Friday, March 30, 2007

On TV: “Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites”

Last night on PBS, we watched “Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites,” a PBS documentary. In about three and a half hours, the stories of the Jews are re-told, using fairly lively mise-en-scènes, voiceovers of actors reading biblical passages, and commentary from on-screen experts who provide context and insights. We move from the calling out of Abraham, to the Exodus, to Mt Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, to the stories of David, to the Babylonian exile, to the return to Jerusalem, to the rise of the Pharisees, to the life of Jesus, to the destruction of the second temple, to the development of rabbinic Judaism and the Talmud, and to the growth of the Jewish Diaspora, fueled first by the Romans who expelled the Jews from Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple and then by Christians who became progressively more anti-Semitic as they sought to discredit and destroy Judaism, which they saw as a rival religion. The last section, “The Gifts of the Jews” shows how rabbinic Judaism with its emphasis on scripture study and vigorous debate about scripture’s meaning led to Judaism’s great gifts to the world: the rights of the individual and the rule of law.
This is not a conventional history about events, rulers, and dates although these themes are present. Instead the program focuses on how the telling of stories in a group can forge the group’s identity. In exile in Babylon, the Judeans from Jerusalem no longer had the temple as the center of their religious devotion, so, as not to lose their stories, they told them to each other and then wrote them down, beginning the development of the Hebrew Bible. When they returned to Jerusalem, they brought the stories with them and continued to tell them, even as the second temple became the center once more of Jewish devotion. With the destruction of the second temple, the teachers of scripture and tradition, the rabbis, realized slowly that if the Jews were to survive it would be as a people who followed the God brought to life through the stories in the Book, the Bible. So the Jews wherever they found themselves were the People of the Book.
The modern, almost Non-Realistic sensibility of the commentators was made clear by their pointing out that when the Temple stood, God was thought to be “really” present in the Temple. However, with the destruction of the Temple, where was God? The commentators suggest that in doing the will of God, particularly for others and, particularly for the most vulnerable in society, the “widow, the orphan, and the stranger,” we manifest God to ourselves and to others. So, by performing the commandants, we “re-present” God. The stories may indicate the God is “above the sky,” but we only experience God through performing and receiving acts of justice and mercy. This a great gift of understanding, indeed.


Alex said...

This issue has brought the kooks out of the woodwork, as seen here.


Franklyn Springfield said...

Very interesting point about the early Jews and non-realism. But how about the Christians? Are not many of the elements of modern Christian church ritual suggestive of just the opposite? What else is the Eucharist but a demonstration of realistic religion? And could it be that that difference, along with wanting to get rid of the competition, is part of the structural anti-semitism of the institutional Christian church?