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

A Religion of Lust

The sexual trajectory of the Talmudic polemic, beginning with Mary’s sordid affair with a Roman soldier and continuing with Jesus’ relations with prostitutes and marriage to the most notorious of them, leads inevitably to the rabbinic defamation of the Eucharist as a heathen orgy of temple prostitution and cannibalism. I have already cited a passage from Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, in which Justin’s representative of second-century Judaism acknowledges that this dark parody of the Christian sacrament was widely accepted amongst his fellow Jews. I will return to this passage after examining some of the rabbinic sources of this myth which, as I discovered from my teenage friends in the Manor, has been preserved and handed down amongst the folkways of the Tribe through the generations – more proof of the power of Jung’s archetypal race memory –, and is no doubt still being rehearsed by fearful Jewish children today.

The Jewish caricature of the Eucharist as a repugnant pagan rite is carefully nurtured by the Rabbis throughout the Talmud. In two passages from the Bavli (b Sanh. 107b and b Sot 47a), Jesus and his master, R. Yehoshua b. Perahya, are described as entering an inn just outside Jerusalem on their return from Alexandria. R. Yehoshua praises the hospitality of the place, but Jesus, sexually preoccupied as usual, thinks his teacher is remarking upon the physical allurements of the innkeeper. Yehoshua rebukes his student’s impure thoughts, and Jesus, rejected, angrily departs to “set up a brick and worship it”. At the end of the passage, the rabbinic interlocutors lament that “Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and deceived and led Israel astray.”

The charges of idolatry and magic are entirely consistent with the Jewish polemic against Christianity as but another heathen cult, no different from those practiced by the “nations” upon the high places of the Ancient Near East, and routinely abominated by the Hebrew Prophets. Jesus’ “brick-worship” associates the new Christian paganism with that of the Babylonian Great Whore, and his “magic”, while similarly an ancient Chaldaean science, also reminds us of the rabbinic allegation that he studied with the magicians of Egypt during his exile there, before introducing their black arts into Israel.

 

Another story preserved in two versions concerns Eliezer b. Hyrkanos, a late-first-century Rabbi who is secretly denounced as a disciple of Jesus, then arrested and charged with heresy. Though the Roman Governor dismisses the charge on an obscure technicality (as Pilate hoped to be able to dismiss the charge against Jesus?), Eliezer does not deny it, and in the dialogue that ensues upon his return home from his arraignment, he wonders only about what might have led to his denunciation. (In the interests of brevity and clarity, I have interwoven passages from the two versions of the narrative):

When he came home, his disciples arrived to comfort him, but he would accept no consolation. Said R. Aqiva to him:… “Master, perhaps you encountered some kind of heresy and you enjoyed it and because of that you were arrested?” He answered him: “Aqiva, you have reminded me! Once I was walking in the upper marked of Sepphoris [in Galilee] when I came across one of the disciples of Jesus the Nazarene, and Jacob of Kefar was his name. He [Jacob] said to me.… (Avodah Zarah 16b)

***

‘It is written in your Torah: You shall not bring the hire of a harlot or the pay of a dog into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow…[Deut. 23:19]. What is to be done with the money?’

I [R. Eliezer] told him: ‘ They are prohibited.’

He [Jacob] said to me: ‘They are prohibited as an offering, but it is permissible to dispose of them.’

I answered: ‘In that case, what is to be done with them.’

He said to me: ‘Let bath-houses and privies be made with them.’

I answered: ‘You have well spoken because this particular Halakha escaped my memory for the moment.’

When he saw that I acknowledged his words, he said to me: ‘Thus was I taught by Jesus of Nazareth: From filth they came and to filth shall they return [=on filth they should be expended], as it is said: for from the hire of a harlot was it gathered, and to the hire of a harlot shall it return [Mic. 1:7]—Let them be spent on public privies!’

This interpretation pleased me, and on that account I was arrested for heresy. (Quohelet Rabba)…Because I transgressed what is written in the Torah: Keep your way far from her—this refers to heresy–and do not come near to the door of her house—this refers to the harlot [Prov. 5:8].

And how far is one to keep away? Rav Hisda said: Four cubits. (Avodah Zarah 17a)

Once again, this oddly pedantic dialogue is, as Schafer assures us (Jesus, p. 44), a typical example of Talmudic halakhic exegesis. The Bible forbids the use of the proceeds of prostitution for the purchase of Temple offerings; the only question is whether they may be employed for other purposes. Initially, R. Eliezer puts the strictest construction upon the prohibition in Deuteronomy, but Jacob, speaking in the name of Jesus, argues that the money may be spent in the public interest: for the building of public bath-houses or toilets. Both of these conveniences are depositories of filth; hence, they are the most appropriate public undertakings in which to invest money derived from filth. In the end R. Eliezer is won over by Jacob’s halakhic reasoning, and confesses to have been especially pleased by Jesus’ appeal in support of it to the authority of the Prophet Micah.

Jesus’ supposed interest in improving community hygiene by means of such public works projects makes him sound like an ancient FDR. (“Social Gospel” Christians who confuse the New Dispensation with the New Deal have apparently always been with us.) No doubt it is Christianity’s reputed solicitude for the well-being of the common man, along with its willingness to discover a less stringent (i.e., less literal) and more merciful interpretation of the Law, that the Rabbis are here poking fun at. Jesus is as always willing to look beyond the “outward” sin of prostitution (he allowed one to wash his feet, and later married her, after all) and convert its profits to the public good! How? By laundering (pun intended) the profits of sin! By building privies!

R. Eliezer concludes that it was the pleasure he took in this liberal Christian interpretation of the Law that must have provoked the accusation of heresy. Nor does he protest his innocence. Indeed, he himself invokes Proverbs 5:8, which he then interprets expressly as an admonition against associating with heretics: advice which, unfortunately, he failed to heed.

Literally, of course, the verse from Proverbs with which R. Eliezer concludes “his soul-searching” (as Schafer puts it) is a warning against prostitution, not heresy. It refers to the harlot as a “strange woman” whose lips drip honey but whose “end is bitter as wormwood” and whose feet go down to hell and death (Prov. 5:3-5). But as the admonition against consorting with prostitutes continues in Prov. 7:10 ff., a familiar theme is struck:

And behold, there met him a woman with the attire of a harlot, and subtile of heart.

(She is loud and stubborn; her feet abide not in her house:

Now is she without, now in the streets, and lieth in wait at every corner.)

So she caught him, and kissed him, and with an impudent face said unto him,

I had to offer sacrifices; and this day have I paid my vows.

Therefore came I forth to meet thee…

The harlot’s paying of her vows with temple offerings is a conspicuous violation of the prohibition in Deut. 23:19 against the use of the profits of prostitution for such purposes – the subject-text of Jacob/Jesus’ halakhic exposition. As Schafer notes, “This can hardly be by coincidence. It seems therefore that the editor of our story wants to imply [that] R. Eliezer was indeed accused of being a member of a forbidden (orgiastic) sect…” (Jesus, p. 46) In fact, the passage from Proverbs with which the dialogue not coincidentally concludes implies rather more than that. The Rabbis are less interested in discrediting R. Eliezer personally than in discrediting the “heresy” to which he subscribes. For this purpose, the text from Proverbs serves them admirably.

In Jewish (and early Christian) commentary, the harlot of Proverbs 5-7 was traditionally interpreted as an allegorical symbol of the whole pagan mother-goddess cult and culture after which the adulterous people of Yahweh were forever going “a-whoring”, and in which sacred prostitution was, notoriously, an ancillary rite. Proverbs’ “strange woman” is the Great Whore of Babylon, Ishtar-Ashtoreth-Astarte; the Egyptian goddess of harlotries, Isis; the Phrygian Magna Mater, Cybele; the temple prostitutes of Baal-Peor. When R. Eliezer relates one part of the warning of Prov. 5:8 to prostitution and the other part to heresy, he admits that his guilt consists of heresy connected to prostitution. In other Talmudic texts – quite outside the context of his denunciation for Christian heresy –, R. Eliezer is suspected of having been involved with prostitutes and participating in sexual orgies (Jesus, p. 46). Here, the reason for, and circumstances of, his moral dissolution are made clear: he has been led astray into a sect in which mass sexual orgies are ritually convened. (This, of course, is only to be expected of the followers of a bastard son who issued from the womb of another “strange woman”, and who was accordingly predisposed to a life of wanton misconduct.) In consorting with Christian heretics, a remorseful R. Eliezer – that is, the Talmudic editor who has invented this little vignette and put the words from Proverbs into his mouth – convicts himself of having approached too near to the door of a religion that, like all the other Gentile religion, is a house of harlotries.

 

Whether or not R. Eliezer was an actual historical personality, it is apparent that for the Rabbis of the Talmud, his principle utility and significance were as an admonitory type of the Jews of the period, who were being “seduced” in numbers into a dangerous new cult of neo-pagan licentiousness. That its central sacrament, moreover, consisted in a Thyestean banquet followed by a communal sexual orgy, became the Jews’ most potent polemical argument against Christianity. As Justin Martyr asks impatiently (in a passage I’ve already quoted from his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew):

Is there any other matter, my friends, in which we are blamed, than this, that we live not after the law, and are not circumcised in the flesh, as your forefathers were, and do not observe Sabbaths as you do? Are our lives and customs also slandered among you? And I ask this: have you also believed, concerning us, that we eat men; and that after the feast, having extinguished the lights, we engage in promiscuous concubinage? Or do you condemn us in this alone, that we adhere to such tenets, and believe in an opinion, untrue, as you think? (Dial. x)

That Justin enumerates them in conjunction with the more fundamental doctrinal disagreements between Jews and Christians (circumcision, Sabbath, Law, etc.) suggests that the anti-Christian calumnies of eucharistic cannibalism and nocturnal orgies were widely credited by Trypho’s fellow Jews; and Trypho’s response confirms as much.

On his own part, says Trypho, he finds these allegations “unworthy of belief”. His own more judicious criticism of the new sect is, rather, that “professing to be pious”, Christians do not separate themselves from the nations through the practice of circumcision, the observance of festivals and Sabbaths, and a rigorous adherence to the Law. He admits, nonetheless, that amongst the Jewish “multitudes”, the belief that Christians eat the flesh of human victims and participate in Bacchanalian orgies is common. As Schafer observes, Trypho “seems to ignore the question of who was the originator of these slanders – or else takes the answer for granted” (Jesus, p. 100). But Justin himself has no doubt about who is responsible. A few chapters on in the Dialogue, he chides:

For other nations have not inflicted on us and on Christ this wrong to such an extent as you have, who in very deed are the authors of the wicked prejudice against the Just One, and us who hold by Him. For after you had crucified Him…you not only did not repent of the wickedness which you had committed, but at that time you selected and sent out from Jerusalem chosen men through all the land to tell that the godless heresy of Christians had sprung up to publish those things which all they who knew us not speak against us. (Dial. xvii)

Justin then reiterates these complaints in chapter cviii:

…you not only have not repented, after you learned that He rose from the dead, but, as I said before, you have sent chosen and ordained men throughout to world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galileean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb…and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. Moreover, you accuse Him of having taught those riotous, wicked, and unholy practices which you mention…

Clearly, these “riotous, wicked, and unholy practices” are the orgies of cannibalism and fornication to which Justin had earlier alluded. (They are the same “fabulous and shameful deeds—the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse, and eating of human flesh”, the rumours of which Justin accuses the opponents of Christianity of having perpetuated in his First Apology [xxvi].) The Jews are not only represented here as the inventors of these malicious fictions but their systematic publicists, having commissioned certain ministers of propaganda to travel throughout the civilized world and disseminate the slanders in which they had been carefully rehearsed.

 

In so doing, according to Origen, the Jews were the preceptors of the pagans, whom they tutored in the main themes of their own anti-Christian polemic. As Origen characterizes the vitriolic attack on Christianity mounted by the pagan Celsus in his True Doctrine (late second century):

He seems to have behaved in much the same way as the Jews who, when the teaching of Christianity began to be proclaimed, spread abroad a malicious rumour about the gospel, to the effect that Christians sacrifice a child and partake of its flesh, and again that when the followers of the gospel want to do the works of darkness they turn out the light and each man has sexual intercourse with the first woman he meets. This malicious rumour some time ago unreasonably influenced a very large number and persuaded people knowing nothing of the gospel that this was really the character of Christians. And even now [i.e., early second century] it still deceives some who by such stories are repelled from approaching Christians even if only for a simple conversation. (Contra Celsum VI, 27)

(Even now, indeed. How astonished Origen would have been to learn that “such stories” would continue to be circulated within the Jewish community and to frighten its members well into the twentieth century.)

 

Many similar accounts can be found in the writings of the major early Christian Apologists (which suggests that the Jewish propaganda campaign was both effective and persistent). Tertullian, for instance, details the grisly content of these Jewish embassies in a famous parody in his Apology (late second century):

Monsters of wickedness, we are accused of observing a holy rite in which we kill a little child and then eat it, in which after the feast, we practice incest, the dogs—our pimps, forsooth—overturning the lights and getting us the shamelessness of darkness for our impious lusts…

See now, we set before you the reward of these enormities. They give promise of eternal life….Come, plunge your knife into the babe, enemy of none, accused of none, child of all; of if that is another’s work, simply take your place beside a human being dying before he has really lived, await the departure of the lately given soul, receive the fresh young blood, saturate your bread with it, freely partake. The while as you recline at table, take note of the places which your mother and your sister occupy; mark them well, so that when the dog-made darkness has fallen on you, you may make no mistake, for you will be guilty of a crime—unless you perpetuate a deed of incest. Initiated and sealed into things like these, you have life everlasting. (Apol. vii-viii)

Tertullian’s brilliant spoof concentrates on the culminating rite in the Christian sacrament, while a more comprehensive catalogue of Christian obscenities, marshaled by the pagan interlocutor “Caecilius” in Minucius Felix’ dialogue Octavius (ca. 200), places it in the wider context of a “religion of lust”:

“Already…decay of morals grows from day to day, and throughout the federacy multiply….They recognize one another by secret signs and marks; they fall in love almost before they are acquainted; everywhere they introduce a kind of religion of lust, a promiscuous ‘brotherhood’ and ‘sisterhood’ by which ordinary fornication, under cover of a hallowed name, is converted to incest. And thus their vain and foolish superstition makes an actual boast of crime. For themselves, were there not some foundation of truth, shrewd rumour would not impute gross and unmentionable forms of vice. I am told that under some idiotic impulse they consecrate and worship the head of an ass, the meanest of all beasts, a religion worthy of the morals which gave it birth. Others say that they actually reverence the private parts of their director and high-priest, and adore his organs as parent of their being. This may be false, but such suspicions naturally attach to their secret and nocturnal rites. To say that a malefactor put to death for his crimes, and wood of the death-dealing cross, are objects of their veneration is to assign fitting altars to abandoned wretches and the kind of worship they deserve. Details of the initiation of neophytes are as revolting as they are notorious. An infant, cased in dough to deceive the unsuspecting, is placed beside the person to be initiated. The novice is thereupon induced to inflict what seem to be harmless blows upon the dough, and unintentionally the infant is killed by his unsuspecting blows; the blood—oh, horrible—they lap up greedily; the limbs they tear to pieces eagerly; and over the victim they make league and covenant, and in complicity in guilt they pledge themselves to mutual silence. Such sacred rites are more foul than any sacrilege. Their form of feasting is notorious; it is in everyone’s mouth, as testified by the speech of our friend of Cirta [Fronto, teacher of rhetoric to Marcus Aurelius, of whose Speech against the Christians nothing survives]. On the day appointed they gather at a banquet with all their children, sisters, and mothers, people of either sex and every age. There, after full feasting, when the blood is heated and drink has inflamed the passions of incestuous lust, a dog which has been tied to a lamp is tempted by a morsel thrown beyond the range of his tether to bound forward with a rush. The tale-telling light is upset and extinguished, and in the shameless dark lustful embraces are indiscriminately exchanged; and all alike, if not in act, yet by complicity, are involved in incest…

The principal motives of such depictions of Christian ritual depravity, remarkable in their consistency, require little comment. The swarming promiscuity and incest supposedly practiced by the Christian “brotherhood” and “sisterhood” are meant, clearly enough, to mock the chaste communal love of the so-called agape. The infanticide, and the grisly symposium that follows, are pointed caricatures of both the Eucharist and the Pauline doctrine of rebirth through the adherent’s identification with the sacrificial Christ. In Tertullian’s account, the sopping up of the infant’s blood with the bread can only signify the eucharistic elements. But above all, these parodies are heavily inflected, and meant to identify the Christian cult, with the grossest, most primitive, and generally long outmoded features of Greek and oriental paganism: the nocturnal darkness (which, in the mysteries, furnished the atmosphere necessary to the occultation of their secrets from the gaze of the unworthy, and hardly to hide crimes); the practice of child-sacrifice (which, in fact, was almost always mimetic, rather than actual, and part of a dromenon in which the initiate’s death and rebirth were represented); the sparagmos and “eating of the god” (in which, again, the victim was never human, but an animal or vegetal attribute of the god—as in the Christian communion); and the sacred prostitution (which was also usually mimetic, culminating in the hieros gamos of the Priest, standing in loco dei, and the Priestess, in loco populi). Ironically, then, the pagan polemic against Christianity, learned from the Jews, involved a monstrously reductive and distorted critique of paganism itself, of the sort that Jewish propagandists had been ventilating since the age of the Prophets. That Celsus, Fronto, et al. are willing to persuade themselves that the Jewish rumour campaigns “have a foundation of truth”, and make themselves parties to such self-incriminating slanders, merely demonstrates the old saw: that, in a time of sectarian hostilities, the enemy of your enemy is your friend.

 

What, if anything, are we to make of these Jewish anti-Christian calumnies, in our supposedly post-sectarian age? Nothing at all, according to the modern Jewish scholars who explain that early Jewish propaganda about Christian infanticide and cannibalism merely parries the same malicious fictions back at those who originally invented and directed them against the Jews. They refer, of course, to the infamous “blood libel”—the charge that Jews kidnapped unsuspecting Greek travelers, fattened them for slaughter, and consumed them in a communal feast—first concocted, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, by the Alexandrian Greek rhetorician and Homeric commentator Apion (first century B.C.). As Josephus writes in his Contra Apionem (II, 8):

He [Apion] adds another Grecian fable, in order to reproach us… and says that “Antiochus found in our temple a bed and a man lying upon it, with a small table before him, full of dainties, from the sea, and the fowls of the dry land; that he immediately adored the king, upon his coming in, as hoping he would afford him all possible assistance…that the man made a lamentable complaint, and with sighs, and tears in his eyes, gave the king this account of the distress he was in; and said that he was a Greek, and that as he went over this province, in order to get his living, he was seized upon by foreigners, on a sudden, and brought to this temple, and shut up therein, and was seen by nobody, but was fattened by these curious provisions thus set before him: and that truly at the first such unexpected advantages seemed to him matter of great joy; that, after a while they brought a suspicion upon him, and at length astonishment, what their meaning should be; that at last he inquired of the servants that came to him, and was by them informed that it was in order to the fulfilling a law of the Jews, which they must not tell him, that he was thus fed; and that they did the same at a set time every year: that they used to catch a Greek foreigner, and fatten him thus up every year, and then lead him to a certain wood, and kill him, and sacrifice with their accustomed solemnities, and taste of his entrails, and take an oath upon this sacrificing a Greek, that they would ever be at enmity with the Greeks; and that then they threw the remaining parts of the miserable wretch into a certain pit.” Apion adds further, that “the man said there were but a few days to come ere he was to be slain, and implored Antiochus that…he would disappoint the snares the Jews laid for his blood…”

However scurrilous Apion’s attack upon the Jews, it seems unlikely that it could have been the model or occasion for a reciprocal Jewish anti-Christian polemic. There are, in fact, very few points of comparison. The Christians’ victim is a child; Apion’s temple victim is an adult, and quite specifically, a Greek. The culmination of the Christian banquet is a sexual orgy; Apion’s account of the Jewish rite mentions neither sexual promiscuity nor incest.

The two polemics, in fact, are manifestly independent, having arisen in disparate historical ages and religious contexts. Apion’s polemical fable, set, not coincidentally, in the period of the Seleucids (second century B.C.), is a document of the conflict between Hellenism and the Maccabean Jewish party—for it was also a conflict within Judaism–that insisted upon the most fastidious separation of the Jews from the contaminating influence of the circumambient Hellenic culture. (That is why, of course, the Jews’ sacrificial victim is a Greek, and why, in Apion’s account, the communicants take an oath that they would ever be at enmity with the Greeks. Why, besides, the fable of this pagan grammarian and Homeric commentator is so palpably suffused with Homeric narrative themes and atmosphere.) None of this has anything to do with hostilities between Jews and Christians (except insofar as Jews regarded Christians as neo-pagans, as I have already argued). It is simply absurd to contend that the Rabbis would have felt (or been) justified in maligning the Christian sacrament as orgiastic and cannibalistic in retribution against the Greek pagans who had maligned the Jews in such terms. There is no reciprocity here. The Jewish propaganda campaign against Christianity was mounted for its own reasons, motivated by its own primitive sectarianism, and quite as ugly as Apion’s “blood libel” in its own right.

When modern Jewish scholars attempt to explain the rabbinic rumour-mongering as an answer to Apion, it is clear that they are themselves writing as polemicists, rather than historians; two thousand years post facto, they, too, have entered the lists of religious propaganda. Their purpose, especially after the Holocaust, is to keep the focus of civilized indignation on “anti-Semitism”. Any acknowledgement that Jews could be guilty of their own “blood-libel” would naturally puncture the myth of Jewish religious tolerance, enlightenment, and innocent victimhood. Jews, as I wrote in the autobiographical introduction to this essay, are by definition incapable of the racism they have historically suffered (notwithstanding their own racist contempt for “Goys”). They would never be guilty of the hateful religious bigotry that periodically inspires Gentiles to such malicious anti-Semitic fabrications as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or the ludicrous fiction that Jews kidnap and then drink the blood of human (specifically Gentile) victims in monstrous temple rituals.

It is one thing for twentieth-century Jewish scholars, laboring in the Holocaust Industry, to exert themselves to detoxify or suppress the anti-Christian blood libels of which Jews were the inventors and publicists. It is quite another, however, for ordinary Jews to repeat these libels two thousand years later. When, after naively inviting my teenage Jewish friends in the Manor to attend Christmas Mass, I was informed by them that Christians “worship statues”, “eat little children”, and engage in mass sexual orgies, I could hardly at the time have appreciated the antiquity, and longevity, of the Jewish rumour campaign.

I continue to wonder when my former friends and relatives will come to realize that the injunction to “Never Forget” has a dark side.

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