Saturday, December 28, 1996
Reflections on the January New Year
Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach,
Temple Anshe Hesed
Well, now, keep the corks in the champagne bottles for just a minute, will you? Let's think about what we're doing here. The first of January is upon us. Parties should be fully planned already. But, really, where does this holiday come from? And should we be celebrating it as well?
As Jews, our tradition has many different new years. Rosh Hashanah is not the only one -- it is the new year for the calender year, yes, but there are many others as well. There is the new year for the counting the reign of kings, in Nisan (usually early April). There is the new year for trees, coming to us this month with the holiday of Tu B'Shevat. (What this really meant is that produce grown before Tu B'Shevat would be taxed at the previous year's rates, and after Tu B'Shevat would be counted towards the following year's tally.)
And we are used to different new years in the flow of our own lives -- the school year, the fiscal year, etc. But what is the origin of the January new year? And -- to ask our perenniel, obsessive question -- is it good for the Jews?
According to Adolf Adam's book, The Liturgical Year, the celebration of January 1st as a new year in the Western world has both Roman and Christian roots. Since the beginning of the second century BCE, Roman consuls and other officials began their terms of office on the first of January. The Roman new year had always been celebrated on March 1st, but eventually, in 46 BCE, Roman officials reorganized their calendar to have the new year coincide with the beginning of their terms. A pagan festival was celebrated at this time, to honor the god Janus (hence, the month "January,") a festival which was marked by gluttony and orgies and the like.
But the seeds of a more serious side to the festival were already present: art associated with the festival pictured Janus as a two-faced god... looking backward and looking ahead at the same time. It is not a far step from that picture to the idea of new year's resolutions, to reviewing our past actions, and planning for our future.
Into this picture come the early Christians, and a lively debate over the proper date of their holiday of Christmas. The original date of Christmas (still celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox churches) was January 6th. In the second century CE, the Western church set December 25th as the date for Christmas... moving it up from January 6th in order to coincide with the Winter Solstice, which was known in Rome as the "Return of the Unconquered Sun." (That was "sun" not "son.") And... it was the custom in the ancient church (borrowed, no doubt, from our Jewish tradition of Sukkot and Passover) to celebrate major holidays for eight days. The eighth day of the celebration thus coincided with the beginning of the civil year in Rome.
Originally, to offset the raucous nature of the pagan celebration and to wean the people away from it, the early church tried to change the holiday from a feast to a fast, with pennance and a liturgy called "Protection Against Idolatry." But January 1st took on other meanings in Christianity as well. With the end of the Roman empire, and the fading fear of idolatry, the Roman Catholic church borrowed a rite from the Eastern Catholic Church called the Natale, a ceremony honoring the mother who bore the child. While the Eastern Catholic church celebrated this rite on the day after Christmas, the Roman Catholic tradition celebrated it on New Year's day, on January 1st.
Because this celebration was on the eighth day after Catholic tradition says a birth took place, it was inevitable that someone would eventually make a connection with Jewish customs. In 6th century Spain, a tradition developed to commemorate the circumsicion of Jesus on the first of January. This custom came to Rome rather late, probably in the 13th century, and was practiced by Catholics around the world... until 1969! Today, in Catholic tradition, January 1st remains a religious holiday, a Christian holiday. The Catholic liturgy for January 1st both honors the mother... and prays for peace. And today, the very year we count, the calender we turn, is Christian in content. What, after all, happens this January 1st. It becomes 1994... since what?
So what does all this mean for us as Jews? Should the fact that January 1st is a Christian religious holiday lead us to change our plans for the day in any way? Not at all. For even the Christian observance of this day is based upon an earlier tradition. And that tradition, while it might have been celebrated in pagan ways, was civil in content.
And our own tradition is clear on the following point. Dina d'malchuta dina, we are told, "the law of the land is the law." Civil law, secular law... is binding upon us as Jews, wherever we live.
Unlike December 25th, January 1st is an American holiday. January 1st remains the secular new year, the American new year. And we are Americans, bound by Jewish tradition to observe the laws and participate in the secular life of the land we call our home. So uncork the champagne, or walk the alcohol-free streets at First Night Erie, and let's celebrate (although we should probably leave the orgies well buried in the past.) As Jews, we do celebrate the coming of 1997 -- we just call it the Common Era (CE) instead of Anno Domini (which means the "Year of our Lord.") Besides -- bad tax planning as it may have been -- January 1st is my birthday. So I plan on celebrating. As will the vast majority of American Jews, along with all other Americans.
So to all of you, l'shanah tovah, er, um, I mean... Happy New Year.
Tuesday, December 10, 1996
Whose Bible Is It, Anway?
Or: Should Christianity Really Be Called Paulianity?
Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed
As a Jew in America in December, 'tis the season to ask questions. Such as: how much do we have in common with our Christian neighbors? What's a Judeo-Christian? And if Christians have the same Bible we do, why do they eat shrimp?
The answer to many of the questions about our common roots and divergent paths has to do with the question of the Scripture we seem to share in common, what Christians call the Old Testament. Educated Christians will know enough to refer to our Bible as "the Hebrew Scriptures," not "the Old Testament," but it would almost take a scholar to know why, and what the implications of the differences are.
Jews do not refer to the "Old Testament," but, rather, to the TaNaKh, or Hebrew Scriptures. When I say the word Bible, that is what I mean. It may seem like a purely linguistic distinction, but it is not. The reasons for the distinction are not just semantic (that is "old" implies a replacement, a "new" testament which is NOT part of Jewish tradition), but substantive. There are three main reasons why this is the case.
First: there are language issues: an Old Testament will translate a passage in Isaiah as saying a "virgin" will give birth. But that word is an interpretation. The Hebrew word is "alma," and there are examples elsewhere in the TaNaKh of "alma"s having sex. The word means "young woman." This word does not rule out the Christian reading. But it does not REQUIRE it. SO when a Christian can't understand what objection a Jew might have to citing this as a prediction of Mary and Jesus, the Christian does not know that the Jew is working with a different (and correct) translation: "a young woman" shall give birth.
Second: the books are in a different order in an Old Testament and a TaNaKh. The Hebrew word TaNaKh (which I would translate as "the Bible") is actually an abbreviation: it stands for the three parts of a Hebrew Bible, the Torah, the Neviim (Prophets) and the Ketuvim (the Writings), taking the first letter of the Hebrew word in each case, TNK, and adding the vowels to turn it into a pronounceable word. The Christian Bible is divided into two parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament, and so the "Old Testament" completely ignores the difference between the three sections of the TaNaKh. The three sections have different levels of authority in Judaism, Torah being the highest, and Writings being the lowest. But in Christianity, there is no distinction made between Deuteronomy (in the Torah) and Psalms (in the Writings), it is all just the OT. And, more seriously, the books are not only not in a three part division, they are in a different order altogether. A Tanakh and an OT send different messages just by placing the same books in a different order. (Think about interior design: if you have ten pieces of furniture, you can arrange them in a single room in very different ways, creating a different feeling with the very same raw material.)
ORDER MATTERS!! To go into some detail on this point: if you look at the very last line of the Old Testament, it comes from the book of Malachi, and refers to the coming of the prophet Elijah, who will turn the hearts of the children towards their parents, lest a ban be put on the land to destroy it. By making Malachi the LAST book in the OT (which it is NOT in the Jewish Bible), someone knew what they were doing. For they knew that Elijah is supposed to be the one who, in Jewish tradition, will come to predict the coming of the Messiah. So, although this line exists in the Jewish Bible, it is not the last one and the effect is not the same. As the last line it says: Messiah... OR DESTRUCTION. Turn the page... and get to the New Testament. This is a DELIBERATE message. But the last line in the Jewish Bible comes from Chronicles, the last book in our Bible. IT talks about King Cyrus, who defeated the Babylonians, who had defeated Judea and destroyed the First Temple. Cyrus says to the Jews -- you can go home, and rebuild your Temple... thus initiating the Second Temple. Now, if you are a Jew living after the time when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70, and you read this as the LAST LINE of your Bible, it sends a tremendous message of reassurance. Look. Things look bad now. But remember. We've been there before. But we came back once. And like General McArther, WE SHALL RETURN. SO, even the books that Jews and Christians share in common are arranged differently in order to send out very different messages.)
Third: not only are the words not the same (because translation involves interpretation), and not only are the books not in the same order (in order to send a different message). The very way we look at the Bible differs in Judaism and Christianity. It has to do with scissors. And it explains why Christians eat shrimp.
While Jesus may have said he did not intend to change the law, while Jesus kept kosher, while the religion that Jesus practiced was Judaism (and, so, if you think about it, Christianity is NOT the religion of Jesus, but the religion ABOUT Jesus) by the time PAUL came along, Paul said that Jesus had "fulfilled" the "laws" of the "Old Testament," and that followers of Jesus therefore no longer needed to follow the laws and traditions and holidays and customs of Judaism.
His motive for saying this was quite clear. It wasn't philisophical. It was practical. It was even... political. And it had to do with scissors. For there were two different groups of early Christians, those who had Jewish roots, and those who did not (gentiles). Paul was trying to spread the word of this new religion among the gentiles. BUT. The Jewish Bible (which Paul was still using) said quite clearly that in order to join this group men must be circumcized. At any age. Even as adults. AND, in the days before pain killers, well, let's just say that this was something of a disincentive to join. So to make it easier, Paul said: alright, you don't have to be circumcized to follow Jesus.
But how could he do that? After all, it was written quite clearly. How could he change ONE LAW of the Bible? What authority did he have to do so. The answer is: none. So he did not change one law. He changed ALL the laws, by changing the way the new group looked at Scripture. By saying that Jesus had come to "fulfill" ALL the laws of the Bible, by saying that neither those with Jewish roots nor gentiles had to follow any of those ritual rules specified in the Jewish scripture, Paul FOREVER changed the way the new group looked at Bible. While the Tanakh was a way of life (LAW) to Jews, it became only a collection of predictions for the coming of the Messiah (LORE) to Christians. (If you are from New Yorkl, "law" and "lore" may SOUND the same, but they are still quite different things.) And that is why Christians can eat bacon cheeseburgers. And that is also why I sometimes think the religion of our neighbors is misnamed. It should really be called "Paulianity."
For Jews, the TaNaKh (especially the Torah) is the story of our people, of God working WITHIN history with our people, which leads to a particular and specific way of life. It does contain predictions about a Messiah, but they are not the main point of the work, they do not specify the details of a particular story (as Christians claim they do), and they refer to a HUMAN political leader who will lead the Jews back to political power in our own land. Only later, and only in hints, are there indications that this figure might solve some of the whole world's other problems as well.
To Christians, the Old Testament is not an entree but an appetizer. It is a collection of stories whose main point is to point ahead, to a story yet to come, to a different stage of history.
Misunderstandings don't often occur when people expect differences, and are cautious, and looking out for them. Or, at least, such misunderstandings do not catch us by surprise. The worst misunderstandings occur most frequently when we think we have something in common, that we are using a word in the same way, that we have the same "Bible," even in part. When we think we share a common set of assumptions, when we think we are communicating, and we are not.
There are times, even, when Christians and Jews who speak about "religion" mean very different things by the word. But that is a story for another time. For now I will try to carefully word a sentence with which most of us might agree, as I wish all who celelbrate holidays at this season a spirit appropriate to the occasion, and those who use January 1st as a change in calendars a very happy new year.