Sunday, May 28, 2017

Didn't Jesus do away with all the rules? part 9

The Rev. Know-it-all’s “Young Christian’s Guide to Halakhic Law.” Droning on and on...

Last week I quoted the Dead Sea Scroll, Miqsat Ma’aseh ha Torah — you know, that bit about clay pitchers and ritual uncleanness?  The scroll ends with, “…and these are some works of the law.” When the reformers heard that we are not saved by works of the law, some of them heard that we are not saved by obeying the Ten Commandments. If they had read the Dead Sea Scrolls first they might have changed their minds about that, but they couldn’t because the Dead Sea Scrolls were lying undiscovered in the Judean desert at the time. The only two places in Hebrew literature where the phrase “works of the law” is mentioned are the writings of St. Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls. When Paul said that we are not saved by works of the law, he seems to have meant that we are not saved or made right — that is justified — by the minutiae of kosher law. 

One is not saved by avoiding barbecued ribs and not wearing linen and wool in the same garment.  “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law.” (Romans 3:20) However he also says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2Cor 5:10) and “He (God) will render to each one according to his works.” (Romans 2:6). But then he writes in chapter 3 of the letter to the Romans St. Paul that we are not justified by our works, after he has just said in chapter 2, that we will be repaid according to our works. (“Works” here is the same exact word in Greek “ergon”) Who was proof-reading his stuff anyway?

It seems that there are works and then there are works, and frankly a lot of Paul’s fellow Israelites agreed with him. It is reasonable to think that when he says works aren’t going to justify us, he’s talking about mixing wheat and wool and milk and meat. We still have to live moral and generous lives. I suspect that if we have been fornicating and murdering as some of the reformers suggest, we may be in trouble at the judgment. Jesus says this quite clearly “Then He (God) will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, I was naked and you did not clothe Me, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’”… (Matthew 25:41-43) I don’t know how much more strongly the connection between what we do and where we spend eternity can be made and this is good and gentle Jesus talking and not mean old St. Paul!  So it seems that these Nazarenes, these followers of Jesus who were later called Christians, believed that moral conduct was important to one’s eternal salvation, but kosher law was not. 

Well, why are some of the 613 laws still in force and others are not? Remember the Exodus? You know the story in which Moses looks like Charlton Heston? Moses receives the law on Mt. Sinai and then comes back and goes down to the Hebrew camp only to find Edward G. Robinson dancing around the golden calf. Moses has a righteous hissy, smashes the tablets of the law and the earth opens up and swallows Edward G. Robinson. Moses then goes back up the mountain and comes down with the law once again.  (This is not quite the biblical account, but close enough.) There are some who theorize, that the first time God gave the law he gave Ten Commandments. The second time he gave 613. My friend the Rabbi thinks this is crazy. Heaven gave 10 commandments the first and 613 commandments the second time. The idea is that if you don’t accept law you don’t need less law, you need more! It’s like the kid who won’t eat his broccoli.

 “Just two spoonful’s then you can go out and play”


“Alright, one spoonful!”

God does not negotiate. When you encounter God you will find that He is someone who cannot be bribed, bought or bullied. He has this problem. He thinks He’s God. “You aren’t going to eat your two spoons of broccoli? Here’s a whole bowl of it, kid. And we’ll sit here until you’ve eaten it. I’ve got all the time in the world. In fact I have eternity,” saith the Lord!  In order to make them a light to the nations the Almighty gave Israel six hundred and thirteen laws some of which seem very arbitrary. It is like that scene in the movie Forest Gump. The drill Sargent makes Forest clean the barracks floor with a tooth brush. It’s a really lousy way to clean a floor, but it’s a great way to train a soldier. 

Through the Torah with its 613 laws, Heaven brought the light of morality into a fallen world and taught that God is sovereign and not just a being among beings. When that light had been sufficiently planted, the Messiah came into the world. The law prepared His coming and the means of preparation were no longer necessary. The very concept of a people set apart had been established, and thus the Messiah could set apart those who would accept the God of Israel though not necessarily of the house of Israel. With the Messiah, a new age had dawned, an age that was unexpected even to those who longed for it. Well, what laws do we keep and what laws don’t we keep, if all that is so?

More next week, of course.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Didn't Jesus do away with all the rules? part 8

Another thrilling installment in the Rev. Know-it-all’s “The Young Christian’s Guide to Halakhic Law.”

At the time of Christ, there were lots of interpretations of the law. The Herodians, the group gathered around the political structure of the Herod Family, seem to have had no trouble being flexible about religious law. Herod was so scrupulous about the law that the Emperor Augustus Caesar’s favorite joke was that it was better to be Herod the Great’s pig than his son.  He executed a number of sons on suspicion of treason. Pigs were safe around Herod. He kept kosher, except of course when politics demanded otherwise. 

There was a spring sacred to the Greek god Pan in the north of the holy land where Herod the Great built a shining white marble temple in honor of his patron, Augustus Caesar, Philip the Tetrarch son of Herod the Great and his fifth wife, Cleopatra of Jerusalem founded a city there and expanded the temple with their forbidden graven image. Pig sacrifices, to statues of Greek and Roman gods were fine, just not where anyone could see them.

There were the Sadducees who kept strictly kosher, but didn’t care if anybody else did. There were the Pharisees who thought that everyone should keep kosher, not just the priests. Then there were the am ha'aretz le-mitzvot, Jews who didn’t scrupulously observe kosher law am ha'aretz la-Torah, the dunces who didn’t study the Torah at all. Then there were the Essenes mentioned earlier and the other dead sea squirrels for whom kosher wasn’t kosher enough.  There is a charming Dead Sea Scroll, Miqsat Ma’she ha Torah” (Some Works of the Law) which poses the serious theological question: If water is poured from a clay pitcher into a clay bowl, and the bowl is ritually unclean, can the uncleanness leap up the stream of water and pollute the clay pitcher, so that both must be destroyed? The Dead sea folks said yes, the Pharisees said no.  There were lots of different sects preaching lots of different interpretations the 613 commandments of the Torah. So again, what do clay bowls have to do with me? A whole lot more than you realize! 

Your kids may go off to school and meet other Christians who seem a lot cooler than Catholics with their no meat on Fridays, especially in Lent, their insistence on Sunday Mass and regular confession and all these other rules like no sleeping around at college, and no artificial birth control and no divorce and remarriage etc. They will quote St. Paul by saying that we are not saved by “…works of the law.” “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law.” (Romans 3:20) etc.  They will interpret this passage and such others as saying that we can do whatever we want if we have faith in Jesus. We are saved and can’t get unsaved. Gosh, I hope they’re right.

If the Old Testament said we can’t eat pork, but now we can eat pork, why can’t we do what we want with whomever we want? Why do Catholics have all these rules if Jesus did away with the law? Why do we insist on obeying only ten of the commandments when apparently, there are 613 of them? Why have any law if we are not saved by a work of the law?

Next week, the thrilling answer. I hope.

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)