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Form one Planet: HIStory or MYstory

April 6, 2011 – 12:55 pm23 Comments

Captain Planet and the Planeteers pose for promotional photo

By Malki Rose

If there is one broyges bigger than who has ownership of certain clumps of the Middle East, it’s who has ownership of the most accurate account of its history. If the holy books of Semitic peoples or indeed any ancient peoples hold the key to understanding the where, who, why, and when of human history, which culture do we assume has the most accurate account?

While most of us can recognise as denialist propaganda versions of history written by David Irving or those who wrote imaginatively glorious ‘versions’ of the achievements of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin that are nothing short of fancy in the face of failure, there remains a small corridor of more moderate historical and liturgical discussion that remains unscrutinised for accuracy and somehow taken as gospel (no pun intended) by its followers.

Jewish thinking asserts that the Torah is the ultimate and only book of truth, Christians think likewise of the entire old and New Testament, and while travelling Jews shove the hotel gestures of the Gideon’s tenderly behind toilet bowls to make a statement to themselves of just how misguided and blasphemous the Christian version really is; Muslims meanwhile, attest to the Quran being the most accurate, up to date embodiment of everything Judeo-Christian, from Ibrahim to Jesus.

Relatively few bother to explore the clear and present connections that each of these religious ideologies and their respective texts have to one another. Perhaps this is viewed as dangerous or heretical. But it doesn’t need to be so.

By exploring similarities in the text, much light can be shed on the origins not only of all three faiths, but also of many modern world ideas.

In a three-way fit of religious self-absorption, near sightedness and ignorance, Jews can be heard to remark, “This is taken from Judaism”, the Christians “This began with John the Baptist” and the Muslims “This has its origin with Mohammed”.

Careful analysis of each text or set of apparently unique customs reveals that everyone has borrowed something from someone.

The seemingly Jewish custom of wearing a kippah (skullcap) is sorely lacking in clear exegetical support. Minus the Middle Eastern cultural custom of hair covering (as discussed in The Jewish Hijab: Halacha gets hairy) and a mention in the Shulchan Aruch that “a man should not walk four cubits without a head covering”, the wearing of an actual kippah appears to be far less grounded in Jewish Law than we give it credit. In fact, it would seem the kippah itself is Christian, and that way back in the 7th century, long before Jews wore kippot, the Celtic, Oriental and Roman Church Clergy were wearing them (now called the Zucchetto) to protect their tonsured heads from the elements.

It is not our own, we did not invent it, yet the only reason not to credit the source of the Yarmulke might be a fear of appearing derivative or, worse, a fear of validating another religion.

In the same way, many outsiders can see simply that the origin of the Shtreimel or Spotek can be found in the fur-lined hats worn in the cold climates of Eastern Europe and Russia at the time these fluffy hat-wearing sects began. But ask a young Belz Chassid of the origin of this minhag and his subjectivity will simply not allow him the clarity to view the custom with any amount of true historical accuracy.

The book of Exodus insists on translating the Egyptian name “Moshe” as if it were Hebrew and claiming “because he was drawn forth from the water”, when not only is there no Hebrew word with this translation but neither the name nor its root is ever used again anywhere in the Tanach to refer to anything remotely relating to water or drawing anyone, child or adult, forth from water. It is a frequently occurring Old and Middle Kingdom Egyptian word that simply means “son” or “child”.  Furthermore, it is not unreasonable to consider that Yocheved (his alleged birth mother), Batya (the daughter or Pharoah who apparently found him) and Pharoah could all have referred to him as such.

It is the early rabbinic authority’s unwillingness to understand Egyptian language, culture and history in any sense outside of viewing them as corrupt and immoral (as per Rambam), which inhibits their, and therefore much of our understand of pre and post Exodus Jewish ideas.

In a similar vein, we see that when Megillat Esther first references Esther it states that Mordechai “Omen Et HaDasah, hi’ Esther”, which is translated as he “raised Hadasah, she was Esther”, to which the Rabbinim remark that this was because Hadasah was her other name.

Most of the concubines collected by Ahasuerus had been gathered from the families of slaves who had remained in the Persian kingdom after Cyrus’ edict to allow Jews to return to Jerusalem. Jews had already been in Persia since 1948 BCE. Upon brief examination of the language spoken and written in Persia, Sanskrit, we see that the word for ‘slave’ is ‘Dasa’, or more literally ‘slave girl’.

Like in most multicultural societies where more than one language is spoken by a substantial portion of the populace, words from one language often become ingrained in the other (i.e. the Yiddish word “Tachles” used by Adolf Hitler in his maiden speech). Given the amount of time Jews had been residents of Persia it is entirely reasonable to suppose (and philologists and Persian historians agree) that Sanskrit words would have been utilitsed in the writings of the Jews. If we substitute this Sanskrit translation, the passuk reads that Mordechai “raised the slave girl, she was Esther”.

If Mordechai truly was the original author of the Megillla, as the Bava Batra claims, then surely forming a brief acquaintance with Mordechai’s spoken language of Sanskrit, would have served well and been most prudent to those who went on to decipher it, redact it, and generate new inferences from it. In fact shouldn’t the study of a text from any culture require first and foremost a familiarity with its primary language?

Then there is the wonderful Midrash taught by Rav Hiyya (Bereishit Rabbah 38:13) of Avraham as a young boy in his father Terach’s store in which he sold idols. One day in Terach’s absence Avraham takes a stick, smashes all the idols, and places the stick in the hand of the biggest of them. Terach returns to a smashed up store and enraged, demands to know which transgressor had done this. Avraham, but a child, answers “…the biggest of them rose up and smashed all the others”. Terach, remarks that he is not a fool, and realizes that they are inanimate.

Interestingly the same story is told in the Quran (Sura 21:51). It is not a teensy bit nor vaguely similar. It is almost verbatim and certainly thematically and characteristically identical.

Believe it or not, Muslim and Jewish scholars disagree (shock horror!) on who owns this story. But while it is claimed that Rav Hiyya brought down this Midrash in the 2nd century, the Midrash Bereishit Rabba was thought to have been redacted many years later around the time of the first writing of the Quran after 632 CE.

Some scholars, argue that many changes to the Midrash took place after this time and it is not impossible that this story was added to the Bereishit Rabba in light of the original Quranic account.

Other scholars assert that what is more than likely is that Mohammed heard this story from a local Jew or Christian and included it in what would later become part of Sura.

Either way the story serves as equally useful to the monotheistic followers of Islam and Judasim who sought to demonstrate the foolishness of polytheistic idolatry.

But neither Rav Hiyya nor Mohammed bother to tell their audience where they heard this story.

It is said that the difference between research and plagiarism is footnoting.

If this is so, and if we are to borrow ideas from other cultures why not reference them when we express them.

Are the foundations of our faiths or indeed our cultures so feeble that to reference another might truly threaten the existence of our own?

Surely we are made of stronger stuff than that.

There have been many discussions about the “Chosenness” of the Jewish People; a notion which warrants neither absolute abandonment nor total acceptance. Rather it can be viewed through eyes of simple truth – that every nation is chosen for something and has something unique to offer the world. But the notion of the Jews, their customs, their ideologies and practices being altogether and supremely groundbreaking is simply a case of a somewhat justified superiority complex gone horribly wrong.

Neither Jews, Christians, Muslims, nor any other culture, can hope to be one hundred percent right, one hundred percent of the time, no matter what brilliant revelations and innovations we bring to this blue-green planet.

If anyone ever caught an episode of ‘Captain Planet’ an animated children’s series of the 1990’s, a great truth can be found in its premise.

Captain Planet himself was indeed the hero and looked up to by all the young Planeteers. But each of them were responsible for and in possession of a ring which symbolised their own unique elements namely wind, water, earth and fire. It was only when the Planeteers joined together to combine their unique energies that Captain Planet was able to triumph and like all superhero series, save the day!

The broyges should not exist.  It exists only because everyone is sitting on the edge of their own cultural branch, and is so far removed from the origin of the story that they are unable to see how the branch connects to the other side of the tree.

Are we afraid that if we acknowledge the other branches we may place ourselves or our children at risk of changing branches and foregoing our identity?

Our cultural myopia inhibits our ability to view the true origins of ideas we think belong to us.

We all play a unique part in the forming of history and ideas, and will almost certainly generate a greater power combined than the already great power we generate on our own. We need to recognise and celebrate our own Jewish strengths, while also recognising the strengths of other cultures, and give credit where credit is due.

It takes only a brief look at some of the above examples, or indeed any comparison of religious and historical texts, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Hammurabi codex, the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, the Quran and of course the Tanach, to realize that we are all barking up exactly the same theological tree, a commonality which should demystify ‘the other’, help us step outside of our alienating comfort zone and unite us all.

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