Listing entries tagged with Jews

Disbelief in the Holy of Holies

posted on 12.07.2006 at 12:52 AM

Does doubt lurk even at the very heart of religion -- even in the Holy of Holies?

That is one of the claims made in the new experimental paper we have posted on the Web. We do hope you will take advantage of the more advanced format for commenting it offers and weigh in.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:52 AM | Comments (2)


posted on 12.05.2006 at 11:46 PM

In a new site connected to this blog:

** I have taken some of the more controversial ideas -- on disbelief and belief -- from the blog and early chapters of my book and combined them in a spiraling, twelve part paper (to be presented to a working group of the Center for Religion and Media at NYU).

** The Institute for the Future of the Book has come up with a new form that better integrates comments and allows readers to weigh in on individual paragraphs.

Thus we hope to expand the experiment begun with this blog: using the Web to sharpen and deepen a work in progress.

I hope you will check out this site and further the experiment with your comments, annotations, additions, references, corrections or criticisms.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:46 PM | Comments (0)

Yom Kippur

posted on 10.02.2006 at 1:37 PM

I remain fascinated by this scene:

On only one day of the year, the Day of Atonement, the Jews' chief priest entered the Holy of Holies at the very heart of the Jewish temple. What he saw was an empty room.

Perhaps the priest filled it with his reverence and devotion to Yahweh. Perhaps he gloried in the absence of cheap, too-tangible statues or idols.

But might this priest also have noted the absence of the Ark of the Covenant, which was supposed to be kept in this room but had "somehow," as always ends up being the case, disappeared? Might he have felt the Wizard-of-Oz-like smallness of Yahweh's wispy presence? Might he have experienced in that room a nagging absence of meaning or purpose? Might he have seen the Holy of Holies as filled with hebel -- vapor -- as in Ecclesiastes? Might some sense of the absence of God have contributed to that emptiness?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:37 PM | Comments (3)

Reason and Religion

posted on 09.22.2006 at 9:53 PM

New York Times columnist David Brooks on Pope Benedict XVI's riot-inspiring comments:

Millions of Americans think the pope asked exactly the right questions: Does the Muslim God accord with the categories of reason? Are Muslims trying to spread their religion with the sword?

We've already dealt with what Catana (in a comment) called His Holiness' pot-calling-the-kettle problem when it comes to the use of swords. But Brooks' line about "reason" seems at least as hypocritical. His assumption would seem to be that the Jewish or Christian Gods do -- or "millions of Americans think they do -- "accord with the categories of reason"?

Where to begin? With Paul perhaps, that greatest apostle of Christianity, who wrote: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise." Or, perhaps, with Justinian, the emperor who completed the (often forced) conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and in 529 closed the Academy founded by Plato, which had operated in Athens for 900 years. It took about 900 more years before Western reason could begin digging out from under Christian "faith."

Or, perhaps, we could begin with the Hebrew Bible. This is from one of the Proverbs:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding...

Or with the words of God Himself from Isaiah, which mate, neatly, reason and the sword:

"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;

but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword."
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Is this what we mean by reasoning? It seems Mafia reasoning.

Is a universe created in six days is "in accord with reason"? How about a virgin birth?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:53 PM | Comments (3)

Missing the Point on Deuteronomy

posted on 09.02.2006 at 8:49 PM

One of the pleasures of this project has been the opportunity to read or reread much of the Bible. This has not always been easy to explain to friends, many of whom have spent considerable energy, particularly in their early teens, avoiding reading the Bible. Still, it is hard to turn a page -- in either Testament -- without getting a new take on a familiar line. a new perspective on an aspect of an old religion or a sense of the complex dance performed by belief and disbelief.

Knowing some history certainly helps, particularly with a book like Deuteronomy, which appeared magically and conveniently one day while the temple in Jerusalem was being renovated and just happened to support every argument the king, high priest and the rest of the Yahweh-alone forces had been making. The message that only one God should be worshipped (Yahweh), in only one place (that temple in Jerusalem) -- put in the mouth of Moses -- is repeated over and over. It is, consequently, in Deuteronomy, more than anywhere, that monotheism is being created. Along the way this one God has to demonstrate that he can handle alone what the whole heavenly host had previously managed: that he could handle weather like Baal, that he could handle fertility like Asherah. The book contains a fascinating mix of threats, bribes and bluster.

David Plotz' misbegotten "Blogging the Bible" feature on Slate, however, manages to read Deuteronomy without any sense of its history and significance. No new perspectives arrive. The screen fills, instead, with the muted gurglings of a writer in over his head.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:49 PM | Comments (3)

Cartoons of the Jews

posted on 08.25.2006 at 12:12 PM

Some months ago, during the contretemps over the Danish cartoons offensive to Muslims, I wrote:

We can imagine, as some Muslims have asked us to do, the outrage that would greet satiric cartoons featuring Jesus or, were the point sufficiently nasty, Moses. How about a satiric drawing of an atheist? What would it show? (A man lost in a microscope oblivious to the wonder of all that goes on around him?)

Found a couple of those "cartoons of the atheist," which predictably failed to shock. Iran_Cartoons.jpg The more shocking attempt at tit for tat, which I failed to anticipate, has nothing to do with Moses or Jesus but with anti-Semitic stereotypes and the Holocaust. A collection of such images is currently on display, according to the New York Times, in a gallery in Tehran, under the title: "Holocaust International Cartoon Contest."

One features: "a drawing of a Jew with a very large nose, a nose so large it obscures his entire head. Across his chest is the word Holocaust." Others seem to have a clear political motivation: comparing Israeli behavior with Nazi behavior, or implying that the Holocaust has been used as an excuse for such behavior.

Iran_Cartoons2.jpgMost Western writing about the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed, emphasized the conflict between free expression and protecting sensitivities. Will positions remain the same when the subject is these Iranian cartoons?

My point on the reaction to the Danish cartoons was to note "the intolerance and fear that seem to lurk at the bottom of most religion":

There is still something essentially immoderate about them. There is still something powerfully illiberal about any system of thought that insists that rules of behavior -- the Prophet cannot be depicted, the Son must be seen as divine, meat and milk cannot be eaten together -- have been imposed by an infallible supernatural intelligence and that insists that our eternal (eternal!) happiness depends on our ability to follow those rules....Monotheism does not blend easily or smoothly into liberalism.

But (non-political) aspects of this new exhibit seem to offend not on religious grounds but because of cultural and historical sensitivities. Was I being unfair in underplaying such sensitivities, in an effort to make a point about religion, in Islamic reaction to the Danish cartoons?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:12 PM | Comments (4)

Deuteronomy -- III

posted on 08.04.2006 at 1:45 AM

It may not be easy, at this grim moment in world politics, to find signs of progress. But that is where the Bible can be helpful. For it sure seems we have progressed a bit, most of us, from the moral standards it promulgates. I am quoting, once again, the last book of the Torah:

If your brother, your own mother's son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entices you in secret, saying, "Come let us worship other Gods".... Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him, but take his life.... Stone him to death.

No wishy-washy, politically correct indulgence in tolerance here.

And then there is this:

You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your god delivers to you, showing them no pity.

Few today -- even in the name of the Bible -- would "destroy all." Merely some. Progress.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:45 AM | Comments (2)

Deuteronomy -- II

posted on 07.28.2006 at 7:59 PM

This -- the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible -- is compendium of intolerance. Various "abhorrent" practices are denounced: serving other gods, human sacrifices, worshiping idols, soothsaying, bowing down to the sun or the moon, intermarrying, crossdressing, inquiring about other gods, worshipping the Lord anywhere but in the temple in Jerusalem. Various "just" punishments are threatened : no rain for crops; a curse upon the issue of wombs; "consumption, fever and inflamation." One "just" punishment, in particular, is commanded: stoning to death.

However, nowhere to be found in Deuteronomy -- among these "abhorrent" practices, which are to receive these terrible punishments -- is failure to believe in the Lord. This God very, very much wants to be "obeyed," to have "His commandments and laws" followed. He does not seem concerned with whether His people think he exists.

Why? A standard answer is that this God, in essence, was secure enough in His existence so that He didn't need His nation to confirm it. Or that not believing in the existence of God (or gods) may simply have been inconceivable at the time. I'll add a third theory: that actual, outright disbelieve was too terrible to even mention.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:59 PM | Comments (8)


posted on 07.28.2006 at 1:16 AM

The temple in Jerusalem was being renovated during the reign of Josiah (639-609 BCE) -- who is treated with as much respect as any king in the Hebrew Bible -- and during the renovations the high priest "discovered" a "lost" text. That, most scholars agree, was an early version of Deuteronomy, which settled as the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible -- the last in the Torah or the books of Moses.

It is not hard to read this text as a justification for Josiah's attempt to consolidate the religion and the kingdom by cracking down on any forms of worship -- foreign, idolatrous, pantheistic, even Jewish -- besides those in the temple in Jerusalem. Monotheism was sharpened, if not invented, in the process:

The Lord alone is God; there is none beside Him.

Weren't too many religions in the 7th century BCE devoting themselves to morality. But Deuteronomy takes some significant steps beyond "thou shall not kill":

I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

Still, the intolerance for other religions in this text is total:

Tear down their alters, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from the site.

And the treatment the Lord orders for local conquered nations is, even by contemporary standards, extreme:

You shall not let a soul remain alive.

Maybe we shouldn't be that surprised by what currently goes on in this area between peoples who profess to revere such texts.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:16 AM | Comments (1)

Death -- Part II

posted on 07.27.2006 at 1:01 AM

Sometimes the flirtation of religion with death becomes truly eerie, frightening. Undoubtedly, you've seen this quote, but, in the current circumstance, it is probably worth revisiting. Nasrallah.jpg

This is man-of-the-moment Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah:

"We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win because they love life and we love death."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:01 AM | Comments (5)

The Holy of Holies

posted on 07.06.2006 at 9:04 PM

I'm writing, just now, of that stunning moment when Pompey, the Roman general, forces his way into the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and enters the Holy of Holies -- Yahweh's own sanctuary, a room that only one person, the high priest, was allowed to visit on only one day of the year, Yom Kippur.

And what does Pompey find?

It is empty.

Some of what the Jews contributed to the development of religion is apparent in this moment. But you could also build an anti-religion upon it.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:04 PM | Comments (10)

The Bible as Not History

posted on 05.15.2006 at 11:52 PM

davidandsolomon.jpgNot only no evidence that there was ever an Abraham, but no evidence that a nation of Jews was ever in, let alone dramatically escaped from, Egypt, and no evidence that there was ever a Solomon or a great Jewish kingdom with a spectacular first Temple.

The archaeological evidence is reviewed in a new book, David and Solomon, though the authors seem to be bending over backwards not to offend the Biblically inclined.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:52 PM | Comments (0)

A Teleology of Disbelief -- 2

posted on 04.21.2006 at 10:13 AM

A couple of thoughts are helpful if you want to see the world as "progressing" toward nonbelief: First, you might want to view the current apparent resurgence of religion as a mere counter-trend, a hysterical reaction to a global march toward secularization, a blip on the curve. Second, you might want to develop a theory that religion itself has been growing more diffuse, gods getting increasingly "wan."

That latter thought can, in turn, be buttressed by the notion that the New Testament represents some sort of step forward from the Hebrew Bible. The old bellicose Deity of Genesis and Exodus, who demands only adherence to the Law and sacrifice, has been replaced by a Father and Son who demand "faith," good works done in secret, morality in the "heart" not just in practice. It helps, in other words, to view Yahweh as louder, more visible and the Son's Father as more a reticent resident of the heart.

However, here's the often provocative Harold Bloom, in his usual literary reading, to mess up that view of progress from Old Testament to New. (This from Benjamin Balint): "The aesthetic dignity of the Hebrew Bible," Bloom writes, "is simply beyond the competitive range of the New Testament…. In the aesthetic warfare between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is just no contest." And Bloom, less originally, sees in the Trinity a step back to polytheism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:13 AM | Comments (2)

Still More for Passover

posted on 04.13.2006 at 12:33 PM

Talk about this and maybe tonight's will be different from all other sedars. Two additional paragraphs from Dan Lazare writing in Harper's:

The Davidic Empire, which archaeologists once thought as incontrovertible as the Roman, is now seen as an invention of Jerusalem-based priests in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. who were eager to burnish their national history. The religion we call Judaism does not reach well back into the second millennium B.C. but appears to be, at most, a product of the mid-first....
According to the Bible, Solomon was both a master builder and an insatiable accumulator. He drank out of golden goblets, outfitted his soldiers with golden shields, maintained a fleet of sailing ships to seek out exotic treasures, kept a harem of 1,000 wives and concubines, and spent thirteen years building a palace and a richly decorated temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. Yet not one goblet, not one brick, has ever been found to indicate that such a reign existed. If David and Solomon had been important regional power brokers, one might reasonably expect their names to crop up on monuments and in the diplomatic correspondence of the day. Yet once again the record is silent. True, an inscription referring to "Ahaziahu, son of Jehoram, king of the House of David" was found in 1993 on a fragment dating from the late ninth century B.C. But that was more than a hundred years after David's death, and at most all it indicates is that David (or someone with a similar name) was credited with establishing the Judahite royal line. It hardly proves that he ruled over a powerful empire.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:33 PM | Comments (1)

Another Passover Thought

posted on 04.12.2006 at 1:40 PM

More from Dan Lazare writing in Harper's a few years ago:

Rather than a band of invaders who fought their way into the Holy Land, the Israelites are now thought to have been an 'indigenous culture that developed west of the Jordan River around 1200 B.C. Abraham, Isaac, and the other patriarchs appear to have been spliced together out of various pieces of local lore.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:40 PM | Comments (0)

A Passover Thought

posted on 04.11.2006 at 7:40 PM

Moses.jpgThere is no historical or archaeological evidence that Jews were ever in Egypt or that they ever fled. From Dan Lazare, writing in Harper's a few years ago:

A growing volume of evidence concerning Egyptian border defenses, desert sites where the fleeing Israelites supposedly camped, etc., indicates that the flight from Egypt did not occur in the thirteenth century before Christ; it never occurred at all.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:40 PM | Comments (0)