Thursday, March 27, 2014


In 1968, Australian anthropologist W.E.H Stanner gave a lecture on the radio. The lecture was called “The Great Australian Silence”. It was about the academic and popular failure to confront what colonialism had done to the Aborigines. It was primarily a failure of memory and an inability to deal with the significance of the dispossession of the Aborigines.
In his lecture, he said, “Inattention on such a scale cannot possibly be explained by absent-mindedness. It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape.” He called this “a cult of forgetfulness” and continued, “We have been able for so long to disremember the aborigines that we are now hard put to keep them in mind even when we most want to do so.”
These words are uncannily just as true for Jews or, more precisely, for ancient Jewish culture and the way it is treated in Christian scholarship. New Testament scholars leave out quite a lot about ancient Jewish culture. This cannot be explained by mere absent-mindedness. Misrepresenting ancient Judaism has become a structural matter. Even when scholars say they want to do right by the history of Jewish culture, it has become impossible to remember clearly because theology has structurally altered the landscape of Jewish history. There is an ingrained cult of forgetfulness that is hard to escape.
The recent book Zealot by Reza Aslan is no exception. In the post below this, I briefly explained why the theory of Jesus as a Zealot does not hold up. What bothers me even more about Aslan’s book is the sub-title: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. There is precious little of the times—Jesus’s Jewish context—in this book. This makes it like almost every other book on the subject. Aslan does make an effort to be more fair to ancient Jews. He describes the Pharisees as friendly and doubts there was a Jewish trial of Jesus. But it is a minimal effort. He never sees all the evidence in Josephus that Jewish leaders would never cooperate with Romans to get rid of Jews troublesome to Rome.
Just as bad, he relies on the usual stereotypes of Judaism. He gives us far too much of the typical trivialization of Jewish culture into a religion of picayune rituals and observances. There are constant references to ‘strict adherence to Torah or the Law,’ as if this were the greatest concern of Jews, as if they measured each other by strictness and literal devotion to the rules. At one point, he calls circumcision and dietary restrictions “basic matters” in Judaism (179).Was there nothing more basic than that? I am sick of this kind of writing about Jewish society. It’s the product of the cult of forgetfulness.
Aslan has absolutely no sense of the flexible nature of Torah or its function as a Constitution that served both to battle arbitrary power and to adapt to the needs of the people. One ancient rabbi said that in order to be able to study Torah properly, you had to be as pliable as the reed used for pens to make copies of Torah. Also missing from Aslan’s work are the great constitutional battles the Pharisees fought, which is a tad more important than the friendly nature of Pharisees and perhaps two tads more important than circumcision. Whether it was insisting that a king could be compelled to testify in court or that an aristocrat (the young Herod) should be put on trial for violating an accused person’s right to due process, the Pharisees were doing this 1500 years before the British Parliament was engaged in similar battles with its kings. To neglect one of the most vital things about ancient Jewish culture in favor of the trivial—and every culture has its adornments and practices which may be colorful or not, but they don’t really tell us anything very deep—is an injustice so outrageous, it takes my breath away. We are so used to this in New Testament scholarship and historical Jesus studies that “we are now hard put to keep them [the profound aspects of Judaism] in mind even when we most want to do so,” as Stanner would have said.
An equally egregious act of forgetfulness in Aslan’s book comes when he tells us that ancient Jews did not include foreigners or strangers in the idea of neighbor so that they would not have applied “love your neighbor” to them (121-22). What a gross misrepresentation this is.
The stranger or immigrant (Hebrew: ger) is mentioned about 36 times in Torah. Jews are bidden not to forget the immigrant, to help or be kind to the immigrant, practice justice towards him, do not do him wrong, keep one law for both native and immigrant, and yes, even to love the immigrant and stranger because Jews were once strangers in a foreign land, so they know what it is like to be mistreated in a foreign country (e.g., Ex 22:21, 23:9; Lev 19:33-34; Deut 27:19). Moses even includes the stranger in the covenant with God. Love of neighbor and love of stranger are actually very near each other in Leviticus. It is a spectacular act of prejudice that anyone could see one and not the other.

Kindness to the stranger is central to the foundational consciousness of Jewish culture. Israel is not a monolithic dream of a homogenous people. It was always about diversity. Pointedly, at no point are the children of Israel commanded to convert the stranger to the single cause of Israel. Their difference is respected.
None of this means that native-born and foreigners were absolutely equal in Israel. No culture has achieved that. But as far as respecting the rights of strangers, immigrants, outsiders, ancient Israel did pretty well, even by modern standards.
There are many threads in Torah. You can also find some animosity towards foreigners, as is usual in most cultures. I would never argue that Torah is exclusively about one thing. The question for any culture is: What is the whole story? Reslan has left out quite a lot. He just so happens to have left out everything that makes ancient Jews look less provincial and less tribal. There is a method to this madness of forgetfulness. It is not Reslan’s fault. He is participating in a cult that has become standard in academia. He wants to fit right in and he does.
It should not be surprising that many gentiles were attracted to Judaism and that Judaism welcomed them. Gentiles could adopt some Jewish customs, without converting all the way, and became partial Jews, or God-fearers, as they were known. Paul owed his success entirely to the gentile God-fearers. They were his first audience. Early Christianity built on Judaism’s appeal to gentiles. But Aslan would have his readers believe that ancient Jewish culture was parochial and tribal, while Christianity was universal. He would have his readers join the cult of forgetfulness.
As Stanner said, this kind of forgetfulness is too structural to be a mere accident. While no one person or institution is orchestrating this, academia as a whole is morally responsible for this nonsense and each scholar has to take responsibility for joining this cult or opposing it. Which side are you on, boys and girls, which side are you on?
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

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