Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Mythical Conquests of Canaan and Israelite Identity (pt.1 of 2)

Modern archaeologists are quick to point out that no evidence exists for a mass exodus of people from Egypt around the purported time of the biblical event (c. 1200 BCE). Although this has difficult consequences for a traditional reading of the bible, the evidence seems hard to argue with. If over 600,000 persons made an exit from Egypt around this period, surely we would have found traces of it.

An important consideration here is the Merneptah Stele, an archaeological artifact that dates to around the period of when the Exodus was to have occurred. It has the first mention of the name "Israel" in history. A linguistic study shows that this mention links them not as an independent nation, but as a people group already living in the land of Canaan. We will discuss the various theories of how Israel over time emerged in Canaan as a distinct culture. But it's important to note that they almost certainly did not enter from outside by conquest as the biblical narrative suggests.

In one ancient reference in the Armanah Letters (another important archeological artifact), there is a mention of some people called "apiru" who are causing problems for the leaders in Canaan. This same title is given to some people in the archaeological record in Egypt, where "apiru" apparently also existed concurrently. Because of the Egyptian mention of "apiru", some scholars have wanted to claim "apiru" are really the Hebrew people pre-Exodus (get it? "apiru" rhymes with Hebrew).
Scholars have concluded however that these "apiru" are only references to lower-class trouble makers, not specifically the Hebrew people. The "apiru" were simply rebels who were giving the Egyptian and Canaanite leaders a headache. However, some of these "apiru" in Egypt might have had a very small exodus, joined the Israelites already in the Canaanite central highlands, and brought their story of liberation from the Egyptian empire. Either way, the biblical story of a mass Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt in the 13th century BCE is a later creation of Israelite writers. It is a myth to explain the origin of Israelite identity - YHWH delivered them from bondage, led them to the promised land in Canaan, and helped them wipe out the Canaanites. None of this happened in history as the bible narrates it, scholars now assert.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Judaism: Diversity and Suffering in History and Tradition (pt.3 of 3)

One area of common ground between the three major branches of Judaism already discussed is in their observance of certain sacred events and holidays. The weekly Shabbat service (or the Sabbath) is a time of rest that recalls both God’s resting on the seventh day of creation and Israel’s liberation from slavery. How each branch practices this event varies considerably, with the Orthodox observing the day of rest much more strictly than either Conservative or Reform Jews do. Beyond this weekly event, there are many holy days in Judaism, of which the most widely observed is Passover. This is a day for Jews to remember the Exodus from Egypt when the Israelites were freed from slavery. Passover is named after the story of when the Angel of Death “passed over” the houses of the Israelites before the Exodus. Jewish families share in a sacred meal called the Seder, where they talk, sing, rejoice in freedom, and remember their past. As Jacob Neusner points out, contemporary Jews also connect Passover to individual experience in the present, and more particularly, the modern experience of remembering the Holocaust: “Passover is popular now because it speaks to a generation that knows what the Gentiles can do…” Once again, this illustrates the way the Holocaust has brought diverse Jews together by remembering a shared history of suffering and a constant struggle for survival. The impact of the Holocaust on modern Judaism is so intense that some theologians have seen it as a distinct religious phenomenon, calling it “Holocaustology.”

Although Judaism has always emphasized the importance of questioning, arguing, and wrestling with God (the name “Israel” suggests the action of “struggling with God”), Jews have rarely engaged so deeply in this activity as much as they have since the Holocaust. As Catholic theologian Hans Kung writes, “[The Holocaust] remains an event far surpassing all previous history of suffering, an event of an unspeakable suffering of the people of the Jews which cannot be ‘understood’ theoretically.” As a young freshman in college, I encountered this Jewish struggle first-hand and it has had a lasting impact on my own Christian theology. I enrolled in a philosophy course that was taught by a Jewish Rabbi, who I discovered late in the semester was also an atheist. I remember the shock I felt when he explained how his reflection on the Holocaust caused him to lose his faith in God. Though he still valued the Jewish tradition, he could no longer believe in God because of the theological problem of suffering. “Where was the God of the Hebrew Bible, the active God of history, when a third of the world’s Jews were murdered? If God once chose Israel as his people, acting in history on their behalf, he has since lost interest in such matters – and I have lost interest in him,” my professor said to the class.

Moving ahead to my senior year in college, I enrolled in a class on the Jewish mystical tradition that was taught by another Jewish Rabbi. Though she was still a theist, she had embraced Isaac Luria’s mystical notion of zimzum and given up on divine omnipotence in her struggle earlier in life for an adequate theology after Auschwitz. The combined impact of these two Jewish Rabbis on my own faith has caused me to take the problem of suffering much more seriously than before. Despite the objections of Hans Kung, I have taken Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s idea of ‘the crucified God’ who suffers with the victims of oppression very seriously. Moltmann developed this theology from theological considerations after the Holocaust. Additionally, the way that John Cobb’s process theology discusses the problem of suffering has also been a fruitful tool in my theological reflections – though I by no means feel as though I have “resolved” the problem of suffering for myself.

Though my Christian faith is continually enriched by studying all the world’s religions, no tradition other than my own has influenced me as much as Judaism. In addition to hearing Jewish voices struggling with theodicy, other aspects of the tradition have also provoked my thinking. Some of these challenges have come about as I have gained a new awareness of the history of ancient Israel while trying to see the Hebrew Bible through a Jewish lens, not just a Christian one. In college, I found inspiration in Jewish mystics like Isaac Luria and the philosopher Moses Maimonides. I have also had opportunities to participate in Shabbat services at a Reform synagogue, where I admired their passionate, honest, and open-ended style of wrestling with the Torah, as well as their deep sense of community. Many Christians, such as myself, have recently gained an appreciation for the Jewish emphasis on practice over dogma, reflecting a deep concern for transforming life here-and-now. Judaism continues to fascinate me in so many ways, regularly challenging me from a different context to rethink my assumptions about theology, culture, and history.

Judaism: Diversity and Suffering in History and Tradition (pt.2 of 3)

Just as defining Judaism as an ethnicity is nearly impossible, the religious ingredient of Judaism can be difficult to pin down. Perhaps the most logical place to begin an attempt to understand Judaism is through a historical perspective. As Huston Smith points out, “To the Jews, history was of towering significance,” in part because of the value generally placed on human social action and God’s action within history. For most of Jewish history, pivotal events such as the Exodus, where God liberated the Israelites from oppression, as well as the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, have usually been understood to be historical – and deeply meaningful as such. The future is also of great importance, as traditional Jews wait on the Messiah figure. But even amongst today’s more liberal Jews who reject the historical factuality of much of the Torah, there is still a great importance placed on remembering the history of the Jewish people – a history of survival against oppression and genocide, as well as a deep concern for embodied, human action in history. The guiding narrative of “exile and return” may be seen as mythological, but it remains central for liberal Jews. A historical perspective of Judaism reveals a complex early history that develops into a tradition that is diverse enough to contain a wide spectrum of conservative and liberal Jewish views.

The historical roots of Judaism, going back to ancient Israel, reveal a process of evolution towards the Judaism of today. Just as Christianity evolved out of the 1st century CE to become increasingly diverse, so a diverse Judaism evolved out of the 1st millennium BCE. While it is true that the core of Jewish theology is monotheism (reflected by the Shema), the ancient Israelites, in whom contemporary Judaism is rooted in, evolved from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism over the course of many centuries. The sacred Torah itself reveals this process of theological evolution. Even after becoming firmly monotheistic around the time of the Hebrew prophets, the Jewish community evolved significantly and split into different groups in the post-exilic period.

Within this long process of development, what we know as Judaism today is rooted in rabbinic Judaism, which began developing in the exilic and post-exilic period between 586 BCE and 70 CE when the tradition slowly moved from being centered on Temple sacrifice to sacred texts. In the 2nd century BCE, there were splits within the Jewish community that resulted in three different sects: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. While these sects represented a minority of the Jewish community at the time, the Pharisees were responsible for the development of rabbinic Judaism. In the six centuries that followed the destruction of the 2nd temple in 70CE until the completion of the Talmud, a Judaism of the dual-Torah (one written, one oral) developed through the work of many Jewish rabbis. The Talmud alone is testament to the diversity that is Judaism, which is essentially a collection of rabbinic opinions and fights over interpretations of a variety of things, including Jewish law.

Despite its inherent diversity, what made the basic form of rabbinic Judaism last through the 19th century was largely an ability to address urgent questions of politics. With the more recent emergence of the nation-state in a capitalistic context, new Judaisms were born out of traditional rabbinic Judaism that were all in conflict in various ways with parts of the traditional Judaism of the dual-Torah. From the 19th century down to the present 21st century, contemporary Judaism includes multiple branches that differ significantly in their understanding of the tradition, though all are basically united with varying degrees of respect for the Torah. Beyond this shared respect for their sacred text, the similarities between the various Judaisms largely break down. Here we can compare three important branches.

The first significant subset of contemporary Judaism is the more traditional Orthodox branch. They maintain strict observance of the commandments (or mitzvot) in the Torah, expect a literal return of the Messiah, and only ordain male rabbis. Even the Orthodox branch then splits off into other versions of Judaism, including Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Hasidism. The second major branch of Judaism is the liberal Reform branch which accounts for a majority of American Jews. Reform Judaism emphasizes the social justice element of the Hebrew prophets, understands the Torah to be much less authoritative than the Orthodox, and ordains female rabbis. They are very open to the results of modern science, embrace historical-critical studies of the Torah, and reject the literal expectation for a Messiah figure. The third major subset of contemporary Judaism is the Conservative branch, the moderate path of contemporary Judaism. They join the Reform branch in their openness to modern thought and the ordination of female rabbis, but their observance of the law (which respects both the ethical and ritual as halakha) is closer to the Orthodox branch. Beyond these three major branches are many other versions of the Jewish religion, including mystical and more humanistic branches.