Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Harold Bloom on Jesus and Yahweh

I cannot recall that the Hebrew Bible ever explicitly states that the Jewish people can render themselves holy through study, yet I am one of many thousands who were brougth up to believe in such incessant reading and meditation. --Jesus and Yahweh, p. 195

Take up any of Harold Bloom's books on our Western religious traditions and you will find, nearly every third page, sentences that seem overstated, even unhinged. To read Bloom is often a hair-raising experience: the critic, one frequently tells oneself, is ranting. But on second consideration--when one rethinks Bloom's assertions in the wider context of the centuries-long unfolding of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with all their twists and heresies and inhumanity--he usually seems vindicated. Considered over the centuries, our collective religious experience really is as extreme and uncanny as he suggests. Looking at Western religion in the first decade of this new century, it would be hard to argue that believers are becoming more moderate.

Though even Bloom's wilder formulations are often well-founded, it's not always so, and there's definitely something of the crank to him, a crankishness that comes through not so much in his ideas as in his delight in hearing himself repeat these ideas. Bloom's writing is superb, magisterial; he employs terms with the keenest subtlety (a precision often misunderstood by those who would dismiss him, as when Bible scholars scoffed at his discussion of irony in the J writer: see The Book of J). Bloom's flaw, however, is a kind of thumping redundancy. The great critic's assertions, often in the superlative, return again and again, needlessly so. Fortunately, his books are otherwise such a pleasure to read, his own personality so learned and charismatic, that one will overlook this tic of repetition.

Bloom is in his usual fine fettle in Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. Like his previously published works The Book of J, The American Religion, and Omens of Millennium, this new title seeks to contribute to what Bloom calls "religious criticism." His training and stature as a literary critic, not to mention his personal religious obsessions, make him particularly adept at formulating the major questions. The new work, definitely one of major questions, is divided into two sections, one for each of the "names divine" Jesus and Yahweh. The book does not make for two separate essays however; throughout the many chapters the critic illuminates his understanding of the one name by contrast with the other, his section on Jesus dealing also with Yahweh, and vice versa. Such mingling is inevitable, since Bloom's real subject here is the question of whether or not Jesus Christ, as understood by Christian tradition, is compatible with the uncanny God Yahweh as represented in the Hebrew Bible. Bloom concludes that they are not compatible, then deepens his discussion by (more or less) multiplying the number of names divine he would consider. Jesus and Yahweh? But which Jesus? For Bloom there is Jesus Christ on the one hand, a "theological god" developed by the theologians of the first centuries, and Yeshua of Nazareth on the other, a charismatic Jewish teacher about whom we can know precious little:
Doubtless the real Jesus existed, but he never will be found, nor need he be. [This book] intends no quest. My sole purpose is to suggest that Jesus, Jesus Christ, and Yahweh are three totally incompatible personages, and to explain just how and why this is so. (8)
Regardless of Bloom's skepticism as to the possibility of knowing the historical Jesus, he gives us, somewhat contradictorily, his own assessment of Jesus in the third chapter. For a writer mostly bitterly critical of the Christian tradition and its anti-Semitic distortions and crimes, this is quite high praise:
Father John P. Meier, the author of three magisterial volumes under the somewhat misleading title A Marginal Jew (with a much-needed fourth volume to come), accurately terms Jesus "a Jewish genius." One can go further: Jesus was the greatest of Jewish geniuses. It is as though the Yahwist or J Writer somehow was fused with King David, with the Prophets from Amos through Malachi, with the Wisdom authors of Job and Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), with the sages from Hillel through Akiba, and with the long sequence that goes from Maimonides through Spinoza on to Freud and Kafka. Jesus is the Jewish Socrates, and surpasses Plato's mentor as the supreme master of dark wisdom. (26-7)
One wants to know: if the historical Jesus, as Bloom insists, is lost to the sands of time, how can he also be "the greatest of Jewish geniuses"? Or rather: how could we know this? On the basis of what sources could we know it if not the gospels Bloom elsewhere characterizes as unreliable?

Presumably Bloom, like many educated Christians, suspects that in the gospels (in Mark, Matthew and Luke, though perhaps not at all in John) there is a basic collection of teachings and acts that really is authentic to Yeshua himself: i.e., that although we will never be sure exactly which words in the gospels are his, we can nonetheless get a somewhat reliable portrait of his teachings from these texts. Bloom insists that his preferred gospels are Mark and Thomas; he says that as a Jew he is hated by the writer of John and that he "returns the favor"; he claims that the Epistle of James, written perhaps by one of the followers of Jesus' brother James the Just, offers us the most trustworthy echo we will ever get of Yeshua's authentic voice. I agree with him to a degree in his preferences: certainly I'm convinced Matthew and Mark are the most reliable of the gospels; the Gospel of Thomas too may contain authentic sayings, and thus cannot be ignored; and certainly I find the Epistle of James a more likely historical echo of Jesus than the letters of Paul (which, however, I've recently been led to reassess thanks to the scholarly movement known as "the new perspective on Paul": Garry Wills gives a striking presentation).

Bloom's praise for Mark is grounded in the gospel writer's extraordinary narrative strengths and in the fact that Mark gives us a Jesus similar in many ways to Yahweh. Somewhat oddly, Bloom hints that at least Mark's Jesus actually could be the (literary?) "son of God":
But why did Jesus frequently speak in riddles? His parables follow and perfect Hebrew tradition; Yahweh himself, throughout the J Writer's text, delights in riddling puns, unanswerably rhetorical questions, and fiercely playful outbursts that edge upon a frightening fury. "Like father, like son," a believer aptly could reply. Whoever wrote Mark, the first Gospel to be composed, was such a believer, and went back to Yahweh at the God's uncanniest in order to suggest something of the secret of Jesus. (31)
Bloom's preference for Thomas, not explained in this work, is no doubt partly based on that newly discovered gospel's focus on Jesus' life and sayings rather than on the crucifixion. Such a focus, in any case, suggests that whoever compiled the sayings in Thomas had little use for the doctrine of atonement, a teaching Bloom also doubtless would rank among the creedal misrepresentations of Jesus' life. The critic also has frequently called himself a Gnostic, and, although the jury is still out as to the degree Thomas should be linked to Gnosticism, there are certainly sayings in Thomas that fit well with Gnostic teaching.

On Jesus and the Epistle of James, we read:
. . . Jesus outdoes the Pharisees (his closest rivals) in honoring the Law. His genius fused love for his father, Yahweh as abba [Aramaic: father], with love for the Law, oral and written, and love for his people. He remains the Jew-of-Jews, the Jew proper, triumphant over victimage while longing for the Father, and for the Kingdom where love and righteousness will be harmonized. Paul turned to the Gentiles. Jesus, as even the Synoptic Gospels make clear, certainly did not. James the Just, brother of Jesus, was his authentic disciple. Scholars oddly do not see that the spirit of Jesus stands forth most clearly in the Epistle of James, composed by one of the Ebionites, or Jewish Christians, who survived the judicial murder of James and the subsequent sack of Jerusalem. . . . [In the Epistle of James] we hear the voice of the Prophets in the wilderness, of Elijah and John the Baptist, and the voice of Jesus himself, for once abandoning his formidable irony. (13-4)
. . . [The] stance and aura of Jewish Christianity has never been better exemplified than in this eloquent sermon. . . . Since there is an overt polemic against Paul, I am not impressed when scholars argue that James and Paul subtly can be reconciled. Martin Luther's anti-Semitic diatribe against James counts far more: he reacted with fury to the Epistle's "a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (2:24), a manifest repudiation of Paul's "a man is justified by faith and not by works" (Romans 3:28) (38)
In general Bloom is not impressed by scholars who try subtly to reconcile. One of the critic's major gripes in Jesus and Yahweh is the extent to which Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) was "strongly misread" by the writers of what became the New Testament. In his long career as literary-religious critic, he has never tired of reminding readers that the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are different books: both organized differently and read with radically different presuppositions. Bloom, theoretician of "the anxiety of influence," considers the New Testament to be in large measure driven by its writers' desire to bend the meaning of Jewish tradition to their own Hellenizing ends. The Christian Bible is, Bloom says, the most successful example of misreading in history. In a strong metaphor of his own, one evoking the Arch of Titus in Rome, he writes of the Hebrew Bible being taken captive by the New Testament:
If the New Testament triumphed in the Roman mode, and it did under Constantine, then the captive led in procession was the Tanakh, reduced to slavery as the Old Testament. All subsequent Jewish history, until the founding more than half a century ago of the State of Israel, testifies to the human consequences of that textual slavery. (50-1)
Bloom takes up the New Testament's struggle with Tanakh mainly in his consideration of the rhetorical strategies of the Gospel of John. The fourth gospel, as most readers have noticed, goes further in the direction of anti-Semitism than the previously written synoptic gospels, and contains some of the Bible's most unfortunate formulations:
A Jewish reader with even the slightest sense of Jewish history feels threatened when reading John 18:28-19:16. . . . There is a peculiar wrongness about John's Jesus saying, "If my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews" (18:36); it implies that Jesus is no longer a Jew, but something else.
Bloom attributes John's anti-Jewishness to the time and place of its writing; those behind its composition were undergoing "an anxiety of frustrated expectations, perhaps even of recent expulsion from the Jewish world." (78-9) It is this crisis of faith or identity that drove the gospel's nastiness toward the Pharisees (many scholars now believe it very unlikely Jesus' relations with the Pharisees were as bitter as the gospels make them out to be) as well as its struggle toward Moses. Bloom analyzes the passage containing John 8:58--Jesus' statement that "Before Abraham was, I am"--to bring out the subtlety and power of the writer's rhetoric, what the critic calls his "revisionary warfare." Impressed by John's subtlety, Bloom cannot finally bring himself to praise it:
I don't see how any authentic literary critic could judge John as anything better than a very flawed revisionist of the Yahwist. . . . In the aesthetic warfare between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is just no contest, and if you think otherwise, then bless you. (86)
Ultimately, as Bloom himself implies, one's assessment of John will depend on whether or not one believes Jesus to be the Messiah and whether or not one accepts orthodox Christian ideas as to what the Messiah is. For myself, I see John 8:58--"Before Abraham was, I am"--quite differently than Bloom. If the words are merely Johannine, they give us a rhetorically brilliant meditation on how the Messiah relates to the Patriarchs and Prophets: i.e., the Messiah is of greater stature than Abraham or Moses. If the words are authentically from Jesus, however, they offer an instance of Jesus' voice speaking directly from the ground of the Logos itself: Jesus affirming what he knows about himself against those who would accuse him of raving or blaspheming. A Christian reader like myself may well be put off by the anti-Semitic gestures in John, but can still brush them aside as aberrant, focusing instead on the more substantive theological aspects of the text. Regarding the passages where Jesus and the apostles are represented as a group somehow distinct from "the Jews," I agree with Bloom entirely: they are a product of anxiety and identity crisis; they offer a misrepresentation, a perverse example of anti-Semitism in a text that should, on the contrary, have found its root in Jewish tradition. As for John's christology, however, that is a different matter.

Bloom will doubtless say that one cannot have one's cake and eat it too, that the logocentrism of the Gospel of John is Hellenic and not Jewish, and that the true Messiah could not have spoken in this way. But how can Bloom or anyone know how the true Messiah would speak? Is Yahweh to be limited by our expectations of him? Could not his development, to follow Bloom's own biographical approach to Yahweh, follow unpredictable paths? The critic would have to agree that it is so.

Bloom's approach to Yahweh in this new work is somewhat different from that in the earlier Book of J. If in that work Bloom analyzed Yahweh's uncanny presence in the J writer's work, this meditation seems more concerned with Yahweh's career before and after the events narrated in the Bible. Where was Yahweh before creation, and what was his motive for creation? How explain his slow transcendence or distancing from men as narrated over the course of the Hebrew Bible, and how explain, further, his apparent self-exile from much of Jewish history since?

In Jesus and Yahweh Bloom keeps up a dialogue of sorts with Jack Miles, whose works God: A Biography and Christ he evidently, with some reservations, admires. Like Miles, and somewhat like the Kabbalists, Bloom has chosen to treat of Yahweh biographically. This choice is a conceit of course, one that makes it easier for the critic to make certain kinds of points. One of Bloom's major points is the disconcerting humanity of Yahweh: an irascibility and physical presence that make him hard to identify with the more transcendent Christian concept of God the Father.

Early on in the Yahweh chapters, Bloom makes a characteristic observation regarding the relationship between Yahweh as represented in the J writer's work and all that succeeds him--i.e., all subsequent Western religious thought: "Yahweh's Shakespeare, the J Writer, manifested an irreverence [toward Yahweh] that sparked the defensive rise of theology, which is always an effort to explain away the human aspects of God (or of Jesus)." (137-8) For Bloom the literary critic, Yahweh represents an intellectual challenge akin to that posed by Shakespeare's strongest characters, Hamlet and King Lear. The God Yahweh, Bloom insists, "is a man," and yet he is somehow an infinite man with a mind "intricately labyrinthine." This assertion that God is a man is of course something of the reverse of the Christian assertion that Jesus the man is also God. In terms of his own tradition, Bloom makes his assertion on good authority: in Kabbalah, in the Rabbi Akiba and in Scripture itself similar assertions can be found. Bloom writes:
Despite Philo of Alexandria, prince of Jewish Platonic allegorists, a true name for God, in the tradition of Rabbi Akiba, is Ish (man). Exodus 15:3 magnificently intones, 'Yahweh is a Man of War, the Lord is his name.'. . . The great Akiba, who truly founded the Judaism we still recognize . . . held strong to the literalism of Yahweh as Ish, God as Man, despite Rabbi Ishmael and his school. Yahweh walks about in Exodus 13:21, however unhappy sucah perambulation was to make the Prophets. I find a crazy comedy in the early exegetes who follow a strolling Yahweh around, while chirping, "He's not walking!" After all, the hardworking and energetic Yahweh really rests on the seventh day . . . . A swordsman, Yahweh needs downtime, like all men of war. And Yahweh is joyous, or angry, and frequently hungry. Akiba sensibly found all this quite acceptable, but it roused his friend and opponent Ishmael to indignant denials. . . . (196)
Why this God so engaged in the life of his Chosen People should slowly drift into transcendence after the Book of Job is a question Bloom sets himself in this work. Yahweh's apparent abandonment of his Covenant has long been a major problem for Judaism; the horrors of the twentieth century have pushed the issue to a limit point. Bloom points out that the Jews are to have trust in the Covenant, but understandably wonders how this can be possible anymore. He contrasts the types of spiritual comportment stressed by the three Western faiths: "Judaism emphasizes trust in the Covenant, Christianity professes faith that Jesus himself was the New Covenant, Islam is submission to the will of Allah." (143) Trust, faith and submission are the three distinct grounds of our three Western monotheisms. I believe Bloom would acknowledge that trust, as a spiritual mode, has vulnerabilities that faith or submission do not. Or at least that the horrors of Jewish history have been such as to undermine precisely that virtue: trust. Yahweh promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore, and yet, as Bloom points out, Christians and Muslims now outnumber Jews more than a thousand to one. The Roman massacres of Jews and destruction of the Temple themselves dealt massive blows to Jewish trust. The Holocaust of the last century, Bloom insists, should be evidence enough: Yahweh has defaulted on his Covenant. But even the history contained in the Hebrew Bible, when Yahweh was presumably at his most engaged, does not offer a very encouraging picture. "We can be maddened by Yahweh's bewildering turns at revealing and concealing himself . . . his furies can seem so sudden and capricious. Yahweh commands a recalcitrant Moses to descend into Egypt, and then attempts to murder his prophet at a night encampment in the Negev, on the way down." (132; see Exodus 5:24ff) As with Moses himself, so with the whole people. Even in the Tanakh, the blessings offered prove few and far between.

Since his Book of J Bloom has stressed Yahweh's impishness and unpredictability. But how account for it? In Jesus and Yahweh the critic turns to the speculations of Kabbalah in order to explain what seems to be the wayward and pained psychology of the Jewish God. There is a sketchy summary of the thought of Isaac Luria, seen partially through the lens of Gershom Scholem and Freud, and, interestingly, several reverent pages on Nahman of Bratslav. To simplify matters greatly, the Kabbalah on which Bloom focuses was an attempt to think the negative side of creation via the question of how the creation was possible and what its results were. In order to create the universe, it is claimed, Yahweh had to withdraw himself from part of himself, if only in order to make a void in which this universe could be. This withdrawing from self or division in self is already a beginning of crisis. Along with the concentration implied in creation, there was also, Bloom says, a necessary contraction, for without it "there could be no reality except God's, and no evil either." "There has to be an abyss in the will of Yahweh, since without a negative moment in the act of creation, God and the cosmos would fuse as one." (211-2) This abyss or self-exile in the creator (the term in Kabbalah is zimzum) is followed by a disaster in the created world. Isaac Luria conceived the fable of the Breaking of the Vessels to explain the imperfections of the world we know. In the creation Yahweh formed vessels to receive the outpouring of his power, but this power proved too much for the vessels to contain; they broke. Yahweh's irascibility as evident in the tradition, the suffering of the Chosen People in this imperfect world--both are a result of the cosmic disaster that was creation. The universe is a self-injured God presiding over a broken creation.

One may speculate that Yahweh's initial self-exile in zimzum was followed by a movement of withdrawal from the creation itself. This is the understanding Bloom portrays in the great 18th century Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. In fact this withdrawal is not simply a matter of going elsewhere, a retreat, but is a dwindling in being or power.
God [for Nahman] is not merely an absence dwindled down from a presence. After one zimzum too many, Yahweh shrunk into Elohim cannot be distinguished from the cosmic void he wanders. . . . [Yahweh, who was once] Being itself, has vaporized into the void of Jewish dispersion and suffering. (224)
A self-divided Yahweh who rages over a broken creation, eventually to dwindle down into a slight presence, incapable of upholding the Covenant he once made with his people. This, according to Bloom, is the vision of the idiosyncratic Hasidic master Nahman; it is one Bloom seems to share, for frequently in Jesus and Yahweh the critic insists that Shakespeare's King Lear is an apt portrayal of the Hebrew God.

Throughout Bloom's meditations one frequently encounters expressions of the critic's bitterness, both a cosmic or existential bitterness and a historical grudge based on the unjust suffering of his people: suffering at the hands first of pagans, then of Christians, who are, Bloom suggests, really polytheistic pagans in disguise. Though the religious critical arguments are certainly substantial, one senses that Bloom's assertion of Jesus and Yahweh's incompatibility is grounded ultimately as much in bitterness as it is in learned argument. If Yahweh can shrink into something like the background noise of the universe--as represented in Rabbi Nahman, whom Bloom considers a literary genius--then Yahweh can also feasibly become the Father to whom Jesus refers. The reduced vigor, the ineffectuality and transcendence of which Bloom accuses the First Person of the Christian Trinity is not, after all, on a par with the weakness and ineffectuality of God in Nahman's bleak conception. And Jesus, partially obscured beneath centuries of philosophical speculation (i.e., theology), can still be heard in the gospels as the greatest master of dark wisdom: the wisdom of a kingdom whose laws represent an attempt to bridge the incommensurable: the divine and the human.

In the middle of his new book Bloom makes a comment about the Christian theologian Hans Frei: "The late Hans Frei used to puzzle me by his gentle prophecy that the spiritual future of Christianity had to involve a return to its Judaic origins." (146) I myself am not an orthodox Christian, I am a seeker rather, and as such I may be more willing than most to think through the meaning or possibility of such a return. In fact I've long felt the need for such a recognition on the part of Christianity: a recognition that the Messiah is the Jewish Messiah first, and the world's Messiah second. But what did Bloom finally make of Frei's prophecy? In Bloom's thought, what would a modern Jewish Christianity entail? Would it necessarily be an attempt to bring back the Ebionite faith? How would such a faith relate to the Covenant? Could Bloom imagine such a religion--i.e., the religion that Hans Frei was imagining? These are just a few of the questions one might pose to the great critic.

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