Tales of the Middle East

In addition to a sweatshirt for my sister (only $19. 77) and a book of poems ($2. 00), I got an awesome book called Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving at the St. Ben’s bookstore Valentine’s Day sale. It cost me one dollar (that’s cheaper than a bottle of soda at Sexton). It is a collection of historic Spanish tales that Irving encountered while staying at the Alhambra, a huge Moorish fortress in Granada, during the early 19th century. A couple years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Alhambra during a trip to Spain, which grants these tales special importance to me.

Now, the fortress is filled with exciting activity in my mind. The building has become important to me, now that it is associated with both my adventure to Spain and these thrilling legends. Jews (especially those in Israel) must feel the same way when they read their Scriptures. Every day, they literally walk on the same ground where legendary Biblical stories took place. Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac right up the road. Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt and set up camp right here! Joseph was sold as a slave right down the street; his family lived a block away.

Elijah used to hang out with his buddies in that field across the street. My experience differs from that of the Jews, though; I don’t worship the people in Tales of the Alhambra. I know that the stories aren’t real, even though they are important. I value reality enough to turn elsewhere for spiritual connections. Judaism’s spiritual connection to legendary stories contrasts the realistic modern-day implementation of its fundamental beliefs. Biblical stories are important not because they are real, but because they convey a symbolic or metaphorical message.

I know that. But if that is true, then it is also true that there is symbolic or metaphorical value in the laws of God laid down in Leviticus and Numbers, right? Despite the ‘value’ of these books, Jews certainly do not demand that a sinner repent by slaughtering a bull’s head as specified in Leviticus. In fact, Jews have been extremely progressive in their adaptations of Scriptural ‘laws. ‘ In the Jewish community one can encounter female rabbis, married couples using birth control, and in some movements an abandonment of the laws of kosher.

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These are just the beginning of the myriad realistic modern implementations of Jewish beliefs. It is very interesting to me that these quasi-liberal faith practices come out of the most ancient of Western religions. Christianity (especially Catholicism) is trailing far behind Judaism in terms of adapting its teachings to the realities of the modern world. Ironically, Christ was a real guy, who walked and talked and worked his magic thousands of years after legends of Adam, Noah or Abraham were born.

Christianity’s history is shorter and based on real historical figures, but its modern practices are more unrealistic than those of Jews. To the economic detriment of the Catholic Church, women are not yet allowed to enter the priesthood. Despite widespread (and, in my opinion, practical) use of birth control by Catholics, the practice is still denounced by Church officials. Adam and Eve and Noah and Abraham and Moses and Joseph and all those folks weren’t real! They are tremendously important characters from legendary stories, but their existence has always been historically fictitious.

The evolution theory trumps creation. The story of Noah and the flood was stolen from the Gilgamesh Epic. There are no records in Egypt of a mass exodus of Hebrew slaves or of a multi-colored coat-wearing dream interpreter. And for crying out loud, the Red Sea cannot suddenly be parted! I’m not saying by any means that all Jews believe in the historical reality of these stories, because most probably don’t. But it was through these stories that their tradition was born, thousands and thousands of years ago.

In my mind, Judaism is made all the more dynamic when its legendary historical roots are compared to its modern application. Reciprocally, Catholicism disappoints me for abandoning its realistic beginnings for its currently outdated other-worldly approach to faith. In the end, it turns out that Jews are not always more committed to reality than Christians, since their Scriptural stories are far from realistic. Jews are, however, more committed to keeping their faith progressive and successful in the modern world. Moses would be proud, if he had existed.