Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 8/26 Post

At the risk of romanticizing the lone prophet, I do have qualms about community when it comes to spiritual breakthroughs and revolutions. To borrow from my teacher Ellis Rivkin, one of the premier historians of Judaism, I can see how communities replicate past forms and innovate within them, but I don’t see them mutating into new ones. Mutation or revolution comes from the genius (or madness) of the lone prophet.

Rabbinic Judaism was a mutation. There is nothing in Judaism prior to the Pharisees that would lead one to imagine that God gave a second Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. Once the mutation took hold and created a community the community’s job was to replicate the early teachings of the mutation and innovate from them.

The question now becomes: Was Jesus a replication, innovation, or mutation? If we say he was a “corrective,” then we can argue he was an innovation, proving our point by citing Jesus’ own teachings about the chief commandments in Matthew 22:37-39: “You shall love YHVH your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus is simply quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, and while his understanding of these commandments may be innovative, he is not teaching anything radically new. Yet I cannot help but think there is more to Jesus’ teaching than this.

I think that what makes Jesus a mutation rather than an innovation is his open table.

The original Table of God was the altar upon which the priests performed the sacrificial slaughter demanded by God. The Pharisees introduced a new table, the dinner table if you will, as an alternative place of meeting: “Rabbi Shimon (ben Netanel) teaches, If three eat together and share no Torah, theirs is a feast for idols. Hence it says, “Without God, all tables are full of vomit and filth,” (Isaiah 28:8). But if three eat together and share Torah, theirs is a feast with God. Hence it says, “And he said to me, ‘This is God’s table.’” (Ezekiel 41:22) (Pirke Avot 3:4).

Jesus didn’t invent the idea of God’s Table, but he did radically depart from the traditional guest list, and that was his mutation. But I may be quibbling over words, for I can certainly see how one might argue that this is innovative rather than mutative.

Your assertion that “all of us already sit at that table,” however, is clearly a mutation. This is far more radical than saying that all of us are invited to sit at that table. Mother Wisdom in the Hebrew Book of Proverbs (chapter 8) invites everyone to Her table, and I can see how the Christian Church in all its forms does the same, but to say we are already at the table is to say something else entirely.

If we are all at the table then creed, faith, religious preference, etc. neither preference nor prejudice one from sitting at God’s table. The notion that some are in and others are out, the core teaching of almost all religions, is dismissed as bigoted fantasy. We are all in.

I think you are clarifying the heart of Jesus’ mutation: we are all already at God’s Table. You don’t have to earn a place at the table. You only have to realize you are already there. So much for heaven and hell; so much for the saved and the damned. There are only the full and the hungry, and being one or the other depends solely on one’s capacity to stop and smell the pot roast.

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