Storing Holiness

In Jewish tradition,the name of God is sacred and must be treated with reverence in all its forms, which is why strictly observant Jews avoid writing it down lest they then mistreat the item upon which it is written (this is also why you might see even the word god written as “G-d” in some spaces).

When items that contain the name of God have become too worn to be read, are torn, soiled, or otherwise made unusable, they are to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Obviously, it makes much more sense to bury these items together rather than one at a time, so the items are typically stored (according to rabbinic sources “with reverence”) in a special storeroom called a geniza.

The most famous geniza is the massive, two-story silo located in the ancient Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. Founded sometime prior to 882 CE, the good people of congregation Ben Ezra apparently tended to let things go. So much so, that they managed to put off cleaning out the geniza for a jaw-dropping 850 years.

Despite having documents that pre-dated the synagogue itself by at least 150 years, including some of the only extant original writing by medieval Torah scholar Maimonides, the geniza remained more or less ignored until the 1800’s. Then came a series of scholars, all of whom had a hand in uncovering the magnificence of the storeroom’s trove.

First among them was Jacob Saphir, a wandering Romanian Jew based in Jerusalem. He was commissioned to go on a fund-raising mission for his community, which brought him (among a host of other countries) to Egypt, where he was the first researcher to realize the significance of the Cairo geniza.

Next were the remarkable Smith sisters, Agnes and Margaret, who between them knew a dozen languages. They recognized that the geniza probably contained untold wonders, but as their focus was elsewhere, they brought the room to the attention of their rabbinic friend, Solomon Schechter. In 1896, Schechter made two trips to the geniza, bringing back more than 100,000 pages of rare manuscripts, including pages of the Book of Ben Sirach in Hebrew. That text had only been known to exist in Greek or Latin previous to this discovery, and another Hebrew version would not be discovered until the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed almost a century later.

Schechter’s work to sort and publicize the documents within the Cairo Geniza revolutionized Jewish scholarship, particularly medieval scholarship. His work was a literal, real-life treasure hunt of absolutely unimaginable proportions.

One modern, sadder version of a geniza making headlines happened in the United States in 2013, when thousands of trash bags mysteriously appeared on a roadside in New Jersey. Found to contain scrolls, prayer books, and other ritual objects, the bags were traced back to a local Jewish community, which had apparently hired a contractor to bury the sacred items. Legal and environmental restrictions stalled the process, and the bags–dubbed “God’s Garbage” by Tablet Magazine–remained in limbo.

Within the Arms of Cozbi

I would not die like Socrates
for all the fuss of Plato.
Nor would I with Leonidas
nor yet would I with Cato.
The zealots of the Church and State
shall ne’er my mortal foes be,
but let me have bold Zimri’s fate
within the arms of Cozbi!

Robert Burns “I Murder Hate”

 

Our story today takes place in the year 1450 BCE in the land of Shittim. The people there were called the Moabites, and they worshiped a number of gods. Among these was Baal Peor, a mountain god. Now, according to rabbinic literature, worship of this particular god included “exposing that part of the body which all persons usually take the utmost care to conceal,” which is a hilarious mental image. Other sources just surmise that Peor worship was particularly licentious.

At this time, the Israelite’s wandering had brought them to the land of Shittim, where they were understandably drawn to the sexy stylings of Peor worship. The God of the Israelites, being a jealous God, was angered by this and told Moses to have the people cut that shit out. Moses, accordingly, told the judges:Each of you must put to death those of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.

In His anger, God also sent a plague to the Israelites, to punish them for their transgressions. Thousands were sick and dying, and those that were well enough to do so would gather daily at the Tent of Meeting to pray for those that were suffering and mourn for those the plague had taken.

Picture the scene: a crowd of hundreds, weeping and prostrating themselves in the dirt outside the city proper, wailing for the tragedy their collective sins had wrought. Into this, with timing so terrible it can only be blamed on all the blood rushing from his head to other parts of his body, walks Zimri, an Israelite soldier. His arm is draped around Cozbi, a Midianite and the daughter of one of the chiefs there. They are perhaps giggling and whispering together, walking happily to Zimri’s tent.

Pinchas, a descendant of Aron, sees this and is infuriated. Without hesitation, he grabs a spear from a nearby soldier and follows the lovers to Zimri’s tent, where he surprises them in the act of coitus. He stabs the Midianite woman so that the spear travels through her back and pierces Zimri’s gut. They die together, skewered like a pornographic shish kabob.

According to the text, this stops the plague, but not before twenty-four thousand people lost their lives. In true Biblical fashion, this is more or less where the story ends, leaving us to wonder what, exactly, we’re to take from this. Post-Biblical sources are ambivalent, with some praising Pinchas’ zealotry, and others troubled by his apparent failure to follow accepted juridical procedures.

For myself, I enjoy how much this story packs into so few verses. We have forbidden sex, death, destruction, disease, and a comically gruesome conclusion. It’s the Bible at its best–messy and mysterious and human–and the version that we get far too rarely.

 

The Age of Our Stories

Storytelling is like the city of London, or Terry Pratchett’s mythical city of Ankh-Mopork. The newest stories we have are built upon untold layers of other stories, piling one on top of each other into the distant past.

C:UsersAMELIA~1AppDataLocalTempmsoD7F1.tmp

It was this realization that first made me interested in learning about the Bible. I was taking a class on the Romantic poets, and started to realize that all of them leaned heavily on the weight and beauty lent by earlier works. A poem would be pretty by itself, but start to become profound when you learned that one line referred to this medieval epic, and the other made allusion to some ancient myth.

For many of those romantics, the Bible was the ultimate source of inspiration. The richness of ancient storytelling gave a power to their poetry that they could not conjure on their own, and so they would sprinkle in Biblical verses, references to Biblical tales, and wording borrowed directly from the book itself. I started to learn the Bible in order to try to catch all of these references on my own–both in the works of the romantics, but also in literature in general and modern culture at large.

It turns out, I needed to cast a wider net. In a study published in 2016, but newly making the rounds this week, researchers Sara Graca da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani found that the origins of fairy tales go back much farther than originally assumed. Using research methods originally pioneered for biological studies, the team discovered that familiar fairytales in various forms could be traced back to ancient roots, rather than originating in medieval times as previously thought. Many of these tales, it is reasonable to think, could have co-existed with the stories from the Bible.

Would ancient people have recognized the divide we place between fairy tales and sacred stories, or was it all co-mingled? Can we find fairy tale themes in Biblical stories?Why were the stories in the Bible canonized and others with just as much history were not? I’m hoping to delve into those questions in future posts, as I read more about this extremely interesting idea, but if you know some of the answers please get in touch!

 

 

 

 

Isaac’s Bride vs Hagar

I visited my parents on Sunday after church. They’re Presbyterians–the frozen chosen–and their pastor is currently taking them story by story through the book of Genesis. Sunday was the story of how Isaac wed Rebekah.

Once again, if it’s been a while, the basic outline is this: Abraham sends a servant back to Ur to find a suitable wife for Isaac. The servant prays that God send the woman He has appointed for Isaac to the well so that the servant can meet her and tell her his plan.

My parent’s pastor used this as an example of how his congregants should pray to God, and thank God when things go right, but they still need to do the footwork. Abraham’s servant, the pastor says, didn’t just stay home and pray that God send a woman–he went to Ur, he went to the well, he met people and explained his business.

A perfectly serviceable interpretation, and one I’m sure people have been pulling from this story for centuries. However, maybe because it’s another woman-and-a-well story, it made me think of the story of Hagar.

Hagar was the handmaiden of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Sarah had instructed Hagar to sleep with Abraham in order to conceive a child, since Sarah was convinced that she herself was too old to do so. After Sarah does in fact have her own kid, she grows worried that Hagar’s son will negatively affect the inheritance situation. So, she tells Abraham to kick Hagar out, which he does reluctantly.

After Hagar and her son drink the water Abraham had given them, she resigns herself to dying in the wilderness, and separates herself from her son so that she doesn’t have to watch him die. Fortunately, God notices their distress and provides a well (or points out a well, depending on how you read it) for Hagar and her son.

In that story, Hagar most certainly does not do the footwork. No disrespect to the woman, as I’m sure I wouldn’t have fared much better in her situation, but the moral of “pray, but do the work too” just does not fit in her tale.

So, here’s what interests me: is there a way to interpret these two stories so that they have complementary meanings? What would that meaning be? If you have thoughts, please let me know. I would love to hear them!

What the Heck is a (the?) Targum

In embarking on this project, I’m stepping into a rich and intimidating pool of history. People have been translating, interpreting, and expounding upon biblical texts since before a written bible existed. Some of the earliest known biblical interpretations are known as targumim.

Targumim: The plural of targum. Targum relates to the Akkadian word for interpreter or translator. Targumim were oral translations of biblical text from Hebrew into another language–usually Aramaic.

A targum would be relayed by a meturgeman, a professional interpreter, who would frequently add in his own or others’ commentary on a given passage or section. This extremely early exegesis is still studied by some religious traditions, although a prohibition against writing them down means that many interpretations were likely lost to history.

On Biblical Literacy

I received an article this week in my inbox dealing with the American president’s tweets supporting teaching Biblical literacy.

My knee jerk reaction was “oh no, something I agree with him on.” I love the idea of teaching Biblical literacy to high-school aged students, and would have jumped on such a class if it was offered in my school. I think most people are lacking in Biblical literacy, especially those who grew up with a Biblically-based faith tradition. I group myself among them. The Bible is an ancient, cobbled together text with roots in a hundred fertile grounds, and it is incredibly difficult (although worthwhile!) to even attempt to understand it.

The problem with these classes, and this is something the linked article brings up, is that people promoting these kinds of classes are rarely teaching a genuine kind of literacy. Instead, the curriculum deals with a narrow presentation of stories that support one particular view of the text–a treatment that does a tremendous disservice both to competing faith traditions, and to the Bible itself.

The thing that lit a spark in me for this subject, the thing that made me want to learn everything I could about the Bible and its origins, as well as the millenia of exegesis and commentary surrounding it, was learning that there is not one but actually two creation stories in Genesis.

If you haven’t read it in a while or if, like me, you grew up with a tradition that only taught the one, let me refresh you. (if you know what I’m talking about, you’ll have to forgive me the recap. I genuinely get excited about this)

So Genesis 1 starts with God on his lonesome, above a formless void. He creates light, then the sky, then the land and the seas, then swarms of living creatures and plants, and so forth until finally, on the sixth day, “God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” It continues “So God created humankind in his image/in the image of God he created them;/ male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26 to 1:27, New Oxford Annotated Bible).

But then, record scratch, in Genesis chapter 2, there’s a whole new version of events. In this one, “when no plant of the field was yet in the earth…then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils.” So we have a different timeline, and a completely different manner of creation. Before, God spoke and it was so. In Genesis 2, God has to form man, and give him breath. We have a more physical picture of God here. Perhaps most importantly, as this is the detail that was stressed in my learning of the story, and the thing that continues to echo today, it is not until Genesis chapter 18 that woman is created. “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Notice the depiction of God questioning his own creation). God presents man with all of the beasts of creation (another difference from Genesis 1), before finally putting him to sleep and creating woman from one of the man’s ribs.

That’s the version I learned, the version that was used to teach me why women were subservient to men and why wives had to obey their husbands. Learning there was a second version, a completely different version, was exhilarating to me. This text that I thought I knew–that I thought, frankly, was pretty boring–came alive to me then. How interesting, how complex could my Sunday school discussions have been if this information had been included? How exciting would it be for interested students to learn the challenging and engaging truth behind a book that many of them see as stodgy and monochromatic?

That’s the way Biblical literacy should be taught, but the prospect is scary for people who think that the text will lose meaning if you begin to point out the inconsistencies. The truth is though, something doesn’t last for thousands of years just because nobody noticed its faults. It lasts because generation after generation discover the mystery and the wonder wrapped in and around those perceived mistakes–it lasts because people have engaged with it.

Sacred Spaces

This past week’s Torah portion, Parshat T’rumah, describes the building of the mishkan, the first central place of prayer in Jewish life. It is not one of my favorite readings, as I tend to zone out when the subject matter is instruction-based, as the bible is so often fond of being. “Take this many cubits of wood, divide them into four equal width, construct your dwelling at right angles to the sun’s path…” etc, etc.

However, I heard some commentary on this section from Rabbi Rick Jacobs connecting this portion to the overall idea of sacred spaces. Rabbi Jacobs described himself as a junky for these kinds of places, and I laughed out loud because me too! Even when I thought my spiritual journey was over, when I thought I had landed firmly in the non-believer category of the divine census form, I still found myself drawn to places of worship. There is something unspeakably special about the intentional spaces humans create for themselves when they are hoping to house the infinite.

I spent some time as a hospice volunteer, which gave me a lot of experience in hospital and nursing-home chapels. Every single one of them felt like an oasis, an oxygen-filled bubble of stillness and peace in the midst of a desperately frantic environment. They were generally nondenominational and often had a selection of well-thumbed religious texts available, as well as spaces to sit or kneel as your observance dictated.

The overall idea of sacred spaces in all their variety brought me to the concept of creating room for spirituality in my home. Not just metaphorical room, but an actual physical space that is reserved for some kind of exercise in religious feeling, in reaching out for connection.

I believe that creativity and storytelling are divine acts, and that human beings touch holiness when they use language–fiction, metaphor, poetry, allegory–to try to describe something so outside our experience. If I am going to throw myself into that endeavor, it would make sense to mindfully dedicate a space to it.

Now, what exactly that means I’m not sure. I don’t have the step-by-step directions given to the ancient Israelites concerning what to build and how. But, using that hospital-chapel-feeling as a guide, I’m looking forward to creating my own sacred space.