a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Travel bLog Entry #5 – The Joys of Jewish Study

Posted on: July 19, 2016

Because of my limited Hebrew skills I’m limited in the classes that I can take at Pardes. So instead of pouring over a line in a tractate of Talmud word by word with a Hebrew/English dictionary, I get to spend my morning sessions talking about the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of Judaism (and I would argue Christianity and possibly Islam, though in Islam the story shifts a bit in terms of whose story is told and whose is not, which we could say is problematic in Judaism and Jewish text as a whole, but that’s another day and another blog).

So Patriarchs.

We’ve been studying the story of Abraham and we have come upon the Akedah, which some Jewish scholars argue is the pivotal narrative of this idea of trust/faith in Gd because to our modern ears (and likely to the ears of Abraham) the idea of sacrificing ones child just because Gd says so is, well, absurd. And this is a point that I will stick firmly at, no matter what. And that’s fine because, Jewish.

But what I found to be incredibly interesting today was from a Rabbinic Midrash from the 2nd century that sounded very much like Christianity. Of course when I read it in chevruta I didn’t know it was from the 2nd century, but I guessed it probably was. And what I find interesting and a benefit to being not just a convert to Judaism, but someone who is and was exposed to other faith traditions is that I saw it right away. Because my chevruta also had exposure and learning of other faith traditions, they saw it too – which was a relief. So it got me wondering about how not only the monotheistic religions influenced one another, but specifically how the early Christians influenced Judaism (and possibly vice versa, but I don’t think this as much).

Something I think about a lot is the idea of Christianity in the first and second centuries vs the Christianity we think of today. This, of course, can be said of Judaism and Islam but for now, in this rare instance on my blog, I’m going to start with a focus on Christianity. So when we think of “the Jews” and “the Christians” they seem pretty dissimilar with Jesus at the point of fissure, which is correct. What most folks don’t often think of is that early Christians were in many ways just a weird off-shoot of Jews. Sure, Jews who found a prophet they believed to be the messiah, but for all intents and purposes, they probably looked, prayed and acted much like the Jews around them. They weren’t a big group of folks and they weren’t like we think of Christians today.

Midrash Tanchuma, Genesis 22

“And rose up” — Satan accosted him and appeared to him in the guise of an old man. The latter asked him: where are you going? Abraham replied: to pray. Said Satan: If a man is going to pray, why do you have fire and a knife in your hand, and wood on your shoulder? … and Satan retorted: the same Gd who commanded you to sacrifice your soon will tomorrow tell you that you are a shedder of blood … As soon as Satan saw that Abraham was not to be moved, he went and assumed the form of a large river. Abraham then plunged in and it kept getting higher and higher. Abraham continued to go. Eventually the waters reached his neck. Abraham cast his eye heavenward and cried out to Gd: Lord of the Universe, you called me to offer my son Isaac for a burnt offering I did not hold back, but now the waters are dangering life itself. If Isaac of myself drown, who will fulfill Your command? The Holy One, blessed be He immediately caused the spring to stop flowing and the river dried up and they stood on dry ground.

Let me say two things:

I don’t know Hebrew so I’m using a translation given to me as a handout-it also seems that there is some missing text.

There’s a LOT of stuff going on in this Midrash.

But for me the idea of Satan and Satan talking to Abraham as he’s set out to do what we think of as the most deplorable thing Gd could ask of a person immediately reminds me of the story of Jesus (Isaac) and Satan testing Jesus when Jesus is told that Gd (Abraham) will sacrifice him.

The similarity in stories is so blantant to me that I immediately said aloud, I bet this Midrash was written near the time of Jesus and got confirmation from the rabbi who teaches the class that it was in either the first or second century, roughly 100-200 years after Jesus.

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As you can see by my notes (which have now been edited to say “DISSERTATION IDEA!”) the connection to Judaism and indeed Islam is CRYSTAL CLEAR.

Sticking to the Jewish – Christian idea it makes clear sense that the author of this Midrash is living in the time of these “new Christians” or “sect of Jews” who are going around the land doing as their prophet advised to spread the word of their prophet. So in order to keep the Jews separate from this sect of Jews, or “new Christians” this story is helpful, and interesting because I’ve never heard/read of this idea of Satan in the context of Judaism outside of this Midrash (correct me if I’m wrong). On the other side of the coin we have this sect of Jews or “new Christians” who are going out and trying to recruit new followers. How amazing to use the story of Jesus and relate it back to this story that they, themselves, would know (or their ancestors) because just like Jesus was a Jew his followers were also Jews and therefore familiar with the Akedah.

Of course when we look at Islam and the Akedah the story follows the line of Ishmael, not Isaac. It is Ishmael who is offered to Gd as a sacrifice and Islam comes about in the 7th Century. There is, too, in Islam a connection to Judaism and therefore Christianity in this story. And I wonder (scholars of Islam add comment now) if in Islam there is a connection to the idea of Jesus’ relation to the story of the Akedah since Muslims venerate Jesus as a prophet.

I say all of this to put a HUGE microscope on how much more alike we; Jews, Muslims and Christians, are than we are different. We all tell this story, the names and places change but the story is the same. To see this Midrash in Eretz Yisrael at a time when the talks of land and ownership and whose Gd promised what to whom was profound to say the least.

 

 

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