Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Write post about Judaism, light blue touchpaper and stand well back ...

So, there we were the other day, outside the bagel place at the far end of Brick Lane chomping on hot salt beef sandwiches and bagels.
You know, the one fitted-out like a cross between a public convenience and bakery that hasn't been renovated for at least 40 years. The really popular one that's open 24 hours with the fearsome women who sometimes pretend not to know what you’re after if you ask for a 'bagel'.

So, there we were with our hot salt beef on rye sandwiches and 'beiyghels' and I got to thinking …

'I wonder what the Moabites used to eat? And the Carthaginians? And the Sumerians come to think of it. I wonder what the Phoenicians used to put in their bread rolls?'
I'll never know. These races are long gone and most certainly don't operate deli-bakeries in the East London or Golders Green areas.

Now don’t run ahead of me here. I'm not even dreaming of posting a blog that touches on the pros and cons of Zionism. Lord no. But, outside that bagel shop I couldn’t help thinking that the Jewish people have been around for a very long time; 4,000 years, give or take. Maybe even longer.

Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another race or creed that has survived for anything like that time. Faiths have come and gone. Races have been conquered and interbred. Languages have merged and morphed. 4,000 years! These kiddies have been around as long as civilisation itself. And that is in spite of spending much of that time scattered to the four corners of the Earth and subject to countless persecutions.

That's part of their problem I think. If you exist with your identity intact for so long, you have literally millennia's worth of gossip and smears floating around about you. For example, there are many cultures around the Middle East and Asia that still bear a grudge against Alexander the Great and his Greek army. However, given that those Greeks have all been long dead these past 2,300 years, nobody's about to start a website suggesting that they're secretly controlling the World Bank. When your empire fails and your people lose their identity, all the baggage goes with you.

With that perspective it's not too difficult to understand why younger cultures might get a little paranoid when dealing with Jewish people. These tensions are compounded by the fact that, unlike the Catholic Church, Roman Empire or World Bank, there is no obvious central control structure to attack. If the Jewish people were up to something or held a dark secret it presumably was hidden in the very fabric of their customs and beliefs. Want to destroy the Roman Empire? Destroy Rome. Getting paranoid about the Jewish people? Pogroms all round I'm afraid.

As a moderate aside, anti-Semitic conspiracies thrive on the notion that Jews seek to control the world through the banking system. Like Zionism, Jewish control of the banking system is one of those subjects I'm too chicken to air in a semi-public forum like a blog. Emotions are too strongly held on both sides. Any attempt to discuss the subject draws fury and poop and little else of any merit. I would float one thought though.

One of the biggest reasons, probably the main reason, why Jews historically worked as money lenders was because Christians and Arabs were forbidden by their religion to make a profit on money lending. It was considered immoral to make money off another man's labours. So, this kind of business was left to the Jews, whose faith permitted them to lend money to non Jews. And if you ended up owing them too much you always had the option of starting a pogrom. So, whatever the truth is about Jewish control of banking, we're the guys who put them there and hated them for it. And whatever happened to the Christian belief that making profit on interest was immoral anyway?
As an increasingly irrelevant aside, Christians were also forbidden to shed blood; which is why the Church disposed of people through fire and strangulation. See, no blood! As with the interest thing, most modern Christians seem to have forgotten that inconvenient teaching.

Anyway, back to the plot.

Another way of thinking about the persistence of the Jewish people throughout the span of recorded time, when all others have fallen by the wayside, is that, well, er, they might really be onto something. But I won’t run any further with that particular thought.

Judaism is the first of the three great monotheistic religions. Christianity and Islam derive directly from it. I appreciate that many people write off all religion as mumbo jumbo but I personally think that all three have had a positive impact of human development. Unlike the religions that came before, all three stress the importance of the individual and the choices those individuals make in their lives. Personally, I'm all for that kind of thinking. So, kudos for Judaism for getting the ball rolling on that one.
Now, Zionism, well, as stated previously, I wouldn’t even dream of touching on that particular subject. One way or the other. That particular issue has been bouncing around for 2,500 years and it's difficult to see what will stop it bouncing around for another 2,500.

One other thing that does come to mind. It's not specifically a Jewish thing though; I've seen Amish and Mennonites doing similar. What is it with the Hasidic dress code? Out of 4,000 years of fashion to choose from why have they settled on dressing like they're off to an 18th century Polish wedding every day? Why is that particular moment in history frozen? And does God really give a stuff about the cut of a man's suit? I suppose it could be worse. They could have decided that the 1970's were their special moment in time. Imagine that, a religious group that holds flared trousers, brown corduroy, ruffled collars and platform heels as sacred garments to be worn until the End of Days. Now that's a frightening thought.


Peter said...

Also interesting is the Jewish uniqueness in being considered both a people and a religion. You refer to them as both. When you say they 'might be on to something' I guess the 'they' means the religion, but there are older religions. People say witchcraft is the oldest but I'm not sure it can be classed as a religion. Hinduism is older too. And agnosticism (sp.)? :)

I'm not a Buddhist, but I think history would have been better served by Buddhism than the big three. That's probably because it's less fundamentally dogmatic than others and provides less scope for (abuse of) power.

I also think there are probably traditional belief systems in native American, African and South American cultures that pre-date Judaism, and I'm not sure but I'd guess the 'people' are just as unchanged.

I love that Biegel place too. Source of many a late night munch :)

P.S. I hate doing it but I had to remove that picture (and your comment). Noone was really supposed to see it. I needed a recent photo online and intended to delete it from the blog as soon as I had the URL but couldn't, as Blogger decided no updates were permissable for a while. I hate cameras :)

Stef said...

But it was such a lovely picture!

Yes, I didn't make the point clearer enough in the original post. Judaism covers both the people and the religion. I don't have any figures to hand but I would suggest that not many people convert to Judaism and those that do probably do it for practical reasons like marriage.

When I said that they might be onto something I was suggesting that they really might be a chosen people. They were around at the begining and probably will still be around at the end. Hard-core fundamental Christians certainly believe that and are pumping cash like crazy into the Israel, specifically to lay the table out in accordance with Biblical prophecy in time for the End Time.

And, yes, you could argue that pagan beliefs are older but let's be honest about this - how many people calling themselves druids, or witches, or Wiccans can claim an unbroken link with those that came before? I'm not rubbishing these beliefs but in their current form they are largely a modern invention based on idealised picture of what those religions were originally about. And even if you would argue that there is an unbroken link that's good as well given that, like Jews, they too were persecuted by younger, paranoid cultures.

The Buddhist thing? Again, I'm not rubbishing Buddhism or other Eastern religions but they do place an awful lot less emphasis on the individual and even encourage followers to suppress their individuality. Speaking as an individual I can't buy that. Wherever we came from, a Creator or sludge, we were gifted with uniqueness and I believe that to deny that is to deny yourself and the reasons for your existence.

Bagels good. Cameras good.

Peter said...

On the conversion rate thing, my friend says Jews aren't supposed to preach their faith to gentiles. He can't have been too worried about it though as we talked about religion (especially his) all the time. Alot of it seems easier to swallow (in terms of common sense) than Christianity, for me anyway.

And the bloodline is traced through the mother. I wonder how much that has to do with the human males' tendency to sow his seed :)

I'm not sure I agree about supressing individuality. Judaism (and the religions it spawned) seek to control individuals more not less IMO. From something as natural and evolution-furthering as sex being repressed (and subsequently fetishised) to the constant moderation and prohibition of anything enjoyable.

Considering yourself one of the people of God, whose birthright is to be better than everyone else is wrong to me. And there's things in the Talmud relating to this that I find objectionable.

I apologise to anyone I've offended. I'm fascinated by religion, but I think it's obsolete in our world. Not only obsolete but detrimental, just as it has been throughout history.

Stef said...

Yes, there are more than a few ropey (very ropey) ideas in the Talmud but I consciously left those alone because all beliefs have similar skeletons in their closet. And not just classic religions either. Scientists have supported racial discrimination, sterilisation and euthenasia in the not too distant past on the basis that they were helping evolution by purifying the human gene pool. If it's OK to criticise religions for the sins of the past the same should apply to science.

Religion and science are the work of humans and as such are subject to human flaws and weaknesses. Just because someone says such and such a daft law is the will of God doesn't mean that it actually is the will of God and reflects badly on that person not God. The same caveat applies to the occasional Nazi scientist who thinks it's OK to vivisect retards or hack their knackers off in the name of Darwinism.

Even though all religions are flawed it doesn't mean that belief in a Creator itself is a flawed concept. Personally, my heart and my mind suggest to me that belief in ...

- a creative force
- a purpose to existence
- the existence of right and wrong
- viewing life's challenges as an aid to personal development

make for a much more workable life framework than belief in ...

- a random, purposeless universe
- no such thing as right and wrong
- no such thing as love or beauty, other than as evolutionary tricks

whether you believe in an afterlife or not. And aren't proponents of the second value set capable of being just as shifty as fundamentalist religious types? We hear a lot in our media about how crap religion is but virtually nothing about the implications of atheistic science. How dissonant are some of those guys? Jamming needles in rabbits eyes at work then going home to a family life based on a complete different set of values.

I have a background in earth science, follow no particular belief system and am intensely cynical by nature. Yet, for all that, and maybe because of that, I see evidence of design and purpose all around me. Beyond what is permitted by existing naturalistic beliefs.

Also, I'll stand by my individuality comment. The monotheistic relgions stress that the individual is created with a conscience and is free to make decisions and, usually, promise the survival of individual personality. Eastern religions, as a generalisation don't. That's why concepts such as destiny, fortune telling, lucky numbers, magic etc. carry a lot more weight in the East than the West. This has probably got something to do with historic population densities in the countries in which each religion arose but that's another story.

PS It's not just Judaism that places store in the maternal line, lots of other cultures have done similar with their inheritance laws for exactly the reason you hint at. You can always be pretty sure about the identity of a baby's mother.

Peter said...

I absolutely agree with you about Religion and Science. And I don't subscribe to the belief that our society's success should be measured on our scientific (and more so technological) advances, but I still think organized religion isn't worth the cost.

I would say that I don't need a minister to keep me on the straight and narrow but cant really as I had a religious childhood (Catholic) and who can say how much that's shaped me, but I have more than one friend with no religious base at all who are all lovely people, more so in terms of how accepting and giving they are etc than the deeply religious people I know.

There's a song by Roots Manuva with this lyric: "Can I trust King James to translate these papers, do I need a middle man to link with the creator". Great tune actually (Sinny Sin Sins).

Don't know where I'm going with this really. I hate over-saying things and I feel I'm doing that a bit.

Your point about human weaknesses is spot on. It's hard for me to fault Jesus' teachings really and that's what must have drawn so many people, but how they've been implemented is depressing. I think there's lots of ancient knowledge that was lost in the numerous book burnings or the closure of schools of thought. Even according to evolution there's almost no difference genetically (and subsequently neurologically) between us and people of yore, which makes me wonder about all sorts of things. In fact I've been meaning to write about that for ages - check back :)

I know you can get to an idea of design and purpose through mathematics. There's also the idea that a concept as complex as a creator can't be described by our 'labelling' language, yet can be disproved by a word/logic trick in the same unsophisticated language (and/or mind). Interestingly in this regard, I'm told the Jewish letters have numeric and symbolic meanings too, so more accurately describe reality than mere words do. An example is the word for dog, the letters of which also represent 'good friend' or something similar. And there's another level where they visually represent another meaning too. I wish I could remember more detail. Lots of stoned conversations with a guy who was no expert himself.

I guess I'd describe myself as spiritual but not religious, although that phrase burns my fingers with shame as I type it. I certainly wont be giving any money to the church anytime soon - the first multinational company.

Highly enjoyable discussion by the way. It's the longest comment screen I've seen I think, excluding the New York Escort with her monster fanbase.

Stef said...

Yes, good fun but we probably have overloaded this post's comment-bearing capacity. A few thoughts though ...

Will check out Roots Manuva - accessing Soulseek means you need never pay for an album you discover that you don't like ever again

Agree with the organised religion comment. Organisation = power = corruption. In that regard the Celtic Church was a very beautiful thing and consequently was unable to stand up against the Catholic Church and doesn't exist anymore.

Yes, people can easily be spiritual and moral without a conscious religious influence. It's often better as they're not putting an act on in search of some expected Heavenly Reward. You can buy into concepts such as a soul and decency without swallowing anyone's book.

Knowing the true name of things is the key the several magical systems which is one the reasons why some people in the past have associated Judaism with witchcraft.

People of yore being the same as us? Absolutely. Arguably they were smarter and more subtle than us as they had lower tech and none of the brute force available to us in the way of internal combustion engines and dynamite. Pyramids anyone? But then you get onto the question of 'If we've been around for x00,000 years what were we doing for most of that time?' But you're right, another post.