Speaking of Deuteronomy, it's been a while since I looked at the "Israel Rules" books of the Bible (Leviticus, Numbers, and The Deut) and I had almost forgotten how truly odd some of the contents are.Here's a good example, from Chapter 25, Verses 11 and 12 (from the King James version, just because I like the Jacobean English):
11: When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets:For those of you who don't speak Jacobean, "secrets" means the guy's package; wedding tackle, junk, manbits, y'know, his genitals. So if you're a-fightin' down at the Jug and the Little Woman tries to help out by giving the other fella's...secrets...a li'l twist, it's off to the chopping block for the soon-to-be-nicknamed-Lefty.
12: Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her.
Hunh. Love to know the history of the actual incident that cause the patriarchs of ancient Israel to throw THAT little gem into Holy Scripture. Had to be a good story there.There's lots more stuff like that, too. The Deut is where you come across the still-kinda-skeevy notion that a widow becomes the property of her dead husband's brother, who gets in all sort of theological trouble if he has reservations about shtupping his dead brother's bride.
Plus building a wall around your roof so people don't fall off it and raising animals fallen in the road. The Deut is a real page-turner.
Why bring this up now?
Because we just went to a bar mitzvah.It was one of the better - maybe the best - I've ever attended. The service was endless for five- and eight-years-old, so there was some difficulty there, and it was mostly in Hebrew, so I had a lot of time to kill skimming the juicier parts of the Torah readings.
But I like the rabbi at our friends' temple; he's the very embodiment of the rabbinical traditions of humanity and learning, the cantor there has a rich, full voice, and - since this wasn't just any service, the most important bit - the bar mitzvah himself did a terrific job.
The trickiest part of these is where the new adult has to make a brief statement to the congregation. I've been to several where the young man (or woman) tries to be very Talmudic, or mistakes the day for a middle school speech assignment, or just mumbles through some perfunctory semi-religious boilerplate.
But last weekend's bar mitzvah had a very witty little speech that managed to talk about the week's Torah reading and incorporated it into his life - he's a broth of a boy, and hasn't been the most dutiful of sons, and he talked about how disobedient sons are discussed in the scripture versus how they were, and are, typically dealt with in history - and he did terrific work with the readings. And the kiddush afterwards was good, as always (what's the point in being Jewish if you don't lay out a good spread?) as was the unusual but entertaining party at the local archery store and indoor bow-and-arrow range.It was mostly just fun, but it got me thinking about religion in general and Judaism in particular.
And reminded me again why, of all the three big monotheistic religions I tend to have more respect for the god (and the adherents) of the Torah relative to the Bible or the Koran.Most of this is because of the three Judaism is perhaps the most reflective, the most scholarly, and the most self-critical.
This isn't to say that there are no religious scholars in Islam, or Christianity. But, frankly, I tend to judge a religion more by its average schmoe than by its leaders. Leaders can posture and prate all they want, but it's the way that the average Jew, the typical Muslim, or the rank-and-file Christian lives that determines the nature of the religion and its effects on everything around it.And I find many more Jews willing to look hard at their religion, to examine its foundations, and to apply its tenets in ways that are inconvenient and even hardships in their lives than I do the other two. Perhaps because for many centuries Judaism was so divorced from political power and the expedient, self-justifying, self-deluding nonsense that because of the demands of overlordship has permeated the others.
A Christian or a Muslim has to either explain how an Islamic or a Christian state must do things that Islam or Christ forbade them, things like taking innocent lives, punishing the weak, or ignoring the helpless.
A Jew hasn't had that impossible task until recently; his or her struggle was within, with their own conscience, and while that is the toughest thing in the world it is less corrupting to the soul than trying to justify a massive defense budget with commandments to live a poor and humble life, or using might and force to beat down the defenseless civilians of an enemy nation.The second reason is that unlike Christianity, the Jews have never pretended that their God is anything but what he was from the days of Abraham; a desert patriarch. Loving dispenser of largesse to those who revere and obey him, merciless enemy of anyone or anything who looks at his family sideways...the God of Israel is a stone killer, a real bad-ass, both to the stranger as well as to those in his own tribe who have problems with his rules.
The God of the Koran is a similar guy - which may go a long way towards explaining the recent animosity between the adherents of the two faiths in the Levant
It's the Jesus-sweetened God of Christianity that has real personality problems. He wants it both ways - turn the other cheek, but beware Divine Wrath - and that's the same problem as it always is when you want two incompatible things.
The God of the Torah is a less conflicted guy, and it shows.The thing is...this brings me back to the modern State of Israel, and the problem it both faces and represents.
Several people here have observed that I seem to have a problem with Israel, when in fact I have no real problem with Israel that it doesn't have with itself. Because it seems to me - as well as to many people, including many Israelis - that you can either be a democratic state, or a religious state, but not both. And you can have peace as a egalitarian monoreligious state (where everyone is equal in the state faith) or you have to be an elitist multireligious theocracy where one religion is more equal than all the others, but you can't have both.
Because a state is defined in large part by it's institutions, laws, and rules. And in a democracy those are defined by the people as in "We, the People"; they must, or the state is not really a democracy - mere elections don't make a genuine democracy any more than good looks make a good actor.But religion is not an opinion poll. It doesn't matter if a popular vote says that women are the civic equals of men, or that blacks are the civic equals of whites; if the Holy Writ tells the uppity Negroes or ladies their place, and that place is not in the public square...well...how do you change that? Does God want you to vote on it?
Or is he more likely to cut your damn hand off?
So it seems that a nation can be a secular democracy...or a theocracy. But not both.
The original Israel, the one founded in the Forties by the largely-European Zionists, elided the issue by making its Jewishness official rather than sectarian. An Israeli was a Hebrew-speaking secularist rather than a Talmudic scholar, and Israel was a secular nation that made special place for Jews in its borders but not in its laws.Then.
But much has changed since then, and Israel has been riven, as its ancient predecessor was, with tribal divisions largely driven by the incompatibility of religion and democracy. Seculars versus orthodox Ashkenazim versus orthodox Sephardim versus Russians versus non-orthodox religious versus Arabs (both secular and devout), all fighting for control of the state, its laws and rules, and its largesse. And it has absorbed the lands of many people who are not Jewish, and must deal with the problem that these people must either be treated equally (and thus eliding the point of a "jewish state") or not and thus eliding the point of sound government.
It's a hell of a problem.
And through all of that, Israel, like Napoleon's France, has had to deal with the physical reality of being surrounded by enemies. Her response has been, as his was, to fight, and, again like the First Empire, while she has never lost a battle she has never conclusively won the war, either.
One of the most significant results has been to discredit the old secular Arab regimes and empower the Islamists - surely not a result that any Israeli (or American) would have wanted. The great Arab and, now, Islamic, Coalition that surrounds them still remains, waiting, hostile, unblinking. Neither the Israelis nor their enemies have ever found a way to solve this political dilemma. Perhaps because there is nothing TO find.
And on the way Judaism has finally been presented with the conqueror's dilemma; can a polity that is founded on a creed rule others outside that creed - or, indeed, rule at all - without bending the tenets of that creed to that breaking point. Fortunately for Israel the God of Abraham was a pretty tough guy. But even He might blench at what is being done to maintain the country's hold on the eastern edge of the Levant.Now generally speaking I like Israel. It's a nice little country, very Western, and I like the no-nonsense toughness of the secular and non-orthodox Israelis I've met. The orthodox? Enh, not so much. But then, they feel the same way about me, the damned meshugana goy.
I've always felt that the best solution Harry Truman had was to offer the European Jews a state right here in 1945. Utah is kind of deserty and not very populous. We might have avoided a pack of troubles right there. Okay, the Mormons might have had some issues. But, still...
But right now it seems to me that we've dealt ourselves an ugly hand and lots of nice kids, like the bar mitzvah who sat grinning and eating pizza with his cronies the shabbas before last, are going to be the ones who have to make the change for the money we're putting down on that particular yarborough.
And that just makes me feel old, tired, and sad.
Because a faith is supposed to bring us closer to God and ourselves, and - as, I think, was the case for the young man whose coming of age we just celebrated - a religion can bring maturity and a deeper, more farseeing understanding.Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it.