The Story of the Jews

August 6, 2014

I began reading Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews with the thought that it would be good to know more about the origins of my own religious tradition, Christianity. I finished with a much deeper understanding of—and horror at—the bizarre cruelty that Christians have visited on Jews.

The time frame of his majestic book is 1000 BC to 1492 AD. The beginning date is approximated by the earliest historical evidence we have outside the Bible of Israel and the Jews. The book ends with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain—after many other Jews have been forcibly converted or murdered or often both, first one, then the other. Thus it makes only a few anticipatory references to cruelties yet to come, including the mass murders of the 20th century. How could we not see the Holocaust coming when it had already come many, many times before? How could we claim to be surprised?

Holocaust: where does that word come from? When is it first used? In the days of the Second Temple, Schama writes that “you could have smelled Jerusalem before you saw it” because of “the aroma of charring flesh.” The Torah demanded animal sacrifices to YHWH every morning and every afternoon. “The perpetual roasting was called the tamid, Hebrew for constant,” Schama explains. He adds that “there was a Greek word too for such ritual cremation of whole animals, and that word was holocaust” (p104).

The Jews have experienced troubles throughout their history: destructions of the First and Second Temple, exiles from Israel and Judea, subjections to a succession of Empires: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, Rome. But a similar story could be told about many other peoples. Then, about in the 11th century AD “something unimaginably terrible” enters their story. Schama continues:

Not long after Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in November 1095 had called for a Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the unclean custody of the Saracens, it occurred to popular preachers in France and the Rhineland, like Peter the Hermit, that this work of cleansing need not wait for Christian swords to reach Palestine. Were there not enemies of Christ dwelling in their very midst, in the cities and towns of the Rhineland—Speyer and Mainz, Worms and Cologne? When those who had taken the cross were about to spend blood and money on their holy cause, ‘why should we let them [the Jews] live and tolerate their dwelling among us? Let us use our swords against them first and then proceed on our way.’ The blood of the Savior could be avenged as a sanguinary baptism at the start of the sacred war, and the ill-gotten gains of the Jews would be put to proper use. It was so very tidy. The miserable, impenitent, bloodsucking Jews would continue to pay for their crime by subsidising the armies that would deliver Jerusalem back to Christ (Schama, pp295-6; quoting Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law, 1999).

There follow several hundred years of Torah-burning, pillage and massacre of Jewish communities culminating in the expulsions of the Jews from England (1290), France (1306 and 1394), Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497). This was not what I had learned in school about the history of the Crusades or the formation of nation states in Europe.

The terror inflicted upon the Jews by Christians was not just tolerated by Christianity but driven by Christian zeal. Misguided zeal it may have been, but all who consider themselves Christian owe it to themselves to read Schama’s history and be ashamed at the use of violence to enforce orthodoxy.

Schama’s The Story of the Jews is not all about cruelty and slaughter. He tells a story, too, of faithfulness and religious practice in which God is recognized as ultimately unknowable if always to be sought. Along the way I learned how Judaism had transformed from Temple to Synagogue, from a priestly religion to a rabbinic one. I gained a much clearer sense of the various sacred texts of Judaism: Talmud, Torah, Mishnah. I learned about the historian Josephus, the poets Shmuel ibn Naghrela and Yehudah Halevi, and the philosopher Maimonedes among many others.

“Finding the Words” is Schama’s subtitle, and in his telling the story of the Jews is one of commentary and argument, poetry and praise, an endless seeking of words to express what can never be adequately captured in words. Amidst the cruelties, Schama celebrates the emergence of a vibrant religious sensibility that endures.

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Cozy Harbor, Southport Island, Sheepscot River

Cozy Harbor, July 21, 2014  IMG_1618

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God and King, Word and Sword

June 26, 2014

I have been taking Jacob L. Wright’s Coursera MOOC called “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future.” Wright is a professor of religion at Emory University, and I’ve joined thousands of others with widely varying motivations in taking this course.  (I hear these diverse purposes in the course’s on-line discussions and forums.)

Wright uses the course to argue a point of view about the Hebrew Bible: that it was pulled together out of earlier materials at a time of defeat to give identity to a people. Where other nations took shape around kings and their military successes, the Jewish nation was formed through a Book available to all that told a people’s history in its relationship to the One God. It also contained that people’s wisdom, poetry and folk tales; and it prescribed the ways of faithfulness required for belonging to this people. Wright sees the Bible as especially the work of Judean priestly elites who suffered the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE, and who returned to Jerusalem several decades later after the Persians defeated the Babylonians. The Persians allowed the Jewish return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple.  The construction of the Bible was part of this rebuilding.

Wright emphasizes the very different relationship of kings (or other worldly authorities) to priests and prophets in this unusual nation. Where the common practice in the ancient world was for kings to maintain control over priests and prophets, in Israel they rarely did. Prophets lived more on the edge or on the outside, and often condemned the actions of kings. What priests and prophets said and did we have recorded in the Bible. In other ancient nations, what priests and prophets said and did was known only to the king and his elite circle. We have records of their doing only from a few archeological sites.

Thus the Bible, in Wright’s view, is a book written in defeat to stich together a nation in a different way: through a book that all can hear or read. Kings and victories are not essential for the survival of such a nation. What is needed is faithfulness to the Book and its ways.

At the same time I have been reading Simon Schama’s recently published The Story of the Jews, and find that Schama echoes the same idea about the tension between the sword and the book:

“The bulk of the Bible, from generation to generation, was written when the weaknesses of state power were most apparent. The portable scroll-book became the countervailing force to the sword. Once that happened, the idea that Jewish life was Jewish words, and that they would endure beyond the vicissitudes of power, the loss of land, the subjection of people, took off into history. Since other monotheistic book-faiths allied word and sword rather than divorced them, this would turn out to be a uniquely Jewish vision.

In the next paragraph, Schama ties this Hebrew Bible writing project to Jesus’s ministry:

“At this time, when eastern and western civilisations were governed by the truism that without imperial force the sacred realm was of little importance, this Judaic reversal of assumptions represented a radical rearrangement of the priorities of human existence. When it was restated with numinous insistence and clarity by an otherwise obscure Nazareth preacher, the doctrine of the power of the powerless began to draw the allegiance of millions. It could not have been more significant that the most effective creator of the Christian universe, Paul, began as an enthusiastic instrument of the state—enforcer, tax collector, bureaucrat—and then un-stated himself by falling from the high horse of authority in a bolt of prostrating illumination—blinded by the light, overthrown by the gospel truth. But the minute Christianity itself turned imperial, the dilemma first played out by the biblical states—and then more fatefully and dramatically by the Hasmoneans—was laid upon the new church. Could empires ever be holy, much less Roman?”

(Simon Shama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC-1492 AD;                     Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013, pp 127-28.)

These views from Wright and Schama do not deny divine inspiration for the Hebrew Bible but they do focus instead on human purposes in its composition. They make the Bible a project of the people whose identity in forms—or at least a project of its leaders.)

[Also published on QuakerQuaker.]

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Why Am I a Friend and What’s It To You?

June 4, 2014

I became a Quaker in the mid-1970s, joining Germantown Friends Meeting. Hardly a week has gone by since that I haven’t wondered why I was a Friend. I wonder what that means to me, and I wonder how that may (or may not) come across to others.

It’s odd being a Quaker; people view you as odd if you are one. For myself, I’ve never particularly wanted either the weirdness that some attach to Quakers nor the honorific that others attach. For more than a decade before joining I struggled with the declaration I’d be making to others in joining Friends.  I wanted to be a Quaker for myself, in my own understanding, if I were going to be one, not a Quaker in anyone else’s understanding.  I probably wouldn’t answer the question Why Am I a Friend the same way today as I did then, but four decades later, why am I still a Friend?

For me, a shorthand answer is that being a Friend is an orientation, a discipline, and a set of commitments all of which help me on a daily basis live as I believe I ought.

I grew up a member of a very nice Presbyterian Church. In my teens I found myself wondering whether it was right that I should be a Presbyterian when so many people weren’t: they were Methodists or Episcopalians or Catholics or Jews. It seemed like being a Presbyterian – or any of those other things – meant subscribing to a specific set of beliefs. Each Sunday, somewhere in the service, we would collectively recite some statement of those shared beliefs – the Nicene Creed, for example.

I drew away from this growing-up affiliation as it increasingly troubled me that no, I didn’t in fact truly believe all those things I was asked to say via the creedal statements. I was also troubled at the suggestion that what God had to say to us had been said many centuries ago; that we had heard all we were going to hear through the Bible.  I don’t know that anyone actually told me that or even meant to imply that, but it certainly is what I came to think I was asked to believe. And that just didn’t make sense.

I encountered Quakers by accident at Haverford College. I don’t remember anyone making much of an effort to explain to me who Friends were or what they believed, but I was required to go to Meeting for Worship a few Fifth Days each semester. They were hardly the best of Meetings (most of us were restive about the requirement to attend) but I did learn that Quakers were pacifists. Gradually I came to think that I was one, too, and so began my period of fellow-travelling.

I learned that most Friends were seekers: that Friends did not have a creed and would not ask you to subscribe to a specific set of beliefs. No one would ask you to speak words that were not yours.  Gradually I also came to understand that Friends were confident that God would still speak to us today: would speak to all who stilled themselves and listened. These two, being a seeker and having confidence that God will speak to me today, are what I mean by an orientation. It’s an unusual (not unique) orientation that Friends have. They are important to me because I feel like I need God’s guidance, but that guidance is hardly something that feels finished.

This orientation made sense to me of Friends’ unusual waiting worship, the gathering together in stillness and speaking if and when one feels moved to speak. I came to realize that waiting worship was for me a spiritual discipline that was especially useful for me.  I needed some active way to turn myself toward God. I needed a regular practice that worked for me. Waiting worship is, for me, a spiritual discipline that works.

I suspect that everyone needs God’s presence and needs to have a spiritual discipline that helps them tune in to what God is saying.  (Do I know that? No, but I don’t really know what it’s like to be anyone else.) In finding a spiritual discipline for me in the ways of Friends, I also came to the realization that there are a great many spiritual disciplines, and that people differ in what works for them. For several years I had a secretary who was an observant Roman Catholic. A few times she took me to Mass at a church that still celebrated the Mass in Latin. I could sense that there was something holy and wonderful in the celebration, but I also knew it wasn’t a spiritual discipline for me, or at least not on a regular basis. Today it seems entirely right to me that there are quite a number of different denominations, even religions. People are different; the various churches present us with an array of spiritual disciplines. Each of these disciplines is a possible pathway to hearing God.

Another aspect of the orientation of Friends is a sense that if you know what God asks of you then you should do it. Belief leads – should lead – to action. If we believe that God loves everyone and asks us to love everyone as well, that should guide our daily lives. If God asks us to be peacemakers, if God asks us to live with integrity, then we should do our best to follow these leadings. That’s what I mean by commitments: what Friends call testimonies. I need to (try to) let my life speak.

An orientation, a discipline, a set of commitments that grow out of this orientation and the discipline that arises from it: these are why I am a Friend. What’s it to you? Simply an invitation: does this orientation make sense to you? Does this discipline work for you? Do you feel led to undertake these commitments?

Also posted on QuakerQuaker.

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Who Speaks for Peace On Memorial Day?

May 26, 2014

For a Quaker, what’s the right approach to Memorial Day? Is it a day to celebrate? A day to witness against? A day not even to notice?  Every Memorial Day, from morning to evening, I wonder about this.

Here in Topsham/Brunswick, Maine we have an iconic Memorial Day celebration. There’s a ceremony in Topsham at the town hall/fire station to mark the occasion, then a very locally-flavored parade that marches down Main Street (Topsham), crosses the Androscoggin River, then continues down Maine Street (Brunswick) to the town green where there is another ceremony. Halfway across the bridge, wreaths are cast into the river.  (Not a great idea ecologically but it probably does little harm.) The whole affair lasts all morning, and crowds line the parade route watching their neighbors and their neighbors’ kids march by.

Many veterans march in the parade, the older ones in convertibles and old military jeeps. In addition, there are military units, local police and fire departments, high school bands, community bands, scout troops, the local Republican and Democratic parties, state and local politicians, a few businesses, the hospital. Assorted motorcycle groups vied with the bands to provide the day’s soundtrack. I found myself wondering whether these latter were the contribution of Vietnam veterans, the other veterans being more of a WWII and Korean War vintage. (If these weren’t the Vietnam veterans, I don’t know where they found a place.) Two churches contributed marchers: a local Baptist church and a local Roman Catholic Church.

My son Robbie (age 11) participated this year as part of Woodside One Wheelers, a unicycle troup at his elementary school. Other years he has marched as a Cub Scout. Next year he’ll have to choose among marching as a Scout, as a unicyclist, or as a clarinet player in the middle school band.  We always draw some statewide political figures. This year both Governor Paul LePage and Senator Susan Collins participated in the ceremonies and the parade.

I attended as Robbie’s Dad, making sure he got to his assembly point on time and then making my way to the parade’s end to bring him home. He was happily tired after a mile’s worth of unicycle riding.  My wife, Ellen, watched the parade with friends where Elm Street (our street) meets Main Street.  It’s a relaxed, happy day full of messages to which no one could consider objecting – unless perhaps you are a pacifist.

A veteran of hearing the speeches and reading the banners, I parse the messages into two kinds.  “Honor the memory of those who died in defense of our country.” That’s a message that stirs my heart. I think of Dennis Hoppough, my friend growing up, who was killed in Vietnam. I think of John Ogden, my older son Tommy’s grandfather, the one he’ll never meet, who died in the Normandy invasion. Neither had anything to do with the decisions to go to war.  Both still had their whole adult lives in front of them, never to be realized. I welcome a day to remember them.  I honor not just their memory but also their sacrifice: there was nothing selfish in their willingness to serve.  I remember and honor, too, those who served and survived the experience. They, too, served in ways that deserve remembering.

It is the other main Memorial Day message that I would just as soon not hear. It’s the one that urges us to renew our commitment to ‘standing strong to protect our freedom.’ It is the message that says what we enjoy today, our freedoms, our prosperity, our ‘way of life’ are all fruits of our willingness to wage war.  “We are only one new Hitler away from losing our freedoms,” is the way one speaker put it this Memorial Day. I do not think I have ever heard a Memorial Day speaker say that we can and must find ways to make war unnecessary. I wish I would.

For too many people, those two messages go hand in hand. Most Americans can hardly imagine how it could be otherwise. War, they believe, is not only justifiable, it is essential. And so, they believe, there will always be those killed in battle, those we will later want to remember and honor.  That is just the way it is.

So who speaks for the possibility of peace on Memorial Day?  Who speaks wholeheartedly for peace, not for the ‘peace’ that follows war, but for the peace that resolves conflict without war, without deaths that need to be memorialized?

Memorial Day may be the hardest day to separate the two messages. It may be the most difficult time to lift up the one message while calling the other into question. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. Memorial Day in Brunswick-Topsham is such a day of good feelings, neighbors being neighbors, and soaring words.

On Memorial Day, I think, I need, rather, to rededicate myself to finding ways every other day to help people see that war is not the way to peace. Peace is the way.

(Also posted on QuakerQuaker.)

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High Water in the River

April 17, 2014

The high snowfall totals this winter coupled with the late, quick thaw of the snow and ice means that the river in front of us is almost as high as we have ever seen it:

Androscoggin high water 14.3


Normally the water is out beyond the furthest trees. The one that’s leaning and submerged is where we tie up our boat in the summer.  Our path along the river is now covered by two or three fee of water. The water level is several feet above where it normally is. Here is the data from the U.S. geological Survey’s observation station at Auburn, Maine, about 20 miles up river from us:

Androscoggin River Gage 4-13 to 4-14

The red line is the flood stage level, about 13 feet. It’s now close to 16 feet. In the past year, we haven’t see the river gage above 11 feet.  You can see that the river level normally is about 4 feet.  The river is flowing at about 53,000 cubic feet per second. April is usually the month of highest flow levels, but the mean for an April 17th is about 16,000 c.f.s.  This is some swollen river.

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Androscoggin Now Free of Ice

Androscoggin free of ice 14.4.6The ice went on its way over the weekend: at last!

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