The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, Cardinal George Pell, recently took on the noted Atheist Richard Dawkins in a public debate, during the course of which he said of the ancient Jews that they were ”the poor, the little Jewish people, they were originally shepherds…stuck between these great powers” of their time, such as the Egyptians and Babylonians, and that this reflected their intellectual development. Now Abraham and Moses were certainly in the shepherding business, but surely not just shepherds. When he was pressed on this point and asked if he thought the same of Jesus, who was, after all, (according to the Gospels) a Jew born some 1800 years after the prophet Abraham. The cardinal replied, ”Exactly.”
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry conveyed its ”serious concern”, in response to which Cardinal Pell released a statement saying he was trying to ”make a point about the unique place of the Jewish people in human history as the first to receive the revelation of the one true God while I was being regularly interrupted and distracted by the chairman”.
He suggested that ”historically” or ”culturally,” unequal might have been a better term to have used than ”intellectually”. ”My esteem for the Jewish faith is a matter of public record,” he said, “and the last thing I would want to do is give offense.”
Relations between Cardinal Pell and the Jewish community are very good. He is well liked and highly regarded by the Jewish community of Sydney and there has never been any question of anti-Semitism. So what he was trying to say?
It seems pretty obvious to me that he must have been under pressure from Dawkins, who, like many opponents of religion, loves to take selected Biblical laws out of context, and out of time, to show how primitive Biblical Law was. It is true, the Bible was indeed written when there were slaves, underage daughters were betrothed, criminals were stoned, and pagans had sex with anything that moved. But some of us have changed, have we not, over the past three thousand years? So to attack religion on the basis of ancient texts is rather puerile.
After all, if I wanted to make fun of English law today, would I quote from the Magna Carta or Hanging Judge Jeffreys? If attacking American law, would I want to refer to the Salem witch trials? I think not. Religion, it is true, has not always been and still is not always a force for good. On the other hand neither has modernity achieved all that we might have hoped for. If religions have not progressed as far or as fast as they should have, I could also argue that too many quick and hastily agreed changes in many spheres, on the basis of fads and political correctness, have been shown to have been pretty disastrous, with hindsight. Which medical professional goes in for lobotomy nowadays?
Nevertheless, it’s an interesting point. The Orthodox position is that we have all been getting less spiritual and intellectually brilliant since the original revelation and the Talmudic era. “The generations have been diminishing.” But Pell’s position is a fair one for Christianity, because it takes the view that Christianity made things better; that the Old Testament was a prototype for a simpler nomadic era and the New Testament was the spanking new updated covenant.
For Jews the Biblical Canon ends with the Books of Nehemiah and Chronicles. There is no new deal. But I see no evidence that with the sudden arrival of the New Testament the world became a morally different place. Nevertheless, I can see from a Christian’s point of view that they believe we Jews were an earlier stage of evolution. I only get into slanging matches when someone attacks my position first!
Still, if we claim that every word of the Torah is holy, then what are we to make of commands to stone, burn, and kill? Conversely, how does such a supposedly primitive code get to include “love your neighbor”, “do not take revenge”, and all the amazing social and spiritual rules of rest, self-control, and spirit that are even more relevant today than they were then?
Is it enough to say that the Torah spoke at a moment in history, in a specific context, in a language that people of the time could make sense of, and yet still carry within it the noblest and most eternal of messages? Yes, I think it is. And its message is needed today by everyone as much as it ever was, but that does not mean there can be no advance, no new situations, no new solutions, and no new interpretations. We might dream of perfection, but in human terms it is still elusive, and for as long as it is elusive, the Torah has a role. For all this it still does not mean that everyone then was necessarily on a higher level, any more than everyone today is wiser. The real problem is with generalizations…all people, all Jews, all Christians, all shepherds.
We Jews are and always have been a mixture of the sublime and the primitive. The Talmud asks why we are compared to the “stars of the heavens” and the “dust of the earth”. It answers, because we are capable of both rising to the heights and sinking to the depths. That is us, and that is humanity; that is the world we inhabit and the world God created. The good and the bad are always interconnected, two faces of the same. Holy and profane—are the same words in Hebrew. It is up to us to make the choices. Religions, like any branch of humanity, can claim what they like; the record shows their limitations. That does not mean they are valueless.
The Pell incident highlights our exaggerated sensitivity. The moment anyone suggests we might not be the brightest and the best, the phantoms of anti-Semitism are let loose. Thousands of years of hatred and persecution distort one’s perspective, and my goodness gracious we DO have huge chips on our shoulders. The current mood of condemnation toward Jews, even by many Jews, is enough to put anyone on the defensive. But isn’t it about time we stopped being so neurotic?
Editor’s note: a video of Cardinal Pell’s comments can be viewed below.