Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus


Posted on: May 5, 2023

It’s standard on discursive social media to be contemptuous of religious belief and I’ve been told, ‘It doesn’t matter what sky fairy you believe in; it doesn’t give you the right to do x, y or z.’ When mention of the ‘sky fairy’ comes my way, the antagonist tends to be referring to the God of Judaism, who has seventy-two names, none of which is ‘sky fairy’.

The number seventy-two has special but disputed significance in Islam also: the reward of seventy-two virgins for righteous men in Paradise, a concept sometimes mocked by unbelievers.

Seventy-two is the number of putative translators of the Hebrew bible into the Greek Septuagint, commissioned by Ptolemy II of Egypt in the third century BCE. The number, being divisible by twelve, allows for equal representation from each of the tribes of Israel. According to The Letter of Aristeas, cited by Josephus, the translators arrived independently at word for word identical translations, a miracle which conferred authority on the Septuagint.

Miracles no longer impress non-believers and, when one reads of the apostasy with the golden calf, it seems that miracles did not even make a lasting impression on those who witnessed them, during the Exodus from Egypt.

The belittling of religion does not always come from confirmed atheists. I have recently had sightings online of anti Jewish posts expressing an archaic Christian view, calling Jews ‘Christ killers’ and ‘the Devil’s spawn’. Someone replied that Pope Benedict XVI repudiated the concept of Jewish guilt for deicide. They received a surprisingly sectarian response asserting that Pope Benedict had no authority and was presently in hell.

The Coronation looms of King Charles III, an Anglican Christian who has expressed determination to be the defender of the diverse faiths of the British Isles.

It is our duty to protect the diversity of our country, including by protecting the space for Faith itself and its practice through the religions, cultures, traditions and beliefs to which our hearts and minds direct us as individuals.

King Charles, September 2022

Ten years earlier, in 2012, Queen Elizabeth addressed a gathering at Lambeth Palace, saying that Anglicanism ‘has a duty to protect the free practice of all other faiths in this country’.

It was not inevitable that a monarch would take this enlightened view, which brought the UK into the twenty-first century with the toleration of diversity as an ideal, incorporated into the status quo. For centuries, people were executed by the State for religious differences and, in parts of the world, are still condemned as heretics against the prevailing secularity or religion. The particularity and exclusivity of each religion appalls the others, who find themselves written off as diabolical, unsaved or unchosen.

A midrash in the Babylonian Talmud tells that Moses saw God adding tagim – a calligraphic flourish used by Torah scribes – to letters of scripture.

When Moses ascended on High, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah.

Menachot 29b

Anthropomorphisms occur frequently in midrash and regularly even in Tanakh. In this instance, God is engaged in the meticulous work of a scribe, writing in the Hebrew language. It is said, also in the Talmud Bavli, that God puts on tefilin, like an orthodox Jewish man.

Rabbi Avin bar Rav Adda said that Rabbi Yitzḥak said: From where is it derived that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wears phylacteries? As it is stated: “The Lord has sworn by His right hand, and by the arm of His strength” (Isaiah 62:8). Since it is customary to swear upon holy objects, it is understood that His right hand and the arm of His strength are the holy objects upon which God swore.

Berakhot 6a

Imitatio Dei, the imitation of God, is a precept in both Christianity and Judaism. The Sermon on the Mount includes the words:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Matthew 5:48

and from Saint Luke:

Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.

Luke 6:36

The imitation of God tends to involve postulating something about God which is often imitatio hominum. In the second paragraph of the daily Hebrew prayer, the Amidah, we say of God:

You support the falling and heal the sick. You free prisoners and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust.

Seder Ha T’filot, Reform Judaism

This can work as a to do list to inspire ethical behaviour, but it is behaviour we are fortunate enough to witness, among other people.

Consensuses – of religious authorities or of a crowd – can determine the nature of belief and the language of prayer but still each person has a lone voice. Particularism can have more appeal than universalism because the person at prayer sometimes wants to be alone with God, for God to hear their voice and attend to their particular needs.

This is seen in the Psalms where the first person singular predominates, in I – Thou discourse, the authorship of which is attributed to King David and, in the later psalms, the Levites of the Second Temple.

The Hebrew hymn Adon Olam, which is often the concluding song of a service, begins by citing the ineffable and infinite nature of the Master of the Universe but pivots from transcendence to immanence in the penultimate verse:

This is my God, who saves my life,

The Rock I grasp in deep despair,

The flag I wave, the place I hide,

Who shares my cup, the day I call.

Seder HaT’filot, Reform Judasim

I am struck by the intimacy of the Almighty sharing my cup, drinking from the same cup as any of us, even when the brew is bitter, which is when we need God most.

I avoided saying ‘Him’ in the previous sentence, to get out of capitalizing the word or ascribing gender.

Tomorrow the coronation takes place and I am looking forward to seeing the participation of various faith leaders, the Archbishop of Canterbury and others. It is an important development, to value the way faiths other than our own bring the faithful into a relationship with heaven and to value our own, where the situating of our lives has placed us.

Arbitrarily, I called this post ‘Seventy-two’ but alas, that it not my age. At the time of writing, I am seventy-three and not that for very much longer.


5 Responses to "Seventy-two"

Abu al-Ma’arri was the greatest and smartest Syrian to ever live, and here’s what he thought of religion:

“The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts:
Those with brains, but no religion,
And those with religion, but no brains.”

Interesting. I think he would regard me as brainless.

It’s a false binary. I know plenty of people of faith who are highly intelligent, just as I know people who either believe in no religion or practise no religion, who are not the greatest of minds. I don’t care what a person believes, it’s when they try to impose that belief on others, or use their belief (or non belief) to justify their cruelty to other people, then I have a problem with them. I hope you enjoy the coronation tomorrow Gillian and that you feel more seen/included by the new monarch.

Tis far from brainless you are Gillian. Quite the opposite in fact. One of the most thoughtful and intelligent people I have ever known.

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