Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pro-Rome, Esotericism, Challenge

I have three items from my reading today of Louis Feldman's Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World:

1. A topic that Feldman discusses on pages 102-106 is the ambivalent attitude of Jews towards the Romans, at least in rabbinic literature. Rome was Esau, the brother of Jacob, and Esau deserved praise for his devotion to his family and sympathy because Jacob took his blessing from him (Avoth de-Rabbi Nathan Version B 47.130; Genesis Rabbah 65.16-27, 67.5-7, 80.14). The fourth century Rabbi Yudan says that the fatherless Romulus and Remus were nurtured by wolves as children, under the direction of God (Midrash Psalms 10.6; Esther Rabbah 3.5). And yet, notwithstanding these positive attitudes towards Rome, there were Jewish revolts against the Romans.

2. On pages 127-129, Feldman talks about a rabbinic prohibition on teaching Torah to a non-Jew (B.T. Chagigah 13a, Sanhedrin 59a). Feldman says this may relate to a view that Judaism was like an esoteric mystery religion (Philo, De Somnis 1.26.164, De Sacrificiis Abelis at Caini 16.62). The second century C.E. Roman poet Juvenal mocks the Jews for (in Feldman's words) "not showing the way or a fountain spring to any but fellow Jews" (Satire 12.103-104), and the first-second centuries C.E. Greek thinker Plutarch refers to Jews' secret rites, in Quaestiones Convivales 4.6.1.671C).

3. On page 175, Feldman states: "...to the intelligentsia it is precisely the unwillingness of Jews to engage in meaningful dialogue with other religious groups on a plane of equality---a sine qua non for the intellectual who welcomes debate---and to be able to adopt another point of view if it can be shown to be superior to their own attitude that proved that the Jews were illiberal, unscholarly obscurantists."

I can't say if the intelligentsia was being fair in its characterization, but I know that I myself often prefer to hold on to my own beliefs rather than to subject them to critique and analysis. This subject overlaps with the September 22 devotional in Our Daily Bread:

"Dr. Jack Mezirow, professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, believes that an essential element in adult learning is to challenge our own ingrained perceptions and examine our insights critically. Dr. Mezirow says that adults learn best when faced with what he calls a 'disorienting dilemma'---something that 'helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you've acquired' (Barbara Strauch, The New York Times). This is the opposite of saying, 'My mind is made up---don't confuse me with the facts.'" The devotional then talks about how Jesus challenged the assumptions of his day, by healing on the Sabbath, for example. This is relevant also to the Bible study I'm attending at my church, for Tim Keller argues in the book that we're reading that Jesus' parable about the prodigal son challenged what was expected in that time. For instance, the father in Jesus' parable humiliates himself to love his son, whereas the culture in those days expected fathers to uphold their own dignity.

I have found that I have learned when I have been challenged. Sometimes, I have felt bruised by the challenge, but I have still learned. That doesn't stop me from avoiding some challenges, though.

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