Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lost and Found: Ramblings on Pagan Jews

In 1995, I wrote a Master’s Thesis to get out of the PhD program in Philosophy at Boston University.  I was not kicked out mind you (which is sometimes the booby prize given to students who can’t cut the muster in a PhD program).  I just decided I did not want to cut the muster. For a constellation of reasons, mostly dissatisfaction with the program (a common Grad student trope), I wrote “Greeker than the Greeks: a study of Philo’s philosophical goals through the use of the term nature.”  At some 80 pages, it was the longest thing I had written to date.

In 1999, , I decided to write a book comparing Philo and Maimonides, two great Jewish philosophers.  But I had not written a book yet, and did not quite have the tools, motivation, or knowledge to pull this work together.

The result is a great “lost” manuscript I keep in a corner of my hard drive. Called the untenable title “The Pagan Jews”; below is some of the text.  Odd and ends of ideas that would find more fertile ground elsewhere, in different formats, with a wider, and I hope more mature view of these topics.


Maimonides and Philo:

     Maimonides and Philo have been written and commented on extensively but never together. Old coins from early Christian times often featured Josephus, the first century Jewish “historian” and Philo standing close together. A more accurate coin should feature Philo and Maimonides, since in the history of Jewish thought they stand like two imposing mountains in the same range. These peaks share many common features, but like all landmarks, they can be distinguished from a great distance. It is not completely inaccurate to say that Philo interpreted Judaism with Platonic concepts and Maimonides interpreted Judaism with Aristotelian concepts. We’ll leave this definition for now since it helps in giving this study a focus. In actuality their individual programs are far more complex than this and riddled with many paradoxes and peculiarities.
     Maimonides and Philo represent the two great attempts by Jewish thinkers to in some way conjoin Judaism with Greek or Gentile Philosophy. Like the history of Jews outside of their own land, their missions feature many of the pitfall that Jews have always encountered in trying to harmonize a religion revealed by God in the form of seemingly unchanging laws with another set of customs, laws, doctrines from the surrounding peoples. 
     Revealed religion presents the myth of the unchanging religion; a religion based on a set of divine principles that cannot be altered in any way. Revealed religion has shown an unflinching ability to resist change in the name of received tradition. Revealed religion is embodied in a text. The received tradition in the commonly accepted way of interpreting that book.  But oddly enough at other times and in other climates the same religion has often embraced change and called in tradition without a whimper or cry. Only on rare occasions have such communities of Jews been able to achieve that balance for an extended period of time.
     Well take an exotic example that is connected with this topic but removed enough to prove the point. For almost nine hundred years a group of Jews lived in Kaifeng, a city in central China.  Scholars believe they settled there in 900AD. For the first three hundred years of their existence they left no record of their community. In 1400 we begin to see stele erected commemorating the rebuilding of the communities synagogue, which, we are informed, was first constructed in 1100. 
      The stele is written in Chinese. The community members all bear Chinese names. Western missionaries discovered the Jews in the late 1700’s. By then they had a small temple joining the synagogue where they burned incense to Confucius and to the Patriarchs. We know that prominent member of the community wrote a book showing that the tenants of Confucianism and Judaism were identical. By 1800 the community was completely assimilated into their surroundings.
     In a small experimental fashion, we can see in the life span of this community of Jews in their encounters with the dominant culture. At first, the process of resistance to change is seen in the silence of the community for its first three hundred years. Then an acceptance of change, seen in the building of a synagogue, using many elements from the surrounding Chinese culture. And finally the eventual complete success of outside culture as practice of the religion completely ceases.   Maimonides and Philo are both Jews who attempted to maintain a harmony between love and obedience to their ancestral faith and the attraction to a vibrant external culture. In many ways they succeeded. But in startling ways they failed.    

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