We’ve just returned from the Denver meetings of the American Academy of Religion – more specifically the subfield that Jerry founded: Theology Without Walls.
It was founded in recognition of the current, unprecedented openness of communication in our world. It crosses borders and is almost instantly global. It’s a situation that has also influenced the big and little religions of the world. In consequence, theologians (people who are trained to think about the divine) need to take it into their thinking.
Even nineteenth-century Christian missionaries noticed, as they dealt with peoples from far-off lands, that they didn’t have a monopoly on right relations between God and human beings. It was a natural finding. Cultures derive their authorization from their claims about Whatever-They-Take-To-Be-Absolute. But at the same time, cultures originate in particular locales. Their localism is individuated in many ways, including languages. Yet — in monotheism at least — the God-Presence cannot be confined to a single locale.
The TWW meetings were intensely interesting. One participant, who occupies prestigious posts, academic and ecclesiastical, reported that the students he meets are “very excited” about TWW. People no longer feel quite as boundaried or confined to their starting gates as they used to. Even those who end up where they began, may have prefaced their religious homecoming with far voyages of exploration.
I’m pretty Jewish now (at least Jewish-in-the-head, as I often say), but I’ve been other things: a pacifist, an atheist, a Marxist (itself a doctrine about ultimate reality), a gnostic, a follower of a guru of the school of Advaita Vedanta – all before I realized that I’m essentially and profoundly Jewish. These far voyages probably helped me to realize it.
When Jerry and I first flew over India, I looked down at the winding River Ganges far below and exclaimed to myself silently,
“Oh look! There’s Mother Ganga!”
When the El Al flight circled over Israel, I looked down and the precise words wafting into consciousness were these:
There it is again!
They’ve put cities down this time!
Each week, all over the world, Jews read the same portion (parashah) of the Pentateuch (Torah). Since the pandemic, my Reform Temple has conducted its Torah Study via zoom. This Sabbath, the parashah concerned the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau. The verses told how Jacob managed, with his mother’s connivance, to steal the Blessing that his dying father Isaac had intended to give to Esau. Esau counted as technically the elder of the twins because his birth preceded Jacob’s, who grasped his brother’s heel as they exited, one right after another, from the same womb.
Esau was a hairy hunter – in modern parlance, a jock. Jacob, more thoughtful, less impulsive, more gifted for future God-encounters, was clearly the brother better suited for the covenantal assignment.
What assignment was that? It would require the bearer to carry forward an inherited agreement to co-participate with God in working out the human story. The people who would descend from the three founders, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, would form the pilot project for that God-story. Their descendants would put in the labor of living it through, of recording it without mincing words, and finally preserving the record for the world to learn from and be blessed.
None of it was easy. It was all hard. That Bible was no Hallmark card.
There is some relationship, which I won’t attempt to trace here, between the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the early nineteenth-century German origins of Reform Judaism. Anyway, here my co-religionists’ reaction to Jacob’s deception was entirely in the Kantian tradition, where only acts whose rationale is universally applicable can be approved. Reading that Jacob stole his father’s blessing, my fellow congregants were appalled. They all drew back, as if to disinherit such an ancestor! That is, all drew back with one exception – me. Here’s the gist of what I said:
“I can’t agree with what’s been said so far. Judaism, and the religion of Israel before it, is the only religion I know of whose sacred scripture records the stories of human beings who are in direct relation with the universal God – while they live in real-life-on-earth settings: psychological, cultural, geographical and historical. The Biblical characters are not demi-gods. They are people like ourselves.
“At the moment in time we are reading about, the task of the Founders was to carry forward the covenant within the constraints of their actual historical circumstances. Clearly, Jacob was more suitable for that task than his brother. So he did what needed to be done in that circumstance.
“The rabbis point out — what ‘s already evident in the text – that Jacob will suffer for his deception. On his wedding night, his greatest joy will be lived with the wrong sister. In old age, he will discover that his greatest sorrow — his lifelong mourning for his favorite child — was also based on a deception. Joseph is alive and de facto ruler in Egypt. So it’s evident from the text that a wrong act cannot be done with impunity, even when that same wrong act is obligatory under the circumstances.
“And don’t think [here I went on beyond the parashah] that our Christian friends have risen above the same sibling problem. What Christian founders claimed was that the Blessing had been lifted off the original covenanters and transferred, lock, stock and barrel, to themselves! Their thankless doctrine authorized them to regard their spiritual first-born brother as a pariah, deserving of every humiliation and cruelty. Only after those many centuries of reviling had foreseeably led to the Holocaust, did they relent for a few years, which allowed time and space for the surviving Jews to build a nation equipped for self-defense on the very Promised Sands where they originally lived and wrote the Bible. But that space and time is over. The nation of Israel is back to being treated as the Jew among the nations.”
Theology gives problems to history. Sibling rivalry, which the Book of Genesis identifies as the underlying problem of history, remains theologically unsolved.
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