Monday, January 02, 2006

An Old-New-Age Judaism

R' Micha Berger has a very interesting post over on his Aspaqlaria blog, about differences between the Semitic (=Jewish, Eastern) and Yefetic (=Greek, Western) perspectives on the world.
Yefes is reductionist, believing the world can be understood as the sum of its smallest pieces. Sheim is holistic, looking at the interconnections between those pieces, and the pieces only gaining meaning from the relationships in which they partake.
He also discusses the ability of the Jewish holistic way of looking at the world to accept multiple contradictory premises, something impossible in Greek logic. I discussed this in one of my earliest posts, calling it the issue of P and Not-P.

What I find incredibly interesting about R' Berger's post is that he associates the Semitic/Jewish perspective with the perspectives of other cultures, such as the Hindu and Buddhist cultures of South and East Asia, in distinction to the Yefetic/Greek perspective of European/Western cultures. In fact, in a response to a comment of mine, he explicitly states:
I was intentionally implying that Judaism is an Eastern Religion. The Zohar does too, by saying that the meditative arts were the gift that Avraham gave the children of Keturah before sending them east to India and China.

I'd actually like to respond to something RM"B said parenthetically, since it didn't seem so relevant to put in his comment stream, although it probably was. Maybe I just didn't want to risk getting into one of those debates on reading Bereishit non-literally and reconciling it with secular sources of knowledge.
Anyway, what he said was:
    And besides, even though Canaanites were around Semites enough for their language to look Semitic, they are Hamites according to the the chumash.
Now, all the archeological evidence I've ever seen seems to indicate that the Kena‘anites were just as 'Semitic' as we were; our language, the language God picked to give the Torah in, is a dialect of the Cana‘anite branch of Northwest Semitic. It makes much more sense that our Aramaic- or Hurrian-speaking Ancestors picked up Canaanite when they arrived in The Land, rather than the other way around. That said, as a person who leans towards what Godol Hador calls 'moshological' readings of the Primal Narratives, I feel that the familial connection between Hham and Kena‘an is probably meant to represent the Egyptian cultural-political influence on the inhabitants of The Land during the Patriarchal period. And since the Torah writes Kena‘an out of the House of Sheim, it would seem to be writing them out of the 'Semitic Worldview' as well. I guess then the only question is, we know what Sheim and Yefet stand for — what's up with Hham? R' S. R. Hirsch identified Hham as representing the emotional component of human civilization, but that wouldn't really fit in this system. Anyway, back to the topic...

What struck me about the post was that it seems to be a good representative of "Indigenous Judaism" — the idea that Yahadut is not a [blasé] universally-leaning Western religion like a certain daughter religion with which it is all-too-frequently bundled והמשכיל ייקח לקח וייזהר בדבריו, but is instead an [exotic] ethnic religion whose primary concern is with the life of a certain People and their relationship to their Land and to the God who gave it to them. Therefore, Judaism should not be contemplated in relation to Christianity, but instead in relation to other indigenous ethnic religions of the world, from Native America to Africa and all over the world. Now, R' Berger is not endorsing Jewish Shamanism, but it comes from the same basic shift of perspective — as Jews, Judeans, Israelites, Hebrews, we (ironically enough) actually have more in common with cultures that frequently seem very idolatrous than with those more identifiably monotheistic faiths that appropriated our Scriptures and identity but missed the all-important connection to People and Land, and (depending on how exclusivist you want to be) God.

Now, there are many expressions of Indigenous Judaism; after all, it's not a movement or a philosophy, it's a lens. Secular Zionists celebrating the regalim as the harvest festivals that were once a central part of their identity; 'Hilltop Youth' sprouting across the West Bank (whatever we think of their politics); Kabbalists innovating T"u biShvat seders; "Jewish Pagans" instilling traditional rituals with 'holy passion'; Jews in the Woods shabbatons; and any number of other things.

Some of these ideas may be heretical, or come straight out of traditional sources. Rituals and practices may be mutar or asur according to Halakha. But it all stems from the same realization — the Old-New appreciation of Judaism as our ancestors felt it, following the cycle of life and nature, tracking the pace of the year and worshipping God in The Land, with the produce of The Land as God commanded, davar yom beyomo everything at its proper time.

Building on that, let us now contemplate Hhanuka. I always felt that the Festival of Light and Guerrilla Warfare was a fairly simple holiday, tied to a specific historical event and to the hidden and obvious miracles that accompanied that event. Then I discovered the aggada told in the Talmud Bavli, masekhet ‘Avoda Zara 8a:
Our Rabbis taught: When the first Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion. This then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world's course’, and he set forth to keep an eight days’ festivity. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry.
(translation from here)
While the context is unmistakably giving an etiology for idolatrous Roman holidays, from the first time I encountered this aggada I couldn't help but associate it with Hhanuka. Eight day festival of light, during the darkest part of the winter. Adam Harishon celebrating the re-lengthening of the days after the solstice. Remember that for next year, when we once again count up in candles, following the opinion of Beit Hillel...


Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

but is instead an [exotic] ethnic religion

Well, today is shemini sefeiq shevi`i, so:

Kejl mevasser mevasse vi-ejmer.

(Yeah, I know this should have been yesterday, but at least it's sefeiko ze-yaumo of Hejsane Rabbe.)

1/02/2006 10:06 AM  
Anonymous Mr. Taiyo said...

Amazing! Growing up, I was told numerous times by my non-Jewish/secular friends that Christmas and Hannukah were nothing more than pagan festivals celebrating the winter solstice that were co-opted and transmutated by Christians and Jews. I didn't mind them saying that about Christmas, but I never had a good answer for them regarding Hanukkah. Thank you so much for bringing this piece of aggadata to my attention!

1/02/2006 11:04 AM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Printed out the Semitic versus Yefetic post before the weekend - along with a few other Aspaqlarial posts. Still whacking my way through 'em.

Years ago I speculated that certain cultures lead to either schizophrenia or acceptance of contradictory povs. At that time I was thinking specifically of the Netherlands, where a communist might also be a 'frumme' Catholic church-goer, or a hard-core Calvinist might also practise zen-Buddhism and yoga.

Elu v'elu. Perhpas being able to accept contradictory points of view is a coping mechanism, a way of dealing with competing realities.

Parshas Bereishis is 100% percent true - but that isn't how it happened. Yerushalayim is the centre of the universe - even though it's located on the edge of a rather minor galaxy.
There is absolutely no evidence that there is a deity - and that by itself may be evidence that there is a deity.

1/02/2006 8:09 PM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

Parshas Bereishis is 100% percent true - but that isn't how it happened. Yerushalayim is the centre of the universe - even though it's located on the edge of a rather minor galaxy.
There is absolutely no evidence that there is a deity - and that by itself may be evidence that there is a deity.

A man after mine own heart!

1/02/2006 11:32 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Perhaps either Mar or BOTH might want to elucidate their comments. Is this another aspect of the whole "symbol system" of which Mar spoke in his post on theology?

1/03/2006 1:18 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...

Children, free yourself from the illusion that two contradictory statements are both true!

Either at least one is wrong, or they're not actually contradicting each other. (Which is why B.O.T.H.'s examples are perfectly fine.)

Tertium non datur.
¬(p ∧ ¬p)

It's all nice 'n everything to construct paradoxes, but we're talking about levels of metaphor, metonymics, different circumstances or PsOV, prat/remez/drush/sôd etc. - don't confuse this with actual non-classical logical systems (multi-value, fuzzy etc.). Those are fun, but not a disproof of logic, which would be a vain attempt, as you can't disprove axiomatic systems.

Disclaimer: Yes, quantum physics seems to indicate the intuitively felt truth of the otherwise axiomatic system of bivalent logic is not there, but this is a case of eilu vo-eilu. OK, just joking - the real point is, "normal" arguing people aren't talking about quantum physics.

1/03/2006 6:29 AM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

Quantum Physics as Religious Model?

1/03/2006 11:34 AM  
Blogger micha said...


I would argue that in the real world, very rarely do we encounter pure predicates with no fuzzy edges. Thus, there often are middle states. The second we call someone "tall", or his car "slow"... But then, you could just read my original post...

1/03/2006 12:41 PM  
Anonymous brother judah said...

Just to comment on the question of avodazara... there are two kinds of avoda zara: one translated into english as "foreign religion" and the other translated as "idolatry". For much of Jewish history they were the same thing, but today most agree that while belief systems like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Wicca are prohibitted for a jew as 'foreign religions', they are not necesarily 'idolatrous'.
The most meaningful and applicable definitions of "idolatry" are those which don't concentrate on the number of "gods" but on whether something finite or amoral is being substituted for That which is infinite and Morality's Source.
(and i wish i could remember the meshech chochma or netziv on this topic. the ADDeRabbi might remember)

1/03/2006 2:33 PM  
Blogger Lipman said...

I would argue that in the real world, very rarely do we encounter pure predicates with no fuzzy edges.

This is exactly the basic miunderstanding I meant: Fuzzy edges, fuzzy definitions, predicates with relative, not absolute references - sure. But not fuzzy logic.

And you're right - I should read your article, and will do so b"n. :-)

1/04/2006 4:43 AM  
Blogger Zeh Sefer Toldot Adam said...

I may have misunderstood the post, but i ask the following question -
why can't judaism then have been more a idol-worshipping cultic land religion, but today is more a monotheistic morality religion.
who said it has to be the same thing. in fact, isn;t it more likely that judaism is pretty much whatever is going on around it at any given time with it's own flavour?

so today, judaism, like islam or x-ianity, has many flavours, from fundamentalist nationalist, to liberal intellectual. isn't that what the post is saying - that we change with the times?

1/06/2006 11:35 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


I'm not really talking about changing with the times, or whether polytheistic/syncretistic popular Israelite religion during the time of the Tanakh counts as Judaism or not.

My point was that Judaism has all these 'earthy' land-centered qualities that we today associate with Pagan and Neo-pagan (semi?-)polytheistic religions, and don't realize are part of our tradition too. We've been in Galut for so long, surrounded by the Universalist non-Land-related religions that broke off of us, that we've seen our relationship to them as the only lens of seeing what we're about. However, when we look back and remember that we are a People rooted in a Land, and that God gave us agricultural holidays that celebrate our connection to our Land, a comparison with other local Ethnic religions begins to make more sense...

1/08/2006 2:16 PM  
Blogger elf said...

I posted this comment on my blog, but I thought I should re-post it here, since this is where it really belongs:

I suspect that the contrast between the "Shem" and "Yefet" perspectives is not as stark as you, or at least R. Berger, are/is making it out to be. It would certainly be a mistake to equate all things "Western" with Greek philosophy. As for Christianity, many Christians have no trouble accepting the notion that Christmas was once a solstice festival. Eilu v'eilu, as we would say.

1/18/2006 10:32 AM  
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