Michael Netzer, May 2011

War of the Sages Against the Prophets

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How Orthodox Judaism is hastening the redemption of Israel.

First appeared in The Jerusalem Post, July 30, 2009.

Palpable perplexity at Jewish secular-religious division may better be understood when rabbinical adherence to Orthodox tradition is seen as divorced from lessons which history teaches. The sages of the Talmud were, after all, the same religious hierarchy upon whose heads the Second Temple collapsed. One of the most notable among them supported a rebellion that hastened banishing the Jews into exile, while they themselves took refuge in Yavne for the stated purpose of writing the oral tradition to save the people from a prolonged and dangerous Diaspora – and to remind the Jews to one day return to Israel.

Perhaps, by any standards known from Babylon, they aspired to shorten the Roman exile to less than 70 years. History, however, chose to condemn their effort to resounding failure. The nearly 2,000-year exile and insurmountable Jewish suffering which accompanied it made the Babylonian one seem like a summer vacation by comparison. Not only did the Orthodox tradition they instituted fail to protect the Jews, but it also failed to instill within religious communities a resolve to return to the homeland. The spark of Zionism and first aliyot from Europe were thus led by secular Jews, under protest of most rabbinical leaders.

This predicament is further exasperated by severe admonishment in Scripture, leveled at religious jurisdiction regarding hazards inherent in glorifying ceremonial worship. A well-known example in the Book of Isaiah emphasizes that it is not the formal procedure itself which elevates the people morally, but rather the spirit with which they conduct their lives and community affairs.

“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the Lord; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and Sabbath, the holding of convocations – I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:11-17).

One must wonder why the sages ignored such divine reprimand as they compounded ritual decree in talmudic law, as if the moral value of the people is inherent in an endless preoccupation with fulfilling a voluminous array of halachic ordinance that holds little in common with essential precepts they’re derived from. If such was the case with the prophet Isaiah regarding Temple sacrifices and sacrament observance of holy days, one can only imagine what he would say about today’s obsessive emphasis on prayer services, the donning of tefillin or Shabbat prohibitions, among many others, practiced by Orthodox Jewry.

Condemnation of religious overindulgence in Scripture was not limited to ceremonial adulation alone, but often extended into pretentions of wisdom by religious principals. Rebukes such as the following abounded: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that change darkness into light, and light into darkness; that change bitter into sweet, and sweet into bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!” (Isaiah 3:20-21).

“And the Lord said: Forasmuch as this people draw near, and with their mouth and with their lips do honor Me, but have removed their heart far from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment of men learned by rote; Therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the prudence of their prudent men shall be hid” (Isaiah 29:13-14).

“How do ye say: ‘We are wise, and the Law of the Lord is with us’? Lo, certainly in vain hath wrought the vain pen of the scribes. The wise men are ashamed, they are dismayed and taken; lo, they have rejected the word of the Lord; and what wisdom is in them?” (Jeremiah 6: 8-9).

These are but a few of the myriad examples.

Perhaps in this context, it is possible to better understand the sages of Orthodoxy. Entrusted with spiritual leadership, they did what they knew best and waged a war against the prophets for the disparagement they suffered at their hands. They spoke in their own name and not as divine messengers. They elevated their instruction above that of the prophets, claiming their wisdom to be greater than theirs. They forged a new Judaism of ceremonial array, saturated with commandments for the learned, as manifest in today’s Orthodox education.

All this came at the torrential cost of a burgeoning schism between secular and religious communities, drifting further apart in division and disarray. It came at the tragic price of relieving the Orthodox of their most basic God-given right to choose, reason and understand divine will through nurturing the heart and soul, based on each person’s unique personality and ability.

Throughout it all, however, the promise of redemption flickered through the volumes of written Jewish tradition. The sages knew their reign would be temporary. They impressed that all would change in the promised divine kingdom to come. They reminded that on that day, the burden of halachic law would be relieved.

In doing so, they did what they knew best and magnified the deeds for which they were most stringently criticized: volumes of commandments, prayers and ordinances; honoring God with words through innumerable prolonged blessings and supplications; transforming knowledge of the divine into a regimented learning discipline; and many more. The purity and softening of the heart stressed by the prophets were pushed to the sidelines, buried deep under mountains of talmudic law.

If this type of leadership was so calamitous toward the end of the First and Second Temples, so as to necessitate their destruction, then let the Lord look at the catastrophe they’ve wrought on the people now – and tarry no longer in sending His promised deliverer. The sages have, after all, prepared the way for his coming. Countless edicts and commandments await the divine envoy to reveal their mysteries. A shattered and divided people ripped asunder with perplexity of faith await his coming – and with it, the long aspired-for unity of Israel which his advent portends.

In this, perhaps, lay the greatest wisdom of the sages of Israel. In disengaging the Orthodox Jew from personal divinity through halachic ordinance, they’ve helped bring the collapse of Jewish spirituality to a degree which can be tolerated no longer.

So much so, that the cries for deliverance rise into the heavens. And the Lord hears – and remembers.

The writer lectures on social activism through the entertainment and communications mediums, is a comic book artist/writer for DC and Marvel Comics, creator of Israel's first color comic book Uri-On, and resident of Ofra.
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In Forgiveness of the First Sin

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Were Adam and Eve simply tempted and deceived, or was their decision to disobey God a conscious one?

First appeared in The Jerusalem Post, August 27, 2009.

We all know the story of Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise in the Garden of Eden as told in the Book of Genesis – or do we? Although we continue to endure the suffering, injustice, wars, famine, pain, death and destruction that their first transgression apparently caused, their fall may also have brought a greater benefit to humanity than is commonly considered by the popular myth of this most iconic and legendary of all human sagas.

While Western/Christian theology attributes an independent status to evil in the world, which acts by its own accord and must be eradicated – and is separate from the spirit and will of God – Jewish theology has long seen the sitra ahra, or Satan, as one of the forces which God Himself created and placed under His jurisdiction. A force He employs for the ultimate realization of a greater good.

As such, the sages of Israel have sometimes hinted at a greater benefit having come to mankind from the first transgression in Eden. Yet, the story continues to reverberate in modern culture and theology with the notion that we would be far better off today had the first parents of humanity not disobeyed God’s command and eaten of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Underlying this view is the perception that Eve and Adam were somehow tricked by the snake and fell into a momentary lapse of cognizance, which caused them to disregard their better interest. It is a human condition most of us are prone to fall into from time to time, even concerning such small things as disrupting a balanced budget by buying something we don’t really need, because we’re enamored with the idea of having it, or unfairly lashing out in anger at someone because of personal issues burdening us. While we might experience such lapses and later come to regret them, to assume that such was the case with Adam and Eve ignores the state of spiritual near-perfection both were in before their fall.

Adam and Eve were not, after all, as we are today. While we’ve inherited the knowledge of good and evil and suffered its consequences for nearly six millennia, they were in perfect harmony with divine will and had no experience with nor knowledge of anything evil. Unlike us, they lived in a garden paradise where their every need was provided for. They experienced no disruption of this harmony and had none of the myriad distractions we face today. They knew no sexual desire, which developed within them only after their fall from grace, bringing them into the hardships of parenthood. They anticipated no death in their future, knew no sickness in their lives. A burden-free paradise wherein their greatest responsibility, it seemed, was to stay clear of any knowledge of, or experience with evil.

Furthermore, Adam and Eve had sufficient understanding of the consequences of their choice. They knew from God that through this disobedience, death would seep into their consciousness (Genesis 2:17), but they also knew from the snake that they’d become as God, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:5). And even though we tend to believe the snake lied to Eve and tried to deceive her with this promise, scripture confirms that the snake spoke the truth about it, as told soon afterward when their punishment was exacted: “And the Lord God said: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’” (Gen. 3:22).

The question which needs asking is: How could two beings in a state of such perfect bliss, having complete understanding of the consequences of their action, be so easily connived into forfeiting paradise for the toil, suffering and death which awaited them outside? A major precept of giving charity in Judaism is that it is better to teach someone to fish than to give them a fish. It resonates with the notion that it is better for us to earn something through our own labors than to be given it as a gift – because when we are beholden to others through their gift, we cannot be truly free among them.

Within this context, God appears to be leading humanity through a course of hardship and suffering so that we come to earn the world we make, for better and worse, through our own choices and efforts, in order to instill within us a sense of independence and freedom. Herein perhaps lies what biblical commentators hint is the conflict Adam and Eve faced at the dawn of human endeavor – and the great gift they bestowed upon humanity by sacrificing their paradise for a more worthy future for the family of mankind.

The choice before them was clear. Either obey God’s stated command without further consideration of what His deeper and more true intent may be, or consider the consequences and accept personal responsibility for the transgression, because it also promises to elevate the collective consciousness of humanity through the attendant travail and suffering. Though the course be difficult, it leads to a sense of liberty and self-determination which bring us closer to better knowledge and understanding of God and His ways.

This is the course God charted for humanity by placing our destiny in the hands of Adam and Eve and the choice they made in Eden. But He also wanted them to choose it independently, even in the face of His prohibition, and to accept responsibility for that choice. This is how mankind would come to rightfully earn a place closer to the creator and attain a greater harmony with His world.

Through this first sin of disobedience, we began to be free and learned to stand before difficult choices that would lead to rebuilding the lost paradise. This time, however, not as a free gift, as was given in Eden, but rather earned through toil and sacrifice. Paradise gained through choices made in hardship – and blessings earned in earnest. A history forged through choosing life in the face of death, good in the face of evil and truth in the face of deceit.

And so, through the seed of Adam and Eve, God saw fit to reward them for their bold sacrifice. Though evil continues to multiply in the world, so does good also multiply and prevail. From Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, descendents of the first parents, a nation was forged to lead humanity back into the garden. The nearly 6,000-year history of mankind, since that fateful fall in Eden, reinforces the virtue of the choice Adam and Eve made. Even with the suffering and travail we endure, the knowledge of God continues to sweep humanity’s deepest recesses. Though we may have more trouble ahead, we stand today at the brink of salvation, at the edge of the promise of redemption.

Through Moses and the prophets shedding light on the way, and through the collective choice of society to promote the values of life and good, we continue to edge closer to a great day of judgment and reward. Our history as a people and civilization, our achievements in the face of challenge, all confirm the invaluable reward to humanity earned through the acceptance of sacrifice and punishment by the first parents of mankind in Eden.

Hardly a simple tale of temptation and deceit, the transgression of Adam and Eve tells of a conscious decision of willful surrender, born out of divine understanding, for the greater benefit of an evolving and maturing civilization.

Michael Netzer at NY Big Apple Comics Convention, November 2007.

Welcome

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Welcome to the gateway into Michael Netzer Online site complex.

Because we’ve  grown slowly but steadily, even perhaps exponentially, over the years, and in an effort to provide a more intuitively functional directory to the vast amount of accumulated content, this portal was originally intended to only provide indexed links of interest to sites, biographies, articles and galleries accessible through the menu above. It also seems prudent because the main site has been inactive for a while and many readers are familiar with my sometimes volatile tendency to step away from web activity for prolonged periods – which I’ve been feeling is coming on again sometime in the near future.  So this portal was originally designed to also serve as a cover directory while I’m away for the next stretch.

But as fate would have it, and though I’d been considering and planning it for some time now, my stepping away from the home environment that allows me to maintain the websites is being delayed somewhat. In the meantime, I’m engaged in a few activities that are compelling and should be announced here and shared with whomever happens to be passing through. What’s more, this portal is my first WordPress format for a web site and I’m finding it very tempting to take advantage of its well engineered platform, beyond the directory listings it was originally intended to be.

Life is what happens when we make other plans, they say.  So, I’ve taken the cue and decided to post as much new content as will be possible, for now.  If and when the time comes to step away, then at least we’ll have had a few more excursions together in this new abode.

Here’s wishing for an exhilarating ride.  It’s not really a new web site yet, but it could very well develop into one.  Our last main site, rEvolution, also briefly named Messiah Complexity and later Michael Netzer Online, which has been running on and off since June 2006, can now have its well earned rest among its sister sites in the complex.

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