Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Doesn't Like Pagans Enough

Dr. Yaakov Weinstein, an Orthodox Jew who writes the Torah From Narnia  blog was interviewed during Ecumenism Month at Pints With Jack, a podcast that got me through Till We Have Faces* last year. But I have stylistic objections to PWJ I just can't get past, so I only listen to its interviews. They have done Reformed Lewis and  Eastern Orthodox Lewis, and I still have Baptist Lewis and LDS Lewis to go. But this did look intriguing.

It was intriguing, right off the bat when he pointed out two things I had never noticed and connected them. When the three angels in disguise visit Abraham, Sarah hurriedly makes bread upon the hearth while Abraham sees to butchering and cooking a calf and other meal preparations. Hurriedly. This means it was unleavened bread, and thus not only a foreshadowing of Passover, but a fore-enactment of it. The former can be only a literary device, the latter is a participation in a truth that is already present though it is not yet revealed. It is deeper, revealing an intuitive understanding of the truth even if not articulated. Weinstein suggests this is a very rabbinic analysis, giving as another example the conclusion that Redemption must have been created before the universe, because God would not make a universe that cannot be redeemed.  So the concept must be present even preceding creation.

He ties that in to the very first chapter of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, where Mr Tumnus is described, because of the snow and his parcels, as if he has just done his Christmas shopping.  But there is no Christmas anymore, which is the point of the story, "always winter and never Christmas." Mr. Tumnus cannot actually be doing Christmas shopping. Yet somehow he enacts at least the appearance of it, likely unconsciously. Yet not unimportantly.  I love people who can point such noticed things out to me like that. 

He stated that it is a biblical principle that God transforms things rather than destroying them, and that rang true. It fit with our recent discussion about "he descended into Hell" in the Creed, and the belief that heaven and hell are not unmentioned in the Old Testament, but they are vague and shadowy and considered of optional importance - hints about them grow throughout the Scripture - but at the resurrection they are not merely opened up to humans, they are in some sense created.  The shadowlands that existed before become transformed and they divide into eternity with God or eternity away. But that principle of transformation rather than destruction occurs right from the start. Thinking about both fore-enactment and repeated transformation sheds new light on many passages. The Eucharist, for example, which is a foretaste, not a foreshadowing. 

For this reason Dr. Weinstein objected to the Stone Table being destroyed in Narnia. Transformed would have been better. One can see why a Jew would object to the symbolic destruction of the law and be bothered by it. Yet I think he has a point.  I am not offering any symbolic device that Lewis should have used instead - he would have done far better. But in my next time-travel to visit him I shall mention it if I get the chance. 

Then they discussed Till We Have Faces, and he had many more objections to that, though he thought much of it was deep and powerful and instructive about different types (styles, aspects) of love that is not much taught in Jewish thought. He objected that Orual is regarded in the second part as in need of remaking, and the praise for the virtuous Bardia is too mild. She had done great things for her people, he had been as noble as his understanding allowed. If the point was to transform the nation in preparation for the distantly-implied new religion that would come someday, then they had done that. I would counter that as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the point is that these things are good, but ultimately not enough. 

It occurred to me that a lot of his energy came from his sense of distance from the paganism of Ungit and I wondered why, as I think paganism transformed is a very biblical concept. We recently discussed that in Europe: Was It Ever Really Christian? The Christian Church in Europe took both approaches, of rejecting paganism (destroying groves and shrines was big) but also in embracing some to transform it.  And not just Christmas, but even what aspects of the faith were expressed in Europe vs the rest of the world. Weinstein thought rejecting and abjuring paganism was the only way to go, and that Lewis was treading dangerous ground by giving it any foothold at all. I think from a Torah-Tanakh perspective, that would be a very natural conclusion. God is strict with the Jews to have nothing to do with the practices of their pagan neighbors, and there is lesson after lesson about this. Do not touch.

Yet wait, I thought, isn't Judaism also paganism transformed? Genesis is awash in primitive elements, and Torah practices have some strong similarities to nearby tribes. I don't think that's a bad thing, I think that's exactly the way it should be. I suspect our Jewish friend would find the question "Is Judaism pagan?" to be deeply offensive.  And I get why. It is not only that he himself regards his faith as already complete, but he thinks we should, even if we cannot go that far, at least credit it as being of an entirely different kind than paganism. Well, I do.  I think both. I think it was a paganism that was transformed more than once before it came to the early Christians. Notably, it transformed again at the destruction of the Second Temple, away from the paganism of sacrifice to a more...more intellectual? more contemplative? religion. I don't think that the splitting of the faith into two transformations at that point in history is accidental. And in that split, the Torah-Talmud version went less pagan and decided that was the way to go. (If the Temple were rebuilt there are some Jews who would want to restart the sacrifices, but most would not.  they feel they have left that behind for good.)

His view is more Protestant, as we have stressed ideas and theology more than mystic practice.  It's why I think the Catholics (and others) have it right about the Eucharist. The god you eat. Uggh. Pagan. Gross. And yet I think that is the truth we are supposed to embrace. It is a paganism transformed. Even as a Congregationalist in confirmation class, learning about Consubstantiation, Transubstantiation, etc I thought viewing the Lord's Supper as merely symbolic was somehow wimping out. Embrace it.  Deal with it. 

It is ironic that I would ask Dr. Weinstein to embrace his own lesson about transformation.

But perhaps I have misunderstood him.  that has been known to happen before.

*I discussed that here


james said...

'Is not the very word Mother akin to Matter? Be sure that the whole of this land, with all its warmth and wetness and fecundity with all the dark and the heavy and the multitudinous for which you are too dainty, spoke through her lips when she said that He had regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden. And if that Lady was a maid though a mother, you need not doubt that the nature which is, to human sense, impure, is also pure.'

‘Well,’ said Vertue, turning away from Superbia, ‘I will think this over.’

‘One thing you may as well know,’ remarked the Guide, ‘whatever virtues you may
attribute to the Landlord, decency is not one of them. That is why so few of your national jokes have any point in my country.'

Yaakov said...

Hi AVI, thanks so much for your kind words about my interview with "Pints with Jack." You bring up some great points, and while I don't want to write an entire essay (maybe later on my blog) let me touch on a couple of things.
1) The difference between Sir Gawain the Green Knight and Till We Have Faces is that the latter was written by a profoundly Christian individual who regarded TWHF as the magnum opus of his fiction literary work. I cannot see how such a work not end in leading to the true religion (though I agree there is more work to be done in Glome).
2) With respect to paganism, to address the question you raise I need to formulate terms more accurately, but let's see what we can do in a couple of paragraphs. My perspective is that a Jewish approach to paganism is based on Abraham who midrashically destroyed the idols of his father. The revelation at Sinai then introduces a religion that makes a distinct break with pagan worship. This does not mean that there are no similarities between Judaism and paganism. For example, Judaism has a harvest festival as do/did pagans. Ours involves leaving our houses and going to live in Sukkot as a demonstration of our trust in God. It's still a harvest festival but a monotheistic God-centered one. Using Lewis' terms in the Four Loves, I would say the similarity of pagan festivals is nearness by likeness as opposed to nearness by approach - a distinct break between the two is present. Nonetheless, if we would like to call this a "transformation" of the harvest festival I'm OK with that.
My discomfort with Lewis is that TWHF suggests a smooth evolution from paganism rather than a distinct break. I would have assumed Christianity had two breaks: Sinai as a break from paganism, and the resurrection as a break from Judaism, but that doesn't seem to be the way Lewis portrays things.
I'm a little surprised with your characterization as my approach being more Protestant. Not that I mind, but it seems to me that ritual is much more prevalent and important in Judaism than in Protestantism and even more than in Catholicism (sacrifices is a topic of wide discussion amongst Jewish thinkers so I'm leaving that out for now). Does that mean it's more akin to "paganism"? I don't think so, but I guess it depends on our definition of paganism.

Thanks again!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well said, sir, and thank you for coming by. I did wonder if I had misunderstood you and will think over what you have written. I had not thought of the sharp break/gradualist aspect of TWHF.

As for a Protestant rather than Catholic/Eastern Orthodox approach, I agree that Judaism would be initially thought of as more like the latter with ritual and ceremony. But Western European and especially American Judaism, even including the Orthodox kind, moved in an increasingly reason-based rather than mystery based faith.* There are complications, certainly. It is not merely Enlightenment based, with the Vilna Gaon/Hasidic split, but extends back to the destruction of the Temple and the reinterpretation of what is central after the sacrifices became impossible. But even the Hillel and Shammai counterpoint was in a context still bloody. (And properly so. No disapproval from me on that. Perhaps the bloodiness is overwhelming my impression in this whole discussion.) So yes, even now Orthodoxy is ritual-based. I only contrast it to its own self extending farther and farther back. My complaint with Protestants, though I am one, is that it congratulates itself too much on reason - snarky aside, I think Reform Judaism does much the same - which is only one side of the faith coin. We need more bloodiness, frankly.

I recommend to you a piece I wrote years ago about an old Romanian in Beius encountering the idea of where the Jews went, when I spoke to him after the Iron Curtain fell. A Different Holocaust Up Close: https://assistantvillageidiot.blogspot.com/2005/11/different-holocaust-up-close.html

*In Will Herberg's classic Protestant, Catholic, Jew (which only a dissident Reform Jew could have even conceived of writing), he notes that services in American synagogues and American Catholic churches resemble American mainline Protestant services more than their European counterparts. Those were Conservative and Reform services, certainly, but my limited experience suggests that New York Orthodoxy, Satmar or not, has more of Brooklyn than Minsk in it.