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Friday, June 28, 2013

In Search of Humanity:The Tradition of Jewish Thought

This latest series of lectures on what it means to be 'human' began with a thought-provoking lecture by the American theologian Professor Alan Mittleman from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Mittleman began by explaining why believing in God is more compelling than believing in science and how Jewish thinking can engage with present non-theist philosophical thought.

He presented an excellent review of the history of the philosophical view of God from the ennobling of humanity in the Renaissance toward the scientific point of view that humanity is not special, that science has no room for the soul.  So the question for the believer is how we can be part of and apart from nature. The challenge, he said, is to reclaim the idea that humans are made in the image of God.

Jewish texts understand that humans are special and problematic; that the nature of God is not random and accidental. We were given several texts for study that proved to be not only interesting but very instructive. Rabbinical scholars of the Talmud have a rich history of debate and argument. He gave us one wonderful text in which God and the angels argue about the wisdom of creating man. Somehow the texts became alive, often humorous and the debate and argument between scholars not one of enmity but of growth.

I particularly liked this example which began:

R. Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying,

‘Let him be created,’
whilst others urged ‘Let him not be created.’
Thus it is written, Love and Truth fought together, Righteousness and Peace combated each other...
The passage ends
While the ministering angels were arguing with each other and disputing with each other, the Holy One, blessed be He, created him. Said He to them: ‘What can ye avail? Man has already been made!’

What appealed to me about the entire passage  is the humanness  of the heavenly debate. I could see ourselves reflected in the arguing and debating, as well as in the resolution of the Final Authority! For me it was a new perspective in the nature of who we are and how we are: just below the angels and at the same time in the image of God.

Judaism, Mittleman said, is a work in progress. There is no dogma in Judaism – you cannot command belief, so there is tremendous openness about what you think. It is a proliferation of arguments because it is never clear as to what is the right thing to do. Human beings are complex; Judaism is a ‘Community of Interpretation’ asking questions instead of making assertions.

It is also in keeping with what I learned about Jewish thought a few weeks ago when I attended a lecture about Martin Buber : God is the “Eternal Thou”. The ‘sacred’ is here and now, and can be listened to in the present. God is to be ‘heard’ or ‘listened to’. God as a person is indispensible.  Event upon event calls upon the human person to endure and to be open to the demand of the Divine because “where there is a need there is an obligation.”

I came away with my Christian perspective but seeing Jesus very much as a rabbinical scholar. I remembered John’s Gospel, In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. So it seems to me that our humanity is involved in an on-going conversation of revelation, forever and ever, Amen...

18 comments:

  1. I would convert, except I can't let go of Christmas!

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    1. I think I have the same problem!

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  2. sounds like a fabulous series!!! I am very interested!!

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    1. The lectures I was able to attend were fabulous!

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  3. The Jewish faith interests me, I have many Jewish friends including a best friend who converted. Keep well Diane

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    1. It was a fascinating lecture that left us all wanting to hear more...

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  4. I can understand why the Angels were arguing with God. A very interesting thought.

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    1. I loved hearing about the history of the debate and how it is continuing...

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  5. A very interesting post. I read it twice and now I feel much more informed. Thanks.

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    1. It was a very thought-provoking evening.

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  6. "...a community of interpretations". What a revelation! I had no idea.

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  7. Oh, I do envy you this series of lectures, Broad, as I've always been fascinated by Jewish thought and history, both in its own right and as the context for the growth of the faith to which I belong. A marvellous post.

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  8. Dear Broad, like Perpetua "I've always been fascinated by Jewish thought and history." When I was researching so as to write "The Reluctant Spy," I read so much about the Jews of the first century of the Common Era. I came to believe that Yeshua/Jesus was probably a Pharisee who'd studied Scripture and could have been a scribe. If you have any interest in that, I'd suggest the following books by two contemporary Jewish scholars: "Jesus the Pharisee" by Hyam Maccoby and three books by the renowned Geza Vermes: "Jesus the Jew," "Jesus in His Jewish Context," and "The Religion of Jesus the Jew." Peace.

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  9. This must have been such a thought provoking series. I think learning about all the different faiths brings much understanding. I had many discussions on the Jewish faith with a dear friend whose father was a rabbi and I read part of the Talmud. I also read part of the Qur’an, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Hindu Vedas, the Analects of Confucius, the Dao de jing from the Dao and of course the Buddhist texts (as I am a Buddhist.) I think it helped me so much to understand people in foreign lands, including in America. Now of course I have a blog, so not so much time to read …

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  10. I grew up a Christian (in the minority) in a very Jewish part of our city. It was interesting. Glad you had such a time of discovery. Shalom!

    Blessings and Bear hugs!
    Bears Noting
    Life in the Urban Forest (poetry)

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  11. Hello--I was wondering how your summer is coming along, especially with your new eyes, and thought I'd stop by to ask. Hope all is well.

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Receiving comments is a joy and I thank you all for taking the trouble and showing your interest. Makes me feel all gooey and stuff!