Friday, 18 May 2012

Prophets and priests in Judaism

I've attended a lecture yesterday at Birkbeck, University of London. It was organized by Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism in cooperation with the School of Arts (Birkbeck). The talk was given by Professor George Steiner, who in his old age still sparks controversy. The topic could be summarized as: The history of Judaism and of Jewish identity has been characterized by radical inner tensions. These tensions, Professor Steiner suggests, oscillate between priest and prophet, the desert and the city, Zionism and the hopes and ideals of the Diaspora.

The lecture itself was more than interesting, but I would like to offer you only three main points for reflection:

1) revenge of the desert - The morals, laws, mentality of a desert is in direct opposition to a city. The life of the desert is wild, insecure, stripped to its bare necessities. The men of desert are brought to justice by the words they utter; the reputation of a man is established by his actions and words. A spoken word is more sacred than the ancient written law protected by the city authorities. On the contrary, the city is seen as a heart of law and order. City represents a defending wall against the wild spirits of a desert; the law (whether religious or civil) is to be protected and those find guilty, cast out behind the walls.

2) Tension between priest and prophet - Each and every prophet sent by God was killed or persecuted. No, not by pagans, but by those, who were entrusted to protect the purity and orthodoxy of faith. The prophet is always to be found at the left side of the priest...

3) In the Jewish tradition, a guest must leave his host in a better state than he was found. That means, a guest has an obligation to leave something, which will help those, who were entertaining him on his journey. We are only guests in life. We should leave life better than we found it.....

I hope the three main points I just shared with you (however imperfectly) will give you at least a glimpse of ideas of prof. Steiner. Why do I remember these three themes? 
Well, Jesus was a man of a desert and speaks in a parable about the landlord of the vineyard, whose servants were all killed, including the son (Luke 20:9-19)....And yet, he is also a priest. We refer to him as a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (Ps 110;4), the pure and perfect priest who went to the highest Heaven (Hebrews 7;26 and Ephesians 4;10) and so on. Jesus seems to unite these two ministries. Not only that, he reconciles the desert with the city. He came to fulfil the law, not to abolish it (Matthew 5:17)...And finally, we often say we are only strangers here on earth. Even more, exiles in the valley of tears (Salve Regina)! Although both terms are helpful in our spiritual battle, the term "guest" reveals another layer of understanding. It is a lovely and helpful tool in our daily strive for holiness. Only guests in life.... Jesus said: "Look, I create all things new (Rev 21:5)!". How about we? Will we leave the life in a better state than we found it?

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