Friday, June 29, 2007

the misery of Judaism

the usual gloss on yahweh's species-wide mass slaughter

I'll return to the religious orthodoxy issue in my next post, I hope, but I'm still going to harp on religion - this time Judaism - because it just gets my goat.
As mentioned recently, I picked up a few cheapie texts on religious matters at a fair a couple of weeks ago. They're old, but of course not out of date because , as we know, religious truths and values are timeless. One of these texts was Judaism, by Isidore Epstein [d 1962], first published by Pelican in 1959.
It's interesting that, as you get older, you read more critically, more selectively, and generally with different motives. For example I read the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo, or most of them, decades ago when I was simply keen to absorb as much information/knowledge as I could. My reasoning was - hey Christianity's been a big factor in the development of western thought, I really need to have a look at it, and I hear Augustine was one of the big shapers of early Christian doctrine, so I'll tuck into some of his writings. And on reading it I thought, hey this is an intelligent guy, pity about the Christian dogma and all, but I can forgive him that, just a product of his time, if he'd been around today he'd have applied his smarts to very different material...
But now, while I still have plenty of traces of that perspective, I've eaten more of the fruit of knowledge, and I see Augustine within a rather different, more historical context. I recognise more the effect of ideas on real people and real action in the world, and I see Augustine as a far less innocent figure than I did in my own more innocent youth. I'm rather less prepared to allow writers or thinkers to get away with their claims.
Bearing this in mind, I want to consider the first, brief chapter of Epstein's Judaism.
The book starts as straight history, describing the collapse of the great Sumerian civilisation with the destruction of the city of Ur by the Elamites and Amorites. However, it quickly switches to the figure of Terah, an Aramean fugitive from Ur, described in the Hebrew Bible as the father of Abraham. In other words, it moves from history to myth and legend without any signposting. This is bad scholarship, to put it mildly. Terah is only known from the Hebrew Bible, and other related semitic texts such as the Midrash and the Zohar, and no serious historian would infer the real existence of such a person from such clearly propagandist writings. Epstein doesn't bother to raise the issue of the veracity of these texts, but goes on blithely to tell us about the difference between Terah and his son Abraham.
Terah, sharing the normal religion of his time, was a polytheist; Abraham a monotheist. Terah worshipped a congeries of idols which in all probability included the moon-god, Sin, the chief deity at both Ur and Haran; Abram broke with idolatry and turned to the service of the one and only God whom he recognised as the Creator of heaven and earth.
Epstein may only be distinguishing Abraham's religion from idolatry in that Judaism doesn't allow the making of graven images to its god, while not suggesting that Abraham's god is any more true than the unfortunately-named Sin, or any other deity, but such a reading is surely overly benign, and in any case Epstein dispels any doubt about how we are intended to read this passage when he claims that Abram recognises, rather than simply believes in, this supposed Creator. This dishonest blending of history, mythology and outright propaganda is profoundly disappointing.
Epstein next goes on to argue, very cursorily, that Abraham's monotheistic belief was profoundly different from all previous monotheistic belief systems.
Unlike the deities of other religions, as for example the Sumerian high-god Anu and the Babylonian universal-god Shamash, Abram's God was not a Nature god - a sky- or sun-god - subservient to Nature; nor was he a territorial god restricted to a particular locality or country. As the Creator of heaven and earth and all that is therein, the God of Abram was independent of Nature and of any geographical limitations. Furthermore, unlike other deities, Abram's God was essentially an ethical God to whom the doing of justice and righteousness was of supreme concern.
This claim about the originality of the Judaic god [the capitalisations are Epstein's of course] doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. I'm not an expert on world religions, nor does contemplation of the endless array of historical gods greatly excite me, but it seems to me that the Ancient Greek gods weren't territorial either. They weren't subject to nature or to geographical limitations. Nor was the Judaic god the first touted creator of the heavens, earth, universe or whatever, not by a long shot. Just google 'creator god' and you'll find 77 pages in Wikipedia, with dozens of names of gods. The Judaic god is part of a long [and no doubt continuing] tradition and many of his often contradictory traits and doings have been linked to those of earlier gods in earlier religions.
The most outrageous claim, though, is made in Epstein's last sentence quoted above. First, the claim that other gods weren't primarily concerned with justice is false: the Babylonian god Utu, or Shamash, was a god of justice, and a lawgiver, and there were doubtless many others. Indeed, as Pascal Boyer and other anthropologists have shown, all religions have
gods and ancestors who are primarily concerned with the rights and wrongs of daily human activities. The framing and surveillance of what we now call ethical behaviour has always been an essential part of the purpose of deities. Second, and more importantly, it's difficult to reconcile the Judaic god's concern with justice and righteousness with what the Old Testament reveals about his own behaviour. For in that series of texts it's revealed in black on white that he's a serial mass-murderer [the flood being the first of many instances] and a promoter and practitioner of genocide. So much for the ethical monotheism that Judaism supposedly introduces into the world.
No doubt, if any religious type ever reads this post, I'll be accused of extremism, but that would be shooting the messenger, surely. The extremism is in the Old Testament itself, though it probably wouldn't have been considered so at the time. We've made quite a deal of moral progress since those texts were written. The difficulty for the followers of the Judaic and Christian religions is that they're stuck with this moral monstrosity of a god. That's to say, they've taken a brutal, tribal god, more jealous than ethical, a god for whom wickedness consists almost solely in worshipping other gods, as their fount of eternal human values. To me, it's like invoking the love, protection and moral authority of a Joe Stalin. I'm prepared, albeit reluctantly, to accept people's belief in and even worship of such a being [though promoting him is surely going too far], but I do feel that in so doing they've disqualified themselves from partaking in modern moral discourse. They've cast themselves beyond the pale.



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