“the man who teaches justice at the city gate”

12 Nov

       I just finished reading The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill. In it he goes over the Hebrew Bible’s story of the Jewish people. However, before that he starts with Gilgamesh, the oldest known written story, and the Sumerian civilization (the oldest known civilization) out of which came Abraham and the Hebrew Bible. He spends a good deal of time talking about the ancient view of things, as portrayed in Gilgamesh, because how the Jewish view (as it came to be called) differs is very significant.
        In the time of Gilgamesh, the dominant (only?) worldview was that of the wheel. Everything went in cycles, everything was thus already written out. Earth was a flat plane in between the realm of the gods (above) and the realm of the dead (below). Everything that is on Earth is a poor reflection of everything in the divine realm, which means that all people are inherently cruel and selfish. And the only way to escape is to die. Because everything is circular, the best you can hope for is a temporary moment of contentment, granted by whichever local deity relates to what you’re doing at the time, before you’re sucked back into the inevitable cycle.
        The book follows Abraham and his family/followers as he listens to the bidding of his local deity and “goes forth.” The result of the long story including Abraham and Isaac, Moses, the Ten Commandments, tumbling wall of Jericho, Babylonian exile, etc. is the Jewish Torah, and more significantly, the underpinnings of our cultural outlook. The very concept of time, of an unalterable past and an unknown future, is from the Jews. The concept of individuality, of “me” being someone capable of free will, is from the Jews.

“Most of our best words, in fact – new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews.”

        Indeed, I am struck from reading this book that we haven’t evolved much since the Jews gave us all these words and their meanings.
        We’re all individuals, with our own free will, and we are each always in control – in the present moment. So what comes next? What is the next new idea which changes the very fabric of reality?

        “[People who don’t believe in God] might want to stop for a moment and consider how completely God – the Jewish God of justice and compassion – undergirds all our values and that it is just possible that human effort without this God is doomed to certain failure. Humanity’s most extravagant dreams are articulated by the Jewish prophets. In Isaiah’s vision, true faith is no longer confined to one nation, but “all the nations” stream to the House of YHWH “that he may teach us his ways” and that we may learn to “beat [our] swords into plowshares.” All who share this outrageous dream of universal brotherhood, peace, and justice, who dream the dreams and see the visions of the great prophets, must bring themselves to contemplate the possibility that without God there is no justice.
        But those who claim to believe in God must contemplate a prospect no less unsettling. Throughout our Western world, though shaped by this Jewish matrix, the cry of the poor so often goes unheard. The prophets harangued Israel and Judah unceasingly about the powerless and marginalized, the overlooked widows, orphans, and “sojourners in our midst,” who are still with us today as single mothers, hungry children, and helpless immigrants, wraiths invisible in our prosperous societies. Throughout the world, half of all children go to bed hungry each night and one in seven of God’s children is facing starvation. Before such statistics, believers should never forget dostoevsky’s assertion that the suffering of children is the greatest proof against the existence of God; and we must ever contemplate the awful Day of YHWH, the coming destruction of our wealth and security, the razing even on the bastions of our faith, the Temple leveled and YHWH gone.
        For without justice, there is no God.”

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