Sunday, September 25, 2011

Random Thoughts on Judaism, Paganism and Genocide

Very often I catch myself using the comments section of other people’s blogs as a launching pad for my own ideas, an excuse for ranting about whatever I happen to be thinking about at the time. I did it again this morning. This time the unwitting soapbox provider was Rabbi Rami Shapiro, and the springboard was a recent post of his called Interfaith and Abrahamic Faith.  It’s a very good post and I agree with everything he said. That’s precisely what inspired me to write a spin-off on it in the comments section.

After I spent about two hours writing and editing the comment, it suddenly occurred to me that I have my own blog where I can rant to my heart’s content, so there is really no need to hijack someone else’s blog.  So I decided to repost my comment here, adding a few lines to explain the context. If my focus on Judaism appears to single it out as being somehow more intolerant than the other Abrahamic faiths, that would be a total misreading of what I actually believe. Historically, Judaism has had far less opportunity to exercise its triumphalist and repressive tendencies than the other two Abrahamic faiths. It’s just that Rabbi Rami lists them in chronological order, the order in which each one first appeared on the stage of history: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.  And then each one comes in for its share of criticism.  I simply didn’t get any further than Judaism.

As usual I started with a short quote from the post I was responding to, and then went on from there.

Re The Hebrew Bible makes it clear that there is only one true faith, and the Jews have it. If biblical Jews had any interest in other religions it was to destroy them...

Yeah, sure they did. This is yet more evidence that just like history, Scripture is written by the winners. Or at least it's heavily edited, rewritten and censored by the winners. I'm currently reading The Hebrew Goddess by Raphael Patai, which paints a VERY different picture of "biblical Judaism" than what the official monotheistic party line tries to tell us has "always" been the case.

Anyone who didn't have an inkling of it already would be shocked at how "pagan" the religion of our forefathers and foremothers (very important!) actually was. I don't mean only the folk religion of the villages, but also the royal cult as practiced in Solomon's temple, and later in Herod's temple right up until its destruction in 70 C.E. The archaeological evidence, which can't be edited or censored, bears this out.

One part of the standard disclaimer concedes this point, but condemns the behavior at the same time: "Oh yes, our ancestors did all that pagan stuff, made all those graven images of naked goddesses and stuff like that. The prophets tell us all about how they were constantly backsliding. But they were bad, bad, BAAAADDDD and God punished them for it."

Am I really supposed to accept that kind of simplistic orthodoxy at face value? Pretend I don't know that it was that very same Semitic paganism, which after going through many transformations, eventually became the heart and soul of esoteric Judaism?

But even with all that in mind, I think it's very unfortunate that the commandment is still on the books to wipe out all the seven nations of Canaan down to the last man, woman and child, and that many people still pay lip service to it. Is that in Deuteronomy? Sorry, but I don't know the Torah all that well.

I'm familiar with all the official apologies and disclaimers, such as the fact that by the time that passage was written it was already too late for any such "final solution" to be possible, assuming that anyone had actually wanted it. By the time that passage was written, the Israelites had already been intermarrying and interbreeding with the Canaanites for generations. So what it really amounts to is nothing more than wishful thinking on somebody's part about something that "should have" happened generations earlier. "If only we had killed them all, we wouldn't have to put up with all this freakin' idolatry now." Sound familiar?

I don't find that kind of explanation very satisfactory or reassuring at all. It still presents what is commonly understood as a divine sanction for genocide--with tragic and bloody consequences I don't have to spell out for anyone. I've had Christian fundamentalists throw it in my face that the Israelites disobeyed "God's" command to wipe out the Canaanites, and that was the beginning of all our troubles for the next 2000+ years. To which I can only answer, "God does not command genocide. Period."

I have no choice but to say that to anyone, Christian or Jew, who cites that as a precedent or rationale, even if they further distance themselves by saying the commandment was impossible to carry out and was therefore null and void.  Because anyone with a genocidal mindset is sure to identify their favorite scapegoat as the physical and/or spiritual descendants of the seven nations of Canaan, making it not only necessary but actually virtuous to exterminate them. That's guaranteed, and we can see many examples of that kind of thinking right now.

The image at the top of the page is an ivory relief depicting the complex and paradoxical West Semitic goddess Anath, also known as Astarte. It shows her in her fertility goddess aspect, as Lady of the Wild Things, but she is primarily a goddess of love and war, as indicated by the skulls under her feet. I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about Anath lately, and I’ll have more to say about her down the line.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Broken Glass

Broken Glass

I saw the shattered light on broken glass
Reflected in your eyes when we were young,
Though you were still unborn
The night the glass was broken.
I could not name it in those vanished days--
Some of it, yes—but not all of it,
Yet I vowed to keep the flame alive,
To bear witness to what I could not name.

Now, having learned better how to translate
The unspoken knowledge of the heart--
More of it, yes—though never all of it,
Today I renew that vow
Looking north through the plate glass window
of a bakery on Highland Avenue.
It isn’t quiet here, but the background noise
Consoles me with its mundane normalcy:
The loud hum of the air conditioner,
The sound of the passing traffic
fifteen feet from the unbroken window.

At two degrees of separation
I recall the sound of the sledgehammers
Crashing through the plate glass windows,
And the stained glass windows as well.
Afterwards the sidewalks were covered with it:
Broken glass, broken glass,
Blood and broken glass—
As memory turns to foreknowledge
A cold shadow passes over me.

It seems so peaceful here, yet I remain on guard.
Beneath the growing avalanche of hatred,
I hear the staccato crack of breaking glass.
The day draws near when this false peace,
Brittle and fragile as any window
Whether of plate glass or stained glass
will lie shattered on the sidewalks of the world.

“Get over it!”  they say.
“How much longer will you Jews
Keep obsessing over your private tragedy?
Do you really think no other people
Has ever suffered genocide?
Time to move on,” they say.

Let them believe I’m picking at old scabs
Or getting paranoid over nothing; I don’t care.
It should be self-evident that the scars remain
After your heart has been pierced by broken glass,
Even at two degrees of separation.
But no matter what they think I’m saying
Or why they think I’m saying it,
The pain itself is beside the point.

And so we bear witness to what matters most:
That the echo of the sound of breaking glass
Spreads through the intricate web of love,
Past the boundaries of space and time,
Relentlessly out to infinity. And as it spreads,
It changes. Yes, I’m talking alchemy here--
Just so we’re clear on that.
This is our secret strength and hidden truth:
That empathy begins as shared grief,
but ends as shared knowledge.

© 2011 by Linda S. Sang

In one very significant way, this poem is very different from the two previous ones I’ve posted on this blog in the past. Both of those poems were written within a few weeks of each other over 25 years ago, in the spring of 1984 shortly after my sister’s death. This poem was started two days ago, in a bakery on Highland Avenue on Wednesday, August 31, 2011. I did the final revisions a few hours ago.

I went to the bakery with the intention of writing, but what I was planning to write was something very different from what I ended up bringing home with me. What I had in mind was prose, for one thing. Until Wednesday, I had not written any poetry for years and pretty much assumed I never would again. I started writing what I originally had in mind, but my heart just wasn’t in it and my mind kept wandering.

I had a folder with me containing some printouts of recent e-mails, and in an attempt to regain my focus I began reading them over. A response to one particular communication began shaping itself in my mind after I read it for the second or third time. To my total astonishment, instead of being a standard prose e-mail reply my response seemed to be trying to take the form of a poem. So I decided to let it go where it wanted. I grabbed a blank sheet of looseleaf paper just like I used to do in the old days, and followed my thoughts and feelings wherever they wanted to take me.

What is so amazing about this experience, once so commonplace in my life, is that I haven’t even tried to write a poem in years. That’s why the only poems posted on my blog are old ones—because there simply haven’t been any new ones. I have often wondered if I’d ever write another poem again in my life. This one didn’t come easily. I wrote three longhand drafts at the bakery over a period of about three hours. Fortunately, the owner of the place likes me and is more than happy to let me hang out there as long as I want to. Even though there are only two tables, I don’t recall that the other one was occupied the whole time I was there.

Although they got successively better, my handwritten drafts were sloppy, imprecise and out of focus--but then first drafts usually are. Fortunately, the notorious inner critic who plagues all writers didn’t get into the act too early in the game with her usual deflating put-downs. I felt that in spite of the amateurishness I had something worth pursuing. So I came home and transferred the poem to the computer.

I also made a point of checking out the Wikipedia entry for Kristallnacht as a precaution against any glaring errors of fact. If I had made any in my first drafts, I wanted to be sure I corrected them fairly early in the revision process. That involved another three drafts yesterday, plus a final one this afternoon. Wednesday night was the first time I’ve ever read a historical account of Kristallnacht, although of course I’ve read references to it in other works on WWII and the Holocaust. I was especially struck by one short paragraph:

The number of emigrating Jews surged as those who were able, left the country. In the ten months following Kristallnacht, more than 115,000 Jews emigrated from the Reich.[33] The majority went to other European countries, the US and Palestine.... As part of government policy, the Nazis seized houses, shops, and other property the émigrés left behind.
Among those 115,000 Jews who left Germany in 1938-39 in the 10 months following Kristallnacht were the parents of the beloved friend whose childhood memories were the inspiration for this poem.