12 February 2008

Bible portraits: Nicodemus (Part 1)

Evenings in Jerusalem can be the most perfect times. The heat of the day has passed. The merchants have closed up their stalls in the marketplaces. The crowds have left the streets. And beneath the starry sky all is quiet, interrupted only now and then by the tromp, tromp, tromp, tromp of Roman soldiers marching in formation in the distance.

This particular evening was one that I was destined to remember. I had made an appointment to meet with one of the pilgrims from Galilee. But I move ahead too quickly. Allow me first to tell you something about myself before I share my story.

My name is Nicodemus. I am one of a brotherhood we like to call the chavurim, the companions. Perhaps you might know us better as Pharisees, the “separate ones”. No one really knows where that name came from and, while we did not choose it for ourselves, it suits us well and we wear it proudly. For we are determined not to be like the ordinary, run-of-the-mill people of this land, or like the Sadducees, who boast of their wealth and cozy up to our Roman overlords. By contrast, we strive to live by the fullest rigors of the Torah.

To join the chavurah you must stand before three witness and take a solemn oath that you will observe every detail of the Law. It contains more than six hundred individual commandments and we are careful not to overlook a single one of them. Not only that, in many cases we proudly go beyond the simple demands of the law, to ensure that we stand in no danger of contravening them.

So, for example, in the case of the Sabbath, we have spent years carefully defining what does or does not constitute work. To write two letters is work; to write one is not. To put up a building is work; to destroy one is not. To tie a knot to tether a camel or moor a boat is work; to tie a knot that can be undone with a single hand is not. I could go on and on, but I fear I would only bore or confuse you in doing so. Yet I want you to understand that for us this is more than a mere diversion. It is our life’s work. It occupies our thoughts and our actions day and night. It is our calling to keep our nation pure from the influences of the heathen. It has been said that if for one day every Jew could live in obedience to the Law the kingdom of heaven will come—and we in the chavurah yearn to bring that day to pass.

In recent months, however, I have begun to wonder whether our strictness can ever really bring that to pass. I wonder whether we might not be guilty of keeping men and women away from the kingdom of heaven rather than nearer to it. All these rules can be too heavy a burden for an ordinary person to bear—and even in us the result is more often the opposite of what the Torah is really intended to produce. It is written that Moses was the humblest man who ever lived. And the prophets instruct us that what the Almighty desires is that we should walk humbly with him. Yet so many of our brotherhood are puffed up with spiritual pride.

This may explain why we have never been a large group within Israel. We do not number above 6000 in all. Even so, our influence is far greater than our numbers might warrant. In recent generations we have been well represented in the Sanhedrin. For the past few years I myself have been one of its seventy- one members.

While the Romans may think they have us under their thumbs, most Jews see us and not them as their government. I will admit that our powers are considerably less than they were before the Romans took possession of our land. We may have no authority in political matters, yet we continue to be the supreme council in all matters of religion—and for all Jews, not only here in Palestine, but everywhere in the world.

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