A hypothetical parallel

As I’ve been reading Scholem this summer and as I’ve therefore become increasingly familiar with the Sabbatian movement, a hypothetical parallel occurs to me: making Sabbatianism so central to his understanding of Jewish history is like a scholar of Christianity making Mormonism central to his or her understanding of Christian history. This is not to say that Mormonism necessarily could be made to fill a parallel role, but I’m just trying to get a feel for how daring his move is — since I get the impression that Sabbatianism, like Mormonism for most mainstream Christians, is something mainstream Jews would like to forget about. (Pelikan doesn’t even mention it in The Christian Tradition.)


  • Perhaps a closer parallel is the central role that Taubes grants to Joachim of Fiore in Occidental Eschatology.
  • Also, searching in the archives I found this post arguing in favor of “quasi-Mormonism.”

Paul’s Two Minds on the Law: Or, Paul’s One Mind on the Jews

In recent months, I have been advancing a fairly “strong” reading of the authentic letters of Paul, with Romans 9-11 as the guiding thread on his relationship to Judaism. As I’ve been going through the letters in Greek, though, my reading completely ran aground on Galatians. It seems clear that any attempt to get one consistent position from Paul on this issue is impossible, and that’s because Paul is always responding to events — as indeed his very mission to the Gentiles is a response to an event (the apocalyptic vision of Christ).

I’ve also been reading Gershom Scholem’s work on messianism in the last couple weeks, and based on what he says there, I’d say that Paul starts out as an “anarchist” messianist (as opposed to the kind of messianist who thinks the law will be intensified in the messianic age) — perhaps because the coming of the messiah required the ingathering of the Gentiles, Paul concludes that the law loses its force for the new messianic era. Continue reading “Paul’s Two Minds on the Law: Or, Paul’s One Mind on the Jews”

Language and Idolatry

At Bruce Rosenstock’s suggestion, I read Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem: Or on Religious Power and Judaism (1783) this week. The goal of the work is twofold. First, Mendelssohn wants to demonstrate from natural law that there can be no such thing as “ecclesiastical law” (i.e., religious coersion). Second, he develops a compelling reading of Judaism as essentially the religion of reason.

In the second half, which is where the real emotional charge lies for Mendelssohn and where he was taking the greatest risks, he proceeds by means of a series of reversals. Where people have claimed that Judaism is the very pinnacle of religious coersion, he wants to show that the observances point toward universal religious truths. Similarly, where people have claimed that Judaism is a pure particularity and an example of “special revelation,” he wants to show that the doctrines of Judaism are at bottom identical with the general truths of religion that are equally available to all — the Jews would hence be a kind of living reminder of the truths of monotheism during the inevitable periods of decline and idolatry.

The reversal I’d like to talk about, though, is his claim that, far from being the ultimate “religion of the letter,” Judaism (at least in its earliest and most authentic form) is designed from the ground up to be a religion of living spirit. My Derridean radar was set off by a lengthy discussion of the origin of language, which at first seemed to be a self-indulgent aside but then revealed itself to be a crucial part of his argument. Though falling broadly within the tradition of privileging speech over writing, Mendelssohn adds his own twist: the problem with writing is that it leads to idolatry. While writing is useful and necessary, in the inevitable progress of human folly, the symbol is worshipped and its authentic meaning is lost. Hence the role of the Oral Law in Judaism: while the basic points are preserved in writing, it must be continually supplemented with the living human voice, with living deliberation, in order to be applied. This oral element keeps the law from ever being a dead letter — instead, the religion is structured in such a way as to prompt reflection and debate that will continually push for ever deeper meaning. (Mendelssohn views the codification of the Oral Law as something of a fall from grace.)

This brings us back to one of the major points of the literature on religion from Mendelssohn’s era: for them, religion is — perhaps paradoxically to our minds — considered strictly the realm of persuasion. Judaism in its original form (or what Mendelssohn claims as its original form) was explicitly structured around persuasion, as the living deliberation around the meaning of the law essentially requires that everyone living under the law be continually persuaded to follow it — and in fact, the observance itself means that this persuasion goes beyond simple mental affirmation to involve the body as well.

Judaism, then, is for Mendelssohn simply what religion should be, a living reminder of what religion should be — and for practical purposes in his setting, the Jewish law and supposed “special revelation” are, paradoxically to his readers’ eyes, precisely the best reminder that religion cannot and should not be subject to coersion. Indeed, extrapolating somewhat from his argument, any religion that loses that persuasive element, that fails to engage the spirit in an authentic way, can only be idolatry. So in the end, Mendelssohn is not just asking for religious tolerance: he’s asking the European nations to renounce their idolatry.

Some reflections on 2 Maccabees

In comments to a recent post of mine on works righteousness and Judaism in the letters of Paul, Bruce Rosenstock called attention to the broader apocalyptic significance of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, which is a kind of subplot in God’s plan for Israel. As we discussed the significance of the cross in that apocalyptic vision — which I have tended to understand in terms of showing the Roman Empire to be illegitimate — Bruce suggested that I look at 2 Maccabees. I reread it this afternoon, and now I’d like to offer some provisional thoughts on it, in the hopes of getting others to read it and getting a broader conversation started.

Continue reading “Some reflections on 2 Maccabees”

Works righteousness and Judaism

We know that Paul, in all his letters, is writing to predominantly Gentile congregations. The people he is chastising, correcting, exhorting, and encouraging are Gentiles, with whom he has identified closely, “becoming a Gentile to win the Gentiles” — which presumably includes figuring out a way to think from “inside” the distinctively Gentile outlook on the world so as to persuade them effectively and steer them away from pitfalls they, as a distinct group, might be especially prone to.

We also know that Paul, in many of his letters, is writing against an attitude that regards religious observances as a way of gaining God’s favor. Continue reading “Works righteousness and Judaism”

System and Tradition

In Jacob Neusner’s The Talmud: A Close Encounter, he contrasts the solutions of normative Judaism and orthodox Christianity to the question of what to do with the tradition. On the one hand, he argues, the authorship of the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli), created what amounts to a well-constructed system, built on principles drawn from both Scripture and Mishnah but following its own autonomous questions and mode of organization, but presented it as nothing more than “tradition” in the sense of what happened to be handed down to them. That is, they were incredibly creative but legitimated their effort by appeal to the past.

The Christian solution was the opposite:

What they did was to join together the received writings [both the Hebrew Scriptures and what would become the New Testament] as autonomous books but to impute to the whole the standing of a single, coherent and cogent statement, a harmonious Christian truth. This they did in the work of making the biblical canon. Joining diverse traditions into one, single, uniform, and therefore (putatively) harmonious Bible: God’s word. And, once more, that explains my view that the Christian solution to the problem of making a statement but also situating that system in relationship to received tradition is to be characterized as imputing system to discrete traditions through a declared canon. Thus… the comparison of the solutions that would prevail, respectively, in Judaism’s Bavli and in Christianity’s Bible, is characterized as a system to which the standing of tradition is imputed [Bavli], as against traditions, to which the form of a single system is, through the canonization of scriptures as the Bible, imputed. (148-149)

This is a really elegant way of putting it, which I never would’ve thought of without the comparison to Judaism. (Of course, Neusner’s perspective on Judaism isn’t the only game in town — there are plenty of people who view the Talmud as an accretion of received tradition, and I haven’t yet studied the Talmud at first hand and likely never will study it to the degree necessary to feel confident taking a side in this debate.) This sheer assertion that the diverse traditions brought together into “the Bible” had major consequences:

The final solution of the canon sidestepped the problem of bringing these logics together within a single statement. If diverse logics work, each for its own authoritative writing, then I do not have to effect coherence among diverse logics at all, and the canon, the conception of the Bible, would impose from without a cogency of discourse difficult to discern in the interior of the canonical writings. That decision would then dictate the future of the Christian intellectual enterprise: to explore the underbrush of the received writing and to straighten out the tangled roots. No wonder, then, that in philosopy, culminating in the return to Athens, the Christian mind would recover that glory of logical and systematic order denied to it in the dictated canon, the Bible. (154-55)

This contrast in the mode in which they achieved their respective self-identities in relationship to a certain revealed text may explain a key difference between Judaism and Christianity. While normative Judaism appears to be, if not strictly “progressive,” at least “accumulative” in the sense that one does not normally go “back behind” the work of a generation that has been accepted as authoritative (i.e., doing commentary on Scripture independently of the Mishnah once the Mishnah was written, reading the Mishnah afresh once the Babylonian Talmud was redacted, etc.), the history of Christian thought is continually haunted by the threat of a “reboot.” This took place most disruptively in the Reformation, but the potential is always there and has arguably been actualized more often than the traditional narrative might have it — precisely because the supposedly “definitive statement” represented by the Bible is internally incoherent (indeed, frankly a total mess).

Christianity failed at the outset to provide a coherent authoritative statement and therefore has been caught in the endless dialectic between ecclesiastical authorities and the incoherent scriptural account that serves as a final court of appeal. Calvin at least seemed to have recognized this problem to the extent that he undertook to distill Scripture into an authoritative systematic statement — but the very Reformation principles he espoused kept the Institutes from becoming the equivalent to the Talmud. The horse, in short, is out of the barn: it’s too late for Christianity to have a Talmud. That might be good in certain ways, but we should recognize that it is in many obvious respects a serious, serious disadvantage.

“He plays a beautiful trick on us”

The more I read the traditional account of the relationship of Judaism and Christianity, the more it seems like a sick joke. The Jews were apparently given a law that is impossible to fulfill, all so that they could stand as an object lesson for the majority-Gentile movement that inherited God’s promises to the Jews.

Meanwhile, in the real world, there’s no indication that pious Jews have any particular difficulty following their laws, which makes sense given that they are inculcated from early childhood — it’s much like how I don’t have trouble following Midwestern American cultural practices. Nor indeed did Paul, who is supposed to have originated this notion of the function of the law, report having any difficulty in following the strictest version of Judaism in his own time (cf. Philippians).

Gentiles, on the other hand, who wanted to become Jewish converts (not an uncommon phenomenon at the time), may well have experienced the law as an incitement to sin, since the law would seem like a bunch of arbitrary precepts rather than an encoded version of cultural common sense. For instance, it seems plausible to me that someone converting to Judaism might say: “I didn’t realize how much I loved pork until you told me I couldn’t eat pork!” This leads me to believe, following Ted Jennings’ interpretation, that Romans 7 is actually spoken from the Gentile point of view rather than from Paul’s own experience — and therefore, the whole narrative of how the law is impossible to fulfill and the Jews were a big object lesson, etc., etc., is based on a misunderstanding.

All of this leads to the big question: Would it have killed Christianity to have a founder with a clearer prose style?