You May Care When I’m Arrogant

One reason Rachel Barenblat’s sermon resonates with me is this: I’ve been in very recent need of forgiveness, again.

I’ve been arrogant, arguing ironically with a facebook friend in the audience of our overlapping circles of fb friends. (You may care to see that irony if you keep reading.) “But he started it,” I rationalize to myself. “And what arrogance.”  He wrote:

What sets Christianity apart from all other religions? The Atonement: “When WE WERE ENEMIES, we were RECONCILED to God by the death of His Son”-Romans 5:10.

So I wrote:

Don’t forget Yom Kippur.

http://www.dstoekl.webs.com/reviews_digest.html

Then he wrote some other, sharper things, on the theological divide between Christianity and Judaism. Then I wrote how Jewish Christianity really is (except among arrogant Western Christians); that parenthetical exceptional comment was just my thought bubble (but I think he and our fb friends reading saw it anyway). Then he wrote how Christianity “fulfilled” the “Old Testament” but that “Messianic Jews” can still practice Yom Kippur if they like. Then I shot back the main points and the summary argument of historian Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra (as in his carefully researched essay “‘Christians’ Observing ‘Jewish’ Festivals of Autumn” in Peter J. Tomson’s and Doris Lambers-Petry’s Image of the Judaeo-Christians in Ancient Jewish & Christian Literature, which I linked to at amazon.com as if he didn’t have it but needed to buy it and of course to read it); that parenthetical bit was no thought bubble. When did Jesus-followers stop observing Yom Kippur? was my rhetorical question. (Recently, relatively speaking, is Stökl Ben Ezra’s answer). But when would I stop with my arrogance? was the question I needed asking. He retorted with another point (and a kind gesture, a statement acknowledging my sharp points made, saying “I just wasn’t speaking of those. No harm done though!”).

“No harm done though!” What kind of kindness is that? But the statement kept resonating somewhere in me. And then my best friend, who’s also one of our mutual friends on fb, asked me face to face, “What are you hoping to do with that fb conversation?” “What” indeed?! And like a pin pricking an overstuffed waterballoon, his statement (or was it her question?) made me care that I was arrogant. I could now see how I was. “Forgive me,” I asked him in a private fb email, after deleting my puffed-up comments. And I just got his answer, just now: “yes.” More than that, he asked for mine, and, well, of course, of course. The lines drawn now, the separation, gets blurred (if not in the way, the arrogant self-important way, I was at first pushing for) now: forgiveness again

Advertisements

19 responses to “You May Care When I’m Arrogant

  1. I think your friend was right and you were mistaken in the following way: although Yom haKippurim is translated as the “Day of Atonement” in the KJV, that is not what the Hebrew phrase actually means. Leviticus 16:30 defines the term chappeir: “For on this day, you will be chappeir, to cleans you of all sins, before the Lord you shall be cleansed.” And if you look at chappeir in Leviticus 16, you will see that it clearly means “cleaning” — Aaron is commanded to chappeir the holy spaces, the tabernacle, and the altar from the impurities of the people.

    Atonement, it seems to me, is something that Christianity did bring to the table — the idea that reconciliation between God and humanity comes through Jesus and only through Jesus — that Jesus provides “at-one-ment.” The notion of sacrifice is of course an ancient one (and well attested to in the Bible — e.g., the scapegoat or the sacrifice of Isaac), but that isn’t all that’s going on here — Jesus in his human form acts as a mediator between humanity and God. I just don’t think that idea is found in Hebrew Bible (despite the many messianic references) or in the traditional understanding of Yom Kippur.

    Yom Kippur it seems to me is about cleansing, and about return to God (teshuvah). Christianity is about reconciliation to God (as per your friend’s quote), which is somewhat related, but in the end, a different notion. At a deep level, at least in the mystical Jewish view, each person carries within them a spark of holiness — the breath of God (Genesis 2:6-7) so “at-one-ment” is not necessary — we are all already at one with God. What is needed is to purify our souls and rededicate ourselves to making our lives holy.

    I hope that in the coming year, you and your family are inscribed for blessings in the Book of Life.

  2. And lest you think that cleansing/forgiveness are limited only to the “chosen people”, remember the words of Numbers 15:26: And it shall be forgiven all the congregation of the children of Israel, and the stranger that sojourneth among them; seeing all the people were in ignorance.

  3. … and the stranger that sojourneth among them… I hope that in the coming year, you and your family are inscribed for blessings in the Book of Life.

    Theophrastus,
    I’m deeply touched by your words!

    (And, as much, I’m grateful for the careful distinctions you’ve made here.

    In my arrogance, I tend to bristle when lines are drawn, nonetheless. I’ll often judge the ones pointing out divisions as trying to promote and perpetuate them, as being divisive dividers themselves. That’s why I tend more to enjoy the ambiguity, the wordplay, and the humility of people like Rachel Barenblat, who write from positions marginalized by the dominant divisions. Appeal to history — as fact — as Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra does, and as you do, really does help us all, I think.

    And yet, I also believe that the words you’re re-inscribing with their historical readings aren’t necessarily so fast, so stuck in “one” interpretation. Now, I’m playing with your “at-one-ment.” Now, let me ask questions, won’t you? I’m at this point curious about the Hebrew phrases.

    Please, let’s back up. Before we come to Paul and his Greek letter to Romans (esp. 5:10) or to “Christianity” or to the KJV translation of Yom Kippur as the Day of “Atonement,” let’s look more at Leviticus. There is much divisive baggage in all of that. Too much for me, at this point.

    Nonetheless, you draw a line, a sharp distinction. You definitively say “that is not what the Hebrew phrase actually means. Leviticus 16:30 defines the term…. ”

    So please hear my questions. In Leviticus 16:30, isn’t the phrase כָּפַר? Now, should we call that so different from כִּפֻּר? No, it’s actually very subtle if a difference of sound causing a difference of meaning in some significant way. No? In Leviticus 16:30, the one phrase “clearly means ‘cleaning’.”

    But what, in Leviticus 23:27, 23:28, and 25:9, does the other phrase mean? And I’m asking about the other phrase: כִּפֻּר. Is there an additional, an expanded, perhaps a prior and overlapping meaning of this other phrase in Exodus 29:36, 30:10, and 30:16? And isn’t that other phrase with these wider meanings [i.e., more than just a cleaning)] now more sustained and expanded in Numbers 5:8 and 29:11? [The LXX, as you know, erases the difference with ἐξιλάσεται for Leviticus 16:30, using τούτου ἡμέρα ἐξιλασμοῦ and τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ταύτῃ ἔστιν γὰρ ἡμέρα ἐξιλασμοῦ if τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τοῦ ἱλασμοῦ in Leviticus 23:27, 23:28, and 25:9]. You see my questions, don’t you?

    Exodus and Numbers have the specific Hebrew phrase used for the “Day” as the word for what you more generally identify with the ancient concept of “scapegoat” and of “sacrifice” [especially with the money reference in Exodus 30:16]. Isn’t this “kippur”? Can’t we call this “atonement”? Is this cleaning?)

  4. Well, there are no vowels in the Torah scroll — the vowel pointing is an oral (“masoretic”) tradition.

    If you are asking if there is more than one interpretation possible — the answer is certainly yes. But I’m pretty sure my interpretation is closer to the original sense of the authorship, while the “at-one-ment” is a later reading influenced by Christian ideas (although there were some post-Christian Jewish interpretations clearly influenced by medieval Judaism’s interaction with Christianity).

    • Thanks again, Theophrastus. You’ve helped me see clearly and appreciate more your interpretation, especially in light of the various readings through history.

      How do you like Robert Alter’s perpetual use of atonement in translating Leviticus? And what do you think of Everett Fox’s similar use?

      I know Alter (if not Fox so much) looks to KJV as a wonderful literary achievement (and perhaps Alter likes the KJV marginal note at Job 33:24, “I haue found a ransome [marg. atonement]” — I myself have found this little marginal note in the OED, but do see what you’ve said in another comment on another post here about King James forbidding interpolated commentary. Is this OED reference to some later edition?).

      For his own translation, Alter has said he looks not only to the Greek of the LXX (which seems to me to leave ambiguous the “at-one-ment” concept) but also to the MT (which may, by the late-added vowels, make some contrasts). Does any of this justify Alter’s making his Five Books of Moses read in such a perhaps-Christian or Christian-influenced way, with Alter’s “atonement” and “Day of Atonement” in the various scripture verses I referenced in my previous comment?

      At Leviticus 15:6, Alter gives this note:

      6. atone. The verb kiper, as Jacob Milgrom explains, seems to derive from the concrete norion of rubbing clean. In the cultic lexicon, it has the abstract–indeed, theological–sense of effecting atonement or expiation. When it is applied to persons, it is followed either by the preposition be’ad (“for”) or ‘al (literally “on,” “over”). When it is applied to things (see verse 33) it is followed by the noun as directo object, which has led some interpreters to render it as “purge” in such cases.

      At 16:16, Alter goes further:

      16. he shall atone over the sacred zone. This clause is the conceptual heart of the entire atonement ritual. During the year, the accumulated sins and transgressions and physical pathologies and inadvertencies of the Israelites have built up a kind of smog of pollution that threatens the sanctity of the Tent of Meeting and the Holy of Holies within it–by implication for later times, the sanctity of the Temple. This elaborate rite of purgation scrubs everything clean of impurity, making the sacred zone cultically viable for another year. Again, evidence abounds of annual rites for cleansing the temple in Mesopotamian culture that may well have served as precedent for what we have here. Later Jewish tradition would transform this ritual for the purgation of a physical miasma of pollution into a process of spiritual repentance and atonement.

      Seems that Alter is saying the influence toward “atonement” interpretations is “Jewish tradition” contra “Mesopostamian.” Is “later Jewish tradition” to Alter inclusive of the quite-late Christian influences?

      And now what about Everett Fox? Given your Mary-Daly-ish use of hyphens to point to the etymology of the word atonement (i.e., “at-one-ment”), I was curious whether Fox does this sort of specific play here (since he engages in etymological interpretations so much). More than that, I am fascinated that Fox, like Alter, seems to allow “atonement” and to promote “re-conciliation” and/or “re-pairing” as the interpretation.

      Fox does, in a heading at Leviticus 16, have “The Day of Purgation/ Atonement.” In the text of the scriptures itself Fox has “the Purgation-Cover” (in verse 2, which in a fn he explains from the “Heb. kapporet; as described in Ex. 25:17-22; the part of the Coffer or Ark which served as God’s ‘footstool,’ and the holiest object in the cult”); but then in Leviticus 23 thereafter, Fox always and only uses “the Day of Atonement” (and never in the text “the Day of Purgation/ Atonement.”

      What Fox seems to mean by “atonement” is already made clear in his introduction to Leviticus in a larger section “On Animal Sacrifice.” He writes (with my emphasis here on what he seems to see as a “primary” de-sign-ation for at-one-ment):

      A final type or function of sacrifice is atonement or expiation. Here a sin, communal or individual, is purged away by the act of sacrifice; the gods receive life as a substitute for the sinner’s own, which is symbolized by the victim’s blood. The fact that the animals permitted in the Bible for sacrifice are pastoral and hence frequently used metaphorically for the Israelites themselves, is significant in this regard. This approach is further illustrated in the Bible by the end of the Flood story, where God accepts Noah’s sacrifice, implying that he accepts animal lie (which now, simultaneous with properly offered sacrifice, is permissible for food) in place of that of humans (Eilberg-Schwartz). It should be noted that, in the Bible, sacrifice for the sake of atonement is almost always in reference to unintentional sins, whereas deliberate wrongdoing may not be atoned for through this system.

      Which of these rationales is truly at work in Levitical sacrifice? Actually, at various times one can find all of them–the texts present a variety of motives and occasions for sacrifice in biblical Israel, from thanksgiving to purification and reparation. But in general one may say of Israelite sacrifice, as one may say of much of the ritual in Leviticus, that it is designed primarily to maintain or repair the relationship between God and Israel. Such an understanding helps to explain the unity of the book, as we will see in our discussion of pollution: sacrifice was a crucial element in keeping the covenant, and hence God’s beneficent presence among the Israelites, intact.

  5. In my church tonight was made the bold statement that Jesus did not atone! The argument was made because in the Jewish scriptures “atonement” refers to the covering of sin, whereas Jesus removes sin entirely. So the “Jewish” meaning is still around, even if the “Christian” one is more pervasive.

    But it’s probably better to avoid the word altogether and use other less ambiguous language to avoid confusion.

  6. JK: Many points raised, let me deal with them quickly and hope I omit none:

    KJV does have (brief) translator notes, but they were not commentary in the sense of the Tyndale/Geneva/Rheims, but limited to explication of a specific word –much like modern notes in the RSV or NRSV.

    My use of “at-one-ment” merely follows Wycliffe/Tyndale’s usage and coining of the word — I am sure you saw OED note (and see the comment about 1611 Bible in particular):

    [f. the prec. advb. phr. in its combined form as repr. a simple idea, and 16th c. pronunciation. Short for the phrase ‘set or make at one’; cf. to back, to forward, to right, etc., and the compounds at-one-maker, at-one making, under prec. Assisted by the prior existence of the vb. to ONE = make one, put at one, unite, L. un{imac}re, F. unir; whence onement was used already by Wyclif. From the frequent phrases ‘set at one’ or ‘at onement,’ the combined atonement began to take the place of onement early in 16th c., and atone to supplant one vb. about 1550. Atone was not admitted into the Bible in 1611, though atonement had been in since Tindale.]

    So, here, I am just reminding you of the etymology of the word — not so Mary Daly-ish after all.

    Now I will turn to your quotations from Alter and Fox — and demonstrate that they agree with my interpretation.

    Regarding Uri (Robert) Alter’s interpretation — I think that Uri agrees with me. Let me repeat your quote:

    This elaborate rite of purgation scrubs everything clean of impurity, making the sacred zone cultically viable for another year. Again, evidence abounds of annual rites for cleansing the temple in Mesopotamian culture that may well have served as precedent for what we have here. Later Jewish tradition would transform this ritual for the purgation of a physical miasma of pollution into a process of spiritual repentance and atonement.

    Here, what he is saying is that the cleansing process is central — and that later Jewish tradition would transform cleaning into “atonement” — thus he is, as you will note, defining atonement in terms of cleansing. (Note also that it is linked to — but separate from — spiritual repentance). What Uri is not saying here is that expiation = atonement (much less that propitiation=atonement). That is clearly a notion that goes back to native Canaanite religions, and is also widely found in pagan religions outside the Middle East, including Greco-Roman mystery religions.

    That then leads me to your long quotation from Fox — which says just the same: that animal sacrifice played a role in atonement. This is clearly an element that existed in Israelite religion, but is distinct from the cleaning of an individual that occurred on Yom Kippur (the day of cleansing). Now, in fact, things are not quite as neat as I suggest (there was a special sacrifice on Yom Kippur), but ultimately Yom Kippur is about an internal spiritual cleansing. This is, of course, famously Isaiah’s point — merely fasting and going through the motions is not true cleansing, rather:

    Is such the fast I desire,
    A day for men to starve their bodies?
    Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
    And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
    Do you call that a fast,
    A day when the Lord is favorable?
    No, this is the fast I desire:
    To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
    And untie the cords of the yoke
    To let the oppressed go free;
    To break off every yoke.
    It is to share your bread with the hungry,
    And to take the wretched poor into your home;
    When you see the naked, to clothe him,
    And not to ignore your own kin.

    A mere fast, or a mere sacrifice does not chappeir — because chappeir relates to total cleaning — removal of spiritual pollution.

    Now, onto the trickier issue: the comparison with Christianity. It is clear from many references that propitiation is at the root of the later understanding of Christianity (but perhaps not the original Jesus movement — see Dunn’s new Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?). The symbol of Christianity is the execution of Jesus. Thus, we still have the idea from Judaism of cleansing but it is interlinked with propitiation: “The blood of Jesus Christ his son [chappeir] cleanseth us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7) — in sharp contrast to Isaiah’s comments above that requires changes internally and externally in addition to the cleansing fast. Isaiah in contrast talks about building up, building up a highway — clearing the road — removing all obstacles.

    Your friend’s comment was very insightful — he saw right to the difference between Jewish and Christian notions: in Judaism, the process is internal, a process of chappeir — and in Christianity, the process is external, atonement effected by the death of God’s son. (Your friend doubtlessly believes that humans are too tainted by sin to be connected with God except through the sacrifice and mediation of Jesus.)

    Now, again, there are different ways of interpreting — but I think that my way is correct (and, incidentally, normative). If you wish to see a much more sophisticated presentation, then I can recommend Rabbi Soloveitchik’s book.

  7. Hey, JK — stop moderating my comments!

    • Sorry about that, Theophrastus. It was wordpress that automatically moderated and, in fact, I only just now am back at WP today to find this. Haven’t even had a chance to read that comment or any other you or others have left recently. I do see that WP does always automatically moderate the first comment of every first-time commenter. I’m going to have to figure these bugs out. Won’t be able at this moment have any time to read or respond or reply adequately to anything. Please do understand, and thank you again as always for each and every one of your comments. Sincerely, J. K. Gayle

      PS. Please feel free to call me Kurk. It’s the nickname friends of mine use.

  8. To be absolutely clear (with reference to the point in my moderated comment): unlike what Uri is saying in his quote, in native Canaanite and Greco-Roman religions, expiation/propitiation was linked to atonement.

  9. And I hasten to add that not all versions of Judaism have freed themselves of animalistic imagery — thus the rather unpleasant spectacle of kapparos (and yes, it is derived from the same word — although it is a custom frowned on by most major Jewish thinkers — and yes, it is preceded by a reading of Job 33:23-24) or tashlich in which some believe that fish are necessary to carry the cast-off sins (note that Micah 7:9 mentions nothing about fish). These are real customs that exist, and they weaken my thesis, but I find these as human shortcomings in implementing the abstract philosophical ideas of chappeir — rather than being central in the way that Jesus’s crucifixion/propitiation is to Christianity.

  10. I mean Micah 7:19, of course.

  11. Dannii,

    You say, The argument was made because in the Jewish scriptures “atonement” refers to the covering of sin, whereas Jesus removes sin entirely. … But it’s probably better to avoid the word altogether and use other less ambiguous language to avoid confusion. It think it’s fascinating that you avoid the subject of the first sentence here and use passive voice to say, “The argument was made….” And then you advise avoiding the word “atonement” to avoid its ambiguity as if that’s confusing. I’m also fascinated by the fact that the one making this argument in your church is reversing, in some sense, much of what Theophrastus is declaring as “correct (and, incidentally, normative).”

    Theophrastus,
    Thanks very much for each of your comments! I’ve read and reread them. I’m off to the library this afternoon to check out Soloveitchik on Repentance by Pinchas Peli. (I’m not so liable to be convinced by what I’ve already read of James D. G. Dunn’s question and how he answers it in 176 pages). My blue-eyes post today is some a reply here to you on the issue of language being — not so much a map of how things are and were (i.e., “correct (and, incidentally, normative)” but, rather, much more — the construct of power. Yes, that’s a bit “post-modern” too.

    Nonetheless, I’m really very interested in your binaries: “1 John 1:7) — in sharp contrast to Isaiah’s … changes internally and externally in addition to the cleansing fast” and “in Judaism, the process is internal, a process of chappeir — and in Christianity, the process is external, atonement effected by the death of God’s son.” This is not the language, the duality, of all Christians, of course. Francis A. Schaeffer, in his first chapter of True Spirituality, for example, speaks of the external Decalogue being less basic and less transformative than the internal “Law and the Law of Love.” His calls this sort of spirituality Christianity, and Edith Schaeffer, along these lines says “Christianity is Jewish.” I understand this is getting a bit away from “at-one-ment”; I also know that the Schaeffer’s would see Jesus as the exclusive “at-one-ment.” But the distinctions between internal and external, Judaism and Christianity are not so sharp, fundamentally, for these two individuals. More recently, Dallas Willard takes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew as profoundly an internal teaching on “repentance” not unlike your characterization of Isaiah’s concept of internal cleaning with some external emphasis as well. (See The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God , where Willard also takes certain external Christianities to task: notably in his second chapter, “Gospels of Sin Management.”) The interesting thing for me here is not what the traditional divides have been but what the ancient perspectives (in language) will allow us today. I’m not wanting any one of us to ignore the stated separations. I would like us to consider, exactly, what’s inside the old language(s) profoundly. If we must insist on real difference, and agree on it; how’s this? Reality is one thing. Talked about reality is quite another.

    Let me hasten to add, Theophrastus, that I appreciate what you said in your most recent comment. It’s worth repeating:

    “These are real customs that exist, and they weaken my thesis, but I find these as human shortcomings in implementing the abstract philosophical ideas of chappeir — rather than being central in the way that Jesus’s crucifixion/propitiation is to Christianity.”

  12. J. Kurk —

    Well, of course, you are right — I painted my portrait in colors that were too strong — of course, there are both individuals and even denominations (Unitarians come to mind) who see things outside the narrow categories I described. Still — I was reacting to Christianity as summed up by your correspondent in your original post. I think I didn’t come too far from the mark of how he viewed Christianity.

    The interesting thing for me here is not what the traditional divides have been but what the ancient perspectives (in language) will allow us today.

    I’m not certain what you are getting at here. Are you writing midrash on the New Testament? Are you engaged in speculation about the “historical Jesus” (or “historical Paul”)? Or are you interested in finding proof-texts for your own take (or others’ take) on religion?

    I must say that for me, I’ve always that “historical Jesus” studies had a bit of the fraudulent about them. Consider, for example, Diarmaid McCullouch’s A History of Christianity — The First Three Thousand Years. (In the UK edition, the cover screams “Now a Major BBC TV Series.”) Now, he is as establishment “liberal Christian” as one can get — a Professor at Oxford, a leader of the Gay Christian Movement (and even an honorary secretary of the same) and nominated (declined) to the priesthood of the Church of England.

    As you can tell from the surprising number in his title, he considers Judaism to be subsumed into Christianity — so much so that he fully reads his Old Testament from Trinitarian eyes (claiming [p. 54], for example, that the formula “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” refers to three separate Gods until the burning bush established monotheism). Now, MacCulloch is certainly entitled to his own personal theology — but it is a bit too much for him to simply take this stand in a purportedly scholarly (secular) history book. Spare me from such liberals who would consider a Judaism as a defective form of Christianity — this is not the higher criticism but the higher anti-Semitism.

    I have to say that when I consider the flimsy ground that “historical Jesus” studies (liberal or conservative) stand on, and how often they are a chance to simply project one’s own theological biases onto the text, I don’t relish opening ancient texts at all.

    I would rather understand the history of how different people, different groups, have read these ancient texts. This reception history is quite empowering to me, because of course the texts accrue meanings with repeated readings over centuries. And if those readings (especially medieval readings) are often covered with a mystical patina, all the better — because what can be more mystical than believing in a Creator-God?

  13. Theophrastus,
    Last night I read Soloveitchik ON REPENTANCE and re-read some of it this morning. Thank you again. I want to come back to this book, perhaps in this comment. Let me first respond to your most recent comment here.

    Seems to me as if you and I aren’t very far apart at all. This assumes, of course, I understand where we both are in our thinking. Generally, my biggest concern is one of “epistemology” of what we know or think we know and how we know it. I am not much for dogmatism. So it startles me a bit when you ask:

    “Or are you interested in finding proof-texts for your own take (or others’ take) on religion?”

    “Well, No,” is always my near-automatic reaction now. But why? Why? With you, I don’t like when someone seems “to simply project one’s own theological biases onto the text.” Why do I so despise that? So I wonder too if I’m being as dogmatic, as backward in coming to evidence or to conclusions. Where do I draw the lines? I love D. A. Carson’s chapter title, “On Drawing Lines, When Drawing Lines is Rude” in a book I don’t particularly love at all, his reader-gagging book, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Culture. I really do think it’s where we find ourselves drawing lines that is important. How can we not draw lines? And don’t we draw them?

    Not long after I read Carson’s book, I was on campus here at Texas Christian University as a new hire. One of the professors in the Religion Department and I quickly became friends, and he invited me to give a brief lecture to the Department on “Language and Religion.” (The “Jesus Seminar” was scheduled the week before me, and this “historical Jesus” group has members, had more then, right here on campus at Brite Divinity School. So I figured they or those who liked their project might attend my lecture.) Now, I’m not a religionist. I gave my talk as a linguist, but I was trying to make epistemological comparisons between using language and doing religion. Knowing my audience, I opened asking for anyone in the crowd to give us all a count of the number of religions that there are. [[Silence.]] I then asked if someone would define what makes a religion a religion. [[more Silence…. so I waited.]] Finally a grad student joked, “I know THE answer.” [[Laughter…. more Silence.]] Then the professor of Islam spoke up in this crowd of mostly “Christians” of all stripes to explain how difficult it is to draw lines, to make definitions, that might exclude.

    My lecture was brief. I gave Chomsky’s definition of Language (as “human species” specific), gave the latest count of the number of languages, and tried to talk of language/ and of languages having — and needing — not only “radical relativism” but also “rigid restraints.” Afterwards, my friend, the senior professor of religion who’d invited me to speak evaluated. You’re lecture was fine, he said. “But,” he went on, “last summer I was in India. And I spoke with an elephant. Her name was Emily. She and I actually had a conversation through an interpreter. So, you see; you can’t draw the line of language to exclude non-homosapiens.” Theophrastus, my friend knew exactly what I was doing. He’d been a little insulted by my thesis, embarassed then that he’d invited me. He knew (because we talked a bit before and a good bit more afterward) that I saw the “historical Jesus” work to be ironically dogmatic. There is a sort of pretentious (pretending) openness in the work, “a bit of the fraudulent” as you put it.

    (I should quickly add here that I was never invited again to lecture. Despite that, we’ve remained friends, these particular ones in the university’s Religion Department and in the Divinity School and I. A couple of these friends, including the one inviting me to give the talk, are now sadly deceased. But another served on my dissertation committee and was, because of her expertise in Greek and the household codes of Mediterranean culture, a wonderful help to me as I was completing the doctorate in classical and feminist rhetorics here at this university.)

    Theophrastus, since you mention “universalism” also (you said “Unitarians”), I’ll agree that it’s not entirely wrong to speak of “historical Jesus” work when speaking of “universialist” Christianity. In fact, in the alumni magazine, I did just that in a letter to the editor, repeating the story of my lecture when responding to a universalist missionary’s front page article from the issue before. In one paragraph, I tried to keep things personal:

    Could a Christian deity be tricking all religious non-Christians into praying to him and thereby surreptitiously drawing them closer to him than many Christians? No, the trick is the Euro-centric construct of a small society of professors in North America.

    My non-Christian friends in Southeast Asia would find the Universalist meta-narrative suspect. My Christian friends are suspicious too. The Universalist excludes the views of many, many others by imposing an either-or choice: Either there’s a snobbish bigot of a God who “condemns the great majority of humankind to hell” just because they won’t buckle under and “believe in Jesus Christ”; or there’s a smiling wimp of a god who glosses over even the most heinous evil of the most wicked persons — especially if they’re a part of “a fast-growing religious community” of some sort — so that “absolutely no human being . . .is outside [this god’s] convenant.”

    (The editor gave my letter the header, “Good point (and pachyderm)” — a reference to “Emily the elephant” who makes language universal to all species. The original article was entitled, “Questioning faith .”)

    Forgive me for boring you with such stories. It’s the personal I’m interested in, person above logic, person above language, above religion.

    On page 307 of Dr. Peli’s publication of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teaching, I see something that seems very personal:

    “The human soul, born in God’s image, is fathomless and it contains in itself vast areas in which its sparks and particles can be dispersed so that ‘ingathering and concentration are necessary also with every individual, and this is the main point of the well-known phrase “the ingathering of the exiles,” and that is what is called repsentance “on low.”‘”

    Of course, here’s an analogy (a bringing together) of the individual human and God, of individuals and the “political-geographical… Jews.” And not but a couple of pages earlier, I’m grateful to see, the Rabbi has said: “A Russian physicist whom I met told me that the phenomenon which we are witnessing in the Soviet Union is actually not limited to Jews alone. Gentiles, too, are feeling a progressive asphyxiation there due to a lack of religious faith, as they are suspended in a limbo of godlessness from with there is no room for belief in the eternality of the soul. Man is seen as nothing but a mechanical cog, here one day and gone the next.”

    So there’s a bringing together, in the language of this Rabbi, the Jew and the Gentile. But, sharply, there’s also a division: that “lack” and “limbo” and “no room for belief.”

    I’m going on way too long here, but I am impressed with the various dimensions of “atonement” and of the “Day of Atonement” in the book, Theophrastus. There is what I’d call “radical relativism,” or “pluralities of possibility.” And, of course, there is also the Jewishness, the distinctiveness, the “rigid restraint” on what “Atonement” might be in this context. There are several definitions of “atonement” clearly given.

    The definitions, nevertheless, are not dogmatic. They do not divide. They don’t seem to seek or to promote division and divisions.

    And this sort of dogmatic divisiveness is what I was, in my own ironic arrogance, refuting. Why do I do that? How is it that my argument that atonement is Jewish and also Christian can be any better? How is one arrogance (i.e., his dogmatism) better than another (i.e., my refutation)?

    Am I to rid myself of bias? Of certain kinds of biases? Is it openness to mystery but only as the means to a certain knowledge? Isn’t there something and someone beyond me speaking? Won’t I do better if I listen? Just listen?

    You say something that I want to say. You said something I’d love to repeat here:

    I would rather understand the history of how different people, different groups, have read these ancient texts. This reception history is quite empowering to me, because of course the texts accrue meanings with repeated readings over centuries. And if those readings (especially medieval readings) are often covered with a mystical patina, all the better — because what can be more mystical than believing in a Creator-God?

    • And I did want to note how clearly Rabbi Soloveitchik discusses Yom Kippur in multiple ways:

      “Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — has a double function. The first is kapparah — acquittal from sin or atonement: ‘For the virtue of this very day shall acquit you of sin’ (Lev 16:30). This was expressed in the prayer recited by the High Priest in the Holy Temple: ‘Please grant acquittal for sins.’

      The second aspect of Yom Kippur is taharah — catharsis or purification. ”
      — “Acquittal and Purification” starting page 49

      Then, in discussion of scapegoats and sacrifices, he says:

      “Upon these three elements rests the ‘pardon’ afforded by the Day of Atonement… ”
      — “Expiation, Suffering and Redemption” at page 301.

      The very most impressive thing Rabbi Soloveitchik says is something very personal. He’s not, as he defines and parses and explains and teaches the Day of Atonement, only abstracting. He is not just writing for other people. He doesn’t just theorize for human beings in general. He writes, with personal passion and perspective:

      The feeling of remoteness from the Lord of the Universe creates in man a yearning for repentance; but even more effective is the sense of nearness he feels to the Lord of the Universe. “It shall come to pass when all these things … which I have set before thee.”

      Believe me when I tell you that I myself could never have endured the past years had I not felt the close proximity of God. I am not a Kabbalist nor a mystic, so when I speak of the nearness of God, it is something I feel when opening the pages of the Talmud in order to study. When I am thus immersed in study, I feel as if the Almighty is there standing behind me, putting His hand on my shoulder, looking with me at the text lying on the table and asking me about it. This is not something I imagine. For me this is a true-to-life experience.

      Feeling remote from God is a terrible experience. What do you think of what is now happening in Russia? I spoke with …
      — page 303

      What is remarkable is the language here, the multidimensionality of important, crucial concepts (i.e., the Jewish “Day of Atonement”). What is remarkable is how very unabstractable this language is from the person, from the person feeling sometimes separated from God, from others too.

  14. Well, I think I said that R. Soloveitchik’s presentation was much more sophisticated than what I presented here — and certainly you will agree that I was right about that! He also talks about the different aspects of community vs individual.

    And it is further significant to me that these teachings were not designed for a book — in fact, they were delivered orally (in Yiddish), and he resisted publication of them for some time (although he regularly published serious tomes in Hebrew and English.) That aspect of his teaching also has a closeness, a humanity. And, what he was teaching was also of great interest to liberal Christians as well (the book, you will note, was originally published by Paulist Press in English.) (Incidentally, there is a sequel, which is also interesting, but perhaps not as well edited/paraphrased by Arnold Lustiger — what I want to focus on is the title: Before Hashem You Shall Be Purified.)

    Still, as you read through On Repentance, I think you will see some of where I am coming from — it is related perhaps, but ultimately different, than the standard Evangelical story that I read about the Cross. It is certainly different than how many Christian scholars describe Yom Kippur.

  15. Pingback: Barnstone’s “Saint Paul’s” Yom Kippur « BLT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s