Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, December 2, 2018

What happened


I had been going to post two long lists of points on which I diverge from political "progressives" or "conservatives," but before I do that, I realized that today brings us the first Sunday of Advent, and tonight brings the first night of Hanukkah. This coinciding* of the youngest of the great Jewish festivals with the beginning of the Christian year made me consider again the relationship between the faiths.

Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the second Temple after its desecration by the Seleucids. It was the last great miracle story (though as I noted earlier, the story of the miraculous oil seems to first enter the documented tradition in the Talmud; it does not figure in the text of I or II Macabees) that would have been the heritage of the various sects of Judaism in the era of Jesus. This is important because Christianity and rabbinical Judaism are not really in the relation of daughter and mother, but rather of sister and sister. They are both descendants of the Temple cult and the ferment of Judaism in late antiquity which Josephus, for instance, describes as a congeries of competing groups (Zealots, Essenes, Sadducces, Pharisees, not to mention the Samaritans). The decisive parting of ways between Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism can be traced to the crisis that befell the Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem, and especially the Temple, in 70 A.D. Until that catastrophe, Christians could reasonably be understood as a minority Jewish sect among others -- a sect who believed, and proclaimed across the ethnic divide, that the Anointed One had come and that this was of universal significance. Afterwards, their belief that the Messiah had come made them respond in a fundamentally different way to the loss of the cultic site than did the compilers of the Mishna. The latter are often interpreted as conservatives who were doing everything they could to salvage the practicability of tradition in a new, decentered context, while Christians blithely went out into the Empire and beyond freed from the shackles of a moribund legalism. But Margaret Barker has argued (suggestively and persuasively, to my mind) that Christianity was in a certain sense "more traditional" than its sister, and at least as closely linked to the Temple; in the liturgy, theology, and mysticism of the early church, Barker has traced the cosmological and ascetic grammar of Jerusalem Temple ritual. I have written almost nothing here on Barker (yet...) but she is one of a divergent handful of recent scholars whose work recuperates the importance of unwritten traditions in this seemingly most familiar of Western religions, Christianity. To be sure, not everyone in a academia is convinced by Barker -- she is, after all, proposing/enacting something of a revolution -- but for a fellow like me, who is an avowed Platonist with an eye to esotericism, this sort of thing is... interesting.

Even among early Christians, we may deduce that there were multiple possibilities, because several early Church Fathers write against "judaizers" like the Ebionites -- a group that seems to have held on to a number of ritual observances not unlike the Galatians whose regard for "the Law" so vexed St. Paul. This tendency resurfaces under different circumstances every so often, and it is of more than merely academic interest. In Jacob Taubes' lectures collected in The Political Theology of Paul he cites Guy Stroumsa on the same subject:
Guy Stroumsa from Jerusalem...is studying the sermons of Cyril of Jerusalem and came upon the fact that Cyril says 'Jews' when in fact he means 'Jewish Christians'. This is fourth century..... Today we have attestations of Jewish Christians going up to the 10th century in Arabic manuscripts. Which...revolutionizes the prehistory of Islam, because Mohammed didn't throw Jewish and Christian traditions together in his own head...but he very precisely soaked in Jewish Christian tradition.... (The Political Theology of Paul, p 42. The reference to Stroumsa is Gedaliahu Guy Stroumsa, " 'Vetus Israel'; les Juifs dans la litterature hierosolymitaine d'epoque byzantine," chapt 6 of Savoir et salut (Paris; Cerf 1992))
The crypto-Jews in late Renaissance/early modern Spain and elsewhere (sometimes called Marranos) wound up sometimes with a curious hybridized observances, some of which have lasted to the present day. But more recently, in the mid-19th century and ten again in the mid- and late-20th some Christians went the other way. Sometimes disaffected Western Protestants with an attraction to Judaism, sometimes ethnic Jewish converts who understandably felt the tug of their heritage, they come to identify as Jewish but also proclaims the messiahship of Jesus. Sometimes they are insistent that they are not notzrim but yehudim, though their practice can look like standard evangelical Christianity sometimes. As with Jews generally, there are different degrees of halakhic observance, and plenty of other diversity.

Not long ago, in the wake of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, I thought about wearing, in solidarity with Jews but as a Christian, a little medallion -- a magen David with the cross in the center. Don't do it, said my wife; it's a symbol that comes out of messianic Judaism, and it won't read to Jews as a sign of solidarity, but as one of appropriation, or worse.

Oddly, an origin in messianic Judaism had not occurred to me -- I'd always regarded this cross-in-the-star to be effectively a Christian/Jewish version of the "Coexist" bumper sticker. (As it turns out, the sign has passed out of currency among messianic Jews -- the most usual one lately is a melding of the seven-branched candlestick and the ichthys, which is either found on some first-century artifacts, or forged to look like it is.)

As for the cross-in-the-star, although I'd hoped it would communicate my assertion of standing with Jews as a Christian and because I am a Christian, it's true that it does look, or can be read as, a symbol of religious colonization. My wife insisted, and I, of course, yielded in the face of her objections (she after all is the Jew I was most concerned to not offend!); but as I thought about it, I realized that my initial theological hesitancy had been borne out. Of course, one could raise any number of questions about messianic Judaism. Some adherents distinguish it very sharply from Christianity with what I assume is sincerity; others regard it as a doomed mash-up of competing orthodoxies, or as a trojan-horse missionary ploy, or as a weird religiously mediated political liaison between American zionism and evangelicalism. It may be all these in different cases. In others, it's clearly an effort akin to radical protestantism -- a back-to-roots effort to rediscover and re-identify with the earliest church (construing the "early church" along the lines of the Ebionites, more or less). My friend Duane Christensen was a thinker somewhat of along these lines.

Even were one to grant that messianic Judaism is an unambiguous affront to all Jews, it would clearly be a further step to regard the the cross-in-Star-of-David as an antisemitic sign. But it remains, I think, problematic, on purely Christian grounds. After all, what does it mean, exactly? I had been trying to say that Christianity only makes sense in the context of Judaism; that in a crucial sense you can't be a Christian without "being a Jew" first. Although I am sure many would quarrel with such a formulation, I certainly believe this -- but the sign with the cross inside the star does not quite communicate it. The cross is not, after all, an abstract glyph of Christianity; it is the picture of the instrument of the death of Jesus, the instrument by which (says the prayer during the Stations of the Cross) He has redeemed the world. But Jesus hangs on the cross under the superscription The King of the Jews.

In 1941 the Russian Orthodox priest Dmitri Klepinin was living in occupied France. As the persecution of Jews gained momentum, and what it meant became clear to any who had eyes, father Dimitri decided what to do. He was already involved, with Mother Maria Skobtsova, in a network of underground network for refugees and resistance figures, centered at the house for the poor run by Mother Maria. He began making out forged Christening certificates, enabling many Jews to escape. In February 1943 the Gestapo arrested him, Mother Maria, her son Yuri, and another worker, Elia Fondaminski. Part of the transcript of Fr, Ditiri's interrogation has been preserved:
Interrogator: And if we release you, will you promise never again to aid Jews?
Father Dimitri: I can say no such thing. I am a Christian, and must act as I must.
Interrogator, striking the priest across the face: Jew lover! How dare you talk of those pigs as being a Christian duty!
Father Dmitri, holding up the Cross on the chain around his neck: Do you recognize this Jew?
Father Dmitiri died a year later, in the Dora work camp. He and his three co-prisoners are commemorated in the Orthodox Church on July 20. Maria Skobtsova and Dmitiri Klepenin are named among the Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

It is sadly and scandalously true that the history of the Church and the Jews is stained by antisemitism; anyone who denies this is either in bad faith or woefully unaware. How then to express theologically the right sort of relationship, symbolically?

Strictly speaking, the sign that makes theological sense (Christianly speaking) would not be the Cross within the Star. What about the Star upon the Cross?

This sign might well also be imperfect. It could still be seen as an offensive appropriation, or as a jarring syncretism. There may be other worries. Given the fraughtness of politics it seems unlikely that any symbol is going to be unproblematic. But -- assuming the right understanding is in place -- this sign has one clear advantage, which a friend of mine put succinctly: "After all, that's what happened."

*Strictly speaking, it is a near-coinciding, since the Jewish day begins at sundown.

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