The first reading I have chosen is “Theology in Rabbinic Stories” by Chaim Pearl. Pearl discusses some of the stories in Jewish writings and then interprets them from a practical theological aspect. This level of reading religious writings is called “Drash”. Drash is a homiletical and/or moral ethical reading of the stories that can be applied to the practical life of the religious person.
The story I found of most interest was the one titled “Clothes for the Messiah”. Pearl reads back into the story the concerns of Rabbinic Judaism with living out a practical Jewish life in the light of the Galut (Exile/ Diaspora). He also reads back into the text the Neo-Orthodox fears of Messianic movements. This story appears in other forms in other Jewish writings. In these accounts the mother of the Messiah is called Hephzibah or Shekinat (see Raphael Patai’s “Messianic Texts”). Shekinat alludes to the Shekhinah (female Presence ). Some religious Jews recall that Tisha B’Av (the Day the Temple was destroyed) is the Birthday of the Messiah.
The Rabbis knew that according to the traditional interpretation of the prophecy of Daniel (about the 490 years and the cutting off of the Messiah) that the Messiah had to have come a first time, before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. The only major contender for such a position was the crucified Nazarene. This story may have been told to counteract the story of Jesus. Alternatively it may have been a story told by Jewish Christian followers of Jesus who remained hidden in the Synagogue. The cattle may allude to the birth of the Messiah in a stable and the Arab representing the wise men seeking the Jewish Messiah. The clothes of the baby Messiah may represent the swaddling clothes of Jesus.
In this version of the story the Messiah is called Menachem. Menachem means Consoler or Comforter. In Jewish tradition Noah is also called Menachem. The Messiah like Noah will save mankind. Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “another Consoler”, alluding to the fact that he is Menachem or the Consoler himself. The Chabad Hasidim claim that their Rebbe is the Messiah son of Joseph. His name Menachem [Mendel Schneersohn] is seen by them as a sign that he may indeed be this Messiah Menachem of prophecy. The Jewish book of ‘Sefer Zerrubbabel’ also calls the Messiah Menachem and his mother is called Hephzibah (the one in whom he delights).
Why is the Messiah’s father called Hezekiah? This alludes to the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 that a Virgin (almah) of the Davidic House would give birth to the Messiah. Some Jewish traditions and writings state that the Messiah was born in the reign of Hezekiah and then hidden away as the prophecy of this Virgin and Messiah was given to King Ahaz of the Royal House of King David, the father of King Hezekiah of Judah, as a unique, miraculous and prophetic sign. The modern day Jewish denial of almah meaning a virgin is taught by Amy-Jill Levine and a host of modern Jewish commentators. They claim that it only means a young woman. However, almah is a young unmarried woman and all Jewish unmarried women of this period are virgins. If it meant a married woman the prophecy would have said “an ishah will conceive”. Of course as a Catholic I know that Matthew’s Gospel is written under divine inspiration and thus almah is the correct word for virgin in the 8th century BC. It is time more Christian theologians stood up to these pointedly partisan manipulations of Jewish texts in order to deny the truths of the Christian faith.
This account of the “Clothes for the Messiah” states that the baby Messiah was taken away in a strong wind. Other traditions state that he was taken into Heaven or he was hidden in the Galilee or on the outskirts of Rome (see the famous story about Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, Elijah and the Leper Messiah). Others state that the Messiah is hidden with his Mother in the Bird’s Nest (a type of heavenly Garden of Eden). This demonstrates that the Jewish tradition teaches the Messiah has already been born and that his future appearance is a manifestation of the Messiah (as taught in the Zohar) and a revelation of his face. Thus unknown to most Jews and Christians is that not only are the Christians awaiting a second appearance of the Messiah but the Jews also wait for his second appearance or manifestation.
I respect the interpretation of Pearl that encourages one to get on with life and not to get carried away with enthusiasms that can lead to disappointments. Nevertheless, I think that reading the text at the levels of allegory (remez) and mystical (Sod/ Raza) is more enriching and exciting for me and for many others. If one can’t get excited about the coming of the Messiah then it would be a dull old faith in a dull old world. It is interesting that the simple Jew in the story does find it exciting and goes off to seek the Messiah. It is the status of “Simple Jew” that the Jewish Hasidim consider the highest level of spirituality and the one I would like to attain.
The second reading I have chosen is “The Archivist and the Precusors” from Salomon Malka’s book “Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy”. The part of this reading I wish to focus on is its discussion of the Christian followers of the ideas and philosophy of Levinas. The chapter mentions that the ideas of Levinas has reached many diverse branches of Catholicism. Malka states that Levinas provides an inspiration and reference point for Christian thinkers rather than a path to follow. I think Levinas would be happy to hear this as he disliked ‘totalities’ and would be certainly horrified to see anyone goose-stepping behind him or his philosophy.
Malka mentions that it was the Catholic and former Franciscan, Adriaan Peperzak, that introduced Emmanuel Levinas to American academia. It would seem that Peperzak’s encounter with the philosophy (and the man himself) of Levinas opened him up to a whole new way of doing Christian theology. Pope John Paul II also read Levinas and was influenced by him in some regards. Levinas’ insights and influence on Christian theology seems to be growing all the time. Levinas desired to universalise Judaism for the benefit of all and it would seem that his philosophical insights are helping that to come about. In a sense he has allowed Christian and Catholic theology in particular to return to its Biblical and Jewish roots in a deeper way than ever before. Hopefully with his influence among Jews and Christians we will see a greater desire to encounter Jews and Christians in the face of the ‘other’ and the ‘Other’ rather than an apologetical or argumentative debate.
This chapter also demonstrates to me that even the greatest of men have their faults and their hypocrisies. When it comes to the Hasidim and their enthusiastic and joyful piety Levinas seems to retreat from encounter with the face the Hasidic ‘other’. Gershom Scholem who shares Levinas attitude to mysticism and Hasidim sees this hypocrisy in Levinas and states “he’s more litvak than he thinks” (p212). It is the very romantic, emotional and passionate characteristics of both the Russian culture and Hasidic culture that would have given Levinas’ ideas a down-to-earth joyousness which elevates, heals and repairs the soul. However, for me (and to some others that I have spoken to about this), there is a Germanic solemness, seriousness and gloominess in reading Levinas that is in need of a shot of hope and faith in the form of Hasidic joyfulness (simchah). Do we encounter the ‘other’ only in his poverty, suffering, fears of death and marginalisation and not in his hope, love, dreams, visions and joy? Could we misread the human person or the ‘other’ by missing out on those aspects of humanness that make life exciting and worth living? Has Levinas been influenced by the Nazis sucking of all goodness and joy from human life and reality more than he realised? Has his experience of Germanic racialist enthusiasms and passions made him cautious and suspicious of any enthusiasm, even those that enrich us?
The third reading I have chosen is chapter 4 titled “Levinas What is Demanded of Us” from the book “Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life: Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein” by Hilary Putnam. This chapter seeks to explain Levinas’ concept of ethics as first philosophy. Levinas is concerned that if metaphysics (or Being) or psychology is made the first philosophy based on ‘sameness’ or ‘rationality’ then if one decides others are not the same or not rational then we have no obligation to them. This was what happened with the Shoah when the Nazis decided that the Jews were mere vermin masquerading as humans or those Australian settlers adhering to 19th century evolutionary science who decided that Aborigines were subhuman (lesser rationality) and could be hunted, poisoned and killed like animals and pests.
I liked the section of the reading that talked about ‘moral perfectionists’. One needs to hold up to view absolute moral ideals that seem impossible for many to achieve so that one always has a standard of goodness to strive for and endeavour to attain. Putnam writes: “...these philosophers are ‘perfectionists’ because they always describe the commitment we ought to have in ways that seem impossibly demanding: but they are also realists, because they realise that it is only by keeping an “impossible” demand in view that one can strive for one’s “unattained but attainable self”...”. (p. 72) This is exactly what the Catholic Church does in regards to its moral and ethical teachings. It holds up what seems to many an impossible standard so that the sinner wallowing in the mud has a shining light to strive for and hope that they can transcend the muddy state. The sacrament of confession is given so that the sinner struggling for ethical transcendence can get practical assistance and compassionate acceptance on the moral journey to the starry heights of perfect humanness. Man retains somewhere in him a trace (reshimu) of that immemorial past, that we all share, of the perfection of our humanity in the garden of Eden at the immemorial or primordial beginning (bereshit) and as it is in the eschatological Eternity.
The discussion by Putnam of the term “me voici” as equivalent to the Hebrew term “hineni” (behold) is fascinating to me. Putnam states that it is almost unintelligible to understand what Levinas means by ‘me voici’ unless one refers back to the Hebrew concept of the word “hineni” especially in regards to the Akeidah (the story of the Binding of Isaac). Levinas as a practicing orthodox Jew would have read the story of the Akeidah every day in his morning prayers. I believe that many of Levinas’ terms can only be fully understood if we take them back to their Hebrew prototypes. For example I think that Levinas’ term ‘Il y a’ (there is) refers back to the Hebrew term “yesh”. The use of the word trace also alludes to the Hebrew concept of ‘reshimu’.
The chapter also has an interesting discussion of Levinas in regard to universalizing the concept of Judaism for the Gentiles but of his wariness in universalizing Judaism for Jews. Levinas seems to think that what makes a Jew ‘orthodox’ is study and mitzvot. The commandment of Talmud Torah (study of torah) is important and its application in mitzvot essential for Jews. However there are also certain beliefs that one must hold in order to be considered ‘orthodox’ according to the Rabbis of Aish ha Torah Yeshivah in Jerusalem where I studied.
Rabbi Motti Berger of Aish ha Torah taught us four beliefs that one must hold to be considered an ‘orthodox Jew’. They were the belief in the one God, the belief that the written Torah was given to Moses on Sinai, belief that the oral Torah was given by God and the belief that the mitzvot are applicable for Jews for all times in this world. Of course to be a Jew at all one needs to be of maternal Jewish ancestry (if your mother is halachically Jewish) or be converted by an orthodox Bet Din. Others would add a fifth belief that one must believe in the ‘coming of the Messiah’. However if one studies Torah then it would focus one on these beliefs and their application in the mitzvot. Breslov Hasidism stresses ‘beholding’ the inner light of each mitzvot rather than its outward form. Mitzvot are not just commandments in Judaism but also good deeds. The concept of the mitzvot as good deeds would resonant with Levinas’ focus on ethical transcendence.