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Yiskah Lopez sings us a new song in prose and spirit

Posted by nouspraktikon on June 4, 2019

Yiskah Lopez sings us a new song in prose and in spirit

A review of “The Open Door to My Soul” by Yiskah Lopez

This book is written in a special language.  Never mind that, apart from a light seasoning of Hebrew, which only serves to enhance its taste, Ms. Lopez’s small volume is mostly written in easy to understand English.  Rather, the actual language is one of the heart, written in symbols which communicate intimately to the soul.  Some people call this “the language of roots and branches” and there are various other esoteric and academic names for this as well, but knowing any of this is unnecessary to appreciate the substance of the work.  Indeed, there is quite a difference between a deep story and a sophisticated book.  In many ways they are opposites, and “The Open Door to My Soul” definitely falls into the first category.

Exoterically, this is a romantic tale about love, horses, and the desert.  Actually, you don’t need to know anything about horses or the desert to appreciate the story.  Certainly I don’t, although the author (and here I refer to the carnal plane of our world) knows a great deal about both.  So when we see things occurring in the story which don’t seem justified by our mundane experience, we can’t simply assume that this is a mistake committed through a lack of expert knowledge.  Rather, we are being invited to check our assumptions, and enter into the gates of a different mode of experience.

In literature, a gate of transcendence sometimes appears as a concrete device within the story itself.  For example, in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia the gate is a wardrobe in the back of an apartment during the Battle of Britain.  Likewise, in Ms. Lopez’s tale, we enter through the historical experience of Yemenite Jews in the year 1948, just as they are on the verge of disappearing as a separate people, and entering upon an ethnic afterlife as an Israeli ethnic group.  However the story takes on a life of its own, and a critical reader using this narrative to glean concrete facts about Yemen in 1948 is as wrongheaded as someone trying to use Narnia as a London street map.

None the less, the transposition of the narrative from history to symbolism doesn’t nullify the significance of the Yemeni background.  Much like today, there were horrible things taking place in the Yemen of 1948.  Even though these realities aren’t explored in gruesome detail, Ms. Lopez, or perchance her angel, expects us to be aware of them, and much, much more.  We are expected to know that the people of Teman (a.k.a. the “Yemenite Jews”) were a separated people within a separate people, and that their historical consciousness and records stretched back through a spiritual stratigraphy into the depths of Biblical times.  For the inquiring historian, there are plenty of other books covering the particulars of their mores, customs and literature, a few of which are referenced at the back of Ms. Lopez’s volume.  Needless to say, the very existence of such a people was and is a living reproach to religions and traditions of more recent pedigree.

Granted, “The Open Door…” is not a realistic treatment of either ethnology or history.  The words “radio” and “automobile” never appear in the text, although many such artefacts existed in both the Kingdom of Yemen and the Aiden Protectorate by mid-20th century. More subtly, as a symbolic venture Ms. Lopez’s work fails to teach us the technicalities of the equestrian arts or the ecology of desert biomes, yet its purpose is indeed to teach us something, which brings us to the third item in its trinity of noematic objects: Love.   This is a handbook of how to love victoriously in a world dominated by a wicked angel, a god of hate.  If we take this as a given, there is even less point in dwelling on the specifics of pogroms than the vanished glories of Temani liturgics.  The deed is done, and the protagonist’s family is sanctified by the second chapter.  Henceforth we depart from history and enter into the world of symbols.

If we were look through the eyes of psychology, we could easily dismiss the rest of the story as the protagonist’s zoomorphic transposition of trauma, a kind of self defence mechanism, somewhat along the lines “the life of Pi.”  However, this is not the author’s intention, and we should not reject her invitation to a more spiritual perspective.  After all, the protagonist and her murdered parents are just as fictional as the powerful equine characters who shortly enter the narrative.  For the critical theorist, any sort of spirituality is bound to appear delusional, however this is not psychology, but allegory, a hallmark of which is that the protagonist takes a very activist and ultimately victorious stance in overcoming her situation.  Psychology, at least the kind of “talking-psychology” which was popular in the last century, is big on interpretation and short on rectification, hence endless analysis.

Unlike psychotherapy, romantic fiction always comes to a resolution.  In this respect, romantic fiction, an innovation of the West, it is an outgrowth of the Messianic impulse imparted to the European world by Christianity.  Yet “The Open Door to My Soul” is not romantic fiction either, rather it may be likened to a stream flowing out of that primitive aquafer from which the waters of Western romanticism had been originally diverted.  Now that the West has rejected its God, the sons of Japeth are no longer worthy of dwelling in the tents of Shem.  Henceforth, those of us among the mixed multitude fleeing nihilism will have to make it back to the tents of Shem without the aid of the crumbling artefacts of the Western mind.

At the risk of being mistaken for simple minded infatuation, “The Open Door to My Soul” reverts to this primitive Messianic mode of expression.  The language of love is never improved by sophistication, and this is especially true of symbolic prose, which tries to depict spiritual realities using the broad brushstrokes of powerful, animate, descriptions.  This kind of spiritual literature attains a simple mindedness analogous to the visual simple mindedness of a Blake painting.  Of course this is not real simple mindedness, but elegance, as in the elegance of a mathematical proof.

Not believing in spoilers, I have tried to be circumspect on the specifics of Ms. Lopez’s work, to the point where I have even neglected to name its protagonist.  On that point I’ll relent and tell you that her name is Azia, which Ms. Lopez informs us means “the rising sun” in Arabic, that tongue being a tact and tacit mode of expression among the vulnerable Jewish community of pre-1948 Yemen.   Azia is portrayed as being very young, but if I am not mistaken would be about sixty years Ms. Lopez’s senior in historical time.  But of course this story takes place in archetypal time so the separation between the soul of Azia and Ms. Lopez, or for that matter between either of their souls and any of ours, is not as great as one might assume.  Ultimately, this story is an instruction, not a history.

I fear that, in having defended Ms. Lopez from the charge of a merely romantic simplicity, I have laid myself open to the accusation of reading too much esoteric content into a simple love story.  So in order to establish some degree of credibility I’ll throw another spoiler into the pot.  At one point early in the narrative Azia and the dark horse who rescued her are suddenly joined by 70 other horses of all different colours.  Keep in mind that this story is set against a background of war and problematic international relations.  Do you see what is going on?  Do you understand what the significance of the seventy is?  If so you can read the language that “The Open Door to My Soul” is written in.  You may also know that this language has been perverted and abused by forces which seek to harm the human race.

Therefore I have glad tidings for you.  In hands such as that of Ms. Lopez, this language is capable of being restored to the original innocence intended by its Creator.  In spite of its dark setting, “The Open Door to My Soul” is an instruction of hope, and is sure to be a blessing to any who read it.

But what if you don’t understand?  Even so, it won’t do you any harm, which is saying a great deal considering the quality of much contemporary literature.  At worst, you will be able to enjoy scoffing at the story as another hackneyed tale of a girl, a horse, and a mysterious lover.  However it may leave you perplexed, when, having pigeonholed it as a romantic potboiler, it refuses to end the way a proper romantic novel is supposed to.  Enjoy!

—Mark Sunwall

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Posted in Anthropology, Art, Christianity, culture, Culture & Politics, Esoterism, Historical Romance, Historical Romance, Judaism, Kabbalah, Philosophy | Leave a Comment »

The book of Esther and the right of self-defense

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 20, 2019

You can’t make this stuff up

The book of Esther is a comedy.  I don’t mean a “hoo-hoo-ha-ha” laugh it up kind of comedy, although as a story it can certainly be read in that way, for great pleasure and enjoyment.  However on a deeper level it is comedy in the classical sense of the word, a dramatic narrative in which right wins out over wrong and we are able to close the book with a feeling of deep moral satisfaction.  In that sense, the entire Bible might be described as a comedy, ending with the establishment of the Messianic kingdom.  True, there are many biblical moments which seem tragic, but they are only interludes within a larger framework,  a plot-line which the Divine Author has mapped out with a happy ending in mind.

Esther was one of the last books admitted to the Hebrew cannon, a delay caused by doubts raised due the absence of Divine Names in the text.  After all, aren’t authors supposed to sign their works?  Well, not always, and even when they don’t textual critics are frequently able to identify the author from the style.  Therefore, since the Bible as a whole is comic (i.e., “happy-ending-ish”), can we not see the same trait in the author behind Esther?  Laughing at Haman’s fate is pure schadenfreude when it is not pure slapstick.   But Mordechai and Esther emerging alive from a dire situation is comedy in the higher sense.  As believers we understand that they are saved by God, but there are no obvious miracles in the book of Esther, just a lot of “coincidences” which those who have no spiritual sight are quick to label “blind luck.”  Indeed, the festival commemorating Esther is called Purim, from pur, which means a “lot” as in the casting of lots.  Hence it can either be dismissed as a ridiculous story with too many serendipitous episodes, or the recorded workings of some “mysterious force” which favors the protagonists in a non-random sequence of events.  In the end, the Jewish bride and her uncle wind up with up to half the kingdom while their enemy Haman is hung high on a fifty foot gallows.  Luck?  Legend?  Say what you will, I don’t think you can make this kind of stuff up…but He can.

So…Does this nonsense have any practical application?

For the discerning reader, Esther is a challenge, i.e., “Can you see a pattern under all the craziness?”  OK, we get it, that there is an unnamed Someone behind the curtain of this comedy pulling the levers.  Indeed, there’s more to Purim than just the pur, and that “more” is Providence.  But how, aside from a penchant for anthropomorphism, does Providence differ from luck?  Actually, there is quite a difference, all the difference between waiting for your lotto ticket to be called and hitting an unlikely home run.  Providence demands a certain degree of cooperation between God and humanity, even if God is willing to do the planning and the heavy lifting.  Providence requires getting up to the plate.  If you were a young Jewish woman living in the harem of the Persian Emperor and your people were in danger, saving them might involve doing quite a few things which were both risky and ethically, or at least aesthetically, repugnant.  Or so the story goes.  The moral here is that what most people mistake for “spirituality” is little more than a convenient mental passivity.  As illustrated by the rough and rude events in Esther, Providence does not replace human action,  rather, it facilitates action whenever the human and Divine wills are in alignment.

Providentially, the Book of Esther teaches us post-moderns quite a bit about the laws of sociology.  I hope that I am in good company (i.e., with God and the classical economists) in asserting that these laws are trans-historical.  They should apply to us just as well or ill as they applied to Mordechai, Haman, and the other dramatis personne in Esther.  Some of these laws, like “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” coined by Acton, would have been tacitly understood even at the time of the Achaemenids twenty four centuries before his time.  Others, like the law of marginal utility, were invisible, though like the God of Esther, they might have been discerned through a careful observation of effects.  At least we can look back and see the falsity of the converse, since if pyramidal economies, resting on the “proper” distribution of goods possessing objective value, had been viable then, we might even see the Achaemenid Empire alive and kicking today.   Fortunately, like all economic pyramids (or perhaps zigurats in this case) the economy collapsed under its own weight, an inner demise symbolized by the outer limit reached at Thermopylae, and the subsequent incursion of Greek mercenaries into the domains of the “great king.”  Unfortunately, that collapse came too late to rescue Mordechai and Esther.  Only a miracle could save them.

When resistance was futile

Mordechai and Esther lived in a world where freedom was abnormal.  It wasn’t a world where the ruling classes had to station a detachment of mounted Median knights in every village among the 125 provinces of the empire.  That would have been prohibitively expensive and unnecessary.  Already the Middle East was old with the odious legacy of multiple, superimposed, imperial civilizations.  Its peoples had become habituated to mind control and moral passivity, to the extent that, by the time the Persians arrived they were greeted with yawns and perfunctory praise as “liberators.”  Only among the Jews, if we are to believe the account in Esther, did some flame of resistance still flicker.  A Jew could be “outed” by the surly reception he or she granted to the symbols of idolatry.  However even among the Jews moral resistance had become spiritual and episodic.  Hope in a true Messiah was at an ebb.  The best that could be wished for was that a magnanimous ruler would sit on the throne of the Achaemenid dynasty.  He would become a kind of substitute Messiah…a pseudo-Messiah if you will.

Yet this total tyranny of the ancients was not totalitarian in our modern sense.  It was unaided by electronic technology, or modern techniques of finance and organization.  It didn’t need such, but rested on the mutually supporting pillars of mind-control (false religion) and outsourced violence.  The crack troops were needed at the margins of empire and had no resources left over for internal police work.  In the prevailing atmosphere of mental passivity and fatalism, the stability of the interior could be handled by local gangs and militia.  In the absence of a regular constabulary, gang leaders, such as Haman in the Book of Esther, were able to gain clout with the emperor by promising the continuing obedience of the hinterland and a steady flow of revenues into the metropolitan cities.  This, in the short run at least, was an efficient way to run an empire, economical both in terms of material and human resources.

Yet the system had a flaw, one which was in evidence long before the “barbarians” (a.k.a. free people) counterattacked from across the Aegean sea.   This flaw was the middle men themselves, the state contractors, as those who greased the wheels of the imperial economy were apt to grease their own palms with even greater zeal.  Even dropping our usual pretense of moral indignation, it is clear that this “corruption” whether or not it was viewed as such, reflected monopoly contracts which inevitably would have led to a misallocation of capital, in turn causing an insidious decline within the “oekumen” or ancient world-economy.   Still, this consuming greed was only an incremental stage in the progress of empire towards total tyranny.

Enter Haman.  Whether or not you are a believer or a skeptic, anyone who takes the time to read the book of Esther will recognize him for what he is, an archetype of the narcissistic personality disorder.  We can enjoy the story for pleasure, and laugh at him as a caricature of evil.  However anyone who knows much about narcissism will understand that this no caricature, but the real thing.  As I warned from the beginning, you can’t make this stuff up.  Furthermore, Haman is more than a ghost from the ancient past, easily exorcised with bells and rattles, and his ubiquity (as a type to be sure) is guaranteed by the insidious working out of Acton’s Law.

Haman’s problems went beyond bad business and worse politics.  His god was social recognition, and when this was denied he transmuted his self-love into a hatred for those who barred his aspirations.  His family and tribal faction had gone about as far as they could go in accumulating wealth, and this triggered a morbid obsession with what they deemed a higher emotion than mere greed, namely hatred bred of injured pride, the satisfaction of which could only be gained at the expense of their feuding enemies of times gone by, who happened to be the Jews.  With Haman’s climb into the elite of the Persian metropolis, the path to revenge seemed smooth and easy, since the imperial legal system had become corrupted and now served the interests of whatever faction could establish its hegemony within the palace.  We are given to understand that, perhaps, the Persians once had just laws, which were very difficult to tamper with.  However by the time of Esther the state has been consolidated under a monarch, and this very immutability of the laws had been reinterpreted to mean that the imperial edicts could never be challenged or altered.

 

The miracle of self-defense 

As a consequence anyone who managed to control the reins of state, whether that be the monarch or the leader of a dominant court faction, was empowered to make decrees with god-like impunity.   Whether or not any given leader was likely to abuse these god-like powers, it was a virtual guarantee that at some point a narcissist would arise who would push the flaws of the system to maximum advantage.  Yet the most surprising thing about the whole narrative is not that a narcissist would wish to become a god, or that he got to the verge of making his dream come true.   The surprising thing is that he was able to accumulate police state powers in a world where there were no police.

How did that work?  Well according to our sources, it was very simple, the emperor wrote out an edict condemning a person to death…and they died.  Or the emperor wrote out an edict proclaiming that an entire population was to be wiped out…and they were wiped out.  How easy!  None of our modern notions about the  difficulty of enforcing sanctions.  Did the victims of such “justice” enjoy their fate?  No, their urge for survival was as strong as ours.  Did they accept it none the less?  Yes, because they knew that resistance was futile.  How did they know that?  They knew it because a thousand years of brainwashing had told them so.

The Jews were the canary in the mine shaft.  If there was any people in the entire empire that might have resisted, it would have been the Jews.  Yet, sadly, they weren’t quite up to it, at least initially.  They might not have gone as meekly as some other population.  They might have gone out in dignity, singing hymns to the Creator rather than pleading for mercy to the gods of the Earth.  But for whatever reason, they were part of the system, and they knew the system always won.  But they didn’t go, because a miracle occurred.

It wasn’t that the emperor changed his mind.  The emperor, a victim of his own immutable constitution, wasn’t allowed to change his mind.  The edict for the murder of the Jews still stood, and I suppose that in Achaemenid legal theory (assuming that wretched thing has some ideal immortality) it is still in effect today.  However it never was carried out, because the Jews were granted something infinitely greater than any fickle emperor’s repentance.  They were granted the right of self-defence against Haman and all his gang.  How did they defend themselves, and what odious restrictions on the arming of the general population were lifted for their benefit?  Was it rock-control?  Or club control?  Or knife-control?  Or perhaps the Jews suddenly came into possession of the most sophisticated weapons of that time, like the segmented Sythian bow?  Does it really matter.  The only thing that mattered was the lifting of will-control.  More importantly, the Jews used it to full advantage.  Whether or not they have made good use of that right since, it is none the less one which they retain in perpetuity.

As to the fate of Haman, his family and associates, the less said the better.  We know that, as in all good stories, Mordechai and Esther lived happily ever after.  None the less, for me the most enigmatic character is the emperor himself, a kind of playboy, reluctantly compelled by Providence to exercise a unique office, as Messiah-for-a-day, during which he was allowed to alter the course of all humanity.  For indeed, the Jews are the canary in the world’s mine shaft.  Once they secured a right, all the other nations of the world were bound to follow suit.  The process of imitation began at Thermopylae and continued to march through the world, or at least much of the West, finding its clearest expression in the sentiments expressed in the halls of Philadelphia Pennsylvania during and shortly after the war for American independence.  It is a right which has always been challenged, and no more so than today, when powerful forces have lined up to abrogate it.  Yet it bears the stamp of Divine authority, and the promise of Providence in its exercise.

Have a happy Purim!

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christianity, Culture & Politics, History, Humor, Judaism, Kabbalah, Philosophy, Politics, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Moses and Monotheism: The rationalization of faith and theological divergence between Judaism and Christianity

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 5, 2019

The Problem Stated

This article “Moses and Monotheism” is intended as one contribution within what will hopefully be a series of articles on the original schism, from the first century CE onward, within the religion of the Bible, a schism which led to the development of two systems of religion, one called Christianity and the other called Judaism.   It will be taken as axiomatic that the religion of the apostles (including the apostle Paul) was one Jewish sect among many, and arguably the most promising at the time.  It is not important what we call this original, integral faith, as any number of names could be suggested, such as the “church of Yakob (brother of Jesus/Yeshua)”, the “Mother church of Jerusalem/Yerusalayim”, the “Ebionites” or whatever.   For a variety of reasons, from a very early point in the history of the Jesus movement, forces began to exert themselves pulling the faith in diametrically opposed directions.

Over the centuries the systems called Christianity and Judaism became increasingly distinct and alienated from one another.  This process of divergence continued until, as some would maintain, the time of the European enlightenment (17th, 18th centuries CE) after which some movements towards partial convergence began to appear.  Yet today the issues of “who owns the Bible” or rather, has a right to interpret it, remains tense and chaotic.  Obviously the question involves a vast array of issues which need to be separated and treated in detail.  Methodological materialists will maintain that the salient factors were invariably those concerned with politics and ethnicity.  I don’t deny that these factors were crucial in historical development, however these essays are intended to be contributions to the history of ideas.  What, we wonder, was the content of faith among the various groups claiming to be the people of God.  To the extent that these ideas were similar, we presume convergence, while to the extent the content of faith differed, we presume divergence among the different communities.  Ideas have consequences.

Although this author is not a supporter of the theory of evolution, evolutionary metaphor has become ubiquitous in our language, and can be used with advantage to describe the historical movement of religious thought and practice.  In evolutionary terms, I suggest that the Judaism/Christianity distinction did not result from a sudden discontinuous jump, or what scholars call a “saltation.”  In tacit testimony to the weakness of the original theory, many evolutionary biologists today endorse a theory of “saltations” or punctuated evolution in which new species appeared through sudden mutation and immediately flourished.  Analogously, the split between Judaism and Christianity is frequently described as issuing from a once and forever bill of divorce, although the timing of the split (was it at Pentacost, or the council of Jerusalem…or as late as Nicea?) depends on where each particular historian locates the “saltation.”

Conversely, the view of doctrinal divergence found here resembles the older theories of evolution, which depicted the gradual separation of species over vast periods of time.  Although different in both substance and time-scale, the gradual drifting apart of Christianity and Judaism can be described in similar evolutionary language.  Possession of common scriptures ensured that there would forever be some common denominator within the Judeo-Christian continuum.  However theological and intellectual developments (among others) tended to polarize and distance the core doctrines of the two systems.  Judaism and Christianity were further apart in the year 800 CE than they had been in 400 CE, and further apart in 1800 CE than in 1100 CE.  This pulling apart of a common Judeo-Christian heritage and identity was not necessarily the consequence of animus or ill-will on either side, although it was certainly set against a civilizational background of increasing animosity.  For here I am not speaking of polemics between Christians and Jews, but rather doctrinal disputes within each of the religious systems, in which the victorious opinion nearly always resulted in a consensus which was increasingly opposed to the parallel and ongoing consensus of the other religious system.  To give a significant example, we can imagine a world in which the iconoclasts (“icon breakers”) had carried the day in the 8th c. CE among orthodox Christians.  However it was their theological adversaries, the iconodules (“icon lovers”), who actually won.  The dispute had little to do with Jews or Judaism, however the victory of the iconodules removed Christian beliefs and practices even further from those of Judaism.

Rather than being a simple morality play starring theological villains, the gradual ripping apart of a Judeo-Christian theological consensus was frequently the result of well-intended attempts to purify doctrine either on the Jewish or the Christian side.  Working with significantly different initial premises, the substantial gap between Jewish and Christian religious thought was accentuated as religious thinking became more explicit.  Thus notions common to Christians and Jews, notions such as Creation, Sin, Redemption, and Messiah, which from the outsider standpoint of pagans, witnessed to such a strong family resemblance between the two faiths…these very notions, subject to doctrinal analysis and elaboration, became the most divisive issues  of all.

One final, and supremely important caveat is in order.  This is not an essay on soterology.  Religions may “evolve” but the choice to give one’s allegiance to a Messiah is an either/or choice.  The best analogy for this Messianic choice would be from secular politics, e.g., an individual choosing or rejecting a candidate for office in the voting booth, which is a demonstrated, instantaneous, choice.  Conversely, the discussion which follows, according to the political analogy, would resemble the ex post constitutional legitimation of a particular electoral result, which might entail a discussion of political norms as they developed through time.  Thus while these issues are intimately related, the one concerns a single, instantaneous act, while the other describes a process transpiring through an extended period.  Furthermore, the first concerns the actions of individuals, and the second the moral and doctrinal consensus of faith communities.  Hence from a soterological point of view, yes, there was an instantaneous split between Jews who accepted and Jews who rejected Yeshua ha-Mochiah in the First Century CE.  Here however we are talking about the evolution of Christianity and Judaism into two separate religions, something which required time.  Furthermore, in this essay, I will not be focusing on the initial estrangement, but on the work of one Jewish philosopher who at a much later period of time played  a major part in sealing the split and rendering it irreconcilable.

There was no Moses like Moses until Moses

For my own ideosyncratic reasons I am going to highlight Moses Maimonides who can be located well past the mid-way point in the divergence between Judaism and Christianity.  Maimonides was a polymath who wrote extensively on medicine, Jewish law, and philosophy.  Here we will be focusing on his philosophical and theological opinions, and in particular his critique of anthropomorphism.  I will be supporting the thesis that the Maimonidean critique of anthropomorphism, whether or not it was consciously aimed at Christianity, had the net effect of driving Judaism and Christianity further apart.  As a result of post-Maimonidean theology,  today we have alternate taxonomies of Judaism within the field of comparative religion.  According to one taxonomy, Judaism-Islam represent parallel continuations of the primitive Abrahamic faith.  In the alternative taxonomy, Judeo-Christian religion is seen as a continuum based on shared scriptures.  Arguably the first view has attained majority status.  For example, Gordon Melton’s encyclopedia of American faiths, after starting with “Roman Catholicism” as its initial entry, places “Judaism-Islam” in its own chapter, unrelated to any Christian sects.  Such a placement is jarring to students who are familiar with the use of “Judeo-Christian” in American political rhetoric, but justified according to the Maimonidean reform of Jewish theology which was initiated around the 12th century CE.

Why Maimonides?  Like most religions, Judaism denies that it has developed in principle, while maintaining a scrupulous record of its own development, even giving names to the successive generations of rabbis who have contributed to the refinement of law, doctrine, and custom.  However within this smooth arc of development, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 CE) represents something of a discontinuity.  Although many factors contribute to his unique celebrity within the history of both orthodox and extra-orthodox Judaism, his status as the originator of “Jewish theology” is the salient factor within the context of the present discussion.  Here too, the title of “Father of Jewish Theology” would be misleading, since obviously Jews have been arguing about theological ideas since the revelation on Sinai.  What is unique to Maimonides, and which shaped philosophical and theological discussion in subsequent generations, was rendering hitherto tacit theological opinions explicit.  Prior to Maimonides there was no attempt to draw up a Jewish creed with the kind of unequivocal clarity which characterized the Nicean creed of trinitarian Christianity.   The creed of Maimonides was not only first, but set the standard for similar attempts by subsequent Jewish philosophers, none of which ever supplanted it in popularity among Jewish communities.  Likewise  The Guide for the Perplexed was his attempt to hammer out precise ideas on a variety of topics related to theology and philosophy.  Since it concerned a leading issue of the day, i.e., the relation of science (a.k.a., Aristotle) to religion, it became an instant classic.   Today it is more honored than read, yet the effect of the Guide on both Jewish and world thought is incalculable.

Of the various chapters in the Guide, none have been more celebrated among both Christians and Jews than those which focus on the issue of anthropomorphism. Always anxious to distance themselves from what were considered the “crudities” of the so-called “Old Testament”  the Scholastics of the the middle ages were happy to find a rabbi who endorsed the allegorical treatment of embarrassing passages within scripture.  In the Christian world Maimonides was well received qua philosopher, though of course not as a Jewish apologist.  Since church doctrine was divided between Theology and Christology, the Scholastics were able to appropriate the insights of Maimonides in the former field while ignoring their implications for the latter.  The high middle ages witnessed the heyday of “negative theology” and many thinkers of that time were convinced that it was both safer and truer to define God according to what He was not rather than making any positive attributions to the Godhead.  In this rarified atmosphere the anti-anthropomorphism of Maimonides found great favor.  However this appreciation fell short of genuine intellectual  convergence, which was rendered moot since Christian anthropomorphism had simply, and quite properly, migrated from the field of Theology (“What is God?”) to Christology (“Who is Christ?”).  The former question was thought to be resolvable by reflections on abstract philosophy and the laws of nature, (“realism” according to the nomenclature of the time) while the latter question was only resolvable according to direct experience of concrete things and events (again, according to the nomenclature of the time, this was called “nominalism.”  Parenthetically, the Protestantism of a later time would grow out of this “nominalism”).  Accordingly, the insights of Maimonides were utilized in the first field and ignored in the latter.

In contrast to this generally favorable appreciation of Maimonides among the Scholastics, his thought became an instant bone of contention among his fellow Jews, at least in so far as they had strong convictions in theology and philosophy.  While respected as a rabbi and physician, no sooner was the Guide published than the Jewish world became divided between Maimonideans and anti-Maimonideans.  This philosophical and theological division persists, albeit in a very low key manner, even today, in spite of a general desire to paper over the fine points and present Jewish, or at least orthodox, thought as an integral whole.

The older Jewish Theology (a.k.a., Kabbalah)

What was so objectionable to Maimonides, that the publication of his tome would spark a storm of criticism among his fellow rabbis?  The theological clarification which Maimonides sought to bestow on his faith community was viewed by many as an innovation, not as a restatement of tradition.  The tacit, and in part underground theology which had characterized Judaism up to Maimonides was more or less equivalent to what we would today call the speculative Kabbalah, albeit a Kabbalah prior to the publication of its standard text, the Zohar, not to mention much else of what is categorized as “Kabbalah” today.  Indeed, it is perilous to bring up a discussion of Kabbalah in the context of a discussion of theology, since the very term suggests dubious and irrelevant topics such as mysticism, magic, and even occultism.

What is salient in the context of the present discussion, is that the older Jewish theology (whether or not we call it “kabbalistic”) had a much more flexible conception of the Godhead than was latter allowed for in the exoteric, post-Maimonidean, discussions of Jewish theology.  The God of the earlier rabbis was a God capable of corporal interactions with human beings (or at least with prophets, patriarchs, and matriarchs).  With the rise of Aristotelian philosophy around the 12cCE, and its tendency to subject all truth claims to logical analysis, anthropomorphic depictions of the Godhead were placed under increasing scrutiny by the “enlighteners” of the age.  Indeed, a parallel might be drawn between the enlightenment of the high middle ages and that of the 18th century CE.  In both cases religious traditions came under scathing criticism.

None the less, there were major differences between the Aristotelian enlightenment of the 12th century and the secular Enlightenment of the 18th century.   Unlike the latter day European secularists, Western philosophers in the 12th century, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim were generally pious members of their respective faith communities, who earnestly sought a reconciliation between religion and reason.  In some cases (Aquinas, Maimonides) they seem to have been satisfied with the fruits of their reconciliation.   In other cases, notably among the Christian followers of Ibn Rushid (Averroes), they threw up their hands in resignation, allowing science and religion to proceed on parallel tracks.  However all the philosophers of that age seem to have earnestly desired to preserve the essence of faith from groundless attacks of reason, or at least “reason” as defined by Aristotelian philosophy.

Naturally the advocates of the older theologies preferred a wholesale rejection of Aristotelian thought to a reconciliation.  In their view, the knowledge of God among the faithful was being threatened by  the incursion of a barbaric and simplistic rationalism.  No where was this reaction more bitter than in those Jewish communities which rejected the philosophical works of Maimonides.  While the followers of Maimonides fought under the banner of a consistent and philosophically purified monotheism, their adversaries held out for a literal, indeed super-literal, interpretation of scripture, according to “drash” i.e., flexible interpolation of additional information into scripture using a literalist method of extracting more data from the text itself.    Over the centuries this method had gradually built up a body of theological ideas, although these ideas were held only tacitly among the Jewish community at large, being handed down explicitly among a restricted group of tradition-transmitters (i.e., a secret, or crypto-theology, in other words, a “kabbalah”).

Much of this crypto-theology was couched in blatantly anthropomorphic terms, which bordered on the fantastic.  God not only had a body, but that body was said to be half again the size of the universe.  To give another charming anthropomorphism various aspects of the universe were explained as emanations from the hairs of God’s beard.  For all the differences between Jews and Christians, it is interesting to note that their respective theologians both agreed that God had a beard.  For the Kabbalists it was the cosmic beard of Adam Kadmon, the archetypal emanation of humanity out of the Divine Essence.  Likewise, for the Church Fathers it was the beard on the face of the Second Adam, appearing in history as Jesus of Nazareth.  Whatever else might have been at issue, up until the time of Maimonides, anthropomorphism remained a point of contact within the Judeo-Christian continuum.  However, it was only a point of contact, not a point of convergence.  Jewish crypto-theology (whether we call it “kabbalah” or something else) was profoundly synthetic, incorporating as much as possible within the Godhead.  In contrast, the Christian theologies were analytic, observing the aforesaid distinctions between Theology and Christology, eternity and history, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the nominal.

Yet for all their differences in both method and substance, Christian and Jewish thought retained strong family resemblances.  Compared to philosophy, or even the simplicity of Islam, this family resemblance might be summed up, for want of a more dignified word, as “messiness.”  The messiness of both Christianity and Judaism, with their logical perplexities and multi-layered messages, can only be justified on the grounds that we live in a messy universe with messy problems, and perhaps the answers to these problems require more than an elegant rationalism or the judicious application of Occam’s razor.  Furthermore, at the very heart of this messiness lies anthropomorphism.  Thus throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptures we find the overlapping and intermingling of the divine presence and human existence, often both depicted in corporal form.  Indeed, the Bible may be viewed as a textual tableaux suggestive of the soft, flowing figures in a Chagal canvass.  Moderns repulsed by Biblical messiness, like Spinoza, have tended to forsake the church and the synagogue, and hence proceeding to write their own bibles, philosophical manifestos which reconstructed the universe according to principles of geometrical clarity, lucid but dead.

In spite of some novel opinions voiced in recent times by a school of obtuse commentators, I don’t think the latter-day infidelity of the moderns can be laid at the doorstep of Maimonides.  He was an “enlightener” in the 12th, not the 18th century sense of the word.  Accordingly, his intent in the Guide was to purify monotheism, not abolish it.  His linguistic and logical critique of anthropomorphism is both elegant and convincing, and provides an excellent “donkey bridge” for the safe passage of erstwhile atheists into faith, especially those who are apt to be offended by the concreteness and particularity of the Bible.

However in spite of the brilliance of the Guide, like the noontime brilliance which can either illuminate or bring on sunstroke, the work had both positive and negative effects.  The rejection of anthropomorphism, by necessity, tended to distance God from intimacy with his creations, at least his human creations.  Of course Maimonides was aware of this, and in the context of his thought the intimacy of the Divine-human nexus was retained through an intensified emphasis on the prophets and prophecy.  Here we are not critiquing the philosophy of Maimonides per se or inquiring whether this theory of prophecy was an adequate replacement for anthropomorphism.  Rather, we are looking at the effect of the Maimonides-inspired Aristotelian turn in Jewish theology, and to what extent it further distanced Judaism from Christianity.

The elephant in the living room, so to speak, is that this turn towards rationalism empowered Jewish philosophers to present their doctrine as the purest form of monotheism among the three competing Abrahamic faiths.  (N.B., Maimonides had very different objections to Islamic theology, which are only indirectly relevant to the issues considered here.)  Conversely, this implied that Christian trinitarian theology was either borderline or outright tri-theism.  Without taking sides on this issue one way or the other (after all, there seem to have been some actual tri-theists in the history of Christian theology) clearly this newly rationalized Judaism found itself at an even further remove from its Christian cousin.  A clear cut monotheism now confronted the “messy” or at least difficult to comprehend, trinitarian doctrine of the Christian theologians.

In retrospect, how different this was from times when the various schools teaching a speculative Kabbala dominated the heart of the Jewish world view.  That was a world-view in which God could still be manifest through various faces (partsufim) according to the aspect of the world addressed by the Creator.  It differed from Christianity in one essential respect, none of the faces bore the name of Yeshua-ha-Mochiach.  As long as the old theology prevailed the issue between Judaism and Christianity remained a kind of judicial proceeding which the issue of contention was the identity of the Messiah.  After Maimonides this became less of a judicial than a metaphysical contention, thus raising the doctrinal tension between Christianity and Judaism to a higher level.

The motivations of Moses Maimonides

To settle the matter in a morally satisfying way, we need to conclude by asking ourselves whether this further distancing of Judaism from Christianity in and after the 12cCE was an unintentional effect of rationalized faith, or whether it was the intended result of a project initiated by Maimonides himself.  According to my present understanding, it was indeed an unintentional effect, and not a deliberate aim.  If we can fathom the motives of Maimonides in sharpening and deepening the philosophical understanding of Jewish monotheism, then we ought to be able to glean some support for this opinion.  Therefore lets look at some possible motivations.

First one must consider whether this distancing from Christian theology was motivated by the low esteem in which Maimonides held the “founder of the Christian religion.”  It is no secret that Maimonides held Jesus, or “Yeshu” responsible for setting in motion forces which led to the destruction of the Second Temple forty years after his ministry.  Maimonides “Yeshu” who is portrayed as a hasty and ill-informed zelot, is in some sense (at least to this writer) a more interesting figure than the effeminate and defeatist “Jesus” whom people sometimes misapprehend from church teachings.  Both are misrepresentations of the actual Yeshua-ha-Moshiach a.k.a., Jesus of Nazareth, who is testified to in the gospels.  However we can hardly imagine that Maimonides constructed his theology in reaction to a person for who he had so little regard or interest in.  Those particular individuals whom Maimonides felt either to be, or not to be the Messiah, is an irrelevancy here.  One of his primary objectives was to remove the issue of “Messiah” from the sphere of metaphysical speculation and make it a purely historical question.  In this sense, yes, he distanced Jewish theology further from Christianity, but in a broader sense he also contradicted the speculative ideas about the Messiah found throughout the older “kabbalistic” theology, and thus modified the criteria for not just for Yeshua, but for rival candidates throughout history, many of whom (contrary to Maimonides) viewed the office of Messiah as having supernatural as well as secular significance.

A second and related possibility is that Maimonides sought to distance his philosophy from Christian speculation since he disdained the Christian world as barbaric in contrast to Judeo-Moslem civilization of Spain and the southern Mediterranean.  This is suggested by the equivalence monotheists=civilization, polytheists=barbarism, where alleged tri-theism places the Christian religion into the unenviable category of polytheism.   Indeed, this was the consequence of Maimonides’ philosophy, both in what we would today call “comparative religion” as well as within subsequent Rabbinical law (hallacha) in so far as it followed his teaching.  However a consequence does not prove a motive.  While Maimonides viewed, correctly, European technology, science, and hygiene as inferior to that of the Islamic world of the 12th century, there is no evidence that his thought was primarily motivated by an attempt to refute or react to contemporary Christian teaching.  Oddly, one Christian thinker whom he engaged in a constructive way was John Philoponus, a theologian who actually pushed the boundaries of trinitarian thought in a tri-theistic direction.

The third possibility is in some sense an inversion of the second.  Plausibly, Maimonides was motivated in his philosophy to approach and apply the stringent Islamic standards of monotheism.  Indeed, the Guide treats extensively of Islamic philosophers and theologians.  However it is important to make a distinction here.  In so far as the muslim thinkers he references were philosophers in the strict sense (Aristotelians) he engages them in an appreciative, indeed an appropriating way.  However Maimonides’ treatment of muslim theologians is consistently critical.  While detailed treatment of this criticism would take us far from the topic of our discussion, suffice to say that Maimonides had no interest in simply appropriating muslim monotheism and applying it to Jewish theology.

What, then, motivated Maimonides to reject the older “proto-kabbalistic” Jewish theology in favor of a more stringent monotheism?  Fortunately there is a plausible and obvious answer to this question.  A stricter monotheism was mandated by philosophy itself, or at least “philosophy” as it was universally understood at the time of Maimonides.  It must be understood that this so-called “Aristotelian” philosophy was actually a synthesis of Neo-Platonism with the Aristotelian cannon.  Neo-Platonism offered not just a system of idealism, but a strongly unified world view, in which the cosmos was understood as emanating out of a singularity, a transcendent One.

Hence, out of a desire to unify philosophy and theology, Maimonides instituted a more stringently monotheistic doctrine.  Jewish thinking had always been monotheistic, with its ultimate root in the Shema itself, the “Hear Israel…” and its ensuing profession of the unity of God.  However the word for oneness ehad is generally understood to indicate a composite oneness, i.e., a unification of parts.  Authorized by this “liberal” understanding of the Shema, not to mention many other passages of the Torah, the older Jewish doctrine of God felt comfortable describing various faces and attributes of Deity, almost as if they were distinct parts, albeit combined.  Under the influence of Neo-Platonic philosophy, Maimonides posited the oneness of God as a singularity, an absolute unity that is impossible to analyze.  Indeed, a unity so absolute that it rendered it impossible to talk about God, except in negative language as “Not many” or “Not having a body” etc..

Within the confines of this essay I am not taking sides with either the older Jewish theology or the post-Maimonidean rationalism which partially replaced it in the 12th and subsequent centuries CE.  However I trust that it has been made clear how the older theology was much more compatible with its Christian counterpart.  Even today, superficial encounters between mainstream Jewish and Christian thinkers are initially framed in terms of the strict monotheism of the former and the loose anthropomorphism of the latter.  However when one penetrates beyond the outer “Maimonidean” layer of religious doctrine, the differences are no longer so clear cut.  Naturally, there are disincentives to immersing one’s thought in these deeper Kabbalistic levels of thought, in so far as deceptive systems of magic and occultism have been grafted onto the Kabbalistic synthesis.  However at the core of the Kabbalah is a soft, or “liberal” monotheism, a monotheism which allows for the incorporation of both unity and particularity into the Godhead.  Arguably, the remains of this pre-Maimonidean doctrine points back to a primitive theology antecedent to the split between Judaism and Christianity.  In that sense the Maimonidean reform, however well intended,  has for eight centuries blocked the way back to an integral  Judeo-Christian restoration.

Maimonides in retrospect

Since one consequence of his system was a further separation of Judaism and Christianity, Maimonides would be worthy of a critical reading on that ground alone.  However there are many reasons for giving Maimonides a respectful reading, readings which are not necessarily restricted to historical or critical treatments.  Ironically, the same philosopher who contributed to the estrangement of the two religious systems, may also be a rabbi instrumental in their convergence.  Maimonides was also an innovator in the field of law, being among first and most significant thinker to depart from purely formal transmission of ordinances (hachallot) in preference to their logical/moral foundations.  This foundational approach to Torah, which abjures thoughtless repetition of form for an appropriation of genuine meaning an understanding, is suggestive of the kind of innovation necessary to the restoration of an integral Judeo-Christianity.  Such a restored Judeo-Christianity is likely to take its stand in a space somewhere between the hyperformalism of Jewish orthodoxy and antinomianism which is rampant due to abuse of grace in the church.  If so, the influence of Maimonides, hitherto a force for divergence, may be a future source of convergence.

 

 

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Jesus, teacher of the full Torah

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 20, 2018

JESUS, TEACHER OF THE FULL TORAH

…work out your salvation in fear and trembling. (Phillipians 2:13)

The full Gospel and the full Torah

Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 2:2  Paul gives us the full Gospel, explaining that he is determined to convey only his  knowledge of Christ and him crucified.  This knowledge does not refer to consciousness, information, or skills.  Paul was not an anchorite meditating on the Crucifixion of Christ 7/24 in a cell with disciples shoving him meals through a crack in the wall.  Paul had skills, wrote a lot, made stuff on weekdays, like tents, and preached on the sabbath.   In Corinthians Paul writes in Greek but thinks in Hebrew, where knowledge (Heb. daát) means something like intimate connection, as in the euphemism “he knew her in the Biblical sense.”

Jesus is our exclusive savior, but the Gospel, in the sense of evangelism, is not our exclusive preoccupation.  Paul’s words in Philippians are problematic because contemporary Christians tend to jump to evangelical conclusions.  This  makes the verse liable to a salvation-by-works reading which contradicts the Pauline doctrine of of grace.  However the phrase “work out your salvation” does not refer to the initial free gift of salvation.  It refers to the unpacking, assembling, and use of God’s gift.  What are the principles which ought to guide the life of someone who has gotten Jesus for free.  Do we send a thank you note?  How do you send a thank you note to God?  Surely we send it with our lives…as a “living letter.”

But then again, do we even need send a thank you note?  The antinomian would say “no”…that sending a thank you note is an insult to God.  Rather, we ought to live our lives with riotous abandon…showing the heathen what a great God we have who saves even the most contemptible sinners.  This view, though a minority position among theologians, actually crops up from time to time.  Let’s leave that discussion alone, since most Christians, whatever their failings in practice, are unlikely to be antinomians in principle…unless perhaps their common sense has been interfered with by too much theological subtlety.

Jesus the Teacher of the completed Torah

Most people will want to send God a thank you letter with their lives.  They will want to live their lives according to a pattern which is pleasing to God.  However they will also be careful not to give others the impression that they have earned their salvation through good works.  The antinomian is a rare but dangerous breed, and ever ready to pounce upon those who “trust in the law and not in grace.”

Yet, apart from those rare and eccentric antinomians , it is usually acceptable to be good, and even ever so, very, very squeaky clean good if you really want to be.  However if you ground your goodness according to Biblical standards, be prepared to face criticism, and not just from hard-core antinomians and kindred free-spirits.  Be prepared to face criticism from Christians, and even, perhaps especially, from morally rigorous Christians.

Morally rigorous Christians will agree that the gift of the gospel should evoke an ethical response from the believers.   However they are wary of the so-called “Old Testement”…a.k.a., the Torah that both Jesus and Paul knew and taught, albeit in a way which differed radically from the teachings of the Jewish rabbis of their times.  Torah (the life instructions and guidelines found in the beginning of the Bible) is supposed to be something other than, if not contradictory to, Christianity.  If you are determined to be good, then at least you should add some extra-Biblical criteria of goodness to your faith.  How about some virtue-ethics from Aristotle?  Or how about some Stoicism or Buddhism?  Marx anyone?  The last thing we want is an ethics drawn straight from the Bible, lest we be called Hebrisers…or worse, actual Jews!

Furthermore, weren’t the lives of both Jesus and Paul a string of unrelenting debate with Torah rabbis?  Well, yes, but that actually proves the opposite.  Jesus and the Pharisees were rivals, which means that both were struggling for the same thing.  They were both struggling for Torah.  The Torah of Jesus seems like a “new” teaching, or Torah.  However it was actually the teaching of the Pharisees which was new.  The teaching of Jesus was actually the old Torah of Moses, which was new in the sense that we speak of a priceless antique being “made like new” once the patina has been removed from its surface.

What was the difference between the Torah of Jesus and the apostles on the one hand, and the Torah of the scribes and Pharisees on the other?  Jesus taught the full Torah, his contemporaries taught only a partial Torah.  What does this mean?  Well, it is said that there are 613 precepts in the Torah.  Does this mean the Pharisees were teaching only 612 and Jesus was preaching the full 613?

Is this numerology or something?  Heaven forbid!

To avoid majoring in the minors, we need a succinct summary of the Torah.   As long as God has been kind enough to provide us with just “ten words” in the Bible which we need to obey, let’s lay aside the notion of 613, or some such number, precepts.  Usually these Divine Words are called “the ten commandments” but out of sensitivity to the law-phobic let’s call them words.  There is another reason to call them the “ten words”…since God’s words flow together as a single idea, expressed in a complete sentence.  If you take one of the words out it changes the meaning of the sentence completely.  That is the meaning of “you must keep the whole of the law”…not that anyone is actually expected to keep 613 “mitzvot” or commandments.

The scribes and the Pharisees were very good at keeping nine out of the ten commandments.  These nine are all things that one can do, or refrain from doing, with the body or using outward verbal expression.  The tenth commandment is different.  It is completely mental.  Superficially it seems to be a law against envy.  The authorized version uses the old-fashioned word “covet” which means “wanting to have something which other people have.”

Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Don’t cheat on your spouse.  So far, if your conscience has even a spark of life in it, so good.  But what about “Don’t even think about any of that stuff!”

That’s the Jesus difference.  Jesus was teaching the full Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees were teaching only 9/10ths of the Torah.  It is not that most scribes and the Pharisees fit the cruel caricatures in which they are often depicted in Christian drama.  As far as intentions are concerned, they were probably outstanding in the degree of kindness and consideration they exhibited towards their peers.  In particular, they wanted to exculpate their contemporaries, and especially themselves, from the onus of violating the psychological implications of Torah. Their reasoning was as follows:

“Look, we know that the human mind is impossible to control.  The prophet Jeremiah himself said that it is the slipperiest and most deceptive thing in all creation.  Let’s be realistic.  If you will just act in a way which is socially responsible and morally decent, we will give you a pass.  What you think is your own business.”

This sounds reasonable, but unfortunately it stumbles on the last word of the ten words.  That word is not just about cravings for sex or the possession of buildings and domestic animals.  It is about the normal mental disposition of fallen humanity, a disposition which makes us so unsatisfied with our lives that we are, in extremity, driven to lie, steal, cheat, and even kill.  These actions don’t suddenly appear without cause.

The late Rene Girard, a French emigre who taught anthropology at Stanford University, noted that the object of the tenth word, i.e. “coveting” was the wellspring of all fallen humanity’s actions.  According to Girard, we are driven by a desire, not just to usurp the possessions of others, but to displace them in their very existence.  In the eyes of the (tenth) commandment breaker, the crime of the man or woman in our own chosen field (our neighbor) is not just that they have more “stuff” than we do.  Rather, it is their existence itself which is offensive to us.   We think, even if we do not say, “So and so has my same ideas, aspirations and attributes, and in fact is more successful than me in promotion of these things, yet paradoxically, so and so is not me!   What am I to do?  I must displace him or her…since there cannot be two of ‘me’!”  The preferred method of rivalry is to imitate the rival, to become a more successful version of the rival.  Yet who can become a better ego than their rival alter ego?  Hence elimination follows upon the failure of imitation.  Indeed, if things were allowed to take their natural course, breaking the Tenth Word in thought would lead back, by degrees, to breaking the Sixth Word in practice.

Jesus had an intuitive grasp of all these deep and unsettling truths, since they lurked at the bottom of the Tenth Word of the Torah, disguised by homely language about houses and cattle.  He recognized the essence of the matter and was not afraid to teach it.  He knew that breaking the last word, like removing the keystone from an arch, would cause the structure of the prior commandments to collapse. His rivals, intent on establishing a practical religion of action (both performed actions and prohibited actions) were horrified that the firewall between the body and the mind had been breached.  They feared that a psychological Torah would be impossible for anyone to keep.

Their fears were well founded, but Jesus continued to preach a psychological Torah anyway.  In this regard, as in all others, it was Jesus who was the orthodox Torah teacher, since Moses had already insisted on purity of mind as well as body.  His rivals were content with a seemingly tolerant, but increasingly minute religion of actions, an “orthopraxy” in the stead of “orthodoxy.”

Fear and Trembling

It is not that anyone needs to practice the Ten Words in order to get into heaven.  That is not what the “fear and trembling” is about.  The fear and trembling is the vision that we all should have of the contrast between a perfect God and the manifestly depraved tendency of the human mind when left to its own devices.  The Tenth Word, the word against Envy, is the capstone of Torah, just as the monotheism of the First Word is its foundation.

Just as his rivals feared, Jesus, in preaching a Torah which condemned the mental quality of envy as well as the increasingly vicious actions which proceed from envy, was preaching a Torah which is impossible for human beings to keep.  Moses had already understood the incompatible relationship between the moral teachings of Torah and the imperfections of human life, which is why the sacrifices of atonement were instituted in the temple.  With much greater confidence, Jesus, looking forward to the Messianic atonement, taught perfect doctrine to imperfect creatures.

We cannot live utterly without envy, and even if we could, it would not get us into heaven.  However we can “work out” our heavenly destiny by unpacking and living out the teachings of the anti-envy doctrine, which is one of the treasures which has been delivered to the saints.  It is edifying for us, and also a great way to say “thank you” to the God of our salvation.

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The Four Story Mountain, or, the Judeo-Christian worldview explained while standing on one foot

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 15, 2018

Four levels of reality

Perhaps these should be called dimensions.  I know some will think that the term “dimension” has a kind of flaky New Age feel to it.  Actually if I were going to be precise I would prefer to call these four pairs of antinomies.  You like dimensions better?  I thought so.

The first level of reality, the dimension in which we live and pursue our life-goals,  is the world of the good and the bad.  I don’t need to tell you about this.  We know, inherently, when we are in a good state of mind and when we are feeling bad.  In this dimension life is about getting into the pleasant, the successful, the desirable, and avoiding their opposites in all departments of our experience, aesthetic, gustatory, sexual, social, intellectual…and so forth.  We can call this the natural dimension.  There is nothing wrong with it, we can say it “is what it is”…since rightness and wrongness only arise when we proceed to the next level.

Ethics

This is where it gets dicey.  I’m defining each dimension of human life in terms of an opposition between a positive and a negative state.  The problem is that the words “good” and “bad” in English and many other languages refer to several opposed qualities which are quite different in nature.  Initially I mentioned those good things and situations which were pleasant or desirable.   There “good” and “bad” referred to contrasting states which were distinct from a moral goodness which is opposed to wickedness.

This is the major donkey bridge on the entire route up the four story mountain.  Many people maintain that ethical goodness and material well-being are just two aspects of the same thing.  The usual suspects when it comes to this error are naturalists, materialists, and utilitarians.  Yet even apart from these hardened expositors of a world which is confined to a single dimension, there is a popular prejudice that happiness and goodness ought to go together.

It is hard to argue people out of this position, since it is so appealing.  Only experience can teach that there are many wicked people who seem perfectly happy.  Of all those who have lived on Earth few have had David son of Jessey’s range of experience, from shepherd to king and both sinner and saint.  A major theme of his poems is the disjunction between existence and ethics.  The evidence of human affairs is that there is little if any connection between happiness and goodness, or wickedness and suffering.  Only by raising himself out of the mire of human affairs and seeing that there was a higher level of accountability outside of creation was David able to assure himself that  the principle of justice was ultimately vindicated.  The very souls which wax fat in the material world become lean in the spiritual world.  Virtue is its own reward and vice its own punishment.  But not here…somewhere else.

The Spiritual

So there is a somewhere else.  However this somewhere else is separate from not only the material pleasant and unpleasant, but from the ethical and the unethical.  Material pleasure and ethics pertain only to life on Earth.  The goodness of the spiritual world is not the same goodness as the indulgences of this world.  In the material world goodness is a goodness of confluence with experience, while the essence of spiritual goodness is separation from worldly delights and desires.

Likewise with ethics, since where there is no desire, there is no need for such.  Ethics is only necessary when there is a need to apportion Earthly goods among rivals.  Once again, we have to disentangle ourselves from that homonym “good” which means something entirely different in a different world or dimension.  The opposite of spiritual goodness is not badness or wickedness in an ethical sense.  Its opposite is whatever is not spiritual, whatever is not separated from the material world, a.k.a., the “unspiritual.”

The more spiritual one is the less one is afflicted by the pleasant/unpleasant and the good/evil of the lower dimensions.  This is an attractive path for some, especially those who are attracted to the Eastern Religions.  However it is ultimately a wasteful trajectory since it consigns the lower two levels to the garbage heap.  In spite its apparent monism, spirituality apart from redemption is actually a duality comprised of a despised world and an attractive refuge.

Godliness

The worldview of the Judeo-Christian scriptures posits a further dimension beyond that of any agnostic “spirituality.”  It is a world of Godliness in opposition to…well, really nothing since everything is of God, however for the sake of the argument, let’s say ungodliness.   Not just any god (everyone has a god) but the Creator, who, while a spirit, made the material world and is determined not to waste it.  This means that the spiritual cannot be “beyond good and evil” since God must bend down to concern himself with even the lowest, the natural (or rather the created) world.  This requires an act of redemption, but in the end it unifies everything, in contrast to the dualism of the Eastern paths.  And you thought it was the other way around didn’t you!  So in essence we have four dimensions or worlds and each defined according to the polarity of a different “good” and “bad”

desirable/ undesirable

righteous/wicked

separated/engrossed (from the material world)

Godly/separated (from the Creator)

Of course if we take these out of our sequential argument, label them, and flip them over so that they correspond to a hierarchical order we have

Divinity

Spirituality

Ethics

Creation

That, to the best of my understanding, is about the simplest outline that you are likely to find that maps out the Judeo-Christian world-view.  However it is not the simplest possible account of the universe, and hence it fails by the criteria of Occam’s razor.  The simplest account would be that of the materialistic naturalists.  None the less, I feel that this account has one overriding advantage…it’s true.

Furthermore, I must confess, I couldn’t stand on one leg throughout that exposition.  So any apostles of yogic duality who have been holding their stork posture, yeah, you win.  The posture competition…not the argument.

 

 

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Christian Education’s Big Fat Greek Curriculum and the Fear of Revelational Insufficientcy

Posted by nouspraktikon on May 14, 2016

What do we need in the West today?  Christian revival or European Renaissance Part II?

This is less of a choice than a rhetorical question addressed to two distinct groups of people, albeit with the possibility of cross-over likely as the lines of division become clearer and sharper.  For purposes of approximation, lets use those shopworn monikers “liberal” and “conservative.” Understandably liberals and humanists are in a panic.  The walls are tumbling down and the barbarians are within the gates.  What is needed is time to effect a new civilizational synthesis out of the inchoate multicultural mass, and events are accelerating beyond human control.

Now according to the (social, not market) liberal theory, mankind is basically good, but apt to be driven mad by ideas, especially clear, consistent ideas.  What these people want are tolerant ladies and gentlemen, people who are intelligent but not dogmatic.  Intellectual consistency has been tried and has failed time and again.  Nazism, Communism, Radical Jihadism…these are the fruits of too much ideology and too little common sense.  So you want to be a muslim?  Fine, but at least be a sensible muslim.  Become a sufi, mix the Qur’an with a bit of Hinduism or whatnot.  You may or may not be spiritually satisfied but at least you won’t be a danger to the rest of us.

In this way the secular world has muddled on from crisis to crisis.  Human thought is held to be inherently contradictory (dialectical in the Hegelian sense) and hence to be a principled advocate of any view leads to intolerance and ultimately violence. Perhaps the greatest prophet of postmodernism was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who famously claimed that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  This way of thinking, or rather not thinking, has come to fruition among a large segment of the so-called “millenial” generation.

On the other hand, be a true Christian is to be committed to “the exceptional ideology”…an ideology which is not really an ideology in the narrow sense of the term.  According to the claims of the gospel, the more single minded, the more exclusive, the more “fanatical” a Christian one becomes, the kinder and gentler one will become.  In fact, the true Christian risks being mistaken for a well-bred, mild-mannered lady or gentleman.  Appearances can be deceiving, but none the less, a Christian should be an asset, not a danger, to self, to community, and to the surrounding society.

Here I’ll try to avoid any “classical apologetic” attempting to refute the liberal humanist’s prudent inconsistency.  Everyone can see that it has a superficial plausibility and moreover has the attraction of minimizing ideological antagonism in the short-term, whatever its long term costs might turn out to be.  Rather, I think it would be more profitable to examine the fear of consistency which lurks even among the committed advocates of Christianity and Christian education.  Conservative, orthodox Christian educators ought to question their own principles.  Can a curriculum be based entirely on revelation, or must it resort to extra-revelational supplements?  Of course it all depends on what one includes within the sphere of revelation, and specifically whether the world of things outside of scripture is treated as “creation” (hence direct revelation) or “nature” (non-revelation, or at best indirect phenomenal hints of revelation).

Hellenism and the Dual Magisterium in Christian Education

Yet, more often than not, Christians, and I mean conservative orthodox Christians, fear consistency.  Part of this comes from the world out of which the Christian has been separated.  Knowing that fanaticism is something which is normally to be feared, the believer hesitates to put all of his or her eggs in one basket.  This is just the sin-nature having its say.  None the less, there are sufficient objections to a revelation based curriculum that most christian educators would endorse a Dual Magisterium.  This has pretty much been around since Thomas Aquinas put natural knowledge (mostly Aristotle’s work) on a par with revelation as the two sources of knowledge.   These two “teachers” are what constitute the Dual Magisterium.

In fact, there is only one ultimate teacher, God, although the specific content of the various sciences are received through a variety of secondary causes.  The fundamental error in denying the sufficiency (actually the ubiquity) of revelation lies in failing to distinguish between special and general revelation, special revelation being the text of scripture, and general revelation being creation itself.  When people fear basing knowledge exclusively on revelation, it is usually because they exclude general revelation.  They reject, and rightly so, the notion that all the sciences can be deduced from from the texts of scripture without reference to the phenomena of the human and natural history.

In fact, the notion of ignoring the phenomena of human and natural history is not an orthodox Christian attitude.  None the less there is a deep seated fear of what might be termed “scriptural deductionism” which compels cautious minds to assert the necessity of a Dual Magisterium.   Why would any Christian educator fear this bogeyman, when it is clearly separate from the mainstream of Christian thought.  A bit of history goes a long way to explain the origins of this fear.

The Hebraist/ Hellenist Antinomy

Early Christians, even those who spoke Greek, lived on the littorals of the Eastern Mediterranean,  and were what we today would assume to be “ethnic Greeks” thought of themselves as either Christians or Romans or both.  In the former case they saw themselves as members of a new called-out people, the church, in contrast to the “gentiles” the equivalent in Greek language being “ethnoi.”  Ideally, when they accepted Christ, they forsook  Homer, as well as the other Greek poets, for the Biblical Patriarchs and Prophets.  In other words, they assumed a new identity.  Of course they continued to read and speak Greek, most importantly the Septuagint, or Greek bible.

This didn’t mean they instantly became incredibly stupid, the assumption of secularists since at least the time of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Rather, instead of amusing themselves with tales of  orgies on Mount Olympus, they could now study a wide variety of Christian literature together with newly “baptized” science and philosophy.  While according to Gibbon and his ilk, this was a time when people “feared to look up into the sky”…this does not mean that nature had become off-bounds for human observation and speculation.  What ran afoul of Christian thinking was divination, i.e., fortune telling, which might involve the observation of birds or stars.  There was never any prohibition against “looking at nature” in preference to burying one’s head in the Bible from dawn to dusk.  The Christian doctrine of creation, which encourages the study of God’s works, renders such an attitude perverse.  In fact, science continued its progress uninterrupted in Christian late antiquity.  One of the outstanding examples of this movement was John the Grammarian, who made several insightful improvements on Aristotle’s physics, anticipating the mechanics of Galileo by eleven hundred years.

But there was a group of thinkers, outside the church, which felt that the Bible had to be walled off from natural science to protect its purity.  These were the rabbis of what became Talmudic Judaism.  Reacting against the doctrine of the incarnation, they withdrew into Biblical introspection, outlawing the Greek “Old Testament”, but weaving Hebrew scriptures verse against  verse into new legal and mystical doctrines while ignoring the witness of creation.  By the middle ages, science was becoming all the rage in Islamic lands, and Moses Maimonides, a Jew operating out of Egypt, was compelled to wear two hats, that of an Aristotelian philosopher and that of a rabbi.  Hence the birth of the Dual Magisterium.  Impressed by a tidal wave of new Aristotelian translations into Latin, the church abandoned the synthetic view of Augustine, and embraced a duality of supernatural and natural revelation.  In a contrary movement, many in the Jewish community (particularly the “kabbalah” movement of the middle ages) rejected the “Greek learning” and returned to a Bible-only curriculum, in reality a Bible-plus-rabbinical-commentary only curriculum.  The disciples of Maimonides and the Kabbalists were never on speaking terms after that.

The Straw Man of Bible-only informational insufficientcy

Surely we are all adults now and know that study of the Bible and study of nature are not two mutually exclusive activities.  In fact, since the study of the Bible requires extra-Biblical knowledge, notably a knowledge of language and of the relationship between signs and signified things, a human mind containing an exclusively Biblical-derived knowledge is an impossibility.  Actually, all Christian knowledge implies a mutually conditioned interaction between God’s word (symbolic revelation) and God’s creation (a.k.a. “nature”, including our physical bodies).  It is not a question of a Dual Magisterium, rather there is a sole Magisterium of God, who operates through various modalities.  If one accepts the doctrine of Creation, then all knowledge is ultimately revelation, albeit mediated through various secondary agencies (prophets, telescopes, etc.)  The volume of information contained in the universe and the volume of information conveyed through revelation are equivalent sums.

If this is the historical Christian attitude towards creation, why is science often considered a novel appendix to Biblical knowledge in contemporary Christian circles?  Consider the triumphant announcement by the Templeton Foundation, that the study of nature would lead to a “Ten thousand fold increase of knowledge” over any theology and apologetics based on the Bible alone.  But who, outside of Orthodox Judaism, ever tried to construct an intellectual world which prohibited the observation of nature and the use of any texts which were not in some way commentaries on the bible?  Even among the Orthodox Jews it was difficult to hold to this degree of Biblical exclusivism, as the efforts of the Maimonideans and sundry rationalists show.

None the less there were heroic attempts, especially in that branch of Jewish mysticism called the Kabbalah.  Recognizing the inadequacy of the plain text of the Bible as a compendium of all possible knowledge, and prohibited the insights of gentile (usually Greek) science, the Kabbalists attempted to break down the semantic units of the text from the word level to the letter-level.  This “literalism,” or rather letter-ism did indeed lead to an exponential increase in the data available to Biblical exclusivists.  Whether this expanded data set was useful or simply junk depends on the degree that one credits Kabbalistic doctrine.  In defense of the plausibility of the method, it should be noted that Hebrew letters have a meaning content which is not characteristic of most other written languages.  The method was enhanced by further manipulations and rearrangement of the Biblical text, which further magnified the informational possibilities.  Not surprisingly, this highly subjective mining of the Biblical text veered off strongly towards the magical side of the science-magic continuum.

Despite the fact that no such methods ever were employed within mainstream Christianity, a notion persists that revelation-based knowledge is equivalent to knowledge based exclusively on the Biblical text, ignoring creation.  The one theological school which has explicitly developed this notion is neo-orthodoxy.  According to neo-orthodoxy creation is not a revelation of the mind of God.  The church only has possession of an ethical book, called the Bible, and any statements in scripture which refer to creation are considered fables.  For neo-orthodoxy, metaphysics is not a serious human concern like ethics and salvation.  Whereas the Kabbalist gave up science to develop a metaphysics out of Bible codes, the neo-orthodox theologians give up nature itself.   For them nature is not a created order, but a chaotic distraction from the deep faith concerns of the believer.

Conclusion: Conservatives can afford to put their Big Fat Greek Curriculum on a diet!

It is conservatives (Reformed, Evangelical, Fundamental, Pentacostal etc.) who honor both God’s textual revelation in scripture, and God’s material revelation in creation.  These are in fact two curricula taught, ultimately, by a single Teacher.  Why then are conservatives constantly “surprised” by nature.  Why do they go out of their way to assure themselves and others that they have a Dual Magisterium? This this only remotely due to the prestige of the ancient Greeks.  Proximately it is due to the desire for respectable “Liberal Education.”  However there is a nagging conviction that if there were no Dual Magisterium, religious minds would withdraw into the metaphysical ghetto of the Kabbalists or the brooding ethical cell of the neo-orthodox.

In fact this scruple is a canard based on a category mistake.  Instead of two teachers (God and Nature) delivering one curriculum, there is one Teacher (God) delivering two curricula, scripture and creation.  No information is sacrificed by getting rid of the second “teacher.”  The only reason to think that nature was a “teacher” is due to the personification of science by its codifiers, notably Aristotle.  Of course we can use the name of Aristotle as a mnemonic, as in “Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle” but it would have been a law regardless of Aristotle.  The same is true of many areas where Hellenic and Hellenistic scientists brought to popular attention aspects of our world, aspects which they discovered but did not create themselves.

One must give credit where credit is due, but not to the point of making Classical Education a shibboleth.  Above all, in using eclectic sources to illustrate ancient history and science the Christian educator must never fall into the habit of idealizing ancient pagan culture.  Dr. Gary North has identified at least nine areas (from infanticide to slavery) where the norms of ancient Greece taught what a Christian must consider the most dangerous forms of sin.  This is not to say that the study of classical authors or classical languages should be off limits, as content, not form, must be the criteria.  Nobody ever fell into sin studying Euclid…unless boredom is a sin.

If we must have our Greeks and Latins in education, and it seems we must, then at least it should not be in the service of a nineteenth century educational ideal which was already questionable in the days of Thomas Arnold.  We can cut down on the classics, from the gluttony of the Renaissance to the gourmet fastidiousness of the Scholastics, and finally down to appropriately slenderized Augustinian synthesis.  Many others have made this point.  However I have tried to remove the one seemingly valid objection to a Singular Magisiterium based exclusively on revelation.  There is always enough information…because the author is God.

 

Posted in Christian Education, Christianity, Culture & Politics, Kabbalah, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Theology, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Jacob Neusner and the Supercession of Revelation by Intellectual History

Posted by nouspraktikon on May 19, 2009

Our Essential (Though Mistaken) Jacob Neusner

Hurd Baruch recently brought attention to the relevance of the work of Jacob Neusner to Christian apologetics in the traditionalist Catholic ezine New Oxford Review.   Baruch extablishes his importance (from a Catholic viewpoint) by the simple expedient of showing that the present pope, when he was still Joseph Ratzinger, took Neusner’s positions as the plumbline of Jewish theology which it was necessary to come to terms with when presenting the Gospel.  While all this is very interesting, it is not clear that Hurd Baruch has quite understood Neusner’s position, which would have been of importance even if it had never come to Ratzinger’s notice.  In the New Oxford Review article Baruch introduces Neusner as a scholarly orthodox rabbi and professor.  As shall be explained, the use of the miniscule in “orthodox” conveys more information than the typical reader of the magazine in question is likely to notice.  Neusner is in fact a Conservative (as in Conservative vs. Orthodox) scholar of Jewish religious literature.  From the point of view of Orthodoxy this makes him no more a “rabbi” than a Baptist preacher is a “priest” albeit that Neusner might be far more scholarly than most rabbis…or for that matter Christian priests.  Still, the question of truth always centers on whether you’ve gotten your answers right, not how smart you are.  My thesis is that, as far as human reasoning goes Jacob Neusner gets God and Man and Law (to borrow an old refrain from Bob Dylan) almost, but not quite, right.  This in itself makes Neusners philosophy important, being that penultimate rationalism which, if the Gospel did not exist, we would have to embrace to make the most of life in an imperfect world.

The shock line which Baruch quotes from Neusner is that “the conception of a Judeo-Christian tradition that Judaism and Christianity share is simply a myth in the bad old sense: a lie” (from Jews and Christians: The Myth of a Common Tradition, 2003).  One has to love Neusner for departing from the pieties of American civil religion and the false gospel of political correctness.  But in truth this statment (as Neusner himself would agree) doesn’t go far enough.  The conception of Judeo-Christianity suffers not so much from incoherence as from neologism.  Neither Judaism or Christianity stand for any coherent tradition either, as anyone can see from the divided nature of the church, but equipped with a bit more scholarship we can speak confidently of multiple  “Judaisms” as well.

Now it is by no means clear that Neusner can speak for all of these Judaisms, but the particular Judaism for which he does speak for, what might be called rational-historical Judaism, occupies an important place in the system of possible human ideologies.  One might call its place “essential” in the same way that Mattew Arnold called the thought previous to his own period, “our essential 18th century.”  Of course Arnold was a Victorian Christian Humanist, and as such in a relation of polarity to the salon culture of the Enclyopedists and Enlighteners, but it was precisely the polarity which made the relationship essential.

Likewise Neusner’s rational-historical Judaism not only provides the most plausible and humane alternative to the Gospel today, but a valuable foil for Christian self-understanding.  This is because Neusner’s Hebraic rationalism is  much more stable (or to use Merleu-Pointy’s term, much more “major”) than standard Greco-Western rationalism, or for that matter, rationalism without adjectives.  After all, it shouldn’t be necessary to explain, after Kant, that such rationalisms, incapable of providing their own premises, invariably self-destruct, or as in the case of Nietzsche, turn into their own dialectical opposites.  This is so well known that we could almost speak of standard Greco-Western rationalism as “hysterical rationalism” or “latent irrationalism” or “rationalism-romanticism”…the latter phrase, or something close to it, having actually been used by the celbrated Ayn Rand!

Now Neusner, like most unprejudiced persons of sound mind, understands that this hysterical rationalism won’t do at all for the purposes of establishing a prudent and virtuous human community.  What follows is my surmise as to his basic thinking out of a solution, the solution based on rational-historical Judaism.  My surmise is that Neusner knows that most, although not all, human insanity is based on carnal drives, or what Judaism likes to call the “bad impulse”…this is sufficient in itself to overthrow any battlements that Greco-Western rationalism is likely to put in its path.  So one must put in an admixture of religion, but not just any religion.  Paganism won’t work, for the gods of paganism turn out to be no more than archetypal human drives, so one is fighting fire with fire.  One must resort to the oracles of the Source of Being contained in the Torah.  But Neusner senses (again I am surmising, perhaps at the man’s expense) a  second, even more dangerous, source of human irrationalty…the whirlwind of contact with objective divinity.  Again, Neusner is not the sort of scholar who speaks a great deal about this sort of thing, it is simply an unstated premise hovering on the periphery of his work…but minds of a different turn call this kind of contact “numenosity.”

In short, I surmise that Neusner’s whole project hinges on adding a trace amount, a homeopathic dose, of numinosity from the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob to the matrix of rationality.  At any rate, the results are rather satisfactory.  One can imagine not just individuals, but entire communities, living their lives out within the framework of historical-rational Judaism.  Unfortunately there have never been any such communities, there have only been Orthodox Jews living under Talmudic law, or Jews (including Neusner) who, like the rest of us, live under secular law in secular communities.  Mysteriously enough, this dosn’t have much to do with the nature of the law, but with metaphysics.

The difference between Neusner on the one side, and both Orthodox Jews and most Christians on the other, is that the latter take metaphysics seriously and the former does not.  Again, I am speaking of the man’s scholarship, not of his private life, of which I know nothing.  For people accustomed to thinking in New Testement terms, Neusner is a kind of para-Sadducee.  This may seem terribly unfair, for Neusner has spent his entire life laboring to make Jewish tradition available to the modern public, while the Sadducees were the classical rejectors of tradition in favor of what Christains would call “sola scriptura.”  However the Sadducees were also rationalists, or at least metaphysical minimalists…rejecting spirituality as a distraction on the way to the just society.

Of course Neusner has a vast amount of material to deal with, all of which was produced by the successors of the Pharasees, not the Saducees.  His over 900 scholarly works are just the tip on an iceberg spaning the depths of rabbinical history from the end of the Second Temple to the closing of the Babylonian Talmud around 500AD.  But like any scholar’s work, the significant of Neusner’s  accomplishment isn’t the bulk of his resume…it is the simple idea at its core.  Neusner’s idea is the displacement of revelation by intellectual history.  As indicated above, this can never be a complete displacement…for a complete displacement would entale the collapse of the entire structure.  But what does result is a a series of paradigm shifts, based on rabinical insights, which reinterpret the basic matter of the Torah on which each of the hermenutic structures rest.  This Torah matter is reduced to the role of a passive media out of which a series of Judaisms are constructed.  The prime agent therefore becomes the collective mind of the Rabbinical community…and not whatever revealed itself in the whirlwind.  One might say that Neusner has done for Jewish theology what Hegel did for philosophy…he has made it march forward in time in the service of increasing rationality and justice.

The irony of the situation is that the remaining communities which abide by the Talmud on a day to day basis will have nothing to do with Neusner, and in fact consider him a secularist.  It isn’t that they are reading a Talmud which is any different from Neusners, it is that they, unlike Neusner, take metaphysics…or the whirlwind if you will, seriously.  Judaism didn’t stop where Neusner leaves off in 500AD, it continued with the redaction of the Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts which made spirituality, not leglism, the center of Jewish life.  Now it would be easy to think, in the hindsight of Scholem and other scholars of Kabbalah, that these Kabbalistic Orthodox Jews, like good progressives of the 20th or 21st centuries, thought that their spirituality was better than the moral insights of the Talmud because it was newer and more modern.  But of course this would be anachronistic.  The Kabbalistic texts were written in the form of midrash, that is to say as commentaries on the Torah.  They were true not because they were newer than the Talmud, but because they were more ancient than the Talmud.

But the most salient point of all is that not only Kabbalistic Jews and Christians, but Talmudic scholars throughout most of history made their claims not on the basis of novelty but antiquity.  The idea of moral evolution through which Neusner exposits Jewish religious literature is quite attractive, but it falls down on two essential points.  First of all it conflates the idea of revelation and intellectual history, a conflation which didn’t really become popular until the time of Hegel, and would have shocked most traditional communities of the past, certainly most Jewish ones.   Secondly it abandons the sphere of religion entirely because it sweeps the primal nature of numinosity  under the carpet…where all sensible secular people think it belongs.

In short, Jacob Neusner is an essential dialogue partner for Christianity, both in the sense of apologetics and Christian self-understanding.  But he does not represent dialogue between Christianity and Judaism so much as Christianity and Modernism…albeit Modernism in what is perhaps its most prudent, just, and sustainable form.  After all, even a trace amount of what Abraham received leavens quite a bit!

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St. Jerome and the Christian Kabbalah

Posted by nouspraktikon on January 22, 2009

Was the Western Church “Kabbalistic” from Ancient Times?

In the discourse of comparative religion and historical studies, that is to say the standard academic view of people like Gersholm Scholem, a movement designated by the word “Kabbalah” itself doesn’t go back much further than the 12th century, that is to say the presumed date of the Bahir, and then only as a preocupation of Rabbinical Judaism.  Christian Kabbalah is pictured as only a late and imitative phenomena starting in the 15th (Pico della Mirandola) or even 16th (Reuchelin)  centuries.  However this begs the question of what we mean by “kabbalah” since as Scholem himself pointed out it was just a repackaging of a perrenial stream of  “mysticism” one which not only antedated the European middle ages, but included Christians as well as Jews.  For Scholem the Christians in question are members of small Gnostic sects such as the Marcosians, a rather libidinous group which flourished around the second century in Gaul.  The consensus seems to be that even the proto-tradtions which existed before being designated “kabbalah” were either an exclusively Jewish affair or at most one shared by highly deviant forms of Christianity.  Rarely is it suggested that there could be anything “kabbalistic” about orthodox Christian theology during the patristic age.

Of course this would be so if we allow Kabbalah to be defined as, to take one of Scholem’s titles, “Jewish Mysticism” or more inclusively, but improbably, “Any Western spirituality in which mysticism shades imperceptably into magic.”  No orthodox Christian theology, either Eastern or Western, could define itself in such terms.  But if one were to define kabbalah as, say “Any hermenutic basing itself on a mystical interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures”…which strikes me as a more cogent starting point, then the possibility of a kabbalistic patrology seems much more plausable.

J.N.D Kelly on Jerome:World-Class Genius or World-Class Jerk?

If we are searching for a kabbalist among the church fathers then the obvious place to start looking is in the life and works of Jerome, provided, that is, we accept the last of the above definitions of Kabbalah.  Jerome was the first church father to reintroduce the study of the Hebrew scriptures as the basis of Christian Biblical studies.  This “hebraic turn” which largely effected the West via Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (which used the Jewish Tanach as the basis for its Old Testement) is not entirely non-controversial.  Although the consesus view, at least in the West, is that Hebrew would naturally be the ur-source of the scriptures, there is also a feeling, among Eastern Christians and their sympathizers, that the Septuagint (LXX) is not only a more coherent text from the Christian point of view, but as a redaction from the Hellenistic 3rd century BC, may in fact represent a deeper strata of textual matter than any Tanach which Jerome could have had access to by the turn of the  fourth/fifth centuries AD.

Apart from the matter of not having the cognitive or linguistic tools to broach this rather dangerously divisive issue, I think there is something to be said for leaving the whole matter moot, and relocating the difference between the LXX and the Tanach/Vulgate at the level of methodological preferences.  Moreover long as one has some tolerance for anachronistic labeling (and lets face it, all thinking about the past would grind to a halt if one did not) I propose that there is nothing at all absurd about calling any alegorical reading of the Tanach or a Tanach based text for Christian hermenutic purposes “Christian Kabbalah” while alegorical readings based on the LXX may be catagorized as extra- or non-kabbalistic.

If one accepts the above premise, then the first Christian Kabbalist was not Pico della Mirandola, or any other Renaissance or medeval dabbler, but non other than St. Jerome himself!  Well then, so what?  Everyone knows that he was the man who gave the West its first “standard” Bible, but apart from that, who was this guy?  As a matter of fact I happen to be readingJerome His Life Writings and Controversies
by J.N.D. Kelly.  Kelly himself is a sound scholar and talented writer but his irritation with Jerome’s flawed personality shows through, turning the book into a kind of anti-hagiography.  Jerome did have a nasty streak in him, one which tended to progress as he got older, and Kelley spares us none of the details.  Secularist readers (I’m not apprised as to what Kelly’s own religious views are) will of course put this down to supposed Christian “resentment” in combination with the frustrations of celibacy.  However a close attention to Kelly’s narrative shows that a more plausible explanation is the stress attendant on membership in the late Roman political-ecclesiastical class.

For all of that, and admitting that Kelly’s work in its time (the ’70s) was a needed correction to previous encomiums, I found that the biographer’s prejudices extended to more than taking the Jerome cult down a peg or two.  He puts down without comment the remarkable fact that Jerome’s advanced diciples (at least Paula, a woman who was a kind of celebate partner to him) chanted the Psalms in Hebrew.  To me this is a remarkable observation.  We commonly think of translators as standing between the original and the people who are to be the recievers (there’s that word again!) of the translation-object.  But here we have Jerome dishing out the “real stuff” to Paula and who knows who else!

Not only is the virgin Paula chanting in Hebrew, but Jerome sees fit to enlighten her, while explicating the accrostic psalms such as Ps. 118/9, on the letter-meanings of the Hebrew alphabet…for example that Beit is “house” and that Gimmel is “fullness” and so on.  In any other context this would be recognized as the Literal Kabbalah, but Kelly passes it by with a sneer at Jerome’s “self-delusion.”  Of course it seems to be self delusion because the whole thing seems pointless, except possibly as a mnemonic, as long as one is wedded to the opinion that there is nothing contained in the Bible but a narrative of historical events.   Confusingly, this fundamentalist anti-mystical hermenutic is also called “literal” in the sense of a plain meaning, whereas literal, when used as an adjective in Literal Kabbalah, means a hidden layer of (letter) meaning underneath what modern linguists would call the morphological level, i.e., words and parts of words which bear meaning in ordinary discourse.

So what Jerome was teaching Paula was Kabbalah, just as you or I speak prose even if we dont call what we are doing “speaking prose.”  Whether Paula quite understood what Jerome was trying to communicate is another question, for elsewhere Kelly indicates that Paula was more interested in the history contained in the Bible than any alegorical or hidden meanings.  Kelly also doesn’t go particularly deep into what motivated Jerome to translate the Tanach into Latin in the first place.  We presume that we know the answer already, so the question is not even worth raising.  For example we presume to know that any Hebrew text would be original compared to any Greek text which would be derivative.  As I have have already indicated there are doubts about this.  At any rate it is safe to say that Jerome felt he was getting closer to the original sources with Hebrew.  Another and related motivation would be making an end run around the Eastern church’s “patent” on scripture, and giving the Latin West a “more original” Old Testment than the LXX.

That much any historian could figure out, but Jerome, with his great thirst for deeper and deeper levels of meaning, certainly had additional motivations in approaching the Hebrew text.  From his teaching of the acrostics to Paula it is evident that he was familiar with the idea of concealed meanings at the letter level, and perhaps even the matrx like ways in which letters could be recombined to yeild alternate readings on the discursive level, something which would have been impossible with a Greek text like the LXX.

Wordsmith scholars like J.N.D. Kelly, however good they may be at their own arts, are unlikely to pick up on the significance of this hidden dimension.  They use narrative accounts of historical concretes and project them back to some psychological or material factor to explain causes and effects.  Thus Jerome’s translation of the Tanach into Latin must, on a priori grounds since we presume the Literal Kabbalah to be nonesense, have been based on scholarly ambition, sectarianism, or subtle “resentment” rather than genuine curiosity.  However I suggest that, however encrusted by worldly barnacles, the element of curiosity was salient.

Curiosity, Licit and Illicit

However, even admiting the hypothesis that there is a kabbalistic strain in mainstream Western Christianity going back at least to the time of St. Jerome, the question of whether Kabbalah can be embraced as part of the legitimate deposit of faith remains uncertain.  We must recall that Pico della Mirandola’s theses were rejected by the see of Rome, and that Mirandola himself submitted to this judgement, later distancing himself from kabbalah and becoming a diciple of the Dominican monk Savanarola.  Many things separate the fourth century of Jerome from the fifteenth century of Mirandola, the popularization of the word kabbalah to discribe the various arts under discussion being only one of them.  For one thing Jews and Christians had had ten more centuries to become estranged and develop doctrine in diametrically different directions.  So when Pico della Mirandola presented this more intensely Jewish kabbalah to the public, and further mixed it up with the resurgent paganism and magic of the Renaissance, it was clear that its chances of replacing Thomism as the official philosophy of the Western Church were slim indeed.  A second round of this battle was play out within Protestantism.  However Protestanism having already adopted the philosemetic attitude of Jerome and playing its hebrew cards against Catholicism, drew the line at the “joker’s wild” gambit of invoking the Kabbalah.   Within Lutheranism the Christian Kabbalists, under the new moniker of “Rosicrucians” lost out, first to Lutheran scholastics and latter to modernists.  Even such a dedicated Christian Hebraist as Issac Newton loathed the Kabbalah as a manifestation of Jewish backsliding into magic and paganism.

But this accusation of “illicit curiosity” leveled against the Kabbalah during the Renaissance was, I am maintaining, already aimed against nothing more than a second, and second-best attempt, to adopt the full implications of Hebrew allegory in the West.  The first time around, under the auspices of Jerome, it had already been tacitly adopted in a much purer form.  That it was not called “kabbalah” did not keep it from informing peoples expectations of mystical exegesis, even during those centuries when Western Christians had ceased to use Hebrew as a scholarly language.  However this doesn’t mean that it was entirely non-controversial, and that some Western usages didn’t appear strangely Jewish to Eastern Christians.

Was even this early Christian “kabbalism” which came in with Jerome entirely licit?  The history of Protestantism, or rather of extremist Protestant sects, suggests that it was not entirely without dangers.  There has always been the danger of a highly Hebraized Christianity retroverting to Ebionism, or some such doctrine which sees Jesus as a very good man in the service of the Almighty.  Since Ebionism has been in disarray for some time, that too provides little hope of a resting place, and one might go further and embrace the doctrine of the Talmud, that Jesus was actually a bad man and a heretic.

Be that as it may, none of this came to pass with Jerome.  Indeed his studies of the Hebrew scriptures drove him further and deeper into an orthodox outlook.   He consistently maintained that at many points the Trinitarian and Messianic implications of scripture were actually clearer in the Hebrew text than the LXX.  A cantankerous crumudgeon he may have been, but his reputation has remained solid among Christian thinkers of every confessional stripe.  True if we were to say that he was the first Christian to receive the batton of the Kabbalah from the teachers of the Jews, people may cavil that this represents development in doctrine and not, as Jude (i.e. “the Jew”) wrote “the faith recieved once and for all” from the apostolic generation.

And might not someone demonstrate that the apostles themselves were Kabbalists?  Indeed someone might, but not me, at least not now, for even these few random observations on Jerome have taxed my wits.  But do give it a thought.

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Valentin Tomberg on the reality (and unreality) of Evolution

Posted by nouspraktikon on January 10, 2009

The Hermit

The Hermit

A doubly “Hermetic” meditation

Although I don’t claim to have understood all the myteries touched on by Valentin Tomberg’s masterpiece Meditations on the Tarot, and am unlikely ever to do so, it is sufficiently clear to me that its ninth chapter “The Hermit” contains the methodological key to the whole. Indeed, Tomberg, who concealed his name in the work’s title but otherwise was quite forthcoming in his explanations of the arcana, states as much in the text.

I have often thought of using this blog as a venue for an extended commentary on Mediataions on the Tarot, but the work is so massive and dense that any systematic treatment would take more time and energy than is available to yours truely. None the less if one were to start a commentary the best place to begin would be the middle rather than the beginning, since the work is itself organized around the principle of an unbound codex, or what we call a “deck of cards”…i.e. its structure is geometrical rather than sequential. Cartomancers, for example, lay the tarot cards out in various geometrical spreads for purposes of divination. Of course, divination is not the use which Tomberg, a Christian mystic, puts the tarot to. Rather he uses them as iconographic clues to tease out “arcana” or keys to wisdom.

That is to say that as the cards are meditated on, a certain chain of ideas begins to suggest itself, hopefully leading to the resolution of some previously intractable philosophical problem. In my opinion, and evidently Tomberg’s, this use of the cards as a philosophical machine is far more interesting than divining to see who you are going to have lunch with tommorrow. Of course the answers that one arrives at using this Hermetic method may not be the optimal ones, something Tomberg readily concedes, however in my experience it sharpens the acuity with which the problems can be grasped.

The chapter on the Hermit serves as a kind of methodological template of this meditative proceedure, and Tomberg has the audacity to “resolve” within the space of less than a dozen pages three of the toughest antinomies in philosophy: 1) realism vs. idealism, 2) universals vs. particulars, and 3) science vs. faith. It would be double hubris for me to attempt (within the ambit of one post) a satisfactory commentary on Tomberg’s Hermeticism of the Hermit Card, but as a sort of apendix to question three “science vs. faith” he casually throws out a) and explanation of the Fall, and b) a theory reconciling Creation with Evolution, and I would like to draw out some of the remarkable implications which his writing contains on those topics. At any rate, perhaps one can see why this book, a commentary on a traditional source of symbolism, itself requires a sub-commentary!

The Fall of Man and Evolution

Since the two topics, as treated by Tomberg, are interconnected, I’ll deal with them under the same rubric. First of all there is the very interesting exegesis of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowlege of Good and Evil Heb.עץהדעתטובורע the fruit of the etz daat tov va rah. Now this is taken in anti-theistic hermenutics to be a prohibition on acquiring the means to make moral disinctions, which is obviously the sort of tyranical limitation which purveyors of the Promethean model of human-divine relations are wont to assume.

Tombergs understanding of the fall, and I am calling it his understanding because I have never encountered it anywhere else, though for all I know there may be circles where it is a commonplace…completely obviates what might be called the tyrannical command theory. But that is just a bonus of the theory, for at a more salient level it provides a critical tool for unravelling the conundrum of Creationism/Evolutionism. I call this Creationism/Evolutionism antinomy a conundrum because we have on the one hand what would seem to be a crude myth which leads to all the moral insights upon which a theory of human dignity must be based, and on the other hand a superbly sophisticated scientific theory which leads to moral obscenities and possibly the destruction of the human race.

So what theory of the Fall does Tomberg have in mind which will allow him to resolve this antinomy? First of all, let me paraphase what is evidently the intention of the Meditations, for while the expression does not occur quite as explicitly in Tomberg, or rather in the rendition of his English translator Powell, the forbidden fruit was actually that of the knowlege daat which grants empowerment regardless of good or evil consequences hatov va rah. In other words the Fall-inducing knowlege is none other than the kind of instrumentalizing, pragmatic knowlege by which science grants power to the human race, a knowlege which will inevitably have both good and bad consequences. But then, from the point of view of Adam and Eve, consequences be damned…pun intended.

Now if Tomberg left it at this we would have a kind of Manicheanism, perhaps of the fashionably contemporary Green variety. Moreover, Tomberg is, like Augustine of Hippo, a kind of ex-Manichean…yet in some ways even more interesting than Augustine, since we do not possess any Manichean writings by the African bishop, but we do have a double Tomberg corpus, one Anthroposophical and one Catholic. Furthermore, just as Augustine could see certain things about Catholic doctrine which eluded his contemporaries precisely because he had labored long in the fields of Manicheanism, likewise Tomberg, without the background in Rudolph Steiners teaching would not have been in the position to baptize the Tarot, somewhat after the fashion that Augustine baptized ancient philosophy and rhetoric.

Therefore Tomberg invokes the image of the serpent as the image of temporal evolution and human progress as lineal empowerment. However he never goes so far in the direction of Manicheanism as saying that Satan is the God of Evolution. This is because he sees the horizontile path of the serpent of knowlege as one arm intersected by the verticle path of salvation, the Tree of Life. Indeed, the Tree of Life is none other than the Cross, upon which the serpent must be crucified. Therefore even modern science, which is so obviously Satanic in many of its manifestations, is capable of redemption. Likewise, knowlege of an evolving cosmos, as long as it is seen as pragmatic understanding rather than a credo or a total world-view, is capable of being baptized to the service of Christ.

Having epitomized what is clearly the salient insight in Tomberg regarding the Hermit card, I hope you will read the chapter yourself and make further commentary. You, whoever you may be in your annonymity.

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Have a Very, Very, Noetic Noel! (But don’t forget the Turkey and the Miseltoe!)

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 23, 2008

Because if you do forget the Turkey and the Miseltoe you may wind up as a Manichean! (Don’t worry, explanation follows).

The text for this Christmas sermonette is a diagram found on “Christian Civilization” which may be found here. The author of the site is evidently a follower of Cornellius Van Til, the advocate of presuppositional apologetics within the Reformed tradition.  The title of the diagram is “The One and the Many” and purports to explain schematically the differing metaphysical views of orthodox (Reformed?) Christianity in contrast to a rather monistic world-view which is simply labeled “atheism.” Although I doubt that most atheists are sophisticated enough to embrace the (defective) diagram on the right side of the illustration, if one were to drop the invective and call it Pantheism or something, so far so good.

Before I go further I want to say that I think there is really something wonderful about this new Copernican turn in Reformed theology. My naive impression…OK, lets be honest, my prejudice…was that neo-Calvinists were fideists and misologists, when in fact the precise opposite is the truth. I’m not saying that these thinkers are entirely without fault, but the more I read about Van Til, Kuyper, Dooyerward et al, the more impressed I am. So I want to say that the diagrammaticapologetic against the so-called atheist (Pantheist) is luminous and provocative, or rather more luminous than provocative, since it illustrates the major thesis of why a Christian (all other things being equal) lives in a light-filled, joyous universe while the non-Christian, however stoic and morallives in a world of anxiety. Of course, due to our postlapsarian state “all other things” are definitely not “equal”…but then we are certainly not afraid that a theologian in the Reformed tradition is likely to forget about that, are we?

The problem is on the left side of the illustration. To have two disconnected circles representing God and Creation is clearly defective. Almost worse than that, the circle representing God is considerably larger than that of Creation. The apologist seems to be saying “Look, I respect God, I have made the God-circle twice the size of the the Creation circle.” Indeed! By that standard one would have to make the God circle’s circumference infinite, which would rather defeat the purpose of having a diagram in the first place. It would be far better to take one’s cue from “He created man in his own image” and retain two circles of the same diameter. Of course, I am relying on the traditional (Christian as well as Jewish) Kabbalistic assumption that the cosmos exists inside Adam rather than vice versa…but that is a topic for another discussion.

Aside from the size of the circles, the main problem in the Van Til inspired diagram is the fact that the circles are disconnected, or rather connected by exogenous lines labed”origin” and “appeal to mystery.” One gets the impression that the superiority of Christianity lies in an implicit dualism, as against the monism of the so-called “atheist.” But of course this is wrong, and not only has orthodox Christian reasoning always maintained that it is wrong, but Kabblists, who have been drawing theocentric diagrams for a lot longer than the diciples of Cornelius Van Til, have a very elegant way of illustrating the “presupositions” (if I may use a loaded phrase) of patristic theology…and more to the point…patristic economy.

Now Kabbalists, Jews and pagans though they may have been, have always been very careful in the way that they have laid out their diagrams. These diagrams, in a way that Cornelius Van Til would surely have approved of, were intended to demonstrate the truth of our existence in a world which is neither exclusively monotheistic nor a mere aggregate of particulars. Much like the Van Til diagram, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life is superimposed on a series of circles. But they differ in that all of these circles intersect.

Note that the Van Til diagram also has intersecting circles, or rather intersecting vecisa, inside the Godhead. These are the famous Borromean Ringswhich are traditionally incorporated by geometers of the sacred into diagrams of the trinity. Thus we can see there is no problem with the Van Til schmatics from the point of view of patristic theology.

And then along came Mary…

The problem involves what the Fathers called “the economy”…that is, the relationship of the human to the divine within Christ. In diagrammatic terms, Christ must exist in the vecisa formed by the interlocking of the Divine and Creational rings. This is hardly my own personal interpretation, rather it is a traditional convention going back to the time of Raymond Lullif not before. Once the circles are overlapped, or rather in Borromean style, interlinked the duality between the Divine and the Cosmos is overcome. Properly speaking, the Incarnation fuses these two worlds together, and the resulting cosmology might best be termed “semi-monistic.”

Is there something about Reformed thinking that causes it to shy away from the Incarnation? To the best of my knowledge Calvin accepted the Fourth Ecumenical council at Chalcidon with its clear understanding that Jesus had both a divine and a human nature. Perhaps there is something in Reformed thought or liturgy which makes its theologians “forget” at convenient points in their systems the supreme importance of the Incarnation.

I submit that the best way of memorializing the way in which Christ exists as the fusion point of the Divine and Created worlds, is to pay respect to his Mother. Calvin himself would probably have taken little exception to this proposition, since he was a surprisingly big fan of St. Bernard of Clarivaux, in turn an important propagator of Marian devotions. Unfortunately the rhetoric of Puritanism lends itself towards sterile and almost acosmic dialectic, more appropriate to Neoplatonism, or even Manicheanism, than traditional Christianity. Perhaps the advocates of the new, bold theologies coming out of Neo-Calivinism, could do themselves a favor by remembering their linkage to traditional, Incarnational, Christianity.

Indeed, at this season, its a good message for all of us. God is coming into the world and fusing himself with humanity, and by extension, with the whole of the cosmos, employing the substance provided by Mary of Bethlehem. We are called not to dispise the cosmos, not to dispise what God himself did not dispise…a manger with all its dirt and animal smells. God came in to this world to save fools…so lets enjoy our turkey and our mistletoe, get high and get kissed. And if all you can manage is Presbyterian punch, that fine too…but for Christ’s sake (literally), please get that diagram right!

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