Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Rabbis and Sacraments

The Judaism that we know, and have known for the last 2000 years, is one particular form of that religion, the one that outlasted all the others. It is not the Judaism of the priesthood but the Judaism of the Rabbis. In the competition between the priests and the Pharisees, the Pharisees won.

Although its roots go back before the destruction of the Temple --and its mythology sends it back to Moses, of course-- the rabbis' transformation of the Mosaic religion of the preceding 1000 years was both massive and brilliant. It moved the Jews from being the people of the Temple and the Land to being the people of the Books. Plural. The Torah, the Prophets, the Writings...and the post-scriptural but crucial Talmud, the multivolumed record of rabbis arguing.

From the tracts of the Talmud

One of the slogans of the early rabbis --in the 200's or so AD-- was this: Build a fence around the Torah. This meant that a whole field of oral law was created, law not written in the Five Books of Moses. Its role was partly to prevent Jews from even getting close to transgressing any of the original written commandments.

For instance, the Torah forbids cooking a kid-goat in its mother's milk; the oral law, the fence, forbade eating any kind of meat with milk at all so the eventually two separate sets of dishes and utensils were created.. Also, since writing was considered work that broke the Sabbath, it was forbidden on that day even to touch a pen. And so it goes. As you move farther from the center, so to speak, the rules and behaviors can look strange and unconnected, but there is a logic to it all.

Although the Catholic Church has not consciously adopted this slogan, of course --one more adapted to a religion of holy law like Judaism (or Islam, with its Sharia) than a doctrinal/sacramental one-- I wonder if the same impulse has contributed to the creation of the Catholic sexual ethic (which, once upon a time, would not have been seen as unusual as it is now). On a conscious level, it is a combination of scriptural teaching, Old and New Testaments, and a commitment to the natural law. (I wouldn't be surprised if centuries of monastic introspection had some influence as well.)

Manual of Moral Theology

But the detailed attention given to varieties of sexual thoughts and acts makes more sense if it is seen as a kind of unconsciously Talmudic fence built around the sacrament of Matrimony, which reveals the natures of males and females and creates the family. Anything sexual that even remotely detracts from or threatens that will be ruled out of court, with a vehemence sometimes hard to understand*.

Hence we had the moral tradition of de sexto nulla materia parva: Concerning the sixth (commandment), no matter is small. Or "when it comes to sex, there's no such thing as a minor issue." Condemnation not only of things like solitary masturbation, but even thoughts about sex, makes more sense in this light. If the underlying anxiety is about the centrality and strength of marriage, then even if the particulars of the ethic seem individually obsessive, --as orthodox Jewish rules appear to be, about dishes and pens-- it might reveal what all the fuss is really about: building a fence around the sacrament.

PS. If you're not bored already. There used to be something called the Six Commandment of the Church. Everyone learned them in Catechism in my day. They required Catholics to attend Mass on Sundays and holydays, keep the days of fast and abstinence, confess yearly, receive Communion at least once during Eastertime, contribute financially to the Church, and keep the marriage laws. Breaking these was sinful, often mortally so. People found it odd that murder, adultery, missing Mass and eating meat on Friday were all grave offenses. Again, if you look at the Six as a whole, they describe a practicing Catholic. It was building a fence of concrete Catholic identity through clear practice and mostly ritual behavior to clarify who was in and who was out. Making it a matter of sin meant that it was serious. And being Catholic used to be serious.

*It is well known that Catholicism considers homosexual activity "intrinsically and gravely disordered" but not so well known that the Catechism (2352) uses exactly the same language to describe masturbation.


Anonymous said...

Fence around the Torah: Luther calls this sort of device a paper wall around the holy Scriptures.

Protestant clergy went on to build the finest walls of impenetrable paper around the holy Scriptures -- in the name of humbly helping pastors prepare sermons that preach the word of God by giving them an overwhelming pleroma of impenetrable exegetical etc materials.

Until the Teaching Church freed up RC academics to do biblical criticism in the mid 20th century, "the" Church really had zilch to compare with our walls of paper around the holy Scriptures, although perhaps the Talmud compares with source criticism, form criticism, genre criticism, etc etc. Ex Cathedra's examples indicate a different subtlety by the Church: drawing attention to the church which indeed rather endangers the church (even Barth's magnum opus endangers the church by the title, especially in the English version).

But at the same time, a little dangerousness about the church and her numinous power (cf Machiavelli) compensates for distracting us from the Bible. ... As Luther advises in his Address to the Christian Gentry of the German Nation, if possessing the Spirit for the inner path is sufficient, the holy Scriptures are unnecessary and may be burnt.

One must expend great effort vis-a-vis the power elite to induce them to care about truth. "What is truth?" etc etc is their usual phlegmatic retort. (Phlegm: the humor of Shem, Ivan K., Severus, Christendom's James. Obliging Shem to the theological or metaphysical virtue hope is hard work for yhwh.)

Anonymous said...

I think in "the Three Evils," Zarathustra hints that the metaphysical virtue "chastity" is imposed on Ham, whose ostensible melancholer humor or angry depression (cf Dimitry K's instructive genealogical anger at his father for Canaan Smerdyakov) is driven by Wollust (Dante's leopard's lust for mysteries or sacraments).

Ham's initiatory Wollust for Canaan seems to drive the new virtues for Japheth and Shem -- still upon and for Canaan. But then also Ham's black-yellow humor re power infuses power institutions with libidinous contents. ...

Strauss remarks that the intellectual or sophist (the Japhethic obedient 'philosophical labourer' Nietzsche BGE 211) reveres power. This obviously is a mistake we make. The Herrschucht (mania to rule) in this passage (3.10) is situated by Zarathustra outside cities and empires in a great contempt that says 'away with thee' to the thou that would form from within 'this world' the developing negative ego 'me' in the outside, the world.

Selfishness or Selbstsucht (self mania) is then the new virtue for Shem. In this section evidently we deal with wisdom, thus not with intellectuals or sophists but with the wise who tacitly agree that mere life is no good in selfing. This Selfishness dismisses low paranoid sorts of shame wisdom and pessimistic tragic sense of life grandeur (if the everything system is vanity, don't do the everything system!), and arranges for Japheth soul a Self enjoyment (Selbst-Lust), and Ham in Canaan body a subtle persuasive obdy for dancing across the genealogical abyss rope (Shem-weaved threads of genealogy, sc the serpent, most subtle beast of the field?).

I guess.

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