Sunday, May 14, 2017

Interrupting the narrative with a few thoughts on Mother's Day


I have asked the Rev. Know-it-all to allow me to interrupt his thrilling series on Jewish ritual law to wish all the mothers and those who will be mothers a happy Mother’s Day 2017.

I want to thank mothers for their bravery. Motherhood is always heroic, but more so now than ever. Once upon a time there wasn’t much choice about the whole business. If you wanted to marry, you were probably going to be a mother, that is if you were a woman. That situation ended pretty definitively two generations ago in the 1960’s. In fact, Searle Pharmaceuticals produced the first oral contraceptives right here in downtown Skokie and began marketing them in July 1961.

I remember as a boy about that time my frequent trips to Skokie. (I am not making this up.) Papa was the only Catholic in his investment club which met in Skokie. My parents were committed Catholics with seven children, I was the last of the long parade. My parents would schlepp me with them to the meetings, thinking the house would not still be standing when they returned to our home in La Grange if I, at the age of twelve or eleven, were to be left home alone.

I can still remember the very modern split-level home in which the meetings were held. The men would go to the front room to discuss the economy, the children would go downstairs to the knotty pine rumpus room, and the women would go to the kitchen to discuss whoever had failed to attend that month’s meeting. The ladies would all gasp when they hear that my mother had seven children. They would invariably say, “But Mrs. Simon, there were things you could have done.” She would invariably respond, “Which one would you have me send back?”  I always assumed that I would be the one returned to the factory. “There were things you could have done...” 

I didn’t realize but just down the block from where the group met the Searle Company was solving the world’s problems by cranking out birth control pills by the truckload. Before the modern solution to the world’s overpopulation problem, if you were gonna have sex, you were gonna make a baby, sooner or later. Children were a matter of course, not a matter of choice.

The Searle company, in a certain sense is the place where the Almighty posed a new question to humanity -  “Will you accept children if I send them to you? Will you accept life?”  As a civilization, as a species of vertebrate creatures, we said “No way!!!” to the Almighty. And heaven has given us what we asked for: the death of humanity.  Now I want to ease your mind if you are a person who opted for 2.3 children in your family. We were sold a bill of goods.

The pill was first tested on Puerto Rican women, and it didn’t make them too sick, and who wanted more Puerto Ricans anyway?  (I did. The food is fantastic, the music is wonderful, and the people are more fun than you can imagine.) The pill was fine. They didn’t tell us that it messed up a women’s body, gave women less control over their bodies because they had now had no excuse to say, “Not tonight dear. It’s that time of month.” If it didn’t stop pregnancy it aborted the tiny person growing in a woman’s body. No, my generation was told that it was the moral thing to do because there were too many people in the world and there were certainly too many Puerto Ricans, as well as Mexicans and Africans, at least that was what Margaret Sanger of Planned Parenthood insisted. We were the “Hippie Generation.” Now we are just hippy and not that happy.

My shrink, the famous Dr. Wawel von der Vogelweide, mentioned during our last session that he has noticed a lot of kids these days that can’t stand their parents and break off all ties as soon as they can. Somehow by being excessively nice to our 2.1 children we weren’t nice enough. My generation wanted to do the right thing. We wanted to preserve the planet and the only way to save the whales was to have fewer kids. Searle has done its work well. The whales are better off, but the world population is about to take a nosedive.

Margaret Sanger has not succeeded in getting rid of Mexicans and Africans as she planned, though Mexico is about to plunge below the replacement fertility rate. She and Searle have managed to kill Puerto Rico, most of Europe some of Asia and now Canada. For the first time in history, there are more senior citizens (65 and older) than children (14 and younger) in Canada. By 2050 most countries in the world especially outside of sub-Saharan Africa will be giant nursing homes with too few attendants to change the bedpans.

(Here I offer a brief explanation of replacement fertility rate. Every woman on the planet must have 2.1 children in a developed country or 2.5 children in a third world country to keep the population stable, one to replace her, one to replace the potato on her couch and part of one to replace slackers like me, who have no children at all.) The problem is that if a family gets used to two, or at most three kids, those kids will get used to just one or none because having not taught the little aristocrats to share, we have raised a world of tiny narcissists who are more than happy to stick us in a nursing home as they go about the pursuit of pleasure just the way we taught them. That means when population plummets there is no way to say where the plummet will end.

This may please ecology types, but it means that in 2050 there will be lot of starving old people in third world countries, where the population plummet has been the most precipitous in history. For example, in 1970 Iranian women had 7.0 children. Now they have 1.8.  That means the young population will start to shrink and the old folks will soon outnumber them. That should start happening in about 13 or 14 years. That’s a lot of bed pans to change worldwide. Last year Japan sold more adult diapers than children’s diapers. China still has more young people than old people, but with a fertility rate of 1.4 children per woman, it’s going to run out of hard working young people pretty soon. That will be a lot of bed pans. I’d invest, were I you!

I suppose my point is this: Thank you to those women who have chosen to give life. I believe that in the present situation that if you are able to have a big family, it is irresponsible not to have children. When you are quizzed by someone about your decision to have a big family, as was my mother, just explain to them that these kids will pay for that person’s retirement. When they were going to Cabo on a cruise for two, you were raising the hope of the future. They were the irresponsible ones, not you. In effect, they were spending your children’s money. They lived lavishly always expecting someone else to pay for their pension. Do they want to thank you now or later?

Personally, I want to thank my own mother for her heroic generosity and at the same time to thank those valiant women whose faith in God and in life allows them to love so unselfishly in a world that has become very selfish. Thank you for providing, as did our Blessed Mother, hope for the world.  Happy Mother’s Day!

Fr. Rich Simon

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Didn't Jesus do away with all the rules? part 7

Continued from last week…

It just occurred to me that before I get to Jesus, the Pharisees and us, I really should talk about the Essenes. They were a collection of Israelite sects that rejected the Jerusalem temple. There were a lot fewer of them than there were of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They lived in desert outposts as well as towns but practiced communal life and rigorous asceticism (strict penance), sort of the Opus Dei of their times. Some even seem to have practiced celibacy and voluntary poverty. Above all, they practiced frequent baptism (immersion) to the point of becoming water-logged. The term “Essene” (in Greek, theraputai, from the root word for healing) is discussed by a number of ancient authors. Josephus, Philo and Pliny mention them, and a lot of people assume they were one cohesive group. I suspect they were not. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a great source of information not about one sect called Essenes, but probably about the groups that came under the general heading of desert ascetics who had rejected the Maccabee/Herodian temple, the Herodian monarchy, and the Roman-controlled, politicized priesthood. 

What pray tell are the Dead Sea Scrolls? In November 1946, Some Bedouin shepherd boys discovered seven jars in a cave near the site of Khirbet Qumran. The boys hoped the jars might contain treasure, but were disappointed to find just some old and crumbling scrolls. They brought the scrolls back to their camp where the Bedouin tribesmen hung them (the scrolls) on a tent pole and they wondered what to do with them. They soon discovered that, in fact they HAD found treasure. Crazy infidels were willing to pay good money for these decaying bits of leather. This started a scroll rush in the Judean desert that continues until the present. The purchase and discovery of the first scrolls amid Middle Eastern wars and intrigue read like a spy novel.

Why were the scrolls hidden in jars in the desert? Jews, like Catholics are slow to toss sacred things into the garbage. Every Catholic home has a drawer full of old bibles, missals, broken rosaries, and statues that they are afraid to throw out.  (When a sacramental loses its purpose, it ceases to be that revered thing and may be thrown out. That’s the party line. I still have a drawer full of formerly holy stuff).  The Jews did and do the same thing. They put old scrolls in what is called a genizah. Perhaps we Catholics should call our holy drawer a genizah drawer. It would confuse people, and that can be great fun. A genizah in a Cairo synagogue went back to the eighth century providing a gold mine of Jewish history. The Qumran caves may have been a place to hide cherished documents from the invading Romans, or it might just have been a genizah. It matters neither way.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, also called Qumran Caves Scrolls are at the present, a collection of 981 manuscripts and fragments discovered between 1946 and the present (2017) in 12 caves near the ancient, now uninhabited but museum-ificated site of in the eastern Judean Desert near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, apparently, the Scrolls come from the last three centuries before Christ and the first century AD.  About 70 percent of the scrolls are copies of Biblical manuscripts, including some of the Hebrew originals of the so called “Catholic books.” The remaining 30 percent are copies of the literature of the anti-establishment messianic sects. Some of these books are zany beyond belief!

A humorous anecdote. Being a professor has its perks. I was invited to a special showing of some of the Dead Sea fragments at a private museum showing. I could bring guests, so I invited my 10-year-old godson, a studious child. He asked in turn if he could bring his friend, a recently emigrated Pole. He asked the lad if he would like to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, to which the young man, whose English was not yet perfect, responded “Dead Sea squirrels? Vat are Dead Sea squirrels?”

Since then I have called the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls the Dead Sea Squirrels, inasmuch as they were pretty squirrely. Why are the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Dead Sea squirrels important? I believe that Christianity springs from them as much as from Judaism. They are an essential element of the milieu in which and the vocabulary by which Jesus, the unique Word of God, speaks to us even now. To understand what He was saying it helps to learn that vocabulary. Eusebius, a Christian historian of the fourth century, says in his History of the Church: “Those ancient Therapeutai (Essenes) were Christians, and their ancient writings were our Gospels.”

The similarities in practice and belief between the first Christians and these messianic sects are almost too many to count. For instance, the early Church in Jerusalem was led by a group of twelve, among whom Peter, James and John had a special preeminence. The “community” mentioned in the scrolls was led by a council of 12 people, in which with three priests had oversight. The very role of a bishop is taken from the messianic scrolls. Deacons and elders are standard Israelite and synagogue roles, but overseer, that is bishop, comes to us from the desert sectaries. I suspect that John the Baptist was a leader of one of these communities of Dead Sea Squirrels and that the line between the disciples of Jesus and the disciples of John was a bit fuzzy at some point. Papias bishop of Hierapolis in the very first century of Christianity says as much and I suspect that the Gospel of John is so different from the first three Gospels is that the Gospel of John the evangelist was aimed at the Dead Sea Squirrels and their arcane vocabulary, and, as Papias says, aimed particularly the disciples of John the Baptist, “These things have been written that you might know that Jesus is the Messiah.” (John 20:31)

More next week: (Oh dear, He’s off on another tangent)

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Didn't Jesus do away with all the rules? part 6

At the time of Christ, the end of the second Temple period, there were a lot of divergent types of Israelites. You had Samaritans who claimed to be the descendants of the northern tribes. You had the Judeans - the descendants of those who had returned from exile in Babylon. You had lots of people who were also Judean who had never bothered to return from exile in Babylon. The community of Judeans in Babylon was led by someone called the exilarch, a descendant of King David! You had the priestly families, who eventually comprised the Sadducees. Since there was no king, the priests dominated Judean civil and religious life during the period of Persian rule.

There was a problem, however. The temple in Jerusalem was a bit suspect. It had been established under foreign rule and besides, there was no ark of the covenant in the shabby Hasmonean version of the Temple. The concept of the synagogue had probably already developed in Babylon. It was a way to follow the religion of Israel without a temple. The Temple in Jerusalem had ceased to be the only and perhaps even the primary expression of Israelite religious practice. The synagogue created alternatives. Remember that the prayer life of the exiled Judean community had been standardized and made communal by the great assembly in Babylon.

In the times of the first Temple you prayed when and how you wanted, when necessary you brought your lamb or bull or pigeons to the court of the men in the temple, handed them to a member of the tribe of Levi who slaughtered them while you waited down the steps that marked off the court of the priests into which you couldn’t go unless you were a descendant of Levi, son of Jacob/Israel. Things were different now. You prayed certain prayers everyday as the sages of the law and the scribes had taught in the exile. Many, if not most, Jews lived outside northern Judea. Galilee was a three-day walk to the north. People might try to go up to Jerusalem for the big festivals, but couldn’t go to the Jerusalem Temple regularly. However, they could meet at the synagogue for morning, afternoon and evening prayers and maybe a little kibitzing followed by a light nosh. On Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbos, (Friday Evening and Saturday,) a weekly Torah portion was read publicly in the synagogues, prayers were said and the holidays were celebrated.

Priests ran the Temple, but scribes and sages, soon called rabbis, controlled study of the Torah. They also taught that there was an oral Torah that originated on Mount Sinai and had been given by God to Moses and the elders of Israel whose inheritors they claimed to be. These sages were not priests. They were not part of the Temple apparatus. They were scholars of the Torah and this new day to day life of prayer and ritual that could be practiced by any Israelite anywhere. Religion ceased to the property of the priests who formed the Sadducee party. So it was that the synagogue became and remains the focus of Jewish communal prayer. The Temple was no longer the only institution for Jewish religious life. Outside of Judea, the synagogue became the only possible focus.

When Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East in 332 BC, an imperceptible crack appeared between scholars and the priests; Hellenism, or as I have called it Greek-ification. Some of the priests seemed a bit collaborationist, some did not. Jerusalem was liberated from the Syria Greeks in 165 BC and the Temple was restored. In 141 BC an assembly of priests and others affirmed Simon Maccabeus of the Hasmonean family as high priest and leader, in effect establishing the Hasmonean dynasty and that dynasty was sucked into Greco-Roman and its politics. Priests became indistinguishable from politicians as has happened so commonly in Judeo-Christian history, but that could never happen now (he said sarcastically.)  The Hasmonean Maccabee priest kings expanded the temple platform! They took over the monarchy and the high priesthood and had the right to neither! A segment of the priestly class seems to have rejected the temple, and formed the party of the Essenes and the other puritanical baptizing sects out in the desert. There they awaited the messiah who would straighten out all this mess by cleansing the Temple, the priesthood and the least that’s one theory.  But one group took the middle ground.

Enter the Pharisees, a name that probably meant separate, or pure. They weren’t going to go along in with the Hellenists if they could avoid it. They just didn’t want any trouble. Like your bubbe says, “You just shouldn’t mix in!” They probably emerged from the already mentioned scribes and sages.  They were a theological and political faction which was clearly a force to be reckoned with from about 150 BC until the second destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. The Pharisees were different from the Sadducees in more than just separateness from Greeks who were the cool kids at that period of western history. Sadducees were priests maintained a strict ritual purity that most of the community did not, such things as no wool and linen together and two separate sets of dishes, one meat and one milk etc. etc... But when the Sadducees were off-duty things Greco-Roman were just fine. The Pharisees held that all Jews should observe the purity laws even outside the Temple.

The Pharisees were the experts of Jewish law of whom there were never more than about 7,000 or 8,000 at once. Amazingly, they were actually very popular among the common people because they created a way for the common man to participate more fully in the religion of Israel. The attitude of the aristocratic priestly Pharisees was, “Don’t try this at home!” The Pharisees made the religion of Israel a domestic religion that could and should be practiced in the home and in the synagogue. According to the Pharisees, a learned mamzer takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest.  Look up mamzer on your own.  I’m not gonna tell!

Next week: What has all this to do with me and Jesus anyway?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Didn't Jesus do away with all the rules? part 5

Letter to Grace Uberlaw continued:

Before I can launch into a discussion of the Pharisees, there really is a bit more I must tell you about the Temple. As you remember, the First Temple, built in 957 BC by King Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba and replaced Mishkan Tent (the Tabernacle) constructed in the Sinai Desert by Moses. The new Temple, was an amazing structure. It was soon sacked by Pharaoh Shoshenq of Egypt only thirty or forty years after it was finished. It was patched back together, but was thoroughly restored by King Jehoash of Judah in 835 BC at considerable expense, only to be plundered again by the Judeans themselves in an attempt to bribe Sennacherib, King of Assyria around 700 BC. At that point, he had already deported the northern tribes of Israel. It was completely destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC (or 425 BC according to rabbinical Jewish commentators.) Some of the Judeans returned from exile in Babylon in 583 BC after about sixty years in exile. They rebuilt the temple in 515 BC, but it was a mere shadow of the splendor of Solomon’s Temple and the Ark of the Covenant had been lost or hidden, probably during the Babylonian invasion of Judea sixty years before. At the heart of this new but poor reconstruction was an empty room, the Holy of Holies. The Ark of the Covenant was gone.

The few old men who remembered Solomon’s Temple from childhood before they were exiled, wept for sorrow when they saw how much shabbier this second Temple was when compared to the first. Nonetheless, the Persians were decent rulers at the time and there was a pretty boring period of almost two hundred years of relative peace. The real center of Jewish life remained in Babylon, the New York City of the ancient Mideast. Jerusalem was a bit of a backwater with its sleepy, shabby Temple. However, peace never seems to last forever.

The Temple was almost destroyed again in 332 BC when the Jews refused to allow the worship of Alexander the Great. They schmoozed Alexander who was calmed down by shrewd diplomacy and a lot of flattery.  Alexander died in 323 BC, and the Greek Ptolemies, descendants of one of Alexander’s generals, were the new rulers of Egypt and the adjoining area. In 198 BC, Antiochus, a descendant of Seleucus, another of Alexander’s generals, became the dominant local power. He ruled Syria and edged the Egyptian Ptolemies out of the Holy Land among other places. Antiochus wanted to make everyone Greek. He insisted on the worship of the Greek gods in the Jerusalem Temple, built a theater and gymnasium (Oh the Horror!) in Jerusalem and forbad circumcision. One of his successors a few years later zealously enforced the process of Hellenization (Greek-ification as it were.) He forbad the observance of Sabbath and circumcision. He set up the image of Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple and had Greek priests sacrifice pigs (the favorite food of the Greek gods) in the Temple itself.

Enough was enough! Not long after, a Jewish priest, Mattathias of the Hashmon Family, killed a Greek official who was trying to enforce the worship of the Greek gods in the hill town of Modein. In about 167 BC, the people rose to join him and his sons in a war of independence and eventually they expelled the Syrian Greeks. His son Judas Maccabaeus, (Maccabeus is a nickname that means “Hammer” because he hammered the Greeks) re-dedicated the Temple in 165 BC. The feast remembering the restoration of the Temple is called Hanukkah.  Around 63 BC, Pompey the Roman general conquered Jerusalem and desecrated the Holy of Holies by entering it, but left the Temple standing. The Jews then revolted unsuccessfully against Roman rule in 43 BC. At some point in all this revolting, the Hasmoneans, better known as the Maccabees, expanded the Temple platform on top of Mount Moriah, probably for military purposes. They also arrogated the position of High Priest and king to themselves.

High Priests were descended from Zadok the priest and kings were descended from David. The Temple platform, a sacred space built by Solomon, was 500 cubits (750feet) square. It was not a rectangle and was not to be used for any purpose but the worship of God. The Hasmoneans/Maccabees managed to defile the priesthood, the monarchy and the Temple. And it gets worse.

Along comes Herod the Great. He was a hack politician who had inveigled himself into the Maccabee family, married the last princess of the dynasty, killed off the rest of them and petitioned Rome to make him King of the Jews. Around 20 BC, he rebuilt the Temple from top to bottom and expanded the 500-cubit platform to the size of 24 football fields almost 145 acres. The front of the central shrine was said to have been plated in gold. It was reputed to be the most beautiful building in the ancient world, a magnificent monument to the glory of …Herod. It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, during the Siege of Jerusalem. And since about 690 AD has been the site of a Muslim shrine and the El Aksa mosque. Jews pray at what remains of the western wall of the Herodian expansion.

History. Read it and weep!