I am not a Christian.
Despite the lack of evidence, I am willing to accept that a radical Jewish rabbi learned a lesson from a foreign woman, and that he extended Hillel’s Golden Rule to the Gentiles as well; that he said that wondrous sentence, “let he among you who is free of sin, cast the first stone”, and that he told the “sinning woman” just “go and sin no more”; that he made a point of eating with the castaways, those people who were kicked away by right-thinking society: the sinners, the tax-collectors, the whores; that he preached against the corrupt Jewish leadership of the time; that he was betrayed and crucified by one of the worst Roman governors of Judea; and I’ll accept that last, terrible call, “My God, My God – why has thou forsaken me” – and that’s it. No demons rushing into swine, no bread and fish, no walking on the water; certainly not a return from the dead, absolutely not him being “Lamb of God, who carries the sins of the world”.
I am well-acquainted with the origins of Christianity. I know, as an atheist, that nothing that relies on the Jewish bible can be true, since it is false from beginning to end – especially visions of revenge visited upon the gentiles in the Book of the Apocalypse, which relies on that late forgery, the Book of Daniel. As a rational person, I reject Christianity alongside Judaism.
Shulamit Aloni, a bitter and cynical goddess was asked once, in one of those holiday questionnaires, what is the difference between Judaism and Christianity, and she fired away: “The difference is that Christianity has mercy, and Judaism does not”. Spot on.
Judaism is based on the concept that there is a terrible God: Jealous, vengeful, visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations, and that he has set before his children – Jews, naturally – a set of commandments which no person can fulfill (the classic, of course, is “thou shall not covet”; let’s see you managing full compliance even to the Ten Commandments). And since, as the Gnostics knew, it’s hard to see the difference between the Jewish God and the Devil even on a lineup, a large part of the Jewish religion – the whole of Leviticus, for starters – was dedicated to methods of appeasing the heavenly psycho through the slaughter of cattle and other animals.
In return, the believers of Jehova were left with a sense of superiority over the people among which they lived, who were not blessed with the commandment of checking the minutae of grasshoppers (prior to cooking them). Historiography common among the faithful revolves around the concept that “we did evil in the eyes of Jehova”, and therefore we must increase the finesse in which we treat the commandments, culminating in the Orthodox madness of our days, which honestly and seriously believes that there is a divine entity which will throw a person into fire for eternity, only because that person tore a piece of toilet paper during the last day of the week.
The Christian concept is a mirror image. It says God does not want you to obey the commandments, which is impossible for humans anyway, but their surrender and love. Understand that God loves you; love him back; give up your pride, your belief that the world is yours to conquer; accept your brothers, and your enemies; understand that they, too, are erring sinners, that evil is terror and weakness projected outwards; forgive them, for they know not what they do – and God will forgive you, too. Because you are human and erring and that’s how you were made and that’s the nature of the Valley of the Shadow of Death which is the world, and in the end you will return home.
And if Jesus still represents judgment and law, then since the 4th century a duality develops within Christianity, as the figure of Mary becomes more important and independent. Mary, the suffering mother, becomes a figure protecting all human beings, a “great mother” in every sense. She becomes a conduit of intercession for grace; the popular prayer “Ave, Maria” ends with “and please pray for us in our hour of death”. The image of Jesus, which Byzantine art kept portraying as the horrifying judge of the day of judgment, has been replaced – both in the East and the West – in that of a baby, protected by his mother. Mary becomes the defender of the common sinner. Jesus, for obvious reason, never materializes in the Middle Ages; but his mother is present, here there and everywhere, emanating grace and mercy wherever she appears. Often, she is the particular patron of criminal women, such as a mother blamed for smothering her baby son to death – a very common crime in the Middle Ages.
In a slow, persistent process, Mary was transformed from a cameo character to a central one; believers start referring to her as the Queen of Heaven, a staggering title, when you remember that in the Old Testament the “queen of heaven” is a foreign goddess, quite possibly Anat/Astarte.
The Middle Ages saw the worship of Mary reach its zenith. In the cathedral of Florence, he statue shows her holding Jesus in one hand and a scepter in the other. This has reached the point where the church has accepted – in the 19th century – the doctrine of Immaculate Conception, which claims that Mary herself, not just her progeny, was born free of sin; and stubborn rumors claimed Pope John Paul II – a native of Poland, where Marianism is a force to be reckoned with – has considered, as his final act, declaring Mary as a co-redeemer, which is to say, not just one who plead for mercy at the feet of her judging son, but rather as one who can grant mercy of her own power. To a large measure, the mother has taken the place of the father in the Trinity.
Which may be what I am looking for.
* * *
My affair with Catholicism – not the watered-down Protestant version of Christianity – began in my last year in the Yeshiva. I was confused. I knew I am no longer a Jew – I mean, I did not know yet that the texts were forged, was not yet familiar with the depth of its horrors as I am today, but…
Let’s start anew. In 1984 Martin Meir Kahane was elected to the Knesset. His election was followed by a wave of ultra-nationalism among the Nationalist Jews, a wave which struck my Yeshiva, Nekhalim, particularly badly. At about the same time, the (first) Jewish Underground was exposed; the feeling was that these men, who murdered several men and plotted the death of hundreds, suffered injustice by being arrested at all. During the following year, when David Ben Shimol fired a LAW rocket at a bus full of Palestinians, the evening lessons at the Yeshiva had to be postponed so that student will have time enough to dance. I looked at that circle from aside.
All sorts of rabbis came to us, especially on Saturdays, and started talking about Din Rodef (Law of the Pursuer, which allows killing a potential murderer to prevent the murder) and Lo Techanem (which orders that gentiles should be allowed to live in Eretz Israel, should be shown any tolerance, and should not be praised), and other such humanistic commandments. Following one of those sermons, my class’s rabbi – an Ultra-Orthodox, not a National Jew – called us together and, agitated, tore that sermon apart. No, he said, no: Din Rodef is not a license to kill. If someone fired at you and then escaped, or dropped his weapon, he is no longer a pursuer. He was shaking with anger and he understood young killers were being educated there and I looked at him and at my classmates and the smirks they were trying to conceal. On Saturdays, they sang “may the mosque blow up” to the tune of “may the temple be built”.
Some Kahane books were moving around, semi-clandestinely – the head of the yeshiva, the convicted criminal Yossef Ba-Gad, has forbidden their distribution, saying that “Kahane is right, but he’s insane” – and getting one was not particularly hard. I read it, became convinced that Kahane was deeply rooted in Jewish law, and decided I needed a ticket out, because I had no intention of becoming a Judeo-Nazi. And that’s it: the principled rejection of Judaism came before my atheism.
I was young and confused, which did not sit well in an atmosphere of young and fixated. There were debated which turned into fight. There was my boarding school roommate, who was just born back to the worst possible side – Kabbalah. He didn’t give us time to sleep with his arguments. Just to shut him up, I was dragged into atheistic devil-advocate arguments: how do you even know there is a God, not to mention the Catapult of Souls?
The rabbis and the instruction took notice. I spent much of the 11th and 12th grade in what was termed “High yeshiva” – they send you to a yeshiva which teaches nothing but religious studies. But I was mostly left alone in those places, which allowed me much time to read. And one day, when I was down and out in a Jerusalem religious institute, I decided it was time to taste the most forbidden fruit.
Jerusalem has plenty of churches. After their dwellers overcame their initial fear of the strange Israeli who wants to hear what they have to say – a perfectly justified fear, given the harassment Christians routinely suffer in Jerusalem – they were happy to talk to me. I bought a copy of the New Testament. I spent two charming evening in the Abbey of the Dormition. A group of elderly German monks and one former Jew, they in their robes and me in my yeshiva boy clothes, praying in Latin; it must have been a strange sight.
And the name “Mary” kept cropping up. Needless to say, she was not part of my formal education, and the new Testament says very little about her. I listened to them and they to me. I did not understand, but they explained, the division between law and mercy Paul made so early.
On one of those two nights, a young Catholic woman, from Germany, joined us. She did not sit with us; she sat separately. But I was used to that and at the time it raised no questions.
And, of course, the music, the solemnity, the incense, the aesthetics.
I was careless, and after several meetings my class rabbi informed I was seen moving around in churches, and ordered me to get back in line. I was frightened; I had no idea I was followed. In a very rash act, I went back to the church and they prayed for me. But, at that stage – as I told my roommate – I was convinced Christianity contained beauty Judaism lacked, but I did not believe it.
About a month afterwards, the school year was over. I could not return home with the New Testament. I left it in my closet; as a rule, anything left in the closets once we’ve left the rooms would be thrown away. I did not want to throw the book away myself.
A classmate has decided, for reasons known only to him, to dig around in my closet. He found the book. An unholy mess broke out. My mass communication teacher, Michael Tuchfeld, told me “I don’t see why they deal with this nonsense. It’s clear, after all, the problem is your atheism”.
It was clear. But did not stop them from burning the book.
* * * * *
And that’s what left: A taste of something beautiful yet false, something inviting a surrender which will not come, something which once promised grace and understanding in what looked like an endless period of judgment. A Bavarian old man explaining to you how to pronounce Latin, a Great Mother which is always there and an understanding God, which acknowledge your mistakes and will pardon them, if only you’d surrender, give up your rational, thinking part, and come into that great, false beauty.
But I can’t come. I can only look at others experiencing it with desire, and jealousy – from afar.
(published today, in the “The True and Shocking Story of” Hebrew Blog. Translation: Yossi Gurvitz)