Judaism and the Jews: a draft for an obituary? 6

The founding myth of the monotheistic faith that evolved into Judaism, is the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which Abraham sacrifices to his god not his son but an animal. The story is often interpreted as an hortatory tale about having to obey God. But that is not its significance.

Its essential message is that the God of Abraham, the one and only God, does not require human sacrifice.

The idea of a god who did not want human beings sacrificed to him was a great leap forward for mankind. The other gods of ancient times were all given human flesh to eat and human blood to drink. The huge statue of the god Moloch was a hollow bronze image, a human body with a bull’s head, in which his worshippers, the Canaanites, made a fire and heated the metal until it glowed red-hot, and then they fed their first-born babies into the furnace through the gaping mouth.

Such gods, it was believed, needed propitiation with human flesh and blood, suffering and death, so that they’d allow the tribe to survive and prosper.

The Chaldees, whose god Ba’al was the counterpart of Moloch, similarly sacrificed living people. It was from them that Abraham and his tribe broke away, both in a physical-geographical sense, and in a moral-religious sense.

One of the four main reasons why Jews faithful to their religion could not possibly accept Christianity was because Christ was held by Christians to be a human sacrifice. No idea could be further from Judaism (and would certainly have been absent from the mind of an orthodox Jew like Jesus of Nazareth). The other reasons were: God cannot be incarnate; God is One, and cannot be Three as Christianity holds its triune divinity to be; and Judaism requires obedience to the Law. The Jews were set free physically when they left Egypt where they had been slaves, and became a free civilization when they were granted and accepted the law – traditionally fifty days after the accomplishment of the exodus. Law protects and guarantees freedom. Freedom is only possible in practice under the rule of law.

St Paul, the author of the Christian religion, was willing and eager to abandon the Law. The Catholic Church did not after all do this, and accepted Judaism’s moral law though not its rituals.

As a people, the Jews’ first great gift to humanity was the idea that God, an abstract being, was a moral authority who required people to treat each other justly, and did not himself require them to suffer or die for him.

When the center of their religion, the Temple, was destroyed by the Romans in the first century CE, and they were exiled from Jerusalem and dispersed from their land, the Jews clung to their religion, adapting such rituals as it was possible for them to observe in the absence of a Temple and a priesthood; and their faith held them together for two millennia as a people though they were physically scattered through the world.

With the coming of the Enlightenment in Europe, and then the Age of Science, belief in the supernatural began to die in the Western world generally. But the Jews still needed to adhere to their religious tradition. Only since the land of Israel has been restored to them, has the Jews’ need for religion as a kind of abstract glue to hold them together become less compelling.

It is true that orthodox Jews still observe the religion as it has long been observed. But orthodoxy has spawned a crowd of rivals, some of which have become such broad churches that traditional Judaism is hardly discernible in them. Rabbis (male and female) in Reform synagogues now call God ‘he or she’, and even speak of a plurality of gods. What is left of Judaism there? And if the answer is nothing, does it matter? For ever-increasing numbers (even in America), all religions have passed their use-by date.

If the State of Israel were again to be destroyed – a tragedy that looks all too possible now – would the religion revive to bind the Jews together again?

Just possibly, but much more probably not. The only thing that could and should bind the Jews together in this age is loyalty to their peoplehood in the light of their history. But that is a nationalist kind of idea, and nationalism is despised by the loudest intellectuals of our time. Many of those loud voices are Jewish voices. Treasonously they decry Zionism – the nationalism of the Jews – and raise moral objections to the existence of the Jewish state. If the State of Israel is destroyed, brought to political extinction, can the Jews continue to exist, either as a religion or as a people?

Jillian Becker  June 3, 2009

Posted under Articles, Atheism, Commentary, Israel, Judaism by Jillian Becker on Wednesday, June 3, 2009

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