Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dennis Prager & Muslims

Andrew Sullivan pointed to an amazing article by Dennis Prager on how dangerous to America it will be if Keith Ellison (newly elected Democratic Congressman from Minnesota, who is the first Muslim elected to Congress). Apparently Ellison has said that he will take his oath of office on the Qur'an, not on the Bible, which seems reasonable, since he is not a Christian or a Jew. Prager says: "Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress." Prager then says, "When all elected officials take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization. If Keith Ellison is allowed to change that, he will be doing more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11." Amazing! A man swearing the oath of office on a Qur'an is worse than the Al-Qaida terrorists who killed 3,000 people on September 11!

I had been under the impression that the Constitution forbids religious tests for office, which is what Prager is suggesting. Article VI of the Constitution reads: "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." Notice that it says nothing about whether the person has to take the oath of office while holding or resting his hand on a book.

UPDATE: The Anti-Defamation League has issued a forthright denunciation of Prager - good for them.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Harry Reid

I guess this is a fact that more politically-minded people probably know - but Harry Reid, new Senate Majority Leader in January, is also a Mormon. It's interesting that his religion is not nearly the issue that Mitt Romney's is.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Heavenly Mother

I clicked on one of the links that Andrew Sullivan provided in his discussion of Mormon undergarments, and came across a fascinating website on Mormonism. One Mormon doctrine that I did not expect to find at all is that Mormons believe there is a Heavenly Mother alongside a Heavenly Father, and that together they produce the spirits of human beings.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rejects the idea found in some religions that the spirits or souls of individual human beings are created ex nihilo. Rather it accepts literally the vital scriptural teaching as worded by Paul: "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God." This and other scriptures underscore not only spiritual sibling relationships but heirship with God, and a destiny of joint heirship with Christ (Rom. 8:16-18; cf. Mal. 2:10).

Latter-day Saints believe that all the people of earth who lived or will live are actual spiritual offspring of God the Eternal Father (Num. 16:22; Heb. 12:9). In this perspective, parenthood requires both father and mother, whether for the creation of spirits in the premortal life or of physical tabernacles on earth. A Heavenly Mother shares parenthood with the Heavenly Father. This concept leads Latter-day Saints to believe that she is like him in glory, perfection, compassion, wisdom, and holiness.

Elohim, the name-title for God, suggests the plural of the Caananite El or the Hebrew Eloah. It is used in various Hebrew combinations to describe the highest God. It is the majestic title of the ultimate deity. Genesis 1:27 reads, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them" (emphasis added), which may be read to mean that "God" is plural.

Mormons believe that God the Father has a body like human beings, as does God the Son, while the Holy Spirit is a spirit.
Latter-day Saints perceive the Father as an exalted Man in the most literal, anthropomorphic terms. They do not view the language of Genesis as allegorical; human beings are created in the form and image of a God who has a physical form and image (Gen. 1:26). The Prophet Joseph Smith explained, "The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit" (D&C 130:22). Thus, "God is a Spirit" (John 4:24) in the sense that the Holy Ghost, the member of the Godhead who deals most often and most directly with humans, is a God and a spirit, but God the Father and God the Son are spirits with physical, resurrected bodies. Latter-day Saints deny the abstract nature of God the Father and affirm that he is a concrete being, that he possesses a physical body, and that he is in space and time.

On the idea that God the Father and Mother produce human spirits:
The Father, Elohim, is called the Father because he is the literal father of the spirits of mortals (Heb. 12:9). This paternity is not allegorical. All individual human spirits were begotten (not created from nothing or made) by the Father in a premortal state, where they lived and were nurtured by Heavenly Parents. These spirit children of the Father come to earth to receive mortal bodies; there is a literal family relationship among humankind. Joseph Smith taught, "If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves" (TPJS, p. 343). Gods and humans represent a single divine lineage, the same species of being, although they and he are at different stages of progress.

When I read this, I am reminded of the Shiur Qomah texts, which describe (the male) God in extremely anthropomorphic terms, as well as of the Enoch literature, in which Enoch ascends to heaven alive and is transformed into the highest angel (eventually gaining the name Metatron in the Hekhalot texts). It would be fascinating to learn what the intellectual/religious influences were upon Joseph Smith and other founders of the Mormon church, and whether they knew of the Enoch books or the other pseudepigrapha.

Andrew Sullivan and Mormonism

Andrew Sullivan has raised the question of whether Mormons are Christians, in connection with the probable Presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney (soon-to-be ex-Governor of Massachusetts), who is a Mormon. Among other things, he says in response to an e-mail: "And the inspiration for Mormonism's radically innovative understanding of the message and life of Jesus - Joseph Smith's "discovery" - is so alien to mainstream Christianity (and so transparently loopy) that I don't consider Mormons Christians. This is not to say I don't support their religious freedom or their right to play a full part of American politics and society. But they're not Christians as I understand Christianity" (italics mine). He later says that, "they are Christians of a very different stripe than most others."

His main discussion then turns to the racial politics of the Mormon church, and the fact that until the late 1970s black men could not be part of the Mormon priesthood (which is open to all men - and no women, a fact not noted by Sullivan). He thinks that this fact will probably cause problems for Romney should he run for President (and he might be correct, considering how troublesome George Allen's racist past - and present - was for him in his recent failed run for re-election to the Senate in Virginia).

He then, in a couple of recent postings, turns to the vital issue of Mormon undergarments (which adult Mormons wear after having gone through a ceremony in a Mormon temple), and publishes a photo of what they look like. He defends himself against a Mormon critic who was offended by his publication of the photo with these words: "My policy on this site is to publish reality, within certain boundaries of religious respect. If I can publish a cartoon of Muhammad, I can sure publish tasteful pictures of Mormon underwear."

I'm disturbed by the way that he's bringing up Romney's Mormonism. The racial history of the church seems relevant to me, as does the stand of the Mormon church against gay marriage or abortion - or in fact its stance on any political issue. But why engage in polemics against the idea that Mormons are Christians, or call Mormonism "transparently loopy"? Those of us who are not Christians sometimes raise our eyebrows at various aspects of Christian doctrine as taught by the Roman Catholic Church or the various Protestant churches - but our making fun of Christianity is not a reasoned argument against it. It seems to me that Sullivan is trying to make a principled argument that questions Romney's fitness for the presidency based on some of the doctrines, or former doctrines, of the LDS church. Engaging in mockery or calling Mormonism "loopy" doesn't advance his argument, and makes him sound bigoted.

Heroism in Darfur

Nicholas Kristoff recounts several moving stories of heroism in Darfur:
When the janjaweed militia attacked Fareeda, a village here in southeastern Chad near Darfur, an elderly man named Simih Yahya didn’t run because that would have meant leaving his frail wife behind. So the janjaweed grabbed Mr. Simih and, shouting insults against blacks, threw him to the ground and piled grass on his back.

Then they started a bonfire on top of him.

But his wife, Halima, normally fragile and submissive, furiously tried to tug the laughing militia members from her husband. She pleaded with them to spare his life. Finally, she threw herself on top of the fire, burning herself but eventually extinguishing it with her own body.

The janjaweed may have been shamed by her courage, for Mr. Simih recalls them then walking away and saying, “Oh, he will die anyway.” He told me the story as he was treated at a hospital where doctors peeled burned flesh from his back.

Kristoff doesn't state whether Halima lived or not, although since he doesn't mention her survival, I imagine that she sacrificed her life for her husband's. He tells another story of self-sacrifice, this time a sister leaving herself as a decoy for Janjaweed rapists so that her younger sister can flee:

One of the most inspiring people here is Suad Ahmed, a 25-year-old mother of two from Darfur. She lives here in the Goz Amir refugee camp, and last month she was collecting firewood with her beloved little sister, Halima, when a band of janjaweed ambushed them.

The janjaweed regularly attack women and girls — part of a Sudanese policy of rape to terrorize and drive away black African tribes — and Ms. Suad knew how brutal the attacks are. A 12-year-old neighbor girl had been kidnapped by the janjaweed and gang-raped for a week; the girl’s legs were pulled so far apart that she is now crippled.

But Ms. Suad’s thoughts were only for her sister, who is just 10. “You are a virgin, and you must escape,” she told her. “Run! I’ll let myself be captured, but you must run and escape.”

The local culture is such that if the little girl were raped, she might never be able to marry. So Ms. Suad made herself a decoy and allowed herself to be caught, while her sister escaped back to the camp.

Ms. Suad plays down her heroism, saying that even if she had tried to escape, she might have been caught anyway, for she was five months pregnant. Or, she says, maybe she and her sister both would have been captured.

In any case, however, the janjaweed beat Ms. Suad, and seven of them gang-raped her despite her pregnancy. “You black people have no land,” she recalls them telling her. “This land is not for you.”

People from the camp found Ms. Suad in the hills that evening, too injured to walk, and carried her back. Ms. Suad said she didn’t seek medical treatment, because she wanted to keep the rape as much of a secret as possible and didn’t even tell her husband, although he eventually found out along with a few others. He accepted that it was not her fault....

The gang rape and beating were excruciating, she says, but her sacrifice was worth it. “When my sister saw me brought back and saw what had happened to me, she understood,” Ms. Suad says. “She is very grateful to me.”

As Kristoff says earlier in the column: "Side by side with the most nauseating evil, you stumble across the most exhilarating humanity."

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

SBL 2007

I just returned from the SBL very late last night (it took 12 hours to drive from Washington, D.C. to Cambridge, MA, where I'm spending Thanksgiving with my family - an inordinate amount of traffic around Wilmington, Delaware caused about a 2 1/2 hour delay!). I had a good time and met some interesting people that I'll be in correspondence with soon. The session of the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism section that I took part in was an interesting retrospective on our past ten years, and gave rise to many suggestions for what to do next. I also received some interesting suggestions on the paper that I gave on women and magic in 1 Enoch. My revisions for that paper will go into a longer paper that I'm working on now on the more general subject of women and magic in early Judaism, which I'm writing for a volume on women and magic in the ancient world.

I also went to some great sessions - including one with Susannah Heschel, talking about the Nazification of the theological faculty of Jena during the Third Reich. She has written about this earlier, and I hope that her research will lead into a book on the subject. I have a particular interest in this topic because of something that I discovered while doing dissertation research in the early 1990s. Theodor Hopfner, who was the author of a two-volume work on Greco-Egyptian magic published in the 1921 (Griechisch-ägyptischer Offenbarungszauber), went on to write a book entitled "Die Judenfrage bei Griechen und Roemern," published in Prague in 1943. I took the book out and was horrified to discover that it was an anti-semitic screed, based on the idea that the ancient Greek and Roman hatred of Jews for their "misanthropy" was a predecessor of Nazi racial anti-semitism. He emphasizes the revolting physical characteristics of Jews, including their degenerate sexual lives. I want to do some more research on Hopfner's career to figure out how he got from writing on revelatory magic in Egypt to searching for the roots of racial anti-semitism in the ancient world. He's the author of many other well-received books, including a translation of Plutarch's "On Isis and Osiris," originally published in Prague 1940-41 and reprinted in 1967, an edition of Iamblichus' "On the Mysteries," and a book on the animal cults of the Egyptians.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Mircea Eliade's fascism

One of the more disturbing things that I learned late in my career as a graduate student in religion was about the early fascist activities of one of the great 20th century figures in the study of religion, Mircea Eliade. As an article in the New Republic (by Joseph Frank) which has just been posted on line says: "Mircea Eliade, the much-admired historian of religion ... was chairman of the department of religion at the University of Chicago from 1957 until his death in 1986. Eliade had been a strong supporter of the Iron Guard movement, the Romanian equivalent of the Italian fascists and the German Nazis, but he attempted throughout his later career to conceal and deny his affiliation with its ideas and his service in the pro-Axis Romanian government of Marshal Ion Antonescu during the war."

In the mid-1930s he began to support the Iron Guard openly: "In 1936 he began openly to support the Iron Guard; but his aim was 'to provide its ideology with a more solid philosophical foundation.' One is reminded of Heidegger's attempt to provide Hitlerism with what the philosopher considered a worthier intellectual grounding. Eliade carries on a continual battle against the ideas of the Enlightenment and traces the degeneration of Romania to its attempt to adopt such alien notions: 'Being a foreign importation, the democratic regime concerns itself with matters that are not specifically Romanian--abstractions like the rights of man, the rights of minorities, and the liberty of conscience.' Far better a dictatorship like that of Mussolini, which is always preferable to a democracy because, if the latter goes to pieces, it will 'inevitably slide toward the left' and thus toward communism."

In 1938, the Iron Guard movement was suppressed in Romania, and Eliade left the country, to become the Romanian cultural attache in London. He was then transferred to Portugal, and spent four years in Lisbon, full of admiration for the dictatorship of Salazar.

Eliade never repented of his fascist involvements, although he concealed them after the war. He kept a notebook throughout the war that is now in the University of Chicago library.
It is an astonishing document, revealing a self-adulation merging on megalomania and a fervent commitment to the triumph of Hitler, Mussolini, and Antonescu over the "Anglo-Bolsheviks." Comparing himself with Goethe, whose genius he admired, Eliade concludes: "My intellectual horizons are vaster." Despite the consolation of such reflections, he was terribly depressed by the course of the war. After the defeat of the Germans and their Romanian allies at Stalingrad (which he called "a tragedy"), followed by the invasion of North Africa and the British victory over Rommel, Eliade was upset to such an extent that he notes: "Insomnias, nightmares, depression."

For him, the triumph of the Allies meant "the abandonment of Europe to the Asiatic hordes." Even though Jews were being slaughtered right and left in his homeland, not to mention elsewhere--and Eliade's diplomatic position kept him perfectly well informed--not a word about any such events appears in his pages. As the handwriting on the wall became more and more legible, he resolved not to return home, but to take another tack. "I have decided to 'penetrate' Europe more deeply and with more determination than I have done until now," he writes. Several months later, he sees himself operating as "a Trojan horse within the scientific arena," whose aim was "scientifically to validate the metaphysical significance of prehistoric life." This is exactly how he behaved after Antonescu was overthrown and he was discharged from his position at the Romanian embassy. He had influential scholarly connections in Paris, particularly the cultural historian Georges Dumézil, and he used this influence as well as others to obtain temporary teaching appointments. He had begun to write his Treatise on the History of Religions in 1944 and his influential The Myth of the Eternal Return a year later; both appeared in French in the immediate postwar years, and launched Eliade on his way to international fame and a permanent post in Chicago.
In my undergraduate and graduate classes in religion we were assigned books by Eliade, including The Myth of the Eternal Return, and I was always disturbed by his treatment of Judaism - which was not openly anti-semitic but nonetheless did not cast Judaism in a very favorable light.

Joseph Frank analyzes this quite astutely:
Nothing blatantly anti-Semitic can be found in Eliade's postwar writings, but the prejudice is transposed into a much more scholarly key in his theory of religion. One of the cornerstones of his doctrine was that archaic man lived in a world of cyclical time, whose recurrences were marked by festivals of one kind or another in which "sacred time," the time of religious experience, was re-created. The modern world has largely lost this ability to relive "sacred time" because the Hebrews (as Eliade now calls them) broke with the cyclical time of "the eternal return" by linking God with linear time. "The Hebrews," he writes, "were the first to discover the significance of history as the epiphany of God," and this discovery of history ultimately led to all the ills of the modern world. Daniel Dubuisson, a French analyst of Eliade's views on mythology, concludes that this summary notion of history "especially invents a new accusation against the Jews, that of an ontological crime, a capital crime and without doubt unpardonable." Eliade thus remained true to himself in this erudite disguise during his later years, when his worldwide fame reached its apogee and his death was mourned with sanctimonious reverence.
Once this information about Eliade started to come out (I think I first read about his history in an earlier article in TNR in August of 1991), there was at least one session at the AAR discussing him. I certainly hope that his books are no longer a mainstay of undergraduate religion courses. I actually threw out some of his books that I owned - I didn't want anyone else to be exposed to his dubious ideas on the history of religion.


Links to more interesting articles on Eliade and Fascism:

Politics of the Sacred: Eliade, Bataille and the Fascination of Fascism
Between the two World Wars, the rise of the fascist politico-religious movements proved a fateful return of the ‘collective effervescence’ that Emile Durkheim had placed at the core of the sacred. This article analyses the conception of the sacred in the work of two scholars, Mircea Eliade and Georges Bataille, who both responded to this phenomenon in their work. Their theories are scrutinized with an eye to their political implications: What political commitments underlie their theories? Do the theories contribute to the understanding of the fateful amalgam of religion and politics? It is demonstrated how, despite some important similarities, the two develop radically differing interpretations of the sacred. Eliade occults the political background as well as the violent ramifications of his idealized view of the sacred. Bataille, in his turn, does not shun a certain complicity with forces that fascism exploited, a complicity that does not correspond bit by bit with his overt statements of commitment. Still, from his writing emerges a dynamic conception of the sacred, undersood as a fundamentally ambiguous force, that helps to grasp the—also political—uses, abuses, as well a certain useless residue of the sacred.
The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell, by Robert Ellwood (1999)
Examines the political views implicit in the mythological theories of three of the most widely read popularizers of myth in the twentieth century, C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. 
The Politics of Myth examines the political views implicit in the mythological theories of three of the most widely read popularizers of myth in the twentieth century, C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. All three had intellectual roots in the anti-modern pessimism and romanticism that also helped give rise to European fascism, and all three have been accused of fascist and anti-Semitic sentiments. At the same time, they themselves tended toward individualistic views of the power of myth, believing that the world of ancient myth contained resources that could be of immense help to people baffled by the ambiguities and superficiality of modern life. 
Robert Ellwood details the life and thought of each mythologist and the intellectual and spiritual worlds within which they worked. He reviews the damaging charges that have been made about their politics, taking them seriously while endeavoring to put them in the context of the individual's entire career and lifetime contribution. Above all, he seeks to extract from their published work the view of the political world that seems most congruent with it.
An interesting interview with Norman Manea that touches on Eliade and Mihail Sebastian, The Great Work and the Compromised Man.
I want to broaden the scope a little and ask about the many intellectual figures that you name in your work, people who made terrible, unforgivable compromises. I’m thinking of the young Mircea Eliade, of Emil Cioran, of Constantin Noica, and under communism, of Paul Georgescu, “the flying elephant.” Do you think the work can stand independent of the writer? Or is aesthetic merit undermined by ideological compromise?

The work can and should stand independently, in my opinion. There are cases when the work still has merit, despite the shortcomings of its writer. Human beings are not perfect, and there is something redeeming in the human being who, imperfect as he or she is, nevertheless struggles for a perfect work and creates a masterpiece. In my opinion, this redeems the flawed person a little bit. I think that the work should be judged for itself, and the defects of the writer should never be ignored. We can think of the writer as a teaching example. He or she can help us understand difficult periods in human history; what the writer has to say should be dealt with, it should be debated. The great work and the compromised man are a human contradiction, and I am always for contradictions. They’re more interesting than coherences. Of course, sometimes, it’s very difficult to separate one from the other.

Totten on Lebanon

In amidst the fog caused by working too hard in the middle of the semester, I've poked my head out a bit and noticed comments like those that Michael J. Totten is making on the current situation in Lebanon. He says, "A perfect storm may be brewing in Lebanon." Since he correctly saw the conditions for the Israeli-Hizbollah war a couple of months before it actually broke out this summer, I think he's someone we should listen to.

It's scary to contemplate, especially considering what a mess Israeli politics is right now, what with Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praising President Bush for "the stability which the great operation of America in Iraq brought to the Middle East." (Yes, he really did say this, and only a day or so after the elections which even our President admits gave a "thumping" to his administration). What was he thinking? Does he really think that the American people want the U.S. military to remain in Iraq? Or that Americans support Bush in anything? (See discussion here by Amos of Kishkushim on how stupid Olmert's remarks were).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Magical knowledge in 1 Enoch

At the end of this week I'll be attending the Society of Biblical Literature conference, where I will be presenting a paper at the Wisdom and Apocalypticism section and participating in a discussion for the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism section. My paper is called "They Revealed Secrets to the Their Wives: The Transmission of Magical Knowledge in 1 Enoch." What follows is an abstract of the paper:
The Book of the Watchers expands upon the enigmatic story in Genesis 6:1-4 that tells of the "sons of God" (בְּנֵי-הָאֱלֹהִים) taking human women for themselves. Gen. 6:1-4 describes the illegitimate crossing of boundaries between the divine and the human, enacted upon the bodies of human women. This paper focuses on how the Book of Watchers, later Enochic booklets, and the book of Jubilees reinterpret the biblical story so that the sin of the "sons of God" or Watchers (עירין) also includes the transmission of knowledge forbidden to human beings, especially to women. In particular, the Watchers teach women the heavenly mysteries of "sorcery and spells," among them methods of divination by observance of heavenly and earthly phenomena. These, however, are not the true secrets of heaven – they are the "rejected mysteries," which the Watchers ought not to have taught human beings. The Book of the Watchers sets up a gendered dichotomy between the Watchers' human wives and Enoch; women are recipients only of rejected mysteries, while Enoch learns the true secrets of heaven from the revealing angels when he ascends to heaven alive.

Two second century B.C.E. Enochic books, the Dream Visions of Enoch and the Epistle of Enoch, omit mention altogether of the notion that the angels teach human beings rejected heavenly wisdom. Jubilees, also from the second century B.C.E., initially treats the Watchers’ descent to earth positively, maintaining that their mission was to teach human beings. They sinned with women, however, and their positive mission was forgotten. The first century C.E. Similitudes of Enoch takes up the tradition of angelic teaching once again, but the human wives of the Watchers are not singled out as recipients of this knowledge. The key question is, therefore, why would the Book of the Watchers report that women in particular are recipients of magical knowledge from their angelic husbands? One possible framework for understanding may be found in earlier biblical traditions that associate magic with women, in particular the prophetic tradition that holds foreign women, especially foreign cities imagined as women, guilty of sorcery and divination. The scribal context of composition for the Book of the Watchers must also be considered, in particular the comparison with the Wisdom of Ben Sira, which posits a unique connection between women and evil.