Copyright, 1995. Dylan Tauber. All Rights Reserved.
Paper written for Contemorary civilization, Columbia University, 1995
"Nietzsche said, Christianity is Platonism for the masses," a classmate said on two occasions in our class discussions. He is right. Nietzsche, that is. But what he didn't mention is that Rabbinic Judaism, born during the same period in which the early Christians were busy writing what they thought was an accurate account of the teachings of Jesus, was founded in the same spirit. In fact, both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are misinterpretations of true Platanism. Greek influence was predominant in the Holy Land during this period. This is evident even in the names of some of the early Pharisees, or, "separatists," the group who rebelled from the established Temple hierarchy of priests, or Sadducees, and founded the Oral Law. [The name Antigonos of Socho, one of the first Pharisees, who lived in the second century B.C.E. reflects the Hellenistic impact on the region at the time.] To analyze how the Pharisees managed to reform Judaism from worship revolving around the Temple and Priests to a religion defined by an Oral Law, Rabbis, and Priests, after the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. would require another paper. Instead I will focus on the changes in Jewish ideology these Sages affected, and compare them with the strikingly similar neo-platonic belief structures that were almost simultaneously being constructed by contemporary early Christians- men of a different faith but products of the same Hellenic influence. This attempt is undoubtedly over-ambitious for a nine page paper, so I will be more specific, and focus on the writings of Plato, Paul, and the Pharisees, and their viewpoints on sexuality.
A religion, when all the political and social padding is stripped away, is, primarily, an ideology which attempts to prescribe how man can transcend from our physical existence to the infinite. How one must worship God. This question, although addressed in very different terms was central not just for early Christians and Pharisees, but for the Greeks as well, and most notably, Plato. Plato's idea, in essence, is that man must live his life with the goal of reaching spiritual enlightenment. His notion that until we reach this enlightenment the physical world is a world of illusions, articulated in his allegory of the cave, was continued in Judaism and Christianity through the writings of early Christians and the first Jewish Pharisees. Rabbinical Judaism, throughout its countless books and commentaries, expresses the need to transcend to a spiritual existence, and Paul, in his Letter to the Corinthians 1 also expresses the inferiority of the physical existence: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" (13:8), referring to the resurrection, when people absent from their physical bodies will see clearly.
While all three works clearly emphasize the value in attaining this spiritual enlightenment, they offer very different answers as to how this enlightenment is to be achieved. The question for these writers after acknowledging the presence of a higher meaning of the world around us, is how should this affect the way we are naturally led to live our lives. Very different answers to this question can be found in the works of the three. More specifically, all agree that a spiritual form of Love (Synonymous with Truth and God) should be the highest of man's goals. They differ, however, in their view of how the human body should be used towards this end. Sexuality, perhaps the most intense of bodily functions, is viewed as potential evil in the both the New Testament and the Oral Law. Plato, on the other hand applauds sex as a tool for potential enlightenment. While Paul in his Letter to the Corinthians, and the Pharisees in Pirkei Avot, one of the earliest documentations of their thinking, go as far as to claim sex is a total obstacle to the spiritual, Plato is proud to boast that he is practices the rights of love "with special diligence" (Symposium, 212C).
I choose sexuality as the focal point of this study because sex, as Plato writes, is a potential meeting point of the physical and spiritual. The way in which a religious ideology understands the problems sexuality reflects its broader approach to the universal questions of transcendence: How our we to deal with our notions of spirituality, and should it affect our interaction with the physical world? Should our primary and most basic interaction with the sensual world be affected by notions derived from our secondary reflections? Should our pursuit of spirituality affect our interaction with the physical world? Or should interaction with this sensual world be used to help us in our search for the spiritual? To analyze these three ideologies' beliefs concerning this one issue (rather than mere citation of theoretical dogma) will serve as a clear indication as to their precise outlook on the metaphysical idea of transcendence.
Plato's understanding of transcendence is never more clearly explained than in the Symposium, where he discussed the nature of love. Unfortunately we did not read the Symposium in this course so I will include an excerpt from a paper I have previously written which provides a useful summary:
In the Symposium, Plato, after examining other arguments portrayed through various philosophers, uses the speech of Diotima to convey his philosophy regarding the meaning of true love. Plato argues that sexuality can and should be used to transcend to the spiritual true understanding of beauty:
So when somebody rises through these stages, through loving boys correctly, and begins to see this beauty, he has almost grasped his goal. This is what it is to go aright, or be led by another, into the mystery of love: one goes always upwards for the sake of this Beauty, stating out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs: from one body to two to all beautiful bodies, then from beautiful bodies to beautiful customs to learning beautiful things, and from these lessons he arrives in the end of this lesson, which is learning of this very Beauty, so that in the end he comes to know just what it is to be beautiful (Symposium 211 B-D).
Plato makes it clear that this heightened awareness of true beauty is actually a transcendence to the world of the spiritual:
A lover who goes about this matter correctly, must begin in his youth to devote himself to beautiful bodies. . . . After this he must think that the beauty of people's souls is more voluble than the beauty of their bodies. . . . If someone got to see the Beautiful itself, absolute, pure, unmixed, not polluted by human flesh or colors or any other great nonsense of mortality, but if he could see the divine Beauty itself in its one form? . . . . Only then will it become possible for him to give birth not to images of virtue (because he is in touch with no images), but to true virtue (because he is in touch with the true beauty). The love of the gods belongs to anyone who has given birth to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he (Symposium 212 A-B).
Clearly, Plato is writing about a spiritual transcendence. Granted he does not use these words, but the key words "soul," "divine," "love of the gods," and "immortal," leaves little if any doubt as to the validity of this interpretation. Plato writes that making love is not merely a possible method to reach spiritual enlightenment, but is the best means to reach this goal. After Diotima's speech Plato writes Socrates' closing words: "human nature can find no better workmate for acquiring this than love" (Symposium, 212 C). Although, as in Diotima's speech, he is somewhat vague as to what "this" is, he is surely referring to the spiritual form of love.
Paul certainly agrees with this high regard for the importance of love. Paul writes in his Letter to the Corinthians: "So faith, hope, love, abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love" ( The First letter of Paul to the Corinthians 13: 8). However, Paul believes this love is a spiritual love which cannot be attained through sexuality, or any other bodily function. Paul leaves no doubt to the reader that he is completely opposed to Plato's notion of using sexuality to attain a spiritual understanding of love :
It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. . . . For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise the husband does not rule over his own body but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again lest Satan tempt you through lack of self control. . . . To the unmarried man and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. (Paul, 7:1-8)
With this warning against marriage Paul expresses his belief that sexuality, is a mere "temptation" and is to be viewed as "immorality." The fact that a husband and wife would have to separate in order to concentrate on prayer, further implies that sexuality is not compatible with the spirit.
Paul not only warns his followers of the evils of sexuality, but stresses that the body itself is something that must be overcome in the quest for the spiritual. The body, he writes, is merely a "bare kernel" which is meaningless without the spirit. During the resurrection the physical body will not be raised but only a spiritual body, for the physical is only temporary:
I tell you this brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (Paul, 15:49-50)
Interestingly, Paul's attack on the evils of the body is not a complete rejection of the body's potential to affect the spirit. This can be seen from the very angle from which he chooses to condemn sexuality:
The body is not meant for immorality but for the lord, and the lord for the body. . . . Do You know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never? Do you know that he who joins himself with a prostitute becomes one body with her? For as it is written 'The two shall become one.' But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun immorality. Every other sin which man commits is outside the body. Do you know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God with your body (Paul, 6:12-20).
Therefore, it is clear that even Paul would say that the body, despite its lack of spiritual value, can be used to serve the divine. The obvious example is eating the bread and wine during communion, a sensual act in itself, yet considered to have impact on the spirit. Nevertheless, it is clear that Paul has established sexuality as an evil that in now way will bring man close to God.
The work of the Pharisees, Paul's contemporaries, expresses a very similar rejection of sex. Pirkei Avot represents the earliest of the works of the Pharisees, and reads as an introduction to the Oral Law. In fact it begins by asserting that the validity of the Oral Law is rooted with the reception of the Written Law at Mount Sinai. This book serves as a concise summary of the ideology that makes up the entire Mishna, and later the Talmud, and countless other Rabbinical writings and commentaries that continue to this day. Instead of citing references to sexuality and women throughout the Oral, I will focus on Pirkei Avot, with the understanding that this sample is an accurate representation.
Yose ben Yochanan of Jerusalem said, "let your house be open wide; let the poor be members of your household; and don;t talk to your wife too much." They said that about his own wife, how much more another man's wife. From this [statement] other sages have said, "when a man talks too much to his wife, he causes evil to himself, disregards the words of Torah, and in the end will inherit Gehinom [hell]. (Pirkei Avot 1:5)
Another example of the Sages' negative attitude towards sexual pleasures:
he used to say, "The more flesh, the more worms; the more possessions the more worry; the more wives , the more witchcraft; the more maidservants, the more lewdness, the more maidservants, the more theft. . . . (Pirkei Avot, 2:7)
The Rabbinical sages quoted in Pirkei Avot held what they considered sins of sexuality to be among the gravest of sins. In fact, they established the tradition that of all the 613 commandments they said exist in the Torah, only three carry are so important that one must die before transgression. These three are idolatry, murder, and sexual impropriety. According to Rabbinic tradition, one must suffer martyrdom before committing any of these three sins, (Talmud, Sanhedrin, 74a). These three things are not even permitted to save another person's life, or for any medical reason. Sexual misconduct is equated with murder and idolatry:
Exile comes to the world because of idolatry, sexual impropriety, bloodshed, and the [neglect of the sabbatical.] release of the land. (5:9)
One could argue that the above citations merely indicate the rabbinical objection to what they consider improper sexual conduct, but under the right circumstances, sexuality can in fact be used as a means to attain spirituality. The following citation should dispel any last doubts in the reader's mind that in fact the Sages are rejecting all physical love as inferior and, like Paul says, is in fact a hindrance to true spirituality:
When love depends on something other [beyond itself], when that something [beyond itself] disappears, that love disappears. However, when love does not depend on something [beyond itself], that love will never disappear. Which love depended on something [beyond itself]? The love between Amnon and Tamar. Which love did not depend on something [beyond itself]? The love of David and Jonathan. (Pirkei Avot, 5:16)
The story of Amnon, who fell in love with his half sister, Tamar, and later raped her, is recounted in Samuel II. According to Bartinoro a rabbinical commentator who lived centuries later, the love that Amnon had for Tamar was because of her beauty.
This teaching reflects an outlook on sexuality that is a far cry from Plato's philosophy of "through loving young boys correctly. . ." It is clear that the Pharisees view on love is that it exist, on its highest forms completely independent from physical roots, as in the non-physical love between David and Jonathan. Sexual love contains no substance "beyond itself." Physical love, according to the Rabbis- love between a man and a woman- is not to be used as a means of transcendence to spiritual level of love. The physical not only won't bring man closer to God, but it contains the risk of committing the gravest of sins- sexual impropriety.
Considering the very different functions of the philosophical writings of Plato, and the dogmatic writings of Paul and the Pharisees, the conflict is of no surprise. If such an easy and natural way of reaching God as sexuality was encouraged by an organized religion, nobody would bother with a less pleasurable interaction with the religion's clergy. Why go to church if you can stay home, have sex, and if done "correctly" as Plato writes, accomplish the same goal.
The sad fact is that the Judeo-Christian misinterpretation of Plato has soaked deep into the fabric of Western culture for centuries. To this day, "what is love?" is a question our with which our society is still obsessed. "Platonic Love" is ironically used to describe non- physical love, such as the love between David and Jonathan. Far be it from common knowledge that Plato would in fact consider David and Jonathan partners on a spiritual search if they were homosexual lovers.
The fact that we are still confused by question of love/truth/God, is indicative of the fact that rabbinical Judaism and Christianity have failed in their attempt to provide a formula for the masses to approach the infinite. The question "what is love" remains as strong today as it did in the spiritual confusion of two millenniums ago. All of humanity, in one form or another shares this search for the divine. Despite a failure of the works of Paul and Plato, and the Pharisees to provide a generic answer to this universal human problem, there is an inherent value in these writings. The works of these people, as well as countless others, are testimony to humanity's common spiritual quest, one that transcends time and space and is as real today as it was in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Regardless of how this search is expressed or conducted, its goal is universal, as we are all equally trapped in our physical bodies even as we peer out at a vision of infinity and the spirituality. The debate over how to deal with this paradox is as old as our oldest historical documents, and will persist so long as we maintain our elusive vision. Meanwhile, the chimpanzees will continue to happily chew their peanuts without being plagued with such troubles.
the frustration of trying to communicate these true ideas in the limiting framework of an academic paper. . . .
Bruce Lee, in his essay on martial Arts, Black Belt Magazine, 1971, refers to a well known Zen metaphor of the master pointing towards the moon and the student focusing instead on his master's finger. This sums up the ultimate shortcoming of organized religion and its obsessive emphasis on rote meaningless ritual. The higher message is lost, and everyone is still stuck in a dark cave. I have explained how both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism are rooted in a distortion of Plato. I will now examine a spiritual revolution that has the potential of bringing the last 2,000 years of confusion to an end. I am referring to the transition in Judaism from the Old to New Jew. While I could talk about the theoretical role of Double Mirrors in society all day, my words will have better chance of taking on meaning by talking about an actual society which, by means of 4,000 years of human experience has become a macrocosm of every idea I am speaking of. What better way of understanding humanity than to first examine the people that represent the overdose of humanity (i.e.. self reflection)- the Jews.
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