The Mythic Layers of the New Testament

The Mythic Layers of the New Testament

From Gentle Judaic Wisdom for a Troubled World (2021)

Later in the 19th century, the German theologian David Freidrich Strauss (1808-1874) openly and categorically revolutionizes the New Testament study by arguing that only the “Historical Jesus” was worthy of serious study. The boldness of this statement did not endear Strauss to many of his colleagues or the local Church. Strauss denied the miraculous and supernatural nature the Church had long attributed to Jesus. Strauss argues the synoptic gospels present a much more realistic portrayal of Jesus in contrast to the Gospel of John, which completely spiritualizes Jesus as a hypostasis of God in the flesh. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Gospel of John portrays Jesus who is well aware of his identity and reflects the early Church’s portrayal of Jesus as a cosmic figure and the exclusive spiritual intermediary to God. All this points to the idea that early Christianity evolved over time, and the traditions reflect this Church’s movement.

In his The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Strauss laments how the New Testament study has been viewed in solely supernatural and legendary terms. Strauss is the first thinker to argue that the New Testament must be interpreted in mythical terms. He correctly observes that the reason the earlier studies of the NT did not use the mythic approach was the mistaken notion that myth only pertained to the pagan religions. Moreover, the more time that elapsed, the more fantastic the supernatural claims became in Christianity. Nobody thought that myth might apply also be used as a hermeneutical way of interpreting the Gospels.

Of course, this begs the question: How did Strauss understand “myth”? Strauss defines myth as “the representation of an event or idea in a historical form but characterized by the pictorial and imaginative thought and expression of primitive ages” (Lawler, 42). Accordingly, there are three categories of myth:

q There is a historical kernel of truth, which reflects an actual event.

q Oftentimes, a philosophical thought, precept, or idea is presented in the guise of history.

q The comingling of the poetic blends the historical and philosophical myth together. To some degree, the human imagination embellishes these fused sections and in doing so, sometimes tends to obscure the facts of the original narrative (Strauss, 53).

Thus, Strauss held that the sundry gospel miracles ought to be understood as natural events, but these events later became misinterpreted and misrepresented due to the gospel narrators. Strauss was far ahead of his time, but he would later find several advocates and champions who did not feel threatened by his controversial ideas within the next two centuries.

Throughout Gentle Judaic Wisdom, I shall attempt to chronologically show as many parallels to the wisdom expressed by Jesus that later appears in rabbinical literature. While many Jewish scholars tend to minimize the original contributions of Jesus, the originality of many of his aphorisms seems to have been widely accepted after his death. This might suggest a number of possible scenarios worth considering: Either the 1st century Sages held Jesus’ moral teachings in high regard and even quoted or paraphrased his wisdom, or that some of the Sages independently arrived at a similar conclusion.

Over time, some colleagues I have spoken to wished to say that Jesus said nothing that the Sages didn’t say before him. Yet, the Talmud records,” R. Eleazar further said in the name of R. Hanina: Whoever reports a saying in the name of its originator brings deliverance to the world, as it says, “And Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai…”(Est. 2:22).[30] Maimonides himself often said that one should accept truth—regardless of its source.

In some instances, the similarity of nomenclature suggests the similarities are more than coincidental. One may surmise that once the Talmud became redacted, the latter rabbis wanted to distance themselves from the true source of some of their teachings! Given the aggressive behavior of the Christian Churches, the rabbis’ reticence is quite understandable. It is also important to note that many of Jesus’ teachings have numerous parallels in the writings of Ben Sira, Philo, The Letter of Aristeas, The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, and other works of the Pseudepigrapha. We can say that the ethical teachings of Jesus fit into a new ethical understanding of Judaism that placed the primacy of morality over ritual, as seen in the teachings of Ben Sira, Hillel, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Philo of Alexandria.

The Nexus between James & Pirke Avoth

The Letter of James is arguably one of the most Jewish sounding works of the NT. Martin Luther’s disdain for James is especially significant. In his Preface to the NT, Martin Luther criticized the Book of James as an, “epistle of straw.”[30] He did so because the author rejected the Pauline doctrine of “justification by faith” which taught, “For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28).

For Luther and his followers, this particular teaching is at the heart of Pauline Christianity and even argued for its removal from the NT canon because of its “Judaic” overtones. Traditional Judaism has long stressed that actions speak louder than platitudes about faith. Some historians are uncertain whether James really wrote the book attributed to him. While it is quite possible that many of the book’s core teachings came directly from James, the rhetorical style and mastery of Koine Greek hardly seem like the skills that the son of a carpenter would have possessed in ancient Judea. More likely, another writer polished the words of James and gave him a flowing rhetorical style. Luther, of all people, should have known better. Nevertheless, Luther’s contempt for James and Judaism are two major reasons why Jews might find James a wonderfully proto-rabbinic work type.

Early Judaic Sources for the Golden Rule

Early Judaic Sources for the Golden Rule

From: Gentle Judaic Wisdom for a Troubled World (2021)

The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance,

for he keeps a strict account of their sins.

Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done,

and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.

Does anyone harbor anger against a neighbor

and expect healing from the Lord?

If you have no mercy toward another like yourself

How can you seek pardon for your own sins?

If a mere mortal harbors wrath,

who will make an atoning sacrifice for his sins?

Remember the end of your life, and set enmity aside;

Remember corruption and death,

and be true to the commandments.

Remember corruption and death, and be true to the commandments. Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbor; remember the covenant of the Most High God, and overlook faults.

– Ben Sira 28:1-7

The King received the answer with great delight and looking at another said to the Sage, “What is the teaching of wisdom?” And the other replied, “Just as you would never want to experience anything evil, and would rather be a partaker of all good things, you ought to extend that same attitude toward your subjects and offenders. When criticizing them, do it mildly for God draws all men to Himself by his benignity.”

– The Letter of Aristeas 2:113

Moreover, it is ordained in the laws themselves that no one shall do to his neighbor what he would be unwilling to have done to himself.

– Philo, Hypothetica 7.6

Do not do unto others anything what you yourself dislike.

– Tobit 4:14:15

Hillel said: What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; now go and study it.

– BT Shabbat 30a

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

– Luke 6:31

Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.

This is the Law and the prophets.

– Matthew 7:12

Do not do what you yourself hate . . .

– Gospel of Thomas 6

R. Akiva said: “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18) is the great principle of the Torah.”

Ben Azzai differs: The verse, This is the book of the descendants of Adam . . . him whom God made in His likeness (Gen. 5:1) utters a principle even greater: you must not say, “Since I have been humiliated, let my fellow man also be humiliated; since I have been cursed, let my neighbor also be cursed.” For, as R. Tanhuma pointed out, “If you act thus, realize who it is that you are willing to have humiliated–” him whom God made in His likeness. [4]

– JT Nedarim 9:4, 41c; Genesis Rabbah 24:7

Augustine and Saadia Gaon’s View on Metaphor

Augustine and Saadia Gaon’s View on Metaphor

From: Psalm 23: An Odyssey of Faith (Spring 2023)

Earlier philosophers and theologians of history were well aware of metaphor’s importance. One of the deepest and most important theological attitudes about the power of metaphor derives from Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.). He considered that one of the major reasons people have difficulty understanding the figurative expressions of the Tanakh is that they do not understand the subtle meaning of metaphors. Personal knowledge of the individual metaphor provides a far deeper appreciation of the reality it is intimating. Metaphors present a pictorial view of reality—but the picture is by no means static; it moves and breathes with vitality.

Metaphor tells a story that is subtle and saturated with hidden meaning. More importantly, its imagery captures the imagination. Augustine observes that place names, numbers, and names of biblical personalities are difficult to understand or comprehend because a reader lacks familiarity with the original biblical languages.

Ignorance of things, too, renders figurative expressions obscure, as when we do not know the nature of the animals, or minerals, or plants, which are frequently referred to in Scripture by way of comparison…. We find it easy to understand why the olive branch symbolizes perpetual peace because the dove brought with it when it returned to the ark. We also know that a fluid of another kind does not easily spoil the smooth touch of olive oil, and that the tree itself is an evergreen. Many, again, by reason of their ignorance of hyssop, not knowing the virtue it has in cleansing the lungs, nor the power it is said to have of piercing rocks with its roots, although it is a small and insignificant plant, cannot make out why it said, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (Psa. 51:7).  Likewise, the ignorance of numbers prevents us from understanding things that are set down in Scripture in a figurative and mystical way.[1]

For Augustine, if a biblical metaphor seems foreign, or obscure, it is because we have not yet grasped the content of its imagery and its contextual meaning as it applies to the biblical text. In addition, without the knowledge of the original Hebrew (a language that Augustine himself did not know well), the reader will never go beyond a facile understanding of the Holy Text. Augustine further notes that the fact Scriptures’ metaphors and euphemisms seem ambiguous to us is not happenstance—they are purposely ambiguous so that we may uncover its deeper meanings. If Scriptures seem difficult to comprehend, it is because its language points to something subtle beyond its surface meaning. Although human beings wrote the Scriptures, people of faith believe that God inspires these writers so that their words would illuminate the mind with spiritual clarity. He notes, “It is a wretched slavery that takes figurative expressions of Scripture in a literal sense. But the ambiguities of metaphorical words… demand no ordinary care and diligence. [2]

Rabbis of the Midrash are in perfect agreement with Augustine on this point. The very purpose of Midrashic interpretation aims to “search out”  and uncover the meanings suggested by the different nuances suggested in the Hebrew language. Saadia Gaon, the ninth-century Jewish philosopher, and biblical translator and author of the Arabic Bible known as the Tafsir, explained that all religious discourse is imprecise and bound by human speech and experience limitations. Human language (whether it is secular or religious), is inherently anthropomorphic and reminded his readers:

Without metaphors, language would be severely limited. Our words would not be able to convey even a fraction of what we think. Thus, if we wanted to speak of God in exact language, we would have necessarily to refrain altogether from describing Him as “hearing,” “seeing,” “being merciful,” or “desirous.” In the end, the only activity we could assign to Him, is existence![3]

Though Saadia criticizes metaphorical language, he realizes that the popular imagination cannot subsist without it. This is no less true with regard to the nature of religious language. Saadia argued that people need a functional language of faith that would make the Presence of God more meaningful to worshippers. He recognized how the metaphor can awaken the poetic and emotional faculties of the human heart. Without a feeling language, any spiritual discourse about the Sacred is impotent—even meaningless, for the heart is not aroused by prose language alone. Saadia further adds (like Augustine before him) that ambiguity of human language is paradoxically a wellspring for revelation and insight. The biblical authors purposely invite the reader to explore, decipher and interpret the words of the sacred text. The veiled meanings of the biblical words lend themselves to a multiplicity of interpretations. If one were to eliminate metaphoric language, human communication would soon become dull, as Saadia further observes:

These and similar words reveal the tendency of language to broaden the meaning of words. Each of the above expressions covers a certain range of meanings, and their allegorical meaning is established by their use in contexts where there is no reference to God. We know that language is an essential feature to extend the meaning of words and use metaphors and images.[4]

Saadia’s theory of language sounds remarkably modern. The use of metaphor goes far beyond the boundary of biblical or theological literature.  A poetic imagination never ceases utilizing metaphors describing the Heavens as “speaking,” or that a storm that is “raging” or “a wall listening.” The presence of another type of metaphor better known to theologians as “anthropomorphism” is ubiquitous in every human field of endeavor from science, art, ethics, music, cinema, literature, poetry, and especially in the realm of advertising. Automobile advertisers sometimes portray their cars as “sexy,” or advertise an engine as “muscular.” Movies frequently depict animals engaging in human activities or pastimes.

[1] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine,  II Chapter 16:24.

[2] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine,  II Chapter 5:9.

[3] Alexander Altmann, Saadia Gaon, Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, reprinted in Three Jewish Philosophers (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 87-90.

[4] Alexander Altmann, Saadia Gaon, Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, reprinted in Three Jewish Philosophers, op. cit.

Making Sense of Anthropomorphism — A Bear Face on Mars?

An orbiter view of a Mars surface formation in black and white. There's a round circular line, two eye-like divots and a raised portion that looks like a snout. The whole thing resembles a bear's face.Face On Mars Photograph by Science Source | Fine Art America

Bear Face on Mars?

Does Nature have a sense of humor?

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped a view of Mars that will likely trigger your pareidolia instincts. Pareidolia is the human tendency to see familiar objects in random shapes. In this case, you’re totally looking at a bear. The Observatory at the University of Arizona took this picture, just the other day.

The “face,” captured by MRO in December, is bigger than your average bear. A version of the image with a scale shows it stretches roughly 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) across.

Anthropologists, psychologists, and theologians refer to this as ” pareidolia” Defined: Pareidolia the perception of apparently significant patterns or recognizable images, especially faces, in random or accidental arrangements of shapes and lines. Some people see Jesus’s face smiling at them from the sky, others might see Mohammed or Buddha.  Seeing the famous man in the moon or the canals on Mars are classic examples from astronomy. The ability to experience pareidolia is more developed in some people and less in others.

For a sweeping critique of how anthropomorphism affected science and philosophy from ancient to modern times, the anthropologist Stewart Elliot Guthrie’s book, Faces in the Clouds stands out as an exceptional work. He theorizes that anthropomorphisms represent a perceptual strategy of how humanity perceives itself in an uncertain world. If, for instance, we see a dark shape in the forest, it is better to assume it is a bear and not a boulder. Guthrie’s innovative idea is patterned after the famous wager of Pascal.[1] If what we are observing truly resembles human behavior, then our use of anthropomorphic language is correct. If we are wrong, what did we lose by employing anthropomorphism? In a world where scientific analysis fails or is severely limited, human beings consciously and unconsciously gravitate toward imagining the universe in the likeness of themselves.

Historically, several cultures worldwide developed myths regarding the mysterious “man on the moon” images before the space probe was launched.  On July 25, 1976, the Viking 1 probe took some unusual photographs of the Cydonian region of Mars, which presented land formations resembling human faces, and hence came to be known as the “Face of Mars.” Scientists soon dismissed this interpretation and said that the image was a “trick of light and shadow.” The human mind always projects images of its own likeness unto the universe.  For Guthrie, the same principle applies no less concerning religion. For him, religion is the embodiment of anthropomorphism.

Guthrie makes a thought-provoking point. Whenever people try to explain abstract processes they do not understand, the tendency is to use metaphorical language, for it helps people connect with subtle and not easily defined ideas. [2]  According to Guthrie, the various branches of science, cognitive sciences, ancient and modern philosophy, and the literary and visual arts abound with anthropomorphism, even though secular scientists and philosophers often criticize it.

Guthrie’s observation is on target. Human speech uses the metaphor for even inanimate objects or when describing a force of nature as if it the object or effect being described possesses human-like qualities or actions. Thus, we metaphorically speak of a storm as “vicious” or “threatening,” or “the wind howls throughout the night.” Even in scientific terms, physicians and biologists frequently refer to white blood cells as “fighting off” and “invading” microorganisms, or the “selfish gene,” or “the blind watchmaker” (to borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins’s popular book). Analogical language is vital for understanding the religious expression and is no less essential for discerning scientific truths about reality.

Scientists illustrate the most abstract mathematical truths through the medium of analogies. Models of science contribute to a more in-depth knowledge of already existing theories. Verbal representations provide a mental picture of an obtuse concept that facilitates a quicker and clearer understanding that is superior to the presentation of mere abstract equations.  For example, it is impossible to explain the nature of time when describing the nature of time; the scientist and poet alike illustrate time through metaphor. Thus, we speak of time as “flowing like a river” or as “an arrow shooting toward infinity.”

When speaking about non-spatial reality or scientific abstractions such as Quantum physics, the scientist must utilize metaphor to convey the idea that he or she wishes to express. Linguists have long recognized that it is virtually impossible to talk about time without the use of metaphor. Without metaphor, the human mind would have an extraordinarily difficult time conceptualizing abstract images that are too difficult to describe in literal terms. More importantly, metaphoric language reveals underlying conceptual mappings and psychological structure of how ordinary people imagine knowledge’s ambiguous, abstract domains through their embodied experiences of the world. Myrmecologists study the lives of ants and use anthropomorphism in naming ants as queen, worker, soldier, parasite, and slave. They define ant communities in terms of classes and castes, thus making ant behavior seem incredibly human.

Ancient poets and storytellers of the Bible recognized a similar truth when attempting to describe the greatest abstraction the human mind has ever entertained—God. Thus, both Jewish and Christian theological traditions stress that the role of metaphor is not purely a decorative embellishment of human language but is an essential method by which people conceptualize the world around them and their own activities. When studying the metaphors of a classical work such as the Bible, grasping the spirit of the text requires that one approach the book and its unique metaphors in a culturally sensitive, ethical, and heart-centered way. Metaphor plays a significant role in developing our social, cultural, theological, and psychological reality. Perhaps more decisively, metaphor can reshape the imagination and the thought process. It allows us, the readers, to transcend the realm of the ordinary.

Therefore, uses of metaphorical and anthropomorphic language are not concessions to the popular imagination, as some philosophers might have us believe. Nor are they deployed purely for their psychological impact upon the reader or listening audience. The prophetic imagination never uses the noetic language of logic or prose, but instead employs the rhetoric of poetry and hyperbole. We could even say that prophetic speech would be very ineffective without it. Sensuous and symbolic, prophecy always appeals to the receiver’s imagination[3] and life experiences.[4] The prophet’s oratory skills gripped his listeners’ attention. When God’s Word inspired him, he felt instantly energized with a heightened awareness and ability to articulate dramatic speech. The Protestant theologian Walter Brueggemann adds an insight about the relationship between prophecy and poetry that dovetails with Saadia’s earlier remarks:

By prose, I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae so that even pastoral prayers and love letters sound like memos. By poetry, I do not mean rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson’s fastball that jumps at the right moment; that breaks old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace.[5]

Sometimes, the prophet’s personal life becomes the very image and the metaphor of God’s message to the people. For example, God commanded the prophet Hosea to marry a whore (Hosea 1:2-9). Similarly, the story of Jonah illustrates how the life of a stubborn prophet reflects the persistent nature of the people he represents. The Book of Jonah is replete with imagery and metaphors depicting the paradoxical nature of God’s own “stubborn” love and forgiveness. In a pedagogical sense, the prophet became a living embodiment of God’s Word, passionately revealing God’s “human-like” personality and character to the world.

The early Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) believed metaphors and allegories were not merely calculated forms of language or a product of human convention. The metaphor was first a product of the mind—and not language. Metaphor allows people to make associations that create cognition. Vico was one of the first pre-modern thinkers to speak about a poetic logic that creates perceptual models that make even inanimate things come alive. A metaphor is “fable-making,” he said, viewing each metaphor as a fable (or analogy) in brief.

Concerning metaphor, in particular, Vico also thought that metaphor can animate nature, “giving sense and passion to insensate things… that in all languages, the greater part of the expressions relating to inanimate things are formed by metaphor from the human body and its parts and from human senses and passions.” Thus, in metaphor and imagery, we coexist with the world surrounding us, which we view as a soulful extension of ourselves. The use of metaphor makes it possible for us to cultivate and expand the power of the human imagination that is essential for spiritual life.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (whose Nazi past we shall overlook for the present) made brilliant observations about human language’s nature and its relationship to metaphor and poetry.

It is language that tells us about the nature of a thing, provided that we respect language’s own nature. In the meantime, to be sure, there rages round the earth an unbridled yet clever talking, writing, and broadcasting of spoken words. Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man. Perhaps it is before all else man subverts this relation of dominance that drives his nature into alienation. That we retain a concern for care in speaking is all to the good, but it is of no help to us as long as a language still serves us even then only as a means of expression. Among all the appeals that we human beings, on our part, can help to be voiced, language is the highest and everywhere the first.[6] (Emphasis added.)

The poet perceives reality very differently from the thinker. The rationalist may be an excellent wordsmith and be capable of expressing a clear and lucid thought. However, the poet is governed by a different principle; his heart speaks volumes that can be scarcely expressed by words alone. Yet, when we read the poet’s words, the poet affects us far differently than

[1] According to Pascal, “If God exists, the religious believer can look forward to ‘an infinity of happy life’; if there is no God, then nothing has been sacrificed by becoming a believer (“What have you got to lose?” asks Pascal). In simple terms, Pascal stressed that it is better to live a life of faith that gives ultimate meaning than to choose living a life that has no ultimate meaning.

[2] Stuart Elliot Guthrie, Faces in the Clouds—A New Theory of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press; Oxford, 1993), ch. 6.

[3] Even Maimonides admits the process of revelation always contains anthropomorphic imagery, without which God’s message to the prophet could never be known (Maimonides, MT Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 1:9).

[4] An interesting parallel may also be drawn from Hinduism. Lord Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 12, Verse 5, that it is much more difficult to focus on God as the unmanifested than God with form, i.e., using anthropomorphic icons (murtis), due to human beings’ need to perceive via the senses.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 3.

[6] Martin Heidegger and Albert Hofstadter (trans.), Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper and Row Perennial Classics, 1971, rep. 2001), 144.

Is There Such a Thing as a “Jewish Soul”? (Revised)

As of late, I have taken an interest in reading British Jewish news. After browsing several articles, I came across a fascinating new story. Not every day a synagogue bans a classical Jewish book, but in one of Britain’s most prominent synagogues, that’s what happened.  Several students at an adult education class took offense to a mystical tract on self-improvement, better known as the “Tanya,” because of “racist” comments in its early chapters.  For newcomers, the Tanya is the Bible of the Lubavitcher movement. This book was composed toward the last half of the 18th century when Russian Jews struggled mightily against the czarist governments who showed little love or tolerance regarding the Jews. Despite the questionable passages we are about to read, it was one of the 18th century’s first self-help books, and most of its teachings are, for the most part fairly appealing.

Here are the controversial passages that created controversy this past October. In the Tanya,  the author attempts to explain why the souls of Jews are different from the gentiles:

  • “The explanation of this matter is according to what the Rabbi Chaim Vital OBM wrote …Every Jew, whether righteous or wicked, has two souls, as it says, ‘And the souls I have made’ — that is, two souls: one soul deriving from the side of the kelipa and the side that is antithetical to holiness… also naturally good character traits that are found in every Jew, such as mercifulness and charitable deeds, stem from it, for in a Jew, the soul of this kelipa derives from kelipat noga which also contains good…But it is not the case concerning Gentile souls, for they stem from other impure kelipot which contain no good…and the second soul of the Jew is surely part of G-d on high…” [1]

And shortly afterward, the author adds,

  • The kelipotare divided into two levels. The lower level consists of three impure and completely evil kelipot which contain no good whatsoever … From there the souls of the Gentiles are influenced and drawn, as are the bodies and the souls of all impure animals which are forbidden to eat…However, the vital animalistic soul in the Jews, which stems from the kelipa…and the souls of pure animals, beasts, birds, and fish which are permitted to eat…are influenced and drawn from the second level of the klipot…which is called kelipat noga…and the majority of it is evil, combined with a slight amount of good.[2]

Let me state I do not believe in “Jewish,” Muslim, Christian, or Hindu souls, etc.   Every human being’s religious beliefs come from one’s family of origin, upbringing, and faith community. Any person can choose the faith community they wish to belong. Every soul is a unique expression of the Divine breath God has infused in us since the beginning of time. God did not make Adam a Jew, Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist. To use a Hindu metaphor, our soul is a like a droplet of water that returns to the ocean when we die. We all share a unitary consciousness that transcends religion in the world beyond.

Now, let us to return to the substance of this article:

As I have pointed out in earlier posts, it is the nature of oppressed people to bolster their self-esteem and image by putting down the Other. While this is certainly not the kind of behavior any moral person should endorse, it helps to see this passage from the writer’s perspective. Often, tragic circumstances distort the way one spiritually looks at the world. Jews in Russia often experienced pogroms and anti-Semitic violence daily. Those of us living in a happy and well-adjusted society need to understand the mentality that the Other is someone one should fear.

The Tanya’s Myopia Is Not Unique

Now in fairness to the Tanya’s theological opinion, the author’s s perspective is by no means unique. Many other Kabbalists historically followed this line of reasoning for the reasons mentioned above. In the writings of Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin, he writes similarly:

  • Concerning what is explained in Yevamot, “You are called men,” but not the other nations.“ The Gentiles were deprived of the title ‘men’ only where Israel were called “men,” because in comparison to Israel, who are the primary form of man in the Divine Chariot, it is irrelevant to call any of the Gentiles “men”; at most, they are like animals in the form of men. Taken as themselves, however, all the children of Noah are considered men. And when the Messiah comes, they too will recognize and admit that there are none called ‘man’ except Israel…anyway, in comparison to Israel, even now they are in the category of animals…”[3]Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote: “The dissimilarity between the Jewish soul, in all its independence, inner desires, longings, character and standing vis-à-vis the soul of all the Gentiles–on all of their levels–is greater and deeper than the difference between the soul of a man and the soul of an animal, for the difference in the latter case is one of quantity, while the difference in the first case is one of essential quality.”[4]

Or take for example, the writings of the famous Maharal of Prague (ca. 16th century):

  • Even though it says ‘Beloved is man,’ this does not include all human beings, for the Sages explain ‘You are called men and the nations are not called men’— The completeness of the Creation, which is given to man in particular, is given to the Jews and not to the other nations… . . . The principal form of man does not appear in the nations. In any case, this image does exist amongst the rest of the nations, but it is worthless, and therefore he did not say ‘beloved are Israel who were created in G-d’s image.’ [5]
  • Wisdom of the Delphic Oracle: Know thyself!

So, how do we get past the problems and trauma of the past?  Always consider the source and the circumstances that influenced the writer’s spiritual shortsightedness regarding the outsider. Every faith in the history of religion has formulated similar attitudes toward people(s) who were not “members of the tribe.” It is not just a “Jewish” problem, as anti-Semites love to argue; it is a human problem transcending individual faiths. Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and even Buddhism have struggled with its treatment of the Other at one time or another. There will probably always be atavistic forces within a faith because human evolution is morally challenging.  Even Judaism has its shadow aspects that require purging. Oppressed people often get back at their tormentors through sarcasm and displays of contempt.

Even the Psalms contain such examples, as seen in Psalm 109:

109 For the leader: for David: a psalm

God to whom I offer praise, do not be silent,

for the wicked have heaped calumnies upon me.

They have lied to my face

and encompassed me on every side with words of hatred.

They have assailed me without cause;

in return for my love they denounced me,

though I have done nothing wrong.*

They have repaid me evil for good,

hatred in return for my love.

They say, ‘Put up some rogue to denounce him,

an accuser to confront him.’*

But when judgement is given that rogue will be exposed

and his wrongdoing accounted a sin.

May his days be few;

may his hoarded wealth* be seized by another!

May his children be fatherless,

his wife a widow!

10 May his children be vagrants and beggars,

driven from their ruined homes!

11 May the creditor distrain on all his goods

and strangers run off with his earnings!

12 May none remain loyal to him,

and none pity his fatherless children!

13 May his line be doomed to extinction,

may his name be wiped out within a generation!

14 May the sins of his forefathers be remembered*

and his own mother’s wickedness never be wiped out!

15 May they remain on record before the Lord,

but may he cut off all memory of them from the earth!

16 For that man never set himself

to be loyal to his friend,

but persecuted the downtrodden and the poor

and hounded the broken-hearted to their death.

17 He loved to curse: may the curse recoil on him!

He took no pleasure in blessing: may no blessing be his!

18 He clothed himself in cursing like a garment:

may it seep into his body like water

and into his bones like oil!

19 May it wrap him round like the clothes he puts on,

like the belt which he wears every day!

20 May the Lord so repay my accusers,

those who speak evil against me![1]

Healthy and happy people do not feel the need to lambast other people’s religions and values. Psychologist Carl G. Jung offers an important insight into our “shadow” nature that always requires conscious management. He writes:

  • It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side, consisting not just of little weaknesses- and foibles but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances, go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and a raging monster emerges. Each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster’s body, so that for better or worse, he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow side of human nature. Blindly he strives against the salutary dogma of original sin, which is yet so prodigiously true. Yes, he even hesitates to admit the conflict he painfully aware of.” [4]

Jung’s comments apply not just to the individual, but it could apply to society’s group psychology as well. To eradicate anti-Semitism, we must understand its psychological origins. Only then can a collective take the necessary steps to cleanse its soul. But this insight is not limited only to anti-Semitism, it also applies to any ideology that artificially distinguishes between groups of people based on an inflated view of the self.

The British synagogue would be wise to understand that persecuted peoples don’t always develop the most refined type of theology.

Fortunately, in nearly all denominations of Judaism (with the notable exceptions of the Haredi, Hassidic, and Lubavitch movements), the spirit of universalism continues to affirm the finest teachings of the prophets and the Sages. Unfortunately, it behooves us to recognize that the great medieval rabbis were men of their age–and European society at that time was anything but tolerant toward people who did not subscribe to their belief system.

If I could offer some practical advice to the British synagogue, I think it is essential to be truthful about the texts of our tradition. No rabbi has ever been infallible in his theology; and this is reality is probably never going to change. Despite the hype and fascination with Jewish mysticism, modern Jewish ethics demands that we view Kabbalistic texts with a critical eye.


Concerning inspiration, we must take the embers of the past–and not perpetuate its ashes.


[1] Tanya, chapter 1 (page 5b).

[2] Tanya, end of chapter 6.

[3] “Poked Akarim” page 19, column 3, he wrote: ”

[4] “Orot,” Orot Yisrael chapter 5, article 10 (p. 156).

[5] Derech Hayim on Avot, chapter 3, mishnah 17.

[6] “On the Psychology of the Unconscious” (1912). In Collected Writings,  Vol. 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, p. 35.


* though … wrong: prob. rdg; Heb. obscure.

* to confront him: Heb. to stand at his right hand.

* hoarded wealth: or charge, cp. Acts 1:20.

* remembered: so Syriac; Heb. adds before the Lord.

[1] The Revised English Bible (Ps 109:title–20). (1996). Cambridge University Press.