About the Word Pharisee

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About the Word Pharisee

Post by kim » Tue Jul 10, 2018 8:21 pm

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I'd like to add some additional thoughts to this valuable conversation about the use of the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrites".

The word "Pharisee" is an English rendering of the Greek rendering of the Hebrew word "P'rushim", which probably comes from the verb "parash" = "to set apart". So "P'rushim" might have originally meant "Those who are set apart", "Separated Ones", or possibly "Separatists".According to Josephus, the distinguishing features of the Pharisees' belief system were "exact application of the laws", a belief in the eternity of the soul (including punishment for the wicked and reincarnation for the righteous)... and a belief that while everything is in the hands of God or fate, nevertheless humans have free will to choose good or evil. Josephus doesn't say much more than that about specific doctrines.However, Josephus himself was not a Pharisee, and it's uncertain how much personal knowledge he had of the sect. If you want to know what the Pharisees actually believed, you'd do better to look at their own writings.

Fortunately, we have access to a large corpus of Pharisaic writings, because what we know today as the foundational corpora of "Rabbinic Judaism" -- midrash and mishnah -- are the product of the Pharisees.Actually that oversimplifies things quite a bit, because by the time the oral tradition was redacted into written form, the word "Pharisee" was no longer really being used. More accurate to say that the followers of the Rabbinic tradition viewed themselves as the successors... of the Pharisaic tradition. That detail aside, it's accurate to say that from the perspective of Jewish history, "Pharisaic Judaism" is synonymous with "Rabbinic Judaism", which is synonymous with "Judaism." Of course there were (and are) non-Rabbinic Judaisms, too. The Sadduceean tradition was anti-Pharisaic, and the Pharisee vs. Sadducee dynamic is the background context for much of the NT.

The main point of contention between the Pharisees and Saducees was regarding the oral tradition. Pharisees (and later Rabbinic Judaism) held as a fundamental point of doctrine that the Torah was revealed in two complementary corpora: one written, and one oral. The Written Torah was just the surface structure, the part that was explicitly visible; the Oral Torah tells you what the Written Torah *means*. The Oral Torah, to the Pharisees, was *most* of Judaism. The Sadducees regarded the entire notion of "Oral Torah" as absurd nonsense. If it wasn't written down, it didn't exist for them.So for the Sadducees, Judaism was mostly about Temple-based rituals (sacrifices) and the purity codes that surrounded them. Pharisees did not dispute the centrality of those rites, but saw in addition to them an entire world of non-Temple rituals.

To take just the most obvious examples: lighting Shabbat candles at home, washing hands before eating, etc. are all Pharisaic rituals that function to decenter the Priesthood as the primary locus of holiness and recenter holiness in people's private homes and behavior. Now to Christians who are unfamiliar with this backdrop, the word "Pharisee" has a very specific meaning. In the NT, "Pharisee" is used almost exclusively in conjunction with the word "hypocrite". Where does this come from? One possible source of the view that Pharisees were hypocrites: the Rabbinic view that one should (must!) perform the mitzvot regardless of whether or not you "feel" them. Mitzvah means commandment, and commandments are not conditional on your emotional or spiritual state. Rabbinic Judaism teaches that a person should perform mitzvot whether or not it feels spiritually meaningful, and (more important) that regular performance of mitzvot will lead one eventually to a spiritually meaningful experience.

At its most basic level, the teaching is: It doesn't matter whether you feed the hungry and house the homeless because you love the poor, or because you want a tax deduction, or because you want to be respected by others. What matters is that the poor are fed and housed. Eventually, if giving to the poor becomes a habitual practice, the giver will come to feel its spiritual effect, and will come to give for the "right" reasons. But the motivation is not what matters. Do it because it's the right thing to do, whether you "feel it" or not. The positive way to look at this is that our behavior is not conditional based on our internal state. "Na'aseh v'nishmah" means "We will do it (first); the inner experience comes later." But of course the negative way to view this exact same principle is that the external practice need not be matched by an internal conviction. From an anti-Pharisee perspective, Rabbinic Judaism is full of people performing empty rituals without an inner experience. Also worth mentioning here that Rabbinic Judaism did not and does not place any special emphasis on whether one gets an "eternal reward". The teaching is "S'char mitzvah, mitzvah" -- the reward for doing a commandment is that one has done a commandment, full stop.

So that's the source of the "Pharisee = hypocrite" canard. It is true that Rabbinic Judaism is primarily concerned with the performance of the mitzvot, not with the inner state of one's soul. But here's the thing about this critique: the Pharisees were FULLY AWARE that their approach to Jewish practice had a tendency towards excessive displays of outward piety that were not matched by an inner dimension, and they critiqued THEMSELVES for their own hypocrisy! For example, in the Talmud (Sotah 22b) we find the phrase "the curse of the Pharisees" explained as a reference to several different types of Pharisees, each of whom is overly pious to the point of absurdity.So Pharisaic Judaism was self-aware about the internal tensions in its approach: the sages of Rabbinic Judaism all agreed that a focus on ritual precision was essential (so that one would know the proper ways to obey the mitzvot), while at the same time...

...recognized that this emphasis had a tendency to pull some people toward a superficial, outward performance that emphasized religious punctiliousness at the expense of inward spirituality. In other words, hypocrisy.So when Christians call Pharisees "hypocrites", they're not saying anything about us that we don't also say about ourselves. And yet, having said all of that: using the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" is, I maintain, offensive and anti-Semitic."Pharisaic Judaism" is "Rabbinic Judaism" which is just "Judaism", so if you say "Pharisees are hypocrites", you are insulting all of Judaism and reducing us to our worst tendencies.Yes, sometimes we act without attending to the inner dimension of our practice. We know that, and we know that can be a problem. But you know what else we do? We ACT.

When something needs to be done we DO it. We see a need and we ACT on it. Whether we want to our not, whether we feel it or not. If a mitzvah needs doing, we DO it. Characterizing that as "hypocrisy" is insulting and reductive. Judaism is about doing the work. Sometimes you don't feel it; we do it anyway. And that's the end of this post, for now.

thanks for reading

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