Monday, May 31, 2004


5/30 -- Who is a great Jew?

5/23 -- A quick thought about Jesus' Jewish context.

5/11 -- Looking for a publisher.

Sunday, May 30, 2004


Just about every page of the Talmud and all of rabbinic literature is dedicated to answering this question. Not merely who is a good Jew, but what qualities does it take to achieve greatness as a Jew? Who is reaching the heights that God expects of us?

It sounds daunting, but it's not as severe and judgmental a question as you might think. There's more than one way to get there. There is a lot of humor and freedom along the way. There are no absolute positions, just guiding posts, things to occasionally measure yourself by, not harmfully judge yourself by.

There is one discussion in the Talmud that is not the most interesting but it does capture the essence of what the rabbis are frequently after. Someone makes the comment that, from Moses to Rabbi (Judah the Prince, 135-219 CE), there has been no one who combines sacred learning and secular greatness (perhaps from our point of view, we could rephrase it as "moral and political greatness in one person").

Various candidates are thrown up to disprove this statement (including Saul, the prophet Samuel, David, Solomon) and each one is shot down as failing for various reasons. The conclusion you are left with is that great Jews, such as Moses and Judah the Prince, are very rare indeed. It is also a lamentation on the low quality of most political leaders. A truly great leader of the community would be more mindful of continually learning and thinking about what God requires.

And what does God require? It is has always struck me as exceptionally humbling for us all that it took one of the minor prophets, Micah, to put it so succinctly: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Mic 6:8).

One day (a couple of generations before Jesus was born), Shemaiah and Avtalyon, the two great Pharisees who were the teachers of Hillel, were out for a walk. A crowd that had respectfully been following a high priest abandoned him and switched their allegiance to Shemaiah and Avtalyon. The high priest was very annoyed by this.

When the two Pharisees approached him, he greeted them as "Sons of the Nations [Gentiles]", thus reminding them that they were descended from gentile converts to Judaism. They realize this is intended as an insult and remind the priest that it is better to do the deeds of Aaron, brother of Moses and founder of the priestly line, who was known in Jewish legend for being a peacemaker, than to be merely descended from Aaron.

This was their way of answering the question "Who is a great Jew?" Not bloodline, but a certain spirituality determines great Jewishness. Hillel would later say, "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures, and drawing them near to the Torah." There is a saying in the Mishnah that a learned bastard takes precedence over an ignorant high priest. There is that emphasis on learning again, which is open to anyone. The Pharisees favored a culture that depended more on merit -- on earned and learned qualities -- than genetic breeding.

By the way, Josephus reports that Shemaiah and Avtalyon refused to take an oath of loyalty to the king Herod the Great, and before Herod became king, Shemaiah, or perhaps it was another, Simeon ben Shetach, once rebuked the Sanhedrin, of which he was a member, for showing too much deference to Herod who was on trial for murder (he had killed some men for being robbers without giving them a trial). (It is hard to tell whether Shemaiah or Simeon is meant because Josephus renders the name in Greek as Sameas, which could be either one.) The words of Sameas seem to have had an effect as the Sanhedrin became determined to do its duty, but the king Hyrcanus helped Herod escape.

In a market place, a couple of rabbis once met the prophet Elijah, wandering the earth ever since he ascended to heaven. They asked him who here would get to heaven. No one, Elijah answered. No one? Nope, no one. Then two new people arrived and Elijah said, Ah those two, they are destined for heaven. Amazed and curious, the two rabbis approach the men and ask them who they are. They answer that they are clowns, comics. Their job is to come between men who are quarreling and bring about reconciliation. A Jew who does that is a great Jew. Very much like the answer of Avtalyon and Shemaiah and Hillel.

The rabbis were not above criticizing themselves as examples of not being great Jews. They often rebuke their own wisdom (or lack of it) and behavior. Just think of the first discussion I reported in this essay. From Moses to Judah, there were no great Jews. And another added, From Judah to Rabbi Ashi, again no great Jews. That's a heck of a lot of Jews in between who fall short and it includes many Pharisees and rabbis.

Rabbi Ze'era used to spend a lot of time with some criminals in the hope of making them better men. The other rabbis were very disapproving of his scandalous behavior. Then R. Ze'era died and the criminals bemoaned the fact that they had no one now who cared for them. They mourned his death and repented, thus fulfilling Ze'era's hopes. The rabbis failed to be as great as R. Ze'era was about this, but they were great enough to record this story to stand as censure of themselves. R. Ze'era was right and they were wrong.

It gets complicated, you see. You can succeed in some ways and fail in others. One of the most famous stories in the Talmud is about a group of rabbis who are debating a point of Torah. One of them, Rabbi Eliezer, seems to be winning because he keeps calling on miracles, including a voice from heaven, to vindicate him, and each time, the miracle occurs. The other rabbis do not accept this. Miracles are not an answer. Rabbi Joshua actually tells heaven to stay out of it, reprimanding the heavenly voice with a line from Moses, "It is not in heaven" (Deut 30:12). The wandering Elijah later reports that God laughed and said, "My children have conquered me [or, outvoted me]."
Great lesson though it is, it is not the end of the story.

It is a great lesson because it depicts God as loving to be challenged. He wants you to argue with him and figure things out for yourself. God gave us Torah and reason so that we could struggle to understand and not merely obey. The great model for this is Abraham who argued with God about whether it was right to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham was an example of a great Jew. The rabbis contrasted Abraham to Noah who meekly obeyed God when God said he would bring a flood to destroy the people and ordered Noah to build an ark for himself and his family. Noah was an immature son of God compared to Abraham who would have given God an argument about it.

But the rabbis recorded the story about the debate with R. Eliezer as much to criticize themselves as to praise themselves for being intimate with God and wrestling with him (which is, after all, what "Israel" means -- he who wrestles with God). For after they heard God's approval in Elijah's words, it went to their heads. They became arrogant and decided to ban Eliezer from being a rabbi (because he did not go along with the majority decision). Eliezer was humiliated.

The rabbis had forgotten that humiliating another (which causes blood to drain from the face) is the same as shedding blood. They specifically make this lesson part of the story. They also forgot that God always listens to a wounded heart; the gate of tears to God is never closed. As a result of R. Eliezer's wounded prayers, another rabbi, R. Gamaliel, one of the leaders against him, died. Their humiliation of Eliezer led to loss of life. So the rabbis remember that they succeeded in being great Jews like Abraham and then failed.

There are so many stories showing this double consciousness. There is the rabbi who insulted a man by calling him the ugliest man he ever had ever seen. When the man told him to complain to God who had made him, the rabbi had to beg his forgiveness. And I do mean beg for such a long time. Only the intervention of the townspeople brought some peace. And the rabbi taught for the rest of his life that the reason scribes use a pliable reed to make copies of Torah is because to learn Torah properly one has to be able to bend.

Then there is Rabbi Meir who unintentionally brought about the suicide of his wife Beruriah. She was very learned in Torah and often made corrections to her husband's opinions which he accepted. He once prayed for the death of some lawless men, perhaps in part because Psalm 104:35 reads "Let sinners cease out of the earth." But she offered the reading, "Let sin cease out of the earth." He took her advice and prayed that sin cease, that is, it would cease as a result of the sinners repenting, which indeed took place.

But R. Meir once told his wife that he would prove the truth of the statement of the sages that women are lightheaded, a saying that Beruriah had mocked. Without telling her, he convinced one of his students to seduce her. She rebuffed the student's advances many times before giving in. When she found out what her husband had done, she killed herself.

Now Beruriah was a great Jew. So was her husband to a point. But he failed when he did this to his wife. And the rabbis remember it all. They can be scathing in denouncing themselves and their own failures. A midrash on one of the Psalms says that you should hate public office and love repentance; never be so attached to reputation that you are afraid to repent when it means giving up office.

Resh Lakish once ruled that a Nassi (one of the two leaders of the Pharisees) who sins must be flogged. The Nassi was very angry and Resh Lakish had to flee. Later, they were reconciled, but the Nassi asked him why he would make a decision that degrades the honor of the Nassi. Resh Lakish responded, "Do you think that fear would prevent me from teaching God's Torah?"

Reading rabbinic literature is not unlike reading Shakespeare. You will find the whole range of human nature displayed there.

So on occasion, a rabbi might offer himself as an answer to the question of this essay. "Yes, me, I am a great Jew," though they don't literally put it this way. When some rabbis argued the point of how we know that saving life suspends the laws of Shabbat, they offered various derivations from verses of Torah. But Samuel (not the prophet), who came later, trumps them all by getting to the heart of the matter.

He very self-consciously stated, "If I had been there, I should have told them something better than what they said." Other rabbis agreed that his argument refuted all the others. One said of Samuel's opinion, "Better is one corn of pepper than a whole basket full of pumpkins." And Samuel knew it.

Another rabbi responded in debate to the majority who pointed out that he was all alone in espousing the opinion he did, What do I care? I am the first of all who will come after me. He was very sure that he was founding the best opinion for future generations to follow. The Mishnah concedes this is a possibility. It states that minority opinions will be recorded because you never know when a future generation will wish to form a conclusion different than the majority does today; this minority opinion may thus be of value to that future majority.

Hillel once arrived at a festival and said, "If I am here, all is here; if I am not here, what is here?" It sounds like something you might hear Jesus say on occasion. It is not hard to see where Jesus got his sense of authority from. It is was a very Pharisaic and rabbinic thing to do.

There is a lot more that could be said about all of this. Don't be surprised at finding some contradictory answers when Jews, including Jesus, go searching for the answer to the question "Who is a great Jew?" And in Jesus' case, you don't have to focus on the question of whether he thought he was the Messiah. "Messiah" is only one answer to the question of greatness and not necessarily the best. Apart from any ideas about a coming Messiah and kingdom of God, Jesus would have been concerned all his life with the question of "Who is a great Jew?" His stories and parables testify to that.

Sometimes, the humblest answers are the best. Who is great? He who makes himself small, small enough to know that he doesn't know all the answers. The answer is a story, a bunch of stories, the stories that Jews and all peoples are always telling.

The answer is you who tell the story. Isn't it? You are the storyteller, you are the audience listening to your own story, and you are the characters in the story you're telling. You are Shemaiah and you are Herod. You are Beruriah and you are Meir. You are Moses and Judah and Jesus and all the unknowns in between. You are a lost story. If you are not all of them, how can you even ask the question who is great?

According to Josephus, when Sameas (who might be either Shemaiah or Simeon ben Shetach, as I said) criticizes the Sanhedrin, he makes a point of saying that he doesn't criticize Herod who is only doing what a man of political power does. (Was Sameas saying that Herod was a son of a bitch who was doing what a son of a bitch does?) Sameas describes the way Herod intimidates the Sanhedrin: He does not come submissively, as is the custom, dressed in black in mourning over the heavy accusation against him, but he "stands here clothed in purple, and with the hair of his head finely trimmed, and with his armed men about him, that if we shall condemn him by our law, he may slay us."

Sameas' big complaint is against the king Hyrcanus and the Sanhedrin for allowing Herod to get away with this kind of behavior in court. In other words, he is not concerned with Herod. The bastard is gonna do what a bastard is gonna do. But Sameas wants the king and the Sanhedrin to stand up and act like men and make God proud of them. Very early on, Pharisees had set themlseves up as interpreters of constitutional (Torah) law, applying it to kings, priests, and even leaders of Pharisees.

As I noted, the Sanhedrin was inspired to do its duty, but Hyrcanus helped Herod escape, even though the mothers of the men slain by Herod had gone to the Temple every day, demanding that Herod be tried.

From Josephus' description, you can feel what it is like to be a powerful, arrogant man like Herod, a gangster type. You can feel the fear of the Sanhedrin who could be slaughtered at a moment's notice if Herod gave his men the order. (Josephus says that when Herod finally did become king, he slew all the members of this Sanhedrin.) You quake a little as Sameas takes the risk that this could be the last speech he ever utters.

You know who is great only when you feel in yourself what it is like to be small and afraid and far from greatness and what it is like to be the sadistic man of power who will keep men small. You must know the other end of it -- that these other possibilities too are somewhere inside you -- or greatness is a cheap lie.

But you knew that you had to know it all when you were a kid. You were the horse and the rider, and the little boy pretending to be both and the boy who told his adventures the next day to his friends and to anyone who would listen, as Antonio Munoz Molina beautifully describes it in his book "Sepharad". Weren't you all these things?

You are Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, and you are Esmeralda and the priest Claude Frollo, you are Jean Valjean and you are Javert, you are Victor Hugo, Victor Hugo who wrote that the best years of our lives are yet to come. You are the next story coming down the block, looking for greatness, or fearful it will find you.

Sunday, May 23, 2004


It's a cinch Jesus did not watch TV or see movies. The popular forms of entertainment in his day would have been storytelling and music. His mother and father most likely would have been the first source of the stories and songs he heard. Also, every village had its elders and popular entertainers. There were probably many occasions that he sat in a circle with other kids and listened to tales of Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Hillel, and many more.

In fact, Hillel may have still been alive when Jesus was a child. The latest date I have seen assigned for Hillel's death is 10 C.E. And Jesus' birth may have been as early as 6 B.C.E. So Jesus could have been as old as 16 when Hillel died. It is not impossible that he studied at his feet.

So what kind of stories would he have heard? And where do you find these stories? In rabbinic literature which is a compilation of oral traditions. Some of these stories may date from later than the 1st century, but many go back that far and further. Oral traditions in any culture are in development for a long time. They do not suddenly appear on the scene in spontaneous combustion.

We don't know which stories in rabbinic literature Jesus would have heard, but it is a safe bet that he heard some of them. As for those that really did come after his time, he would have heard stories very like them. Rabbinic literature is our best source -- our only source, really -- for the kinds of things he heard.

When I read the Gospels, I constantly hear echoes of stories about Hillel or Honi the Circle Drawer or any number of others. Remember that these are stories that Jesus and his audiences would have had in common. They both heard the same stories. So with just a couple of words or phrases, Jesus can evoke these memories in his listeners.

We don't think enough about these things. In fact, I don't know of any writer or scholar, Jewish or Christian, who searches the Gospels for the cultural memories of Jesus' time which he would have tapped into when he spoke. It is yet another sign of how irrational scholarship on Jesus is. No other figure in history is studied this way. No other figure is so resolutely stripped of his cultural background as Jesus is.

When people avoid something this obvious, it can only be because of some deep-seated prejudice or fear. People are afraid to find out how Jewish he was. People don't mind saying that Jesus was Jewish. But the details of his Jewishness are avoided. People want Jesus to be Jewish enough to combat any charges of racism in scholarship, but not so Jewish as to combat preconceptions of him.

For most people, Jesus is still a generic man who communed directly with God while wandering the hills of Galilee, coming up with universal wisdom which has no ethnic coloring. An ethnic Jesus appears too small to people. But Jesus would have seen nothing small in it. To be a Jew was for him a great thing. It is a shame we still cannot see him as he would have seen himself. It is a shame that we still think wisdom has to be purified of all particularity and made into a bland universality.

We've only had peeks at Jesus the Jew. The full story is yet to come.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004


I never do this (and that may be the problem, perhaps I should do this once in a while), but I am still looking for a publisher for my book "The Ghost in the Gospels". I could use some help. A book that finally, rationally presents the truth about how Jesus died (Jewish leaders tried to save his life and Judas never betrayed him) ought to cause some excitement, don't you think?

It also exposes the prejudiced reasoning of scholars who select and omit evidence to fit their preconceived agenda. This too should add to the controversy. A book like this is bound to sell well.

Don't tell me about self-publishing, print on demand, etc. That's a waste of time unless you have the money to advertise and even to hire a publicist. A good publicist is expensive, but they get the job done. If I had that kind of money, self-publishing would make sense.

So if anyone has any connection to a legitimate publisher who would be thrilled to publish a solidly researched book that will turn the world on its ear, just email me. We'll talk.

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