Growth and Reconciliation

I’ve fallen behind on these posts (and on my reading) again. It’s hard to sustain setting aside time for such development when there are immediate demands (including a few stage combat gigs, thankfully!), but I believe it’s important. Important for me, personally, to keep growing through this particular challenge that I set out for myself (as opposed to the “whichever way the wind blows” growth that takes place in a lot of professional environments) and also important for preserving the “legacy” of those authors whose work I am learning from now.

How do we reconcile our past beliefs with our future aspirations? What do we do with history that no longer speaks to us, or for us? I believe that simple repudiation is insufficient. We owe it to ourselves to build on our past, and tease out why our minds have changed when they have done so.

The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition is a methodical discussion of representations of the Old Testament in the liturgy, visual iconography, and doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox church. Having encountered a fair amount of the “replacement ideology” that presents the New Testament as superseding the old in the course of this project (e.g., Ephrem of Syria’s writings on matzoh changing from pharmakon-medicine to pharmakon-poison), I really appreciated the Eastern Orthodox approach that views both Testaments as a part of a divine whole which may culminate in the New, but does not define the old as false or invalidated. It’s hard enough for me to reconcile good, evil, and the general messiness of life on earth with an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent deity, without taking on the belief that such a God:

  1. wrote a text for humanity which is perfect in its dating of the age of the earth, but
  2. shared a text that prescribed elaborate ritual/behavioral practices, most of which were only temporarily required without any indication of that limitation, and
  3. did all this knowing that it prefigured and would require the greatest sacrifice in the universe to “fix” the sins of these “chosen people.”

A few other points of interest for me were that the Greek word “nymphos” means bride (and therefore “nymphomania” is literally the bride-madness). Additionally, early conceptions of the crucifixion did not specify the use of nails, and simply had ropes binding Jesus to the cross. The creation of icons by Eastern Orthodox monks reminded me of Buddhist mandala/artwork preparation as a meditative act in its own right, and the extent to which we expect work done by people in the right frame of mind to have semi-mystical powers to protect. I suspect this talismanic view of objects is a portion of demand for Fair Trade products; it’s not only about our desire to be responsible and not exploit others, but also the sense that intentionality or emotion will carry through to our own use/consumption of the products.

I re-read Elie Wiesel’s “Night” (as well as “Dawn” and “Day”) several years ago when we were in Chicago, and I adore his profound empathy and the heart that beats through all of his writing. Though not presented in a novel, Wise Men and Their Tales shares a similar accessibility combined with stirring compassion and provides an indication of the Torah study that Wiesel engaged in in his youth. The text engages with Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic characters, exploring their flaws and fortes, through stories, midrashim (parables) and commentaries on both. A few particular stories stood out to me: he presents Aaron as a humanist foil to Moses- where Moses grew up a prince and speaks to God, Aaron is the one who must speak to Pharaoh and become High Priest, despite having been raised a slave and in suffering. Another element highlights the “pre-condemnation” of Esau and Ishmael. These stories of riven families are troublesome in part for how little explanation is given- the mere survival/procreation of each line is presented as sufficient, despite both men being cut out of their fathers’ legacies. Surely survival is not enough; Abraham, at least, can hardly have been fully satisfied with God’s assurance that Ishmael would engender a people. Wiesel mentions that Sarah’s insistence on banishing Hagar is consistent with Middle Eastern ancient law regarding the rights of a mistress against her female slave. This helps to contextualize her actions, but does not excuse the lack of sympathy she shows on a purely human level. Abraham, however, is commanded by God to accede to Sarah’s wishes. In order for us to reconcile such a callous action with later commandments to show generosity and compassion to the strangers in our midst we need an approach that is more nuanced than the simple replacement ideology discussed above, and perhaps more akin to the Eastern Orthodox approach to the Old Testament, that acknowledges our forebears as flawed human beings and admits that our descendants will likely cringe at our own sins in the same way. In this spirit of growth we can honor our ancestors for being good “in their own times” and continue to strive to do better.

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