Saturday, 26 October 2019

Could the Pharisee
have gone down to
his home justified?

A contemporary icon of the Pharisee and the Publican praying in the Temple … who were the Pharisees and who is being criticised?

Patrick Comerford

I am leading Morning Prayer tomorrow morning [27 October 2019] in Castletown Church, Co Limerick, and presiding at the Parish Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale.

Late this afternoon, I put some finishing touches to tomorrow’s sermons, which I had written during the week. The Gospel reading (Luke 18: 9-14) is the parable we know generally as ‘The Pharisee and the Publican’ or ‘The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.’

We are so familiar with this parable that we often dismiss the prayer of the Pharisee, although the Gospel reading says there is nothing wrong with his prayer. Quite the opposite.

The Pharisee and the Publican each prays for himself, each bares himself before God. The Pharisee gives thanks to God. He prays. In fact, by all the current standards of and means of measuring Jewish piety, he is a good man. Look at what he tells God and us about himself.

First of all, he thanks God that he is not like other people. The Morning Prayer for Orthodox Jewish men, to this day, includes a prayer with these words: ‘Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a gentile, … a slave, … a woman.’

Thanking God that I am not like others is not an expression of disdain for others; it is merely another, humble way of thanking God for being made the way we are, in God’s image and likeness. The Pharisee’s prayer is not unusual.

The Pharisee then goes on to tell God that he obeys all the commandments: he prays, he fasts and he tithes – in fact, he tithes more than he has to, and perhaps also fasts more often than he has to – and he gives generously to the poor. He more than meets all the requirements laid on him by the Mosaic law, and he goes beyond that. He is a charitable, kind and faithful man.

Anyone who saw him in the Temple and heard him pray would have gone away saying he was a good man, and a spiritual man.

Yet this parable has been so mis-used and so misinterpreted in the past, that common language often uses the word ‘Pharisee’ to describe a religious hypocrite or someone who fails to put into practice in daily life what they claim as their firmly held religious views.

We might wonder why, for example, the word Sadducee never passed into popular language in the same way, although Jesus also has bruising encounters with the Sadducees throughout the Gospels.

Indeed, the misuse and abuse of the name Pharisee may have fuelled antisemitic rhetoric at different times during the history of the Church. And, as I write, I am conscious that tomorrow is the first anniversary of the shooting that killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

It is difficult, at times, to explain that the true heirs of Pharisaic or rabbinical Judaism are all modern schools of Judaism today. Of all the various schools of Judaism at the time of the Gospels – including the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes and the Sicarii – the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus are the only two to have survived, although some historians have also sought an early origin for the Karaites.

Judaism and Christianity share a common tradition that has developed from synagogue or rabbinical Judaism, and any misinterpretation of the word Pharisee is an insult to the modern heirs or rabbinical or Pharisaic Judaism in all modern Jewish traditions, including the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Liberal, Progressive and Reconstructionist movements.

A conference in Glenstal Abbey two weeks ago [12 October 2019] was titled ‘Pharisees: Characters not Caricatures.’ The images of Pharisees in the Gospels include Simon, Nicodemus, Gamaliel and Paul himself, and their contemporaries included Josephus.

The conference organisers pointed out that ‘it is not necessary to make the Pharisees look bad for Jesus to look good. Jesus can look good all by himself! Pharisees were well regarded by the wider populace of their day. Avoiding a pantomime portrayal of the good and the bad leads to a more fruitful exploration of Jesus’ interaction with this interesting, diverse and nuanced Jewish group of the first century.’

The name Pharisee comes from Aramaic and Hebrew words meaning ‘the separate ones’ – although a minority view has also tried to find its roots in words for a Persian or Persians.

It is not surprising, then, that many Biblical scholars have drawn close parallels between the beliefs and teachings of Jesus and the Pharisees, and some have even asked whether Jesus himself was a Pharisee.

The Jewish historian Joseph Klausner (1874-1958), in his book Jesus of Nazareth (1922), tried to understand and present Jesus in his historical context, presenting a study of Jesus to a Jewish public in Hebrew.

Klausner claims, ‘Jesus of Nazareth ... was exclusively a product of Palestine, a product of pure Judaism, without any external additives. There were many Gentiles in Galilee, but Jesus was not at all influenced by them ... Without exception, his teaching can be explained entirely through the Biblical and Pharisaic Judaism of his time.’

In an attempt to place Jesus more precisely in his context, Schalom Ben-Chorin (1913-1999), in Brother Jesus. A Jewish point of view on Nazareth (1985) writes: ‘In this sense, we believe not to err in letting Jesus be amongst the Pharisees, naturally in the middle of a lower group of opposition. Jesus himself taught like a Rabbi Pharisee, and with a high level of authority, whose excessive emphasis must then be without doubt considered like a kerygmatic tradition.’

The argument that Jesus was part of a group of Pharisees is now made now by many scholars, and not only Jews. Examples include William E Phipps, Jesus, the Prophetic Pharisee in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies 14 (1977), pp 17-31.

The late Rabbi Harvey Falk’s book, Jesus the Pharisee. A New look at the Jewishness of Jesus (Paulist Press, New York 1985), is a provocative study of the thought of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus and was an early attempt by a rabbinic writer to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth consistently upheld the views of the rabbis of the School of Hillel, and that all his criticism was directed at the School of Shammai and their followers.

The Pharisees of Bet Shammai controlled Jewish life and thought in the first century. This school denied salvation to the Gentiles, and the Shammaite Pharisees and priests considered Jesus a danger to the Jewish people.

When the School of Shammai disappeared after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the first century, Judaism developed according to the teachings of Bet Hillel. This alone increases the common grounds for dialogue between Jews and Christians.

The idea that Jesus was a Pharisee may still be shocking for many, and indeed it cannot be proved by any sources, from the New Testament or others. But, as Joseph Sievers points out in his paper, ‘The Roots of anti-Judaism in the Christian environment: Jesus Of Nazareth as seen by Jewish writers of the XX century’ (Nuova Umanità 64/65 (July-October 1989), pp 125-136), it is a concept that indicates a truth that is often forgotten: that many of the teachings of Jesus are not far from those of many Pharisees or Rabbis, and their successors.

In fact, even if Jesus did want to create polemics with the Pharisees, in no way would his teaching in itself put him out of the realm of Judaism. The fundamental theory of Ben-Chorin is ‘that underneath the Greek face of the Gospels there hides, so to speak, an original Jewish tradition, in that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, purely and solely Jewish.’

In many cases, Jesus was in substantial agreement with the Pharisaic school of Hillel. Although at the time it represented a minority of rabbis and Pharisees, this school later became the determining group within post-Temple Judaism.

Perhaps we ought to be arguing that Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees is directed only at Pharisees the School of Shammai, but is consonant with teachings of the Pharisees in the School of Hillel.

Meanwhile in the US, the Anti-Defamation League reported this week that at least 12 white supremacists have been arrested for alleged roles in terrorist plots, attacks or threats against the Jewish community in the year since the massacre t the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. These include another shooting in April at a synagogue in Poway, California, in which one person was murdered and others were injured. We need to be very careful how we use parables and Gospel images in ways that are unquestioning about prejudices we have inherited from the past and that fail to look at Gospel stories in their full conext.

Visiting synagogues
in Ireland and
around the world

The cupola of the Neue Synagoge or New Synagogue in the Spandau area of Berlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Yehuda Amichai’s ‘Poem Without an End,’ translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch, is quoted by Simon Schama in his Belonging, the Story of the Jews, 1492-1900 (Penguin, 2017):

Poem Without an End (‘שיר אינסופי’)

Inside the brand-new museum
there’s an old synagogue.
Inside the synagogue
is me.
Inside me
my heart.
Inside my heart
a museum.
Inside the museum
a synagogue,
inside it
me,
inside me
my heart,
inside my heart
a museum.

Over the past ten years or so, I have visited and blogged about synagogues in at least a dozen countries.

Apart from visiting two dozen or synagogues or the sites of past synagogues in Ireland, I have visited and blogged about more than 40 synagogues and the sites of former synagogues in Albania (1), Austria (1), the Czech Republic (6), England (5), Germany (2), Greece (5), Italy (7), Morocco (2), Poland (7), Portugal (4) and Spain (5).

Before I began this blog, I had also visited synagogues and Jewish communities in Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel and the West Bank, Romania and Turkey. But I have also visited many synagogues and former synagogues in Ireland, including Dublin, Derry, Limerick and Waterford.

So, having blogged throughout September and October 2019, I have revised this list of my blog postings on synagogues. I plan to up-date this list as in the future as I write about visits to other synagogues around the world.

Albania’s first synagogue, built in Onchesmos or Saranda in the fourth or fifth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Albania:

1, Saranda: the fifth-century synagogue of Onchesmos (29 August 2019).

Austria:

Vienna:

1, The mediaeval Or-Sarua Synagogue, Vienna (13 November 2019).

2,The Stadttempel or City Synagogue, Seitenstettengasse, Vienna (14 November 2019).

3, The Sephardic prayer house, Upper Danube Street, Vienna (14 November 2019).

4, The ‘Turkish Temple’ (Sephardic Synagogue), Zirkusgasse 22, Vienna (14 November 2019).

China:

1, The Jewish community of Hong Kong (19 April 2006).

The wrought-iron rococo grille that adorns the bimah in the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, seen from the women’s gallery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Czech Republic:

Prague:

1, The ‘Old-New’ Synagogue (29 January 2019)).

2, The High Synagogue (30 January 2019).

3, The Maisel Synagogue (30 January 2019).

4, The Klausen Synagogue (31 January 2019).

5, The Spanish Synagogue (31 January 2019).

6, The Pinkas Synagogue (1 February 2019).

Old Jewry stands in the heart of the original Jewish ghetto in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

England:

Cambridge:

1, The Cambridge Synagogue and Jewish Student Centre (20 July 2013)

London:

2, The site in Old Jewry of the Great Synagogue of London until 1271 (29 April 2016).

3, Kehillas Ya’akov, Commercial Road, Stepney (1 February 2018).

4, The site of a synagogue at Threadneedle Street, built in 1231 (17 February 2019).

Peterborough:

5, Peterborough Hebrew Congregation, formerly on 142 Cobden Avenue (17 August 2019).

6, The synagogues and Jewish communities of Cornwall (18 October 2019)

The site of Berlin’s first synagogue at Heidereutergasse, dedicated in 1714 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Germany:

Berlin:

1, The New Synagogue, Oranienburger strasse (13 September 2018).

2, The Alten (Old) Synagogue (31 December 2018).

The bimah in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Chania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Greece:

Chania:

1, The Etz Hayyim Synagogue (18 June 2018)

Corfu:

2, The Nuova or New Synagogue, Corfu (24 August 2019).

Rethymnon:

3, The site of the mediaeval synagogue (9 June 2018).

Rhodes:

4, The Kahal Shalom Synagogue (25 June 1999).

Thessaloniki:

5, The Monasterioton Synagogue, Syngrou Street (8 April 2018).

Terenure Synagogue on Rathfarnham Road dates back to a meeting in 1936 and first opened in 1953 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ireland:

Dublin:

1, Crane Lane Synagogue, off Dame Street (27 September 2019).

2, Ballybough Cemetery (28 September 2019).

3, Marlborough Green Synagogue (30 September 2019).

4, Stafford Street Synagogue (1 October 2019)

5, Saint Mary’s Abbey Synagogue (2 October 2019)

6, Saint Kevin’s Parade Synagogue (3 October 2019)

7, Oakfield Place Synagogue (4 October 2019)

8, Lennox Street Synagogue (5 October 2019)

9, Camden Street Synagogue (6 October 2019)

10, The Dublin Hebrew Congregation, Adelaide Road Synagogue (7 October 2019)

11, the Chevrah Tehillim Synagogue, Lombard Street West (9 October 2019)

12, United Hebrew Congregation, Greenville Hall Synagogue, South Circular Road (10 October 2019)

13, The Beth Hamedresh Hagadol Synagogue, Walworth Road, and the Irish Jewish Museum (11 October 2019)

14, Grosvenor Place Synagogue, Rathmines (12 October 2019)

15, Grosvenor Road Synagogue, Rathgar (14 October 2019)

16, The Dublin Jewish Progressive Synagogue, Leicester Avenue, Rathgar (15 October 2019)

17, Terenure Synagogue, Rathfarnham Road, Terenure (16 October 2019)

18, Machzikei Hadass Synagogue, Rathmore Villas, Terenure (17 October 2019)

19, Some additional Jewish buildings in Dublin (18 October 2019)

Derry:

20, The former synagogue in Kennedy Place, Derry (24 May 2019).

Limerick:

21, The former synagogue at 63 Wolfe Tone Street (2 July 2017).

22, The former synagogue at Hillview, Wolfe Tone Street (2 July 2017).

Waterford:

23, The former synagogue at 56 Manor Street, Waterford (15 March 2019)

Inside the Scuola Spagnola in Venice, founded around 1580 by Spanish and Portuguese speaking Jews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Italy:

Bologna:

1, The synagogue on Via Mario Finzi (17 November 2017).

Rome:

2, The Great Synagogue of Rome (7 January 2017).

Venice:

3, The Scuola Spagnola (19 November 2018).

4, The Scuola Grande Tedesca (19 November 2018).

5, The Scola Levantina (19 November 2018).

6, The Scuola Canton (9 November 2018).

7, The Scuola Italiana (9 November 2018).

The Synagogue Rebbi Akiva on Rue Synagogue was originally built in the mid-19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Morocco:

Tangier:

1, The Synagogue Rebbi Akiva (30 October 2018).

2, The Moshe Nahon Synagogue (30 October 2018).

The Old Synagogue built in Kraków 1407 is the oldest Jewish house of prayer in Poland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Poland:

Kraków:

1, The Old Synagogue (Synagoga Stara), Szeroka Street (12 November 2016).

2, The Remu'h Synagogue, Szeroka Street (12 November 2016).

3, The Wolf Popper Synagogue, Szeroka Street (12 November 2016).

4, The High Synagogue or Synagoga Wysoka, Jozefa Street (12 November 2016).

5, The Isaak Jakubowicz Synagogue, Kupa Street (12 November 2016).

6, The Kupa Synagogue, Kupa Street (12 November 2016).

7, The Tempel Synagogue, Miodowa Street (12 November 2016).

The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Porto is one of the largest in western Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Portugal:

Porto:

1, The Kadoorie Mekor Haim (‘Spring of Life’) Synagogue (6 February 2019).

2, The site of the first synagogue in Porto at Igreja dos Grilos (12 February 2019).

3, The site of the 14th century synagogue at Rua do Comércio do Porto (12 February 2019).

4, The site of the synagogue at the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Vitória (12 February 2019).

Slovakia:

Bratislava:

1, The mediaeval synagogue, Uršulínska Street (7 November 2019).

2, The Synagogue at Heydukova ulica 11 (7 November 2019).

3, The tomb of Chatam Moser (7 November 2019).

4, The Jewish Museum, Židovská Street (7 November 2019).

5, The Holocaust Memorial and the site of the former Neolog Synagogue (7 November 2019).

The women’s balcony above the entrance to the synagogue in Córdoba (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Spain:

Barcelona:

1, The site of the old synagogue at the Church of Sant Jaume on Calle Ferran (8 May 2016).

Córdoba:

2, The synagogue built by Simon Majeb in 1315 (7 June 2019).

Málaga:

3, The synagogue and Sephardic heritage centre, Plaza de Judería (5 June 2019).

Seville:

4, Former synagogue at the Church of Santa María la Blanca (27 October 2018)

5, The Jewish Interpretive Centre, Ximenez de Enisco (27 October 2018)

Most recent updates to this posting: 26 October 2019; 14 November 2019.