Sunday, October 07, 2007

Torah Rules

Lilla stumbles when he asserts that "When the ancient Hebrews were an independent kingdom, they had been ruled exclusively by the Torah-- that is, by divine rather than human law" (p. 56). If he means the written Torah, it was adequate for managing a Temple service that was based on offerings of grain and animals, but it falls short of being a comprehensive legal code. If he means the oral Torah, it suggests that he is unaware that it developed no earlier than Christianity. And while it is certainly true that a scriptural "justification" was claimed for every regulation in the oral Torah, this was often at the expense of the plainest meaning of the text; for example, the Rabbinic transformation of "an eye for an eye" to be monetary damages.

Lilla stumbles further when he continues: "But Christianity was not law-based, at least not in that earlier sense; it preserved the Decalogue but abolished the highly developed system of Jewish law in favor of a law of the heart." It is a Christian assertion that Christianity abolished Jewish law. Yes, it turned its back on the covenantal and priestly Judaism of its time, but that on which it turned its back was itself far less than the legal code that Judaism ultimately developed. Halakah did not precede Christian political theology. Hillel and Shammai laid the foundation for Rabbinic Judaism within a hundred years of the birth of Christ. The development and codification of Rabbinic Judaism unfolded simultaneously with the development of Christianity. Christianity could not abolish what had not preceded it.

Both Jew and Christian faced the same existential dilemma at the same time: the Torah could only serve as a blueprint if it was read esoterically, which is what the "New" Testament and the Talmud each did; the former attempting to step out of history while the latter remained firmly embedded in it, but both imposed a forced "deeper" reading than the surface of the text suggested. (One of my favorite study partners suggests that the dominant Jewish reading was halachic and the dominant Christian reading was aggadic. The important point for me is that the text was necessary but not sufficient for either interpretation.)

At this stage of development, the most important thing that Jew and Christian had in common was the unquestioned assumptions that the meaning of life was based in divine revelation, and that no meaningful order was possible that was not based on the revelation. Of course, there is irony that the ones who first believed that history had ended (the Christians) became a major historical force when they ultimately chose the sword as their means to resolve doctrinal disagreements. The Jews, on the other hand, were so far removed from power that they could be content to conclude most doctrinal disputes by declaring that "these and those" are both the words of God. The Jews never led an Inquisition.

The demand for esoteric readings only increased in confronting the Enlightenment. In the face of science's increasingly sophisticated understanding of the nature of the cosmos, Lilla cites Pascal (p. 63), who bravely reflected, "It is not only just but useful for us that God be partially hidden." Jewish sources confronted the dilemma of a hidden God hundreds of years ahead of Pascal. Moshe Halbertal, in his new book, Concealment and Revelation, traces the tradition of a hidden knowledge to the earliest Talmudic readings of Torah. From Bereshit Rabbah:
R. Yosi beRabbi Hanina said . . . In human practice, when an earthly monarch builds a palace on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage, if one says, "This palace is built on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage," does he not discredit it? Thus, whoever comes to say that this world was created out of tohu and bohu and darkness, does he not impair [God's honor]?
I doubt Halbertal would object to comparing this teaching to Pascal. But Lilla seems unaware that concern for the incompleteness of the revelation goes back to the dawn of theology. He asserts that "modern science broke an age-old link between God and man" (p. 65), but I think that the most he can establish is that it opened the door to philosophies and political systems that had no ties to theology. When science confronts scripture (as for example when the tohu and bohu of this week's parsha are interpreted by a physicist), even if it appears to "impair God's honor," it can still be affirming that there is an embedded revelation, though perhaps one that is yet to be revealed.

The relationship between theology and politics may likewise be hidden in this time and place, and the danger of revealing it, as much to our own as to God's honor. Science has merely peeled away another layer of onion skin between us and God's hidden majesty.


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