Friday, April 23, 2010

South Park and Mohammad: Blasphemy and Violence

I just read that the cartoonists at Southpark, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, are receiving death-threats because

[The prophet as holy warrior that appears in the Islamic text Jami'al-Tawarikh, dated 1314-5. Is this image blasphemy? ]

they created a storyline in which Muhammed, though never seen, is purported to be inside a cartoon bear suit. Ever since a series of Danish political cartoons portraying and satirizing the Prophet Muhammad appeared, there have been worldwide protests and threats by Muslims. At issue, it seems, is that contemporary Islam regards any perceived insult to the Prophet, even the implication of him being invisible, yet present within an illustration, to be tantamount to blasphemy.

If only Internet death threats were to sum of it. Embassies and businesses have been burned, bounties have been offered against the artists and journalists connected to the cartoons, and dozens have died. Such events leave us puzzled by Muslim notions of what is “holy,” which in turn invites us to think about holiness as a concept.

The 20th Century German philosopher Rudolph Otto defined what is “holy” as the “numinous” -- that which fills us with fear and mystery. It is a good definition. As Isaiah’s angels testify (Ch. 6), the God of Israel is awesome and inscrutable –and therefore holy beyond measure.

Yet God also assigns a measure of holiness to things “outside” Himself. God declares the Sabbath to be holy (Gen. 2.3). God also sanctifies locations of revelation (Ex. 3.5). From such lessons Judaism embraces the concept of holy space and, especially, of holy time.

To these Christianity and Islam eventually added what historian Karen Armstrong dubbed the “cult of the holy human being.” But Armstrong also writes, “any symbol of the sacred, be it a building, a city, a literary text, a law code, or a man, is bound to be inadequate.” That inadequacy becomes evident when, for example, a religion criminalizes misuse or criticism of things regarded as holy – “blasphemy.” Judaism prohibits the abuse of God’s name (Lev. 24). The regnant Church went further when it determined that demeaning the person of Christ was a criminal offense. And, as we have come to learn of late, Islam made it a death penalty crime to denigrate any “holy prophets,” especially Muhammad.

Because of this, as the recent violence reveals, the holy can be a double-edged sword. It has the power to inspire, but also to inflame, humanity. Otto was correct - holiness invokes both mystery and terror.

But the idea of holiness is still a profound and useful insight, despite its inadequacies. Take Lev. 19, for example. The entire People Israel is collectively commanded, “You shall be holy, for the Lord your God is holy.” It seems on the surface an invitation to claim special privilege for the Jewish people above all others. But the wording of this passage crucial to understanding this particular idea of the holy. The Hebrew verb to “be holy” appears here in the imperfect form; it is not describing what humans are already, but prescribing what we must strive to be. From this nuance Judaism has learned to elevate self-criticism almost to the standing of a sacrament, a phenomenon familiar to everyone in the days approaching Yom Kippur.

Just important, holiness in the Bible is inextricably linked to the ethical. The same passage in Leviticus continues by saying that pursuing holiness requires of people that they “not deal basely…not take vengeance, or bear a grudge…. love your fellow as yourself…” Killing or jailing those who slight the honor of prophets and places does not protect nor advance holiness. Rather, such actions ultimately undermine the very meaning of holiness. All the Abrahamic faiths need to emphasize that just as The Holy One is Mysterium Tremendum, an awesome mystery beyond our control, so too holiness is a condition beyond human regulation. God’s holiness does not require defending -- it needs emulating.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Mystery of Samson

I still love the fact that three years after its publication, readers of the EJMMM still send me new sources for traditions not included in my book. This is the marvel of Jewish tradition. It is as big as the sea itself. You could swim in it all your life and still not discover all its secrets.

So this concerns Samson, the biblical judge and strongman. In the EJMMM I wrote that:

As a redeemer of Israel, his birth was heralded to his mother and father by an angel (Jud. 13). He was dedicated to God from birth, and lived his entire life as a nazirite. God blessed him with extraordinary physical strength, which he demonstrated in a series of amazing feats.
Nevertheless he was easily distracted from his dedication to God’s purpose. This made him vulnerable to the schemes of his enemies, the Philistines. Eventually he was shorn of his long hair, which the Philistines believed was the source of his power, after which he was blinded and enslaved. Both his faith in God and his hair grew during his servitude, and he eventually was able to ambush the Philistines while in their temple, bringing the building down upon everyone inside, including himself (Judges 13-17).

Given the already fantastic nature of the Biblical account, there is surprisingly little additional rabbinic material about him and his adventures.

So that last sentence isn't wrong, but it's incomplete. This is what Brem, a reader in NY, shared with me. He found a book, published by Bezalel Naor entitled Kabbalah and the Holocaust (Spring Valley: Orot Inc., 2001). This book cites a number of Kabbalistic traditions regarding Samson. For one, the Hasidic Master Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin put forward the argument that Samson's multiple marriages to non-Jewish women were part of a messianic scheme to uplift the k'lipot, the "fallen sparks" among the gentiles in order to prepare the way for the Messiah (Yisrael Kedoshim). This is further developed in an obscure Kabbalistic treatise by a Rabbi Isaac Messer, U'mi-Midbar Matanah. In it, R. Messer draws together several esoteric sources. Samson's very name, shimshon, "sun," who mates with d'lilah, "night," signifies his spiritual mission, which as to reconcile cosmic opposites, in this case Jews and non-Jews. Samson was meant for this mission because, in fact, he was the reincarnation of Jeptha, the son of Noah, and ancestor of many gentile nations.[1] Thus, Samson's great strength was a personification of the power of the nations, derived from his (partly) non-Jewish soul. Yet this mission in anecient times failed. But Samson will be be reincarnated one more time, as Serayah, the Danite, the messiah's general at the end of times.[2]

Todah rabbah to Brem for adding further to my library of Jewish lore. If I am ever blessed to published a 2nd edition of the EJMMM, this will be included.

Zal g’mor: To learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

1. Galya Raza 42c

2. Zohar III: 194b