Friday, June 09, 2006

"The story behind Akdamus", the River Sambatyon, and the martyrdom of Saint-Denis

A few days ago I posted about the difficulty in accepting what seems to be unnecessary accretions to the central dogmas of Judaism.

In the comments to the post, several people pointed out that one need not believe all this to be literal in order to remain a Ortho-Jew in good standing. While I agree with this position, my point was more that while technically true, am I in a precarious minority in the Orthodox community, and if so, how does that affect me socially (and I don't mean will I be invited over for Shabbos)? I may not be a heretic, but who wants to live in a community where everyone thinks what you believe is somehow deficient, or borderline heretical. Will my children be indoctrinated to believe things I don't want them to believe. This isn't an epistemological question, it is an interpersonal, social one.

Shoshana commented that a rabbi once told her to "believe with skepticism" in this situation. Boy, that is the money quote for today!

Also, coming back to the idea of the slippery slope. I am not just dealing with Midrashim here. There is all the aggadatha in the Talmud(s), but also the various stories that have come down through the centuries. Someone once said, "Amnesia is not a Jewish disease". We keep adding to our compendium of the miraculous and we never take away. We layer new myths on top of old and anchor our old myths to the fundamentals of our faith, in some bizarre perversion of the Kuzari principle.

As it often happens, I manage to stumble across another blog dealing with the same type of issue. Someone's son comes back from yeshiva with an incredible "story behind Akdamus", involving sorcerers, the magical river Sambatyon, a faceoff between an ancient man from beyond the river and the evil Christian sorcerer. The son wants to know if it is true. The father is stumped.

One of the issues that further complicates this for me is the fact that it puts the whole comparative religion thing onto a whole new level. I'd like to think that as the keepers of the "True Faith" we Jews would be immune to the need to "prove" it to everyone by miracle story one-upsmanship. I think that by making up stories, we lose this distinction. We invent a mythology that frankly isn't different from other faiths and cultures; oftentimes we appear to be borrowing from them.

Just for grins, here is a great story from the 13th century compendium called the Golden Legend. (I steal most of this stuff from Wikipedia btw, so feel free to look there for more info)

Saint Silvester exorcizing a dragon:

In this time it happed that there was at Rome a dragon in a pit, which every day slew with his breath more than three hundred men. Then came the bishops of the idols unto the emperor and said unto him: O thou most holy emperor, sith the time that thou hast received christian faith the dragon which is in yonder fosse or pit slayeth every day with his breath more than three hundred men. Then sent the emperor for S. Silvester and asked counsel of him of this matter. S. Silvester answered that by the might of God he promised to make him cease of his hurt and blessure of this people. Then S Silvester put himself to prayer, and S. Peter appeared to him and said: "Go surely to the dragon and the two priests that be with thee take in thy company, and when thou shalt come to him thou shalt say to him in this manner: Our Lord Jesu Christ which was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried and arose, and now sitteth on the right side of the Father, this is he that shall come to deem and judge the living and the dead, I commend thee Sathanas that thou abide him in this place till he come. Then thou shalt bind his mouth with a thread, and seal it with thy seal , wherein is the imprint of the cross. Then thou and the two priests shall come to me whole and safe, and such bread as I shall make ready for you ye shall eat."
Or how about the story of Saint Denis who after being beheaded, walked for several miles holding his head and preaching a sermon.

Or perhaps if you're tired of Christian miracles, how about a Muslim one:

One night, Muhammad, accompanied by the angel Gabriel, flew on the back of a winged, horse-like creature to Jerusalem to visit the temple that was built by King Solomon (who, by the way, is also considered to be one of the prophets). At the Temple, Muhammad prayed with Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muhammad was then carried up to heaven by Gabriel, where Muhammad met God. Because of this trip, Moslems consider Jerusalem to be the third most holy city, after Mecca and Medina
Finding additional amazing miracle stories of diverse cultures and faiths is left as an exercise to the reader.


Blogger dbs said...

Just to note this, having a more skeptical view of midrash really isn’t such a big deal from a practical standpoint. In point of fact, it is really observance where the rubber hits the road regarding integration with the frum community. Even if you’re pretty vocal about disbelieving some midrash, people just look at you with benign tolerance. (This is even true of more ‘core’ dogmatic beliefs.) It’s only if you do something anti-halacha (publicly) that there is any problem. (e.g. “yes, we don’t keep second day of yom tov because I think that putting on tefilin is more important than keeping a minhag”.) That’s going to be real trouble.

I actually don’t know how many adults would react if challenged about the authenticy of midrash or some of these miracle stories. Certainly many (perhaps most) would count them as fact, but many would also hedge quite a bit. I’ve heard a lot of cute doublespeak terms which try to reconcile the idea of trusting chazal (and, after all, much of midrash goes all the way back to the Tanaim) with reality. And then, of course, there are some who will just agree that this is all parable.

June 13, 2006 9:15 AM  

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