Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiness as Racism

What is holiness?

The definition of the term holiness varies based on what portion of the Bible one looks to for an answer. My focus in this post will be to outline what holiness means in the Pentateuch (the Mosaic Law) and the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. I will not exhaustively define this term, but I hope to show its ugliest aspect: ethnic segregation.

The Hebrew word for "holy" is qadash and it carries the primary meaning of "to [be] set apart" or "distinguished." Hence, a holy item is one that is set apart from customary or normative use. In Hebrew use, one might call any item or person set apart for a particular use "holy"—the word, it should be noted, did not carry the immediate notion of being sanctimonious or sacred unless used in ritual context.

Written by an anonymous author, the Letter of Aristeas was most likely written in the 100's BCE by a Hellenistic Jewish author. He writes at length about the Mosaic Law, and provides this succinct summary of its purpose:

In his wisdom the legislator, in a comprehensive survey of each particular part, and being endowed by God for the knowledge of universal truths, surrounded us [the Jewish people] with unbroken palisades and iron walls to prevent our mixing with any of the other peoples in any matter, being thus kept pure in body and soul…(Letter of Aristeas, 139).

The author of this treatise clearly understands one of the purposes of the Mosaic Law to be that of preventing the comingling of the covenant people with other ethnicities. Remember that an ethnicity is a racial designation but it is far more than just a reference to genetic background. Ethnicities are defined by more than race—they are also defined by religion, culture, behavior, profession, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender, et. al, and I am using the term "ethnicity" in this sense. The author of the above quote sees the goal of separating the Jewish-Israelite ethos from other others as one of the goals of the Mosaic Law.

Deuteronomy 14:1-2 reads:

Ye are the children of the LORD your God… For thou art a holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be his own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the land.

In this passage we see the idea of holiness relative to the ethos of the covenant people Israel. The passage then goes on to highlight specific table habits that will foster and cultivate the segregation of the covenant people from outsiders. Notice that this chapter even allows outsiders to violate its stipulations (14:21). Holiness in this passage, and throughout the Mosaic Law, is hence not defined by good deeds but through the pursuit of separation and segregation from the heterogeneous, the outsiders, the non-Israelites or, later, the non-Jew.

Though written far after the supposed time of Moses, Deuteronomy 12 further outlines the relationship between the land-conquesting children of Israel and the first-nation Canaanites and other peoples of the Levant. Notice the following:

These are the statutes and the ordinances, which ye shall observe to do in the land which the LORD, the God of thy fathers, hath given thee to possess it, all the days that ye live upon the earth. Ye shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that ye are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree. And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place…. When the LORD thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest in to dispossess them, and thou dispossessest them, and dwellest in their land; take heed to thyself that thou be not ensnared to follow them, after that they are destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying: 'How used these nations to serve their gods? even so will I do likewise' (12:1-3, 29-30).

Hence, not only were the children of Israel to remain separate from the heathen and heterogenous, they were to destroy them ("…thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth" Deut 20:16) and all aspects and remnants of their cultures. Talk about ethnic cleansing and genocide! Destroy them—all of them—and then wipe out centuries of their cultural evolution so that it does not taint your ethos! Though the Mosaic Law does not get much worse than this, there are other explicit passages commanding ethnic segregation. Consider Deuteronomy 23:4

An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of the LORD for ever…

The passage continues by offering similar restrictions on Egyptians and Edomites. Naturally, as any racial thinking would, the Mosaic Law justifies its racism. It demonizes and criminalizes the first-nation peoples into child sacrificers and inhospitable ingrates. The critical mind today should think twice than to accept the Mosaic Law's self-exonerations for racism….we have moved beyond this.

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