Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Greek Heresy - translation of the first journal scroll - lessons in Alexandria

My husband was sent to Alexandria by our fathers to learn and become wise in the ways of the world, to become a leader of men and a great general of war.  No-one expected me to learn anything, I was simply there as his wife, sent to feed and serve him and my brother, who also accompanied us.  But during our first weeks, their fear of leaving me alone in a strange city caused them to keep me by their side and so they took me with them to the talks and lectures.  Only later did they realize that I too was learning, though it seems I tended to learn those lessons that they might have preferred me not to learn.  This was the first lesson I remember clearly, as the first step on my own road to knowledge and independence.
I don’t remember what the question was, but the teacher directed it at me.  He’d been answering a question from Yoshai and I hadn’t really been paying attention.  The newness of the city and the strangeness of being in a room full of people discussing great topics still left me overwhelmed.  That he directed his question to me surprised me so much I simply sat there with my mouth hanging open.
“Come child,” he said, “what do you think?” 
“It is as my husband says,” I stammered, madly trying to recall Yoshai’s last few words.  “It is written in the Torah and thus it is so.”
The man smiled, amused at my obvious nervousness but behaving as if I had given him the correct answer to a puzzle.  He was old, his face grizzled and wrinkled, burned dark by the desert sun, long hair grey and thin, but his voice was full of power.  When he spoke the entire room listened.
“If you will,” he said, addressing himself to me but including everyone else in the room as well, “I will tell you of one of the great Greek heresies.  Perhaps you could even call it ‘The’ Greek Heresy.”  He chuckled.  “Actually, though most priests label it so, it cannot be a heresy, for it has absolutely nothing to do with religion or the Gods.  No, it simply has to do with using the mind that your God, whatever you may see that to be, has given to you.”
“Allow me to introduce to you the fine art of ‘disputation’.  By its use you may even discover the purpose that God has for us.  First you ask a question.  There may be only a single answer to that question or there may be many.  It matters not.  The discussion of the possibilities is all that matters!  Let me see now.”  He paused for a moment, studying first me and then Yoshai.  “Here’s one for you!  Why does a tree grow?”
He looked at Yoshai.  “Well?  Why does a tree grow?”
Yoshai smiled self-confidently, brashly displaying the arrogance of youth and inexperience.  “Because God wills it so!”
“So!” Mercales, as I later learned was his name, smiled at Yoshai’s facile answer.  “Thus you will become disputant number one!” he said, pointing his finger at Yoshai.  “And you, young lady,” He pointed his finger at me with such suddenness I flinched back in my chair.  “you will be disputant number two!  You will each take opposing positions on the question.”
His attention on us had resulted in the rest of the people in the room shoving the chairs around and they now formed a loose circle about us.  Obviously they had seen this man’s lectures before.  Some smiled at me in sympathetic remembrance, some grinned in anticipation of a good show.  I cringed!  Never before had I had so much attention focused on me!  My skin prickled and I could feel the sweat beginning to trickle down the back of my neck. 
“Now, for the sake of the discussion let us set aside the concepts of right or wrong.  Let us review the question using our minds, what we can observe to happen in the real world and those things and ideas that we can test.”
“Your name, my dear, what is it?”
I glanced at Yoshai.  After a slight hesitation he nodded. 
“Miri.” I responded. 
Mercales cocked an eyebrow at me and smiled again.  He’d noticed my glance for permission and for some reason that made me blush.  I realized then that he was deliberately placing me in a position he knew I’d never been in before.
“Very well Miri. You will take the position that it is the sun and the rain that causes the tree to grow.  You, young man…?” 
“You, Yoshai, will defend your statement that God causes the tree to grow and that is sufficient in and of itself.  Each of you will attempt to convince the other of the strength of your position, with the goal, hopefully, that you will end up with an agreement of some sort.”
I sat, dumbfounded and mute.  All my life I had been taught to be obedient to the men of my family.  First my father and the priests, then my brothers and later my husband.  Yes, I’d followed my mother’s instruction too, but I’d known that she followed her husband’s.  My life so far had been based on doing what I was told, to speak only when spoken to and otherwise remain silent.  Never to speak out in public and never, ever talk back to a man!  Now this heretical Greek was suggesting I should argue with my husband.  I couldn’t!
“It’s alright, Miri.” said Yoshai quietly.  “We came here to learn new things, so let us play this game and see where it leads us.  Go ahead.”  He took my hand and squeezed gently, his other hand sweeping across the table towards Mercales, encouraging me to proceed.
“Well,” I said hesitantly, “the tree needs the sun to grow.”  I stopped and the silence of the crowd hung there, waiting for more.
Yoshai cut in smoothly to cover the quiet.  “In the Torah it states that all things come from God; the land, the plants, the animals, everything.  Everything follows his plan regardless of whether we understand it or not.  The rabbis’ teach us that everything we need to know about the world is written in the Torah.”
“But it needs the rain too,” I burst out,  “for without rain it will wither and die.”  I almost choked on the words.  I was arguing with him!
The discussion, such as it was, stalled again.  I could see Yoshai searching for a quote from the Torah.  I was thinking too, looking within myself for more.  It felt very strange.  Strange, but somehow pleasurable, exciting!  I could learn to like this feeling!
“Now,” commanded Mercales, “provide some tangible proof to support your statements!”
“Well…” said Yoshai, “The Torah contains the words of God, as given to his prophets.  It is God’s word and therefore it is truth.”
“But….”  I hesitated again.  Oh, this was hard, to actually speak out against my husband and in public too.  “But, if you plant a seed in dry soil it will not germinate.  If you don’t water it, it will not sprout and grow.”
Yoshai stared at me.  I’m not sure if he was more surprised that I had dared to speak out or that I could actually think it through.
“Excellent!” crowed Mercales, rocking backwards and forwards in his chair in glee, “Excellent!  You have defined two ways to test the truth of your statement.  Without sun or rain your tree will do nothing.  Provide sun and rain and the tree will spring to life and blossom!”
“On the other hand Yoshai, your side has a bit of a problem providing proof.  You cannot prove God’s will, for you can neither provide it nor withhold it.  Thus you cannot clearly demonstrate that the tree lives or dies because of God’s will or otherwise.  In truth, you can neither prove nor disprove the very basis of your argument, that there is a God, either one or many.  You stand entirely on a blind and unquestioning faith.  In the absence of such proof, your argument stands on a foundation of unknown quality.  Like a foundation set in loose sand it cannot safely be built upon.  On the other hand, Miri’s logic provides a clear demonstration of observable fact, that any person can in turn test and substantiate for themselves and thus it can be built upon.  Knowing a tree requires sun and rain to grow allows other statements to be made and tested.  A tree needs the sun and rain.  A tree is a plant.  Wheat in the field is also a plant, therefore we can suppose that the wheat also needs sun and rain to grow.  We can then test that supposition and build further.”  
“Thus, disputation gives rise to possible answers that can be tested against reality.  Those tested answers can then be used to ask other, bigger questions.   Is the sun and rain needed for a flower to grow?  What of a rock, a man, a nation?”
“Interestingly enough though, Miri’s logic is also entirely consistent with her God’s will and thus is not in the least bit heretical.  At no time does her testing of the suppositions ever violate her faith or adherence to her religious beliefs, whatever they may be.  Thus disputation and logic can live side by side with Yoshai’s faith in his God. Not heretical at all!”
The room was silent as he drained his mug with obvious satisfaction.
“And there,” Mercales licked his lips, “the lesson ends.  Thank you children and have a good evening.”  He gave us a courtly bow, nodded briefly to the rest of the class and walked away from our table.  Around us the others began to discuss the lesson.
I picked up my mug and raised it to my lips.  My hands were shaking so much the mug rattled against my teeth.  I peeked at Yoshai over the rim of the mug.  He looked back at me, his face unreadable.  I could almost hear his thoughts though, churning over and around, pondering that odd conversation.  I lowered my eyes.  We finished the rest of our wine in mutual hesitation and discomfort, talking haphazardly about nothings – how warm it was here, what lectures Yoshai would go to tomorrow, how Laz would have to accompany me to market tomorrow so I could buy food for our meals.
Inside I was shivering.  Never before had I spoken so!  Never before had I even thought such thoughts.  If I had done so at home I would have been sharply rebuked by every man around me and probably every woman as well.  Instead, here, Mercales had congratulated me on my reasoning, as if he was suggesting that I was right and my husband wrong.  I held tight to that feeling.  Perhaps our stay in Alexandria would give me more than I had ever dreamt possible.
I said nothing more that night, but I could see the evening had troubled Yoshai.  At first I thought he was angry with me, but he was so wrapped up in his own thoughts I doubt he even knew I walked by his side.  As we entered the house I heard him muttering to himself…. “So how can you clearly demonstrate God’s will?”

No comments:

Post a Comment