In Lucem Gentium: Anecdotal Reflections on Growing Up and Out of the Jewish Ghetto, Part III

…Caeca Synagoga…Election…In the Image and Likeness of the Hebrews…

III. An Everlasting Possession (God’s Pun)

Rabbi Epstein’s formulation of current Jewish teaching on the Kingdom of God is nothing more than a breathtakingly fundamentalist reprisal of the Old Testament myth. And it is in this myth that lies the answer to my question of what, precisely, in their Jewishness so compelled the loyalty and cohesion of my friends in the Manor.

As I have noted many times throughout the course of this rambling memoir, the Old Testament myth is the only thing I can come up with that explains practically everything about the manorial mentality: the self-ghettoization, the enduring contempt for the Gentiles, the cultural hubris, the vigilance against intermarriage, the always vexing sense of persecution and victimhood, the obligatory Zionism, the constant re-living of the anguish of the Holocaust, the ineradicable bitterness and hatred of the oppressor. Possessed by, and in the possession of, these four-thousand-year-old archetypes, there is hardly any need for the sort of theology, soteriology, or liturgy in which other religious adherents invest their spiritual aspirations and energies.


Caeca Synagoga

The Jews’ unconsciousness of the archetypes that have them in their grip is ultimately, it seems to me, a function of a traditional aversion to the mythological valencies of the Old Testament narrative. Jewish biblical scholars are certainly aware that many Old Testament loci are mythological: the creation story in Genesis, the Eden myth, the primeval history, the legends of the Patriarchs, large tracts of the Moses and Exodus cycle, the Samson saga, the story of David’s youth and election, the folktales of Daniel, Jonah, and so on. But the guardians of Jewish orthodoxy regard these as interpolations, and insist, in spite of them, upon the essential historicity of the chronicle of Israel. Israel is the People of History, and it is the God of History who leads them.

Inevitably, this insistence called forth a decisive response in the form of Christianity. For the Old Testament prophets, priests, and kings, the arch-sin was syncretism: the contamination of a rigorously monotheistic cult by the seasonal rites and deities of the “nations” of the Ancient Near Eastern world. What happened in due course followed as if according to some immutable law of the cosmos. Christ, in whose person and story was deposited the universal mythology of ancient paganism, appeared in Palestine and laid claim to the Israelite throne. The mythological Christ was the religious psyche’s answer to Jewish historicism, and to a separatist Jewish ethos that regarded the culture and religion of the Gentiles as a demonic snare and miasmal swamp of pollution.

Though they are both peoples “of the Book”, the Jews’ and Christians’ respective attitudes towards myth and history are fundamentally antithetical. At the time of the Advent, the Jewish messianic hope was (and still is) for a new Mosaic liberator to lead Israel out of bondage to yet another of the nations, and to establish the Kingdom of God on earth on the historical model of the Davidic golden age. Rejecting this interpretation as grossly reductive and concretistic, Jesus was rejected in turn; He promised only liberation from sin, and a Kingdom of God that “cometh not with observation”. St. Paul rebuked the Jews for the cognate sins of legalism and historical literalism: for Paul, the Law and the history of Israel were above all visible sacraments of the invisibilia – self-transcending signs and symbols (myths, that is) pointing, in the first case, to an interior state of grace, and in the second, to what Origen would later call the “inner history of Israel”. Christianity thus represented a profound re-evaluation (and devaluation) of what (as Origen again would put it) was “mere history”

Over the course of the next fifteen centuries, Christian exegetes took up the Pauline burden of spiritual interpretation, treating the historical letter as a provisional conveyance for allegorical, that is, typological, moral, psychological, doctrinal, or mystical meanings. In Greek antiquity, allegoresis and mythopoesis were, as Jean Pepin has shown, closely related forms: the twin idioms in which the opposition between historical “truth” and mythic “falsehood” was transcended, both being relativized and subordinated to the hidden meanings occulted beneath the literal veil. Christian exegetes, in fact, regarded both the fictive veil of pagan mythology and the historical veil of Scripture as allegorical integuments concealing spiritual mysteries. The concomitant allegorization of biblical history and pagan fable suggests that the historical sense of Scripture and the false letter of pagan poetry were assimilated as “myths”: that is, symbolic fictions, or else equivalently figurative genres for the mediation of truths more profound and valuable than the mute facts of “mere history”.

Remarkably, the allegorical consciousness that gave birth to the Church–and continued to breathe meaning into the lives of Christians long after the Incarnation and Resurrection had receded into the historical shadows–had practically no effect upon the Jews. Indeed, the Jews have striven manfully to suppress it. In the very generation in which the Christian Messiah preached in Palestine, another reformer appeared on the scene in the Alexandrian Diaspora. Philo Judaeus (c. 20 B.C.-50 A.D.) was unquestionably the most brilliant Jewish philosopher and scriptural exegete of his age. More accurately, Philo was the most brilliant philosopher and scriptural exegete of his age, period. The author of more than forty moral essays, philosophical treatises, and biblical commentaries, Philo was not only the leading living exponent of Middle Platonism, but as the first theologian to apply to Scripture the allegorical method that had been employed by the ancients for the interpretation of Homer, he would be revered for centuries to come as the father of scriptural allegory.

Now, here is a Landsman to kvell about. Yet, ask a rabbi about Philo today and you are likely to be answered with bemused ignorance. Jewish teachers and scholars who are able to recite the names of the Talmudic commentators in chronological order from the early Middle Ages to the present have never heard of him. Why? Philo’s allegiance to some of the most solemn of Jewish principles is suspect. As a philosopher, his thought is fatally infected by the Middle Platonic and Stoic ideas that at the time furnished the essential elements of the universal theology of the “nations”; and as a proponent of scriptural allegory, Philo is guilty of having insulted the historical literalism upon which Jewish orthodoxy is apparently founded.


Though no expert, I have read a good deal of Talmudic commentary in the hopes of finding some trace of Philo’s sinister allegoristic influence. But figural interpretation, which plays a part in the exegesis of the sacred text of every other ancient religion, is another Golden Calf for Jewish orthodoxy. The bulk of the Talmud is, significantly, Halachah: elaborations of biblical precepts relating to the duties, dress, and deportment of priests and Levites; regulations governing the Temple and its appurtenances; governing the slaughtering of animals and their ritual fitness for use; laws of ritual cleanness and uncleanness in things and persons; of the Sabbath as well as of festivals and fasts; rules and regulations connected with agriculture (tillage, sowing and reaping, gardens and orchards); statutes governing marriage and divorce and other regulations concerning the relations between husband and wife and the sexes in general; Jewish civil and criminal ordinances, covering the conduct of judge and judged, teacher and student, governor and governed. In these pages the Pentateuch’s Byzantine legalism not only survives but stretches out its dead hand to embrace every aspect of human activity, including the pious angle at which to set one’s hat, and what to do if one has to use the bathroom on the Sabbath, but the nearest facilities are farther than the four cubit limit on travel (Eruvin 41b). One hesitates to make fun of such material, first out of respect for religious tradition, and second, because it is too easy; but the Talmud’s tens of thousands of similar hair-splitting trivialities benumb the mind and deaden the soul.

No more inspiring is the much smaller portion of the Talmud devoted to Haggadah (narrative), as well as the independent cycles of scriptural exposition (Midrashim), which are consecrated to the task of deciphering the precise literal meaning of the scriptural text. Here is the Midrash Rabbah on Exodus:

And the Children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground (14:22). How is this possible? If they went “into the sea”, then why does it say “upon the dry ground”? And if they went “upon the dry ground”, then why does it say “into the midst of the sea”? This is to teach that the sea was divided only after Israel had stepped into it and the waters had reached their noses; only then did it become dry land.

(So, it’s Moses over Pharaoh by a nose.)

In Christian commentary, any discussion of the watery abyss, Noah’s Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, or Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan, will inevitably open up into the vast cosmos of mythic archetypes and symbols: into a discussion, that is, of the primeval ocean as universal mother and abode of the dead, of the sea as womb and tomb, of the paradoxical relationship between death and birth, the realms of darkness and light, and the contraries in general. These are the primordial images through which the rhythms of human life have been experienced and expressed since time immemorial, and in which we find the roots of the human psyche and the eternal spirit. But the Jewish exegetical eye is focused narrowly and superficially (though in excruciating detail) upon the historical surface of revelation. It’s as though the world’s most powerful electron microscope were calibrated to probe universal existence to the depth of a single atom.


I have written elsewhere and at some length about the defining opposition between Christian allegory and Jewish historical literalism, and do not wish to prolong the discussion here. The principal point is that a culture that is so outward-looking as to remain contentedly blind to the symbolic inner significations of its sacred narrative is inevitably blind to its own psychology. This is undoubtedly what the medieval sculptors and stained glass artists were suggesting when they depicted the Synagogue as a withered old crone with a blindfold over her eyes.

The “blind literalism” of the Jews was, of course, an early Christian trope, rehearsed in conjunction with the Pauline topos of the “oldness of the letter”. Indeed, there is something that can only be described as anthropologically primitive about Jewish literalism. Recommending the spiritual rewards of the allegorical interpretation of classical myth, the sixth-century Bishop Fulgentius of Ruspe wrote, “A child is content to play with the whole nut, whereas an adult breaks open the shell to better savour the taste within.” Literalism is a mark of the adolescent stage of human psychic evolution, when the primitive accepted his unconscious projections as objective, outward realities, there being, for him, as yet no subjective “inside”.


In the Image and Likeness of the Hebrews

The Old Testament narrative, comprising written materials and oral traditions that go back to the early second millenium B.C., is naturally replete with such unexamined projections; and the doctrine of divine election is a typical enough example of them. It is hard to ignore the reek of tribalism and political utility that emanates from the terms of God’s covenant with Israel. Abraham agrees to keep God’s statutes and ordinances, to worship Yahweh alone, and to proclaim Him as the One and Only. In return, Yahweh agrees to multiply Abraham’s descendants until they outnumber the stars in heaven and the grains of sand in the sea. He will make Abraham the father of nations; great kings shall come out of his loins; his seed shall possess the gates of their enemies; and Yahweh will give to them all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession. When famine strikes, Yahweh instructs Abraham’s son Isaac to go into the land of the Philistines, and promises to give to his seed in turn “all these countries”. When He changes the name of Jacob to Israel, He explains, “for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men”.

The mercenary nature of this contract is apparent. (It is scarcely less mercenary than the transactional economy of pagan animal sacrifice—propitiating divine ire and buying divine favour with burnt offerings–which the Old Testament prophets and kings constantly decry.) There is a significant difference, however: Yahweh does not promise riches, ease, fertile pasture, or bountiful herds; it is evidently political power that Israel aspires to–to be a great nation among “the nations”–, and Yahweh covenants with her to be her conquering warlord.

In the renewal of the covenant with Moses, political ambition is compounded with tribalistic xenophobia. The Mighty Hand and Outstretched Arm promises to deliver the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, and once again to give them the land of Canaan for an inheritance, so long as “you shall not walk in the customs of the nations which I am casting out before you” (Lev. 20:23). The customs of the nations are abhorrent to the Hebrews’ Jealous God, priimarily in that they include the worship of others besides Him. Lest they adopt these promiscuous pagan ways, Yahweh has set the nation of Israel “apart from other people”.


To any but the most fundamentalist of adherents, these statements are literally swarming with projections. Unless you contend that the Pentateuch was dictated verbatim to Moses by God, you are bound to acknowledge that, like all other religious texts, the Old Testament is an attempt by a fallible and finite human understanding to represent an ultimately infinite and irrepresentable Deity; and in doing so it is necessarily condemned to describe Him in terms borrowed from its own immediate experience. As a God who is thus created in the image and likeness of his worshipers, Yahweh exhibits the as yet unconsolidated moral consciousness of a Bronze Age tribe.

What I have just said hardly represents a neoteric theory of religion, by the way. By the sixth century B.C., the ancient Greeks recognized that Homer’s depiction of Zeus as a moral reprobate whose crimes include indiscriminate murder, incontinent lust, incest, and serial adultery, was crudely anthropomorphic, and not coincidentally reflective of the dubious mores of the Achaean military adventurers whose exploits Homer sings. As the Pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes famously wrote:

The Ethiopians make their gods snub-nosed and black; the Thracians make them gray-eyed and red-haired.

And if oxen and horses and lions…could draw and do what men can do, horses would conceive their gods in the shapes of horses, and oxen in the shape of oxen….

The Yahwistic God-image similarly holds up the mirror to the character and aspirations of the Hebrews.

Yahweh’s conviction that He is the One True God can thus only reflect the belief of the Israelites that they are in possession of the One True Faith, by comparison to which all others are “unclean”. Yahweh thunders that He is a jealous God who will have no other gods before Him; Israel is then a jealous people, righteously convinced of the superiority of her religion, legal code, and customs. Yahweh’s bequest of Canaan is obviously enough the rationalization of Israel’s expansionist yearnings. As an itinerant tribe of desert herders, constantly in search of fresh pasture, the Hebrews could hardly have failed to covet a land flowing with milk and honey, and Yahweh duly provides the divine sanction for the Conquest. Indeed, the God of Israel not only condones but enjoins upon her the ruthless methods she employs in pursuit of this end, including dashing the heads of the babes of the infidel against the rocks until their brains pour out. Such brutal illusions are innocuous enough so long as one recognizes them as the product of a ruthless and depredatory age, and withdraws the projections that have solidified into dogmas exonerating and indeed ennobling the ancient Israelites as a nation called by God and providentially commanded to realize her military and political ambitions. But surely it is obvious that to continue to entertain such teachings as literal truths in the twentieth century can only spell spiritual and political disaster.

I note that even Jews themselves are aware of the mortal perils to which such pious fantasies give rise. Consider the analysis of the aforementioned Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg:

Obviously there can be no “chosen people” unless there is a God who does the choosing. History, especially modern history, knows too many examples of self-chosen peoples. No matter how high and humanitarian a “civilizing mission” such a people may assign to itself, self-chosenness has invariably degenerated into some form of the notion of a master race.

The blindfold of Caeca Synagoga is evidently still firmly in place. To a religious historian in the late-twentieth century, it should be apparent that, for a second millenium B.C. tribe of bedouins, “divine election” is none other than “self-election” projected into transcendence. Since time immemorial, in every military adventure and confrontation in history, nations have blustered that God was on their side, but even in proclaiming Him as their champion, they have been at least half-aware that they are engaged in jingoistic humbug, or an act akin to sympathetic magic, wherein the chief or medicine man mimes a desirable outcome so as to compel it to come to pass. The Nazis, too, betraying their own primitive unconsciousness, were convinced that they had been divinely summoned to establish the Aryan Regnum Dei on earth. Another odious comparison, I’m sure, but it is Hertzberg himself who can’t help but conjure it to mind.

The relationship between the Old Testament mythos and the tragedy of twentieth-century Jewry has become a modern taboo – a subject that Jews and non-Jews alike are officially forbidden to think or talk about. I say mythos, once again, because anyone who has contemplated the long and complicated history of the Israelites can’t help but be struck by its monotonous repetitiveness. The details change, but the pattern is essentially immutable. Israel goes whoring after foreign gods, and is justly abandoned by Yahweh to one of the world’s “unclean nations”, under whose heel she groans in bondage and captivity. Israel prays for a liberator, and in His infinite mercy Yahweh grants her prayers. She is restored to the Promised Land, and enjoys an interval of prosperity and power, which inevitably comes to an end after another episode of backsliding. Then the cycle repeats itself. This is the mythic archetype that underlies Israel’s “history” from the time of her bondage in Egypt, through the absorption of the Northern Kingdom into the Assyrian Empire, the Jews’ Dispersion and Captivity in Babylon, and finally, Judea’s impotent subjection to Persia, Hellenistic Greece, and Rome in turn. The only thing as constant as the Jews’ political ambition is its frustration.

Contentedly possessed by this myth, the Jews have been condemned to live it out. The world has always been their mastering enemy, and they its victim. Second Isaiah’s magnificent hymn to the Suffering Servant expresses Jewish victimhood in language so noble that it seems churlish to point out its megalo-maniacal implications. “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…for the transgression of my people was he stricken.” This passage is best known in Christian circles as a typological adumbration of Christ’s magnanimous Sacrifice on the Cross. Sine macula, He died for the sins of mankind. For Isaiah, of course, the Suffering Servant is the covenant community of Israel, who suffered for the transgressions of “the nations”. Evidently Israel’s own backslidings have been forgiven by Yahweh, and she steps forward in the end-time as a guiltless victim and vicarious sacrifice to be placed upon the altar of the very nations who persecute her, and for whose redemption she willingly undergoes this persecution.


When allegorized as a prefiguration of the divine man, Isaiah’s poem spills over into mythic universality, and becomes a poignant and affecting vision of the tragic and redemptive suffering of Everyman; read as a literal record of the historical vicissitudes of a particular race and nation, it is rank and unendurable chauvinism.

Chauvinism inevitably begets chauvinism. The Old Testament legacy of racial superiority, separatism, and victimology is, thus, a geo-politically lethal one. How might the world be expected to respond after four thousand years of being reminded of Jewish “chosenness”, quarantined as a breeding-ground of infection, and, in paradoxical conjunction with the above, regularly petitioned for sympathy and demonstrations of contrition? Until the archetypes are depotentiated, Israel’s future history is likely to be as monotonously repetitive as her past.