Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Double-Edged Sword, Part II d (i): Religion and Politics

In these sections on religion and politics, I propose to talk about "polemics," the art or practice of disputation or controversy, and about "polemic," which is an argument that hostilely refutes a particular belief or opinion.  But the section has gotten bigger and bigger, so I've subdivided yet again.  Here's the first part:

Two Commentaries
In The Jewish Study Bible (Jewish Publication Society, TANAKH Translation), there is a particular footnote to Leviticus 18:3 that is central to the issue of religion and politics--at least to my thinking about it.

Leviticus Chapter 18 is the chapter that lists all the gross sexual behaviors that Canaanites and Egyptians are said to have practiced--incest with their various close relatives, fornication with their neighbors' wives, bestiality, and so on. The biblical writers also included human sacrifice of babies and the profaning of God's name along with their list of Canaanite and Egyptian sexual transgressions.

The footnote of interest to me explains that the Egyptians and Canaanites are characterized in biblical tradition by rampant sexual licentiousness and perversion--particularly by the Priestly voice. (The reference here is to the documentary hypothesis about who wrote the Hebrew bible.  There are four voices in all, of which the Priestly voice is one.)   Further, the text goes on to imply that the Egyptians and Canaanites were so depraved that they even had laws requiring these sexual practices. The note goes on: "This, however, does not emerge from Canaanite and Egyptian literature, and it is now thought that the biblical writers used this accusation as a means of stigmatizing Israel's cultural rivals (in the guise of long-extinct enemies) by attributing to them the most heinous crimes (my italics). Thus they provided moral justification for the displacement of the Canaanites, while at the same time polemicizing against such practices in Israelite society itself...."

A subsequent footnote points out that as Chapter 18 proceeds, all reference to "the Egyptians" has entirely dropped out; the text therefore having become an exhortation against the present day cultural rivals of the writers themselves, as well as against the proscribed sexual practices in Israelite society itself.

Even though cultural study and archeology have revealed new information like that described in the preceding paragraph, that doesn't change the narrative as it is enshrined in the bible.  We Jews do have a tradition of studying our entire scripture and not turning away even from difficult parts like this. I remember one of our rabbis helping us in Torah study one Saturday morning to look at some verses on the subject of God's command to kill all the Canaanites or Edomites--the idea being that those Israelites described in that biblical passage were really struggling. They were involved in warfare. They were trying to win. They were trying to survive. They were locked in enmity with another cultural group and were not at peace, which is the ideal. That constituted cognitive dissonance writ large!  Is it any wonder that the cognitive dissonance got resolved by concluding that God commanded it? We who are studying nowadays can read and learn, and it will shed light on our own struggles. "Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it," as an old rabbinic saying goes.

Going back to Leviticus 18, footnotes and depth interpretations notwithstanding, the chapter is often interpreted and believed literally--as though the Canaanites literally were sinners; therefore the land spat them out in favor of the Israelites. That is the plain text reading. There are no more Canaanites or Edomites. So, since they are no more, is it okay to believe the story literally? Many people do, and the text can be taught that way. It is worth reflecting on what doing so may mean for us (especially since we abhor similar polemics being leveled against ourselves).

To hear many people talk in our Christian-based culture, the above dilemmas are characteristic of the Old Testament and its "Old Testament God," while the New Testament focuses on love. Perhaps it would not be going too far to say that to think so is to criticize the speck in one's fellow's eye while having a big old piece of lumber in one's own.

As far as I have been able to discern, Christianity, at least to the extent it's defined as the Christians in the pews, usually does not undertake the study of all its texts, and it's the difficult ones that are likely to be skipped. Groups and individuals alike tend to focus on preferred texts and turn away from the so-called toxic texts. Perhaps it's easy to forget they are there. But if the exploration of difficult texts is skipped in favor of the obviously positive ones, then who will know how to speak up and what to say when zealots exploit their negative utility? (And who knows what undiscovered treasure may be buried in those texts, hidden under the more obvious difficulties?)

Speaking of difficult texts, here is part of the introductory comment preceding The Gospel According to Matthew in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) that addresses this point:

"Matthew's utility for the Christian church is no coincidence. The issues of his own church and community were of pressing importance to the evangelist.... (He) has telescoped the experience of Christians in his day with the story of Jesus so that Jesus' words and actions apply to both the time of Jesus and that of Matthew a half century later."

The commentary then says that that procedure explains some of the anomalies of the text, for example, the conflicted portrayal of Jewish piety and religious leaders--the evangelist's high regard for the Torah (first five books of the Bible) and disdain for non-Jews, vs. "a strident and unrelenting condemnation of the Jewish leadership--the chief priests, elders, Sadducees, Pharisees, and scribes. These groups are indiscriminately paired with each other in a manner inconsistent with the historical distinctions between these groups in Jesus' day. The Gospel's treatment of the Pharisees, routinely condemned as hypocrites, in particular, has led many scholars to suggest that their portrayal reflects later tensions between Matthew's church and emergent Rabbinic Judaism. In other words, the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees reflects tensions that emerged fifty years after Jesus' death" (italics mine).

"The crucifixion narrative also displays this telescoping of perspective. Responsibility for Jesus' passion is shifted from Pontius Pilate and the Romans to the Jewish people and their leadership. The horrific pronouncement 'His blood be on us and on our children!' (27:25) is Matthew's way of attributing the (Roman) destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE to Israel's rejection of Jesus. The vehemence with which the evangelist expresses such sentiments was likely intended to shock both Jewish Christians and their Jewish neighbors into...discounting rival claims being advanced by the leadership of emergent Rabbinic Judaism...."

"While such deliberately shocking rhetoric was characteristic of debates between groups in the first century CE, its long-term consequences have been disastrous. Subsequent non-Jewish Christians interpreted the Gospel as a warrant to exact retribution from Jews for the death of Jesus.... A proper reading of the Gospel, therefore, requires being attuned to the polemical context in which it was written, and recognizing that the conflict between emerging Rabbinic Judaism and the smaller Jewish Christian minority ceased being relevant nearly two millennia ago."

In other words, just as the scholarly consensus is that Leviticus 18 and other writings were used to justify suppression of the Canaanites (according to the Jewish Study Bible), the consensus is that Matthew and many other New Testament writings were used to justify suppression of Jews (according to the New Oxford Annotated NRSV).

I wish it were true that the polemics really had ceased being relevant 2000 years ago. Of course, it has not.  It is still with us, including stereotypes about "the Jews," Pharisees, and the nature of Judaism in general.  The polemics distorts the self perception of individuals within the dominant religious tradition of Christianity as well as that of those within the minority tradition of Judaism.  The polemics has affected the development of both religions.

Christianity did not invent polemics, which was endemic in the Hellenistic society of the Roman Empire at the dawn of the Christian era, but Christianity has brought polemics along with it. The polemical way of thinking about about Judaism at the foundation of Christianity has influenced characterizations of outsiders and opponents in general and now goes far beyond the relationship between Christianity and Judaism and is interwoven into our national political discourse.

This section originated several months ago at the first of the year.  I am posting it on April 27, 2012.