Anniversary of Crisis and Change — the 10th of Tevet

Today, Jews (really really observant Jews) fast during the daylight hours to recall a devastating event of over 2500 years ago. This, the 10th day of the month of Tevet, is remembered as the anniversary of the Babylonian king’s assault of Jerusalem. Tradition maintains that it was on this day in 587 B.C. that Nebuchadnezzar began his siege against the capital of Judah. The Babylonians ultimately prevailed, taking down not just the nation but also its glorious temple, remembered as built by King Solomon and dedicated to God who would be mysteriously present for God’s people from that place. The Babylonians also removed a number of the most important people from Jerusalem and brought them back to Babylon, where they remained until Cyrus II conquered Babylon and allowed them to return. Many stayed for generations after that, and a vibrant Jewish community grew up in the region in what is present-day Iraq.

Light in Winter

Are we all still such children or even animals at heart that we so love the light? For those of us in the northern hemisphere, and especially those in the northernmost reaches of the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is cause for celebration. As a kid growing up in Duluth, Minnesota, I remember in the last days before Christmas break slipping into my school clothes in a morning darkness, eating breakfast in the dark, and walking to school while it was still dark. When it was time to walk home again, the sky had already turned to dusk. Then one morning, my mom would greet me with delight, “The days are getting longer now!” Her joy was as striking as the news itself.

Holiday Bible Surprises

Some things one might expect to find in the Bible aren’t there at all; while sometimes what we do find is downright surprising. Take Hanukkah, for instance — not there! Ironically, not in the Jewish bible, but it is in the Orthodox Christian bible (in part — 1 Maccabees, if you’re looking). Meanwhile, the Christian Christmas stories don’t all jibe, and they include some surprises of their own.

In the Game of Cultural Background: Iran vs. Israel

Referring to the Cyrus Cylinder, Ahmadinejad is reported as saying that it represents the kind of foundation on which people can build a highly developed civilization. So far, so good, as it goes. But he reputedly went on to note the relative lack of such a foundation for the “Zionist regime” — meaning Israel?, Judaism? Let’s see… the Bible?! Not that I believe that we should look to the Bible for a modern nation of Israel, but gosh, in the game of cultural background, I’m afraid he’s going to need a new strategy.

Jesus and Groundhog Day

            I love the movie Groundhog Day. It’s such a great story about redemption, and I for one, an accomplished bumbler, would love a few do-overs to get things right. Besides, the film’s hilarious. I might have guessed that it would have some sort of religious theme to it, but until recently, I didn’t imagine that Punxsutawney Phil and Jesus share that auspicious day… and not by mere coincidence. Groundhog Day is exactly forty days after Christmas Eve, and Jewish religious tradition required that certain things happen forty days after a boy’s birth. Those traditions, together with ancient legends, ultimately led to the connection of that cheeky little varmint with the Christian “light of the world.”

The Whole “Blood Libel” Thing

That Sarah sure does have a way with words. Palin’s latest, not an “oops” moment but actually something she posted online, upped the righteous hackles of a lot of people and left others going, “huh?” So, what is it? In short: “blood libel” is an accusation originally and historically used as a means of inciting hatred against Jews. (Reminder: Palin has worked hard to be sure that no one doubts her evangelical Christian identity.) It has evolved to include anyone falsely accused, which is how Palin appears to have intended it when she claimed to be the victim of a blood libel following allegations that her rhetoric and politics contributed to Loughner’s twisted decision to shoot in Tucson.

Anne Rice, the Bible, and Cyrus the Great

I just finished Anne Rice’s Servant of the Bones. From the original queen of vampire writing, who’d have thought? A book that includes not just the gothic but profound questions of purpose and identity and (here’s what’s especially intriguing to me right now) reflects some good research into ancient Near Eastern religion and history. Marduk, the god of ancient Babylon, plays a role, Cyrus II, who founded the Persian Empire; so too the Jewish hasidim of our time.  The main character learns to love and pursue learning, even while he dissolves, shape-shifts, kills, saves, and knocks on heaven’s door. A cool read, all around…

A Gospel Easter

This essay first appeared in the Fredricksburg Free Lance-Star on April 4, 2010.  

Of all the Christian holidays, it’s Christmas that gets the most attention. And can you blame us for that? Light and life in the dead of winter, gifts galore, and cookies to boot — no wonder it’s a favorite. Yet Easter is the most important Christian holiday and was celebrated long before Christmas became what it is today. We can be comfortable with Christmas, its jollity and twinkling beauty, the stable, newborn, and serene mother. Easter, on the other hand, is different and a bit unsettling. For one thing, it is preceded by a gruesome, torturous death by crucifixion. What’s more, it’s based on an utterly unnatural event — the coming back to life again of a definitely dead man. Let’s face it, being born is nothing special. We’ve all done it, and in every case at least one person was on hand to witness the occasion. But resurrection?… 

The Bible and Sherlock Holmes

I wish I’d had the presence of mind to bring a notebook with me to “Sherlock Holmes.” I should know better — that the Bible shows up everywhere. This movie was no exception. A fun flick — a little cerebral, lots of action, and a sobering reminder that what may seem to be convincing magic is sophisticated manipulation of the physical world. (And its seductive agent may be a malicious liar.) The movie has several biblical references that I just can’t remember in detail. In addition to the evil Blackwood’s overt associations with Jesus (busting out of his tomb after 3 days, eucharist-like ritual, and address as “Lord”), was it Revelation 1:18 that Blackwood cites? (And does the movie make the common mistake of identifying the book as “Revelations,” with an “s” on the end?) Also, I remember being startled to see several Hebrew Bible/Old Testament references in the iconography of Blackwood’s estate. For example, was it an altar or a kind of throne-like structure that was flanked by golden winged creatures (like descriptions of the biblical ark of the covenant… which serves in the temple as a kind of divine ottoman)? And what’s with the Hebrew shin, lamed, mem, vav, tav writing underneath some structure (again, was it a different scene with Blackwood on a throne)? In the Hebrew Bible that word appears as such as a proper name. It also appears as a word modifying “stones” in a couple of references to building an altar of “unhewn” stones (so translated because the word is based on the root shin, lamed, mem which can mean “whole”; that’s where the word shalom “peace” comes from, too). I still don’t quite “get” why it would be in that scene, though, unless it’s meant to mark an altar where a sacrifice would be perfomed (as in Deut 27:6 and Josh 8:31). Whatever the case, does this association of Hebrew with the occult have anti-Semitic implications? While I don’t think that that the movie is anti-Jewish (after all, the guy manipulating these symbols and appealing to New Testament texts is obviously mis-directed… to say the least), such associations can be problematic, given the long Christian suspicion of Jewish rituals and traditions. Overall, the movie was good, entertaining fun and gives astute viewers some intriguing things to think about. 

Happy Hanukkah!

 As my dear friend and colleague Jack Spiro says of this and other Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Now, let’s eat!” Good wishes to Jewish friends and family celebrating this Festival of Lights! Latkes for all. You may enjoy this column by Ben Romer, a Richmond-area rabbi — a thoughtful meditation on the season. Did you know that although the book of Daniel is set during the periods of Babylonian exile and Persian diaspora, its apocalyptic sections (chaps 7-12) were probably written around the time of the great Hellenization crisis (167 B.C.E. and Jewish victory) that Hanukkah commemorates. Go, Maccabees!