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 On Jewish Culture and Jewish Secularism (BY YEHUDA BAUER)

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PostSubject: On Jewish Culture and Jewish Secularism (BY YEHUDA BAUER)   Tue Oct 09, 2012 3:37 pm

Acentral problemwith discussions on Judaism, Jewishness, and
the future of the Jewish people is the lack of clarity involved.
What, exactly, does one mean by these terms?
Many Jews, if notmost, confuse Judaismwith the Jewish religion. But
Judaism is not a religion, per se; it is much more than that. Judaism is a
culture and a civilization, one that spans everything produced by Jews in
a direct or indirect connection with what they inherited from their past.
This becomes obvious when we examine the development of Jewish religion
as one aspect of broader Jewish culture.
Jewishmonotheismdeveloped gradually, as these things do.We know
for certain that most of the five books of Moses were written during the
Babylonian exile or afterwards, and we know that the core dates from the
7th century BCE. (We know this on the basis of more ancient texts and
traditions, some of them, as their language attests, dating fromas early as
the 9th or 10th centuries BCE.) And one can argue that the creation
myth—as well as the legends about the flood, Abraham, Moses, and
Sinai—either have some real historic kernel or reflect a logical understanding
of the world as it actually is.
Take, for example, the story of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve of
course never existed; as DNA probes have shown, we are all descendants
of a group of homo sapiens who roamed the savannahs of East Africa between
500,000 and 200,000 years ago. But the story reflects the
understanding that there is only one human race, and that all humans are,
basically, related to each other. Although the story makes no sense when
taken literally, it does, seemingly, contain a hidden meaning, because it is
the woman who is the source of all knowledge—Eve ate from the tree of
knowledge, and Adam received the apple from her.
The story of the flood, too, has a historical basis: some 5,600 years
BCE, theMediterranean burst into a very large sweetwater lake which then
became the Black Sea. This natural catastrophe, probably caused by a very
major earthquake or similar natural disaster, caused a very major flood
in the regions now bordering the Black Sea. (Ararat, after all, is located
exactly there.) The story of the Flood is found in ancient Mesopotamian
legends, and elsewhere as well. Similarly, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did
not exist as flesh-and-blood individuals, but the ancient Hebrews (or
Israelites) were Canaanites, and spoke the same language (more or less) as
the other Canaanites, the Ammonites, theMoabites, and the Phoenicians.
All of whomwere part of the Aramean incursion into theMideast region,
fromthe Arabian peninsula,which was drying up about 1,100 years BCE.
The ancient Hebrews knew all of this, and called
Abraham an Aramean (Aramean, of course, was the
lingua franca of theMiddle East, and is the language of
the Talmud). There clearly was no Exodus fromEgypt,
but the legend has a factual basis nevertheless: in the
17th century BCE there were, apparently, droughts in
Canaan (reflected in the Bible), and a coalition of
Canaanite tribes invaded Egypt.
The Egyptians called these tribes the Hyksos, and
they ruled Egypt for two hundred years, until 1580
BCE. One of the major pharaohs of that period was
named Yakov. In the end, the Egyptians rebelled and
reconquered their country, driving the Hyksos out,
into the Sinai and beyond. In 1650 BCE the volcano
island of Santorini in the Aegean exploded, and created
a natural disaster of tremendous proportions,
with a huge tsunami. These events seem to be the
source of the legends about the Exodus, which is supposed
to have taken place at some time in the 13th
century BCE; they were written down centuries later
than that. A similar interpretation may perhaps work
regarding Moses and Sinai. As many have noted,
Moses (Mses) was the name of a pharaonic family
(Ra-mses, with the god Ra and the family name after
it; or Tut-mses [Tutmosis]).
The personal details about his life are vivid, and
the date of the first documents about himmay be from
an early date, so that itmay well be that we are dealing
with a historical personage. The story about the ten
tablets and the Sinai mountain is obviously a legend,
but again, it is quite possible that there is some grain
of historical facticity about it.
An inscription found in Ajjur mentions the god
Jehovah and his consort, the goddess Ashera, and there
may have been a group of Canaanites wandering in
the desert who are the source for the legend. Archeologists
tell us that the Israelite tribes were most
probably descendants of inhabitants of Canaanite
cities who fled into the then thickly forested mountains
of the Galilee, Samaria, possibly because of the
heavy hand of the cities’ rulers and of the nomadic
tribes in the region of Judea.
It is not impossible that they were joined by those
desert wanderers, who were decisively influenced by
Egyptian culture. In fact, the first chapter of Judges
(Shoftim) tells us of the entrance of these people into
Canaan fromthe south, and not fromthe east, as later
legends would have it. These later legends are quite obviously
constructed—for instance, the famous walls of
Jericho did not exist, as Jericho did not have any walls
for hundreds of years before and after they supposedly
fell to Joshua. Joshua is supposed to have destroyed the
city of Ai, but Ai had been a ruin for hundreds of years
before that. There had been a city by that name, and
the memory must have lingered. The Judges are, yet
again, dimlegendary figures, but latermemory did not
just invent them—there is no extra-biblical evidence
for their existence, but people like that are probably
not just a construct. David, we know for sure, is a historical
figure. Solomon (Shlomo) has no existence
outside the Bible, but while the stories about himcontain
a lot of fantasies, they seem to have a believable
historical basis. It is he who is credited with building
the Temple, which, as the Book of Kings tells us,1 in- cluded a statue of the goddess Ashera. Solomon himself
built temples for other gods, too.2
In the kingdom of Israel, king Jeroboam
(Yarov’am) worshipped the golden calf.3 Judean King
Menashe (Manasse) “placed the statue of the Ashera
which he [had caused to be] made in the house that
Jehovah had said to David and to Solomon, his son,
in this house and in Jerusalem which I had chosen of
all the tribes of Israel I shall put my name forever.”4
By the way,Menashe, who “did evil in the eyes of
the Lord,” ruled for fifty-five years, and there was
peace and quiet in the land. When kings that did
“right in the eyes of the Lord” ruled, they usually
caused disasters and destruction. Biblical and postbiblical
Judaismdid not conclude fromthat that it was
not a very good idea to do the “right,” or that God was
not particularly reliable when it came to looking after
“his” Jews. This became fairly obvious a few thousand
years later, in the Holocaust.
So, Jews were polytheists, like almost everyone
else, and only slowly did the adherents of Jehovah win
the struggle against the other gods. Jehovah is worshipped
by the “true” prophets, as opposed to the
“false” ones. One can imagine that the “false” ones
thought of themselves as the true ones, but the priests
of Jehovah did not put down for us what the others
had to say. As to history—the further forward we go,
the more historically reliable the story becomes: the
names of the Judean and Israelite kings are without
doubt the names of real rulers; victories (that were exaggerated)
and defeats (that were underrated) really
happened—for some of them we have external, nonbiblical
Onemight add that it is precisely in antiquity that
the belief in God or gods was challenged by thinkers—
agnostics such as Socrates or Protagoras in Greece,
or outright deniers of a transcendental ruler such as
Lao-Tse in China or Siddharta Gautama (the Buddha)
in Nepal/India.
Why do I go into all this? In order to show that
the real culture and development of the Jewish
people is much more interesting and meaningful
than some Jews believe. These Jews are often the ones
who insist that the Bible (Tanakh) is an exact account
of what actually happened.
The truth, of course, is different. God, I would
conclude, is a wonderful human invention, a kind of
superman, really, endowed with human qualities. He
hears, he listens, he sees; he dictates writings; he is terrible
and cruel and vengeful; he is just, loving, and
caring.He has createdHeaven and Earth, and trillions
of stars, and he apparently cares very much whether
you have a coffee withmilk after your chicken, or not.
His presence explains away all difficulties and
solves all problems, and as we cannot really understand
him—another wonderful twist that stands in
stark contradiction to his (super)human qualities—
we have to accept any fate that he decrees.Without his
will nothing happens; we don’t know his thoughts or
his plans for us—our fates—and so whatever happens
Jews quarrel
incessantly about
of traditions;
that is what
I am doing
here too.
to us as individuals and communities is something we have to live with.
God is the literary hero of the Bible, and in that sense he exists, just
likeHamlet,Othello, the youngWerther, Tartuffe, or Don Quijote exist.
The legends themselves became facts that influence thinking and acting.
Thus, the story of the Exodus becomes a symbol of the struggle for freedom,
and the Bible has had a tremendous, universal influence,with the
symbol of the Exodus being accepted by many non-Jews as the banner
for their struggles—no matter what freedom they’re fighting for.
True, there are books in the biblical anthology (finalized about 200
BCE) that made it in despite their non-theistic or even atheistic character,
such as Ecclesiastes (Kohelet). Kohelet got in because its author
was clever enough to ascribe his “book” to King Solomon, although it
is perfectly clear that we are dealing with a Jewish adherent of Greek
philosophy,5 and the book was written,most probably, in the third century
BCE.Another example: the Book of Esther does notmention God
at all, because it is an allegory expressing the Jews’ fear of being annihilated,
most probably by the Greek Seleucid rulers of Syria, also in the
third century BCE.
The intention to annihilate the Jews is ascribed to the Persians,
whose empire had been destroyed by that time, and everyone knew that
what the Book (actually: scroll [Megillah]) says is an invention, because
everyone knew, of course, that the Persian Empire had been a solid
supporter of Jewish aspirations. Ahasuerus (Ahasver) is actually
a historic personality—namely Xerxes6—and he was a friend of the
Judean Jews.
It was safe in the third pre-Christian century to accuse an Empire
that no longer existed, rather than the real culprit, the Seleucids. The
Persians supposedly attacked the Jews “because they do not follow the
customs of the king” (einam ossim et datei hamelech), a first literary
analysis of what we inaccurately call antisemitism.None of this has anything
to do with God.
A particularly thorny problem is the Book of Job (“Iyov,” Hiob),
which is the Hebrew version of aMideasternmyth that one can find in
ancient Mesopotamian literature. The problem is: it was not invented
by Jews. Job is the pawn of an argument between God and Satan (which
turns Judaisminto a polytheistic faith, with two opposing gods, a good
one and an evil one). His family is killed because of, not despite, his
righteousness, and he himself undergoes terrible tortures at the hand of
Satan, with God’s full agreement.At the end,God is very nice to himand
provides himwith another wife and children. In other words, our won-
derful God is the murderer of an innocent woman and her children.
The most ardent atheist could not have written a more damning
account of the deity.
The other books of the Bible deal with what we would today call
secular subjects: relations between people and ethnicities, contemporary
political issues (as in the Prophets), and so on—everything, of
course, in the name of God. The same basically holds true of the
Mishnah and the Talmud, and their later commentators.
God is present everywhere, in the background mostly, but the
themes in these writings are those of a living civilization: economic
issues; social relations; relations with non-Jews; personal, family and
sexual issues—etc. However, one should emphasize that during the
Hellenistic and Roman periods, when the Mishna and the Talmud
were written, the pluralism that was always present in Jewish history
was expressed in themultiplicity of Jewish beliefs: the official Saduccees,
the opposition Pharisees, the Essenes, and many other Jewish sects.
The Talmud itself was written differently in Babylon (Babylonian
Talmud) and in Jerusalem (Jerusalem Talmud). Polytheistic
influences returned to become part of the religion—the Shechinah
(God’s emanation), and Lilith, the evil spirit, are really goddesses that
accompany Jehovah, quite apart from Satan, the evil god. Angels are
born:Matatron,Gabriel, etc.Afterlife, that is Heaven and Hell,which
were quite absent from the Bible, now make their appearance (in the
Bible,“gehenna,”“gehinom,” i.e.Gei Ben-Hinom,was simply the gully
below the walls of Jerusalemwhere people threw their sewage. In late
usage, that became Hell).
The argument, therefore, is that Jewish civilization certainly
included “religion,”which developed into themonotheismthat
we all know, but that it was much, much broader than that.7 One of
themain characteristics of Jewish civilization is that itsmain internal
motive force was—and is—frequent violent controversy. What defines
the Jews is that they are a people that quarrel incessantly about
different interpretations of the same traditions.
This is what I am doing here, too. It is that essential quality of
pluralism, of incessant questioning, arguing, and correcting, that
keeps the Jewish people alive.Were it not for that, it would have ossified
long ago and passed into history.

Source: http://culturaljudaism.org
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