Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Mystery of Acts Themselves

D. G. Myers has an excellent post on sin and repentance in Judaism:

Since Pollack was the one to bring up theology, however, it might do some good to clarify his own. In a word, his theology is confessional. Or, to be less coy about it, his thinking is not Jewish at all, but Christian. It is the Christian who demands prior belief as a condition of performing religious acts. For the Jew, things are rather different. As Arthur A. Cohen explains, "All Jewish beliefs interpret and elaborate the mystery of acts themselves, determining finally that many, even those regarded as critical, derive their justification from no rationalization, no human logic, but merely because they are the will and ordinance of God."

For the Jew, in other words, the act is prior, and belief trails along afterwards, picking up wrappers and butts of meaning, which usually turn out to be worthless—every Jewish authority interprets the act differently—eventually concluding that it is done because Jews do it.

One of the things that I think is difficult for most people to understand is that this is the natural way of looking at the matter. Most religions have no theology in a proper sense; it is the acts that matter. This tends not to be quite true of monotheistic religions, which generally have some kind of theology distinguishing them from polytheistic neighbors, but the weight put on this tends to be a fairly minimal: it is just enough theology to make sense of the acts in general, and everything else is, so to speak, private interpretation. This is true of Sikhism, and true to a somewhat greater extent of Islam, and truer still of Judaism. Christianity is the deviation from the norm, and, within Christianity, magisterial Protestantism is generally the strongest deviation (a result of Protestant emphasis on primitive Christianity and the Protestant tendency to interpret that as consisting of what is largely distinctive of Christianity). It is this, of course, that characterizes the Christian and quasi-Christian themes that float around American (and much Western) culture; our familiarity with them leads us not to see how truly strange they are.

This sort of difference is inherent to the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. They are the only direct survivors of religion in the first-century Roman Empire, an era of extraordinarily diverse religious experimentation, and rather notably they both derive directly from big-tent versions of first-century Judaism. In the history of Judaism in our sense, the evolution and history has all been quite straightforward: it derives from fairly mainstream first-century Judaism, closely associated with the Temple but not so closely as to wither when the Temple was destroyed, and while details depend on particular rabbinical traditions, the overall shape of it is exactly what you would expect to grow out of this. If there is any surprise, it is that in the early first century one would probably have expected it to be more Hellenized than it turned out to be, because Hellenistic Judaism was still thriving. Christianity, on the other hand, begins with a highly improbable mix of Messianic, ascetic, and Hellenistic strands of first-century Judaism, and develops out of that in further freakishly improbable ways (largely due to its unique emphasis on proselytizing, which constantly puts it into new situations and leads it to face new cultures by assimilating what it can and actively opposing what it can't). The craziness of Christianity -- its intrinsic tendency to take an originally Jewish base and give it the most unlikely interpretations while nonetheless insisting upon them as essential -- is hidden only by its numbers.

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