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Thought for the Day: Origins of the Most Populous of the Reform Jewish Religions

The Torah says we are not allowed to learn about other religions to do them.  Rashi comments that it is forbidden to learn about foreign religions to do them, but you are allowed to learn about them just to know their history and development.  So I asked R' Fuerst if that was l'ma'aseh; he responded, "Yes, as soon as you've mastered Shas and poskim."  Ah.  As it turns out, though, that's not the end of the story for me; R' Yisroel Belsky (who has mastered Shas and poskim, as well as almost everything else as far as I can tell) has some very interesting insights on the development of the most successful (in terms of membership, at the very least) of the Reform Jewish religions: Christianity.  Three points in particular I found interesting: origin of the person around whom the religion is built, how did he get rocketed to infamy, and why does the mother occupy such a central role (at least in the original Roman version).

First there is the conception, rise, and tragic downfall of the central character.  There are various renderings of the story of his ignominious conception; the details are interesting, but not germane.  However, this mamzer (the child born of the union of a married woman and anyone other than her husband) had a good head on his shoulders and was very likely a talmid of R' Yehushua ben P'rachya.  On of the hallmarks of our Chazal was there outstanding moral character; this talmid once made a very low remark about a waitress and was rejected by his rebbie.  R' Yehushua ben P'rachya tried to m'karev him, but to no avail.  That man was eloquent, knew some Torah, felt rejected as a mamzer and now as a talmid, so went preaching his own version of religion and was eventually killed by the Romans.  Oh... by the way, that all occurred almost 200 years before his religion got started.

To spin this story into a religion, you need a master marketer on a mission.  Enter Saul the Moches -- tax collector.  In those days a tax collector was a person who bought the right to collect taxes by paying the king/lord/whatnot up front and then squeezing whatever he could out of the masses.  Some mochsim were very good, but the office lent it self to abuse; our Saul was not one of the good ones.  Apparently he felt that he could get better traction being a man of the cloth; so he wove himself a new one.  He had a vision of our mamzer from 200 years earlier and began selling his new religion to the Jews.  They weren't buying, so he went to the goyim and changed the first letter of his name to 'P'.  Still... he needed something to punch up the message... a symbol that was recognizable, familiar, and easily co-opted to a new meaning.

By that time in Roman history, the old avoda zara's were quite passe.  The gods had more or less the status of Santa Claus (though warped, of course).  However, there was a very comforting theme that ran through them... a mother nursing her baby.  The mother represented the earth (our word "matter" comes from the same root as "mother") and the baby represented mankind.  To turn the earth into the loving mother nourishing her beloved child from her own bosom was the goal of most of the old avoda zara's.

There you have it: rejected underdog, master marketing, and a symbol of loving warmth and nourishment.  Brings a tear to your eye, no?  Who wouldn't buy that package?  Unless, of course, you prefer Truth and a real relationship with the Creator; the ultimate source of all Good.

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