Sunday, August 03, 2008


Weekly Parsha Blogging: Jeremiad Edition

Notes from which I gave the sermon yesterday:

(n.b. can only trace this to Gerald Heard, but I know ternary classification here predates him) Western, Indian and Chinese civilizations may be distinguished by which questions their philosophies primarily seek to answer. In the West, seeking the answer of "where am I?" leads to a focus on the external world -- to science, etc. In India, seeking the answer to "who am I?" leads to a focus on the mental world. In China, seeking the answer to "what am I?" leads to a humanistic focus. N.B. that Judaism also is concerned with answering the question "what am I?" (c.f. Pirkei Avos, Ch. 1, saying 14).

Similarly, we can ask these questions theologically: paganism sees natural wonders and asks "who created them?" and hence "who is God?" and comes up with myriad mythologies to answer this question. Christianity is concerned with "what is God?" and has been divided over such questions as whether "the Son is made from the same or like substance as the Father". In reaction to this, the Muslim world (and especially Jews within the Muslim world) outlined a negative theology (c.f. Dr. Seuss's "calculatus eliminatus" in The Cat in the Hat) that we cannot know the answer of "what is God?" but we can only begin to answer the question of "what God is not".

But we Jews generally ask "where is God?" (btw -- one may note a correspondence: asking "who am I?" is related to asking "who is God?"; asking "what am I?" is related to asking "where is God?"; and asking "where am I?" is related to asking "what is God?").

We typically ask "where is God?" during our times of trouble. E.g. as we think about the destruction of the Temple during this "three weeks" period, we ask "where was God?" Well ... as Ezekiel points out in the "Merkaba", God was gettin' the heck outa Dodge, so to speak.

While later on in his eponymous book, Jeremiah too notes that we ask the location of God during times of crisis, in this last week's parsha, Jeremiah notes that we should ask "where is the Lord?" (2:6 and 2:8) when we are doing well. We may think that God is on our side when we are prosperous, but do we really know? How can we have any sort of knowledge (c.f. the scientific endeavor) unless we seek to test our knowledge and ask questions?

Jeremiah points out that the very (often self-proclaimed) guardians of morality too often do not ask "where is God" and too often do not walk in God's paths (halacha). Instead, they worship some idea of God as Master (Baal ... c.f. Hosea 2:16) and, because they are too self-assured in their view of God as Baal, they miss where God really is -- not some master, but within each of us (even during this time of year, when the Haftarah and Torah portions are not ostensibly directly connected, they still relate ... the Torah portion last week obliquely introduces the idea of the "Shekhina", the indwelling presence of God ... the Torah portion also speaks of keeping the land free from "tamei", which has an environmental connection -- and note that the Babylonian exile happened, according to tradition, not because of breaches in what the Guardians of Morality would consider to be the sum total of morality -- sexual mores, but because the Sabbatical year was not kept, so the land needed to rest ... i.e. the Guardians of Morality got it wrong -- because they failed to ask "where is the Lord" but instead thought the Lord was on their side when it was only "Baal" from whom they prophesized ... their prophecy was based on a mistaken idea of the Lord as a potentially cruel master and not as a loving Parent or Just King).

One thing to consider, though, is that this is all a polemic. And Rev. RMJ points out the danger of polemics. Even the tradition understands that Jeremiah and his school wrote the "Deuteronomaic history" (the only thing the source critics add is Deuteronomy itself) -- did Jeremiah write his didactic "history" to address concerns of the sort raised by Rev. RMJ? Is part of our "vital lie" that we were personally at Sinai so that we remember that the polemics of Barmidbar are directed to us (as if we were at Sinai we were there as well?). Of course, note also "where God is found" ... in the desert (c.f. the comments to the above linked post).

And we learn a lot reading the prophets as history -- as I keep mentioning here about the geo-political situation and the danger of Israel relying on the US, er Egypt. We need to be really careful that, if we want the US to be Israel's friend, we need to be a true friend, and know when to stand back and let Israel be independent as well as knowing when to intervene. And a true friend sometimes criticizes as well as supports. To use a phrase from this last week's Torah portion (and see the commentary in Eitz Chaim about this phrase) -- some apparent friends are really "thorns in the side".

I had some sort of repetitive yet cool sounding ending as well ... but that is beyond for what I have notes ...

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