical Jesus does not map onto any of these. For his part, returning to earth Jesus would probably feel uncomfortable in any contemporary American synagogue--and perhaps even more so in any of our Christian churches!

The reality is that Jesus was a man of Jewish Galilee in the early Roman era, with all of the qualities and limitations that that status implies.

To be sure, there are significant contemporary scholars in Jesus studies who happen to be Jewish, including Paula Fredriksen, Joseph Klausner, Samuel Sandmel, my old schoolmate David H. Stern, and Geza Vermes.

The case of Geza Vermes is particularly interesting. He was born in Makó, Hungary, in 1924 to Jewish parents. When he was seven, all three were baptized as Roman Catholics. His mother and journalist father died in the Holocaust. After World War II, the young Vermes became a priest. He studied first in Budapest and then at the College St Albert and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, where he read Near Eastern history and languages. In 1953 he obtained a doctorate in theology. He left the Catholic church in 1957. Reasserting his Jewish identity, came to Britain and took up a teaching post at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1965 he joined the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, rising to become the first professor of Jewish Studies before his retirement in 1991.

Vermes was one of the first scholars to examine the Dead Sea Scrolls after their discovery in 1947, and is the author of the standard translation into English. He has been one of the more influential scholars in urging the study of Jewish cultural and religious milieu in order to understand Jesus.

“Jesus the Jew” (1973) is the first of three books that Vermes has published on the historical Jesus. He argues that Jesus was a Hasid, a type of charismatic miracle worker ostensibly common in first-century Galilee.

This approach presents several problems. Vermes' claim that Jesus was a type of Galilean charismatic Jew rests on slim evidence. His two examples are Honi the Circle Drawer (first century BCE) and Hanina ben Dosa (first century CE). While there are some similarities between Jesus and these two, Honi was not Galilean and Hanina's Galilean origin is far from certain. And Vermes relies on later traditions, some stemming from the Mishnah,compiled under rabbical auspices some three centuries after the death of Jesus, and others as late as the eighth or ninth centuries CE.

Moreover, Vermes employs an inconsistent methodology. He trawls through Mark's gospel to find evidence for a more primitive Jesus tradition consistent with his Hasid theory. Yet he ignores other Markan evidence that doesn't support it. Even in Mark's gospel we see Jesus forgiving sins, preaching the Kingdom, and predicting his death. His assertion that Jesus’ forgiving sins was not remarkable is hard to accept in light of the reactions reported in the gospels. All this puts Jesus in a different category than Honi and Hanina ben Dosa, Vermes’ two paragons.

In my view, the basic problem of Vermes’ construction of Jesus’ Judaism is that it is anachronistic, because it relies on incipient rabbinical motifs, some of which were recorded and assembled as an explicit challenge to Christianity. Vermes’ later books attempt to address these problems, but they do not do so conclusively.

Post-Exilic and Hellenistic Judaism saw the rise of a new genre of religious writing: the apocalyptic tradition. These texts, generally of pseudonymous authorship, include the Apocalypse of Abraham, The Apocalypse of Elijah, 1, 2, and 3 Enoch, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and many others. One may consult the comprehensive set of translations edited by James H. Charlesworth, “The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” (2 vols., 1983).

The message of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible was primarily a preaching of repentance and righteousness so that the nation would escape judgment. By contrast, the message of the apocalyptic writers was of patience and trust for that deliverance and reward were sure to come. The apocalyptic writer despairs of the present, directing his hopes absolutely to the future, to a new world standing in essential opposition to the present. The underlying dualistic principle may ultimately stem from Persian (Zoroastrian) sources, When Jesus speaks of the future coming of the Basileia or Kingdom he clearly has this apocalyptic perspective in mind. The natural corollary of such a belief is an uncompromising asceticism. One who would live to the next world must shun this. Visions are vouchsafed only to those who to prayer have added fasting.

In New Testament studies the apocalyptic or eschatological approach became dominant about a hundred years ago, through the work of Albert Schweitzer and others. While it is currently discounted by the members of the Jesus Seminar, clearly the apocalyptic strand, with its visions of Armageddon and the Last Judgment, was important for the early followers of Jesus.

A contrary view holds that Jesus’ critique was directly primarily to the iniquities of the present world, and that he was a Zealot, a kind of revolutionary. The Zealots were a Jewish religious-political faction, who thrived for a period of about 70 years or possibly more, in the first century CE. In their theology the Zealots were relatively close to the Pharisees, but their doctrines strongly focused on the necessities of violent actions against the enemies of Judaism.

According to Luke 6:15, Simon, one of Jesus' disciples, was a Zealot. It was also in a climate of tension created by their agitation and violence that Jesus was executed. Some scholars have inclined to the view that Jesus himself may have ranked as a Zealot. The clearest indicator was his execution on a cross, a punishment the Roman authorities preferred for political rebels. Another indicator is the cleansing of the Temple in Mark 11, which expresses attitudes in accordance with the Zealot ideology. A third indicator is that at least a few of the disciples carried weapons (Mark 14:47), all the time or under certain circumstances.

But other evidence points away from this theory, for Jesus did not teach strict adherence to the Law, and he associated with sinners and people outside the Law. The fact that Jesus may have been perceived as a Zealot does not mean that he actually was one.

The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) comprise almost 1,000 documents, discovered between 1947 and 1979 in eleven caves in and around the Wadi Qumran, on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. The texts include virtually the only known surviving copies of Hebrew Scriptural documents made before 100 CE. There are also original treatises, and most scholars believe these to be the product of an ascetic sect, the Essenes.

The general public first became aware of the importance of the scrolls as the result of a series of sensational articles by the literary critic Edmund Wilson in The New Yorker in 1955. Wilson argued that the interpretation of these texts would drastically alter our knowledge of the origins of Christianity, forcing major revisions of Christian theology. Others went so far as to assert that Jesus was himself an Essene, living within the community’s precincts for much of his life. These claims are now seen to be overblown. (An interesting, perhaps arcane fact is that the idea that Jesus was an Essene was first advanced by a French Jewish scholar, Joseph Salvador, in 1828, long before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.)

After an initial flurry of publication, the release of the scroll texts came virtually to a halt. This hiatus fueled conspiracy theories that the unpublished texts contained explosive material that was being deliberately withheld. In the wake of the massive release of the original documents in 1991, these claims were shown to be unfounded.

As more sober voices prevailed, it became possible to offer a more plausible assessment of the relationship of the scrolls, if any, to Jesus of Nazareth. The case has been summed up by the Princeton scholar James H. Charlesworth (Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1991). Charlesworth enumerates 24 linkage themes. On closer examination, however, most of these turn out to be inconclusive. We learn that both Jesus and the Qumran Community believed in one God and appealed to the Scriptures as a repository of authority. Well, so have most Jews throughout the centuries. Other motifs, such as the importance of water and the two-age theory, were common beliefs at the time. Moreover, as Charlesworth acknowledges, there are a number of significant differences between the closed community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls and the open Jesus movement. In short, Jesus may have been influenced in some respects by the religious currents documented in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but if so, this was merely one of a number of significant sources. The evidence suggests that Jesus was not an Essene.

The late Morton Smith is best known for his purported discovery of the Secret Mark (treated in one of my previous postings). In 1978 Smith published another controversial book, entitled “Jesus the Magician.” He argues that, among other roles, Jesus was a magician in the sense that the word was understood in the ancient world. In this capacity he functioned as a village medicine man, a kind of curadero, traveling through Galilee and healing people.

The monumental work of John Dominic Crossan, “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant” (1993) seeks to depict Jesus in almost anthropological terms, as a product of his time and milieu. Crossan's erudition brings together otherwise disparate pieces of ancient history and literature, biblical and secular, to create a detailed and consistent portrait.

His method has elicited some criticisms. The two most significant sources for his attempt to specify the "first layer" of the Jesus tradition are the "Sayings Gospel" Q (discussed in a previous posting--WD) and the extracanonical Gospel of Thomas. While many swear by it, it is uncertain, first, whether such a document as Q actually existed, and second (and much more controversially), whether different layers of its sedimentation can be reliably ascertained. Crossan eccentrically dates the Gospel of Thomas to the 50s CE (even before the canonical Mark, which he holds did not appear until the early 70s). Most scholars would agree with John Meier, who in the first volume of his "A Marginal Jew" series argues for the dependence of Thomas on the synoptic gospels.

Crossan is often criticized for classifying Jesus as a sort of Jewish Cynic in the philosophical sense, Still, this view may be worth pondering.

In his 1993 volume “The Lost Gospel” Burton L. Mack (a member of the Jesus Seminar) goes so far as assert that the earliest stratum of Q “enjoins a practical ethic of the times widely known as Cynic” *(p. 114). Mack further notes that “New Testament scholars have often remarked on the Cynic parallels to much of the material in Q1.” This ascription will strike many as improbable, as the world of the Cynics seems far from the rigors of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. Moreover, in common parlance the word cynic (with a lower-case c) has come to have an unsavory connotation of disengaged negativity. Yet this view is not historically accurate, for the ancient Cynics were popular philosophers who traveled about imparting the truths of Hellenic wisdom. If circumstances required it, they were capable of bluntness, of “speaking truth to power.” In these respects they were not unlike Jesus in his public life. It is uncertain, though, whether the parallel is more than an analogy.

The above account is by no means exhaustive. There are a number of variants of these views, and nowadays a proliferating set of popular accounts. Still, one is struck by the lack of consensus as to what the expression “Jesus the Jew” really means. Striving (as we must) to avoid anachronism, the emerging picture of Jesus as a first-century Jew remains unclear. In part this unclarity reflects the ongoing difficulty, despite the work of the Q scholars, to determine a plausible sequencing of the earliest Christian beliefs and practices.

When all is said and done, it is likely that Jesus was a kind of bricoleur or eclectic. He combined mainstream Jewish views with others that were oppositional. Some of these latter stemmed from heterodox Jewish sources (such as the apocalyptic literature), while other motifs were Greek in origin.

PS (October 21, 2008). I recently had occasion to go back to the 1965 book of Hugh Schonfield, "The Passover Plot." Among other things, this book is an early contribution to the discussion of the Jewish Jesus. Despite the controversy it aroused--largely because of the author's speculative (Docetic) account of the Crucifixion--I find that this is an eminently fair-minded book. It is also highly readable--even charming, a rare quality in this supercharged field.

A Scottish scholar of Jewish origin, Schonfield emphasizes that he had no intention of denigrating Jesus, but rather of displaying his true greatness by stripping away the layers of later theological accretion. Notwithstanding his admiration for the Jesus of the Gospels, Schonfield remained a proud Jew. He certainly was not a "Jew for Jesus" as we now understand the term. Given his standpoint, his book is pioneering contribution to the nowadays wrongly-despised realm of Judaeo-Christian studies. Despite its age, I recommend "The Passover Plot" as a splendid example of how to accomplish this kind of thing.