This is a presentation I offered based on part of my 2019 book, The Forgotten Sage: Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah and the Birth of Judaism as We Know It. It starts with a translation (or to be more accurate, a translation that I’ve modified and enhanced a bit for clarity) of a well-known story in the Babylonian Talmud describing the final days of Jerusalem before the Roman invasion in 70 CE.
I’m closing in on finishing up my third book. It’s working title is The (Book) of Joshua, and the publisher is Cascade Books, the same folks who published my previous two books. The book focuses in on the story of an ancient rabbi who played a key role in giving us the kind of Judaism we recognize today. Below are descriptions of 3 different kinds of programs I’m available to offer at synagogues, JCCs, or in interfaith learning settings.
D’var Torah (Sermon): Introducing Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah – the First Century Sage Who Gave Us the Judaism We Know
How did Judaism get its love of debate? Its openness to multiple viewpoints and its questioning nature, including questioning God? There were many ancient rabbis who wanted Judaism to be more doctrinal and less open to debate, more intolerant of other faiths, more internally hierarchical, and more focused on the afterlife than on this life. What caused Judaism to take the shape it took?
There were many rabbis who helped shape these attributes of Judaism. And yet, about 1900 years ago, there was one rabbi in particular whose decisions and teachings may very well have created the “tipping point” that set Judaism on its course to become the decentralized, multi-opinionated, exile-surviving, other-religion-respecting, pragmatic-yet-altruistic, wounded-yet-hopeful religion that we recognize in our time. Strangely, the vast majority of Jews today have never heard of him. And outside the Jewish world he is utterly unknown. His name was Joshua ben Hananiah, and this talk is about him.
Text study with discussion: Birthing the Judaism of Debate and Sacred Doubt: Rabbi Joshua Speaks to Us
One of the best known stories in the Talmud depicts a debate pitting Rabbi Joshua and a
bunch of his colleagues taking sides against the most brilliant rabbi of their era, Rabbi Eliezer the Great. The story is sometimes referred to as “Akhnai’s Oven,” because the dispute centered on a question regarding whether or not a particular communal oven was ritually “pure.” Eliezer musters every conceivable argument but fails to persuade his colleagues, who vote him down on the ruling. In the frustration known only to geniuses who clearly see what everyone else can’t, Eliezer loses his cool and summons divine miracles to demonstrate that God thinks he is right. The miracles all manifest, but one by one Rabbi Joshua leads the rabbinic majority in refusing to consider the miracles as valid arguments. In the end, a divine voice from the heavens announces to all of them that Eliezer is right, but in a classic act of Jewish chutzpah directed towards God, Joshua rejects God’s attempt to intervene in the rabbinic process of debate and majority rule.
We’ll work through a new translation of this classic rabbinic text in order to gain an understanding of how this story has shaped Judaism’s embrace of sacred debate and even sacred doubt. We’ll also look at the tensions and ambivalences the narrative expresses about its own conclusions. Even though this story appears to reject Rabbi Eliezer’s absolutism, certainty, and authoritarian impulses, it also critiques the way Joshua and the other rabbis treat Eliezer in the aftermath of the debate. “Akhnai’s Oven” offer us a distant mirror as we grapple with our own social struggles over questions of authority, democracy, multiple perspectives on truth, and the legitimate or illegitimate sources of power.
A text will be provided in English: Rabbi Harris’ new translation of Bava Metzia 58a – 59b
Workshop: Illness, Trauma, and the “Wounded Storyteller”: Rabbi Joshua Speaks to Us
Rabbi Joshua and his contemporaries survived the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, and in the years immediately following that national catastrophe they struggled to make sense of their situation and the purpose of their lives. Rabbi Joshua emerged as a crucial voice encouraging the other survivors to develop what we, in modern times, might call a healthy, honest, and adaptive process of grieving and meaning-making.
During this workshop we’ll look at an ancient text describing how Rabbi Joshua advises a group of young rabbis who are coping with the aftermath of the Roman devastation by turning to a life of severe asceticism. Instead of asceticism, Rabbi Joshua urges that they embrace the possibility of becoming what the contemporary writer, Arthur W. Frank, describes as wounded storytellers. We’ll bring the text and its ideas into a conversation with Frank’s ideas and our own personal thoughts and feelings about the challenges of integrating loss, illness, and woundedness in our lives.
Texts will be provided in English: Tosefta Sotah 15: 11 – 15 and excerpts from Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
If you think these sound like fun adult ed programs that people at your congregation would enjoy, contact me! I’m at mauricedharris (at) gmail (dot) com. Even if you’re located far from me in Eugene, Oregon, I do travel to different parts of the country from time to time for various reasons, and I’m always interested in finding ways to do some teaching when I’m out of town.
As we enter into the part of the year in which we read the Exodus story in our synagogues, here’s an excerpt from a chapter from my recent book, Moses: A Stranger among Us, that I hope you’ll enjoy. The book is a terrific resource for clergy of all faiths, especially those looking for good stuff for sermons, and it’s also a really accessible and usable scholarly work on Moses. What follows is part of Chapter 10, “Moses” – the quotation marks are intentional, as in someone making air quotation marks as they say the name Moses.
Since 1985, a group of Christian Bible scholars have worked on what has been known as the Jesus Seminar. Their web site states, “. . . the Seminar was organized to discover and report a scholarly consensus on the historical authenticity of the sayings . . . and events . . . attributed to Jesus in the gospels.”
Even though their work involves questioning the historical accuracy of how the New Testament presents Jesus, many of the Jesus Seminar professors are also Christian pastors invested in a living Christian faith. By closely analyzing the New Testament texts and reviewing other available historical information, these scholars have sought to develop theories about who the actual, historical Jesus may have been, and which sayings and actions attributed to him are most likely to be authentic.
In part, what they seek to do is better understand how their religion evolved in its first two centuries of being. They want to better
understand the various early Christian groups that produced the different gospels, for instance, and how each of them may have shaped or added to the teachings attributed to Jesus over the years.
It’s important to bear in mind that in the ancient world, the common practice was for disciples of a great master to add to his (or occasionally, her) sayings and teachings. When faithful disciples would add to their master’s sayings, they would often attribute the new sayings to him, out of respect and loyalty to the school of thought that he had founded. Disciples and students were not eager to claim personal authorship of new ideas for themselves, nor did they have the need modern Westerners often have for historical accuracy.
When rival groups of disciples of the same master would interpret the master’s life and teachings differently, they would be sure to develop additional sayings in his name that reflected their varying ideological perspectives. In this way, a master’s teachings would sometimes develop over time along different ideological lines, in some cases evolving beyond what the master himself would have condoned or even imagined. This was a practice that was so normal that it was not noteworthy in the ancient world. (The Islamic studies professor, Omid Safi, commenting about similar processes that have played out in Islam, writes: “There might have been one historical Muhammad, but there have been many memories of Muhammad.”) – from his book, Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters
In Jewish tradition, scholars see the same pattern having played out among the early rabbis. There are many teachings and sayings attributed in the Talmud to great sages like Hillel or Rabbi Akiva, for example. Both men had many disciples and developed popular schools of thought. It is likely that over time, sayings accrued to them that they never actually uttered. Sometimes different groups within a developing religious tradition would join together to consolidate and canonize an official version of their sacred texts. This usually involved discussion and compromise, as the different groups would each want their own texts and traditions included in the canon. In the ancient Middle East, the canonizers of sacred texts were not operating within the framework of modern Western writing, and therefore they were quite comfortable putting multiple and even contradictory written traditions alongside each other as part of the finalized sacred canon.
The canonizers of the New Testament, like the redactors of the Torah that I discussed in chapter 6, were not threatened by presenting their contemporary readers with a Bible designed as a composite text that includes multiple accounts of the same story, complete with contradictions and logical or narrative conflicts. This is why there are four gospels in the New Testament, not just one. The New Testament even presents two gospels that have conflicting genealogies of Jesus’s ancestry (see Matthew and Luke).
As the scholars involved in the Jesus Seminar have continued their work, they have offered a new way of looking at Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament. They see Jesus as a literary composite figure, a combination of some of his own authentic teachings as well as the varying and sometimes conflicting teachings of others who came after him. Some of these scholars have even started writing about the difference between “Jesus” and Jesus. “Jesus” is the composite literary character we find when we take the entire New Testament as a whole that is made up of many component parts: different writings from different communities with different agendas, writings that were joined together by editors and canonizers. Jesus – without quotes – is the historical person who lived, taught, inspired large numbers of people, and died about 2,000 years ago in Roman occupied Judea.
Needless to say, the written use of “Jesus” as a way of making a distinction that is important to the Jesus Seminar scholars was bound to upset some Christian religious traditionalists. One of the most common criticisms of the Jesus Seminar from some Christian conservatives is that their entire endeavor is heresy. Once they deconstruct traditional Christian belief to the point that Jesus becomes “Jesus,” the conservatives argue, they’ve left the fold. Many liberal Christians, on the other hand, disagree, and don’t see a threat to their tradition through this kind of historical inquiry.
In rabbinical school we were required to take a course on Christianity taught by a local Methodist minister . . . who is also a Jesus Seminar scholar. Rev. Dr. Hal Taussig shared how the research he has done into who the historical Jesus might have been has deepened his appreciation for the best aspects of his religion. In addition to the interest he expressed in discovering which sayings and teachings are most likely to have been authentic to the historical Jesus, Dr. Taussig also has found great value in identifying the sayings that were most likely attributed to Jesus by others during the decades following his death. This information reveals insight into how spiritual life developed in early Christian communities under different circumstances. What Dr. Taussig modeled was a way of relating to one’s own religion with an attitude of excitement and curiosity about what kinds of truth and beauty one might see if one is willing to look behind the curtain of the myth, letting go of dogma and approaching the past with a sense of curiosity and adventure. It’s in this same spirit that I have chosen to write this last chapter not on Moses, but rather on “Moses.”
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