Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Future of Canon

I am reading Yitzhak Avishur, Studies in Hebrew and Ugaritic Psalms, Hebrew University Press 1994. In the early discussion of Psalm 29 (as being a hymn to Baal which the Israelites appropriated simply by changing the word Baal to YHWH) comes this paragraph under the heading of The Psalm and the Jubusite Cult, he notes that he follows Cassuto's view and cites him as follows: "We no longer assume deliberate imitation but only natural and spontaneous continuity, not assimilation but development, not the acceptance of foreign influence but the perpetuated use of methods of expression that were already employed in the language, both in religious and secular life."

Do we have here a hint as to possible beginnings of canon? And could we find here some hints on both the closed/open/fuzzy-edged and continuing nature of canon?

Some time ago Doug posted a lovely hymn - no less lovely for being derivative from Augustine. Herbert and Donne did such things too and not just because they were clever. Lovely because of love.

My song is love unknown
my saviour's love to me
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be (Samuel Crossman - another 17th century bloke)

What motivates the Caananite or the Hebrew to write? Why does it not continue? What is the nature of time that we are past or present in its fulness? (I could do with a collection of hymns of this quality - mais chaqu'un...)

Is it a problem if something now canonical seems to have come from a name (Caananite!) that is perhaps associated with a questionable history? It occurred to me that Dahood was over the top with respect to Ugaritic - but what do I know? and how defensive is the mood today about such origins? ("...development, not the acceptance of foreign influence...") My questions on this try to delve to the root of the experience and the origins of 'religion', a word I do not like at all. Did the original poet, whether Caananite or proto Hebrew say: "my, what a fine poem, I should keep this". Or was he simply gloating about some bloody military victory over Baal with Lebanon's cedars shattered, and a convulsed wilderness of Kadesh, and a forest ruined by fire, and hinds calving out of fear... and thieving a poem to prove his point? (Were they really so 'foreign' to each other?)

Who invented the concentric structure (and why did the world lose its knowledge of such a marvel)? A surfeit of questions. Good thing the canon is limited. Defensiveness is not a requirement. iyov notes the concept of a protective fence around Torah. Is the fence part of the canon? Is it needed?


Iyov said...

Bob, thanks so much for the link.

The protective fence is a central principle in Judaism, and leads to the major division in laws:

Halacha d'raissa -- laws from the "Written" Torah

Halacha d'rabbanan -- laws from the "Oral" Torah -- that is rabbinic decrees.

The core law is in the Bible, but extension is rabbinic writings. Jews need to understand which class a law is in, so that they can understand when it is binding and when and what sort of exceptions apply to it.

For example, let's take Deuteronomy 14:21:

Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.

The rabbis extended this requirement by forbidding eating dairy and meat products together -- one of the most basic rule of kosher food. What was the pretense for this extension? To exclude the possibility that an ignorant person might see someone eating a cheeseburger and get the wrong idea about boiling a baby goat in his mother's milk.

This relates to the gospel stories as well. In many cases when Jesus has tangles with the Pharisees, the traditional analysis has been:

The Pharisees are purely legalists, while Jesus let the right thing, guided by the holy spirit, guide him.

But that model has been severely questioned. In the pattern of Jesus' arguments goes like this:

Pharisee: You can do that, it is against the law

Jesus: Actually, let me give you a halachic situation you can all agree is valid -- and then apply a kalv'homer (a fortiori) argument to argue why this case is OK.

The impression to a Jewish reader is that Jesus knows the ins and outs of Jewish law much more than those who question him.

So one way of analyzing Jesus's actions is that he was actually a brilliant scholar who was functioning within normative Judaism. His disputes were with those who didn't know the law as well as he.

This is a controversial argument and requires more time to discuss and defend fully. If you are interested, maybe at some point in the future, I my discuss it on my blog.

Bob MacDonald said...

Iyov - a good comment. I am not very familiar with the Oral law but every time I hear of it I am intrigued. There are serious problems as well as useful insights. For instance: the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53, a pericope not attested in all mss) is sometimes seen as a plea from the rabbis to find a way out of the predicament of the penalty of the law. Not sure who suggested this but I think it might have merit given your thesis about Jesus. Or negatively, people noted to me one shabbat evening when I, a Gentile, was hosting them (in spite of my non-kosher kitchen) that I should not turn on a light after sundown - even to show them out of my house in the dark - not a safe thing to do. I was surprised at this unnecessary part of the fence around Shabbat. (I did leave the candles to burn out on their own even after everyone had left.) The subject of law and grace - and I see Judaism as a filled with grace - is a very subtle one. It would be good to discuss it in the blogworld. It will need a substantial stimulus.

Iyov said...

The people you hosted erred (as a matter of Jewish law) in forbidding you to turn on the light. In Jewish law, non-Jews are only bound by the seven "Noachide" laws ("do the seven, go to heaven") and keeping the Sabbath is not one of those.

Keeping the Sabbath is perhaps the most difficult commandment -- except of course, for the all time toughie: "love your fellow as yourself" (of course, this is not a problem for some: they hate themselves, and they hate everyone else too.) The easiest commandment, according to some accounts is not to marry one's mother-in-law.

But the requirement not to turn on lights on Sabbath is not a fence around Torah -- it is in fact a Torah law (not to light a fire on the Sabbath, Exodus 35:3 -- a spark of electricity is considered to be a fire.)

Bob MacDonald said...

My memory is perhaps in error - they may have momentarily forgotten that I was Gentile or I may have heard the comment as command rather than comment. In any case - you are right - love of neighbour trumps here and in other places where community and hospitality are acts of grace in spite of our regulations whether explicit or hidden.