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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

OTHERWISE ENGAGED 

I am deeply engrossed in finishing proofreading and indexing my book, Darwin's Racism. I don't have time to do anything else this month, so no new post for now.  I hope I will have something next month. 'Till then.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

A SHORT HISTORY 

I think that one day I shall write an essay entitled “A Short History of All the Academics who Ever Lived, even though We Wish They Hadn’t”. It will be lovelier than a tree. I probably won’t write it until after I’m dead and gone, as dead writers are known to write the shortest essays. The essay will contain only one sentence: “And now it’s time to say good-bye.” This won’t prevent people from misquoting me. They will say I wrote, “It’s never time to say good-bye,” though some will dispute that and claim it was “There’s never enough time to say good-bye.” They’re both wrong. So I want it clearly on the record now that I never said “It’s never time” or “There’s never enough time.” What I actually said (or, will say, when I write it) is “And now it’s time to say good-bye.” Of course, properly speaking, it isn’t possible to quote or misquote an essay that has not yet been written. So we, or actually I, am getting ahead of myself. That doesn’t matter. It’s never too soon to set the record straight. Essays come and essays go. Misquotations live forever. And not only misquotations, but all sorts of misrepresentations. Academics know this better than anyone. That’s why they do it. None of this, however, will be in my essay, which will be only the one sentence. I won’t repeat it. A pity that this summary of my simple essay is longer than the essay itself, but that’s to be expected from a still living writer who can’t find the time to shut up.


© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, February 27, 2016

GHOSTS 

Renée Bergland’s The National Uncanny, which is about the ways in which Native Americans haunt the imagination of European Americans, reminds us that “Writing and ghost seeing are intimately connected.” Whenever we write about anything we are “Summoning the Invisible World”, as one chapter title has it—the intangible world of people and things that are not present and cannot be physically touched. This is especially true of historical writing. History itself is “thought of as ghostly.”

But I think Bergland would agree that it is one thing to be turned into a ghost by the natural course of life as generation succeeds generation, and it is quite another thing to be made into a ghost by people who do this to you so that you can be rendered insubstantial and without title to land, rights, or any other considerations. Some of the points Bergland makes with respect to American Indians: “the ghosting of Indians is a technique of removal”, “Ghosts are the things that we try to bury, but that refuse to stay buried”, and “ghosts often protest unlawful transfers of political power.”

Ghosts confront us with our fears and guilt. Ghosts remind us how difficult it is to get entirely rid of a people and imagine a future without them. They just won’t go away. So it has been with Aborigines around the world and so it has been for Jews.

Jews lost their land a long time ago (only to regain it in the 20th century), but the ghosting of Jews was never primarily about loss of land. Jews were denied a living future by freezing them in time. One of the many myths about Jews and Jewish culture—and one that was fostered by scholars more than by popular misconceptions—is that Judaism reached its height under Moses, then steadily declined until the 1st century, at which time Jesus came to reprimand Jews and, when they wouldn’t listen, took his message to gentiles, leaving Jews trapped in an unchanging, primitive religion of rituals and purity concerns.

If you think about it, this kind of ghostliness was applied to more than just Jews. This is what was done to all Aborigines. By calling a people inferior and uncivilized, western civilization was claiming that we Europeans have advanced, while indigenous peoples are stuck in a timeless primitivism, the result of which is that they can never fully participate in the life of the advanced culture. With respect to life in the western, civilized world, the so-called primitives can never be more than just ghosts.

This was applied not only to Aborigines, but to slaves and ex-slaves. Emancipation changed nothing. Racists have sought to undermine the continuing presence of African-Americans by promoting precisely this thought that this people is mired in a primitive past from which they can never escape to share in the fruits of modern life. Ghosts are part of a non-living culture. If you make a people ghostly in your imagination, it is that much easier to treat their real lives with callous disregard. Think it, make it acceptable in imagination and words, then do it, carry it out. That is the root of all genocidal policies.

This has been true of the history of Jews in the west. But there is another problem here for Jews, exacerbating the underlying dilemma which faces all Aboriginal peoples. It brings me back to what I said above about the myth of Jewish culture having been frozen in time.

For Christians, there is a huge fear that the discovery of the historical, very Jewish Jesus will be an end to their religion. But what is this fear really about? For Christians, Jesus is a living presence. The fear is that a too Jewish Jesus will be an inhabitant of a ghostly culture and will himself be turned into a ghost. It is the difference between life and death.

But Jews as ghosts is a myth, as it is a myth for every Aboriginal group. Jewish culture was never dead or dying, not in the time of Jesus or since. Jesus was not lecturing a dying culture. He was part of and an active participant in a culture that was very much still in bloom. Seeing Jesus as a Jew is to see a lively Jew. Jews in a sense defined themselves by how fiercely they could debate God on matters of justice and peace. God wanted them to keep seeking and refining the Constitution, the Torah. The living, flexible Torah was the lifeblood of Judaism and this was no less true for Jesus, Rabbi Joshua of Nazareth. The Gospels, even John, frequently call him rabbi, they contain this memory, which is no ghostly memory, and they do this precisely because there was so much liveliness in the activity of rabbis.

There is no contradiction between Jesus as a Jew and Jesus as a living presence for Christians. They actually reinforce each other. When the myth of Jews stuck in time, stuck in a primitive religion, loses its force, it will be much easier to see and accept the historical Jesus. 

I reach this conclusion with a fair degree of optimism which may be unwarranted. Ghosts, particularly the ghosts of a conquered culture, are really a very confusing business (as Bergland too recognizes). For some, they represent the success of the conquerors’ mission which was to displace and dispossess another culture and render it invisible. On the other hand, the existence of ghosts rebukes this accomplishment, especially if it depended heavily on injustice. Ghosts undermine the victory, or at least the satisfaction in it. Ghosts summon up fear and guilt. They are not welcome.

They are not welcome most of all because they question all triumph—and not just in theory. They implicitly threaten to return to life:  We survived after all. We’re not as gone, as disappeared, as you think. We can tell the truth about what happened, we can bring back banished events, we can expose lies and hubris. We bear witness.

And that really gets to the heart of it. Whatever ghosts mean to different people—whether they prove the conquerors were victorious or they rebuke the conquerors and induce guilt—what they ultimately do is they bear witness. They speak truth to power. That is our deepest fear. They bear witness to truth and lies. That’s a big thing to be legitimately afraid of. 

Jews have for the most part successfully fought the efforts to turn them into ghosts. Independent Jewish culture never disappeared. There were Christian attempts in the Middle Ages to burn the Talmud and even to edit it, but these attempts were limited and mostly a failure. The most seriously compromised Jewish source were the writings of the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus who became Christian property. That was because Jews abandoned him, which is another story. Suffice it to say that an independent Jewish culture and connection to historical sources was always alive and well, and that means a connection to Jesus’s historical context has been maintained. Neither Jewish history nor a Jewish Jesus is a ghost, despite efforts by scholars to render them ghostlike.

Of course, many scholars tend to dream they are successful, even when they are not. For them, Jewish ghostliness is the reality. So Jesus is a ghost too, and as I said, ghosts bear witness. Jesus bears witness to age-old Jewish advice. You will find it in rabbinic literature and in the Gospels: Whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Ghosts teach humility. Not all victories are final or forever. Maybe no victories are. The vanquished will live again. The disappeared cultures will return. If you believe in that Jesus, then the historical, Jewish Jesus is no one to fear. He brings only the good news of a living, thriving culture returning (it never really went away), still teaching its message of government by Constitution, firmly based on being in love with justice.

© 2106 Leon Zitzer



Wednesday, January 27, 2016

MY PERIODIC APPEAL TO TV WRITERS OF DETECTIVE SHOWS 

This may get boring to people and somewhat humiliating for myself (what would my life be without a lot of humiliation?), but every so often I have to repeat my appeal to TV writers of crime dramas. They understand scientific method better than anyone else. They know what it means to speak truth to power which is what their detective creations are often called upon to do. Could we please pay attention to the evidence and not go after someone for ideological reasons or emotional reasons? That is scientific method in a nutshell.

All the TV detectives I have seen know that a fundamental rule of science is that if a theory is not explaining the evidence very well, then for pity’s sake, TRY ANOTHER THEORY!

In historical Jesus studies, no one does that. Everyone knows that “Jewish leaders prosecuting Jesus or helping Rome to prosecute Jesus” does not explain the evidence in the Gospels. Never mind that it also does not fit the Jewish historical context. Nothing in the Gospel accounts (of what happened on Jesus’ last night) resembles a Jewish trial. But instead of trying a different theory, scholars just try spinning the old theory in new ways. So they will try: Well, maybe Jewish leaders held a hearing, not a trial, and maybe it was a preliminary hearing for the Roman trial. But this is the same old idea of a Jewish procedure hostile to Jesus, dressed up to sound new. This does not explain the evidence any better BECAUSE IT IS JUST THE SAME THEORY of hostility and persecution by Jewish leaders. It does not work any better than the previous spin on this ancient idea. 

Never mind that ancient Jewish culture did not hold hearings and never, ever helped Rome prosecute Jews. It seems to be too much to ask scholars to pay very close to Jewish context.

Maybe try a truly different theory. Like: Jewish leaders trying to help Jesus and save him from a Roman execution. That would explain why the details in the Gospels resemble an informal hearing more than a trial. And it explains a whole lot more, like the details concerning Judas. His story is so ambiguous. No one would tell the story of a traitor that way. The ambiguities can more easily be explained if he was helping Jesus.

I realize I am laying down only broad hints here.  The full case for everything is presented in my two books. True Jew is more recent and shorter. Think of me as Brenda Leigh Johnson or Adrian Monk or any of the CSI detectives or the new Sherlock Holmes. I am just going after the most reasonable theory that will explain all the evidence without mental acrobatics.

There is another way to look at this. And I am hoping that some TV writer will be intrigued enough to take a look at either one of my books.  Links are at the right.

Thanks so much, and have a lovely, crime-free day.


© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Monday, December 28, 2015

ONE THING MISSING 

In the post below, I called the Catholic Church’s 1974 “Guidelines on Religious Relations with the Jews” the best document it has ever produced on this subject. It is so good that it is most often ignored. But there is one thing missing from it. It implies this at certain points but it never comes straight out and says what has needed to be said for a long time: Jews have a different, and more original, relationship to Hebrew scripture than we do, and this must be respected.

It does say, “Dialogue demands respect for the other as he is; above all, respect for his faith and his religious convictions.” As a general statement, that is certainly fine. But this would have been an opportune moment to comment on the fact that for Christians, both the people at large and leading theologians and intellectuals, this has been difficult to do in their understanding of Jews precisely because Jews read the Hebrew scriptures differently than Christians do. The document should have entreated Catholics to specifically respect the Jewish relationship with scripture.

Further on, “Guidelines” refers to the Old Testament as retaining something of “its own perpetual value” but then implies that some parts of the old scripture have been “cancelled by the later interpretation of the New Testament.” It tries not to stress this, but it clearly cannot let go of proclaiming that the New Testament fulfills promises made in the previous scripture. It does go on to correct the false idea that Hebrew scripture and the Jewish tradition founded on it have been wrongly accused of being “a religion of only justice, fear and legalism, with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor.”

On the other hand, “Guidelines” tries to straddle two positions by proclaiming that Jesus’ teaching had “a profoundly new character” and yet he “took his stand on the teaching of the Old Testament.” The best thing about “Guidelines” is that it teaches that Jews have a valid religion in its own right; their traditions and values must not be mocked. It overthrows old Church teaching that Judaism ended with the destruction of the Temple. It just never confronts the conflict between the ideas that Jews will always have their own relationship to Hebrew scripture and that Christians believe Hebrew scripture has been superseded. Perhaps the conflict can never be resolved. What is needed is a clear statement that the conflict is there and has been used in the past to promote disrespect for Jews.

This reminds me of the problems that would come with later European imperialism. At first, meeting new peoples meant that imperial powers like Britain had to respect the laws and customs of indigenous people. But when Britain realized it had the power to impose itself, it abandoned the idea of two jurisdictions existing side by side. It declared that there would be one jurisdiction for Aborigines and white colonists alike. Even in the case of disputes between Aborigines, only British law would be followed. The Other and his ways had to be erased, not respected. In practice, this almost always meant that Aborigines would be subjected to the punishments meted out by British law, but they would never get the benefits of the law.

I point this out so that we don’t forget that ancient problems never go away. The relationship that the Catholic Church long ago established between Jews and Christians would have repercussions in the colonial era. We are still struggling to recognize it and get over it.


© 2105 Leon Zitzer


Sunday, November 29, 2015

THE CHURCH’S “GUIDELINES” 

Last month was the 50th anniversary of the Catholic Church’s Nostra Aetate. Only a small part of it was about relations with Jews. I discussed its inadequacies in the post below. I mentioned there that the best document the Church produced on this subject appeared in 1974, nine years after Nostra Aetate. “Guidelines on Religious Relations with the Jews” was entirely devoted to improving Christian attitudes towards Judaism. It went much further than Nostra Aetate and deserves a separate discussion.

Where Nostra Aetate praised the religious value in Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but was silent on the religious worth of Judaism, it now made up for this in “Guidelines”.

The single best statement in that document was this: “The history of Judaism did not end with the destruction of Jerusalem, but rather went on to develop a religious tradition.” To fully appreciate what a revolution lies buried in this statement, you have to know that from the oldest Church Fathers to the present (1974 and even after), Catholic teaching was that Judaism had effectively come to an end with the destruction of the Temple—which destruction signaled that Christianity had taken over. Judaism had become frozen in time for Christians, and now here was the Church in 1974 overturning that in one fell swoop.

Judaism’s religious tradition, according to “Guidelines”, is “rich in religious values.” Jewish scripture and tradition “must not be set against the New Testament in such a way that the former seems to constitute a religion of only justice, fear and legalism, with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor.” The Jewish soul is “rightly imbued with an extremely high, pure notion of the divine transcendence.” The document encourages Christians “to acquire a better knowledge of the basic components of the religious tradition of Judaism; they must strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience.” It even affirms that there is value in Jewish scripture “that has not been cancelled by the later interpretation of the New Testament.”

“Guidelines” condemns “all forms of anti-semitism and discrimination” both because they harm “the dignity of the human person” and because they harm and ignore “the spiritual bonds and historical links binding the Church to Judaism.” In a footnote, “Guidelines” criticizes the pejorative use of ‘Pharisee’ and ‘Pharisaism’, but I have to wonder how much has been done to actually correct this.

Of course, there are some comments that would be objectionable to Jews (such as to the effect that the New Testament brings out the full meaning of Jewish scripture), but the remarks I have quoted are more abundant and more representative of what “Guidelines” stands for.

One of the most curious things in “Guidelines” is that it does not quite correctly quote Nostra Aetate’s statement about not blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. It leaves out the part where it is said that “Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ.” There are two things that can be said about this interesting omission. One is that the authors of “Guidelines” possibly wanted to make Nostra Aetate’s confession grander and purer than it was (Jews were not to blame, period! No ifs, ands, or buts about it!, which is what many of us wish Nostra Aetate had said). The other is that “Guidelines” seems to have implicitly recognized that blaming Jewish leaders and some wide contingent around them for the death of Jesus is still an offensive remark to make about Jewish culture; hence, they left it out. It is also historically untrue, but I doubt that the authors of “Guidelines” had that in mind.

Besides that, my other criticism of this best of all Catholic documents on Christian relations with Jews is the early reference to the fact that “the gap dividing them [Christianity and Judaism] was deepened more and more, to such an extent that Christian and Jew hardly knew each other.” There is a similar reference to a gap 24 years later in the Church’s 1998 “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah”. What neither document does is give any thought to who and what was responsible for creating that gap. One major contribution was made, and is still made, by the Church’s failure to explore and present Jesus’s full Jewishness. It is a frightening subject to many people (both Christians and Jews) and it helps to create that gap between Jew and Christian. Nothing has changed on that score.

One can wonder how much has been done to fulfill the best parts of the “Guidelines” but there is no denying that it set a high ideal to live up to.

© 2015 Leon Zitzer


Thursday, October 29, 2015

NOSTRA AETATE (In Our Time) 

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate. NPR remembered it as a revolutionary document that radically changed Jewish-Christian relations. NPR also said this proclamation absolved Jews of the charge of killing Jesus. Nostra Aetate actually did not use the language of absolution and quite right that it did not. It would be absurd to absolve a people or an individual of something they never did. It is also not quite right to say that it exonerated Jews, as I will explain below.

Nostra Aetate was actually a very weak statement and not very revolutionary, unless you regard going from doing absolutely nothing to a tiny, tiny effort at improvement as a revolution. This is not a judgment in hindsight. Complaints were made at the time by liberal Catholics that it did not go far enough. In particular, they lamented that a previous draft had said Jews cannot be accused of having committed deicide, but that word was removed from the final version. Conservatives had objected that such a statement could be read as implying that Jesus was not the son of God.

There were two main things that were seriously wrong with this Catholic effort at reconciliation between Jews and Christians. It has to be remembered that the part having to do with Jews was a small part of its purpose. The full title of the document was “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”. Jews were not the main issue. In correcting its relations to other religions, Nostra Aetate sang the praises of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. They may not be Christians, but they have wonderful ideas about God and life.

And what did Nostra Aetate have to say about the goodness of Judaism? Absolutely nothing. Not one word of praise. That is the first thing that made this declaration so weak regarding Jews. The contrast to how it treated other religions is startling. There must have been complaints about this because nine years later in “Guidelines on Religious Relations with the Jews” (Dec. 1, 1974), the Catholic Church made up for the deficiency in Nostra Aetate. Here, Judaism is praised and respect is shown for Judaism’s independent relationship with God.

Between the two, the 1974 “Guidelines” is far more revolutionary than Nostra Aetate, yet it hardly ever receives attention. That just goes to show that true revolutions are often ignored, while inferior efforts are exaggerated out of all proportion to what was actually accomplished. I don’t deny that 1965 marked a change, but it was not because of Nostra Aetate, it was rather because liberal Catholics and liberal Jews incorrectly promoted Nostra Aeatate as doing more that it did and made it out to be some sort of full scale apology which it was not.

The second thing that was deeply wrong with Nostra Aetate concerns what it actually said about Jews and the death of Jesus. It is typically misquoted by quoting it out of context. Even the “Guidelines” misquoted the document on this point. Nostra Aetate does say that Jews today and all Jews in the time of Jesus cannot be blamed for “the crimes committed during his passion.” But it introduces this by firmly declaring, “Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ …” In other words, the Church was affirming its right to blame some Jews for Jesus’s execution, and not just some, but apparently a wide contingent (how wide is left vague) who followed the leaders.

That is the part that most people, including those who authored the 1974 “Guidelines”, leave out when they quote Nostra Aetate. And since in most societies we regard the leaders as representing the culture, then ancient Jewish culture, or some important aspect of it, is still being blamed in Nostra Aetate. That’s not much of an exoneration. And it ignores how much Gospel evidence there is that makes the case against Jewish leaders or any other Jews for complicity in the death of Jesus a very bad case.

What Nostra Aetate stands for is the idea that Church officials will never let go of the traditional story of Jesus’s death; the only thing it will do is not extend the blame to all Jews. The Church would have done a lot better to have retracted all the false things it has said over the centuries about ancient Jewish culture, taken responsibility for having created these stereotypes about Jews and Judaism and for having fomented bad feelings about Jesus’s people and culture, and perhaps above all, encouraged continued study of the New Testament to get to the bottom of what happened to Jesus. It should have admitted that there is no consistent pattern of evidence in the Gospels blaming any Jews for his demise. Therein lies the beginning of a real revolution.

© 2015 Leon Zitzer



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