Archive for the ‘The Joy of Sects’ Category

The Yazidis

August 9, 2014

The Yazidis of Iraq have been much in the news lately and not in a good way. The Islamic terrorists who have been gaining power in Iraq in the wake of the US withdrawal have taken to murdering and oppressing every non Muslim in the territories they control, but they seem to have a particular hatred for the Yazidis. Currently, some 40,000 of these people are trapped on a mountain without food or water with the choice of dying for their faith or converting to Islam. Who are the Yazidis and why do the Islamic fanatics hate them?

The Yazidis are a people that live in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Turkey and Syria as well as Armenia and Georgia. There is also a small population of Yazidis in Europe who have fled the persecution in their native lands.  They speak Kurdish as their native language and many speak Arabic, but they are neither Arabs or Kurds. While their culture is very similar to Kurdish culture they have a distinctive religion of their own. The precise population of the Yazidis is not know but it is estimated that there are around 700,000 of them. Their numbers are declining due to persecution.

Yazidi men in Mardin, late 19th century

Yazidi men in Mardin, late 19th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Yazidis are distinguished most by their ancient religion. They are quite secretive about their beliefs and little is known. Their religion seems to be something of an offshoot of Zoroastrianism, but there are many other influences including the religions of ancient Mesopotamia, Mithraism, and some mystic elements of Christianity and Islam. The Yazidis are monotheists, believing in one God who created the universe. After the creation, God entrusted the rule of the universe to seven angels who were His emanations. The chief of these angels is named Malik Taus or the Peacock Angel. Malek Taus was either cast out of Heaven or left voluntarily in a manner strikingly similar to legends of the fall of Lucifer, especially as found in the Koran. Like Satan or Iblis, refused to bow to Adam. While Allah in the Koran expelled Iblis from Heaven for his pride and he became Satan, the Yazidi account has the Creator praising Malik Taus for his steadfast refusal to worship anyone besides God and places him in charge of the Universe.  Malik Taus extinguished the fires with his tears and was reconciled with God.

English: Malak Taus ქართული: მალაკ ტავუსი Kurd...

English: Malak Taus  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These beliefs along with an alternate name for Malik Taus, Shaytan, have led many believers of the other monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to suspect that the Yazidsis are devil worshipers. This the Yazidis steadfastly deny. They do not believe that Malik Taus is an evil being. Indeed, they do not believe in a devil at all, holding that evil comes from human actions. Nevertheless, the coming of the religion of peace and tolerance to Mesopotamia in the seventh century has resulted in centuries of often savage persecution.

In practice, the Yazidi religion is much concerned with ritual purity, much like Zoroastrianism. They do not like to mix the elements; earth, air, fire, and water and have a complicated system of taboos. They believe that they are a people apart, descended not from Adam and Eve like the rest of the human race, but they are descended from Adam alone. They do not marry outside their community and they do not accept converts. In addition, they believe that too much contact with outsiders is polluting and limit such contacts. This, doubtless, does not endear them to their neighbors.

The Yazidi pray five times a day, facing the sun and make pilgrimages to the  tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a Sufi mystic whom they believe to be an avatar of Malik Taus. This tomb is in the city of Lalish, Iraq, where there are many Yazidi shrines. They are supposed to have two holy books, the Kitêba Cilwe or Book of Revelations and the Mishefa Reş or the Black Book. These books seem to be forgeries, however, written by Westerners around 1912 to take advantage of travellers’ interest in the Yazidis. The material in the books seems to incorporate the actual oral traditions of the Yazidis and may be accurate accounts of their beliefs. Westerners have been fascinated by the Yazidis’ obscure and secretive religion and they have often been depicted as on order of devil worshipers by writers such as H. P Lovecraft.

Now there is a distinct possibility that this ancient community will be exterminated. It seems to me that the real devil worshipers in Iraq, and elsewhere, are the ones whose god commands them:

And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.

and:

Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture – [fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.

But perhaps the ISIS simply doesn’t understand their own religion.

 

 

The Pale of Settlement

May 19, 2014

A little while back, I wrote about the English Pale, the system of English fortifications in Ireland which gave rise to the expression, “beyond the pale”. That word, pale, as been used in several other historical contexts, one notable example being the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe. The Pale of Settlement was not any sort of fortification of defense system, but it was a policy of the Russian Empire designed to keep an undesirable people, the Jews, out. Since Vladimir the Great, Prince of Kiev, converted to Christianity along with his entire kingdom, the Russians have been proud of their Orthodox Christian heritage. After the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 and went on to conquer most of Orthodox Eastern Europe, Russia stood strong as the last remaining bastion of the true Christian faith. (The Catholics of Western Europe didn’t count since they were vile heretics hardly better than the heathen Turks.)

Naturally the Czars of Russia did not want the sacred soil of  Mother Russia to be polluted by the footsteps of the Christ-killing Jews, so they made sure to keep the Jews out of the Empire. The problem was that beginning in the seventeenth and and eighteenth centuries, Russia started to expand westwards into Eastern Europe, mostly taking territories from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which formerly ruled over much of what is now western Russia, Belorussian, and the Ukraine. These territories, especially Poland had large numbers of Jews because earlier Polish kings had encouraged them to emigrate to Poland  in order to alleviate a shortage of skilled labor and merchants in the kingdom. Now,  most advanced, modern nations faced with a large population of undesirables would simply exterminate them. Russia, however, was somewhat backward and primitive so the Czars decided to simply exclude the detestable Jews from Russia proper while still permitting them to live in the conquered lands. It was Catherine the Great who first created the Pale of Settlement in 1791. In 1793, Poland was partitioned among Russia, Austria, and Prussia, bringing more Jews into the Pale.

English: Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772

English: Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Within the Pale, Jews were excluded from small agricultural settlements and villages, while their access to major cities was also limited. Most Jews lived in shtetls, Jewish communities in small towns. There were rare exceptions in which privileged Jews, mostly those with needed skills or large amounts of money were permitted to live outside the Pale, sometimes even in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Such permission was always conditional and could be revoked at any time. The boundaries of the Pale of Settlement could also be changed without warning and without consulting the Jews. The Russian government could also change the locations where Jews could reside within the Pale, again without warning or consultation. Life in the shtetls, then was precarious and impoverished. The Jews were subject to relocations and pogroms were not uncommon. There were quotas limiting the number of Jews who could attend Russian universities. Before 1827, Jews could not serve in the Russian army but were subject to double taxation to compensate. They were forbidden to hire Christian servants and often could not own land. The Czars often encouraged the persecution of the Jews to distract attention away from their own oppressive rule.

English: Map showing the percentage of Jews in...

English: Map showing the percentage of Jews in the and , c. 1905. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Despite the restrictions and discrimination, a rich cultural life flourished in the shtetls of the Pale. The Jews lived separately from their Gentile neighbors, speaking their own language, Yiddish, observing their own customs and largely governing themselves. The Jews formed social welfare organizations to help the more impoverished members of their community, especially students of the Yeshivas or religious schools. The Rabbis of the Pale of Settlement created new theological systems, particularly Hasidic Judaism. A literature in the Yiddish language flourished. One notable author was the humorist Sholem Aleichem, whose stories of shtetl life formed the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire was beginning to change and life in the Pale was also changing. Many young Jews were no longer content to live in a world apart. They began to speak the Russian language and adopt Russian customs. Many Jews, frustrated by the limitations of Czarist Russia emigrated to the Holy Land or to the United States. Those that remained behind tended to join radical groups such as the Bolsheviks and Jews played a prominent role in both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. World War I was the beginning of the end of the Pale of Settlement. Many Jews fled from the Pale into Russian proper in order to escape the fighting. Under the stresses of a losing war, the Czar’s government could no longer maintain any control over its subjects and the old restrictions on the Jews were increasingly ignored. Antisemitism also increased dramatically and throughout the World War and the Russian Civil War that followed, Jews were repeatedly massacred by those who blamed them for the disorders. The Provisional Government abolished the Pale of Settlement after the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, while Poland became an independent nation once more. The Jews, and the other minorities of the Russian Empire were granted equality with the Russians.

It is something of a sad irony that the end of the Czars who oppressed the Jews also meant the end of the distinctive culture of Russian Judaism. Many Jews had joined the various organizations that were devoted to ending the rule of the Czars. Jews were over represented in such radical groups as the Bolsheviks, yet the militant atheist Communist government proved to be more cruelly oppressive than the worst of the Czars. With the horrors of the Civil War, the hatred of the Communists toward any religious expression and the destruction of the Jews throughout Europe, little now remains of the formerly vibrant communities. Those Jews who remain in Russia are mostly secular and assimilated. Their numbers are shrinking rather than growing. The Yiddish language is rarely used today.  Yet, a remnant of this culture remains in the Russian Jewish communities of Israel and the United States. So, the glory of the world becomes less than it was.

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Passover

April 14, 2014
The Israelites Eat the Passover (illustration ...

The Israelites Eat the Passover (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

At sundown yesterday, the Jews began the celebration of Pesach or Passover, to commemorate what is perhaps the most significant event of Jewish history, the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. This year, Passover lasts until the evening of  April 21.

 

Exodus 12

The Passover

1 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb[a] for his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fire—head, legs and inner parts. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.

12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

14 “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD—a lasting ordinance. 15 For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel. 16 On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat—that is all you may do.

17 “Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. 18 In the first month you are to eat bread made without yeast, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day. 19 For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses. And whoever eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is an alien or native-born. 20 Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread.”

21 Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe. Not one of you shall go out the door of his house until morning. 23 When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.

24 “Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. 25 When you enter the land that the LORD will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. 26 And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ 27 then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped. 28 The Israelites did just what the LORD commanded Moses and Aaron.

29 At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well. 30 Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.

The Exodus

31 During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the LORD as you have requested. 32Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me.”

33 The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country. “For otherwise,” they said, “we will all die!” 34 So the people took their dough before the yeast was added, and carried it on their shoulders in kneading troughs wrapped in clothing. 35 The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. 36 The LORD had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.

37 The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. 38 Many other people went up with them, as well as large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds. 39 With the dough they had brought from Egypt, they baked cakes of unleavened bread. The dough was without yeast because they had been driven out of Egypt and did not have time to prepare food for themselves.

40 Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt[b] was 430 years. 41 At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the LORD’s divisions left Egypt. 42 Because the LORD kept vigil that night to bring them out of Egypt, on this night all the Israelites are to keep vigil to honor the LORD for the generations to come.

Passover Restrictions

43The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover:

“No foreigner is to eat of it. 44 Any slave you have bought may eat of it after you have circumcised him, 45 but a temporary resident and a hired worker may not eat of it.

46 “It must be eaten inside one house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones. 47 The whole community of Israel must celebrate it.

48 “An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. 49 The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you.”

50 All the Israelites did just what the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron. 51 And on that very day the LORD brought the Israelites out of Egypt by their divisions.

 

Although Christians do not generally celebrate Passover, it does have great significance for Christianity. The Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples was a Passover seder.

 

Luke 22

Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus

1 Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching, 2 and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people. 3 Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. 4 And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. 5 They were delighted and agreed to give him money. 6He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.

The Last Supper

7 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”

9 “Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked.

10 He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there.”

13 They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. 21 But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. 22 The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him.” 23 They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.

 

Jesus’s crucifixion is regarded as a sacrifice like the passover lamb and Christians regard the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt as a foreshadowing of Christ’s deliverance of the whole human race from the slavery of sin.

 

26 Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.  (Hebrews 7:26-28)

28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.  (Hebrews 9:28)

 

So, Chag Sameach to any Jewish readers.

 

 

 

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Anti-Semitic Jews

December 10, 2013

I read an article in the Jerusalem Post by Richard Marceau about the curious phenomenon of Jews so zealously opposed to the State of Israel that they make common cause with some of the vilest anti-Semites on the planet. This is not a matter of opposing certain aspects of Israeli policies. These are people who work to discredit the very existence of Israel.

The attempt to persuade the US Presbyterian Church to apply a policy of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel was led, among others, by a fringe, supposedly Jewish group called Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).

While a minuscule group in the Jewish world, as a result of being so exceptional, these Jews opposed to Israel attract a lot of media attention. Perhaps most astonishing is the insistence of anti-Israel Jews that they are being “courageous,” as though their actions were fraught with painful consequences.

On the one hand, religious anti-Zionism is mainly the purview of an ultra- Orthodox fringe movement called Neturei Karta (“Guardians of the City” in Aramaic). Anyone who has had the pleasure of passing by an anti-Israel rally has no doubt seen these folks. I have no intention of explaining their theology – and their absurd engagement with the Holocaust-denying Iranian regime – in this column.

Since he won’t explain their theology, I guess I will have to. The Neturei Karta is a faction of Ultra-Orthodox or Heredi Judaism that numbers perhaps 5000 worldwide. They believe that the Jews were sent into exile from the Holy Land because of their sins and that it is illegitimate for the Jews to create a Jewish state until the coming of the Messiah. Any attempt to create such a state, as with the modern State of Israel is sinning against the divine will. Most of the Neturei Karta simply try to ignore the Israeli government but a few join protests against Israel and work with its enemies.

Most of the critics of Israel can be found on the left and they are the ones that Marceau is interested in.

Extreme Left anti-Zionism, even if it is also marginal, attracts attention because of its bizarre willingness to ally itself with groups whose values are the polar opposite of the Left’s own principles. They are willing to close their eyes to this fact as their hate – yes, hate – for Israel consumes them more than does their desire to defend the values they claim to hold dear.

The main founder of IJV is an Ottawa woman by the name of Diana Ralph, whose political opinions are very peculiar.

I myself have met Ralph a few times (the Ottawa/Gatineau Jewish community is small) and I can indeed confirm her radical outlook.

In an article titled “Islamophobia and the ‘war on terror’: The continuing pretext for imperial conquest” for the book The Hidden History of 9-11, Ralph says that the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington were not carried out by al-Qaida, but by American and Israeli conservatives in order to implement “a secret, strategic plan to position the US as a permanent unilateral super-power poised to seize control of Eurasia, and thereby the entire world.”

Of course, Israel is the one pulling the strings.

But that’s not all. The Federal Court of Canada, not once but twice commented unfavorably on Diana Ralph and her politics in the case of Almrei (2007), when she volunteered to be a surety for the alleged terrorist. The Court noted her complete lack of objectivity, that her judgment was clouded by her political beliefs and her lack of respect for the court.

In a meeting of the left-wing movement Peace Now, held in 2009 at the Reform synagogue Temple Israel in Ottawa, Ralph tried to distribute a text extolling the virtues of – wait for it – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This so angered the genuine peace activists present that they forbade the distribution of Ralph’s text and clearly dissociated themselves from her outrageous and extreme views.

The ironic and sad thing is that if Ralph’s allies were ever in power, she, as an openly lesbian woman, would be one of their first victims.

Why do these Jewish supporters of minority, women and gay rights ally themselves with people who are totally opposed to these values, in order to demonize the Middle East’s only democracy? I have been considering this for some time now and I am not sure I know the answer.

Could it be because Israel is a liberal democracy, with a market economy, and an ally of the US, whereas this far Left is anti-globalization, anti-capitalist and anti-American? But there is probably more at play here.

I think I know part of the answer. These Jews who would see Israel destroyed do not identify themselves as Jews first but as leftists. In effect, they have converted to the religion of Leftism or Progressivism. Progressivism is a totalitarian religion that does not tolerate competing interests. Since hatred of Israel is currently a progressive position, they must hate Israel, even if that seems against the interests of their own people. This may also explain how an openly homosexual woman can support regimes that would kill her, if given the chance. It is politically correct to support such regimes, perhaps on the principle that the enemy of my enemy (Israel and America) is my friend. There my also be a certain amount of self hatred involved. Marceau might agree with this analysis.

British (and non-Jewish) author Robin Sheppard came to the following explanation, which makes sense to me:

“…This also sheds different light on the status of that small but vocal group of secular Jews in the Diaspora who consider themselves anti-Zionist and who therefore oppose the existence of the Jewish State.

Since their secularism blocks their route to a sustainable Jewish identity through immersion in the religion and their anti- Zionism blocks their route to a sustainable Jewish identity via a deepseated identity with Israel, they are effectively positing for themselves a state of long-term conversion away from Judaism. Anti-Zionist Jews react to charges of this kind with a rejectionism bordering on bitterness. In a sense this is unsurprising. They are being presented with an edifice of argument to which they have serious responses and which they are likely to take personally.

They are therefore reduced to sophistry and denial centering on extremely vague and unconvincing definition of Judaism – Judaism as a set of ‘non-essential’ political- philosophical ideals, for example – whose weakness they themselves must be only too well aware of. …They may or may not be self-hating Jews but they are certainly self-negating Jews. They have adopted a maxim which, if adopted by all Jews, would negate absolutely the possibility of Jewish identity itself as a long-term constituent of the human race (with the exception, I repeat, of ultra-religious, closed communities).

The secular, anti-Zionist Jew is a self-negating Jew because he and she lacks the ability to project a meaningful Jewish identity into the future.”

French intellectual Pierre-André Taguieff goes in the same direction:

“Those ‘alterjews,’ who systematically take the side of the Jews’ enemies, can they still be considered Jewish? Beside the fluke of their birth, in what way are they Jewish? Can we apply to them the old Talmudic formula according to which ‘the Jew who has sinned stays Jewish’? How can one tolerate the fact that they self-identify as Jews only to attack the Jews (the ‘Jewish Jews’). Deutscher’s ‘non- Jewish Jew’ was at once inside and outside (like Heine or Freud). The contemporary ‘alterjew’ is inside only to be against.”

Perhaps they should be excommunicated, if such a thing is possible in Jewish practice. As I said, this is not a matter of perfectly legitimate criticism of Israeli policies but actively siding with those who seek to destroy the Jewish state.

 

The Story of Hanukah

November 27, 2013

Hanukah begins at sunset today, so I thought I would write a little about this holiday. Hanukah is the Jewish Festival of Lights. It is an eight day celebration which lasts from the twenty-fifth day on Kislev to the second day of Tevet. Since the Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar calendar, the days float around from November to December in the Gregorian calendar. This year the days of Hanukah are celebrated November 27 to December 5. It is very rare for Hanukkah to fall this early.

English: Hanukkah menorah, known also as Hanuk...

Hanukkah was not a major holiday in the Jewish calendar, unlike Passover or the High Holy Days. The festival has increased in importance among North American Jews because of its proximity to Christmas. There is even a tendency among Gentiles to regard Hanukkah as some sort of Jewish Christmas. This is unfortunate, since the backgrounds of the two holidays are quite different. The story of Hanukkah is one of the Jewish people fighting for their freedom to worship God in their own way. I think this story is inspiring and worth learning, both for Jews and Gentiles.

The history goes back to the time of Alexander the Great. He conquered the Persian Empire in one of the most remarkable military campaigns in history. Unfortunately, when he died in 323 BC, he left no provision for any successors and so his generals fought among themselves and eventually Alexander’s empire was divided among them. One of these successors was named Seleucus and he gained control of what is now Iran and Iraq. His kingdom is known to historians as the Seleucid Empire. This time is known as the Hellenistic Era.

Around 200 BC the Seleucids defeated the Egyptians and gained the territories of modern Syria and Israel. During this time the Jewish religion was tolerated and respected by the Ptolemies of Egypt. During this time, also, the Greek language and culture spread far and wide among the conquered peoples. Greek culture had become “cool” and everybody wanted to be a part of it. People who adopted Greek culture could be said to be “Hellenized” from Hellene, the Greek word for Greek. This caused no little consternation among the more traditional Jews. They were afraid that in the rush to embrace Greek culture, many Jews would fall into the worship of the Greek gods and so to idolatry. So, to some extent, the events which followed were as much a civil war as a war between the Jews and the Seleucids.

Antiochus IV

In the year 175, Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended the throne of the Seleucids. Unlike previous Hellenistic rulers he seemed to believe himself a god and was eager that everyone in his realm pay divine honors to the Greek gods. For most of the people in the Empire this was no great burden as a few more gods didn’t matter all that much. For all but the most Hellenized Jews, this was an impossible demand. There was only one God. When fighting broke out between Hellenized and traditional Jews, Antiochus sided with the Hellenized Jews and in 167 sent an army to capture Jerusalem and compel the worship of the Greek gods. A statue of Zeus was placed on the altar of the Temple and the Jewish religion was banned.

This sparked a rebellion and a guerrilla war which was led by a priest named Matthias and his five sons. The most prominent of these was Judas Maccabeus. Antiochus IV had many other problems, especially with the Persians to the east and the rising power of Rome to the west and could never spare the forces necessary to crush the revolt. By 165, the Maccabees were able to retake Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple of the defilement of the pagans.

According to legend, there was only enough oil to light the Menorah for one day, and yet miraculously, they were able to keep it lit for eight days, until more oil could be procured. These eight days became known as the Festival of Lights and to commemorate this victory and miracle, a nine branched menorah is lit. A more prosaic explanation for the origins of this holiday is that the first Hanukkah was a belated celebration of Sukkot. Whatever the truth of the matter might be, I wish everyone a Happy Hanukkah.

 

Yom Kippur

September 13, 2013

This evening at sunset Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar began. Yom Kippur is observed on the tenth day of the seventh month, Tishrei, of the Jewish calendar. This year that corresponds to September 14, which is actually the earliest time in the Gregorian calendar that it can fall on.  On this day Jews ask for forgiveness for the sins they have committed against God and their fellow men over the past year.  They fast for 25 hours on this day, starting about 20 minutes before sundown the previous day and continuing until evening of the day. Jews also attend Synagogue services for much of the day and there are five services in contrast to the usual three prayers on most days and four on Sabbaths. After the last service, they recite they Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”, and blow the Shofar.

Here is the Biblical description of the Day of Atonement.

1 The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD. 2The LORD said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die. For I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.

3 “This is how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place: He must first bring a young bull for a sin offering[a] and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. 5 From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

6 “Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. 7 Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 8 He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat.[b]9 Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. 10 But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.

11 “Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering. 12 He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. 13 He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the tablets of the covenant law, so that he will not die. 14 He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover.

15 “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. 16 In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the tent of meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness. 17 No one is to be in the tent of meeting from the time Aaron goes in to make atonement in the Most Holy Place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel.

18 “Then he shall come out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it. He shall take some of the bull’s blood and some of the goat’s blood and put it on all the horns of the altar. 19 He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times to cleanse it and to consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites.

20 “When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

23 “Then Aaron is to go into the tent of meeting and take off the linen garments he put on before he entered the Most Holy Place, and he is to leave them there. 24 He shall bathe himself with water in the sanctuary area and put on his regular garments. Then he shall come out and sacrifice the burnt offering for himself and the burnt offering for the people, to make atonement for himself and for the people. 25 He shall also burn the fat of the sin offering on the altar.

26 “The man who releases the goat as a scapegoat must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp. 27 The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and intestines are to be burned up. 28 The man who burns them must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.

29 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselvesand not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you— 30 because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. 31 It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. 32 The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments 33 and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the tent of meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the members of the community.

34 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.”

And it was done, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Lev 16:1-34)

Since the Temple was destroyed in 70, the ceremonies pertaining to the Most Holy Place cannot now be performed. Instead Jews remember the Temple ceremonies in the Avodah service. Orthodox and most Conservative Synagogues have a detailed recitation of the Temple Ceremony.

Here is a detailed description of the Yom Kippur Services.

So, G’mar Hatimah Tovah.

 

Rosh Hashanah

September 4, 2013

This evening at sunset Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the first of the High Holy Days begins. This holiday takes place on the first two days of the month of Tishrei in the Hebrew calender. Because the Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, the dates wander a bit in our Gregorian calendar. This year it takes place on  September 4-6. The New Year is celebrated for two days because of the difficulty of determining the precise day of the new moon.

Rosh Hashanah, which means “the head of the year”,  is not mentioned as such in the Bible. Instead the day is called “Zikaron Teru’ah” a memorial of the blowing of horns in Leviticus 23:24 and “Yom Teru’ah” the day of blowing the horn in Numbers 23:9.

 23 The LORD spoke to Moses: 24 “Tell the Israelites, ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you must have a complete rest, a memorial announced by loud horn blasts, a holy assembly. 25 You must not do any regular work, but you must present a gift to the LORD.’”  (Lev. 23:23-25)

1 “‘On the first day of the seventh month, you are to hold a holy assembly. You must not do your ordinary work, for it is a day of blowing trumpets for you. 2 You must offer a burnt offering as a sweet aroma to the LORD: one young bull, one ram, and seven lambs one year old without blemish.  3 “‘Their grain offering is to be of finely ground flour mixed with olive oil, three-tenths of an ephah for the bull, two-tenths of an ephah for the ram, 4 and one-tenth for each of the seven lambs,note 5 with one male goat for a purification offering to make an atonement for you; 6 this is in addition to the monthly burnt offering and its grain offering, and the daily burnt offering with its grain offering and their drink offerings as prescribed, as a sweet aroma, a sacrifice made by fire to the LORD. (Num 29:1-6)

I mentioned that the Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar. That is not quite correct. A fully lunar calendar would be based solely on the phases of the moon would cycle through the year, as the Islamic Calender does. Instead, the Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar calendar. The twelve months add up to 354 days, so to keep up with the seasons extra, intercalary months are added in a nineteen year cycle. Seven intercalary months are added during the cycle so that a thirteenth month is added every two or three years. This means that the dates wander a bit compared to the Gregorian calendar but stay within the appropriate seasons.

Anyway, Shana Tova everyone.

 

Reformed Egyptian

September 3, 2013
English: Joseph Smith translating the Book of ...

Hard at work
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few years ago, I talked with some Mormon missionaries who were working our neighborhood. Most people prefer to avoid proselytizers of any sort, but I find conversations with them to be interesting. It must have been an odd experience for the two missionaries, as I must have been one of the few non-Mormons they encountered who had actually read the Book of Mormon and knew something of Mormon theology. I had an interesting talk with these two young men.

If you talk with Mormon missionaries for any length of time, they will give you a copy of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is supposed to be a history of some Jewish emigrants to America led by a man named Lehi. This expedition began just before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians around 587 BC. Various historians made records of their experiences and the last of these, one Moroni, collected these accounts that had been engraved on golden tablets and buried them around AD 421. In 1823, Moroni, now an angel, showed Joseph Smith these tablets and had him translate them using the “urim and thummim” or seer stone. After this task was done, Moroni took them back to Heaven.

The language that was engraved on these golden plates is supposed to have been “Reformed Egyptian“. The story of the golden plates written in reformed Egyptian makes the Book of Mormon unique among the sacred texts of the various religions. If I want to read the Bible in its original languages, I have only to study Koine Greek and Hebrew. These exist many old manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments, as well as many writings and inscriptions in both languages. If I want to read the Koran in its original language, I can study Arabic. It is true that the Arabic of the Koran is not the Arabic spoken in Cairo or Baghdad, and the language is difficult for even native speakers. It is also true that there are few inscriptions and writings from the first century of the Islamic Era, making the ancient Arabic more obscure. I could study it though. The same thing could be said of the Sanskrit of the Vedas, the ancient Chinese of Confucius and Lao Tse and many others. I cannot say the same of the Book of Mormon. There is not a single scrap of Reformed Egyptian to be found anywhere. There are no inscriptions, no fragments of parchment or papyrus, nothing. The golden tablets are gone. For this reason, most non-Mormons consider Reformed Egyptian to be a product of Joseph Smith’s fertile imagination.

It might be worth considering the matter, though. The hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt were a complicated system of symbols. These symbols included ideographs and phonetic symbols representing syllables or consonants. There were also symbols at the end of words which were mute but indicated grammar. The phonetic symbols worked a little like a rebus, a picture of an object was used to indicate the sound associated with that object. For instance, to indicate the word belief, I could draw a picture of a bee and a leaf. An eye could mean the pronoun I. This is, in fact, where the letters of our alphabet originated. The earliest versions of ABC were diagrams of objects that started with those sounds in the Phoenician language. The Egyptians never managed to take the step of creating a full syllabary or true alphabet.
Hieroglyphics were sacred writing, used mostly for inscriptions on stone. The Egyptians used two other systems, based on Hieroglyphics. Hieratic was a somewhat simplified version of Hieroglyphics used for writing on sheets of papyrus. It was invented about the same time as Hieroglyphics. It was used for many purposes, but gradually became associated with religious uses. Demotic was a variation of Hieratic invented around 660 BC. It was widely used for everyday purposes and became the script most familiar to Egyptians and foreigners.

Hebrew is, of course, written with a true alphabet (or abjad if we want to be pedantic). It worked fairly well for representing Hebrew  I am not sure why any speaker of Hebrew would use another system. The Book of Mormon explains it;

32 And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.

33 And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record. (Mormon 9:32-33)

That really doesn’t work. I cannot imagine that any Egyptian script would be more concise than Hebrew. The Hebrew letters work just as well for modern Hebrew as for Biblical Hebrew and the Jews also used them to write in Yiddish, a dialect of German. Aramaic uses similar letters, as does Samaritan. For that matter, our own Latin alphabet, as well as the Greek alphabet derive from the same source. Since the various alphabets derived from the ancient Phoenicians can be used to represent many different languages, there is no reason why some modified form of the Hebrew alphabet couldn’t be used to represent the language of these American Jews, no matter how much their language evolved.

So, why Reformed Egyptian? Well, Joseph Smith could hardly claim to have translated Hebrew. Any skeptic could have simply produced a

English: The Rosetta Stone in the British Muse...

English: The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. Français : La Pierre de Rosette, dans le British Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

paper written in Hebrew and demand he translate it. It was safer to translate from a language no one could read. Knowledge of how to read the writing of Ancient Egypt had been lost many centuries ago. The Rosetta Stone had only been found in 1799 and Jean-François Champollion had just finished translating it in 1822. Even if anyone in the United States knew about his work, it was not likely they would possess a copy of his translation. Besides, being one of the oldest civilizations in history, Egypt was mysterious and exotic. Even the Greeks and Romans felt this attraction. Whatever his faults might have been, Joseph Smith was a good showman. Proposing that the Native Americans were descended from a lost tribe of Jews was exciting enough for potential converts. Adding in the splendor of Ancient Egypt was too much for him to resist.

Of course, Joseph Smith’s career lasted until his death in 1844 and sooner or later the knowledge of how to read Hieroglyphics was going to cross the ocean. There was always the danger that someone might ask Joseph Smith to translate a scroll or a wrapping off a mummy. In fact, someone did make such a request of Joseph Smith, providing him an opportunity to use his imagination once again. The results turned out to be very embarrassing for the Church of Latter Day Saints, thought the truth wasn’t known for over a century. That is a story for another time.

That Old Time Religion

June 27, 2013

Would you like to go back to that old time religion? Do you find monotheism monotonous? Would you prefer to worship older and more interesting gods? Then maybe Hellenismos is the religion you have been looking for.

Hellenismos is a revival of the polytheistic religion of ancient Greece and Rome. Followers of this religion worship the old gods of Greek and Roman myth like Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and so on. As far as I can determine, these people are serious about the matter. They are not play acting or pretending like Civil War re-enactors or the Society for Creative Anachronism. It has been centuries since any of the rites of the Greco-Roman religion have been practiced, but these new pagans practice them as best they can be reconstructed from the evidence of literature and archeology. The only concession to modern times is that they do not sacrifice live animals though they do give meat and bones as votive offerings. There aren’t many followers of the Hellenismos, only about 2000,

Photograph of Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hell...

Photograph of Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes (YSEE) ritual in Greece. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

mostly in Greece and the US. There are an estimated 100,000 people who have shown some interest in it.

The name Hellenismos is worth exploring. The ancient Greeks, as well as the followers of every other traditional ancient religion, did not have a name for their religion. Religion, in those days, was not something separate, but was an intimate part of culture and day to day life. There was no consistent theology or doctrine. There was not a separate class or hierarchy of priests or clergymen. Priesthoods were local and often political posts.  The people of ancient times would not have understood the concept of separation of church and state. Practicing the rites to gain the gods’ favor was an essential role of the state. You did not convert to the ancient Greek or Roman religion, unless you happened to adopt their culture.The closest thing to joining a church in ancient times might be being initiated into one of the mystery religions. Even then, the initiate still worshiped the same gods as everyone else.

The Greeks were aware that people in other countries worshiped other gods. If I understand Herodotus correctly, the Greeks seemed to assume that foreigners worshiped the same set of gods they did only with strange foreign names and ideas about their relationships with one another. In any event, people didn’t travel all that much and few Greeks had much opportunity or inclination to learn about the religious beliefs of people they called barbarians. This changed somewhat in the more cosmopolitan world of the Hellenistic Era and the Roman Empire. People and ideas moved back and forth throughout the ancient world and cults and sects spread far from their lands of origin. The culture became a little more individualistic than before and people could make conscious choices about their religious practices. A person could become a worshiper of Isis, or Mithras, or even of the God of the Jews. (In the century or so before Christ, Jewish monotheism was very attractive to some people). Naturally that person would still practice whatever local rites and customs were prevalent, except in the case of the convert or follower of Judaism. A little later on, a new option arose. One could become a follower of Christ, or a Christian.

Christianity grew fairly rapidly in the three centuries after the death of Christ, until Constantine became the first Christian Roman Emperor.  Most of this growth took place in the cities of the Roman Empire while people in rural districts tended to be more conservative in their beliefs and who clung to their idols. The growing Christian elite referred to these bitter clingers as “pagani” or country folk, or maybe even rednecks.

In 361 Julian, a grandson of Constantine, became Emperor. Although he had been raised a Christian, the deplorable behavior of the sons of Constantine as well as his studies in philosophy, convinced him to abandon Christianity in favor of neo-Platonism and the old religion. Julian realized that much of the success of the Christians was due to their organization and the way in which they took care of their members. He decided that if paganism was to survive, it would need to be reinvented. Julian wanted to create a new-old religion with a more consistent theology and a hierarchy of priests. He wanted the old temples to practice the same kind of charity as the Christians did and he wanted the priests to exhort the people to more moral behavior, as the Christian priests did in their sermons. He called this system “hellenismos” or the way of the Hellenes. (The Greek work for “Greek” is Hellene and the word for Greece is Hellas.)

Julian did not succeed. He was killed in 363 while fighting a war with the Persians. He successor was a Christian as was every Roman Emperor after him. By 395, the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire and the gods of the old temples were banished.

I suppose, in their way, the efforts of the modern followers of the way of the Hellenes are just as quixotic as Julian’s efforts to turn the clock in his time. I can’t imagine all that many people taking the ancient myths very seriously. In fact, I am certain that the modern pagans do not take them literally but metaphorically. Even so, while the Greek gods could be grand and noble, they were also petty, vindictive and selfish. Even in ancient times, some Greeks were embarrassed by the many affairs of Zeus. None of the gods were consistently superior to humans in morals, and in most of the myths, the gods were nothing but trouble to the hapless mortals they met.  They don’t seem to be the sort of beings that are very worthy of worship. I like the stories in Greek mythology myself, though I have never been tempted to worship Zeus or Hermes.

Empire of Fear

June 21, 2013

Robert Spencer has some interesting things to say about the Muslim family at Jihad Watch and PJMedia.

Earlier this month, Islamic member nations of the United Nations Human Rights Council rejected as un-Islamic a resolution condemning violence against women. The Kuwait News Agency reported that “the rejections include the paragraph, which gives women ‘the right to control matters concerning their sexual lives as well as their reproductive health without coercion, discrimination or violence.’”

It is likely that this rejection had as much or more to do with the idea that women should be protected from coercion and violence as it may have had to do with any pro-life concerns. After all, the Qur’an directs men to beat disobedient women (4:34), while Islamic law allows for abortion at least early in the pregnancy. The Muslim scholar Sayyid Sabiq explains that,

abortion is not allowed after four months have passed since conception because at that time it is akin to taking a life, an act that entails penalty in this world and in the Hereafter. As regards the matter of abortion before this period elapses, it is considered allowed if necessary.

The idea that it is un-Islamic for women to have the right to be free from coercion and violence is revealing of the mindset underlying the entire Islamic understanding of morality. Muslims and non-Muslims often tell us that Muslims hate the West for its decadence, its immorality, its lasciviousness, which they contrast unfavorably with the supposed morality and uprightness of the Islamic world. Often this boils down to a Muslim critique of Western “freedom,” especially as Bush and Obama pursued military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan ostensibly to bring Western-style freedom to those countries.

In line with that, the mufti of Australia, Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali, once complained that “Australian law guarantees freedoms up to a crazy level.” Yet genuine freedom is an indispensable prerequisite for any cultivation of real virtue.

Even the post-Christian West makes it more possible to be virtuous than the apparently much more straitlaced Islamic world. With its stonings, amputations, and death penalties for an array of offenses including apostasy, Islam has created – even in the family itself — not a framework in which people can become genuinely good, but an empire of fear. People don’t dare step out of line, not out of an authentic understanding that the path of moral and ethical uprightness is preferable to the alternative, much less out of love for God or a real desire to please him, but because they are afraid of what would happen to them if they did depart from Islam’s vision of morality.

He has more to say. With all that in mind, I think it might be interesting to consider how the subtle differences between the Judeo-Christian and the Islamic view of God ties into the question of freedom and virtue.

In Christian and Jewish theology, God is considered to be not only omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful), but also omni-benevolent (entirely good). As God is wholly good and has no evil in Him, God cannot commit an evil act. To do so would be contrary to His nature. An Islamic theologian cannot say that. It is not that Muslims believe that God is evil or indifferent. Islam is, as C. S. Lewis said of Christianity, a fighting religion with a God who takes sides. The problem that Muslims have with saying that God cannot commit an evil act lies in their conception of God as all-powerful.

All three Abrahamic religions believe God to be omnipotent. Islam, however, emphasizes divine omnipotence quite a lot more than the other two religions. Muslims, therefore, are uncomfortable with any concept that seems to put a limit on God’s absolute sovereignty and divine freedom. Saying that God cannot do a thing or has any limits seems to be blasphemy. God cannot be constrained in any way or by any thing, not even by natural laws or logic. God may be good but there is no reason why He could not command something evil, arbitrary, or even irrational. Islam also teaches the unknowability of God by mere humans. No human being can know anything about God or His nature. This means that such statements as the apostle John is fond of using such as God is love or God is Light, or identifying God with the Logos or Reason are meaningless to the Muslim and, again, may even be blasphemous. We cannot know God. We can only know His will for us. Islamic theologians have not spent much time debating the nature of God, as Christians have with their disputes over the trinity and how Jesus can be both God and man. Islamic theology is more focused on legal matters and regulations for the believer.

These concepts might be the reason that Islamic political history is largely a history of despotism. If God is absolute with no constraints on His authority, then it stands to reason that rulers, God’s representatives, should also have absolute authority. There is, as far as I know, no Magna Carta in Islam, and certainly no Declaration of Independence with its inalienable rights. Muslims believe that humans are the slaves of God, while Christians believe that we are His Sons. Sons have rights. Slaves do not.

This also puts an interesting twist on the Euthyphro dilemma. Euthypho is a character in Plato’s dialog of that name. Socrates and Euthypho meet each other at a law court while they each are waiting for the court to hear their cases, in Socrates’s case the trial that would cost him his life. Since Euthypho is presented as an expert theologian who knows all about the gods, Socrates asks to define piety or holiness and the two begin the dialog. During the discussion Socrates asks whether the gods love pious acts because they are pious or are things pious because the gods love them. In other words, and moving to monotheism, does God command us to do good things because they are good, or are good actions good because God commands them. For instance, one of the ten commandments that God gave to Moses was, “Thou shalt not kill”. Did God forbid killing because killing is inherently evil, or is killing evil because God forbade it.

You may see the dilemma here. If the things that God wishes us to do are good in themselves, then does that not imply that there is some source of morality higher than God? On the other hand if good actions are good simply because those are the actions God happens to approve of, then the ideas of good and evil become arbitrary. God could just as easily told Moses, “Thou shalt kill”.

There have been a number of ways that both Christians and Jews have attempted to resolve this dilemma. I think that, in general, Christians and Jews tend to favor the first answer, that God’s commands are good in themselves and that for God to command or commit an evil act would be contrary to His nature. God can no more do evil than a triangle could have four sides. Islamic theology compels a Muslim to favor the second answer. Thus, there is a tendency to believe that God’s commands are somewhat arbitrary and subject to change. Indeed in the Koran, later commands replace or abrogate earlier commands.

I gone somewhat far afield, so perhaps I should try to tie in what I have written with Robert Spencer’s argument. If you consider the ultimate source of morality is not some abstract concept of justice but the somewhat arbitrary commands of the supreme deity then wouldn’t it stand to reason that you might adopt a sort of  “might makes right” and “ends justify the means” sort of moral code? And, wouldn’t you come to believe that virtue is something that must be imposed from outside, rather than something that each person must develop from within? That is something to consider.


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