Friday, June 22, 2018

Athens and Jerusalem / Parshat Chukkat


My husband has somehow gotten me see movies I would never have imagined I would have the slightest interest in seeing. In the past few years I’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy, the Avengers, Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther. And this doesn’t even scratch the surface: there are dozens of them out and more being released every month. So I’ve been thinking about the worldview and values that undergird these movies and how deeply they contrast with biblical and rabbinic worldview and so much of Jewish values.

As recounted in this week’s parashah Chukkat, in the aftermath of Miriam’s death, the Israelites find themselves bereft not only of Miriam, but also of the well that followed them through the Wilderness for her sake. They are scared. They panic.

וְלֹא-הָיָה מַיִם, לָעֵדָה; וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ, עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן
The community was without water and they joined against Moses and Aaron.  

וַיָּרֶב הָעָם, עִם-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר, וְלוּ גָוַעְנוּ בִּגְוַע אַחֵינוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה
The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of Adonai!” 

וְלָמָה הֲבֵאתֶם אֶת-קְהַל יְהוָה, אֶל-הַמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה, לָמוּת שָׁם, אֲנַחְנוּ וּבְעִירֵנוּ
Why have you brought God’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?

וְלָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ, מִמִּצְרַיִם, לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּהלֹא מְקוֹם זֶרַע, וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן, וּמַיִם אַיִן, לִשְׁתּוֹת
Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”

Moses and Aaron retreat to the Tent of Meeting to ask God to solve things. God instructs them to assemble the people where, in the sight of all, God will produce water from a rock. Moses, however, furious and fed up, accuses the people of rebellion and strikes the rock twice with his rod. Water comes out—plenty of water—but God condemns Moses and Aaron to die in the wilderness and never enter Eretz Yisrael. This, Torah tells us, are the Waters of Meribah, the waters of bitterness.

Here is a story in which Moses stands up for God in the face of the people’s yet-again turning against God. He acts forcefully and decisively to secure for them water to prevent death and destruction. Yet…not only does God not appreciate Moses’ efforts, but God punishes him most severely. What’s going on here?

The late 2nd/early 3rd century Church Father Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertllianus, if you like full, formal names) was the first person to write about the two major streams of Western Thought and compare them. His shorthand, still in use today, was “Jerusalem and Athens,” employing the two cities as emblems of two entirely different cultures, worldviews, and value systems: the Greco-Roman world and the Hebrew world, which some call the Judeo-Christian world.

The 19th century poet-philosopher Heinrich Heine described the different between Athens and Jerusalem this way: For Athens, beauty is truth. For Jerusalem, truth is beauty. The 20th century German-American political philosopher and classicist Leo Strauss expressed it this way: Athens represents the life of free intellectual inquiry; Jerusalem represents the life of humble obedience to God’s law. The 20th century philosopher William Barrett expressed it this way: the Greeks idealized philosophical speculation as the height of human accomplishment; for the Hebrews moral and ethical conduct marked the summit of human achievement.

For Athens—the Greco-Roman world—power and conquest are of ultimate importance. The virtues of power, strength, and courage, toughness and righteous indignation were, accordingly, revered. God’s like Zeus and heroes like Achilles embodied these values. 

For Jerusalem—the Hebrew world—what has been termed the “cooperative virtues” are prized: compassion, humility, love, faithfulness, forgiveness. Of Abraham, God says:


כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט
For I have singled out Abraham, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to see the way of Adonai by doing what is just and right…

In the world of Athens, heroes emulated gods, gods who were conceived in the human image, combative, competitive, jealous, and violent. In the world of Jerusalem, the righteous emulate God, and the Rabbis are clear about what this means. In the Talmud (Sotah 14a) they ask: What is the meaning of the verse from Deuteronomy, “You shall walk after Adonai your God”? It means you shall emulate God’s character traits. Then the Rabbis supply us with four examples of God’s character: God clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts the bereaved, and buries the dead. This is what it means to be godlike, to act in a godly manner. This is Jewish strength, Jewish courage.

The dichotomy between Athens and Jerusalem is played out, day in and day out, in our lives. These two sets of values, two sets of virtues, are played out on Capitol Hill and on the Southern Border. Will we put on a show of strength? Or compassion? Will we project toughness and righteous indignation? Or will we exhibit the humility to consider the ideas of others? Is our goal conquest or cooperation? The conflict between Athens and Jerusalem has been playing out day in and day out for two millennia. We, the children of Abraham, who understand our mission to be the priests and teachers of humanity, seek not conquest, but redemption. The world needs our perspective, our values, our world view now more than ever. Shabbat shalom.

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