Beheadings and the “Precarious Joint”

Talmud, ISIS, and the Decapitation of Civilization

When decapitations occur, the connection between heaven and earth has been severed

Today, September 2014, I’m unable to shake the images that infected me from watching videos of beheadings by ISIS. These are horrific, but with all due respect to the victims, it’s hard not to appreciate them as brilliantly successful social media retroviruses injected into the worldwide teletechnoculture. They have achieved their authors’ goal: after billions of views on YouTube and elsewhere, a few savages with an instinct for stagecraft and low-budget indie production values have awakened the giant American war machine.

Beheadings aren’t new. Jewish law was concerned about them thousands of years ago, but not as a means of revenge and spreading true faith. Rather, beheadings are symbolic of a problem that concerns the rabbis in the Talmud. A beheading plays the central role in a mystery that worries them.  They imagine a corpse, victim of a murder, found half way between two cities. Who is responsible for pursuing the criminal? Judging the crime?  For burying the body? And if the crime is not solved, how do we rid the world of guilt when when there is no clear authority? Chaos threatens. For the sages, beheadings were symbolic of the retreat of holiness rather than as a means to achieve it. But the symbolism runs even deeper.

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