Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Judaism (page 1 of 1)

Jaroslav Pelikan

Origen may … have been the first church father to study Hebrew, “in opposition to the spirit of his time and of his people,” as Jerome says; according to Eusebius, he “learned it thoroughly,” but there is reason to doubt the accuracy of this report. Jerome, however, was rightly celebrated as “a trilingual man” for his competence in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and Augustine clearly admired, perhaps even envied, his ability to “interpret the divine Scriptures in both languages.” […] But it seems safe to propose the generalization that, except for converts from Judaism, it was not until the biblical humanists and the Reformers of the sixteenth century that a knowledge of Hebrew became standard equipment for Christian expositors of the Old Testament. Most of Christian doctrine developed in a church uninformed by any knowledge of the original text of the Hebrew Bible.

Whatever the reasons, Christian theologians writing against Judaism seemed to take their opponents less and less seriously as time went on; and what their apologetic works may have lacked in vigor or fairness, they tended to make up in self-confidence. They no longer looked upon the Jewish community as a continuing participant in the holy history that had produced the church. They no longer gave serious consideration to the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament or to the Jewish background of the New. Therefore the urgency and the poignancy about the mystery of Israel that are so vivid in the New Testament have appeared only occasionally in Christian thought, as in some passages in Augustine; but these are outweighed, even in Augustine, by the many others that speak of Judaism and paganism almost as though they were equally alien to “the people of God” — the church of Gentile Christians.

Surely this de-Judaizing is the most important (and troubling) way in which the era of the early Church Fathers differed from the Apostolic beginnings of the Church. It is fascinating to contemplate an alternate history of Christendom in which Jews and Christians remained in regular conversation and debate. 

Mann’s Joseph: 4

Akhenaten Egypt Alexandria National Museum jpg

This is Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Akhenaten. In every surviving representation of him he is immediately recognizable; no one else looks like him. There is good reason to believe that he instructed his artists to portray him in a certain manner, a manner especially evident in full-length portrayals: 

Statue of Akhenaten Egyptian Museum al Qāhirah CG EGY 46992837435

He always bears the same features: a high-cheekboned face with slanting eyes and full lips; a narrow waist; a bit of a pot-belly; wide, feminine hips; full thighs and spindly calves. It’s hard to imagine why he asked to be portrayed in this way unless this is, to some degree anyway, what he actually looked like, but some scholars — for instance, Jacobs Van Dijk here — have noted that the artwork that survives from his reign portrays all people in a similar way, though no such mode of representation preceded this era. It is as though Akhenaten decreed himself the image of humanity. It can’t be accidental that he looks like a pregnant woman, like someone about to give birth to something. 

His wife, Nefertiti, gave birth to at least six daughters, but what he gave birth to was the most radical religious reformation ever undertaken: the elimination of the entire vast system of Egyptian worship and the replacement of every cult of every god with a single cult: that of the Aten, the disc (or globe) of the sun. The Egyptians already had a sun-god, of course, Ra, or Amun-Ra, who looked like this: 


Sometimes (after he was in some sense united with the sun-god Ra) he has a falcon’s head. But Aten looked like this: 


The refusal of human or animal imagery was very much the point, though I guess the Aten in a way has hands: like the Beatles, it has arms enough to hold you. 

Akhenaten of course doesn’t mean to suggest that this is what the only God actually looks like: it is merely a visual representation of universality. The idea that a god “looks like” anything, even metaphorically, is part of what he wants to overcome. The great Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie wrote of this new theology,

If this were a new religion, invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw in the correctness of this view of the energy of the solar system. How much Akhenaten understood, we cannot say, but he certainly bounded forward in his views and symbolism to a position which we cannot logically improve upon at the present day. Not a rag of superstition or of falsity can be found clinging to this new worship evolved out of the old Aton of Heliopolis, the sole Lord of the universe. 

On the other hand, a later Egyptologist, Sir Alan Gardiner, in his classic Egypt of the Pharaohs, has a terser description of Akhenaten: he calls him a “heretic.” 

The wonderful idea at the center of Joseph and His Brothers is this: Akhenaten is the Pharaoh who made Joseph his vizier. And thus the thematic tension between monotheism and polytheism is heightened — for, when these two men meet, who is more of a monotheist? 

Mann is of course neither the first nor the last to speculate on the possible relationship between Akhenaten’s monotheism and that of Israel. I am not sure, but I believe that the American archaeologist James Henry Breasted was the first scholar to note the relationship between Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to the Aten and (for instance) Psalm 104. Speculation has usually focused on the possible influence of Egypt on the Israelites, in part because the Israelites were a dependent and then an enslaved people, but also in part because the tradition of seeing Egypt as the source of religious ideas for the rest of the world goes all the way back to Herodotus (see the Histories, Book II ¶ 50ff). 

This is how Freud thought of the matter, in Moses and Monotheism, which presents us with Moses as an Egyptian adherent of Atenism. (It’s an incoherent book, alas — written as Freud was dying and little more than a confused riff on Breasted’s work.) This is also how C. S. Lewis thought of the matter. In his Reflections on the Psalms — written twenty years after Freud’s book, which Lewis may or may not have known — he wrote of Akhenaten’s revolution,

As we can see, it was a total failure. Akhenaten’s religion died with him. Nothing, apparently, came of it.

Unless of course, as is just possible, Judaism itself partly came of it. It is conceivable that ideas derived from Akhenaten’s system formed part of that Egyptian ‘Wisdom’ in which Moses was bred. There is nothing to disquiet us in such a possibility. Whatever was true in Akhenaten’s creed came to him, in some mode or other, as all truth comes to all men, from God. There is no reason why traditions descending from Akhenaten should not have been among the instruments which God used in making Himself known to Moses. But we have no evidence that this is what actually happened. Nor do we know how fit Akhenatenism would really have been to serve as an instrument for this purpose. 

Lewis’s thoughts on Akhenaten are interesting enough that I may have to return to them in another post. But for now I just want to note that his way of considering the relationship (which is also the archaeologists’ way) is not the only possibility. What if the flow of influence were reversed? What if one son of Israel, having risen to the position of Pharaoh’s vizier, had the eloquence and imagination to plant the monotheistic seed? — to plant it in fertile and ready ground, to be sure, but to plant it nonetheless. That is the possibility that Mann invites us to consider. 

And perhaps he reminds us also of another point, not a possibility but a reality. Akhenaten’s revolution failed utterly: his son Tutankhaten removed the Aten from his name and became Tutankhamun, affirming his loyalty to one of the gods his father had attempted to banish, Amun-Ra. Of course, ultimately all the gods of Egypt failed; but the children of Israel thrived, and despite countless setbacks, persecutions, and pogroms, despite living for centuries among people who have wanted and still want to destroy them altogether, still to this day worship the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

Mann’s Joseph: 3

This difference we have identified between Jacob and Joseph is essential to the story that will unfold, for whether Joseph is a better or worse theologian than his father, his habits of mind are essential to the calling he will assume, the vocation of saving his family.

Again in this opening chapter, Joseph reflects on his name and the important fact that it contains the word sepher (or sefer), which means book or scroll or document. “He loved composing with the stylus and was so skilled at it that he could have served as a junior scribe at some place where documents were collected” (68).

Later, after his brothers sell him into slavery and he finds himself in Egypt, working in the household of a rich and powerful man named Petephrê (Potiphar), he actually becomes a scribe, and Petephrê’s overseer, Mont-kaw, contemplates this boy:

And here Joseph stood before him, scroll in hand, and, for a slave, even a scribal slave, he spoke clever, rougishly subtle words — and that combination of ideas was unsettling. This young Bedouin and Asiatic did not have the head of an ibis on his shoulders, and was, needless to say, a human being, not a god, not Thoth of Khmunu. But he had intellectual connections with that god, and there was something ambiguous about him…. [651]

Again and again in the tetralogy Joseph is associated with the Egyptian god Thoth. Thoth was the god of writing, of communication; he was also a wise counselor and mediator, and a messenger. In a story Socrates tells in Plato’s Phaedrus, Thoth offers the gift of writing to one King Thamus, who rejects it. When the Greeks learned about Thoth they immediately recognized him as a version of Hermes, or rather — since they were often inclined to see themselves as inheritors of Egyptian wisdom — recognized Hermes as a version of Thoth. 

At several key points in the story Joseph encounters a nameless figure who is a guide — especially a guide to the Underworld that is Egypt — and a messenger. This is clearly Thoth/Hermes. Maybe I’ll write about him in a later post. But right now I am concerned with Joseph’s own Thothness: what he ultimately becomes is the go-between, the messenger, the mediator, who links his family — his radically monotheistic nomadic-shepherd family — with the great Egyptian empire, full of magnificent cities and temples and a near-infinity of gods. Only Joseph can mediate those two worlds.

For much of the book, I assumed that in telling Joseph’s story Mann was essentially writing a critique of monotheism, at least in its Israelite form; that he was teaching us that Joseph’s flexible and quasi-syncretic way is the better way. But eventually I was forced to reconsider that view.

Mann’s Joseph: 2

Joseph, unlike his ancestors, delights in the gods of the gentes: he knows their names and attributes. He thinks about them, he plays in his mind with those names and attributes; he can’t help himself. When Jacob comes upon his son in nude contemplation he thinks Joseph is “blowing kisses to the stars,” which the lad denies, but in a flood of verbiage — he is an incessant chatterbox and will one day pay mightily for it — that takes him right back into danger. He soon finds himself describing the worship of the Mesopotamian moon-god Sin, whose “day of festive contemplation,” Shapattu, is coming soon, and recalls that the moon does not shine on its own, no, we know that “He made it to shine” and —

“Who?” Jacob asked softly. “Who made it shine?”

Marduk-Baal!” Joseph cried all too hastily, but followed this at once with a long, drawn-out “Aeh-h-h-h,” shaking his head to undo it, and now continued, “… as He is called in the old tales. It is, however — as my dear papa has no need to learn from his poor child — the Lord of the gods, who is stronger than all the Annunaki and Baals of other nations, the god of Abraham, who defeated the dragon and created the threefold world.” (76)

Joseph is this, if not consciously and intentionally polytheistic, imaginatively so; moreover, he is, even when speaking conciliatory words to his father, not a strict monotheist but rather a henotheist — which suggests that that he thinks this may be acceptable to his father. (Mann is surely aware of the passages in the Hebrew Bible that sound henotheistic, for instance Psalm 95:3: “For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.”) But we readers know that it is not so acceptable. In this very chapter Mann describes a conversation Jacob had on just this subject with a man named Jebshe:

If the God who had established the sun, the signs along its path, and the planets, including the earth, was the highest God, then he was also the only god, and it would be best not even to speak of other gods, in such a case, otherwise one would be forced to label them with the name Jacob had refrain from using, precisely because reason demanded that the term and concept of “the highest God” be equated with the only God. [56]

Jacob is horrified by any suggestion that the gods of the gentes are to be treated with anything but contempt and revulsion, and Joseph has to employ his best and most charming eloquence to calm his father’s troubled spirit. (It is, fortunately for him, a task he is always up to.)

So this opening scene of the story-as-such establishes this tension between the single-minded devotion of Jacob to the Fear and Joseph’s playful delight in contemplating the religions of the gentes. It wouldn’t be right to say that Joseph simply is polytheistic. But he is inclined to enjoy correspondences and to seek whenever possible a reconciliation of opposing forces. The tetralogy as a whole is called Joseph and His Brothers, but I think in a more fundamental sense it’s about Joseph and his father. It explores the difference between a radical uncompromising monotheism and a more … flexible approach to matters of faith.

Mann’s Joseph: 1

There’s a long Prelude to the tetralogy — called “Descent into Hell” — which I may discuss later on. After the Prelude we enter the first of the four parts of the tetralogy, The Stories of Jacob. And while the main character of this book is (theoretically) Jacob, we don’t get his story in chronological order: we begin with a scene between Jacob and Joseph, his teenage son — indeed, we see Joseph before we see his father. This scene strikes certain notes which then resonate, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes discordantly, throughout the rest of the tetralogy.

The first substantive thing that we learn about Joseph is that he is widely and deeply aware of the religious practices of what the Israelites called the nations, the peoples that surround his little familial world. (“Nations” = Latin gentes = our word “gentiles.”) He sits, at evening, in a contemplative pose, and intently contemplates the moon. Or does he worship the moon? Moreover, the whole scene takes place under the influence, one might even say the patronage, of the goddess Ishtar, who gives her name to the first section of this first chapter. (Here, as is traditional, she is associated with the planet Venus.) Mann also tells us that there is something indefinably Egyptian about Joseph’s appearance.

Above I wrote of “Israelites,” but really there are no Israelites yet, just the family of the man born as Jacob and later re-named Israel — Yiśrā’ēl, “strives with God.” He is the son of Isaac, who is the son of Abraham; so we are just three generations into this new adventure in human history — and, Mann says, a new adventure in the life of God. For one of the points that he makes at several points in the story is that Abraham was the man who invented God.

Mann doesn’t think that Jacob is literally the grandson of Abraham — he believes that many generations separate them — but he accepts that Jacob is in some … other sense Abraham’s grandson. Mann has a notion, often referred to in the narrative, that certain personalities recur generation after generation: people as it were imagine themselves into the lives of their ancestors, so that they become their own ancestors: they inhabit the stories they have inherited. So for instance, when Jacob comes upon the contemplative Joseph, the boy is naked, and Jacob tells him put to put some clothes on — and as he does he finds himself recalling the mirror image of his experience, the moment when Noah’s sons saw his nakedness, and Jacob fells that he is in some way entering into that story, a story he had been told by his father and grandfather. That’s what happens, in this narrative, to old stories: through inhabitation they are revivified, generation after generation. (This is the beginning of typology.) 

So Abraham learned certain essential stories which he then passed them down to his descendants, one of whom is Jacob. And the central story is that of Abraham himself having been called from his old life by God, a God who is jealous and singular — so much so that Abraham, reflecting on his encounters with this strange disembodied presence, comes to think that he is not encountered merely another god among the many gods, but Something more extreme, Something that can’t be classed with anything else. And this is the sense in which Abraham invents God: he discovers — or imagines; Mann allows the reader to judge, though he sometimes hints that this God really does exist, though perhaps only because Abraham imagined Him — a universal Deity, the Creator of all things visible and invisible, Lord of all the nations, even the nations who do not recognize him. That’s the God Abraham invented, and that’s the God that that Jacob has inherited, and Jacob is fierce in his monotheism. He thinks always of his God and imitates Him. “El-Elyon’s choice and preference of some individuals, absent, or at least beyond, any merit on their part was absolute and splendid; by any human measure, it was hard to comprehend and unjust, a sublime emotional reality that was not to be quibbled with, but to be honored with trembling and rapture in the dust. And Jacob, himself aware – though in all humility and fear — that he was the object of such favor, imitated God by existing exuberantly on his own predilection and giving it free rein” (63).

But Joseph doesn’t think this way. Joseph is, as I said earlier, highly aware of the gods of the peoples whom the children of Abraham regularly encounter. The children of Abraham, these herdsman and wanderers, don’t occupy the cities where the gentes dwell, with their temples and priests. They may visit such places to trade goods, but they don’t live there. They live, rather, in the places between, in the fields and on the hills. They take their herds with them wherever they go, and when their herds flourish, they become people of real substance. They buy and trade, and that become substantial figures in the economy of their world, but they remain always nomadic, and have no need for a city, a city with a temple in the midst of it and statues of God to bow down before. The God they worship, and whose voice in the fields and on the hills they can hear, is the one who has called them out of a dead life and has accompanied them; is also the one with whom Jacob wrestled on the banks of a river. He is the Fear (Gen. 31:42). But Joseph may not be as fearful as his ancestors. 

Mann’s Joseph: Prelude

I recently read Thomas Mann’s tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers — one of the more extraordinary reading experiences of my recent years. I had started it once, decades ago, and then again a few years later, but it’s probably been 25 years since I’ve even tried to read it.

I have a kind of instinct for reading, or at least I think I do. I always have plans for what to read; sometimes I follow those plans and sometimes I don’t. But every now and then I’ll be planning a series of books to read, or articles and essays — or maybe I’ll actually be in the middle of reading something — when I’ll suddenly think, You need to drop what you’re doing and read this other thing instead. That doesn’t happen often; two or three times a year, maybe. But it is an inner prompting (like Socrates’s δαιμόνιον) that I have learned to obey. I don’t know where it comes from, but I do know that when the impulse comes I find it irresistible. I have learned to accept the prompt and to be grateful for it.

So: a few weeks ago, I was in the middle of planning some reading, and I looked up from whatever I had on my lap, my computer or my notebook, and my eyes fell on my copy of Joseph and His Brothers, and I thought: It’s time to read that. I did, and I couldn’t possibly be happier that I did; it’s an outrageously brilliant work of art. While reading I had thought that I might write a long essay about the experience of reading this book, but on further consideration I doubt that my responses to it would fit into an essay. They’re too complicated and digressive. (In that sense, they’re much like the book itself.) So I’ll be writing about it here, on themes and topics and events that interest me, in no particular order. It’s not the sort of book that you comprehend on one reading – it’s not the sort of book that you can even confidently navigate in in one reading – so my attempt to write about it will require me to re-navigate it, to return and reread and rethink and reconsider. Stay tuned. I mean, if you’re into this kind of thing. 

a way forward

An outstanding contribution to my Invitation and Repair project (see the tag at the bottom of this post) from Samuel Arbseman: “The Way-Forward Machine”

Some have begun to look for inspiration at long-lived institutions, from religious establishments to multigenerational businesses — for example, Kongō Gumi is a Japanese construction company still operating after over 1,400 years and the Ise Jingu Shrine is about 2,000 years old. But there is one conspicuously overlooked group, one “community of practice” that has persisted, with surprising consistency, over millennia: the Jews. If what we’re really interested in is how to plan for millennia hence, why not ask how Judaism has managed to persist in a coherent way, benefiting humanity for millennia? By combining a deep reverence for history and text — one that can be drawn upon in times of catastrophe and rapid change — with the understanding that each generation needn’t be content with just revering the past, Jews have created a distinctive mechanism for creating while also maintaining


When we think about building something for the long term, most long-term thinking involves a burst of creation at the beginning, followed by maintenance, whether it’s for large-scale construction projects or long-lived institutions. While caretaking is far from a bad thing, future generations can be locked into the vision of those who have come before them, and are denied a certain amount of agency. And if the choice is simply maintainer or creator, too many of us are going to choose to build the new, rather than preserve the old. That’s simply what our modern age prizes: novelty. There have been attempts to rekindle the excitement at maintenance, such as with the group The Maintainers, a research community focused on the repair and maintenance of infrastructure. It’s a sympathy I share. But, by and large, people would far prefer to create the new than be a caretaker to the old. However, Judaism recognizes that this is a false dichotomy; it provides for a certain amount of innovation for each generation, a balance of the creative and the caretaker. 

Fantastic stuff — much to be reflected on here … assuming that I eventually return to blogging. 

In the Hebrew school, sitting on plank benches with timber-cutters’ children, Isaiah received his first formal religious instruction. It was also his first experience of schooling, and to the end of his life he could still remember the words of a song he learned with the other children, about the stove in the corner that kept a poor family warm. From an old rabbi, he learned the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The rabbi too was never forgotten. Once he paused and said, ‘Dear children, when you get older, you will realise how in every one of these letters there is Jewish blood and Jewish tears.’ When Berlin told me this story, eighty years later, in the downstairs sitting room of his home in Oxford, Headington House, for a split second his composure deserted him and he stared out across the garden. Then he looked back at me, equanimity restored, and said, ‘That is the history of the Jews.’ 

— Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life 

how Steve Reich discovered his own Judaism

I was brought up a secular, Reform Jew, which means I didn’t know Aleph from Bet. I knew nothing, and therefore I cared nothing. My father cared culturally, but that’s all. So when I came home from Africa, I thought to myself, there’s this incredible oral tradition in Ghana, passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, for thousands of years. Don’t I have something like that? I’m a member of the oldest group of human beings still known as a group that managed to cohere enough to survive – and I know nothing about it. So I started studying at Lincoln Square Synagogue in midtown Manhattan, an Orthodox temple, that had an incredible adult-education program for the likes of me – and I asked whether they would teach a course in biblical Hebrew, and they said sure, and they brought a professor down from Yeshiva University to teach that, and I studied the weekly portion – I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a weekly portion and commentaries thereon.

So this whole world opened up for me – it was 1975, at about the same time as I met my wife, Beryl, and so all of this sort of came together and it did occur to me – isn’t it curious that I had to go to Ghana to go back to my own traditions because I think if you understand any historical group, or any other religion for that matter, in any detail, then you’ll be able to approach another one with more understanding. So the answer to your question is yes. The longest yes you’ve ever heard.

Steve Reich