In Lucem Gentium: Anecdotal Reflections on Growing Up and Out of the Jewish Ghetto, Part II

…Jewish “Theology” …The Kindgom of God…

II. Judaism – Theology = Judaism

I had already begun to grow weary of the Holocaust fixation by my mid teens, if only from the urgency and zeal with which my peers, who had grown up like me in a hermetically sealed ethnic bubble and never inhaled so much as a whiff of prejudice, lived and breathed It, continued to abominate all things German, avidly raised money for the Zionist project, and insisted firmly on the need to preserve the racial integrity and traditions of the Jewish people. Frankly ignorant of the answer, I asked them, Why? What, exactly, was it that they burned so to preserve? It was the Sixties, after all, and not even the relative cultural isolation of the Manor immunized it against the revolutionary Zeitgeist of that decade. On the contrary, many of my high school classmates declared themselves Marxists, Trotskyites, Maoists, and unqualified admirers of Fidel and Che. As children of the Sixties, they regarded traditions, in solidarity with their political heroes, as things to be smashed. But their own Jewish traditions were somehow exempt from revolutionary scorn.

In what did this precious tradition consist? I certainly saw in my contemporaries no searing religious conviction. (Neither did I see it in their parents, by the way. It was the modernist scorn for the supernatural, the insouciant secularism, of my Jewish acquaintances that eventually persuaded me that Judaism had little to offer me or anyone else who was interested in the life of the spirit.) Whatever it was, it was surely not the religious content of their “Jewishness” that my friends were so zealously determined to preserve.

At the Saturday morning synagogue services I briefly attended in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah, I experienced nothing that I couldn’t have experienced at a country club cocktail party. The synagogue architecture itself–all pockmarked concrete, both inside and out, blond wood furnishings in the Danish modern style, and, of course, nothing that one could call ornament or imagery–seemed expressly designed at once to banish any sense of the sacred and amplify the sense of the workaday and mundane. The floor was covered in thick-pile broadloom, just like the nineteen-fifties ranch-style bungalows and “splits” in which most of us lived. The individual seats were over-stuffed buckets upholstered in burgundy velvet–exactly like the ones in the local cinema. Since the rows were steeply graded, the synagogue interior communicated to the “worshiper” the breezy feeling of being out for a movie or a concert. The only thing that distinguished it from the O’Keefe Centre was the fact that the spectators chatted with one another incessantly, religiously ignoring whatever happened to be transpiring on the “stage” below.

The most notable ritual of the Saturday morning service was the endless parade of comings and goings. At the risk of mixing metaphors, it was rather like being at a Blue Jays game, where every five minutes one has to pull in one’s knees to let another “fan” pass on his way to the beer counter, and then again as he departs for the bathroom to empty his bladder of what he had purchased on his last trip. At any given moment, there were more people in the synagogue lobby than in the pews. And since they passed their time in idle conversation in both venues, moving back and forth between them was accomplished with the utmost casualness. There was certainly no bracing awareness in doing so of transiting from a locus profanus to a locus sacer. Moreover, unlike a movie or baseball game, there seemed to be neither an official start nor end to the service. People arrived and left more or less at will.

 

Since the Exodus was the most momentous juncture in Jewish history, and Passover the most sacred season of the year, I fondly imagined that the religious gravitas so absent from the Saturday morning synagogue service would veritably overwhelm me at the Passover Seder. But the only thing overwhelming about it turned out to be the sheer quantity of food. At all the Seders I attended, the rite was merely a preamble to the meal, and one to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. It was conceded from the beginning that the hunger of the flesh must inevitably triumph over that of the spirit. The Passover Haggadah (the text of the rite commemorating the events of the Exodus, which is read aloud by those assembled at the dinner table) is already short, but no one objected to its further arbitrary abridgement, or its recitation at warp speed. An unusual number of Jews, it seems, were able to speed read long before any systematic technique had been developed for learning such a valuable skill; and the Seder is undoubtedly the reason why. But then the text of the modern Haggadah is so infantile that it could hardly be said to have suffered an indignity for having been paid supersonic lip-service. I say “infantile” advisedly, by the way. The Seder is the only religious ritual I have ever attended that has been expressly devised for the amusement of children.

As I’ve already mentioned, idolatry is the most grievous abomination in Old Testament consciousness; and perhaps this is why modern Jews (like radical Protestants) avert their eyes when in the presence of anything that strikes them as ritualistic. But what does that leave in the way of religious content? I am well aware that Judaism is pre-eminently a religion of laws. But in following the commandments (Thou shalt not bow down to graven images; Thou shalt not kill; not steal; not commit adultery; not bear false witness) contemporary Jews are only observing the practices of every monotheistic creed, and obeying the laws they are compelled to obey by the modern secular state. There is nothing uniquely “Jewish” in these desiderata, let alone religious; and most of the more esoteric laws and shibboleths (if an ox shall push a manservant or maidservant, its owner shall give unto their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned) have been retired long ago as anachronisms.

In the Manor, the dietary laws were the conspicuous exception. And precisely how they were observed bears noting. To reduce a very complex code to its essentials, Jews are bound by the laws of kosher, first, not to eat or touch what has been proscribed as “unclean”, and second, amongst the licit foods, not to combine meat with anything made from milk. To comply with the latter requires that every Jewish household possess two sets of dishes, cutlery, and cooking utensils, and that they be fastidiously segregated against mutual contamination. But in the kitchens of my friends and relatives in the Manor, as in most modern Jewish communities, one is struck by a clever improvisational novelty. Jews are as fond of lobster, spare ribs, bacon, and especially Chinese food as any other prosperous people. The solution? Eat them out, in a restaurant (the traditional occasion is Sunday night, when the uxorial chef gets her day off); or if you must bring them into the house, keep a third set of dishes. Apparently the stomachs of Jews can be insulted so long as the china remains undefiled. I know that trimming is a specialty of hypocrites of every religion on earth. But that Jews should have more regard for the purity of their kitchen cupboards than the temples of their souls strikes me as perfectly emblematic of the externality of the modern Jewish outlook, just as, two thousand years ago, the Pharisees’ outward piety of gesture struck St. Paul.

 

Laws, in any case, do not make a religion. A philosophy, perhaps; but no philosophy I know of has been capable of instilling in men the conviction that their eternal souls have been saved and their lives transformed through an experience of the transcendent. To be sure, modern-day Christian “searchers after the historical Jesus” are no less oblivious to this truism than Jews. If the “historical Jesus” had been deemed no more than an enlightened social critic or moral sage, and not also the living God in whose Passion, Resurrection, and apotheosis all men might participate, He would have had no greater claim upon the religious imagination than Hammurabi, Pythagoras, or Gandhi.

When I was growing up in the Manor, I had hoped to discover some evidence of a transformative encounter with the Divine amongst the friends and relatives who had so fiercely identified themselves as Jews. I was disappointed. Their lives seemed to me as banal, their preoccupations as neurotic, and their happiness as fragile as those of the most hedonistic pagans or rootless atheists. It was in university that I learned that any awareness of a dimension of being that transcends the world and time was simply unavailable to them, even if it was something to which they aspired, and for which they had the spiritual aptitude. Judaism has no interest in it. In fact, Judaism has always regarded such interest as arid speculation.

During my undergraduate studies of ancient religion, I grew to suspect increasingly that Judaism had no theology. I dismissed this suspicion as the product of scholarly immaturity. After all, a religion without a theology, I thought, is like champagne without the alcohol: it may quench the thirst of the flesh, but the spirit craves stronger stuff. Then, while taking a third-year course on the early literature of the Old Testament, I read the following passage in an authoritative book on Judaism by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg (of Columbia University and Temple Emanu-el, Englewood New Jersey):

The Jewish ideas of God, Torah, and the people of Israel, as well as the lesser but quite important doctrine of the Holy Land, do not represent a catechism or a theology, for there is none such in Judaism. They are the lasting values, areas of concern, foci, or problems (call them what you will) around which the mass of Jewish…thought through the ages has organized itself.

In place of a theology, in Rabbi Hertzberg’s view, Judaism has “values”; and I am inclined to agree with him. For once, that empty and over-used word seems appropriate.

 

Nothing better illustrates the theological poverty of Judaism (and its purposefulness) than its doctrine (lack of doctrine) of the afterlife. Here is the Torah’s teaching on the subject as summarized by another respected scholar, Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein:

Promises of reward, primarily temporal and national, are made for obedience, as part of the divine justice which is to distribute to each according to his deserts. No specific mention is made of reward and punishment after death.…Scripture…found it necessary to cast a veil over the whole question of survival beyond the grave, in order to wean people away from the idolatrous cult of the dead with which this belief was at that time associated.

Once again, the pagan temptation is dispositive. No doctrine of the soul’s survival, lest possessing one the Jews are befouled by the superstitions of the unclean and go whoring after foreign gods.

 

My own reading of the Old Testament is only slightly more consoling. Job’s nihilism, certainly, is complete: “man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up; So man lieth down and riseth not….” Throughout Isaiah, Ezekiel, the sapiential literature, and especially Psalms, there are references to Sheol as the abode of departed spirits. But Sheol is exactly like Achilles’ Hades: a place of strengthless wraiths and shadows. “In death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol, who can give you praise?” “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol…”

Rather than in a metaphysical heaven or hell, Jewish eschatological hopes have been invested in the myth of the Kingdom of God, to be ushered in by the coming of the Messiah. But once again, the Kingdom is unambiguously terrestrial and political in conception. It is to be preceded by the General Resurrection (in the body, of course) and the Judgment wherein, depending on God’s sectarian temperature, either all of the nations or those of the nations who still deny the One God are to be eternally damned. For the people of Israel, the Kingdom is to be raised here on earth, by human hands, as a monument to Judaism’s faith in the ultimate perfectability of mankind. The Messiah, accordingly, will be neither a god nor demi-god, but a political leader (on the Mosaic-Davidic model) who will repatriate Israel to her ancient homeland, and through her ingathering and elevation to the former glory of the Davidic golden age, bring about the moral and spiritual reclamation of all of humankind. Thereafter, the One True God will be worshiped and the One True Religion observed by all the nations of the world. Then, the divine purpose of the God of History will be fulfilled.

Of the Heavenly Kingdom to which the Earthly is a prelude, there is nothing to say. As Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, quoting Rabbi Johann, writes in the Talmud: “All of the prophecies of consolation and of good things to come delivered by the prophets apply only to the days of the Messiah, but as for the world to come, no eye has even seen, O God, only You have seen.” (Berakhot, 34b)

That the Heavenly Kingdom is but a nebulous afterthought to the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth demonstrates that even unto the end of time, Judaism is a “faith” whose focus remains determinedly socio-political and this-worldly. Such, as Rabbi Epstein writes, is nothing less than its defining nature:

The kingdom of God, in its terrestrial and social setting, provides the key to the understanding of Judaism in all its varied manifestations, and, indeed, the solution to the riddle of the existence of the Jewish people…No people has suffered more cruelly from ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ than have the Jews, but they have refused to despair…of the world…, and never gave up the belief in man’s ultimate regeneration and perfection. This belief…is a genuine historical tradition, based on the conviction that this is God’s world chosen by Him to become the scene of a divine order wherein goodness and truth are to reign supreme.

And how, again, will this regeneration take place, and what will be the Jews’ role in it?

At the highest the Messiah is but a mortal leader who will be instrumental in fully rehabilitating Israel in its ancient homeland, and through a restored Israel bring about the moral and spiritual regeneration of the whole of humanity.

Israel is thus not the subject but the agent of God’s redemptive activity. She is, as the Prophet calls her, the “light unto the nations”. It is the “nations”, pre-eminently, who are in need of redemption. And this miracle will occur once the Jews have been re-established in the land they had conquered and briefly occupied beginning in the eleventh century B.C.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *