Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Scripture Says

It is interesting to see how the various religions lead in an almost natural way to different visions of the future. I want to say that Jews and Christians have different attitudes toward the meaning of the current turmoil in the Middle East because each community looks at a different book in the Bible as being paradigmatic. In the case of Jews, I believe that the core text is the scroll we read on Purim, the Book of Esther, whereas for Christians, the book of Daniel has a greater influence. Both books occur after the destruction of the First Temple, in a world in where there are empires and where Jews are an identifiable and vulnerable minority.

Following the insights of Jack Miles, I would say that in the Book of Esther, though the Jews are hated by some, they survive because they are willing to take risks for one another, are skillful in winning support from a powerful sovereign, and have a strategy how to deal with a potentially dangerous course of events. As is well known, God is not mentioned in the book neither by Esther nor Mordecai, nor are Jews ever referred to other than as an ethnic group. When the decree of extermination is announced, Mordecai and the Jews go into mourning. There’s no mention of anyone praying to God. In the beginning of the Bible when Pharaoh was about to exterminate the Israelites, they consciously cried out to God and asked for His help. This time around nobody expects God to do anything. They rescue themselves by their own courage and resourcefulness. (It’s interesting to note that in the Septuagint translation of and additions to Esther, as well as in the comparable books of Tobit and Judith, there are numerous appeals to God. All these books have been excluded from the Jewish cannon. Unless one believes cannonization was not a deliberate, purposeful process, we must conclude it is no accident that the more pious books were excluded.) Esther is the first book that continues the historical narrative that ended at Kings II. For the first time, the people of Israel are called Jews. They are the same people as the Israelites, but in this narrative they are not waiting on God for redemption. The message of the book is that although the world is hostile, with courage and talent and a little mazal, one can make a go of it. There is no book in the Bible that is a better example of what it is to be a secular Zionist in a world where the signs of redemption are far from clear.

The book of Daniel is more typically Jewish because it has a much greater sense of history and contains the expectation of divine help. In the second half of the book, there are these apocalyptic and eschatological visions of the rise and fall of various kingdoms, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and maybe even Rome. Victory is still assured to the righteous, but it’s going to be a long process and in the interim there’s going to be much woe and tribulations. Until that time, it is important to have a map of how history will unfold. Here, the immediate agents of change are the angels in heaven, Gabriel and Michael. It is to them that Daniel appeals for understanding. Here Daniel is not an agent in history but an outside observer of history.

“I heard and did not understand, so I said, “My lord [Gabriel], what will be the outcome of these things?” He said, “Go, Daniel, for these words are secret and sealed to the time of the end. Many will be purified and purged and refined; the wicked will act wickedly and none of the wicked will understand; but the knowledgeable will understand.” (12:8-10)

There is a straight line between the apocalyptic visions in the book of Daniel and the Armageddon of the Book of Revelation. In contrast Jews have traditionally taken the latter half of Daniel as containing esoteric secrets, and not as a guide to modern history. Both the book of Daniel as well as its successors gives the reader the sense that the eschatological events will be so overwhelming, the forces and powers so great that there is little for the individual to do but pray, and trust that heaven will protect the righteous.

And that is my devar (thought about) Torah for today.

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