Friday, April 29, 2011

The Jewish Prodigal

Reflections & Religion

This essay is a continuation of a previous post, The Jewish Way.

"For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."
—Matthew 5:20, Christian Bible

These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: "Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans;  but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
—Matthew 10: 5-6, Christian Bible

But He answered and said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
Matthew 15:24, Christian Bible

Return of the Prodigal Son: "The Holy One, blessed be God, said to Israel: 'My children, present to me a single opening of repentance, small like the eye of a needle, and I will open for you entrances through which wagons and carriages can pass.'" –Shir Hashirim Rabbah 5:3
Painter: Pompeo Batoni [1708-87]: Painted in 1773
Source: Wikipedia

As is common with many educated, well-read and intellectually honest and curious persons, I have read both the Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible, including the New Testament. I have also read much of the surrounding literary works of both acclaimed Jewish and Christian writers and have enjoyed, for the most part, what they have written, although not always in agreement with their ideas or aims.

One of the most common themes in literature is teshuvah, or return and repentance. I am not a follower of the Christian tradition by any means, but one of the most famous stories that focuses on this theme in the Christian faith is The Prodigal Son.

It is a touching parable attributed to Jesus of Nazareth about a wayward son who asks for his inheritance when his father is still alive—a real slap in the face of tradition—squanders it living the high life, and ends up destitute and feeding the pigs, an unkosher animal that symbolizes non-Jewish ways and traditions. He eventually makes it home, expecting to be treated with contempt, but is instead received in kindness and joy as a king.

In the Christian tradition, the story is significant in that it speaks about God's patient and enduring love for humanity in general and his love for his own, in this case, followers of the Christian church in particular. There is no getting way from that reality when one reads the Christian interpretation of the story, even from the most liberal and Judaic-knowledgeable and -aware sources.

Even so, the conventional Christian interpretation, as full of humanity and humility it contains, surely misses the mark. Unfortunately, this view, even shared by Christian scholars and theologians of first-rank minds, fails to take into account a few essential points. In short, the whole social and cultural history of the parable and frame it within the proper context.

That being said, I would like to add another interpretation of this famous and well-liked parable. A midrash so to speak, in a sort of inquiry to the narrative's meaning. I am not a biblical scholar or a Judaic studies scholar, but I am fairly familiar with the biblical narratives contained in the main books of both Judaism and Christianity and the traditions that inform them. So I say this not without knowledge or thought. The story of the Prodigal Son is actually about Jewish teshuvah or return to Jewish ways and values.

That is, the story is directed only at Jesus' co-religionists at the time, his fellow Jews. His message is directly aimed at the idea of  maintaining their Jewish ways and traditions, even in the face of opposition and the temptation to assimilate into the larger surrounding culture of Hellenistic Greece, which still had resonance in Roman-conquered Judea.  There is no getting away from that fact, and I am not sure how Christians today can read anything but that essential truth into the story.

Return of the Prodigal Son:  "To bring another to repentance, I go down all the steps until I reach his level. Then I bind the roots of my soul to the roots of his soul, and together our souls repent." –Rabbi Zusya of Anipol
Painter: James Tissot [1836-1902]. Painted between 1886 and 1894.
Source: Brooklyn Museum in New York

The Jewish Context

In the end we have to see what the text says. So, at the risk of offending some Christian sensibilities, and I expect I will against my best intentions, there is some important context that is missing from the conventional Christian reading. Such happens often when a reader interprets a particular narrative with preconceived conclusions about the text's meaning. In a sense, reading into the text ideas and traditions that matured later, when the text was emended to conform to the later Christian tradition and practices. Thus explains the conventional Christian reading of the text, found in the Christian New Testament, about a people (Christians) that yet did not exist.

Yet, the centre does not hold. After Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Romans for sedition for seemingly calling for an insurrection against the established order, a conclusion that fearfully and naturally came to those leaders when he publicly declared himself King-Messiah of the Jewish People, he became another Jew brutally executed by the Romans. The long-hoped and -awaited outcome of the Messiah's power to bring about peace and justice never materialized for the Jewish People. Or for any people for that matter. Nothing really changed for centuries.

Thus, given such context, here are some points to note:
  • Jesus of Nazareth was a practicing Pharisee; as were his disciples.
  • As a Pharisee, Jesus was never against Pharisees; nor was he in the main against the traditions of normative Judaism. He spoke harshly only against certain ceremonial laws and traditions that burdened people.
  • Jesus' mission, for want of a better word, was only to Jews, to the "House of Israel," as he put it. Jesus of Nazareth displayed a marked chauvinism toward his people, which would be expected from a Pharisee from Galilee under Roman oppression.
  • All his parables were directed at his fellow co-coreligionists, the Jewish People. 
  • Jesus of Nazareth had no desire to start another religion. He operated within the bounds of Judaism and the Laws of Moses, which he kept. I sense that he would have been horrified to see the handiwork of Paul of Tarsus.
Such is a good starting point to discuss the parable and derive a meaning from it. To a great degree, Jesus of Nazareth, viewed himself as the long-awaited Jewish messiah, and would have been surprised, if not shocked, to see a new religion, apart from Judaism, founded in his name. Such is well-argued by Hyam Maccoby, a Jewish scholar, in The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1986):
Jesus and his immediate followers were Pharisees. Jesus had no intention of founding a new religion. He regarded himself as the Messiah in the normal Jewish sense of the term, i.e. a human leader who would restore the Jewish monarchy, drive out the Roman invaders, set up an independent Jewish state, and inaugurate an era of peace, justice and prosperity (known as "the kingdom of God.") for the whole world. Jesus believed himself to be the figure prophesised in the Hebrew Bible who would do all these things. He was not a militarist and did not build up an army to fight the Romans, since he believed that God would perform a great miracle to break the power of Rome (p. 15).
So, if Jesus of Nazareth didn't have a new religion or way in mind, who did? That distinction goes to Paul (or Saul) of Tarsus. If you read the the text critically, you will come to the same conclusion. Many scholars, including Maccoby, have argued, and I think rather successfully, that Paul invented Christianity "as a new religion, which developed away from both normal Judaism and the Nazarene variety of Judaism. In the new religion, the Torah was abrogated as having had only temporary validity" (16).

Another Jewish scholar who wrote a ground-breaking work almost one hundred years ago was Joseph Klausner, a professor of Hebrew history and literature at Hebrew University. In Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching (1922), Klausner placed Jesus within the framework of First Century Judaism as a great teacher of morality, who was pure in his teaching while expounding undiluted Hebraic thought, free from any prevailing ideas of the surrounding culture:
Jesus of Nazareth, however, was a product of Palestine alone, a product of Judaism unaffected by any foreign admixture. There were many Gentiles in Galilee, but Jesus was in no way influenced by them. In his days Galilee was the stronghold of the most enthusiastic Jewish patriotism. Jesus spoke Aramaic and there is no hint that he knew Greek—none of his sayings show any clear mark of Greek literary influence. Without any exception he is wholly explained by the scriptural and Pharisaic Judaism of his time. (p. 363).
Jesus is not many, if not most, of the things that the Christian tradition has ascribed to him, including him being divine, an affront to the teachings of the Torah and the Shema. Despite what even well-meaning Christian writers have said, the Jewish People could never accept such a teachings two thousand years ago, nor could they accept it today, so great is the distance from traditional Judaism.

Judaism has a much longer history and tradition, rich in writing, argument and literature. So where does Jesus fit in? Klausner places him in the proper place: "But Jesus is, for the Jewish nation, a great teacher of morality and an artist in parable." (414)

So, that being clear, we can now we return to the parable of the prodigal son, and its place within the literature of Judaism and Christianity. So, where does that leave the Gentiles in the story? one may ask. At the same place Gentiles have always been. Within a set of beliefs and traditions within a structured narrative. I would be foolish to think the arguments I put forward in my simple midrash will change someone's views, let alone two thousand years of Christian tradition. That would be impossible, and it's not my intent.

The intent here is to bring about a Jewish perspective from someone outside the Christian tradition. And to make people consider other points of view. To Think. To Review. To Discuss. In the Jewish tradition, Jesus of Nazareth is looked upon with suspicion, hesitation, fear and hostility. Such are natural, normal and expected responses to almost two thousand years of persecution in the name of Jesus. The result has been that Jews have been reluctant to discuss such things, and it's understandable why many don't.

That the Pauline writings, anti-Jewish sentiments and Christian tradition the last two thousand years have conspired to divorce Jesus  from his Jewish soul, or neshamah, and turn him into something foreign is assuredly outside his doing or control. But recent scholarship in the last century—some of which I have cited— has changed such views, albeit gradually, perhaps grudgingly. Jesus of Nazareth comes into sharper view.

Jesus of Nazareth was a man who considered himself a zealous messiah for his people. This is in addition to him being a Pharisee and a follower of the Laws of Moses. He fits in squarely among the great moral teachers of his time. This is clear if you read his sayings and the historical accounts with a clear and honest eye and mind.

Teshuvah, the Return to the Jewish Way

The parable of the prodigal or lost son might have universal resonance as a message of love, hope, redemption and forgiveness. But that might not be the parable's original intent, when one considers that it was delivered by Jesus of Nazareth, the Galilean Pharisee, to a Jewish audience in a form of a parable to hide its meaning from non-Jewish ears.

If that is understood and accepted, then the story becomes clearer. much like a negative put in developing solution. It's about maintaining the traditions of Judaism and the ways of the Jewish People in the face of opposition, both physical and spiritual.

Moreover, the parable becomes a reminder to the Jewish audience that the dangers of assimilation and integration are real and great, but one can either resist or not and always return to the Jewish fold, as the prodigal son did, and reap the rewards of the Jewish Way. The reward, for the Jews, is to live in conformance to the thousands of years of hard-fought and deeply thought traditions, from Moses downward.

Equally important, the text shows that Jesus of Nazareth was sincere about himself being the instrument to bring freedom, justice and peace to his people and usher in the messianic age. That he failed is also undeniable. So did many others, who claimed the mantle of Jewish Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth was one of the first of many. But he failed as a Jewish Messiah. That is an important and fair distinction to make.