In the Forward. A morally bankrupt Rabbi is an oxymoron. #Notmyrabbi.
Good piece in Tablet.
Fascinating post on halakhic change over time at Lehrhaus.
Great exegesis from Lehrhaus.
So it is, my dear friend. The first step towards faith is the most difficult thing in the world… Published in 1922 in the short-lived Hebrew periodical Kolot, “On the Depths of Being…
Source: On the Depths of Being
In the Book of Esther, the Persian empire is ruled by a foolish, narcissistic King with neither principle nor empathy. While drunk at a party he summons his Queen, Vashti, to dance naked before the guests, and when she refuses he has her banished and makes plans to replace her (“You’re fired”, he might have said). Ahasuerus searches among all the young girls of the empire like pastries in a display case and chooses a Jewish virgin, Hadassah- Esther (Ishtar) in Persian, the story explains, the adopted daughter of Mordecai. Ahasuerus has an advisor named Haman who becomes enraged one day when Mordecai refuses to bow down to him, or, one might say, refuses to put obeisance to the state above his own conscience and his own minority identity within the Empire. Mordecai is a loyal Persian citizen, something he has proven by reporting traitorous activity and possibly saving Ahasuerus’ life. Nevertheless, Haman convinces Ahasuerus to eliminate Persia’s Jews, presenting them as a dangerous fifth column within the glorious nation.
The parallels should be all too obvious. Trump fits the model of Ahasuerus all too closely, consistently showing a marked lack of empathy for others and concern for no principles outside of his own self-aggrandizement. Like Ahasuerus, his commitments are fickle and turn with the wind. Yesterday Trump announced who his chief strategist and senior counsellor would be: Stephen Bannon, the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement, previously the senior editor of Breitbart, the alt-right mouthpiece that under his tutelage became the nest for the iron birds of nationalism, white supremacism, misogyny and anti-Semitism. What will Bannon-Haman be whispering in the ears of King Trump?
What policy Trump will take towards Jews is unclear, and so far he seems far more dangerous as an enabler of anti-Semites. I am not suggesting that the Trump-Bannon team is chiefly a concern for Jews, however, not by a longshot. They are clearly a threat to every vulnerable group in the US- Muslims, LGBQT, women, African-Americans, refugees, immigrants, and more. What can we learn from the book of Esther about how to resist the insane malice and ignorance of Trump’s white house?
- Don’t bow. Mordecai does not sacrifice his conscience before the demands of the Persian government. At this time we must not budge and inch in demanding decency, rational discourse, ethical probity, and protection for the vulnerable whether we are American or, like me, we are a close neighbour concerned about the global spread of the “emotional plague” of Trumpism.
- Mourn Publically. When Mordecai heard of the Kings decree, he put on sack cloth and ashes and walked the streets of the city wailing loudly. Jews all throughout the provinces joined him (Esther 4:1-3). So far in the week since Trump’s election, Jews have joined protests, sat shiva in synagogues, and penned group letters expressing solidarity with vulnerable minorities. Major Jewish publications like Tablet and The Forward have been aggressively watchful and critical of Trump. This is all good, and it must continue relentlessly, especially when the Trump government begins making actual law and policy.But what of the Jewish Republicans? We turn to that next.
- The Lessons of Esther. I’m sure the association of Esther with Jewish Republicans will make some people very unhappy, and understandingly so. A more natural choice might be Ivanka. Whether she will play a role in standing up to Trump behind the scenes remains to be seen, and one can always hope. Ivanka aside, the Jewish Republicans are the Jews in Esther’s seat, sitting in the house of power. The Book of Esther has prophetic words for them: “Mordecai has this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis (Esther 4:13-14).”
- The Lesson of The Happy/Unhappy Ending of Esther Ultimately Esther and Mordecai together turn the tables on Haman, and he is humiliated and defeated. Fickle Ahasuerus is turned again to favour the Jews, and he allows them to arm themselves and fight the hordes who descend on them on their appointed Kristallnacht. The Jews route their attackers and kill thousands of them. This is in one sense a happy ending- the Jews live, and after all the ones they kill are genocidal maniacs bent on the murder of innocent men, women and children. On the other hand, the fact that the crisis wrought by Ahasuerus and Haman is solved by a bloody civil war between different people groups is hardly something for unalloyed joy. This is exactly the danger America, and countries throughout the world, are in danger of. If White America rises up to vent its frustrations on Muslims, Jews, African-Americans, etc., then the “minor” violence of the anti-Trump protests and the post-election hate crimes may escalate into more serious, and more bloody conflict. Now is the time for us to forge inter-communal ties, and advocate for fierce non-violence. May the Compassionate One have mercy on us all and inspire us with endurance, discernment, and love.
“Forty days and forty nights I held my head and cried….”
-Muddy Waters ( American blues musician, 1913-1983)
We know the story, but here’s a quick review. God brings a flood on the earth, warning and saving only Noah and his family. The world is destroyed, in Hebrew, because of hamas: violence, thievery, injustice. Noah, his family, and seed pairs of all the creatures of the earth are saved to repopulate the earth. Noah and the other survivors are aboard the ark for for forty days and forty nights. The Talmud points out that this echoes the time it takes to grow a human child in the womb (40 weeks) and the time Moses was on Mt Sinai receiving the Torah; it is a time of death, transformation and rebirth. God makes a covenant with Noah that He will not again destroy the earth- a fortunate thing for us since the earth has been filled with hamas for much of the time between Noah and now.
Yoram Hazony, in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, argues that the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) has to be understood as a form of reasoning through narrative. The Tanakh is not less philosophical than The Republic or The Nicomachean Ethics. Unlike those seminal texts of the Graeco-roman world, however, the Tanakh presents its arguments and reasonings by way of narratives. We can extend Yoram Hazony’s argument to the mythologies of the ancient world. By examining different constructions of the primordial flood, for instance, we can perceive arguments about what is important in life, about the structure of the cosmos, and about what we should value and how we should act. Arguably Flood narratives have a particular relevance for us today as we face the threat of ecological chaos.
What is truly incredible is the ubiquitous nature of flood myths in the ancient world- a search online finds stories from ancient Europe, Asia, Africa, the Near East, the Americas, the Pacific Islands, and Australia, ie, everywhere. Aside from the suggestion that human mythology remembers a primordial flood, reading these stories as history seems to miss the point. The narratives are educational tales. Here I will look at those of India and of Indigenous Western Canada (where I live), as these flood narratives form interesting and enlightening contrasts to the Biblical one.
Flood myths from India are manifold and intriguing. The hero of the flood myths is Manu, who in some versions is simply an ancient man, and in some versions is more of a demi-god, a quasi-divine being born of the gods or the primordial sages. Manu is asked by a small fish to protect him against the bigger fishes and he does. He moves the fish to bigger and bigger bodies of water until the fish is very large. The fish then tells Manu that a flood is coming to destroy the earth. In what are apparently the oldest versions no reason is given for the flood- it is a natural occurrence or it is connected to the end of the yuga, the cosmic age. In later versions, possibly dating from after exposure to Islam and its Koranic version of the Genesis story, it is said that the earth has become corrupted because a demon has stolen the holy books which guide humankind or simply because humans are behaving badly. Manu either builds a boat or ties himself to the fish and survives the flood with its protection until he can be deposited on a mountain. Later stories identify the fish as an incarnation of Brahma or Vishnu. Manu offers a sacrifice (as does the surviving hero in Genesis and the MIddle Eastern narratives of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis). In one version a woman rises magically from the fire and her and Manu repopulate the Earth. In another Manu had taken a woman and all the animals onto a boat (this is probably post-Islamic) and in another Manu and his sister were on the boat and God (here Rama) allows them to marry and repopulate the Earth. Interestingly, here a surprising addition has Rama/God angry at the fish for having told Manu of the flood and cuts out its tongue, thus explaining why fishes have been tongueless since then.
The narrative contains interesting and unique details. In all versions Manu is saved by his compassion for the fish, by his wish to save it from the violent cycle of nature in which the strong prey on the weak. This element reflects the preoccupation in Indian spiritual culture with the virtue of ahimsa, or nonviolence. In older versions the flood is a natural occurrence, not brought on by God or a god- this is a detail shared with many other flood narratives all over the world. In most versions Manu is saved by divine intervention, although in some versions it seems to be a natural result of his compassionate piety alone (ie., his good karma). It is also interesting to note that in at least one version the flood is brought by God/Rama who resents Manu’s survival. The idea here seems to be that it is the divinely ordered way of things that humans perish at the end of the yuga, ie. that they be subject to nature including death. Manu’s survival overcomes the natural, as does his saving of the fish: neither is here envisioned as the will of Rama/God. In the Indian version the evil that threatens is the violent structure of the cosmos itself, an idea consonant with Jain, Buddhist and Yogic worldviews. The lesson is that compassionate nonviolence overcomes the natural order, and even God Himself.
British Columbia, Canada
In the haunting version of the Haida, a strange woman in an unusual fur cape one day comes to their Island. The children notice that along her spine she has strange protuberances like growing plants and jeer at her, despite the censure of their Elders. She sits by the water and it comes up to her feet, and she gradually moves back further and further. Each time the water follows her until the Island is inundated. The people build canoes and the survivors are scattered all over, which gives rise different tribes. In this story the sin of the people seems to be to jeer at a stranger, or perhaps to disrespect a spirit woman. The people survive purely by their own efforts.
The Tsimshian story says the flood was born by a god who was annoyed by the noise of boys at play. The people again survive by their own efforts, and again are scattered into various tribes. An echo here of the Haida story is that again the flood is caused by children. This may suggest a theme: that of the importance of disciplining children and teaching them virtues whose absence brings chaos (the flood) to the world.
The Kwakiutl myth simply states that a flood came and submerged all but three mountains. A man, woman and dog were the only survivors, and the Bella-bella (presumably another tribe they didn’t like much?) are descended from the woman and the dog. The Kootenay version is notably different. In this myth a woman is seized and raped by a monster. The woman’s husband shoots the monster with an arrow and either the monster’s blood causes the flood or the woman pulls out the arrow and unleashes a flood. Here it seems like crimes of passion bring on the flood- it is the disrespect of the woman’s sexuality, the husband, and the marital bond which causes the eruption of chaos.
In a Squamish tale the elders of the tribe discern that a flood is coming and decide to build a giant canoe, which they do. They then put in all of the babies and their mothers, along with the bravest young men of the tribe. The survivors are stoic and “do not cry as everyone else drowns”. Eventually they come aground on Mt Baker in Washington State. This tale seems remarkable for its celebration of self-sufficiency and stoic detachment.
A Bella Coola myth is interesting for its unique positing of a god as playing a purely salvific role. In their story a god who is the creator of human beings sees the flood coming and ties the earth to the sun so it will not drown, thus saving some human beings (those able to survive the ensuing storm in boats). The survivors are scattered and this scattering gives rise to the diversity of languages. The flood here is again a result of natural causes, but God acts as a compassionate saviour figure.
The Indian and Canadian narratives shows the protean nature of the flood story. Is there a hero or just a general struggle for survival? Is the hero a human or a demi-god? Are the survivors warned by God, by a god, or by a magical or semi-divine creature? Do they survive by climbing to a high place or by building a boat? Is there one survivor, one family who survives, or scattered members of a community? If the flood is brought by God or a god, does the Divine agent both bring the flood and cause it to cease, or just act as a saviour? Does the flood come because of natural causes or divine caprice? Does it come because of divine hostility? Or because of humanity’s sin? If it is sin, is the sin violence and injustice, lack of discipline, sexual passion, or disrespect for the spirit world?
The Canadian Indigenous tales often see the flood as a result of a breach in social or spiritual mores which unleashes chaos. This breach might be dishonouring a spirit, sexuality without boundaries, or failing to discipline children. In most of the tales human beings survive the flood through their own ingenuity, clearly teaching the great importance of cultivating ingenuity and skill. The Bella Coola story stands out here for teaching a reliance on grace, on the divine being, as key. The Indian version argues that suffering and death are a natural part of the violent cycles of nature. Human beings can be saved from this by acts of compassion, and according to a majority view this receives God’s blessing.
In the Biblical story God destroys the earth through a flood due to human beings betraying the purpose of their creation, which was to embody the image of God on earth. The assumption of the story is that this entails acting with nonviolence and justice towards each other. When humans stray into mass ethical corruption God regrets their existence and wipes them out except for Noah who is saved not through ingenuity and skill but because of his righteousness, a position closest to the Indian tales who see Manu as saved because of his compassion. A new human race descends from Noah, carrying God’s hopes for a more righteous humanity with them. The lesson here is that social injustice and violence are extreme dangers, as they offend God. If human beings are not righteous, they betray their very being, and risk corrupting nature and courting destruction. Only a commitment to personal righteousness saves, and that righteousness will provoke a grace which will save and give one the honour of carrying forward the true mission and future of humanity.
All of these stories teach important human values, and chart a path away from chaos towards human survival, whether the means is righteousness, compassion, ingenuity, or cunning. Today it doesn’t take prophecy to see the flood coming. Pope Francis spoke well to the ethical tradition of the Bible in his Encyclical on Climate Change (Laudato Sii), where he argues that climate change is inherently both a matter of our being truant to our purpose as stewards of the Earth and a matter of social injustice and violence. Means of production which are truly ecologically responsible also tend to be more economically just and to promote long term, healthy, empowered communities. The behaviour of the resource industry over the last few centuries has been brutal to both the earth and to people, especially the poor, and it continues to be so.
The Indian flood narratives teach us that we need to be more than mere consumers or passive spectators- we need to actively care for the earth and be compassionate actors. The Indigenous narratives speak to us about the need for human ingenuity. Innovators all over the earth, many of whom increasingly take their inspiration from studying the wisdom of nature herself, are coming up with creative solutions to the crisis we are in. These are the modern day canoe builders who will ferry us above the waters. The Indigenous tales also speak of the importance of discipline and boundaries, as well as a respect for the mysterious and strange. When we lumber into the natural world without a sense of caution and reverence we are much like the Haida children who jeered at the strange woman. The Indigenous tales also echo the Genesis narrative in seeing the need for grace, for a humble calling out to Creator for help and guidance.
One could argue that today we are experiencing a flood in slow motion. Species are going extinct by the dozens every day. The water is slowly rising. I’m sure many more ancient myths could counsel us on what we will need to get through. This small sample has pointed towards social justice, compassion towards all creatures, ingenuity, discipline and respect for the mysterious and the stranger as virtues our various ancestors would recommend.
Hazony, Yoram. The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Isaak, Mark. Flood Narratives From Around The World. 2002. (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html. Accessed Dec 1 2015)
Good piece in Tablet.
“Protective, omnipotent, scary and very territorial. The monotheistic God is modelled on a harem-keeping alpha male.” So writes David P Parabash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, in an article a few months back for Aeon, an online magazine of long form essays on culture and ideas.
Parabash points out that gorillas worship an alpha male who is stronger, more aggressive, and “wiser” than the rest of the group. In return for obedience and worship (of a kind) the alpha supplies nourishment and protection. The God of the Bible, the New Testament, and the Qu’ran, argues Parabash, is this silverback gorilla alpha male writ large, nothing more than an atavistic impulse, a vestigial tail of the mind.
This is a thesis which seems more clever than it is. In essence it is nothing more than the idea that humans have made God in their own image dressed up in the speculative (and reductionist) world of evolutionary psychology.
Neverthless, it is worth refuting the argument in detail, in the interest of of a fuller, more complex, and more respectful understanding of the heights and depths of our humanity than that which comes from comparing some of our most cherished spiritual ideals to elaborations of gorilla pack behaviour with, basically, nothing to learn from except in recognizing their stupidity.
Does God Want What An Alpha Male Wants?
I will focus on Parabash’s use of the Hebrew Bible, which is the religious text he relies on the most. Unfortunately Parabash’s reading of the Hebrew Bible is both selective and superficial. Such fragmentary, decontextualized readings of the Hebrew Bible are a fault common to new atheists and fundamentalists alike.
It is true that the God of the Hebrew Bible wants fidelity and obedience. Worship, although inherent to religious fidelity and obedience, is not his priority, a point made repeatedly (e.g. Hosea 6:6; 1 Samuel 5:22, Isaiah 58:6). Worship and praise are not God’s priority, but rather a primary human response to knowing him (e.g. Psalm 8:3-5). Israel’s God prioritises fidelity and obedience yes, and does promise benefits in return, as Parabash writes, but what do fidelity and obedience consist of?
According to the Hebrew Bible, fidelity consists in limiting obedience and worship to YHVH. Obedience means living according to his ethical commands, and it is these ethical commands that are the priorities of YHVH, a point made repeatedly throughout the Hebrew Bible, as in Jeremiah:
“Do you become a king because you are competing in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink what was needed and then
do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy;
Then it was well.
Is not that what it means to know Me?” declares the LORD.
“Know me” here means not just to understand who God is (and thus what He wants) but also suggests intimacy (Genesis 4:1, etc.). To pursue social justice is to be intimate with God.
The ethical commands of the Hebrew Bible include “loving your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18), “loving the stranger” (Lev 19:34 et al.), “seeking justice” (Deuteronomy 16:20 et al.), “pursuing peace” (Psalms 34:14 et al.), caring for the vulnerable (literally “the widow and the orphan” and “the poor”, Exodus 22:22 and dozens of other places), what we would now call “creation care” (Genesis 2:15, Lev 19:23, Deuteronomy 20:19), and the rule of law as opposed to the rule of rulers (Deuteronomy 17:18).
The concrete forms that these ethical concerns take include laws demanding the redistribution of wealth and the limitation of debt and slavery; improving the lot of women; defending the rights of migrants; institutionalizing periodic rest for agricultural lands; avoiding cruelty to animals; forbidding unneeded ecological destruction; allowing petty theft and providing gleaning rights to the poor; making the King subservient to the law instead of vice versa; forbidding the King from stock-piling wealth or military might; calling for judicial impartiality; limiting the rights of blood avengers; restraining those who would oppress or impoverish their debtors; forbidding the return of runaway slaves, and more.
YHVH states many times that it is doing these things that means “knowing him” and “loving him” and that worship and sacrifice towards him without these things are “repugnant” to him (“I have asked for mercy not sacrifice”; “your festivals and holy gatherings are an abomination to me”“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”).
The reason that YHVH is jealous is that he is the only God, and he has created humanity to have a relationship with him (love him) and and with each other (love your neighbour). In the ancient Jewish understanding, Israel is chosen to be a paradigmatic example of how people should live. Israel are to be his covenanted people, representing him on earth. For that reason he is jealous of their affections.
The ethical and practical details of how God’s ethical demands should be worked out are filtered through ancient middle eastern culture, and it is there we will find some vestigial tails in the form of social and judicial practices our moral conscience has evolved beyond (for discussion of one such vestigial tail see my article on homosexuality here). The different descendants of the Hebrew Bible have worked this out in different ways. Jewish law develops and reinterprets Biblical law; for Christians Jesus’ person and teachings do the same; in Islam hadith, sharia, and the teachings of sages evolve Qu’ranic statements. This is an evolving process not without its difficulties and failures to be sure.
Yet the God of the Bible is not mainly interested is obedience to his own power, an obedience which he rewards with food and protection. He is the unthreatened and undefeatable creator and ruler of all things who wishes human beings to abandon their idolatrous worship of themselves, their rulers, and the bogeymen of their own imagination, and to foster a world of peace and justice where all nations are equally chosen and will love God and neighbour together (Isaiah 19:23-24; 56:7).
If Parabash was more than glancingly literate in Biblical studies he would know this, but he I fear he is mislead into thinking that his knowledge and skill as an evolutionary psychologist gives him privileged access to all domains of human behaviour. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
The God of The Bible is Not A Competitor
Going deeper into Parabash’s argument from analogy, we find another problem. Simply put, God is not a competitor with other Gods. In the Biblical imagination there are no other Gods. The only possible exception to this is in Psalm 82, where God chastises a “divine assembly” and warns them they will all die like men. What is instructive here, however, are two points: 1) the other Gods are identified as “sons of God”, i.e. they are born of God, not his peers, and 2) they are chastised not for competing with God but for failing to “defend the weak and the orphan”.
God has taken his place in the divine council
In the midst of the gods he holds judgement
“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
The implication of this unusual Psalm, which surely departs from mainstream Jewish thought in its depiction of other (though lesser) gods, is that the gods of other peoples were created by God and entrusted with the task of upholding his values (justice and mercy) but they have failed, so he is revoking their authority and their lives (82:6-7).
The idea of a god as a true alpha male, i.e. as a competitor against other gods who he defeats with his greater might and cunning is manifestly not the storyline of the Bible (even if some vestiges of pre-Biblical thought may remain here and there) but rather of surrounding polytheistic cultures. Witness Zeus defeat the Titans, Shiva defeat Vishnu, or Marduk maintain his hold over the Babylonian divine assembly.
In fact monotheism is a relative rarity among different cultures- polytheism is much more common, and if we are singling out a religious development we claim to be a byproduct of common human evolutionary struggles, it seems more logical to point to the squabbling divine fraternities of Rome, China, or Egypt. It is ironic, and somewhat culturally myopic of Parabash to single out the religious development that departs from this alpha male warfare as the tradition that represents it.
All that said, there is no question that the way God is imagined in the Hebrew Bible is anthropomorphic, and is filtered through the lens of human social, political and psychological contructs in ways which reflect aspects of our humanity both good and bad. In the Hebrew Bible God is imagined as father, King, warrior, lover, husband, friend, and even mother (Isaiah 66:13 for instance). All of these are relational, since relationality- both to God and to human beings, is at the heart of Biblical spirituality, as Jesus, that Biblical son, famously pointed out in the Gospel of Matthew (22:37).
Jewish (and Christian and Islamic) traditions have pointed out for at least 2,000 years that although God is a person, he is neither corporeal nor male. The anthropomorphic personas that have been ascribed to God have been seen both as important for understanding him and as inadequate and potentially misleading.
Parabash, like many other atheists and critics of Biblical religion, doesn’t understand this well. Near the beginning of his article he says, “Sophisticated theologians typically emphasise that their deity lacks a physical body, somehow transcending physicality. More rarely, God might be conceived as non-gendered.” The “unsophisticated theologians” or “non-theologians” Parabash imagines thinking God has a body are largely a product of his imagination.
By Grade 1 of Jewish day school I understood that God had no body. I also knew he had no gender, even if the masculine language we used gave an admittedly male “tone” to my imagination of God’s personality. The personhood of God, Parabash goes on to insist, suggests most believers do conceive of him as a giant, powerful, male human, but this is simply not the case for any Jew I’ve met.
Even children like my 6 year old self think of God as another status of being- everywhere, all-knowing, all-good, etc., possessing will, emotion and consciousness but not a body or gender like us. This maybe less the case in some Christian circles which deploy a lot of imagery, like Catholics, but I’d bet it holds for Muslims as well. The idea that a genderless, bodyless God is the rare conception of “sophisticated theologians” is, in my experience, an ignorant claim.
For the religious, arguments like Parabash’s can still perform a useful service. They at once highlight how our biological and social experience might colour our understanding of God, and also illuminate in what ways God’s self revelation in the Hebrew Bible transcends such categories, making demands of us that stretch us beyond our gendered, tribal, and hierarchical hungers for power.