Recovering from an Argument, Gems from Eilberg-Schwartz

I’m a little under the weather today.  One reason is my cough, for which I’ve been taking antibiotics.  Another reason is that I had a little difficulty sleeping last night, since my mind was racing. 

On Facebook, I had an argument with a conservative Christian over whether Obama’s a Christian.  She said he’s not because he supports abortion and gays, and I was telling her that the religious right picks-and-chooses which biblical laws to apply to American society.  I pointed out that it emphasizes the Bible’s opposition to homosexuality, but it has a “they made their bed, now let them sleep in it” attitude to those getting kicked out of their homes over failure to pay their unrealistic mortgage debts.  This, even though the Torah is on the side of the indebted, for it commands the cancellation of debts every seven years, forbids a creditor to take away a debtor’s mill and garment, bans usury, etc.  I asked her if she supported the cancellation of debts every seven years, and she said “no.”  I then told her she was disagreeing with the Bible, and she replied that those laws don’t apply under the New Covenant.  I asked her why she acts like America is under the same sort of covenant that God had with Old Testament Israel, if the Old Covenant is null-and-void, and she finally left the discussion and called me a Judaizer.  I was somewhat of a jerk, but I almost felt as if I had to be to make my point and to show her that I would not let her push me around (which some conservative Christians love to do to people).  So there were four things swimming around in my mind last night: guilt at being a jerk, not wanting to apologize, wondering if God wouldn’t like me if I chose not to apologize, and things I could have said.  You know how arguments go.  They can go on and on in your head, if you let them!

Yesterday, I got a lot of reading done in Howard Eilberg-Schwartz’s (ES) The Savage in Judaism.  Basically, I read for an hour, checked my Facebook debate, read for another hour, etc.  I finished the book just now, but I’ll write about today’s reading on Sunday.  Yesterday’s reading had a lot of gems in it, though.  Here are three.  I won’t go out of my way to document them, but you can read the book if you’re interested in more details.

1.  According to ES, animals and humans are parallel in the Hebrew Bible.  Not only are humans likened to animals, but laws that apply to animals in the Torah resemble those for the Israelites.  ES refers to the view that the Hebrew Bible is drawing a parallel between God’s design for nature and God’s design for society, indicating (if I’m not mistaken) an overlap between natural and social order.  For me, this makes some sense of the rabbinic belief that God used the Torah as a blueprint for his creation of the cosmos.

ES applied this to the dietary laws of Leviticus 11.  The clean animals are predominantly vegetarian: flocks and herds.  In the Hebrew Bible, Israel is likened to these sorts of animals.  Israel’s enemies, however, are often likened to the unclean animals of Leviticus 11, the predatory ones.  For ES, the dietary laws are making a point about God’s election of Israel and his love for her, in the midst of hostile Gentiles.  This view of the dietary laws appeared in Jewish interpretations.

ES also likens the donkey to the resident alien (the ger), since both have an ambiguous status in the Torah and are commanded to observe some laws but not others.  After reading this section, I didn’t feel so bad about my post, I Kings 1: Abiathar’s Raw Deal? Solomon the Female?, in which I make a big deal about Solomon’s donkey being a female and seek a moral lesson in that seemingly incidental detail.  Now that I read ES, I think I may have been on to something: the sex of Solomon’s donkey may be related to the realm of humans, in some manner.

2.  In many cultures, circumcision is performed at puberty and represents a boy becoming a man, with the ability to produce children.  Similarly, for Abraham, it had to do with God’s promise that Abraham would have numerous offspring.  According to ES, Israelites circumcised male babies eight days after their birth (rather than at puberty) because newborn Israelites are incorporated into God’s covenant with Abraham almost immediately after they enter the world, without any say-so on their part.  God made a promise to Abraham about his offspring, and his offspring is in that covenant, period.  For ES, circumcision occurs eight days from birth because the mother is unclean during the first seven days (Leviticus 12:4), which seems to impact the baby.  The mother and the baby are both clean on the eighth day, however, so they wouldn’t contaminate the person performing the circumcision at that time.       

3.  In Leviticus, why is a man unclean when he spills semen?  Why’s a woman unclean when she menstruates?  According to ES, the reason is that those things don’t produce life, so Leviticus stigmatizes them.  ES seems to portray Leviticus as having a Roman Catholic view of sex: it’s primarily for procreation!

But why aren’t urine and feces ritually contaminating?  For ES, the reason is that those are controllable, whereas the emission of semen and menstruation are not (or, for bedwetters and those who have to go when they’re drunk, urination is more controllable than the emission of semen and menstruation, not controllable).  The Israelites tend to approach the uncontrollable with some degree of angst or awe.  ES deals with masturbation, which is the controllable emission of semen, but I don’t remember how he does so.  He points out that the Torah doesn’t criticize it that often, even though it’s using the sperm apart from a procreative purpose, which was a no-no.

I think some of my readers will like this book because it makes all sorts of interesting connections.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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