Anti-Semitism Part 2: the religious factor
Years ago I had a class in Medieval Hebrew Civililzation, taught by the director of the local Hillel Foundation. Towards the end of the semester, Dr. Rubin* asked if anyone cared to try and explain anti-Semitism in the Western world. (A term he dislike by the way. He preferred “Judeophobia”.)
Since from earliest childhood my mouth has lived its own life, wild and free, I said I’d have a go at it. In brief:
For a Christian, his whole faith is wrapped around the idea that the life of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew prophecies of the messiah. This implies the highest possible stakes, his belief in eternal life as a reward for believing this and acting accordingly.
For anyone who has studied the messianic prophecies under the guidance of a good Hebrew scholar as I have, the thing that strikes one most forcibly is – that it’s not true.
The reasons are complicated and not relevant to this discussion, but among other things there is not a single messianic tradition but several (3 to 5 depending on who you’re listening to), which scholars have been arguing about for a long time. But the most important reason lies at the heart of Christian symbolism – crucifixion. In the Hebrew scriptures, an accursed death which renders the body unclean and destroys the chance for resurrection.
Christianity looks like a combination of Jewish intellectualism and certain elements of Mediterranean paganism. Chiefly the idea of a literal “Son of God”**, “begotten, not made”. This goes against the conception of a non-corporeal god of pure thought, not tied to any specific place or object, so different from the anthropomorphic deities of the Greeks and Romans and the demigod sons they begat on mortal women***. This ironically makes Judaism closer to Islam than Christianity in its core concept of the nature of divinity.
What I concluded was that for a believing Christian, the very existence of believing Jews is going to be a threat to their core beliefs, since he can’t get around the fact that the basic scriptures of his faith are Jewish and the Jews stubbornly refuse to be convinced that their prophecies have been fulfilled.
(Ask any violence professional the quickest way to get assaulted: challenge core beliefs.)
Dr. Rubin listened to my exposition with a completely impassive expression and commented, “You’re essentially correct. That’s a rabbinical answer.” (Meaning, you nailed it but it wouldn’t be politic of me to say so.)
But Judaism is also the parent religion of Islam. Near the beginning of the Prophet Mohammed’s career, the writings which became the Koran were shown to a Jewish scholar (Gaon), who pronounced them to be, “Garbled scripture.” He was quickly given reason to recant his opinion and maintain further silence.
This set the pattern for Jewish relations with the derived religions. A new teacher arises who may initially be favorably disposed towards the Jews, because he’s “fixed” and “purified” their religion. They reply that their religion is just fine thank you, and doesn’t need fixing. The new teacher reacts with the rage of a rejected suitor.
It happened with the founder of Islam, and it happened with Martin Luther. “If we hang felons on a gibbet, we should have one twelve times as high for Jews.”
I don’t much like this conclusion but I don’t see a way around it****. In further posts I will deal with the political, economic and cultural dimensions of anti-Semitism.
* Dr. Rubin was a good friend and teacher, and one of the bravest men I’ve met though I didn’t realize it at the time. After many absences due to illness, he announced to us that he was going in for treatment for a chronic health problem that would soon be fixed, “One way or the other.” He died on the operating table while underdoing surgery for a pancreatic ulcer. We realized only then that he had been saying good bye to us.
**I remember reading in a Biblical dictionary that “sons of God” was sometimes used as a term of praise for the very righteous.
***Heracles and Perseus for example. One historical speculation had it that in some societies of the ancient world, women of good family might serve terms as temple prostitutes. Any child conceived in that term would be considered children of the deity of that temple. Interesting, but I have no idea how that theory is regarded by scholars today. Anybody?
****See my previous post “Can you think?” http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/10/can-you-think.html Quiz question 2: How often have you, after examining the evidence reached a conclusion that was uncomfortable, unsettling or profoundly disturbing to you, i.e. reached a conclusion that you did not like?