Sunday, March 11, 2007


Ki Thissa Blogging

With the story of the census, the Golden Calf, and all the other big events mentioned in this parsha, often some of the details get overlooked. And, as we learn from the sandwiching of the Revelation at Sinai between Yitro's advice to Moses and the whole of Parshas Mishpatim, it is those details that frame and allow us to integrate awesome revelations and important moral principles into our lives.

One interesting Mitzvah given in Ki Thissa is the commandment not to worship Asheros. After the Decalogue's insistence on the primacy of worshiping Hashem, isn't that commandment redundant? What is the particular concern with Ashera worship and the worship of sacred poles? Indeed, from the archaeological record, it would seem that as a "consort" to Hashem, Ashera worship need not be anything different than the highly Cabalistic theological concept of the Shekhina: so what makes an understanding that service to the Divine brings one under the cover of the Shekhina immanently kosher while Ashera worship is so traif?

To answer this question, allow me to posit a hypothesis: there is a connection (maybe via the Hittites who so influenced the culture of the Levant) between the concept of the Ashera and the Indo-European concept of Ashuras. Perhaps the sacred pole and Ashera worship common in the Levant was not so much the equivalent of the immoral rites associated with the worship of Aphrodite (as most commentators have assumed) but rather the equivalent of the sacred pole worship of, e.g., the Saxons. The worry with Ashera worship was not sexual immorality but rather a worry about the ill effects of fatalism.

Common to much Indo-European mythology is a war between two sets of divine beings: one set are the "divinities", the other set are the "ashuras/titans". The former set supplants the latter set in an allegory for the establishment of civilization: mankind is no longer a slave to nature and fate but has become a co-partner with the divine in creation. Perhaps the clearest telling of this is in Der Ring des Niebelungen, where Wagner and his sources conflate the old Germanic myths relating to this conflict with legends about the intrigues of the Burgundonian court. In this retelling, Woton, one of the divinities, cuts a branch from that which the sacred pole represents -- the World Ash tree on whose branches the Norns weave everyone's fate. Woton uses this branch as a cane to guide him in walking, but in the process the world withers, as everyone's fate is no longer determinant. The slide to chaos is only stopped when the dwelling places of even the divinities is burnt down, leaving man fully in charge of his world, without being able to shift any responsibilities onto pseudo-divine beings.

Judaism, which embraces what, from a pagan perspective, are the atheistic lessons (remember to the pagans of old and even from a certain Christian point of view, we Jews are atheists) of such myths, takes them one step further. It is not a god who severs the branches holding our fate fixed but rather we ourselves who must cut down all representations of such a fatalistic view. And we cannot even use the resulting sticks to guide us. In the Jewish view, we are entirely on our own. God, in his love, has given us a Way (Halacha) to live, but it is we who must live it; we who must, in the words of the Deuteronomist (in a decree which, ironically considering who most often quotes it nowadays for what purpose, mandates certain abortions as Mitzvos) "choose life".

When Adam and Eve at the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (is this concept related to that of a sacred tree?), when Moses shatters and burns the Golden Calf, when, in the Maftir last Shabbos we read of the use of the ashes of the red heifer for purification, and when Abraham is stopped from the sacrifice of Isaac, these defining moments of Judaism place our religion on a path in similar to that described in Der Ring des Niebelungen: we can no longer depend on cosmic fate or pseudo-divinities to hold our world together, but we must actively reject any idea that our salvation lies outside of the path (Halacha) which God, in divine grace and love, has given to us.

That our "Semitic" mythos should echo Indo-European mythos should not surprise us -- and I am not being a Jungian/Campbellian here -- as we are told that Japheth will dwell in the tents of Shem. But there is a key difference: it is not, in Judaism, the divinities who destroy the ashuras for us nor do we depend on some hero to destroy those demons (i.e., considering the etymology of the word demon, divinities, which makes the translation of ashura as demon ironic, nu?), but rather it is part and parcel of the law for we ourselves to be intolerant of Ashuras and pseudo-sacred monuments (10 commandments monuments perhaps? yet more irony?). As Erich Fromm (whose name, like Truman and Churchill, will not be believed by those in the far future to be a real name given its meaning in the context of his very writings) put it in the title of one of his books "You Shall be as Gods".

Worshiping of Asheroth is not equivalent to seeking the shelter of the Shekhina, but rather, c.f. Buddhist thought, the specific commandments regarding Asheroth and sacred poles reflect the same lessons reflected in Indo-European mythos regarding a war between sets of gods. But in Judaism, where we shall be as the gods, this lesson is taken to its logical conclusion: in evolving from being beasts to being human, we must cast off our demons ourselves in order to truly fulfill our place in walking as partners with God.

P.S. of course, I would be remiss in not pointing out that there is an interpretation that is rather the opposite of the one I have given above which relates the evolution of Hebraic monotheism to the development of Ashura worship, leading to and following from the teachings of Zoroaster, among the Persians. In this framing Judaism takes the side that it is (as it is etymologically) the divinities who are the demons not the Ashuras. These two framings of Judaism and similar approaches to the Indo-European mythos are contradictory, yet somehow people who have embraced one framing of the Indo-European mythos have also embraced the contradictory framing. Could the ultimate rejection of both the divinities and the Ashuras by both Germanic Romanticism and Judaism be what transcends the contradiction of on which side God's on? God is really on neither side?

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