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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 8 (March 1995)

Abstracts of the COV&R Conference in Chicago November 18, 1994

Sandor Goodhart (Cornell University), The Prophetic Tradition as a Basis for Jewish-Christian Dialogue

Charles and I outlined what has increasingly become for us a common project: the articulation of what we call "the prophetic" respectively within Hebraic and Christian cultures.

I said that the prophetic for me began with ancient 6th century Judaism with the fall of the first Temple and what I would designate as the "happening of the impossible." That which was impossible or unthinkable, the destruction of the Temple, happened. Moreover, not only did it happen, but fifty years later, something else happened which was equal in its unlikelihood only to the destruction and exile itself. The Babylonian captors of the Jews were themselves overrun by the Persians and the Jews were allowed to return home to Jerusalem. In the wake of that return, everything was different. We know very little about Israelite society before the fall of the Temple, but we know enough to say that afterward everything changed. Where before there were a number of classes of people -- prophets, kings, priests, scribes, soldiers, etc. -- after the destruction there were in effect only two classes: those who wished to reestablish the old ways, and those who wished to go on and try something new. The first group became the so-called sacrificial cult, and the second group became the early rabbis, the Talmudists and sages who later would set down the tradition and during the dispersion or diaspora would keep alive the tradition. Both groups were made up of people from all groups in the earlier distribution. And the designations Sadducees and Pharisees has sometimes been invoked to account for this split, as if the sacrificial cult were the Sadducees, and the promoters of the new were the Pharisees. But whether we accept that characterization or not, we have to believe that during the so-called "Persian period" there were basically two groups or parties, a conservative party which looked to the past to solve its problems, and a liberal party which looked to the future and unanticipated possibilities opened by this unlikely event.

What characterized this new group above all was the reading of Torah, and the group has been identified with the figure of Ezra. What we learn from the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (which were originally one book) is that Ezra returned from exile with a letter in hand from the King of Persia, he surveyed the devastation before him, and he said "Let's read."

A number of important consequences follow from this action. 1) Reading will replace sacrifice. No longer will the act of sacrifice be a prerequisite to religious practice -- as continued to be the case with other cultures, and as continued in part at least to be the case even in Jewish culture. The rejection of sacrifice, the substitution in its place of prayer and reading (which was recitation in public), were the cornerstones of this new approach.

2) The text will get canonized or constituted that is to be read. Suddenly a gathering of the texts takes place, the constitution of a sacred scripture.

3) The gathering presupposes that some materials will be accepted and others rejected. The principle of this selection will be the principle of prophetic reading. Those elements of the tradition which were seen to promote prophetic reading were retained and deemed to be a proper part of the critical canon. Those which did not promote prophetic reading or could not be interpreted prophetically were not. Elements from all compositional schools of the earlier days were included: a priestly text concerned primarily with blessing, a folktale-like text concerned with telling stories and referring to God in his intimate name, a socially conscious text which took as its concern justice; and a legal text which rewrote the earlier three from its own unique historical perspective.

Finally, I outlined what for me constituted this "prophetic" reading. The prophetic, I said, was the recognition of the dramas in which human beings were engaged and the naming in advance of the end of those dramas so that individuals could freely choose whether or not to pursue them or not. Thus the prophetic as I conceived it was a "diachronic" mode of thought, which is to say, not a mode concerned with here/there distinctions as much as then/now distinctions, not relationality but sequentiality. Conceived in this manner, I suggested, prophetic reading was not a neutral or passive activity but itself a species of ethical practice. The prophetic reading of Judaism is also the practice of Judaism, the doing of mitzvot or commandments.

At this point, I said that rather than offer a prophetic reading of one or another scriptural text, I would take up the recent debate which had occurred in the fall COV&R Bulletin and talk about some of the ways in which the responses offered to my reading of Isaiah 52-53 either did or did not recognize the prophetic orientation that underlay my position.

Charles Mabee (Ecumenical Theological Seminar Detroit), A New Grammar for Jewish-Christian Dialogue: The Prophetic Vortex of the Common Scrip tures

I believe that contrary to popular belief, it is not rival understandings of the figure of Jesus that separates the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. Christian claims about this relatively obscure figure are built upon a grammar of understanding of religious life that is unthinkable in Jewish understanding. It is this grammar of understanding that separates Jews from Christians, not the specific claims that are constructed upon it. To be more exact, the problem which we face in reconciling Judaism and Christianity is not that Judaism rejects Christian claims about Jesus, it is that Judaism has no category of thought of accepting such claims about anyone, anywhere, any place, any time. In other words, the Christian way of viewing (religious) life simply does not compute with the Jewish way. Any attempt to find rapprochement between these two religious traditions must accept this fact as its starting point: They are not simply two different religions, but they are two different kinds of religion.

Our primary task is to accept this reality and then to ask: "What does this mean? Is all dialogue between the two traditions fruitless and a waste?" I believe that the answer to this question is "No." I believe that a rapprochement is possible. That is the good news. The bad news is that such a rapprochement would exact a price for both traditions. The price would be a shaking of the foundations of each whose result would be, in essence, a new religious understanding that is neither exactly "Jewish" nor "Christian"--at least in traditional terms.

I see the way to rapprochement as existing in the writings which the two traditions hold in common (Tanak/Old Testament), rather than in the formative texts that each tradition holds in isolation from the other (Mishnah or Talmud/New Testament). In fact, the very fact that the two traditions do hold a body of writings in common as revelation is the one piece of good news in an otherwise dismal history of hostility, alienation, and oppression. However, history clearly teaches us that the pull that these common texts have in their interpretive communities has far from enabled us to find the narrow passage to rapprochement. These old writings are extraordinary complex and multifarious. The Mishnaic/Tal mudic and New Testament traditions represent how varied may be the way in which the common scriptures may be interpreted. Nonetheless, I believe that the way to rapprochement lies through the narrowing of the interpretive gap by which we read these common texts. Let me now be even more specific in my proposal: By uncovering the prophetic vortex of these Common Scriptures, I believe that we can find the common ground necessary to construct a meaningful rapprochement between Judaism and Christianity.

Both Judaism and Christianity are textually-based religions; and, simply said, canonization means the "publi cization" initially within Judaism, and subsequently within the primitive church, of the tradition of what is commonly termed the great or classical prophets. By publicization I mean the gaining of public ownership, of public identification with the voice of the prophetic outsiders who historically knew mostly rejection and persecution. The key Girardian insight that clears the ground for a prophetic biblical theology is the argument that human rationality begins in the bifurcation of victimizer and victim. In traditional, mythology-based culture, truth lies on the vic timizer side of this equation. The prophetic tradition proposed the revolutionary idea that truth lay on the side of the victim, rather than the victimizer--even if the victimizing elements be found within the Israelite power elite. For Girard, as well as for the Bible itself, this transference of truth from victimizer to victim was not something arrived at by human thought, but could only result by means of a revelation by God. Only God can give voice to the truth of victim and has the capacity to reveal to others what the victim is unable to reveal.

This new way of viewing the world through the eyes of the victim replaced traditional religion and myth. In these traditional forms, truth is understood to reside in gods and heroes, rather than in the victim. I would like to develop this Girardian hypothesis by proposing that in giving voice to the oppressed and excluded outsiders (a group determined primarily by class and economic and political powerlessness), the classical Hebrew prophets voluntarily placed themselves in the same category of oppression and exclusion. Seen in this way, the conflict between the so-called "true" and "false" prophets that we see so powerfully in 1 Kgs. 22 and Jer. 28 is really a conflict over the nature of prophecy itself--will it be identified with the powerful elite or the powerless underclass? The classical Hebrew prophet then is best understood as the first self- chosen scapegoat in world history. Ultimately the Deuteronomization of the tradition that took place in the Exile with the attendant rise of text-based Judaism, represents the publicization or main-streaming of this prophetic outsider tradition, a fact which should be understood as normative for both Judaism and Christianity (as well as Islam, a subject that goes beyond the scope of this paper).

The achievement of bringing the obscure and scapegoated prophetic outsiders and the texts which they either produced, or was produced around them, into the vortex of Judaic religious understanding is the achievement of the Hebrew canon. Following the structure of the Old Testament canon, the reader "knows" that these prophets bring the authentic word of God when we read them, because we have already been conditioned to recognize their authenticity by the canonical material that precedes them in the canon.

Hans Jensen (Åarhus Universitet), Nature, Bible, Priestly Theology: A Reply to Sandor Goodhart and Charles Mabee

Instead of the announced paper on Joseph, Levi-Strauss, and Girard, I improvised a paper on Priestly Theology in the Hebrew Bible as an answer to the morning's first papers by Sandor Goodhart and Charles Mabee on "Jewish-Christian Dialogue on Torah and Prophecy", which centered on the prophetic tradition and the act of reading. There is, I believe, a "hidden tradition", undere stimated in Christianity, which is the cultic dimension of the Hebrew Bible, crystallized in the Priestly writings of the Pentateuch. Although rarely reflected upon explicitly, it is still alive, implicitly, in the liturgy of the church, and probably in the synagogue as well. This cult is about the relationship to the material world first; its main concept is blessing, rather than salvation. To acknowledge the (theological and philosophical) legitimacy of this tradition is, perhaps, another way of approaching the same problematic which Michel Serres treated in his book Le Contrat naturel (1990): nature, material world, is a factor which should not be ignored in thinking on violence and desire. Moreover, the priestly tradition may be a meeting point not only for Jewish and Christian theologies, but for non-biblical theologies as well.

Robert J. Daly, S.J. (Boston College), Is Christianity Sacrificial or Antisacrificial?

One must first define whether one is using "Christianity" and "sacrificial" normatively (ideally) or descriptively (phenomenologically). Normatively, one could see "Christianity" as the ideal of nonviolent, selfgiving love and service exemplified by Jesus and taught as the central message of the gospel, and "sacrificial" as the actual, practical ways in which heroically holy Christians follow that example. Descriptively, one could see "Christianity" as the sum of crude and violent behavior that has characterized much of the history of Christianity, and "sacrificial" in accord with the negative, destructive ideas popularly associated with that word. If both terms are taken normatively, or both taken descriptively, the answer I give to our question is affirmative; but what one understands by that is in each case totally different. One can, of course, dispute my definitions, but if that is where we begin, we will at least be arguing on the same page.

We must also be "up front" about the voices in which we speak: e.g., in my case, of one committed both to critical scholarship (as in this discussion) and to the Christian Word (which inevitably has some effect on my scholarly voice).

Keying my position is the finding that when the Christian Scriptures speak of "Christian sacrifice" (Rom 12:1-2; 15:15-16;1 Pet 2:4-10; Heb 10:19-25; 13:10-16), the meaning is spiritualized-ethical, not liturgical-ritual. But instead of looking there and to the Christ event, early Christians usually looked to the already (even in Judaism) superseded sacrificial ideas of the Hebrew Scriptures. Christians in the Reformation also did not look there, but to a phenomenological definition of the "essence" of sacrifice as including both oblation and destruction, in order to determine whether or not the Mass (whose es sence was overly narrowly focused on the "moment of consecration") was a "true and proper sacrifice" as the Council of Trent put it.

Most interesting to me, however, remains the question: When Christian sacrifice (read atonement/salvation /redemption) is taking place, what, phenomenologically, is happening?

Paul B. Duff (The George Washington University, Washington D.C.), The Sacrificial Character of Earliest Christianity: A Response to Robert Daly's "Is Christianity Sacrificial or Anti-Sacrificial?"

The focus of my response is on one of the questions posed by Daly in his manuscript (p.6): "What is the sacrificial activity, if any, which the first few generations of Christians participate?" I suggest that Daly, although he himself has posed the question, ultimately dismisses it. Instead, he assumes that Christianity rejected temple sacrifice and chose instead to talk about sacrifice in an exclusively metaphorical or spiritual sense. In contrast, I argue that earliest Christianity did not reject temple sacrifice. In support of my position are traditions found in Matthew, Mark, Luke/Acts, and Paul (as well as other NT texts). These traditions assume (and hence, tacitly approve) temple sacrifice. Although I do not deny that there was a tendency to spiritualise sacrifice in early Christianity, this tendency alone does not necessarily exclude actual temple activity. Finally, I contend that the anti-sacrificial (or anti-temple) trajectory found in early Christianity (e.g. Barnabas 2:4-10) results not from any inherent critique of the sacrificial system in early Christianity but rather from Christians attempting to produce a theological explanation for the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E.