Tuesday, December 30, 2003

In Jim Davila’s blog on December 29 he quoted several sermons given by Muslim preachers employed by the Palestinian Authority over the last couple of years that denied that Solomon’s Temple had ever stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (quoted from a report by Memri). In one of the sermons, on September 21, 2001, Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi spoke in the Sheikh 'Ijlin Mosque in Gaza about what he considered ridiculous Jewish beliefs:

Oh beloved of Allah, who are the Jews? Regarding their belief about Allah: The Jews have said that the hand of Allah is fettered in chains; [but] it is their hand that is fettered in chains, and they are cursed for their words. According to the Jews' belief, as it is written in some of their holy books, such as the Talmud, Allah divides his time into three parts. One third of the time he weeps. Why? Because his [chosen] people are dispersed in all directions. Another third he spends playing with the whales, and the final third he spends doing nothing in particular. This is their perverted belief about Allah.

Jim found incredible the idea that these beliefs were to be found in the Talmud. In fact, however, both ideas are found in rabbinic and later Jewish literature, and were, in fact, attacked both by Karaites and by Muslims in the early middle ages as part of religious polemics between Rabbanites and Karaites and between Jews and Muslims.

What I find rather incredible is that these polemical themes have been resurrected from early medieval times and are still being used to attack Jews and Judaism. The claim that Jews believe that God’s hands are fettered is found in the Qu’ran, Sura 5:64: “The Jews say, ‘Bound are the hands of God.’ Tied be their own hands and damned may they be for saying what they say! In fact, both His hands are open wide: He spends of His bounty in any way He please.” The Qur’anic passage seems to be picking up on an idea found both in the midrashic literature and in the Hekhalot literature. Michael Fishbane has written on this idea in his article “Arm of the Lord: Biblical Myth, Rabbinic Midrash, and the Mystery of History,” pp. 271-292, in Language, Theology, and the Bible: Essays in Honour of James Barr, eds. Samuel E. Balentine and John Barton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), and my recent SBL paper dealt with this issue extensively. One place this idea is found is in 3 Enoch chapters 44 and 47, where Rabbi Ishmael sees that God’s right hand has been bound behind him since the destruction of the Temple. A similar idea is found in Lamentations Rabbah, Proem 24, where it says, “At the time that the Holy One, blessed be He, sought to destroy the Temple, He said, ‘As long as I am within it, the nations of the world will not touch it; but I will hide my eyes from it, and I swear that I will not be attached to it until the time of the End, and the enemies will enter and destroy it.’ Immediately the Holy One, blessed be He, swore by His right hand and placed it behind Him, as it is written, ‘He has drawn back His right hand from before the enemy’ (Lam. 2:3). At that time the enemies entered the Temple and set it afire.” This profound meditation on the meaning of historical defeat was attacked by both Muslims and Karaites as an unforgivable example of anthropomorphism, offending their strict monotheistic sensibility.

The idea that there are three watches in which God responds to the suffering of his people is found in b. Berakhot 3b. In one version, R. Eliezer says, “the night consists of three watches, and during each and every watch the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and roars like a lion.” Another opinion, that of Rav Isaac b. Samuel in the name of Rav, is as follows: “The night is composed of three watches, and over each watch the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and roars like a lion, and says, ‘Alas for the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My Temple, burnt My Shrine, and exiled them among the nations.’” Salmon ben Yeruhim, a tenth century Karaite writer, quoted this Midrash and attacked it along with other anthropomorphic midrashim in his Wars of the Lord. Al-Qirqisani, a 9th century Karaite writer, also attacked this idea.

It seems to me, from reading the excerpts of the sermon translated by Memri, that there must be an ongoing Muslim polemical tradition of attacks upon Judaism that has continued since the first Islamic centuries, and that this imam has used themes taken from this polemical tradition and fitted them to our day. Perhaps his audience also knows this polemical tradition, but to the eyes of contemporary Jews, who do not know these ancient midrashim and mystical works, his charges simply seem bizarre distortions of Judaism. As a scholar of ancient Judaism, I find it distressing that these polemical charges are still being used to attack Jews and some of the most profound Jewish theological responses to evil and suffering that have emerged from the Jewish religious tradition.

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