Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sanhedrin - 1: Paul - 0

There was a conflict of interest at the dawn of the destruction of the Second Temple; should people practice Judaism, which is exclusionary, or should they defer to Christianity, which is all-encompassing, allowing all those who have faith to join together?

The answer is interesting and simple; when Jews live as a minority and are being threatened, they seek to bring Judaism into the mainstream consciousness as to gain favor in the eyes of the powerful and numerous population of which hosts them. This is what a group that survives must do to continue surviving; those who favor biological explanations can see it as a biological function that allows for perpetuation.

When everybody feels threatened, the response level is macro, that is, everybody responds in one way or another to the imminent threat, and to the Jews living under the Roman occupation, the occupation itself and the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash were that threat to Jewish survival. There is no saying just how individuals will react in such a situation, which, like war, brings out from a human being previously unknown facets of behavior. The path taken by groups can be foretold with a certain degree of accuracy.

And it was in this context that Paul tried to bring Judaism to the Gentiles, not because he saw the Covenant that G-d made with the Jews as being exclusive and tribalistic, which is how Christian belief explains it, but because he was preparing, in his own way, for what he knew was coming up, the Jewish nation being faced with utter destruction, dispersal, oppression, and spiritual malaise. If he could make the Gentiles, the soon-to-be overlords of the Jews, find favor in Judaism, then by blending the communities and removing barriers he would have reduced the future threat that the Jews would have faced, for why would people want to harm themselves? In other words, by making Jews similar to Gentiles and Gentiles similar to Jews, he would save Jews, and in the meanwhile, a Gentile’s becoming more like a Jew is a clear step up from the paganism that Gentiles practiced. The key here is the word “similar,” which shares a root with “assimilate,” by making Jews and Gentiles similar to each other, by assimilating them to each other, he was trying, in his own wacky way, to ensure the physical survival of the Jews.

How did he do this? He tried to blend the theological and spiritual elements of Judaism with the various forms of polytheism in the Roman Empire, which is what, more or less, gave birth to the Trinity, a theological construct that recognizes the existence of the One G-d “of the Hebrews,” yet attributes to Him three separate, yet fully united characteristics, sometimes referred to as “persons,” one of them being a physical being. It is necessary to say that many of the polytheistic belief systems believed in this type of duality, or tertiarity, or the union of several separate beings enjoined as one and worshipped as thus; the Trinity cannot be both Judaism, both monotheistic and satisfactory to the Gentiles as the same time.

However, that wasn’t the only option; salvation to Jewish people came from the assembly of the Sanhedrin, who transferred the entire millennia-aged Jewish oral law into written form, the oral Torah, or the Mishnah, and therefore ensured the survival of the Jewish people. During the time when the Sanhedrin was standing and the Temple was in existence, Jews, common and high, would go to the Sanhedrin to deal with issues of Jewish law. When the Temple was destroyed, the Sanhedrin was dissolved and dispersed, so the men of the Sanhedrin wrote down the entire law so that every Jew could then refer to it on his and her own, making it a part of their lives without a leadership that would bring it to them. Not by morphing Judaism into a sacrosanct alliance with polytheism was the Jewish nation to survive, but by a privatization of Jewish law, by putting it into the hands of the very Jewish people that were supposed to live by it, but introducing the concept of self rule when there was no central rulership and when the Roman occupation saw to it that there was no centralized Jewish authority. In other words, every individual Jew was subject to the Torah’s law on his or her own accord and by their own will and desire to put themselves in contact with Jewish law. It was a test that we, thanks to G-d and the Sanhedrin, passed and therefore survived.

Concerning the Gentiles, the Oral Law prescribed the Seven Laws of Noach, or the Noachide laws, which were a set of monotheistic instructions for the nations. Everything that exists in the Oral Law goes back to the beginning of the Jewish nation at Mt. Sinai, including the way in which Gentiles are to live their lives out in a G-dly manner. The truth about the Noachide laws, however, is that they pre-date the 613 commandments given to the Jews, as the Talmud ascribes them to be given to Noah and his family after the occurrence of the flood.

Now there was a conflict of interest; did Gentiles have to follow the Noachide laws, the seven basic monotheistic ethical laws, or could they accept Paul’s vision of a utopian amalgamation of Judaism and various forms of polytheism that would “bring them into the fold” of the Covenant, to “graft them” into it, as the Christian Bible reads? The Gentile followers of Paul now began seeing the Judaism from whence their new religion came as an exclusionary, tribalistic way of life, having never practiced it or being introduced to its internal workings, which made Paul’s urgings easy to believe. Paul, of course, had inside knowledge about Judaism and the way it functioned, and even though he tried to channel the Gentiles in a specific manner, the nature of all movements is to morph and change, and the Gentiles that became known as “Christians” were not fully united under Paul’s vision in the way that he hoped they would be, and created their own leadership and institutions, especially after he died. The Noachide laws were not to replace Judaism as such, but to exist alongside Judaism, a proposed harmony between Jew and Gentile under G-d. The movement started by Paul, due to the fact that it existed in contrast to Judaism’s “exclusionism,” had no other direction to take than to move towards a theology of replacement of Judaism (this is the same as Islam’s view of Judaism, but not the same as Islam’s view of Christianity, which understands that it was inclusive, but corrupted, unlike Judaism, which was both exclusive and corrupted).

The real question that has to be asked is of utmost importance; what is more important for Jewish survival, quantity (ensuring continuity) or quality (Judaism in a true form), or is the point so essential that survival itself outranks all other matters? In other words, is survival in any form more important than the number of Jews who continue to associate, or more important than the way in which the Jews believe and practice, i.e., in line with the essential standpoints of the Torah? When survival and continuity are threatened, is it justifiable to say that Jews should continue to exist in any way possible just so that they continue to exist?

The answer, of course, is "yes," but only if we presuppose that the threat is so powerful that we will have to stray from our roots in order to survive. In other words, this view insists that there is no way to both maintain the true form of Judaism and the continuation of Judaism - that either one gives or the other. In other words, we can deduce that his intentions were good, but largely motivated by the fear and anxiety that the body of the Jews would be attacked (that is, physically) if we didn't begin to assimilate more with other people. However, he had to convince the Gentiles to join, and telling them that Jews and Gentiles have to form one contiguous community in order to ensure Jewish continuity would be rediculous and unacceptable to them. Instead, he had to genuinely convince them of the theological motives of such a communal and social alliance, hence the watering down of Judaism and its subsequent "mainstreaming." Paul tried to Judaize the Gentiles, whom were polytheists before they accepted the religion of Christianity.

But is survival not more important than form? Of course it is, but again, even if such a movement suceeds in ensuring survival, the mixing of Judaism and various forms of polytheism would also cause Judaism to disappear, only over a longer period of time. The strangest irony of this matter is that the movement might protect Judaism, but only temporarily, and eventually it and polytheistic religions would bleed into each other, and all those Jews that were a part of this movement would have disappeared as well.

The answer remains then, in no different way then than now, the only real way to ensure the continuity of Judaism is to be true to the way the Torah explains that it should be carried out. As we see today, the only Jews that are identifiable as Jews today are those that didn't become a part of the Jesus movement (the movement that Paul advanced) - be they Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, atheist, or agnostic; even though they are different, they all identify as Jews. Eventually, his movement became Christianity; the Jews that joined it didn't remain Jews, which would have been to Paul's dismay were he alive when they began being called "Christians," and Christians eventually began persecuting Jews, and we all know where that led to.

The answer is that Paul's movement had nothing on the Sanhedrin, whom, along with arranging the Oral Law into Written form (Talmud), composed the Amidah prayer, also known as the Shmonah Esrei, recited daily in Jewish services. Their efforts directly and successfully led to the continuation of the Jewish people, and it is fair to say that they are heroes when it comes to acting selflessly for their fellow Jews.