Ron Unz: American Pravda: Oddities of the Jewish Religion

…. My first surprise was that [Israel] Shahak’s writings included introductions or glowing blurbs by some of America’s most prominent public intellectuals, including Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, and Edward Said. Praise also came from quite respectable publications such as The London Review of BooksMiddle East International, and Catholic New Times while Allan Brownfeld of The American Council for Judaism had published a very long and laudatory obituary. And I discovered that Shahak’s background was very different than I had always imagined. He had spent many years as an award-winning Chemistry professor at Hebrew University, and was actually anything but a Communist. Whereas for decades, Israel’s ruling political parties had been Socialist or Marxist, his personal doubts about Socialism had left him politically in the wilderness, while his relationship with Israel’s tiny Communist Party was solely because they were the only group willing to stand up for the basic human rights issues that were his own central focus. My casual assumptions about his views and background had been entirely in error.

Once I actually began reading his books, and considering his claims, my shock increased fifty-fold. Throughout my entire life, there have been very, very few times I have ever been so totally astonished as I was after I digested Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, whose text runs barely a hundred pages. In fact, despite his solid background in the academic sciences and the glowing endorsements provided by prominent figures, I found it quite difficult to accept the reality of what I was reading. As a consequence, I paid a considerable sum to a young graduate student I knew, tasking him to verify the claims in Shahak’s books, and as far as he could tell, all of the hundreds of references he checked seemed to be accurate or at least found in other sources.

Even with all of that due diligence, I must emphasize that I cannot directly vouch for Shahak’s claims about Judaism. My own knowledge of that religion is absolutely negligible, mostly being limited to my childhood, when my grandmother occasionally managed to drag me down to services at the local synagogue, where I was seated among a mass of elderly men praying and chanting in some strange language while wearing various ritualistic cloths and religious talismans, an experience that I always found much less enjoyable than my usual Saturday morning cartoons.

Although Shahak’s books are quite short, they contain such a density of astonishing material, it would take many, many thousands of words to begin to summarize them. Almost everything I had known—or thought I had known—about the religion of Judaism, at least in its zealously Orthodox traditional form, was utterly wrong.

For example, traditionally religious Jews pay little attention to most of the Old Testament, and even very learned rabbis or students who have devoted many years to intensive study may remain largely ignorant of its contents. Instead, the center of their religious world view is the Talmud, an enormously large, complex, and somewhat contradictory mass of secondary writings and commentary built up over many centuries, which is why their religious doctrine is sometimes called “Talmudic Judaism.” Among large portions of the faithful, the Talmud is supplemented by the Kabala, another large collection of accumulated writings, mostly focused on mysticism and all sorts of magic. Since these commentaries and interpretations represent the core of the religion, much of what everyone takes for granted in the Bible is considered in a very different manner.

Given the nature of the Talmudic basis of traditional Judaism and my total previous ignorance of the subject, any attempt on my part of summarize some of the more surprising aspects of Shahak’s description may be partially garbled, and is certainly worthy of correction by someone better versed in that dogma. And since so many parts of the Talmud are highly contradictory and infused with complex mysticism, it would be impossible for someone like me to attempt to disentangle the seeming inconsistencies that I am merely repeating. I should note that although Shahak’s description of the beliefs and practices of Talmudic Judaism provoked a fire-storm of denunciations, few of those harsh critics seem to have denied his very specific claims, including the most astonishing ones, which would seem to strengthen his credibility.

On the most basic level, the religion of most traditional Jews is actually not at all monotheistic, but instead contains a wide variety of different male and female gods, having quite complex relations to each other, with these entities and their properties varying enormously among the numerous different Jewish sub-sects, depending upon which portions of the Talmud and the Kabala they place uppermost. For example, the traditional Jewish religious cry “The Lord Is One” has always been interpreted by most people to be an monotheistic affirmation, and indeed, many Jews take exactly this same view. But large numbers of other Jews believe this declaration instead refers to achievement of sexual union between the primary male and female divine entities. And most bizarrely, Jews having such radically different views see absolutely no difficulty in praying side by side, and merely interpreting their identical chants in very different fashion.

Furthermore, religious Jews apparently pray to Satan almost as readily as they pray to God, and depending upon the various rabbinical schools, the particular rituals and sacrifices they practice may be aimed at enlisting the support of the one or the other. Once again, so long as the rituals are properly followed, the Satan-worshippers and the God-worshippers get along perfectly well and consider each other equally pious Jews, merely of a slightly different tradition. One point that Shahak repeatedly emphasizes is that in traditional Judaism the nature of the ritual itself is absolutely uppermost, while the interpretation of the ritual is rather secondary. So perhaps a Jew who washes his hands three times clockwise might be horrified by another who follows a counter-clockwise direction, but whether the hand-washing were meant to honor God or to honor Satan would be hardly be a matter of much consequence.

Strangely enough, many of the traditional rituals are explicitly intended to fool or trick God or His angels or sometimes Satan, much like the mortal heroes of some Greek legend might seek to trick Zeus or Aphrodite. For example, certain prayers must be uttered in Aramaic rather than Hebrew on the grounds that holy angels apparently don’t understand the former language, and their confusion allows those verses to slip by unimpeded and take effect without divine interference….

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