Monday, December 31, 2007

Holiday shopping

OK, news! I plan to force myself to put in, every week an at least 'semi'-scholarly Talmudic piece, just to keep up my learning a bit. The first will be the least scholarly though : (

well, here goes;

[Now, I would write in Hebrew, but then definitely no body would read it but myself, so..].

The Tosafot:
The Mishna states “it is prohibited to have any monetary transactions with someone who subscribes to what we consider to be pagan, from three days before their festivals”.

Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes (1040-1105) suggests the reason for this to be that any successful monetary transaction might inspire verbal (pagan) religious appreciation to their god(s). His premise is that it is written Exodus 23:13 “Take heed to all that I have said to you; and make no mention of the names of other gods, nor let such be heard out of your mouth”, and he seems to suppose that perhaps causing others to recite the names of, and worship other gods is also forbidden.

The Tosafot use this as a basis for their ever so famous query; “why is it then, that we see so many Torah observant Jews do business dealings with non-Jews on their holidays in our times (i.e. 12th century France)?”(supposing, obviously, that Christians are full fledged pagans). Is there any Talmudic backing for their actions?

They first point out an inference from Tractate Hullin (13b) discussing the ritual slaughtering of animals performed by non-Jews. The Talmud there has a probing discussion about the inner intent, and the level of religious devotion of the peoples in whose provinces the Jews (who authored the Talmud) resided (mainly between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, (modern day Iraq) which was part of the Persian Sassanid empire then, the state religion being the basically monotheistic Zoroastrian faith. Though there were many full fledged pagan residents as well) and concludes that “most people who adhere to pagan religions lack an emotional/intellectual attachment to it, but do it rather to ‘follow the ancient ways’ (pure paganism was in deep decline in the Mediterranean and Indo-Europe by that time). So too, add the Tosafot the people whom we live amongst are also not fully adherent pagans (Christians).

The Tosafot discard that reasoning though, bringing a disproving text from our own Tractate (7b) stating that “now the law is different; only on the holiday is it prohibited”; it does recognize that the pagans of their time have a different status, and therefore halakhah, but it still explicitly prohibits trade with them on their holidays.

The Tosafot then attempt to conclude that ‘the reason we are lenient today is because of the principle of ‘refraining from actions which may cause enmity’ among our neighbors, the natives of every land, which is actually used by Rabbi Judah the prince (6b) as reason for accepting a gift from a Jew with differing religious views from his own on his holiday. But they admit that this is far from a full proof being that they are greatly limiting themselves on one possible understanding of the text there. There can also be doubts, they add, to the logic of this reasoning being that one would not necessarily be causing enmity by refraining from business dealings for a day.

Therefore they finally conclude using another Talmudic principle “we know that the people we live amongst, in essence, are not pagan” (65a). A reasoning used both by Rabbi Yehuda, and by Raba for their sending gifts on behalf of the Jews to Shapur II (Sassanid Monarch at the time) on a Zoroastrian holiday.

The Tosafot mention that one can also rely on a stipulation of the Jerusalem Talmud (), which clearly states that the Mishna only discusses a person one knows, but one would be permitted to do business with a pagan stranger on their festivals.

The Tosafot then record the opinion of Rabbi Jacob ben Meir ‘Tam’ (1100-1171), that; the Mishna is only discussing something that can be used as a sacrifice, but not general buying and selling. (The editor mentions that in Rabbi Tam’s opinion “buying and selling” in the Mishna (lit. “picking up and giving”) means not to ‘buy and sell’, but to ‘take and give’, i.e. ‘take the money, and give something that can be used as a sacrifice. He also has a fascinatingly novel approach to the text on 6b in accordance with his opinion

They conclude that even in Rabbi Tam’s opinion even if Christians were to be viewed as pagans, there would be no problem, because they don’t use sacrifices.

But the Tosafot do stipulate that in the situation that a (Catholic) Christian were to approach you, asking for a loan for ‘religious purposes’ (Jews were money lenders), giving it would also be permitted, being that anyway it would not be used as a sacrifice, but at that time would have probably have been used for ‘indulgences’.


My interest here though, is to examine the first conclusive resolution of the Tosafot, namely “we know the people we live amongst are not pagan”. Now, I am not interested in the halachic aspect of this discussion (the Maimonides- Tosafot argument), but rather a more philosophical/theological approach (whether the brand of Zoroastrianism popular then could be considered pagan is also quite an important discussion, but due to the reigning relevance of the former for us, will unfortunately have to be left for another time.

The point I wish to discuss is whether or not Christianity is objectively pagan in the Jewish view. Now, one does not have to look far and wide in the New Testament to know that it’s authors and those who subscribe to it were “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great G-d, and [whom they believe to be] our (no one’s) Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13), or that they all felt that “without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness: G-d was [again, in their humble opinion] manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit” (I Timothy 3:16). And no one needs go any further than Christian (mostly Catholic) shrines to see something which seems unmistakably pagan to any Jew. But, to put it shortly, my personal feeling is that the reason we consider them pagan is not because G-d ‘couldn’t’ or even "wouldn’t" make himself manifest in human flesh (G-d can do anything), it’s that we believe it’s much more logical to say that G-d "didn’t" manifest himself in human form. But again, if he did, and it was proven, we would believe it, and it wouldn’t be going against any previously established Biblical principles about the unity of G-d.

Tosafot seemed to equate Amoraic statements about Zoroastrianism to Christianity; I don’t see that comparison as inconsequential, or out of convenience. There are many comparisons between the religions, but I wish to focus on the idea that Tosafot seem to understand from the Talmud a rule for approaching semi-monotheistic religions (or, more accurately; religions, which the purity of their monotheism may be brought to question) i.e. both religions have what is called in rabbinic literature “a partnership” with the one G-d (good and evil in Zoroastrianism, and the father and the son in Christianity). Many Jewish scholars of the past few centuries suggest that “the nations were never commanded not to have ‘a partnership’ in their monotheism (i.e. as long as they believe in one G-d its ok). We find this benign view about Christian theology in the writings of Rabbi Mosses Isserles (1520-1572) and Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) to name just two.

Happy holidays!


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