Sunday, January 17, 2016

A rabbi asks a priest a question... part 2

Continued from last week...

Before answering your questions, I would like to take a look at the Greco-Judeo-Roman world which produced Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, Akiva ben Joseph and the Rabban Gamaliel. We, Jew and Gentile alike, look at that world through the smoke of two thousand years of mutual distrust. I suspect however, that the distrust didn’t really begin to accelerate until at least a hundred years after the death and (we Christians maintain) resurrection of Jesus. I have already said that I suspect the word “Jew” was not used in exactly the same way at the time of the Second Temple as it is now.

Today, “Jewish” denotes both a religion and an ethnicity. One can be a Jew and be devout or completely without religion. Hitler tried to eliminate a people, an ethnicity, from the face of the earth. It didn’t matter to him that a person called a Jew might be completely irreligious. His warped racial theories killed untold numbers of people who thought of themselves as Germans or French or Russians or Poles.  They might have been complete materialists, but Hitler and many Europeans at the time said, a Jew is a Jew, no matter what he believes or does not believe.

One could and can stop being a Christian. One could not then, and for the most part cannot now, stop being a Jew. The Jew is somehow “other” than the particular nation of people among whom he lives. This otherness in relation to Christian Europe took centuries to develop. That distinction is rooted at least a thousand years before the time of Jesus and Gamaliel, and probably a good deal earlier than that. It finds its roots in the desert of Sinai, in a covenant that both Christians and Jews believe God made on the Holy Mountain with a group of escaped slaves from Egypt, most of whomwere descendants of a man named Jacob.

I needn’t tell you Rabbi the story of your own heritage, but allow me to explain this story - at least from my perspective - to those who might not understand. Jews and Christians alike believe 4,000 years ago, more or less, the Creator of all things spoke to a man, Abram, telling him to leave his home and journey west where he would receive a land and become a great nation and the father of many nations. Abram obeyed the Almighty and his name was changed to Abraham. In the land of Canaan, he became the father of Isaac, who in turn became the father of Jacob.

Abraham and Isaac had other sons, but the inheritor of the promise was Jacob. After a night of wrestling with an angel, this Jacob was renamed Israel, a name which means “a man who contends with God.” Through him new nation was born. He was the father of twelve sons, among whom were Joseph and Judah and Levi. From Judah descended the tribe of Judah and the two great kings of Israel, David and Solomon. Moses and Aaron descended from Levi, the tribe of priests and Levites, who are still counted among the Jews of our times. This family went down into Egypt perhaps 3,800 years ago to escape famine. There they became a great nation, a people called the Hebrews, a nation called Israel.

God delivered them from slavery through a series of miracles and led them out of slavery and into the desert of Sinai where at His holy mountain He established His covenant with them. He would be their God and they would be His people, holy and unique among the nations. They would be consecrated to Him by their way of life, laid out in the Torah. It is called the Nomos, in Greek and is called the Law in other languages.

The Torah brought together instructions from the previous covenants, such as basic natural law given in the covenant with Noah and the sign of the covenant, the circumcision of males, which had been part of the covenant with Abraham; butthis was the definitive covenant with the sons of Jacob/Israel, that is with those who were to be called Israelites. Notice that the covenant of Sinai is made with Israel, God’s firstborn. Beyond that there is no covenant specifically and uniquely withJudah, unless one counts the promise made to Judah made through Jacob/Israel that the scepter of government would never depart from him.

Judah was one of twelve with whom the covenant was made. Judah was part of Israel. It is from the name Judah that the word Jew derives. Most people would say that God made a covenant with the Jews. This is imprecise. Of course God made a covenant with Jews, insofar as they are part of Israel, but if we are to use the language of the Hebrew Scriptures, the tribe of Judah, the Jews, are but a part of Israel.

When the Israelites entered the land that God had promised their father Abraham, each tribe was assigned its proper place. In the south were the tribes of Judah, Simeon and Benjamin. It seems that Simeon was quickly absorbed into the tribe of Judah. It lost its distinct identity as a punishment for its founder’s misdeeds. The tribe of Benjamin maintained its identity well into the time of the Roman domination. Saul (Paul) of Tarsus identified himself as a Benjaminite. The separate identity of the tribe seems to have been lost by the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 AD. The tribe of Levi was scattered through the whole land, both north and south. The tribes of Levi persist to this day.

The roles of Levite and Cohen (sacrificing priest) still have their place in modern Jewish liturgy. In the north of the Land, nine tribes settled: 1. Reuben, 2. Dan, 3. Naphtali, 4. Gad, 5. Asher, 6. Issachar, 7. Zebulun, and 8. Joseph. The tribe of Joseph however was divided into two half tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, named for the two sons of Joseph.

So in effect you have 3 tribes in the south and 10 tribes in the north and one tribe Levi, scattered throughout. The two half tribes of Joseph were by far the largest in the north and that is why the northern Israelites are called Israel but also Joseph or Ephraim or Manasseh or even Samaria for the name of their eventual capital city by the prophets.

Now it gets complicated. The northern tribes were taken into exile by the Assyrians in 720 BC and are by in large, lost to history that is until the present era of DNA testing. The southern tribes were taken into exile by the Babylonians in 586 BC, but maintained their ethnic and religious identity, and returned to the Land in 520 BC. In the messianic literature that developed over the next centuries, one of the necessary conditions for the messianic age was the ingathering of Israel, which had been scattered among the nation in a way that Judah had not been. The Talmud speaks of two messiahs, the suffering servant, the son of Joseph, and the glorious messiah son of David from the tribe of Judah.

Meïr Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, called the Malbim, interprets Ezekiel 37 to mean that the Messiah ben Joseph will gather the ten lost northern tribes in preparation for the Messianic age. Though the Malbim is a relatively recent commentator, it seems reasonable that this is a messianic precondition.

Well, all this is gloriously obscure, but what is the point? Even in modern Judaism, though the word Israelite and Jew are used interchangeably, they do not have exactly the same meaning. Jewish and Israelite are not exactly the same thing. So, if the covenant of God is with Israel, the big question is, “Who is an Israelite in addition to who is a Jew?”

Next week: the difference between Judaism and the religion of Israel.