Friday, August 24, 2007

Ancient Sacred Texts That Blow Me Away

I love the Tanakh. I love its resonating poetry. I love the political intrigue in its stories, its many colorful characters, the way it brings ancient stories to life, the way it attempts to solve social issues. I love how morally complicated it is. I love figuring out how those ancient words were cobbled together. I love that it's a demanding read at times, but also endlessly rewarding. There are even some passages that I know by heart (and some that I wish that I knew).

But this wasn't always so. Before I discovered the Documentary Hypothesis, the Tanakh had me completely bewildered. I couldn't understand why God is behaving like a brute, an out-of-control schizophrenic, creating flawed humans, testing them, and them smiting them for failing absurd tests. God seemed so unjust, so petty, at times needlessly cruel and vengeful, punishing innocent children for the misdeeds of their parents; condemning unoffending people for the sins of others. I wondered why God's ideas of social justice were so far behind the values of equality and justice hard-won only in the last century. How can God be such a racist and a misogynist? Why is God so obsessed with animal sacrifices? And finally, how could God get so many things wrong in so many fields: geography, biology, geology, genetics, chemistry, zoology, astronomy, and almost any other scientific field.

All this confusion lifted when it finally clicked: God did not dictate the Torah. The Torah was not God's effort to communicate His ideas to us mortals. The Torah was written by ancient men, and the Torah documents their writing efforts. The stories in the Tanakh say very little about God, but very much about the people who wrote it. Once I started viewing the Tanakh as a venerable book of anthropology, it all made perfect sense.

Now I take real pleasure in reading a book that is thousands of years old, and I marvel at how I can read it in the original language used by those ancient, primitive people who wrote it. I enjoy reading how thousands of years ago, these people grappled with the same moral and philosophical questions humankind still grapples with today. I'm amazed to be able to trace a fundamental sense of morality which all humans share, now in the 21st century, and in the time before years were counted. So even devoid of belief in its divinity, the Tanakh holds considerable gravity and importance to me, for it has stood the the test of time. It is truly a masterpiece.

Thunder, Perfect Mind is not any less beautiful, although a more compact manuscript, than the Tanakh. It was discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and is part of a collection of religious texts written in Coptic by a Gnostic sect, sometime before 400 CE. The Gnostics' theology is extremely complex (and not very dissimilar to the opinions of the Baal Hablog, Dov Bear) in that they believed parts of Genesis to be divine revelation, and parts to be humanly reconstructed.

To understand some of this epic poem, one needs to know that the Gnostics ascribed androgyny to be a divine characteristic, which explains why it is spoken by a paradoxical voice of a goddess that contains a multitude of polarities. Because the Gnostics are long gone, and because this manuscript was only discovered relatively recently, it is open to anyone's interpretations. It has no oral tradition exegesis tacked on to it. There is no Rashi or Ramban or Unkelos to try to make sense of it. There is no Rambam to codify its legalities. Without benefit of medrash or parshanut, its deep, hidden and often paradoxical meanings are accessible to anyone. Unlike the Tanakh, it does not demand dogmatic belief, or any belief at all. In fact, it has little to do with religion other than provoking deep thought, which may be a spiritual experience for some. It does not attempt to outline a way of life, there are no 613 complicated mitzvot or archaic rituals demanded of the reader, nor does it aspire to provide the reader with a deep meaning of life. It remains mysterious and beautifully haunting, and it blows me away every time I read it.

L'Kovod Erev Shabbos, here is a sampling:

I am the knowledge of my inquiry,
and the finding of those who seek after me,
and the command of those who ask of me,
and the power of the powers in my knowledge of the angels,
who have been sent at my word,
and of gods in their seasons by my counsel,
and of spirits of every man who exists with me,
and of women who dwell within me.
I am the one who is honored,
and who is praised,
and who is despised scornfully.
I am peace,
and war has come because of me.
And I am an alien and a citizen.
I am the substance
and the one who has no substance.
I am the one whom they call Law,
and you have called Lawlessness.
I am the one whom you have pursued,
and I am the one whom you have seized.
I am the one whom you have scattered,
and you have gathered me together.
I am the one before whom you have been ashamed,
and you have been shameless to me.
I am she who does not keep festival,
and I am she whose festivals are many.
Hear me,
you hearers and learn of my words,
you who know me.
I am the hearing that is attainable to everything;
I am the speech that cannot be grasped.
I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name.
I am the sign of the letter
and the designation of the division.
Read it in its entirety here

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