Thursday, June 5, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 6/5 Post

I'll certainly post my own interpretive renderings of the commandments, but first I want to respond to your post.

You're right. It would be sadistic to require something utterly beyond achievement, unless the requirement being imposed had another purpose. Let's play with that idea for a moment.

Our problem, I think, is that most humans set the bar rather low. We're content at the personal level to avoid "excessive" sin. We, in effect, rewrite the commandments to fit us.

"Don't have too many gods other than the one God. "Don't lie excessively." "Don't steal enough to really hurt anyone else." On and on it goes. Most humans and societies have little use for "perfection," either as a goal or in practice. It's as if we decided to take up running each day for our health. Only the first day, we find out how hard it is to run at all. Each day thereafter we run or walk a little less. Finally, we reach the point where do not run at all, though we keep our shoes and gear in a bag in the car.

The commandments, Jesus' injunction to be perfect as God is perfect, and the rest startle us. Someone dares try to raise the bar. Frankly, he or they set the bar too high. We can't make the jump. Trying to do so teaches this is so. We're not God, so we cannot be "perfect" as God is perfect.

So...the commandments and the injunction of Jesus (taken seriously) may force us to admit: "I'm only human." This, though, is not an admission of defeat but instead an acknowledgement of our true selves. We were never meant to be God. Humans were never created to be as God. We are made to be, well, human, the children of God. A great, self-imposed burden drops away. Strangely enough, acknowledging our legitimate limits frees us to rely upon God for help, to pursue perfection without becoming paralyzed by our failures, and to get on with our core vocation of caring for the world and others.

Well, enough. I'll look forward to reading your recasting of the commandments, and I'll follow up with my own as soon as possible.


MaryAnn said...

I was taught that the word translated as "perfect" in that quotation, "be ye perfect..." really means "holy." "Be holy as your father in heaven is holy." That makes sense to me in light of the parallel to Leviticus. It has been mistranslated as "perfect" for centuries. Since I don't read NT Greek, I couldn't say for sure that this is correct, but I trust the people who taught it to me, who did.

AaronHerschel said...

I don't speak greek either, but I would certianly prefer the word "holy" to the word "perfect." That holiness might not require perfection comes as a relief to me--as I am undoubtedly a flawed and floundering human and find "perfection," if not too daunting a concept, certainly an unreasonable one. Moreover, I find it less than compelling to equate the holy with the perfect, or indeed the holy with the good--our two most common paraphrases. But the etymology of the word "holy" is uncertain. The OED says thwe word is a derivative of the adjective hailo, free from injury, whole, hale, or a derivative of hailoz, health, happiness, good luck. In Old Norse, it also refers to an omen, auspice, or augury. While both origins carry some of the connotations of wholeness, and hence perfection, it seems entirely a Judeo-christian projection to equate wholeness with goodness.

Meanwhile, God, in Revelations, does no such thing: "I am the Alpha and the Omega." Or in Isiah, which may be the source of the passage in Revelations: "I am the first and the last."

Here is wholeness, certainly, but rendered as a union of opposites. Indeed, in the Nag Hammadi texts, a longer version (spoken by a feminine figure of the divine--typical of the Jewish wisdom tradition) makes this even more explicit: "For I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin.... I am the barren one, and many are her sons.... I am the silence that is incomprehensible....I am the utterance of my name."

As this passage makes clear, holiness as wholeness is a state of paradoxical and miraculous union; it would not imply goodness except in an the aesthetic sense of completeness. To reduce holiness to goodness (or morality), then, is misleading at best, for "things are not given in halves from Heaven (Sanh 69b)."

MaryAnn said...

I have always liked the idea of holiness being related to wholeness. Of course that doesn't work with the Hebrew for holy, kadosh, which means set apart.
I think holiness is a given for us -- one that we neither recognize nor accept readily, but which is nevertheless a part of us from birth. Living into it is a matter of growing awareness and acceptance. What I'm getting at is similar to what Rabbi Rami says about being born in the Image of God, but having to work at becoming the Likeness of God.
I like the Nag Hamadi quotation and what you say in your last paragraph very much.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Mike. The Greek in question is "teleios," which may mean "perfect" or "complete." Some translators prefer "whole," though that seems more dependent upon modern tastes than language study.

As for "holy," I will have to do more work, but I suspect such a translation springs not from koine Greek but from theological or pastoral concerns.

Translation is slippery business, at best. Thanks for pushing us to engage it.