A Sermon out of a Stone
Not an easy feat, but the Rabbi managed to pull it off with a little help from Moses (not being allowed to enter into the Promised Land because he tapped on the rock).
She asked an interesting question in the service defining 3 ways of serving God, and asking the members of the congregation to choose which they preferred: prayer, study, or service. I mentally contemplated the different postures, considering the relative role of self in the different postures: begging, thinking, doing…
In the Torah study, we mostly focused on the context of Moses’ pleading with God, and God’s resounding “Big No” which was judged by some to be harsh. We discussed the word “first” in this text (Deuteronomy 3:24), which was deemed by the Rabbi to be an insertion not present in the original Hebrew.
אדני יהוה אתה התלות להראות את עבדך את גדלך ואת ידך החזקה אשר מי
אל בשמים ובארץ אשר יעשה כמעשיך ןכגבורתך
Later, we discussed the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”
שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד
This sacred line is the one that even nonpracticing Jews know as defining them to be Jewish, the line that many would articulate as they were led into the gas chambers (Deuteronomy 6:4). The 10 commandments (with its articulation of the importance of property rights to community stability in commandment 7), had been presented between “The Big No” and the Shema. Just after the Shema, however, had been an articulation that it was ok to go and take the property of those whose land had been conquered, as long as one did not forget God. One notes the hierarchical distinction of 2 values: 1) community membership and 2) property rights.
Those who followed Jewish law, at the time, were visually distinguishable by their outer appearance through circumcision, by the tying of their identification with Jewish law as symbols on their hands (Tefillin), by binding their identification on their foreheads, by writing their identification on the door frames of their homes, and on their gates”, by what they ate, wore, and when they rested. Everyone knew if you followed Jewish law, and could treat you according to certain articulated precepts and consequences if you did. How to treat those who were not Jewish was determined through prayer on a case by case basis. Did one fight them? Did one enslave them? Did one treat them kindly?
Tolerance is a relatively modern idea, and it is of interest to try to define its limits, and its importance relative to other values. Is our modern conception of tolerance contingent upon the security of a certain level of law enforcement, or a certain level of comfort?
The whole passage was followed by a discussion of the Oneness of God. The Rabbi noted that she rarely has to give this sermon in today’s communities: people of Jewish faith are seldomly tempted to follow other gods like the tribal communities they lived in formerly, where wives acquired through conquest would bring in idols and other pagan ideas.
These thoughts were followed by a discussion of the implication of God’s oneness in the intellectual and historical context of its statement. The Israelites had come out of Egyptian captivity with its religious structure, they had also known other middle eastern cultures having lived in, and traveled from Ur. At the time of the Shema’s articulation, the Greeks (a largely sea-faring culture who surely would have had contact with the Jews) were developing a hierarchical multitheistic vision of higher power with explanations of the nature of the various gods through their myths. Land trade routes from China to Egypt existed at the time, with the cultural interchange that this provided. The Rigveda (oldest Indian religious text) predates the Torah by quite a bit. Indian origins of Hinduism are known to have been established with at least 5 different schools including the Cārvāka an atheist school established in the 6th century BCE contemporary with Buddha. and Zoroastrianism would already be mentioned by the Greek Herodotus in “The Histories” completed c 440 BCE. Different religious structures were being defined and codified. Judaism addressed the fractionation of power present in other surrounding religions and consolidated this power reducing it to one entity.
By the mid-400‘s BCE, the rabbinical tradition had evolved in Babylonian exile from a central Temple structure to a more dispersed school, where various points of Jewish law were being individually considered and disputed by the various schools.
In a somewhat parallel way the Greeks were developing formal methods of challenging knowledge. With the advent of Greek philosophy, a formal structure for being able to test and reject ideas, and definitions of power was evolving. There would be some information exchanged between the 2 societies, through commerce.
If power was going to be multi-polar, what exactly would be the ranking of the power? Splitting of the conception of power does eventually occur in the Tanakh. In the Jewish conception of power, Satan is not formally articulated until Joshua performs a census (well after the establishment of Israel). There is however the Balaak-Balaam story, and also the Destroyer in Exodus 12:23. In the Islamic tradition (also Abrahamic) formulated over 600 years after Christ, who was about 1000 years after the historical formulation of Jewish law, the creation story has Satan present from the very beginning in the creation story.
I remember hearing a sermon once where the priest asked us to affirm our rejection of Satan. I considered the question, and realized that if God allowed Satan to exist, who was I to say that Satan should not exist? Too little.
The Rabbi noted the conceptual problem of sainthood in later Christian communities (Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodox) as icons were formed, and people prayed to saints. I noted the cultural transition that occurred when the American Indians had been “Christianized”, and that this transition had likely been facilitated by the images of saints. Saints were “the little person’s” appeal to a figure who had God’s special interest. People used them because they lacked the belief that their own existence had such an enormous impact that they could appeal directly to such a Big God. Instead, they would talk to a saint.
The God of the Israelites was the God of survival under unfathomable odds – no water, no food, slavery, no home for 40 years…wandering in the heat, enemies that were giants and outnumbered them, the God that yet provided, a path, and land. How sinful is it to believe that one is too little to be comfortable talking directly to such a big God? To have been reduced by slavery or oppression to see a physical representation of God’s abstract image in a human form?
What is a priest?
If the physical manifestation of praying to images of god includes licentiousness, revelry, feasting, drunkenness, drugs, human sacrifice, war-gloating, and orgies, as many of the ritual celebrations did at the time, it is of one interest. A community, or coming together of people, can be motivated by pleasure.
If the physical manifestation of praying to images of god includes exhortations to self-sacrifice, this is of another interest. Law, which by definition is a community enterprise, is achievable by strengthening community through joint common appeal to lustful senses and power (the mob), or by weakening the individual’s power relative to an ideal with effective self-immolation and sacrifice.
In both cases, the community can become a bully, and one must question the role of religion in this bullying.
I stopped on the way back to spend $10 on lunch at Niko’s, a Greek cafe in the heart of the Houston gay community. I could not really afford it, but it was a rare opportunity for my own vision of personal healing – to assert my right to be treated like a participating member of the community with the private right to choose what I wanted. For $10, it was pretty decent therapy. The cafe, although hopping, cleared a little area outside, and it felt like Greece.