Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Keep Hope Alive, Date of Mekhilta, Sifre Contra Romans 9-11, Bad Cola

1. Henry Sloninsky, “The Philosophy Implicit in Midrash,” HUCA 27 (1956) 235-91.

According to Sabbath 31a (from the Babylonian Talmud, I assume), every Jew at the Day of Judgment will be asked if he continued to hope for salvation. One thing I admire about the Jewish religion is that it’s helped Jews to keep hope alive amidst centuries of oppression and suffering. Jews have told me that Christians they know have expressed to them this same sort of admiration. Yet, in the early days of modern Israel, there were Jews who disdained Judaism’s religious “coping” and messianic hopes as passive weakness.

Jesse Jackson often told the African-American community to “keep hope alive.” This isn’t something that I really understand, for I’m white. Not all African-Americans are poor, but there are African-American communities plagued by hopelessness, on account of poverty, racism, drugs, crime, bad schools, family instability, and a host of other problems.

Like Sabbath 31a, Jesus asked if the Son of Man would find faith on the earth when the Son of Man came (Luke 18:8). It’s hard to keep hope alive. I’ve struggled with hopelessness for quite some time. I feel as if I’m going nowhere. And the whole “God has a plan for your life” mantra rings hollow to me these days. Things may work out for others, but is God present in the lives of people with Asperger’s?

How does one find hope in the midst of apparent hopelessness? Many Jews and African-Americans had to endure centuries of hopelessness. Some still do, but certain things have given them hope. For many Jews (albeit not the anti-Zionist ones), it was the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. For many blacks, it was the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. What can encourage people with Asperger’s to “keep hope alive”?

2. Ben Zion Wacholder, “The Date of the Mekilta De-Rabbi Ishmael,” HUCA 39 (1968) 117-44.

Wacholder dates the Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael to the eighth century, whereas others have argued that it’s one of the earliest works of midrash, dating to the second century C.E. Wacholder sees later halakhot in it, believes that its references to imperial iconoclasm and Arabs (sons of Ishmael) fit the eighth century better than the second, and holds that it gets details about the early rabbis wrong. He points out that the eighth century was a time when people produced pseudepigraphic works, so it wouldn’t be shocking if someone created a work at that time and attributed it to Rabbi Ishmael, a Tannaitic rabbi from centuries before. Wacholder also notes that people did not really revere the Mekhilta, which is surprising, if the work represented an early piece of midrash. He also appeals to the later Hebrew style of the Mekhilta.

When I check Strack and Stemberger, I read the comments of Lauterbach, who considered the Mekhilta “one of the older tannaitic works.” Factors for his date include “its early halakhah (which often contradicts the later one), many old legends not preserved elsewhere, and a still unsophisticated interpretation of Scripture, which largely agrees with the ancient versions.” Moreover, Lauterbach offers a reason that the Talmud doesn’t explicitly cite it: it was in the collection Sifre, so it wasn’t known as “Mekhilta.” Still, Wacholder might say that it wasn’t cited much in medieval times, when there were clear manuscripts of it.

People have noted that the Mekhilta could’ve been an early piece that underwent revision over the years. Perhaps that’s why it reflects early and late times, if it indeed does.

3. Eugene Mihaly, “A Rabbinic Defense of the Election of Israel: An Analysis of Sifre Deuteronomy 32:9,” HUCA 35 (1964) 103-143.

Sifre Deuteronomy dates to the third century C.E. Mihaly asserts that Sifre Deuteronomy 32:9 is a response to Romans 9-11. Romans 9-11 says that membership in the people of God depends upon God’s election, not race. For certain Christians, that would explain why God is faithful to his promises to Abraham, even though he’s rejected Israel in favor of the Gentile Christians (though Romans 11 affirms that God still has a plan for “Israel after the flesh”). Paul points out that God chose Isaac rather than Ishmael, and Jacob rather than Esau, even though all of them were children of Abraham. His argument is that physical descent from Abraham doesn’t make one part of God’s chosen people; rather, it’s God’s choice. And, for many Christians, God had chosen the church over physical Israel to be his people.

Sifre Deuteronomy 32:9 disagrees, however, for it wants to preserve Israel’s status as the people of God. It understands Deuteronomy 32:9 and Psalm 135:4 to mean that God made Israel his people when he chose Jacob. Meanwhile, it maintains that Ishmael and Esau disqualified themselves from God’s promise. So, in a sense, Sifre Deuteronomy 32:9 would agree with Paul that physical descent from Abraham doesn’t matter, for Israel became God’s people after God had selected Jacob (not Abraham), who was worthy and had good offspring (though many would say to that, “Yeah, right!”). Only the Israelites were descended from Jacob, so they were God’s people.

Maybe. Maybe not. I think that, when God talks to Abraham about his seed, he’s referring to Israel, who would bless the nations. That would mean that the seed went through Isaac and not Ishmael, and Jacob rather than Esau, and that Paul is correct when he states that God’s election trumped physical descent from Abraham. Still, God did end up choosing physical Israel, so can Paul legitimately use God’s election to argue that God can dispense with that nation, while maintaining fidelity to his promise to Abraham?

4. William L. Holladay, “Hebrew Verse Structure Revisited (II): Conjoint Cola, and Further Suggestions,” JBL 118/3 (1999) 401-416.

This is another article about Hebrew poety. And it’s about cola. Often, when a poem has cola that parallel each other, they have the same amount of units. But there are times when they do not. One reason Holladay offers is that someone later inserted words to clarify things to the reader.

Search This Blog