Sunday, October 04, 2009

Philosophical Vindication of Judaism in IV Maccabees (Repost)

This is a repost, slightly revised, of a 2008 post.

To someone raised with a notion of philosophy that is Greek, along the lines of Plato and Aristotle, there is something a bit odd about traditional Judaism, with its insistence on a large number of little restrictions on things like diet. One might be tempted to argue that there is nothing philosophical or rational about only eating animals that are cloven-footed and cud-chewing, particularly given that there is no overarching reason given for it. One might think: It's just there in the book, so Jews do it; utterly irrational. What value could such a life hold for those who value reason?

Perhaps one of the more interesting Jewish responses to this general type of argument is found in the book usually known as IV Maccabees. We know nothing certain about its author or its date; the author was probably an Alexandrian Jew, probably drawing from II Maccabees, which he develops in a way that was common in the ancient world, namely, by composing speeches, put in the mouths of participants, to make a point. The discourse may also have originated in a Hanukkah homily. But this is all speculation. What we do know, from the work itself, is that the author fell squarely within both the Greek and the Jewish traditions and explicitly poses for himself and his readers the question just mentioned. We find the explicit statement of this in the context of the martyrdom of Eleazar. Eleazar has been brought before Antiochus IV, who is trying to erase Judaism from his domain, and is therefore giving Jews the choice of either breaking the law, by eating forbidden food, or being tortured and put to death. Eleazar, an old man, is brought before Antiochus. Antiochus says to him (5:6-12),

I would counsel thee, old man, before thy tortures begin, to tasted the swine's flesh, and save your life; for I feel respect for your age and hoary head, which since you have had so long, you appear to me to be no philosopher in retaining the superstition of the Jews. For wherefore, since nature has conferred upon you the most excellent flesh of this animal, do you loathe it? It seems senseless not to enjoy what is pleasant, yet not disgraceful; and from notions of sinfulness, to reject the boons of nature.

And you will be acting, I think, still more senselessly, if you follow vain conceits about the truth. And you will, moreover, be despising me to your own punishment. Will you not awake from your trifling philosophy? and give up the folly of your notions; and, regaining understanding worthy of your age, search into the truth of an expedient course? and, reverencing my kindly admonition, have pity upon your own years?

Thus an opposition is set up between philosophy in the proper Greek sense, which involves true understanding, and the "trifling philosophy" and "folly" of the "superstition of the Jews." Eleazar responds by rejecting the line Antiochus is trying to draw between trifling and untrifling philosophy: Antiochus wants to focus on particulars, like not eating animals that walk on paws, and say, 'Isn't that an odd and frivolous detail?' But Eleazar points out that this is to miss the point; the particular is valued not in itself but because of what it is a part of, namely, divine law. The question before Eleazar is not, as Antiochus wishes to suggest, whether to choose to eat unclean food or to die; the question is whether to live a Jewish life, a life according to Jewish law, or to die. And it is in this context, the context of a whole Jewish life, that the particular detail turns out not to be so trifling at all. The point has no significance in itself, perhaps; but if this is the point at which Antiochus has chosen to test commitment to God and His law, then it is not so minor.

Thus we cannot pick out particular details and label them 'rational' or 'irrational' without regard for context; rationality and irrationality are really forms of evaluation that apply to ways of living. It is only in this context that particular practices can be considered rational and irrational; one might roughly put the point by saying that they are rational or irrational depending on the sort of person they make you. And on this basis Eleazar argues that life according to Jewish law is a rational life according to the standards of the Greeks themselves (5:22-26):

But thou deridest our philosophy, as though we lived irrationally in it. Yet it instructs us in temperance, so that we are superior to all pleasures and lusts; and it exercises us in fortitude, so that we cheerfully undergo every grievance. And it instructs us in justice, so that in all our dealings we render what is due; and it teaches us piety, so that we worship the one only God becomingly. Wherefore it is that we eat not the unclean; for believing that the law was established by God, we are convinced that the Creator of the world, in giving his laws, sympathises with our nature. Those things which are convenient to our souls, he has directed us to eat; but those which are repugnant to them, he has interdicted.

Thus Jewish life is, because of the Torah, a training in what the Greeks would have recognized as the four cardinal virtues. (The author's adaptation of the occasional Greek practice of putting piety, eusebia, in the place of practical wisdom or prudence makes excellent sense when one considers the ancient Jewish trope that reverence for God is the beginning of wisdom.) Antiochus wishes to say that Jews are irrational for following kosher laws; but Eleazar argues instead that following kosher laws is an instruction in temperance, fortitude, justice, and piety. On the basis of it, Jews train their reason to control their passions, to hold steady in misfortune, to consider others, and to worship God in an appropriate way. (A similar apologetic for the law, in a different context, is found in Wisdom 8.) Such a life is eminently rational, however much Jews may need simply to trust that God knows what He is doing in giving this or that particular commandment.

Of course, merely saying that Judaism is a life of instruction in virtue is easy. What we really need to know is whether Jewish life is really a life of right reason in the way Eleazar suggests. And the author of IV Maccabees argues that this is clearly shown in the deaths of the Maccabean martyrs, which provide a "narrative demonstration of temperate reason" (3:19). By his death Eleazar "made credible the words of philosophy" (7:9); so much so that his death is in some sense a victory over death (7:1-3). The reason for this is put in the mouth of the sixth of the seven brothers:

And he, while tormented, said, O period good and holy, in which, for the sake of religion, we brethren have been called to the contest of pain, and have not been conquered. For religious understanding, O tyrant, is unconquered. Armed with upright virtue, I also shall depart with my brethren. I, too, bearing with me a great avenger, O deviser of tortures, and enemy of the truly pious. We six youths have destroyed thy tyranny. For is not your inability to overrule our reasoning, and to compel us to eat the unclean, thy destruction? Your fire is cold to us, your catapelts are painless, and your violence harmless. For the guards not of a tyrant but of a divine law are our defenders: through this we keep our reasoning unconquered.

In other words, Jewish life is a life of right reason, one that is shown by the fact that it trains people to a life of temperance, justice, courage, and piety, preparing them for wisdom; and on the basis of this they are able to display the excellence of law in both life and death. Fortified by God-given law, the reason of the martyrs is unconquered by tyrant, torture, and death; it emerges victorious in the contest of pain, and shows that it, and not the trifling philosophy of the tyrant, is a true path of wisdom. Their courage, moderation, and piety in the face of the death is a simultaneous victory for Judaism and philosophy; by the way in which they refuse to forsake the Jewish of life, they have the ultimate philosophical crown: they live and die with unconquered right reason.

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