Thursday, December 31, 2009

Middle East Weather

In a previous posting, 'The Dog River Tablets', we had indicated that the long history of conquest and empire in the Middle East had caused trauma and tight belonging and attachment to traditional cultures among the peoples of the region.

The following link depicts this history in a graphic and dynamic fashion:

From this bird's eye (satellite) view, empires moved back and forth, like warm and cold fronts, imitating the weather across the millenia, bringing both calm and storm to the people of the region.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Real 'Da Vinci Code'

"Those who know all, but are lacking in themselves, are utterly lacking."
- Jesus of Nazareth in The Gospel of Thomas


In December 1945, a peasant farmer from Upper Egypt named Mohammed Ali Samman made a most unusual discovery.

Digging near some limestone caves, Samman came upon a large earthenware jar. He knew that he had found something out of the ordinary and proceeded to smash the jar open, hoping to find buried treasure. He did indeed find a treasure, but not the sort that he had expected: contained within were some 12 leather-bound papyrus books written in the Coptic language.

This collection of books, which have since been translated, are known today as the Nag Hammadi Library or Nag Hammadi Codices - so named because of the proximity of their discovery to the town of Nag Hammadi in southern Egypt.

The books include fifty-two early Christian treatises that date back to around the 3rd or 4th century AD. The writings themselves are thought to be of an earlier origin.

It is believed that the books may have belonged to a nearby Christian monastery, which hastily buried the texts in order to save them from destruction at the hands of the church, which condemned the use of unsanctioned religious texts in 367 AD.

Among the more interesting and notable of the writings is a text called The Gospel of Thomas. This document is a list of sayings attributed to Jesus.

Stripped of context, and in many instances bordering on the indecipherable, these sayings give a very different impression of the Jesus we know in the New Testament gospels - all of which underwent considerable editing over the ages.

Certainly what comes across in the Gospel of Thomas is a Jesus somewhat removed from the more simplistic and didactic Jesus of the New Testament gospels. And as such it may be that the Gospel of Thomas is a more genuine and accurate representation of the historical Jesus.

The early Gnostics maintain that Jesus was not just a religious pep-talker or teacher of morals, but was a man who had a certain practical knowledge to impart.

The word Gnostic derives from the Greek word gnosis meaning "knowledge" or the "act of knowing.”

The Gnostics held "the conviction that direct, personal and absolute knowledge of the authentic truths of existence is accessible to human beings, and, moreover, that the attainment of such knowledge must always constitute the supreme achievement of human life.”

To the ancient Gnostics, Jesus was part of such a tradition and the Nag Hammadi Codices contain writings that view Christianity in the light of that very tradition.

The Islamic faith, which has its own traditions of Jesus (who Muslims view as a prophet and teacher), depict him similarly.

The Nag Hammadi Codices had a convoluted trajectory, passing through the hands of numerous people including historians, antique dealers, monks, and in the case of one of the books: the Carl Jung Institute in Zurich, before finding their way to the Coptic Museum in Cairo where they are housed today.

The texts were rejected outright by the ruling authorities of Christianity and remain heretical.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Middle East Institutions - Charcuterie

Rabbi Hanina St., 3, Jaffa) is a Middle East Institution in the making. If it lasts long enough and maintains its excellent fare, it will be a place to resort to without fail.

Situated in the pedestrian streets around the old Jaffa Souk and flea market, it is a resto-bar that is highly conducive to conversation and late night cavorting. It has all the marks of a good "hang-out": with a full and relaxed atmosphere and enough surrounding competition to keep its standards up.

The food is superb, marked by
choucroute and the chef's sausages of all varieties. The owners and staff are part of the crowd that spills into the street on summer nights.

The restaurant is marked by a memorable stained glass image of the city where it is located.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Chosen: The Litmus Test

To some, Israel represents a monolithic block of injustice against the Palestinians and disregard for its neighbours.

In fact, there are many vocal Israelis who query these relations and what it means to be Jewish in Israel today. They ask questions that cut deep about secular and religious Jewish identity. Even if their dialogues don't always see wide distribution, individuals like Menachem Klein, Avram Burg, and Shlomo Sand share a common desire, with varying approaches, for a critique of Israel beyond the question of its survival.

These individuals wish to move Israelis and Jews to a new understanding of their society. Like Old Testament prophets, they have a tough time of it, garnering as much criticism as their fore-bearers. Their words may seem like 'cries in the wilderness' while occupation and conflict continue.

As is the case with many Middle Eastern identities, the past remains a large ingredient of what it means to be Jewish today. The Jewish people have survived over millenia. Among many achievements, they have utilized a book of scripture to preserve their culture, resurrected a holy language and transformed it into a vernacular, and returned after centuries to a land described in these scriptures as their home.

Indeed, the commitment of Jews to their culture (and, by some, to their faith) is remarkable in its durability despite tribulation: Jews have survived a great number of the difficulties and traumas that history can inflict. That survival has resulted in the state of Israel: a country that represents a haven and fortress for a people that has 'wandered' and suffered for thousands of years.

Jews have indeed often overcome massive odds, preserved their identity and founded a state. But, is the purpose of all the triumphs and defeats of history only the survival of the group for its own sake? Or do Jews have a larger mission implicit in their compact with their scriptures and with themselves?

It is a natural human instinct to put the needs of our group’s survival above all else. If the main goal of the Jewish people is group survival for its own sake, then indeed Jews in Israel should fight at all costs to survive with few other considerations. The mission would be clear and simple and the litmus test would be, indeed, survival. If that is the case, then the question of any larger purpose is moot.

But, it is the Jews themselves who claim a higher calling.

Throughout history, Jews have been the reverse of simply a tribe: they have been also the source of many universal laws for greater human development. From Abraham the patriarch of three faiths, to the message of Jesus, to Freud's breakthroughs in psychology, to Marxist dialectics, to Einstein's laws of physics, Jews have contributed hugely to the discovery of universal laws of great utility to humanity.

Indeed, this tendency may derive directly out of the scriptures on which Jewish culture and bonds are based. These writings may reflect a deep interest in understanding a unifying and universal being; they may spur a millennial commitment and a longstanding search for universals.

Today's Jewish nationalism, and many actions of the state of Israel, have much to do with the preservation of a people, or a tribe, and little with that greater principle.

The fact is that the creation of Israel has resulted in the suffering and displacement of another people, the Palestinians, as well as chronic conflict with its neighbours. Yet, in all faiths and in most societies, healthy relations with outsiders is a consistent marker of properly meeting a larger reality.

If Israel and Jews have a larger road, then Israel's relations with its neighbours are today’s litmus test: Is the group effectively the centre of its universe or is it, like all things, a means of outreach to a greater whole?

In the early 20th century, Martin Buber, an early Zionist and philospher, believed that the Jews should live alongside the Arabs in a new enterprise. He pleaded with his fellow Zionists for a bi-nationalist project: Arab and Jew. He believed both peoples were there to serve the land, and not to compete over its acreage. In his view, the universal call in Jewish scripture would be the spark of a more constructive and less exclusive relation with others at all levels: political, social and moral.

Martin Buber lost his battle but the struggle has been picked up by others. Recently, Avram Burg, former Speaker of the Knesset, wrote a book entitled 'Defeating Hitler'. It claims that Hitler had in fact won, not by destroying the Jewish people but by leaving them with enough trauma and fear to create an oppressive force for survival in the Middle East. 'Defeating Hitler' would mean moving away from this trauma and towards a renewal of the Jewish universalism cultivated so successfully in the past in the Islamic world, in Europe and elsewhere.

The basic question that Jews, Israelis, and all groups must ask is: What is the purpose of an identity? What is its litmus test? Only survival for its own sake? Or is it an instrument for larger growth, an extension from the particular towards universal qualities - a stretch that Jews have in fact excelled at for millenia.