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Quietly Celebrating Death

Several weeks ago, I met a man with a Jewish wife. Though he was not religious himself, they were raising their young daughter to be Jewish. A year ago, he went with his family to a children's service for the festival of Purim at an Orthodox synagogue in Mexico. The rabbi there spoke briefly to the children about the events that Purim celebrates. "Many years ago in Persia," he gruffly explained, "They tried to kill the Jews. But we killed all of them instead. Ha ha!"
 
This is not exactly the Purim story that most Jewish children learn in the U.S. Most Sunday school teachers focus on the brave, beautiful Queen Esther and her clever cousin Mordechai as they outwit an evil official named Haman and foil his plot to slaughter the Jews of Persia.
 
At the end of the story, the children do learn that Haman hangs for his crimes. Some teachers might mention that Haman's ten sons hang as well. Few relate the last part of the story--how the Jews take up arms and slaughter some 75,000 of their Persian enemies.
 
Scripture is full of such horrific tales. Every year on Passover, we celebrate the liberation of the Israelites from ancient Egypt. In order to persuade the Pharaoh to release the Jews from slavery, God kills the first-born son of every Egyptian family and every first-born animal to boot. Talk about collateral damage.  In another lesser known story, eleven tribes of Israel avenge the murder of one man's concubine by waging holy war on the twelfth tribe and slaughtering everyone they can find--men, women, children and animals.
 
In modern society, we Jews have developed techniques for downplaying these stories. We omit the cruel bits, especially when we tell them to children. We recite the texts in Hebrew words that we do not understand and don't trouble ourselves with the translations. We remove a few drops of Passover wine from our glasses in sympathy for the Egyptian victims of Gods wrath, imagining that this symbolic action whitewashes the celebration of death. We dismiss the offending verses as metaphors, not to be taken literally.
 
Yet many Jews still take the Torah as a whole to reveal profound ethical truths. In weekly homilies, rabbis exhort their congregations to submit themselves to its wisdom and guidance, ignoring the easy nonchalance with which the same Torah so often glorifies the execution of innocents.
 
But perhaps the old savage stories of the ancient Israelites do have something to reveal to us modern men and women. Much as we sugarcoat and repress the naked brutality of scripture, perhaps we also live in denial of our own suppressed bloodlust.
 
When social violence occasionally emerges among modern societies in moments of fear or chaos, we express shock and outrage, wondering aloud how human beings can do such things...as if to persuade ourselves that we could never do such things.
 
When we people of developed nations argue for war, few of us invoke divine justice or celebrate violence against foreigners. We speak instead of "national security" and "surgical strikes" designed to protect ourselves from danger and nothing more.
 
Sometimes our fears may be warranted, and war may at last become necessary. But when we call for violence against our enemies, be they Persian or any other tribe, we should pay close attention to whether our enthusiasm represents nothing more than reluctant necessity...or whether that ancient howling for blood, now camouflaged by words of caution and restraint, still murmurs in our ears.
 
Happy Purim.
 

 

When social violence occasionally emerges among modern societies in moments of fear or chaos, we express shock and outrage, wondering aloud how human beings can do such things...as if to persuade ourselves that we could never do such things.
 
I never even heard of the slaughter of men, women and children by Moses when he came down from the mountain until I had an itch to read Exodus and the succeeding chapters.
 
I often think of these sentiments.
 
I think dicky c and rummy just thought--hell we can have another war lasting a decade or more without 58,000 dead! Progress not perfection.
 
There are reportedly 1.3 billion cell phones IN CHINA. I mean when I grew up all I heard about were the hundreds of millions of children dying in China of hunger.
 
From an anthropological view, there were altars located all over the planet where humans tortured and killed their own children if not the children of others offering food to the gods.
 
So, if I have the sentiment of your article correct:
 

Nicely written.  It sent my mind back to remembering the first time I read Mark Twain's The War Prayer.

 



 

WONDERFUL! Just read it for the first time in two or three decades.

And I bookmarked it.

And as I just read it I hear the beating of the drums and the call from the horns of the repubs all in step to get us into yet another war!

Same here.  Hadn't read that in ages.  That's for the Twain MrSmith1.

I love the War Prayer, and I'm touched that my piece made you think of it.

The stories we tell each other to justify what we've done and what we know we'll do again... I'm reminded of the movie Deconstructing Harry where Harry, played by Woody Allen, asks his sister, "Do you feel worse is a Jew is killed than a Russian or a Bosnian."  She answers, "Yes, yes I do.  I can't help it.  They're my people."  He says, "They're all your people," but the notion is instantly dismissed.

Nice.  Well written.  And a reminder of why the expression 'of Biblical proportions' entered the lexicon.  

There are not many stories of women protagonists in the Bible but the ones that are there are definitely memorable.  Esther's actions may have resulted in the most kills but for examples of the sheer brutality of some Bible stories, Yael or Judith are right up there with any of the men.

Emma, check out the story of Noa from the Book of Numbers.  This is from where my five-year old daughter gets her name.

Noa is a lovely name.  I was always fond of Jemima from one of Job's replacement daughters.  

Interesting story about how women got some limited property rights thanks to Noa and her sisters.

Great post, G.

All I can add as a Gentile is: them Hamentaschen is tasty. Admittedly, not much help.

Nice work Genghis, thank you.  One quibble that I think warrants response.  You write:
 
"Yet many Jews still take the Torah as a whole to reveal profound ethical truths. In weekly homilies, rabbis exhort their congregations to submit themselves to its wisdom and guidance, ignoring the easy nonchalance with which the same Torah so often glorifies the execution of innocents."
 
I think that many Jews take seriously the obligation to study Torah, and the only thing
 I would say is that the study of Torah does not require one to ignore and/or sugarcoat the past, present or future meaning of stories which glorify the execution of innocents.   That some may claim to both study Torah and whitewash the ugly stuff is a given too, of course.  But the study of Torah, as I understand it, is a lifelong and persistent, never-ending obligation, one that looks beyond labels on all sides of the religious divide(s).
 
Bruce
 
 

Victim of our contemporary religious discourse.  As when somebody says they "study the Bible" we tend to take it to believe that they believe in its literal truth.  But it doesn't have to mean that at all, any more than it means that when I say that I have studied The Odyssey.

As far as I know, there is no religion that expects its adherents to spend their lives studying the Odyssey. Nor have I ever heard any contemporary religious authorities cite Homer when offering ethical or spiritual guidance.

No matter how enlightened a theologian may be, he or she would not study the Bible in the same way that a secular scholar would.

Thanks, Bruce. I confess to glossing the role and significance of Torah in Judaism (though it would be hard to avoid glossing without writing several volumes). I also acknowledge that the way most Jewish scholars seek knowledge and guidance from the Torah is nuanced and complicated.

That said, I don't see how a modern open-minded person can regard the Torah as an ethical authority without minimizing the brutality and intolerance that it so frequently promotes.

Let's take it out of the sacred realm for a moment. Suppose a man who claims to be an ethical authority urges people to slaughter innocents. Whatever else he may have said or written, doesn't that statement utterly invalidate that his claims of ethical authority? Why should we respect that man or listen to his advice?

I've participated in Torah study with very smart, very open-minded scholars and watched them struggle to interpret ugly passages in a way that does not make the author (or authors) appear so utterly cruel, intolerant, and fanatical. But absent the determination to make these passages seem less monstrous than they appear--i.e. to "whitewash" them--it is very difficult to regard them as anything but a damning indictment of the Torah's ethical authority.

And if the Torah has no ethical authority, then what is the point of spending one's life studying it?

I'm not suggesting that the Torah has no ethical authority.  

But I am. Or more specifically, I'm suggesting that to regard the Torah as an ethical authority in the 21st century, one has to minimize or sanitize the parts that are, on their face, so patently unethical.

 

Then let me ask the stupid questions; Why is moral consistency a requirement for ethical authority?  Should the Torah be judged by it's highest aspirations or it's basest actions?  Is a totality of action the mark by which we give out ethical authority? Won't any work written by Man be imperfect, even one inspired by a higher power?  And should our standard for ethical authority be frozen in a vastly different time when some actions were acceptable that are horrific by today's thinking and moral standards?  Shouldn't we allow for a vastly different world to have its own definition of ethics and shouldn't we not try to force our times to fit that out of date standard?  Each time must come to define its own ethical authority.  Looking to a long ago time for guidance in such matters seems to deny the natural evolution of thought and morality.

Just a thought.

 

 

 

I would say that certain beliefs or actions--participation in genocide for instance--are sufficient to nullify moral authority no matter what. With the Torah, I think that the challenge is more a matter of quantity. If you went through and tallied up the ordinances and examples, you'd find that the familiar and sensible prohibitions (don't lie, don't murder, don't covet thy neighbor's wife) are overwhelmed by many examples vindictiveness, tribalism, despotism, and brutality on the part of God and his favorite disciples. Even the admirable ideas, like refraining from work one day a week, are often sullied by ruthless enforcement. In the book of Numbers, a man is found collecting wood on Shabbat, and God commands Moses to stone him to death. Nice.
 
I don't think that ancient texts are necessarily invalid as ethical guides because of their age alone, but yes, the evolution of society is such that this is very often the case. That does not make these texts unworthy of study. Far from it. The Torah is a beautiful work of literature that has much to say about our past and even a bit about our present. In some ways, it is more honest about human nature than modern texts. But to elevate it to the level of ethical authority in 2012 requires, I think, great acts of sanitization.

I guess I'm wondering if those failings, the genocide, the brutality, etc. are symptomatic of the human condition, and whether any work written thousands of years ago would hold up to close scrutiny given today's ethical authority parameters.

Of course, I think part of the problem is spiritual inertia.  We're reluctant to discount or discredit as ethical authority, the teachings we have looked to for two millenia. (It was good enough for my great, great (etc.) grandfather, so it's good enough for me.)  Besides, if not the Torah, or the NT, or the Koran, or even the Book of Mormon, what ethical authority could possibly be agreed upon and used to guide us in the present time?  I don't know, I'm just asking.

I agree with your assertion that for the Torah to claim ethical authority in 2012, requires great acts of sanitization.  So I guess my next question is, what's wrong with great acts of sanitizing?  Does sanitizing or selectively editing, automatically assume consent of the omitted 'bad stuff'? Does ignoring or not focusing on the evil, invalidate our embrace of the holy? Can any spiritual guide written 2000+ years ago be relevant today?

Sorry, if I seem stuck on this, but I think you're really onto something with this topic and I would like to see it explored more.

 

Yes, I think the brutality is symptomatic of the human conditions, which is really the point of the article. Our sanitization of scripture mirrors our sanitization of ourselves.

I'm not sure that great acts of sanitizing are all that bad. If it works for you to reinterpret the Torah, I don't see any moral or practical problem. But its important to recognize that sanitization changes the text. It misrepresents the intended meaning and essentially creates a new text out of the old one. Maybe the power of inertia, which you suggest, is such that we have no option but to build new ethical systems from disfigured versions of the old one. But it would seem more honest to start fresh.

I agree, interesting discussion. Unfortunately, I'm too sleepy to be more coherent.

Even the admirable ideas, like refraining from work one day a week, are often sullied by ruthless enforcement. In the book of Numbers, a man is found collecting wood on Shabbat, and God commands Moses to stone him to death. Nice.

​Ethical dilemma here.  I have absolutely no desire to defend the excessive rulemaking of Numbers and Leviticus.  The way I think of it is that God gave Moses' Hebrews ten commandments and they turned them into 613 or more.  Just like Paul and early Christians turned Jesus' one commandment into a multitude.  That is what happens when charismatic leaders and their followers break with traditional or legitimate authorities.  There is a lot of uncertainty.  People want to know which old rules still apply or what new ones to follow.  There are disagreements, challenges to the new authority.  

My understanding is that knowing something is wrong and doing it anyway is what makes a transgression a sin. The verses in Numbers immediately preceding the wood gathering are about the different punishments for ignorant versus deliberate sins. What if the guy collecting wood on Shabbat did it in defiance or from spite, as a way to deliberately undermine the new authority?  Killing him for it still sounds immoral from our perspective but we do not have to herd and tend 12 tribes through a desert for forty years because they chickened out of entering the Promised Land.

Some of us heathens read the Old and New Testaments (and all the glosses and pronouncements, edicts and bulls that spring from them) as the record of specific groups of people seeking to control larger groups of people, mainly through violence, citing their special knowledge and access to a sky creature as authority to do so. They may actually believe this is true.

But once you see the sky creature as a manmade device of oppression, the authority they claim evaporates, and with it any pretensions that the brutality they impose is in any way "ethical." There may have been a pragmatic case for herding a bunch of restive tribes through the desert for 40 years, and I'm sure God's orders were a useful cudgel. Myself, I'd have backed the dissidents and rebels who proposed the golden-calf alternative. There are only so many ways to cook manna.

Heathen* to heathen,

Why is basing a disbelief on a superficial literal interpretation more acceptable than a belief in a different superficial literal interpretation?  I ask this because in your superficial reading of my comment and its context, you missed the fact that we are in agreement that Moses used his god to coerce and control the Israelites into a forced march to cull the old so his new order could begin with a new generation.  A little longer but not unlike Mao's Long March which was 'sky creature'  free.

BTW, the god of Abraham at the time was not a sky creature.  He lived in a box in a tent and had been known to strike men who came too near dead in their tracks**.  He did not even claim to be the only god; just exclusive to the Israelites.

There is so much to learn about people and societies from reading what little remains from our past.  I love history and do not want to see any more lost because of true disbelievers or any more than true believers.

 

*Abrahamic religions are misogynist and do not really really include women.

**I sometimes wonder if that little black rock in Mecca is the spent remains of what was in the Ark, a meteorite that was once very radioactive or a very highly charged .  

 And should our standard for ethical authority be frozen in a vastly different time when some actions were acceptable that are horrific by today's thinking and moral standards? 

What vastly different times would those be? Seriously, what "natural evolution of thought and morality" is at work since we wandered out of The Garden, so to speak? Pick up a newspaper from the last hundred years--hell, just grab today's--and then let's explore this evolution. 

 

You can see no change at all in moral standards over 3,000+ years?  Jeepers.  I guess I'm viewing things a lot differently. 

Well, Mr. Genghis, we 'Christians' are taught in the NT to 'turn the other cheek.'

It hasn't really worked out too well, come to think of it.

Maybe these histories and ethical blueprints we call religion, say more about us as a species than anything else.

Hope you and yours are well.

Maybe these histories and ethical blueprints we call religion, say more about us as a species than anything else.

Yep. That's really what I'm trying to get at. This piece is not even strictly about Judaism, though Judaism offers a compelling example.

Well Christian sects love to go to the OT to inform us of God's wrath. In the old days that always got to me. How ironic in such an anti-Semitic age.

Of course the NT kind of puts it altogether in the last book; Armageddon!

 

Getting back to the real-life subtext of your post, Genghis, here's a good piece from The Economist:

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2012/03/israel-iran-and-america

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