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May 18, 2012 12:22 pm

Cardinal Pell’s Foot (VIDEO)

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Cardinal George Pell of Sydney. Photo: CNS.

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.

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  • salvage

    He loves and worships a god that is going to throw every Jew into Hell to be tortured forever and ever and this is the issue you have with him?

    Theists, there is never an end to your selective reasoning.

    At any rate these sort of arguments are akin to two nerds yelling at each other over a Magic game about who the better Enterprise captain was.

    Kirk for the record.

  • Jonathan

    Cardinal Pell is to be forgiven. It is hard to find the exact words to use in a situation in which he had to comment. All of us at one time or another said something that didn’t come out the way we meant it.

  • Anonymous

    What Cardinal Pell should be commended for is his willingness to enter into the debate at all. Those who have had the first hand experience of Catholicism at the roughest, ugly, visceral end know the applied attitudes of the metrosexual, exclusive and bigoted in Holy Mother Church.

  • Otto Waldmann

    The retort from the Australian Jewish leadership makes false assumptions, such as the “respect” Cardinal Pell would enjoy from the Jewish community. ECAJ has no proven ways to have arrived at such a conclusion and, particularly after the said incident, why would any intelligent Jew, or ANY other intelligent being, attest for respect.The manner in which ECAJ is, actually, offering excuses for the utterly offensive rants by Pell is insulting to the community in itself. It reveals a drastic rupture between an elitist few at the top of the community and its core membership.

  • Quote, “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.”

    The thing is, whereas secular laws can be changed, the “holy scripture” is immutable. It is, after all, the word of God.

    So it’s perfectly fair to ridicule religious scripture and those people who adhere to it, as the literal word of their God.

    • jeremy rosen

      To both of you
      I would reply that you misunderstand the nature of Judaism. It has been changing all the time. The oral law provides a mechanism for constant assessment and reinterpretation and innovation . For thousands of years rabbis have been modifying Biblical law to suit new situations and challenges. Thats why we have survived whereas literalist factions like the Sadducees and the Kaarites have all but disappeared.The only complaint one can have and I would agree with in some cases, is that the pace of change is too slow but then sometimes the pace of change could do with some slowing down.

      In fact it is similar in Christianity and Islam even if the mechanism is much more rigid ( or at any rate less clearly written in to the system).


      • Steven

        I find myself again in argument with you:
        you write ” The oral law provides for constant assesment and REINTERPRETATION and innovation. For thousands of years rabbis have been MODIFYING biblical law to suit new situations and challenges”

        Whatever you may want to imply I would like to set the record straight.

        The Torah which consist of 2 parts ,the written Law-the Bible which cannot be understood without the ‘Torah Shbaal Peh” which is the Oral Law, which Jews believe was handed to Moses directly from G-D together and at the same time as the written Bible and passed down the generation onto the Tannaim and so on until Ravina and Rav Ashi who then compiled the Talmud.
        Those laws have NEVER been modified and no can ever modify them. For example homosexualityand those who practice it were executed then and the same halacha applies today as well. The fact that today the Jews do not have a functioning Sanhedrin and we do not have a Bais Hamikdash prevents us from actually carrying out these punishments but they are there pure and simple, they exiast despite the fact that in America today this is ‘unacceptable” the torah law never changes.If you desecrate the Shabbat and you are warned properly in front of witnesses the same law applies today as did thousands of years ago namely the death penalty the only difference is wether we can carry out the judgment or not.

        The are only 2 things that the rabbis did over the millenia
        1) they could enact extra laws on top of the existing ones ( Issurei Drabonon al Issurei Dorayta)many of those were enacted to provide a”fence” so one does not come to violate biblical law
        2) apply existing laws to fit current situations for example it is forbidden to light a fire on Shabbat that is a D’orayta would the same law apply to switch on electricity ? is it a Dorayta or a Drabonon? this in fact was a big fight about the time electricty was invented.

        In short no can ever REINTERPET nor MODIFY Torah law; to say that- is Apikorsus- heresy-(which I hope and pray a Mirrer Talmid does not subscribe to) all anyone can do is to aplly existing rules to current situations.

        One thing you have said is very true namely that over the millenia there were always those who tried to “change” the Torah but they are gone with the wind and but a footnote in history. The only survival for Am Yisrael is to adhere to our heritage the Torah.

        What an appropriate message for Shavuos as we celebrate the Kabbolas Hatoire.

        Have a good yom tov and be proud of your heritage don’t apologize.

  • P. Provenza

    “to attack religion on the basis of ancient texts is rather puerile.” WHAT?? Then religious figures must not use that same ancient text as any defense or support for their beliefs, either. Until they stop using it as a justification of their views or asserting is the ‘word of god’ and ‘holy’, then it is completely appropriate to refer to it when asserting the counter-position. They can NOT have it both ways.

    • jeremy rosen

      Well tell me please if the Torah says a man acquires a woman one way and the rabbis insist that it has to be done another way, is that not rabbinic innovation? If the Torah insists on the right of a man to accuse his wife of being a Sotah and Rebbi Yochanan decides no longer to allow it. Or Hillels Prosbol enabling debts to survive Shmitta, are thse not examples of rabbis being innovative AND reinterpreting the law? Indeed the 3 Principles enabling creative understanding of Torah are also innovative.
      Indeed I would argue that the right of rabbanim to make takkanot is in itself innovation, as are Purim and Chanukah. And as I’m sure you know, the source for rabbinic innovation is indeed in the Torah itself with the command to tp “Do as they shall tell you.” That is what I call innovation. I have always believed that such innovation is sanctioned by Torah but it remains innovative nevertheless.I suspect you understand innivative as coming from no where or outside whereas it can come from within.
      Chag Sameach

      • steven

        Since you ask I will tell you

        You started your first comments by saying ..reinterpration….modifying biblical law.
        I strongly object to those missleading words as I have clearly explained it to you in my rebuttal now you are talking about “innovation” which is totally something else.

        You use as a first example I presume the first Mishna in Kiddushin which clearly states that there are 3 ways to acquire a woman one of which is through intercourse which Rav declared that anyone who acuires a woman that way will be put in cherem.Now this is neither reinterpration nor modification it is simply choosing one over the other becouse of “nechleshu Hadorot” and people will become “sexual animals” as indeed we are witnessing nowadays in our “free” societys.So yes the Rabbis did make a choice the same as by Yibum since today we arent on a level of being able to preform it Lshem Shamayim the Rabbis took another choice given by the Torah namely Chalitza. Again no “reinterprations” no modifications just a choice of one over the other.
        Your second example regarding Sotah the Gemoro clearly states (Sota 28a)that it only works when the husband too is “free” of sin – again Nechleshu Hadoros” and the Mayim Hamorrim would not work thats why Rabbi Yochanan dissallowed it – again no reinterpratation and no modification just simply accepting the fact that becouse of nechlshu hadoros currently it will not work anyway ( similar that we do not have Tzreaas nowadays ) your third example regarding prusbul that Halocho moshe misinai clearly states that debts are NOT meshamet by beis din – in this case too Hillel took an EXISTING halocho namely that debts in Beis Din are not meshamet and applied it to regular debts that if people make a pruzbul it is as if its beis dins debts and are not meshumat here too it was done becouse of tikkun haolam so that people should continue to lend money to their brothers. Your next example Shmitta is exactly the same the halocho applies only to land owned by jews but not by goyim since people arent on the level of emuna as previously the chachomim came up with a solution of selling theland – as selling the chometz too-inorder not to be Oiver the issur of Shmitta.
        Never ever can anyione reinterpret the Law it does not exist by Jews. the law of Amoni vlo Amonis for example was not anyones”invention” it was halocho lmoishe misinai which was forgotten and then reintroduced as such.
        Your continued arguments regarding the 13 principals which Rabbi Yishmael discusses are Torah ordained rules by which to compare laws one to another which incidently can only be used by someone who received itas a traditiond from his Rabbi and who in turn also recievd it from his Rabbi all the way back to Moishe Rabbeinu.

        Innovation is not reintrepertation! You should be excceedingly careful with your language because it can mislead honest unlearned people to believe somehow that Judaism is like Christiannity where you go along and reinterpet as you pls. The Torah cannot be changed never not even to please left wingers and liberals so Jeremy live upto your Torah education such as MIR and cut this “doubletalk” out