A Murder At Qumran

“He won. Get over it.”

These were the last words of The Prophet at dinner before he’d slunk off to smoke his Lucky Strikes at the cave entrance, leaving the rest to clean up what was left of the spit-roasted carob. Then they’d all retired to their own chambers with little discussion (if they discussed in any context other than mealtime they quickly ran out of things to say). Or so they thought until they found The Prophet at breakfast time, slumped over the large, flat boulder they used for a table, mouth clotted with dried blood, quite dead.

A brief inspection found he had been shot in the stomach with a silver bullet. The Scholar and The Jester wasted no time rushing to The Sage’s chambers despite his mumbled protest. But a quick search of his possessions, few and esoteric, revealed to be missing the holy man’s six-shooter, which he swore to have last seen beside his sleeping head.

The three eyed each other with suspicion; either the sage was lying or another had stolen the gun. This was quite possible; righteousness sleeps heavy but is furious when roused. The Scholar demanded to search The Jester’s small nook with its fingerpainted walls and he, in turn, demanded to run his knobbly fingers behind each of The Scholar’s bookshelves looking for the murder weapon, and so the sun already touched the common room by the time they shoved Prophecy’s cool corpse to the floor and The Jester began to fry carobs for their breakfast (since it was his turn). He whistled while he worked the pan and The Sage and The Scholar that once they ate his cooking they’d have trouble taking anything seriously for several hours.

The Sage tried to pray as The Scholar paced across the cave entrance, stroking his substantial grey beard where it protruded from his hood. He walked to the left, all the while looking at The Prophet’s corpse, then, once he’d left the sun’s light, would turn on his heel and walk right, staring across the blasted plain to the distant silver glimmer of the sea. He had been doing this every morning for a very long time and had rarely seen the sign of life, though occasionally a very sweaty archeologist would walk by without sparing the spindly old man or the gaping cave the slightest glance. That morning, however, there was only the sun, and the wind, and the sea. Solid and eternal, as all things ought to be. The Scholar paused at this thought and harrumphed. Behind him, the slightest of furrows crossed The Sage’s bald brow. The Scholar thought once more and harrumphed once more.

The Sage’s left eye sprung open, full of fire, though he did not shift from his balance upon the stool. “What,” he asked, full of, of all things, impatience, “is it?”

“It’s just,” said The Scholar, running his sandal along the groove his pacing had worn in the brown rock, “none of us had ever died before.” He looked uneasily between his two remaining companions (The Jester was juggling spoons) and added, “Have we?”

Their memories were notoriously jumbled, or at least, so he recalled, but he knew they had set out together, the four of them, a long time ago to do something terribly important, but then they were in a cave where the only thing that remained consistently true was that it was impossible for any of them to leave. He had been here long enough to wear down the stone (though, oddly, never his sandals) with his pacing, and now The Prophet was no longer.

The Sage and The Jester were never quite as bothered by the inconsistencies, though for different reasons, and even though The Sage shook his head in agreement and The Jester shrugged among his spoons, they hardly seemed moved by the violent turn of events. The Sage said something under his breath about different unfoldings of the One Eternal Truth and went back to his prayer.

Later, when most of the carobs were finished and the day was unbearably hot and flies, somehow able to enter the cave, had begun to swarm The Prophet’s decaying remains, The Scholar said, “How will we know when the flood is coming this year?” He knew many things, but the weather was not knowable, and to survive the sudden waters of winter they had always relied on The Prophet’s warning and spent weeks trying to remember how to breathe water, The Jester always seeming to struggle ’til the last moment before pulling through. Now they would not know, and the waters might catch them by surprise. Even The Sage preferred not to drown.

The Jester belched, but when he did so it wasn’t ugly but rather the very joy of a fine meal. He said in his sing-song voice, “There’s no Prophet, so no rain either. Dry, dry, dry, all the way down to the end of the road!” His words, combined with his cooking, sent his compatriots into fits of giggles, not because anything was funny but because life was grand and they were at the center of it and what could ever happen?

The sun was well past its zenith when The Sage sobered and, still lying on his cot, began to tinker with his favorite toy, a small pebble that “equaled,” in some mysterious act of interentanglement, anything in the Universe. He knew that the author of this story had read Borges because the pebble had once equaled the author, so he knew not to called it the Aleph for fear of being called unoriginal. The pebble allowed, through its deep window into the unity of all realities, to see how the temporal and the particular reflect the transcendent eternal and at that moment he suddenly remembered the last supper the night before, The Prophet before his betrayal.

The Prophet had been wearing atop his hood a strange red hat with a broad bill he’d produced from his chambers. This itself was ordinary, as The Prophet was always producing odd objects and ideas he had foreseen. But then The Prophet had prophesied, and a great argument ensued, with The Scholar growing louder and louder and The Jester alternating between a cackle and a whimper and eventually he’d blocked them out because he needed to pray and escape the pettiness of their collective presence.

The Prophet had always understood how right and wrong lay under all questions and had never acted with anything other than the utmost rectitude. The Jester, thought The Sage, is mercurial, hard to predict, and an old enemy, but he loves life. No, only The Scholar knows death, and could use his wisdom to conceal a firearm, and hated The Prophet for his stupid hat. The Scholar is the murderer, and that’s that, he thought. Evil will grow even in the desert. The pebble showed him that his conclusion was true in all possible worlds.

The Jester, meanwhile, drew dirty pictures in charcoal on a freshly-washed section of his bedroom wall. The primitive skeletons were particularly crude, and above his goat beard the trickster’s face was twisted in a rare frown. He had quite liked The Prophet, who had smelled so much of the life-scent of the world and always produced the most colorful souvenirs from across the times. The Jester loved the tin soldier and the aquamarine ankh and Stretch Armstrong. It was hard for him to even imagine one of his friends hurting The Prophet who knew so much of life. The very thought warmed his blood. They stole the joy. They stole the love. Sounds like The Sage, he thought to himself. Rules and sanctimony. But, he thought, spinning in circles for emphasis, The Scholar had his rules, too, and not rules about killing, either. The Sage had his limits but knew the ultimate futility of making things fit. The Scholar had no such qualms. “Hm,” he said, sketching an obscene symbol with his finger. “Wherein lies death?”

The Scholar, for his part, was frustrated that he’d written no records of the previous night’s debate, and his memories were slipping from him like an eagle loosing from its perch. There had been an argument, certainly, but he hadn’t murdered The Prophet, for two reasons: (1) He had no reason to disrespect The Prophet, no matter how unreasonable his sight may have been; on the contrary, the prophecy was in some sense the highest form of wisdom. (2) It would be unreasonable to murder any of his friends; this just meant more work for him, and besides, what rational basis was there for such an unprecedented occurence even being possible? Clearly they had lived far beyond the usual years so far…No, it was certainly the others, though they may not realize they don’t even remember it. But which one, and where would they hide they gun? Who could be so foolish?

Supper was a sullen affair and, they slowly came to realize, a contingent one. The Prophet no longer existed to know what would take place in advance, which led them to wonder whether any of it needed to take place at all. The Scholar’s carob soup made them thoughtful and quiescent. The Sage discoursed upon righteousness and the escape of the self through obeisance. The Jester picked his nose and recited a list of his favorite textures to rub against his cheek. The Scholar wondered whether everything could fit together after all and whether he could prevent any future murders, working, as now he must, from uncertainty.

It was only a week later, after The Jester had held a knife wide-eyed to the Scholar’s throat, shouting, “You kill! You kill!” that they thought to check The Prophet’s own room. There, among far fewer possessions than they remembered their friend owning, on the center of an inexplicable plywood desk, sat the gun, pinning under its weight a note to the table. Written in carob oil on goatskin, it said quite simply that he had received word of a great temple’s destruction and the end of an age and that the time of “must be” was giving way to “can be” and that though they could no longer predict the floods, the three of them together would perhaps learn to breathe, and that this cooperation would be good, far better than what is certain in its own right. Somehow, it said, they, too, were supposed to become necessary.

So that night they turned to one another with a newfound humility and respect, aware for the first time that themselves was not all they could be, while outside on the dusty plain with its freshly dug grave, hidden, for the moment, from all the armies of men, the first drops of rain began to fall.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 7)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

In part 6 of our near-endless (but 3/4 finished!) examination of fun and educational ideas I’ve heard from atheists about G-d and religion, we spoke about whether G-d is merely a crutch for those who cannot deal with real life.

Today we continue in the vein of arguments that totally circumvent our rational side and go straight for our gut — and teach us something along the way.

7. “G-d is a killer of millions.”

There is a certain Jewish-flavored shower thought I’ve entertained a few times. It goes like this: There is a general principle in Judaism that G-d only gives us commandments he Himself keeps. How, then, does it rain so often on Shabbos, a day when we are forbidden to water the plants ourselves?

There is a right way and a wrong way to answer this question.

The wrong way: Of course we’re being non-literal when we say G-d keeps the commandments. This dodge, the “it’s all just a metaphor” maneuver, has the advantage of producing sweet, lofty thoughts that happen to not be true. That’s why it is so popular. With metaphor, we can basically affirm what we like and worry how it fits into received truth later. By the power of metaphor, everything will always fit. Why even bother with “G-d keeps his own commandments”? It’s just another way of saying G-d doesn’t lie or G-d’s a good guy or history is deterministic or our morality is G-d-given or a thousand other things I didn’t think of in the last twenty seconds. This is nice for speculative analysis or Shabbos table talk but it does not reflect a concern for what the original statement actually intended.

The correct (and, to my mind, far simpler) way of answering the plant-watering question is to contemplate the premise of the question: that rain is somehow similar to us watering plants on Shabbos.

“What do you mean? It’s water. Going into plants. Equals watering plants.”

I’m not so sure, myself.

After all, at what point did we so limit rain and so promote our own abilities that we can even imagine anything we do approaches the verb “to rain”? If water onto ground is somehow a sufficient description for rain, then perhaps stepping on a nail is surgery or taking pain pills is fine dining. Whence this ignorance of context, intent, scope, and agency? The truth is, we have no idea what it means to rain, as a transitive verb. We are ignorant of gathering moisture on a vast scale into clouds and manipulating pressure systems and stacking them up in threatening towers of thunder and sending the gathered waters hurtling toward the ground as a billion translucent spears, clearing the air and washing the earth and giving all manner of creature their life’s sustenance. The subjective experience of making this happen is beyond us. And forgetting this ignorance is the only way to think rain compares to anything we are forbidden to do on Shabbos. “If there is H2O descending it must be the same.”

Technical physical comparison is the grossest sort of comparison we can make here, and even what is comparable is utterly beneath a true understanding of the creator.

Theists certainly should not think like this.

But if you can’t even grasp the difference between watering plants and creating a thunderstorm, you can’t expect to answer correctly when someone points out, “Your G-d is a killer of millions, master of torture and death.”

Here’s the wrong response: “Those deaths are only caused by man’s evil,” or, “G-d is allowed to kill; He is G-d, after all,” or any other dodge of the fact that G-d directly causes all of the death and suffering in the world. These answers are all good but they accept the false, unreflective premise that merely being the cause of death makes someone a killer or their act killing.

In truth, we must remember that we know nothing of the subjective experience of the Almighty. To liken him too much to us is to break all boundaries of reason.

Dear Society: Stop Killing; Start Murdering

Murder.

The word has a certain poetry to it, power and dark intention.

We’ve lost faith in murder.

Oh, we still  value violence. When Hamas launches rockets or a new terror stirs in Iraq and Syria, we respond. Sometimes we preempt. If it’s kill or be killed, we know where we stand. We still (on the whole) think that those who live by the sword must die by the sword.

The sword isn’t the problem. It’s the swordsman that eludes us.

Death is not murder. Neither is manslaughter. To kill in self-defense is not murder. Murder, (n): killing that’s against the law, or in other words, killing that deserves punishment.

And we don’t believe in murder.

* * *

Consider Cain and Abel, a story at the beginning of the source text of Western Civilization, the text some say we must abandon to be enlightened.

Cain and Abel, brothers who sacrifice for the creator, Abel with his flock, Cain with his crop. G-d prefers Abel’s offering. Cain gets jealous. G-d encourages Cain: “You didn’t do well this time, but you can improve.” He warns Cain: “Watch out! Your desires crouch and wait to drag you down.” Cain kills Abel. G-d punishes Cain.

G-d punishes Cain?!

What did Cain ever do to deserve punishment?

* * *

Imagine it just made headlines, 2014. What does it sound like? We don’t know how old Cain and Abel were at the time. They’re brothers. Maybe it happened at school. In America, we’re familiar with this kind of thing.

A sorrowful anchor describes the carnage at the murder scene. A reporter interviews sullen grey-faced witnesses. Back to the studio. What caused this tragedy, who’s to blame, and how might we fix it? Bring on the talking heads.

Head One: “It’s a problem of the brain chemicals, you see. If Cain were on the right meds, he wouldn’t have anger problems, and Abel would’ve lived to sire children.”

Head Two: “Property is the issue – if there had been no disparity in the brothers’ possessions, there would be no cause for jealousy and no cause for death.”

Head Three: “Wake up, sheep! It’s religion at the heart of man’s woes. This was the first religious conflict in history. Cain killed over G-d. Remove the poisonous influence of religion, and peace shall return!”

Head Four: “This tragedy lies at the feet of agriculture. If only Cain were a shepherd like his brother, or a hunter-gatherer…”

Head Five: “If there had been no rock[1] with which to bash in the victim’s head, this terrible act would never have happened. Our hearts go out to Adam and Eve, and they will appear on our show tomorrow to discuss a ban on rocks in the vicinity of humans.”

Head Six: “You’re all geographically illiterate. Look at a map, people. This took place in the Middle East. Cain was expressing his righteous anger over the injustice of western imperial colonialism. And Israel. It’s always Israel.”

Head Seven: “You know, I agree with my colleagues, but they lack depth. None of the above reasons would bring him to slay his brother. It’s family life that’s to blame. It is the struggle for parental affection that taught Cain jealousy. View G-d as a proxy mother and you see the source of the anger.”

To the experts, Cain’s decision was a predetermined step in a causal chain that regresses to the birth of the universe. If they believe in Cain’s free will, they don’t see how it’s different than any other step in the process that  slays Abel: (1) there is a difference in their property, (2) brain chemicals mix, (3) Cain makes a choice, (4) he picks up the murder weapon – deal with any one of them, and you’ll fix the problem. There is nothing deserving punishment here. There is simply a sequence of events, of causes and their effects. One domino hits a second hits a third and then there is not enough oxygen in Abel’s brain and the reporters come swooping in, no doubt in the throes of their own causal sequences involving the ambulance chasing gene and the economic currents that force enterprising young people into journalism school.

There is death on the news. There is no murder.

* * *

There is, of course, another opinion, not Head Eight but rather Head Zero, representing the majority view of humanity for the past two millennia, though perhaps not for the past two decades.

Head Zero: “Cain murdered Abel as an act of will. G-d told him he could either improve, or be lost to blood lust. He chose the latter, even though he had the ability to overcome it. And G-d punished him.”

Head Zero actually reads what’s written in the text – “Is it not so that if you improve, it will be forgiven you? If you do not improve, however, at the entrance, sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it.” Simple as that. No mention of Cain’s circumstances, of weapons or family.

Why doesn’t this version make the news?

Perhaps it isn’t newsworthy, since Head Zero doesn’t give us any advice on how to solve the problem. She doesn’t explain how to rearrange society. She appears to throw up her hands and say, “Humans are evil. That’s just the way we are, and nothing can solve it.”

But that’s only a surface understanding. Though all Western religions agree with Head Zero, they do not advocate nothing. Rather, their solution is internal, and must take place within the individual.

The strangest thing: by saying humans are evil, Zero is the most uplifting of all the heads. The modern theories rob the individual of his agency by aiming at externalities. They tell him he is at the whim of powers beyond his control. Just like Cain’s bad upbringing and his low self-esteem, there is an entire matrix of causes, an extensive sociopsychobiohistorical calculus that explains why you just cut someone off on the highway, and that (we might as well say) makes it impossible for you not to cut someone off. It is not your fault. If we want to fix road rage, we must go back to first causes, etc. You are perfect, just the way you are. Until society ruins you.

Head Zero (aka Torah, aka common sense a hundred years ago) says it is your fault. Next time, exert some intellect and some will, and don’t cut him off.

Head Zero terrifies us.

She suggests that the key is education, of ourselves and of our children. Not in math or science, but in right and wrong. We need not await Utopian changes or a doctor’s prescription; we need not protest or raise awareness. We can fix it now, by fixing ourselves. The lessons of self-control and forgoing immediate gratification will solve more than a thousand political protests.

This is challenging, since we’ve been inundated with anti-Zero propaganda from childhood (why this is so is a discussion fraught with many talking heads themselves advocating external solutions to this problem). We don’t want to fix ourselves. We want the world to change. We want to have a fairer lot, a better chance, an easier job. Down with the CEOs, the white man, the black man, Coke, Apple, Microsoft, my next door neighbor, and the government. Let them change.

But the world is a closed system, and exporting responsibility has consequences, namely, the trademark of 21st-century consciousness: merciless, unyielding, abject, nihilism. By shifting obligations from ourselves onto others, we lose our sense of purpose. We feel powerless and irrelevant. We are reduced to screaming about what’s wrong, instead of quietly making ourselves right.

There are only two types of people who aren’t blown away by the meaninglessness of living in 2014:

(A) Those who don’t shift responsibility. (The elderly/old souls. See: your grandparents)

(B) Those who spend a little time every day convinced they’re fixing the external causes of their problems, i.e. everyone else. (See: Social Justice Warriors, Militant Freegans, Nazis, Communists, the guy at Shul who’s way too into politics, etc.)

Type (A) is less annoying,

* * *

Cain is not a victim of circumstance. He is a human being who makes decisions. And because he is human, he fails. And because he fails, he is human. For if he fails, that means he could have succeeded. We have the ability to not murder, not just the ability to not kill. We can fail, or we can succeed.

It is in our hands.

And that is a heartening thing.

 


[1] Head Five is a bit of an ignoramus, since the Midrash says Cain killed Abel by slitting his throat, and the Zohar says Cain bit Abel like a snake. But he’s a talking head on the news; what did you expect?

 

Image from Flickr.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.