Friday, May 22, 2015

Redeeming Judas

Book Review

One of the puzzling aspects of the New Testament is why Judas early on became such a despised figure among Christians; why wasn’t he given a place of honor? Prof. George Jochnowitz writes: “The cross, the tool used to execute Jesus, symbolizes Christianity. Then why isn‘t Judas honored for identifying Jesus to the Romans who captured and crucified him?” We can never know the answer for sure, because the Christian canon is thin on this question and seems in any case to contradict itself. The answer can, perhaps, be found in the formation of the early Church and of the New Testament, which contains 27 books. Like all new movements, and more so with religious ones, there was much debate on what direction it would take and what writings would be considered authoritative, inspired; various factions were formed. By the late fourth century of the Common Era, however, the canon was considered complete and closed by Church authorities. This meant that certain books were included, and many others not, such as the Gospel of Judas, which came out of the Gnostic tradition of the early church. The Gnostics lost the battle, but the questions surrounding the place of Judas have never really gone away.

by George Jochnowitz
The Gospel of Judas
Edited by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst,
with additional commentary by Bart D. Ehrman. National Geographic
2006, 185 pages.

According to Christian doctrine, Jesus came to earth to redeem humanity through his suffering. “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” says the Gospel According to John (1:29). The crucifixion is thus the central miracle in Christianity. The Friday when it occurred is called Good Friday. The cross, the tool used to execute Jesus, symbolizes Christianity. Then why isn‘t Judas honored for identifying Jesus to the Romans who captured and crucified him?

There is no question that in the New Testament, Judas is part of the Divine plan. “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” asks Jesus (John 6:70). The Gospel of Judas is based on the idea that Judas was indeed chosen, but that he is not at all a devil. “But you will exceed all of them. You will sacrifice the man that clothes me” says Jesus to Judas (p. 43). “All of them” refers to the other disciples, who are portrayed negatively in this gospel. Jesus tells them “Truly I say to you, no generation of the people that are among you will know me” (p. 22). These words created a negative reaction. “When his disciples heard this, they started getting angry and infuriated and began blaspheming against him in their hearts” (p. 23).

If The Gospel of Judas were part of the Christian tradition that accepted the idea that the suffering of Jesus was necessary to redeem humanity from sin, then it would make sense for Judas to be recognized as the most virtuous of the disciples. However, sin and redemption are not part of this story. The Gospel of Judas is part of an entirely different religious tradition—one that is utterly unfamiliar to those of us who are not scholars of the religions of the early centuries of the Common Era. This tradition is a branch of Gnosticism, known as Sethian Gnosticism to its adherents and as Cainian Gnosticism to its enemies. In the Gospel, we read about twelve angels, “The first is Seth, who is called Christ” (p. 38). Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, and the gospel is identifying him with Jesus. When Judas talks to Jesus, he says, “I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo” (pp. 22-23).

The Gospel of Judas doesn’t tell us who Barbelo is. However, most of the pages in the book are not part of the Gospel but explanations by scholars. One of these, Marvin Meyer, tells us that, according to Sethian Gnostic belief, God merely created the world. The world is merely a part of a greater universe created by the Great One (pp. 143-44). In a different Sethian text called the Secret Book of John, “the appearance of the Child is portrayed in such a way as to suggest an act of spiritual intercourse between the transcendent Father and Barbelo the Mother” (p. 147). Nowhere is the Virgin Mary mentioned. Seth is the child of Adam and Eve; at the same time, Seth is Jesus, the child of two eternal, all-powerful beings, the Father and Barbelo. There apparently are contradictions in the writings of the Sethians. Meyer explains, “The Secret Book of John is another Sethian text that seems to have been composed as a Jewish gnostic document and lightly Christianized into the teaching and revelation of Jesus” (p. 168).

Bart D. Ehrman, one of the scholars whose comments help us to understand what is going on in this unfamiliar religious environment, has entitled his analysis “Christianity Turned on Its Head.” He points out that without the betrayal of Jesus, “there would be no arrest, without the arrest there would be no trial, without the trial there would be no crucifixion, without the crucifixion there would be no resurrection-and in short, we still wouldn't be saved from our sins. So why were Judas's actions such a bad thing?” He then goes on to add, “Our gospel writers never address this speculative question” (p. 93).

Gnostic writers weren’t interested in the question because they weren’t interested in the world. Ehrman explains that for gnostics, “the god who created this world is not the only god ... No, this world is a cosmic disaster, and salvation comes only to those who learn how to escape the world and its material trappings” (p. 85). Perhaps the Gnostics viewed salvation as akin to the Buddhist idea of nirvana.

The Gospel of Judas was part of a codex (an ancient manuscript bound like a book) found in Egypt, perhaps in 1978. It is written in Coptic, the variety of ancient Egyptian used in the early centuries of the first millennium, before Egypt was conquered by Muslims who introduced their own language, Arabic. Rodolphe Kasser tells us that between 1978 and 2001, the 1600-year-old codex “had been damaged by so many misfortunes, many of which could have been avoided. It was a stark victim of cupidity and ambition” (p. 47). Kasser tells us about the theft, recovery, sale, and restoration of this damaged treasure. The version we have is not complete because of erosion and mistreatment, but the message is nevertheless there. We now have an English translation of a Coptic text that is itself a translation from the original Greek.

The codex that we have dates from around the last quarter of the third century C.E. The Greek original, however, must have been written after 177 C.E., since it is the subject of a lengthy attack by a bishop named Irenaeus of Lyon who took office in that year. Gregor Wurst is the author of a summary of the arguments used by Irenaeus against the people he calls “Cainites,” although as Wurst tells us, “in the newly discovered text there is no mention of Cain or the other antiheroes from the Jewish Scriptures mentioned by Irenaeus” (p. 126). Wurst says “we would have to assume the existence of more than one Gospel of Judas circulating within gnostic communities of antiquity” (pp. 126-27).

The second century C.E. is a long time ago, but it is nevertheless a long time after the Crucifixion. We don’t know who wrote it, but it couldn’t possibly have been Judas. It tells us nothing historical about the events leading up to the death of Jesus. Its interpretation of the role of Judas and of the message of Jesus is irrelevant, since Bishop Irenaeus won. Christianity is the religion of the Christian Bible, which does not include the Gospel of Judas or any other Gnostic texts.

The fact that Judas is considered utterly wicked in the New Testament has for two millennia been a threat to Jews. This threat has abated, although threats may come from different sources. Will The Gospel of Judas lead Christians to recognize the paradox that Judas enabled Jesus to suffer and become the lamb “which taketh away the sin of the world”? Perhaps it will, perhaps it won’t, but in any event, that’s not what the Gospel is about. What is important is that an ancient text has been discovered and translated, a text that scholars of early Christianity knew about because of the writings of Irenaeus of Lyon. All of us can now look at a document that sheds light on the period when the nature of the Christian religion was being determined.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached

Copyright ©2015. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. A version of this review appeared in the July-August, 2008 issue of Jewish Currents.The article is republished here with the author’s permission.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Mark Of Zero


Today, I introduce to this blog a new short-story writer, Simcha Wasserman; we met when his wife invited my wife and I to a Shabbat meal a few weeks ago. We immediately hit it off, discovering that we are from the same generation and had much in common, including experiencing a similar kind of world (he in Toronto; I in Montreal), and sharing a love for writing and story-telling. Mr. Wasserman describes himself as a Lubavitcher chosid, which is a term used to describe orthodox Jews of a particular sect of Judaism, Hasids, among other things, believe that life, although serious, ought to be enjoyed—at least within the bounds of Torah Judaism. My hope is that you will enjoy these short stories—four in all, which will post weekly on Wednesdays; they all focus on Count Zero, conveying in their telling the kind of hopefulness and wonderment in humanity, with a touch of humility, that we all seek at one time or another.

by Simcha Wasserman

Shir l’maalos esah anai el harim m’ayin yavoh ezrie
Ps 121:1

One day in the supermarket, Count Zero was eyeing the labels on many items, checking for kosher products, when he noted an elderly man swaying strangely on his feet by a ten-foot high pyramid display of canned corn. Unless the man was praying to this display, which might be possible if he were an Egyptian, the man looked like he soon would be entering this “pyramid” in a no entry zone, as no entrance way, in fact, existed.

In a flash, the Count understood the grave consequences that lay moments ahead for this poor old man. And not just the physical repercussions but, in some ways even more grave, the emotional trauma and embarrassment that would accompany such an unfortunate mishap.

So with great agility and tenderness, the Count darted toward the old man, throwing his arms around him, as would the gentlest mother bear embrace her newborn cub.

A picture of grace, perhaps, in a perfect world. But not so in this world, the world of rectification, and so down came this metal pyramid, and not as silently as it would have, had the floor been composed of silent desert sand.

Two managers and a few stock boys came running after the thunder, and there stood the Count hugging the old man. The Count looked pleased. The old man did not.

“What exactly happened here?” asked one manager.

“This young ox tried to tackle me to the ground!” said the old man. All eyes turned to Count

“I saw you swaying and I was afraid you were going to fall into these stacked cans and hurt yourself....” explained the Count.

“I was NOT going to the fall!” shouted the old man. “Just because I forget my pills this morning doesn’t mean I’m going to fall!”

The supermarket staff immediately understood, and the same manager who asked what had happened, looked at the Count and said, “Sir, we would like to thank –”

The Count interrupted, and turning to the old man began to apologize, “Please forgive my misunderstanding and clumsiness. I have made a dreadful mistake.”

The old man’s demeanor softened, “Young man, I forgive you. But next time, think before you
leap! Somebody could really get hurt!” The old man walked away, checking his pockets until he
found his pill box, and then continued on his way in search of a drink to help wash down his

The manager quietly thanked Count Zero, who answered in his usual self-effacing way, “It was
nothing, really, nothing at all.”

As the Count left the store, one manager said to the other, “Strange, isn’t it? He didn’t even buy

“Yeah, you’re right! Maybe that wasn’t why he came here?” They looked at each other with the
same thought, and darted outside to find the Count, but he had vanished.

Next week, “The Final Score.”

Simcha Wasserman is a Lubavitcher chossid living with his family in Toronto.

Copyright ©2015. Simcha Wasserman. All Rights Reserved. The story is published here with the author’s permission.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Problem Of Scarcity

An Abundance of Poverty

Living in a Manila rubbish dump: This is how some people live in Manila, Philippines, in a place that once was a designated dump for rubbish in the central part of the city of 1.7 million inhabitants. “Manila is the most densely populated city in the world with 43,079 inhabitants per km2,” Wikipedia reports.  The nation’s poverty rate is around 25 per cent; and its unemployment rate around 6.6 per cent.
Photo Credit
: Lasse Bak Mejlvang; 2015

Source: BBC News & Syngenta Photography Award

It is said that the academic discipline of economics is to a large degree the study of scarcity, that is, how humans make decisions on how to best use scarce resources. The greater the degree of scarcity, the greater the necessity to make good decisions. Such is how the thinking goes, and this is essentially how governments think and operate and, to a large degree, design programs to allocate resources and redistribute wealth. At the private individual level, nowhere is this effect more pronounced than among those classes that have the least resources and the greatest scarcity: the lower classes, the poor.

An article, by Carla Finberg, in Harvard Magazine suggests that now some behavioral economists have begun to view scarcity from a different perspective, chiefly, that of examining how poverty leads to individuals making poor decisions, thus leading to poor outcomes. What this equates to is not blaming poverty on the poor, but blaming the poor for making poor decisions. It seems innocent enough, scientific in its approach, but will it lead to the necessary societal changes to eradicate poverty?

Fineberg writes in “The Science of Scarcity” (May/June 2015) the following about the work of Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard University professor of economics; and Eldar Shafir, Tod professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University:
But what’s most striking—and in some circles, controversial—about their work is not what they reveal about the effects of scarcity. It’s their assertion that scarcity affects anyone in its grip. Their argument: qualities often considered part of someone’s basic character—impulsive behavior, poor performance in school, poor financial decisions—may in fact be the products of a pervasive feeling of scarcity. And when that feeling is constant, as it is for people mired in poverty, it captures and compromises the mind.

This is one of scarcity’s most insidious effects, they argue: creating mindsets that rarely consider long-term best interests. “To put it bluntly,” says Mullainathan, “if I made you poor tomorrow, you’d probably start behaving in many of the same ways we associate with poor people.” And just like many poor people, he adds, you’d likely get stuck in the scarcity trap.
True; when people are in the giant maw of scarcity, their thought patterns change, at least initially. This is something that I know and which I have first-hand experience. Our family has been stationed around the poverty line since 2009 (called low-income cutoffs, or LICO, here in Canada), and while I and our family might not have a lot of money, I am intelligent, rational and make good decisions—despite our family’s financial limitations. Perhaps, in some cases better than others who have more resources, because “necessity is the mother of invention”; and it is important in our case to make good sensible decisions so as to “live within our means.” We have a roof over our heads, sufficient food in our fridge and pantry and all the necessities of life.

Economists ought to dig deeper: Can it be that some people will always find ways to survive because they can make appropriate and good decisions, chiefly since they have adapted well to their circumstances? Does one good decision leads to another, and so forth? More important, can lab studies sufficiently duplicate real-life experiences, even if (independent and dependent) variables are sufficiently isolated and understood? The answers are all important; and while the thinking behind this decision-making research is interesting from an academic sense, I sense that it will do little to change the poverty landscape in America. No matter the fine and noble intentions.

Here is my reasoning for saying this, although some might take exception to this. The U.S. is considered a land of abundance; and while this is undeniably true so is the fact that it also has an abundance of poverty. The U.S. Census reports that in 2013, the last year official figures are available, 45.3 million people live in poverty—equating to 14.5 per cent of its population. Note that the poverty line for a family of four (two adults, two children) is designated as $23,283. (It is almost double that amount for urban centres here in Canada, at $43,292; the poverty rate is at 14.5 per cent.

When adults do not earn enough, children suffer. Child poverty, in particular, has been increasing since the early 1990s; in Canada, the child poverty rate is 14.3 per cent, representing almost one million children. In the U.S., 16 million children live in families that are designated poor, says the National Centre for Children in Poverty at Columbia University in New York City. This equates to 22 per cent of all children in America. The cost of ignoring child poverty has been, and continues to be, great; and not only in monetary terms, says an article, by Jeff Madrick, in The New York Review of Books; in “The Cost of Child Poverty (May 8, 2015), Madrick writes:
Meanwhile, years of research have made clear the direct connection between childhood poverty and social dysfunction, ranging from poor health outcomes to higher incarceration rates. Dozens of studies have reported that poor kids are more likely to have learning disabilities, language delays, behavioral problems, and to contract diseases such as asthma and diabetes. They tend not to do as well at school and are more likely to drop out of high school, or even grade school. Women more often have babies in their teenage years. The Children’s Defense Fund says the path to prison is often paved in these years. And, most important, neurologists have found virtually incontrovertible evidence that high levels of stress experienced from birth to the age of three can actually damage brain architecture, reducing, for example, the size of the hippocampus.
Ignoring these problems is hugely costly to the US government. Harry Holzer of Georgetown University, with co-authors, showed that child poverty cost America $500 billion a year in lost productivity, higher crime rates, and raised health expenditures. Nor is it hard to find government programs that can effectively address these issues. And yet until now, there has been little interest in tackling child poverty on a large scale.
The last sentence is true, but the one before it is instructive and also true; there are good programs currently available in America, this same article says, ones which would help alleviate their poverty, and better their condition; but many do not for various reasons. This is sadly true; on an anecdotal level, I have “spoken” online to many Americans about such programs, but many said it is either too complicated or too intrusive to fill out an application—it seems that pride and dignity (or resentment) over-rides sound decision-making and material comfort.

There is also the social stigma of receiving “entitlements” from the government, a message put out and reinforced by conservatives, who equate paid work as the only “honest way” to live. The full implications of this narrative has to be fleshed out; one result of such inflexible thinking is that some individuals would rather continue to live in their miserable situation, with their children, until they found a job, or not. (It is also true that some poor people do not want to better their lives, even if an opportunity is presented to them.)

What is missing from this magical thinking, however, is the fact that millions of well-paying jobs in manufacturing have left America since the 1990s; many have been replaced by part-time or low-wage and minimum-wage jobs, which do not provide a living wage. There is a direct correlation between a good job and exiting poverty.

There are some short-term and hopeful solutions. The same article cites direct cash subsidies of between $300 and $400 a month as a way to reduce child poverty, which would cut the rate in half—a program that some academics estimate would cost the American government between $100 billion and $150 billion; this is less than one percent of U.S. GDP ($16.8 trillion). Such a program does not yet exist in the U.S., but it exists in Canada, Britain and in many other industrialized and wealthy nations.

Even so, while this would help, this is really only a short-term solution. If you genuinely want to alleviate poverty long-term, it is necessary to make political and societal changes to ensure, as an important first step, full employment, a living wage, and affordable housing. It will also necessitate less finger-pointing and more political collaboration. Until this happens, poverty will always be with us, as one well-known Galilean prophet said 2,000 years ago.

For more, go to [HarvardMag]

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bizet's Carmen In London (1991)

Here is Georges Bizet’s Carmen, conducted by Zubin Mehta, who leads the Royal Opera House Orchestra in this 1991 staging at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; this opera is stage-directed by Nuria Espert; and its leading roles are played by Maria Ewing (Carmen), Luis Lima (Don José), Leonina Vadiva (Micaëla) and Gino Quilico (Escamillo).

This well-liked opera was not initially well-received:
The libretto, by Henri Meilac and Ludovic Halévy, is based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. The first performance of Carmen on 3 March 1875, produced such a hostile reaction that Bizet left Paris physically and psychologically ill, and died only three months later on 3 June 1875, following two serious heart attacks. The massive scandal of the premiere may have been partially the result of Bizet’s attempt to reform the Opéra Comique genre, yet it must still be said that Carmen is operatic history’s most famous example of a failure being corrected by the passage of time: Carmen is now one of the most frequently performed operas in the world. 
It is ranked as the second most-performed opera in the world; Verdi’s La Traviata is no. 1.