One particularly interesting passage from the New Testament I’ve been thinking about lately is Luke 21:12. Here Jesus is speaking with his disciples, telling them a little of what they might expect after he’s gone:
But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.
It’s interesting that Jesus would use the words “synagogues” and “prisons” in the same sentence. I wonder why he would do that?
Back in the first century, synagogues served a variety of uses. They were gathering places, providing a venue for worship as well as socializing, but they also could function as courts. If you violated Jewish law you could be taken before a judge, or judges, to answer for your purported infractions, and this too could take place in a synagogue.
One of the more serious infractions was for a Jew to marry a non-Jew. In the Book of Numbers, chapter 25, we are told the story of Phinehas, who carries out a double execution, plunging his sword into an Israelite man as well as a Moabite woman with whom the man had joined–and even today intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles is forbidden in Israel, and indeed is regarded by some as “treason.”
In Jesus’ time, Jews all over the world, both in and outside of Palestine, were also required to pay annual religious taxes to authorities in Jerusalem. There was a half-shekel sanctuary tax, due each year on the 15th of Adar, and for those who farmed or herded there was also the one-tenth tax. Landowners who did not comply were shunned, the yield of their fields held as “unclean.” In other words, pay the tax or your ability to make a living was jeopardized.
All of this would suggest that one of the fears of Jewish leaders at the time, perhaps their greatest fear of all, was of Jews leaving the fold, so to speak–that is to say, of shedding the chains of their societal reclusion and joining the rest of humanity. And indeed this was one of the biggest threats Jesus posed to those leaders, and probably the chief reason they conspired to bring about his crucifixion.
For what Jesus was teaching was something new–something completely different to what the scribes, chief priests, and Pharisees were teaching. He called the Jewish leaders on their hypocrisy. He castigated them for their corrupt ways. He was in essence leading a nonviolent revolution in the Jewish world, and had it been allowed to continue it would have been the end of the Jewish religious authorities, and possibly even the end of Judaism itself. At least the end of it in the form that existed at that time and, by extension, in the form that it has come to exist today.
Though the Talmud had yet to be written in Jesus’ day, the oral laws that would later be incorporated into it were prevalent, and Jesus denounced these laws bitterly–with good reason, for it was “Pharisaism” which later evolved into “Talmudism,” and which led to such Jewish legal constructs as mesirah, in which Jews are are prohibited from reporting or testifying to secular authorities regarding crimes committed by other Jews.
One case in which mesirah was actually invoked in a U.S. federal court was in the case of Moshe Zigelman, an Orthodox rabbi who in 2011 refused to testify before a grand jury investigating fraud and tax evasion. Zigelman refused to testify on the grounds that to do so would run contrary to mesirah and would therefore violate the “free exercise” of his religious beliefs as guaranteed under the First Amendment.
“All Jews are family,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, defending Zigelman’s refusal to testify. “If that fact provides grist for the mills of anti-Semites, that’s unfortunate. But it’s a fact all the same.”
Yet it isn’t only Jewish financial criminals who have benefited from mesirah. The provision has also been used as justification for not reporting Jewish sex offenders to authorities in child molestation cases. In other words, even if you sexually abuse children, you are still part of the Jewish “family,” and if that provides “grist for the mills of anti-Semites,” then too bad. This isn’t, of course, the position held by all Jews, but it has been firmly advocated by some (one wonders if the rest don’t at times get feelings of claustrophobia).
“I am not exactly delighted that another Yid would assist police against an accused, no matter whatever he is accused of,” said Jewish attorney Alex Lewenberg.
Lewenberg at the time was representing Samuel David Cyprys, a convicted serial sex offender who was employed at a Chabad-run yeshiva in Melbourne, Australia. The victim in the case was a 15-year-old Jewish boy who apparently had been pressured not to cooperate with police and prosecutors on the grounds of mesirah. As one analyst commented on the case:
Lewenberg’s remarks to the victim were apparently primarily prompted by the victim telling the court that Israel’s Law of return has a history of being used by Jews seeking to flee prosecution. Jews who have done so – by far only a tiny minority of Jews who have legally immigrated to Israel using the Law of Return – can arrive in Israel and settle there very easily while extradition from Israel is often not an easy thing for countries, even western democracies, to achieve.
If Cyprys had fled to Israel, would he have been granted immunity under the Law of Return? Had this happened, it would not have been the first time a Jewish sex offender had managed to escape criminal justice proceedings by “making aliyah.”
Keeping the rabble in line
One seemingly preferred method used by Jewish leaders to exert control over other Jews–and certainly one which Gentiles are more familiar with–is the strategy of instilling fear. And the fear button is especially manipulated to inculcate fears of rising anti-Semitism.
In the wake of the November Paris terror attacks, Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “the terrorists who attack us have the same murderous intent as those in Paris,” and he also insisted, “we are not to blame for the terrorism directed against us, just as the French are not to blame for the terrorism directed against them.”
So if a desperate Palestinian picks up a knife and stabs an Israeli Jew, it’s not because of the Occupation-Without-End that has destroyed countless Palestinian lives, it’s because the Palestinian is simply a hater of Jews. And he hates them for no justifiable reason–this is the propaganda line that is peddled and it is absolutely absorbed and believed by large numbers of Jews both in Israel and America. But we need to do a reality check. All of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, need to stop and ask ourselves: is it possible that the hatred, i.e. the “rising anti-Semitism” as it’s proclaimed, isn’t being deliberately stoked as a means of keeping the fear level at a sky-scraping height? This is a really fundamentally important question.
Recently reports surfaced about a bill in the New York Legislature that seeks to create a blacklist of people boycotting Israel, and which would impose penalties upon individuals, institutions, or businesses so engaged. The penalties would include denial of state funding and/or cancellation of contracts. Likewise student groups in California are also facing funding cuts should they endorse a boycott of Israel or otherwise express public support for Palestinians.
The right to call for a boycott is a free speech issue. And those seeking to implement penalties of this sort are in essence waging a war against the First Amendment. If there is any document the American people hold sacred and inviolable, it is the US Constitution (the Bible probably runs a very, very distant second), and if there is one part of the Constitution held as sacrosanct above all others, it is the First Amendment. Any attempt to curtail our free speech rights would be bound to elicit a visceral response from a large number of Americans.
So why would Israel supporters seek to impose such measures? Do they really believe it is going to stop the BDS movement? You could in fact argue, quite plausibly, that it will do just the opposite. Whenever a popular political movement encounters government repression, regardless of the country, the almost invariable result is that more people flock to join it. For government repression tends to legitimize social justice movements.
My guess is that the Jewish leaders pushing these initiatives have no realistic expectations of stopping the BDS movement. But the initiatives conveniently serve another purpose as well: they increase anti-Semitism. Attempts to curtail free speech in America will, as I say, trigger a visceral reaction, and if a particular group of people can be perceived as being behind such efforts, the resultant hostility will be directed at that group.
And the members of that group, in turn, will grow more fearful and dependent upon their conniving leaders to push for more and more repressive measures designed to “protect” them. In some respects it is a self-perpetuating cycle, and designedly so.
An ‘Obedience Regulative System’
Recently author and musician Gilad Atzmon published an essay entitled “Jewish Religions and the Prospect of Dissent,” in which he discusses what he refers to as an “obedience regulative system” that Jews must submit to. Failing to do so jeopardizes their standing in the “tribe,” or the “synagogue prison,” to put it perhaps somewhat more precisely. While I’ll only quote a few passages from it, Atzmon’s full article is well worth reading, and you can access it here, here or here.
Judaism, Atzmon notes, is not based upon worship of a loving and forgiving God, but upon a system of mitzvahs, or commandments, 613 altogether. For a good many modern day Jews, ‘God died in Auschwitz,’ and Judaism is not in reality a spiritual belief system, at least not in the traditional sense in which we would think of Islam or Christianity. Well, if it’s not a belief system, asks the author, what is it? Do Jews believe in anything at all?
The answer is yes: the Jew believes in ‘The Jews’ and the Jews believe in ‘The Jew.’ This mode of mutual affirmation establishes a solid and forceful tribal continuum that serves the collective as well as the singular subject. Accordingly, the subject adheres to the collective and vice versa. In pragmatic terms, the Jew sticks to the ‘chosen people’ and, together the ‘chosenites’ uphold a collective sense of choseness.
The synagogue prison, in other words, demands loyalty. Not loyalty to God, but to “The Jews,” and it is indeed very much a prison, for as Atzmon puts it, “the Jew can never dump the Jews as much as the Jews can’t allow ‘The Jew’ to go free.” Thus the individual Jew is confined “in a realm of self-imposed commandment and materiality” from which he/she cannot easily escape. Moreover, he/she becomes instinctively aware of a “system of obedience regulation” marked by a “vile opposition to dissent.” Even the secular or liberal Jew, he says, “is equally obnoxious toward dissent or any form of criticism from within.”
Yet perhaps paradoxically in such a system it becomes curiously convenient at times for the inmate/occupants to drop their “God” and simply invent a new one, and this can be done rather readily. The key word seems to be “convenient”:
In the beginning of the 20th century, for instance, Bolshevism appealed to many Eastern European Jews. It provided a sense of self-righteousness in addition to regulating a strict form of obedience. As we know, it didn’t take long for Bolshevism to mature into a genocidal doctrine that made Old Testament barbarism look like a juvenile fairytale. The Holocaust, that seems to be the most popular Jewish religion at present, may be the ultimate and final stage in Jewish historical development. According to the Holocaust religion, ‘God died in Auschwitz.’ Within the context of the Holocaust religion, ‘The Jew’ is the new Jewish God. The Holocaust religion has finally united ‘The Jew’ and the Jews into a self-sufficient comprehensive and independent ‘God-less’ religious narrative.
Jewish religions are, in essence, “templates that facilitate a sense of chosenness,” and not surprisingly other religions, those that preach a more universal outlook, cannot but come under fire in the Jewish imperium that the West is becoming. For if dissent is not allowed within the “system of obedience regulation,” certainly this would bode ill for any dissenting opinions in the wider world as well.
Tragically enough, intolerance of dissent has become a universal Western political symptom. Incidentally, Christianity, Islam, religion and divinity in general are also under attack within the context of contemporary Western discourse. Is this a symptom of the Jerusalemification of our Western universe? Is the emergence of the tyranny of political correctness a coincidence? And if we are becoming Jews, is there any room for the hope that our universe may, at some stage, embrace a universal ethos once again? Can we once again believe in something? Or do we have to wait for a new Jesus figure to resurrect our trust in the human spirit and humanity in general? Or have we been re-designed to self-destruct as soon as we come close to such a lucid awareness?
The universal ethos does seem far away from us now, with fires of hatred being intentionally stoked–between Christians and Muslims as well as between the two largest branches of Islam. Or in other words, between all the peoples who embrace a God of universal love and compassion–precisely these very same populations are the ones being divided against each other at present. This is not by coincidence. The questions Atzmon raises are well worth pondering, for quite obviously a spiritual reawakening is direly needed just now. Yet such a transformation in Western societies, should one begin to metamorphose, would be fervently attacked, for any spiritual reawakening today, just as it did in the first century, would threaten the very foundation of the synagogue prison.
A First Century Prison Break and the Persecution that Followed
In the third decade of the first century Jesus began traveling about Galilee and Judea spreading a very new and different teaching. Blessed are the meek, the merciful, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, he said, and he warned against “the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” In one famous episode, related in all four gospels, he even turned over the tables of the Temple money changers. Try and imagine, if you will, the “vile opposition to dissent” Jesus’ teachings would have earned for him. Virtually everywhere he went he encountered people who taunted him, who tried to trip him up with questions such as, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar,” and when none of that worked, and his followers only grew in number, the prison wardens conspired finally to arrange his arrest and execution.
But it didn’t end there, for by now there was a major fissure in the prison wall. More people were breaking out. In the years immediately after Jesus’ death, the bulk of his followers continued overwhelmingly to be made up of Jews, but they were Jews who had embraced a “universal ethos”and who believed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Yet their relationship to Judaism as a whole was a contentious one. This probably began quite early, but it most likely would have intensified after the Jewish Christians opened their doors to Gentiles–probably sometime around the mid first century. For the Jewish leaders, this breaking of bread and worshiping with Gentiles was an acute threat, and one that had to be dealt with. According to John 9:22, expulsions from the synagogues began to take place–and the ramifications from this were a lot more severe than simply getting oneself kicked out the front door of a building.
We have to remember that where the Romans were concerned, Judaism was a tolerated religion. Jews were excused from paying homage to the pagan deities, and as long as Christians were considered “Jews” there was no legal reason for the Romans to oppress them. But once the synagogues expelled the Jewish Christians, it was a whole different story. Refusal to participate in emperor worship created legal difficulties for the community, and the Romans, suspicious of Christians anyway, came down hard. This seems especially to have been true among the Johannine Christians. If John 12:10 and 16:2 are any indication, the Jewish Christians were put to death, possibly by the Romans, possibly even by the synagogue authorities themselves, but in either event, what is clear is that the synagogue authorities held almost literally the power of life and death over the Jewish Christians.
Then came the revolt against Rome starting in 66 A.D. followed by the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. Jewish Christians, for the most part, did not join the revolt. A longstanding Church tradition, based perhaps on Luke 21:21, has it that Christians fled to Pella in the Perean foothills, in what is today northwest Jordan. But we know that after 70 A.D. the center of Judaism shifted from Jerusalem to Jamnia, where the Eighteen Benedictions were reformulated to include a curse against the minim, or heretics, and some have theorized that this may have been related to the synagogue expulsions. At any rate, the Jewish Christians were told that they could no longer worship with other Jews. It was a corrosive relationship, to be sure, and interestingly, at some time around 85 A.D., the Eighteen Benedictions were revised yet again, this time to include what appears to be a direct reference to Christians: “Let the notzrim and the minim perish immediately.” This is the wording in Benediction number twelve, the word notzrim being a reference to Nazarenes.
In any case, when we have Jesus, in the Gospel of John, speaking of “the Jews” and making casual reference to what is written in “their law,” he is in reality reflecting the attitudes of the Johannine Christians in the latter part of the century. Yet important to keep in mind is that those who carried out expulsions and persecutions of the community’s members in the mid to latter part of the century were looked upon as nothing more than the heirs of the very Pharisees who had impugned and persecuted Jesus. Thus the synagogue prison break was a struggle of prolonged intensity, spanning a good part of the first century and even stretching into the second.
The third and final Jewish revolt, also known as the Bar Kokhba revolt, took place in 132-136 A.D. It was led by Simon Bar Kokhba, a man hailed by his followers as the Jewish messiah. Though the Romans were Bar Kokhba’s main enemy, clearly he did not care much for Christians either. The following is recorded by early Church writer Justin Martyr, who was born in Flavia Neapolis, or what is today Nablus, in the West Bank. Justin Martyr, as his name implies, was indeed a martyr for the Church, but he was alive at the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt, and in his First Apology he relates the murder of Christians by the Bar Kokhba rebels:
For in the Jewish war which lately raged, Barchochebas, the leader of the revolt of the Jews, gave orders that Christians alone should be led to cruel punishments, unless they would deny Jesus Christ and utter blasphemy.
After Bar Kokhba’s revolt, the Jewish Christians seem to have disappeared entirely from the landscape.
All of which brings us back to Jesus’ words in Luke 21:12:
But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.
Maybe it’s time for the Jewish people to try another prison break. But of course it isn’t just Jews. We are, all of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, confined in our prisons of fear and hatred. Christians are told me must fear Muslims; Jews are told to fear Gentiles; Sunnis are told to fear Shias and vice versa; and we’re all told, while we’re at it, we need to be afraid of “Russian aggression,” “Iranian nuclear weapons,” and the like.
Whatever we haven ‘t come to fear is simply because we haven’t been told to fear it yet. And all of it, all of this fear and hatred, is based upon lies. Those manipulating these fear buttons are master deceivers. They profit off of fear. They spread bacchanals of hatred for the sheer enjoyment it brings them. They put all human emotions to use except for one: love. Love they don’t touch. It is anathema to them. And there is good reason for this: love is the only force in the universe capable of countering hate. Jesus, of all people, would have recognized that, and perhaps it was for this reason he said to his followers–on the very night before his death, no less:
“Love one another as I have loved you, for by this all will know you are mine.”
Richard Edmondson is an author, novelist, poet, and journalist whose writings often focus on Middle East issues, the Zionist lobby, and religion. His latest novel is The Memoirs of Saint John: When the Sandstone Crumbles, a story about an archaeological team doing a dig in Syria and set amidst the current conflict in the country.
In 2014 Richard attended an International Conference on Combating Terrorism and Religious Extremism, held in Damascus. The book is part two in the Memoirs of Saint John series.
Two other books by Richard are Rising Up: Class Warfare in America from the Streets to the Airwaves, relating his experiences founding and operating an unlicensed or “pirate” FM radio station in San Francisco in the 1990s, as well as a volume of poetry entitled American Bus Stop: Essay and Poems on Hope and Homelessness.
Richard is cognizant of the words of the early Christian writer Tertullian, who in the second century-basically prognosticating the fall of the Roman Empire-wrote: “We have made merry amid the ludicrous cruelties of the noonday exhibition.”