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!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Didn't Jesus do away with all the rules? part 4

Letter to Grace Uberlaw continued:

To make heads or tails of this whole business we are going to need a slightly longer trip into the history of Israel, Judaism/Rabbinic Phariseeism and Christianity. We are going to have to set the Wayback machine for about 1,500 BC.

1Kings 6: 1 says that the Exodus, the escape of the descendants of Israel from slavery in Egypt, happened 480 years before Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem in 957 BC. That would put the date of Exodus around 1446 BC, but scholars who consider the Exodus a real event place it around 1250–1200 BC.

There is a very fascinating and very garbled reminiscence of the Exodus in the writing of the Greek historian Hecataeus of Abdera around 300BC. He wrote that the Egyptians blamed a plague on foreigners whom they drove out of Egypt. Their leader, Moses led them into the land of Canaan. Still more interesting (and more garbled) are the writings of Manetho, an Egyptian historian (also around 300 BC) who is quoted by the Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 AD). Manetho wrote about the Hyksos, a despised foreign people from Asia. They conquered Egypt but were eventually expelled by the indigenous Egyptians. When they were expelled they founded the city of Jerusalem and its Temple. In a second story Manetho says that 80,000 lepers and other unclean foreigners led by the priest Osarseph, united with the Hyksos in Jerusalem in an attempt to take over Egypt, but again, the pharaoh and his son chased them out of Egypt. Osarseph finally gives these lepers a code of law. The name Osarseph sounds like a combination of the names Moses and Joseph. Who knows?

All that said, the most ancient archaeological reference to Israel is found on the Stele of Merneptah. A stele is a kind of stone plaque on which kings, particularly Egyptian kings, loved to point out how wonderful and victorious they were. The Pharaoh Merneptah reigning from 1213 to 1203 BC brags on this particular stele that he had conquered the Libyans but the stele also throws in a few other conquests in case you weren’t that impressed by conquest of Libya.  “Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe. Ashkelon has been overcome. Gezer has been captured. Yano'am is made non-existent. Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” Merneptah should visit Rogers Park or Skokie, if he thinks that Israel is no more. Merneptah claims to have defeated Israel in about 1210 BC. If Israel actually left Egypt in 1250 BC and wandered 40 years in the desert, they would not even have finished unpacking their suit cases before Merneptah obliterated them.

My point is this; it seems that Israel was well established in the hill country of Canaan (present day Israel) by 1210 BC.  Another interesting detail is hinted at by the song of Miriam. It is the most archaic Hebrew text in the Bible. More usually called the “Shiryat Hayam,” the “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15:1–18). It recounts the deliverance of Israel from the Egyptians and the crossing of the Red Sea. The style of its Hebrew comes from before 1,000 BC. We still sing it at our Easter Vigil Mass. It is a marvel that a song written at least 3,100 years ago, recounting an event that may have happed 3,500 years ago will be sung in Skokie, Illinois next week as we remember the event. Songs are easy to remember and persist for centuries even with their archaic language. All of us know that beloved old English song, “Sumer is a cumin in, lude sing cuku.” Well, at least I know it. It is medieval English at least 800 years old. Songs persist.  This would hint that the song of the sea was written well before the building of the temple. It may date to the Exodus in 1500 BC. (or 1250?)

There was in fact an Exodus. Moses in fact received the law. It may not have happened exactly the way we remember it from the classic 1956 film “Exodus” starring Charlton Heston, Yule Brenner, Edward G. Robinson and that smoldering femme fatale, Ann Baxter. We all assume that Rameses the Great, (Yul Brenner) was the pharaoh of the Exodus, and therefore the Exodus had to happen around 1250 BC when Yul Brenner, I mean Rameses, was pharaoh of Egypt. This is of course because they built the city of Pi-Ramses. There is a slight detail worth mentioning. The city of Rameses existed for centuries before Pharaoh Rameses was born. Rameses like many politicians enjoyed naming other people’s accomplishments after himself. Three things should be remembered. Israel was well established in Canaan by 1200 BC, the Song of the Sea detailing the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt by means of a miracle goes way back and finally something happened that later Egyptians wanted to spin: Israel didn’t escape, we threw them out!

The Bible sometimes presents history that is poetic and telescoped, but it does present history. The Exodus and the gift of the law created Israel and have sustained Israel. Our relation to the Law of Moses is one of the great themes of the Bible. This law commanded that building of an ark, the “ahron” into which were placed the stone tablets of the law which Moses had received from Heaven. This ahron was carefully veiled and placed inside the inner chamber of a special tent called the “mishkan”, or the “dwelling.”  This tent is called the tabernacle in English, a word that means “little hut” or “little dwelling” in Latin. It’s the same word we Catholics use for the box in which we reserve the Holy Eucharist. That was then surrounded by a large roofless structure made of fabric called the tent of meeting, or the sanctuary. 

The ahron/ark travelled with the people in the desert and eventually came to the city of Shiloh in central Canaan, about twenty miles north of Jerusalem. About 1,000 BC, David brought the ahron/ark to Jerusalem his new capital, and his son Solomon built the Temple to house the ahron/ark in imitation of the tabernacle and the sanctuary that accompanied them in the desert. The law in the ark in the tabernacle in the temple, like Russian nesting dolls, are the foundation of all things Jewish and Christian.

As far as Rabbinic Phariseeism/Judaism is concerned, the ark is gone, the tabernacle is gone, the temple is gone. Only the law endures. As far as traditional Orthodox and Catholic Christianity is concerned they are not gone, Jesus, the Messiah is the law come to life, the womb of the Virgin Mary was a living ark, we are the tabernacle made of living stones where the presence of God dwells and we are the temple that is a house of prayer for all nations. The things seen in the desert and housed in Jerusalem were just foreshadowings of the true temple made of living stones, the Church, the Israel of God.

Next week: More about the Pharisees. They really were and are a fascinating bunch.