donderdag 31 oktober 2013


All religion is all alike, so you can regularly hear and read. Traditions that once were clearly defined today are more intertwined. More and more people assemble their own philosophy of life from a range of different traditions. The reason for that, says for example the magazine Happinez, is that people are looking for guidance and ‘something’ existential that transcends us. And some of that may be found in any tradition.

But sometimes one can – I think – surely draw clear marking lines between religions. A sharp line, namely between Judaism and Christianity, I came across lately concerning the question of where to look for deeper truths.

I read about the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. From him comes the statement “Why do you seek it outside of you? Why don’t you stay in your innermost and grab what is good in yourself? After all, you carry the whole truth substantially within you”.

This may sound familiar to us, not only from a knowledge of ancient or medieval mystics, but also from more contemporary self-centered spiritual training programs like Avatar or Landmark. The idea that the entire cosmos is rooted in yourself, is apparently deeply anchored in the Western genes.

This is different in the Jewish tradition. Judaism also knows the belief that each person is a cosmos in itself, according to the Talmudic statement that who rescues a person rescues a  world. But the fascination here is connected rather to the radical differences between the cosmoses, than to the radical otherness of another person.

A corollary of this fascination is the belief that one therefore does not carry the whole world  substantially within oneself. On the contrary: somethings keep slipping from me, namely that in which another person is substantially other indeed. In a way that I never could imagine beforehand.

With this approach the Jewish tradition creates its own puzzles and questions: how can we understand each other, how can we, with those radical differences, live together ?

It is clear, anyway, that the self is never self-sufficient.

Also see Holy Fire and Secular Varieties

vrijdag 25 oktober 2013

The Story of the Jews

“In the massive, five-part BBC series The Story of the Jews historian Simon Schama delves into the history of the Jewish people. He begins his story three thousand years ago with the emergence of some tribes in the land of Canaan, their holy book and the stormy relationship with their vengeful god. The next few weeks Schama will explain how the Jews fought - and still fight - for their country and how wars with rival nations, neighbors and domination by the Romans and other invasion forces have determined the history of the Jewish people”.

If this announcement in a Dutch newspaper is an adequate summary of Schama’s series, he would really disappoint me. To rule or to be ruled, that’s what Judaism is all about, according to this text.

Now this is not so remarkable in itself . There are plenty of cynical Darwinists who regard the struggle for power as the basic law of human existence and of the interaction of people with each other. And why would the Jewish people escape to that law?

But, with such a description, has everything been said about a people? In that case, you indeed can dismiss a people’s history as a story of violence and its god as vindictive. In my opinion, however, you then have missed many interesting aspects, at least in the case of the Jewish people. Because, what if a suchlike people questions the violence that it performs or is subjected to? What if a ‘vengeful God’ becomes a metaphor for a bloody reality that is experienced as capricious and despotic? And thus allows for staging stories that enable people to better cope with the violence they have experienced?

There is a truth that appears as gross arbitrariness and that one does not understand. But the Biblical stories make that truth a little more tangible and therefore a bit more suited to the perplexed reflective mind than the brutal violence itself. Thanks to the stories, with their arbitrariness and absurdities, one can relate to it somehow instead of being in the middle of it.

You can therefore come to love those stories and the reflection that they make possible. And, thus, even to love the God who features in the stories. Conversely that God appears to come to love us and to show us charity. Such is visible in the liturgy of the Jewish holidays with the recurring phrase “The Lord, the Lord, a God of mercy and compassion, slow to anger, generous in love and truth, showing love to thousands, forgiving sin, wrong and failure; who pardons”.

I am afraid that, without mentioning the human love of Torah stories and the divine love for man, the series will be but little interesting. Probably the key phrase of the Jewish tradition –   namely, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” – will remain totally incomprehensible.

Also see Polyphony, Committed Gossip and Kol Nidrei and other illusions