January 30, 2011

Judaism & Ritual

Another thing Jesus and Paul both had in common was love for God's Law. I don't share that devotion, so much, but I'm convinced they both did.  Whatever else we do with that, it means we shouldn't overgeneralize or misapply Jesus' specific critiques about certain aspects of pre-70 AD Palestinian Judaism. Note well these words by Notre Dame scholar John P. Meier:
an implicitly hostile opposition between the "cultic", "ritual", or "purely legal" elements of Mosaic Law on the one hand and the "truly moral" or "ethical" elements on the other would have been alien to the mind-set of the ordinary Palestinian Jew of Jesus' day. For such a Jew, what was "moral" (if we may use that term) was to do God's will and to walk in his ways as laid out in the Torah God had given to Israel. Doing God's will applied to all areas of one's life, in and out of the temple, in and out of the marketplace, [etc...]. But ancient Jews saw no opposition between a type of behavior that was "purely ritual" (and hence to be considered of little value) and a type of behavior that was "purely moral" (and hence to be highly valued in the eyes of God). -- A Marginal Jew, Volume IV:  Law & Love, p.45
Not sure? Think about it. If this hadn't been true, Paul's dear Gentiles would never have had so much trouble dealing with their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. And although Jesus himself (following several Old Testament Prophets) emphasized "moral" adherence as more important than "ritual" adherence... it must be noted that neither Jesus nor Paul condemned Jewish customs right out - neither absolutely nor categorically.  In fact, both Jesus and Paul criticized Jewish custom *only when* such custom was held over and above the more important aspects of Torah.

Now, shifting gears slightly, let's talk about rituals. I love mine and you love yours, but the Galatians didn't like the Judeans' rituals, and the Reformers didn't like the Catholics' rituals. To this day, it remains common for Protestants (like me!) to rail against someone else's (or one's own former) program as "stiff", "empty", "legalistic", "performance driven", etc. All too often, people leveling such accusations take great encouragement in the example of Jesus' critiques of "the Jews" in the Gospels... but such efforts are getting things backwards.

Once that connection's been made, the Protesters play up those negative stereotypes of Judaism even more. The worse Jewish religion can be made to look, the better Jesus' message looks by comparison, and the stronger that contrast becomes, the more vehemently the new breakaway sect can justify their vitriol against "Religion". This sad tradition goes back at least as far as Martin Luther, whose view of those Judaizers in Galatia was unquestionably influenced by his opinions of the 16th century 'Papists' he was struggling against. Not that those Judaizers weren't bad, but they weren't selling indulgences!

We should all be more careful about what we add to our readings of scripture.

Another person whose influence I'm grateful for in this area is Amy-Jill Levine, whose wonderfully challenging book The Misunderstood Jew helped inform a great deal of this post so far.  (I highly recommend you purchase a copy today.)  One of A.-J.'s many helpful illustrations (p.221) comes from stanza 3 of the popular 1965 recording (yes, it's that recent) "Lord of the Dance":
I danced on the Sabbath/ And I cured the lame;
The holy people/ Said it was a shame.
They whipped and they stripped/ And they hung me on high,
And they left me there/ On a Cross to die.
Now, the songwriter, Sydney Carter, doesn't seem to have been anti-semitic, but the London company that's sold his music since the 1950's (and apparently still holds copyright) does proudly remember Sydney as a "radical", "no stranger to controversy" and one "outside the theological establishment". His 1994 obituaries confirm his WWII era pacifism, and his sympathy to the Shaker and Quaker traditions. Carter himself wrote, "By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best." Ahem!

Whatever else we might say, this was clearly a man who felt disenfranchised by the authorized programs of London's "holy people".

Now, although the lyric doesn't seem motivated by anti-semitism, and although congregations may not think consciously of "the Jews" when singing this song, many others have often insisted that the lyric still subconsciously promotes the idea that "Jews are Christ killers", which we should always denounce. To do so once more:  It wasn't an entire race that crucified Jesus. It was a few powerful men, afraid that a man being proclaimed 'King' would bring Rome down upon them. Period.

My own point today is that Protestant Christians who like to demonize "Religion" should - firstly - be very careful not to demonize the New Testament's Jews, which includes nearly all the NT's chief protagonists, of course, and - secondly - become a little more thoughtful about whether Jesus and Paul were actually quite as anti-religionist as we've been told that they were.

Neither Jesus nor Paul ever condemned Jewish ritual, right out. Neither Jesus nor Paul ever critiqued "holy people" in general. Neither Jesus nor Paul was categorically against "Religion", per se.

Deal with that as you read and re-read your New Testament, and sing your hymns.



ScriptureZealot said...

I would have to read your post a second time to really get the most out of it, which I am feeling (out of it) right now.

I lament the fact that 'religion' has become a dirty word. Although there is good and bad religion.

I have read from more than one source that we can't neatly divide the law into the three categories and totally do away with the rituals/'cultic'. But we may need those terms if we need to distinguish between certain parts of the law, There is too much overlap and it doesnt all have to be done away with.

Nice post. I hope I understood you so far. I'll use one of my nifty new Chrome extensions to save it to read again.

Bill Heroman said...

Thanks, Jeff. On the Law itself, and its potential for being done away with, I'm certainly no expert, but I shared some other thoughts recently in my series on The Movement of God, parts 15, 16 and 17. If you get the chance to go there, I hope you'll enjoy them as well.

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