Sunday, January 22, 2017

Latter-day Khumrot and "Fences Around the Law"

Jesus disputed with the Pharisees over matters of the Law of Moses on a number of recorded occasions. (From
In Judaism exists the concept of the khumrot (חומרות), or proscriptions that are implemented to safeguard the halakhah (הלכה)–––the body of Jewish religious laws–––from being transgressed. The khumrot of Orthodox Judaism are not the laws themselves, but are instead measures taken to ensure the faithful do not even come close to breaking the laws.

Jewish khumrot have been articulated over time in response to a law given in Deuteronomy. "If you build a new house, you must construct a guard rail around your roof to avoid being culpable in the event someone should fall from it" (NET Deuteronomy 22:8). The Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 1.1) puts it this way:
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgement. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah. (ועשו סיג לתורה)
No less than the great Rabbi Akiva himself is quoted in the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 3.13) as insisting, "Tradition is a safety fence to Torah" (מסורת סייג לתורה). 

That believers would want to make "safety fences around the law" is completely understandable, and even commendable. It is wise to set boundaries and parameters that help us keep God's commandments. Jesus himself did exactly this with the commandments prohibiting murder (Matthew 5:21–26) and adultery (Matthew 5:27–30), in how we make oaths and vows (Matthew 5:33–37), in how we pray (Matthew 6:5–15), and with a host of other issues. 

At the same time, however, Jesus was not afraid to break down "fences around the law" that he felt were troublesome, burdensome, unnecessarily proscriptive, or missed the point of the original law entirely. For instance, Jesus and his disciples healed on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10–13; Mark 3:1–6; Luke 13:10–17) and worked for food on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1–9; Mark 2:23–28; Luke 6:1–12) in direct contradiction to the "fences around the law" (of keeping the sabbath holy) that his religious rivals and antagonists had established.

(To be sure, the rabbinical articulations of the khumrot postdate Jesus by some time, but the basic idea is still essentially the same.) 

While the impulse to build "fences around the law" is understandable and has merit, the problem believers quickly encounter is when they mistake the fences for the laws they are protecting. This was the problem Jesus had with his interlocutors who accused him of wrongdoing or transgressing God's commandments. Jesus' normal response was to point out their hypocrisy, since they themselves were, in his mind, no longer keeping the commandments out of devotion to God as much as they were obsessing over the man-made minutiae they themselves had accrued over centuries of tradition. 
Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others. Blind guides! You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel! (NET Matthew 23:23–24)
This impulse to build fences around the law, as well as the attending dangers of doing such, exists today. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have over time built their own "fences around the law." Individually, culturally, and institutionally.

A few examples will suffice. 

First, there is the cultural proscription against watching R-rated movies. This may doubtless seem pedantic to mention, but nowhere in the scriptures is watching R-rated movies condemned as sinful. Rather, the scriptures teach us to "stay away from every form of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:22) and seek after "anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy" (Article of Faith 13). 

In order to protect these scriptural teachings, Mormons have built a fence around the law by enacting cultural prohibitions against R-rated movies. Some enterprising Mormons have even devoted no small amount of time and labor to provide filtering services for movies that do all the work for you. With the click of a button you can remove all of the R-rated content found in movies. 

The rationale, of course, is that "anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy" won't include vulgarity, violence, sexuality, or other challenging or offensive content not deemed "wholesome" enough for viewing. Thus, R-rated movies are intrinsically off limits.

I need not spend too much time pointing out the many questions, problems, or ambiguities with this particular Mormon khumra. Others have done that already. (See the discussions, from different angles, here, here, here, here, and here.) What's important to point out for now is that many who raise the khumra against watching R-rated movies are confusing it with the scriptural teachings themselves.

Second, the Church has produced a pamphlet for teenagers that perfectly encapsulates both the wisdom and pitfalls of building fences around the law.

For the Strength of Youth could almost be read as a rabbinical tractate. It is filled with rules, regulations, and proscriptions for the Church's youth that, in theory, are meant to help them keep or otherwise interpret the commandments and live godly lives. These latter-day khumrot range from how and when to date, how to prevent situations where one might break the law of chastity, what media to watch (but notice it says nothing about R-rated movies!), what dress and speech is preferable and when, and how to observe the sabbath (sound familiar?).  

I want to emphasize that much in For the Strength of Youth is wise and helpful. I am by no means advocating that Church members just chuck the entire thing out the window. However, I personally know many members of the Church who have, it seems, mistaken the guidelines and counsel given in this publication for the commandments themselves. Additionally, I have read many accounts (including many that are horribly awkward or outright disturbing) of those who have had negative experiences in the Church because of members or leaders who demanded exacting or pharisaical interpretations of publications such as For the Strength of Youth (or the Church's Handbook).

If we are not diligent, we, like Jesus' antagonists, are at risk of confusing the weightier matters of the law with institutional and cultural accumulations that, while well-intended, can alienate and distress more than help.

To put a fine but quick point on it, I'll simply direct readers' attention to this blog post by a gay BYU alumnus. It's difficult for me to see how this particular fence around this particular law (the Law of Chastity) is helpful more than hurtful when it comes to LGBT members of the Church. 

Ultimately, I think the message of Jesus is to move beyond making fences around the law and become the kind of disciple where the fences aren't even necessary. "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48; cf. 3 Nephi 12:48). Of course, as fallible human beings living in a fallen world this will not be possible to do all at once, and not without the Saviour's help. 

But we can at least strive for it. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Social Deification in Ancient Egyptian and Mormon Theology

Detail of an image inside the tomb of Sennedjem, discovered at the necropolis of Deir el-Medina and dating to the 19th dynasty. Here Sennedjem is accompanied by his wife Lyneferti and wields the "sekhem-scepter, a symbol of power." (Image and description via Tour Egypt.)

The German Egyptologist Jan Assmann has some interesting observations about the ancient Egyptian conception(s) of death and the afterlife in his volume Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt (trans. 2005). In one section of his book Assmann discusses how death for the ancient Egyptians was in part conceived as social isolation both here and in the hereafter. Relationships, including relationships between family members and familial generations, were meant to endure beyond the grave. Separation or isolation from the family as well as the gods was a form of death that the Egyptians combated with an phalanx of myths and rites.

"As the ancient Egyptians understood it," writes Assmann, "a person lived in two spheres." These spheres were the "physical sphere" and the "social sphere," respectively. "In both spheres, the principle of connectivity worked to confer and maintain life, and correspondingly, the principle of disconnectivity threatened and wrought death" (p. 39).

Accordingly, the ancient Egyptians were obliged to maintain mortuary cults for their dead. This included not only performing careful and proper burials that equipped the dead with the appropriate funerary paraphernalia (funerary texts, amulets, shrouds, mortuary chapels, canopic jars, etc.), but also retaining the memory, dignity, honour, and especially name of the deceased through the maintenance of the funerary cult.

This, of course, is where modern people have (understandably, yet also erroneously) received the impression that the ancient Egyptians were "obsessed with death." Actually, the ancient Egyptians were obsessed with life and resurrection, and ensuring that life (including all the perks and benefits of having a physical body) would continue eternally beyond death.

As Assmann explains, this relationship between the living and the dead not only had precedent in the mythological realm with the relationship between Osiris and Horus (the latter being obliged to maintain the funerary cult and memory of the former), but was reciprocal in nature (pp. 41–52). That is to say, "Father and son are dependent on one another. They stand by one another, the one in the afterlife, and the other in this life. Such was the form of the contract between the generations" (p. 47). As the son maintained the funerary cult of his deceased father, and thereby ensuring the memory, honour, and name of the father would endure through endless generations, the father in return would intercede for his son on behalf of the gods.

This is most clearly seen in an Abydos temple inscription commissioned by Rameses II for his father Seti I. The text includes a dialogue between the father and son that includes the following (p. 51).

First, Ramesses says:
See, I keep your name alive, I have acted on your behalf!
... May you now say to Re:
"Grant a lifetime filled with jubilee festivals to King Ramesses."
It is good for you when I am king.
A good son is he who commemorates his father.
Seti replies:
Rejoice, my son, whom I love, King Ramesses!
...I shall say to Re with a loving heart:
"Grant him eternity on earth like Khepri!"
I repeat to Osiris, as often as I appear before him:
"Grant him double the lifetime of your son Horus!"
As such, Assmann stresses that death, at least on a metaphysical level, for ancient Egyptians included some idea of social and familial isolation. (Well-known are the wonderful Egyptian tales of the Shipwrecked Sailor and Sinhue, who both fear that their deaths in foreign, strange lands will separate them from their families and kinsfolk and will thus affect them negatively in the afterlife.) He explains:
It is easy to see that this concept of the person corresponded perfectly with the structure of a polytheistic religion. Deities, too, existed as persons in reciprocal relationships in which they acted on and spoke with one another. They were what they were as persons only with respect to one another. Constellative theology and anthropology mirror and model themselves on one another, stressing the ties, roles, and functions that bind the constituent members of the group. What they view as the worst evil are the concepts of isolation, loneliness, self-sufficiency, and independence. From their point of view, these are symptoms of death, dissolution, and destruction. Even for godhood, loneliness is an unbearable condition. (p. 57). 
Little wonder, then, that, as another Egyptologist has explained, "for the Egyptians, their relationship
with spouse, siblings, parents, children, ancestors, and descendants was of greatest consequence," and as such the Egyptians carried the "conviction that the family structure would continue after death." In short, Assmann contends, the ancient Egyptian mortuary cult had "the aim of reintegrating the deceased into a community that will take in the one who has been torn from the land of the living (p. 63).

All of this of course should resonate to Latter-day Saints. Drawing from the biblical tradition (Malachi 4:5–6; Hebrews 11:40), the Prophet Joseph Smith taught of "principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation" (Doctrine and Covenants 128:15). The entire purpose (the ultimate good or summum bonum as Joseph called it [v. 11]) of temple ordinances that seal and bind generations through work for the living and the dead (by proxy) was to effect a communal exaltation for God's children.
For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect. Neither can they nor we be made perfect without those who have died in the gospel also; for it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. (v. 18).
Hence the Prophet's insistence that exaltation could only be achieved through celestial marriage, or through the creation of eternal families that would see "a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever" (D&C 132:19; cf. 131:1–4).

And why not? After all, if "that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us [in the post-mortal world], only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy" (D&C 130:2), then the only anthropology and cosmology, it would appear, that could reasonably accommodate such would be ones that saw the perpetuation of families and kinships sealed together in eternal bonds.

This is of course a very hasty description of ancient Egyptian mortuary religion as well as Joseph Smith's Nauvoo-era theology concerning the role and purpose of sealings. Much more could be said about how practices such as plural marriage and the law of adoption factored into Joseph's sealing theology and praxis, for instance, to say nothing of the seemingly endless stream of research Egyptologists have written on almost every aspect of Egyptian funerary religion. Hopefully my description of both has been good enough to sufficiently illustrate the discernible parallels. To be sure, considerable differences in both theology and praxis exist between the two. And many of these ideas can be found elsewhere throughout the world. Ancestor worship, cults for the dead, reciprocal relationships between the living and the dead, intercession for the living by the dead, and so forth are present in many theological systems. These elements are not unique to the ancient Egyptians and modern Mormons. Nevertheless, enough parallels do exist to warrant mention and to invite consideration into how these two systems compare and contrast.

Inasmuch as Joseph Smith professed to be a restorer of primeval ordinances and lost truths, it is always exhilarating to hear faint echoes of the Prophet's teachings in the tombs and temples of Egypt. (Just ask Hugh Nibley!) Yet another reason, I suppose, to "become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people" (D&C 90:15), and "to obtain a knowledge of history" (D&C 93:53).