Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sabbatai the Antinomian, Two or More, Eternal Torah, Structured Anger

I finished W.D. Davies' Jewish and Pauline Studies, and I have four items:

1. Davies has an interest in Sabbatai Zevi, a seventeenth century Sephardic Jew who claimed to be the Messiah. I will not touch on every issue that Davies addressed on Sabbatai Zevi (though I will say that his article on Sabbatai Zevi is worth the read), but I'll look a little bit at Sabbatai Zevi's stance towards the Torah. On page 376, Davies states: "After 1655 Sabbatai Svi regarded himself as no longer under the authority of the Law that he had studied in his youth, nor under rabbinic authority; he was subject to a higher law." Davies says on page 275 that Sabbatai's "Messianic freedom...led to antinomian nihilism", and that such could have easily happened in early Christianity had Jesus and his example of love not been deemed to be an authoritative example to Christians. On page 377, however, Davies talks about Sabbatai's altruism with respect to the poor, yet Davies does not say which acts of altruism occurred before 1655 (the year that Sabbatai forsook the Torah), and which came after. But, in my opinion (and I have much to learn about Sabbatai Zevi), Sabbatai's rejection of the Torah may not have entailed abandoning a concern for the poor, but rather such acts as pronouncing the sacred name of God and eating non-kosher food (see here).

On page 385, Davies states that Sabbatai's right-hand man, Nathan of Gaza, believed that he himself had to observe the law and "remained a pious, observant Jew", notwithstanding Sabbatai's approach to the law. Davies also notes that there were two factions in Sabbatianism: the pious and the nihilistic antinomians, the latter of which sought to follow Sabbatai's example.

2. On page 308, Davies says: "In all legal activity God himself was deemed to be present. Compare Ps 82:1 and b. Sanh. 6b; the judge is God's partner (b. Sabb. 10a)." That reminds me of Jesus' statement in Matthew 18:20 that, where two or more are gathered in his name, he is in the midst of them. The topic of that section is the church's judgment and discipline of sinning Christians. In v 18, Jesus says that whatever the church binds or looses on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven, which probably implies that God supports the decisions of the church.

That has long disturbed me, perhaps because my religious background includes a church that excommunicated people unfairly, and I refuse to believe that God was behind the church doing that----that God somehow disliked those excommunicated members just because the church disapproved of them. In my opinion, human beings are flawed, whether they are Christians or not, and so God would be unfair to stand behind all of the decisions that church leaders officially make. And yet, I wonder: Perhaps people who believed that God was present in human judgment (whether that be within Israel or the church) took that into account. The Torah and the prophets, after all, acknowledge that there could be judges who took bribes and rendered unjust decisions. Was God behind those decisions? I doubt that even those who believed that God was present in legal activity would make that sort of claim. Maybe they believed that God was present when people sincerely tried to do what was just and right.

3. On page 309, Davies refers to Michael Stone's view that an emphasis on the "eternal immutability of the law" within Judaism probably emerged in response to division and political necessity. I do not know what specifically Michael Stone has in mind, but I have read that the Book of Jubilees presents Abraham keeping the law because it was responding to the Jewish Hellenizers who sought to encourage abandonment of the Torah by saying that Israel should return to the piety of Abraham, who was righteous before God gave to Israel the rituals of the Torah. Or maybe the rabbinic belief in the "eternal immutability of the law" was a response to Christians who held that the Torah was temporary----that it came to exist at Sinai and ended with Christ. Could this have been why rabbis maintained that the Torah existed even before creation?

4. On pages 361-362, Davies responds to Dale Allison's puzzlement that Paul could have written Galatians in such a fit of anger, and yet H.D. Betz presents Galatians as an epistle with structure. Davies says that "channeled, controlled, deliberate, cold anger is more effective than uncontrolled." One can pour out one's anger in a disorganized manner and appear like a lunatic, or one can express one's anger in an organized manner. For Davies, the latter has often packed more of a punch.

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