What’s a Pharisee? If your answer is based on Christian tradition, then you will have a picture of a hypocrite obsessed with pointless regulations, very like Major Frank Burns. Like most such one-sided pictures, this vilification stems from a grudge; to see how, a little background is necessary.
In the 1st century CE, there were several groups competing for the hearts and minds of the Jewish people: The Sadducees focused on the ancient tradition of rituals at the Temple in Jerusalem, led by a hereditary priesthood. The followers of Jesus formed a new Jewish movement that you’re probably familiar with already. And there was also a movement that shifted away from the Temple and towards the idea that each household was a kind of temple, a center of holiness and purity, maintained by the family members rather than priests. These “Pharisees” were led by teachers (“rabbis”) and met in local gathering-places (“synagogues”). The Sadducees were perhaps yesterday’s news already, but they suffered a crippling blow when the Romans crushed a Jewish rebellion and razed the Temple to the ground. You can see how the ideology of the Pharisees would be attractive to people trying to lead a Jewish life with no Temple; they also had some advantages over the Jesus movement, one of which was perhaps that the followers of Jesus kept predicting the end of the world and it kept not happening.
So by the 80s, when the Gospels were being written, it was clear that the Pharisees were the new mainstream of Judaism, and the Evangelists, being rather sore losers, smuggled their anger and frustration back into the time of Jesus; the new religion turned its attention increasingly to recruiting Gentiles, while the Pharisaic tradition became the foundation of modern Judaism.
One of the two great founders of the Pharisaic movement was a rabbi named Hillel, who was famous for his belief in simplicity. One day someone challenged him, “Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel replied, “‘What is hateful to you, do not do it to others.’ The rest is commentary.”
I’m torn about this. I want to say wait a minute, if you open the Pentateuch, you could spend hours wading through floods, plagues, begats, interior decorating advice, prescriptions for genocide, and so on, before you get to anything about peace and love and the Golden Rule. That said, if you find yourself belonging to a group whose holy book is full of the stuff I just listed, what better strategy than to make it about love? Of course, you may have to pitch some of it, and twist the meaning of the rest, but fidelity to humane values is more important than fidelity to an old text, right?
Many interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have shown amazing creativity in making the Bible say something useful to their own place and time. Here is a story that Karen Armstrong, in her The Bible: A Biography, tells about the great Midrashic rabbi Akiva:
Rabbi Akiva perfected this innovative Midrash. His pupils liked to tell a story about him: The fame of Rabbi Akiba’s genius reached Moses in Heaven, and one day he decided to come down to earth to attend one of his classes. He sat in the eighth row behind the other students, and, to his dismay, found that Rabbi Akiba’s exposition was incomprehensible to him, even though it was said to have been part of the revelation he had received on Mt. Sinai. “My sons have surpassed me,” Moses mused ruefully but proudly as he made his way back to Heaven. But why, he asked, had God entrusted the Torah to him when he could have chosen a man of Akiba’s intellectual stature?
According to Armstrong, there were rabbis who maintained that any interpretation that did not promote love and harmony among humans was a false interpretation. This seems pretty extreme, but then, who among us, talking about Othello, feels compelled to interpret it only in ways Shakespeare would have approved of?
Early Christians also found aspects of Scripture rather hard to assimilate, and often turned to allegory, for example interpreting Abraham’s abandonment of his wife and son (Hagar and Ishmael) in the wilderness as the Christian’s necessary abandonment of the old Jewish Law in favor of the New Testament. This smacks of a nasty colonizing attitude, but allegory also has its liberating side, as you can see from the 2nd-century exegete Origen (also quoted from Armstrong):
Divine wisdom has arranged for certain stumbling blocks and obstructions of the historical sense by inserting in the midst a number of impossibilities and incongruities, in order that the narrative might, as it were, present a barrier to the reader and lead him to refuse to proceed along the pathway of the ordinary meaning. These difficult passages bring us, through the entrance of a narrow footpath, to a higher and loftier road, precisely by shutting us out and debarring us from an acceptance of their plain sense.
Origen makes the recalcitrant aspects of Scripture sound almost like Zen koans, designed to derail your ordinary logical modes of thought and bump you into another way of seeing, a kind of interpretive ecstasy (ekstasis = being out of place, literally beside yourself). Of course, where you take this freedom is up to you, whether in the direction of peach and charity or elsewhere, but given our current experience with fundamentalist literalism, allegory seems like a better bet.
I’ll leave you, on this Valentine’s Day, with Leonard Cohen:
You don’t know me from the wind
you never will, you never did
I’m the little Jew
that wrote the Bible
I’ve seen the nations rise and fall
I’ve heard their stories, heard them all
but love’s the only engine of survival