In the Arena

The Rivers of Babylon

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A decade ago, after the endless and empty Bush-Gore presidential campaign, I decided that I’d had enough of journalism and quit my job as Washington Correspondent for The New Yorker to write books and chill for a while. As a transition to my new life, to take a break and clear my mind, I enrolled in several classes at Columbia University. The best of these was First Century Judaism and Christianity, taught by Alan Segal of the Barnard faculty. I’d always been interested in the Jesus story: it had taken the Jews and Greeks a thousand years to build their respective foundation myths; the Christians had done it in two generations–how on earth had that happened? (For a faithless deist like me, there had to be, you know, reasons.)

As it happened, I was enraptured from the moment I entered class to the strains of The Melodions’ reggae version of the 137th Psalm, “By the Rivers of Babylon.” This was lesson one: the events that transpired in the first century had their roots in the Jewish Babylonian exile. Segal was a delightful lecturer, a world-class Pauline scholar (he believed that Paul, one of the only Pharisees who wrote, had as much to tell us about ancient Judaism as he did about early Christianity). There were several memorable lectures on the social and political forces that accompanied the birth of Christianity. But on the essential question of what Jesus was really all about, Segal was content to show us a clip from the movie Ben Hur, where Charlton Heston is being marched through the desert as part of a chain gang. They reach a small town. As the Roman guard kneels down to rest, a shadow passes across his face. He looks up at a man–Jesus, obviously–offering him a ladle of water; the guard’s eyes widen and soften; he is transfixed, then transformed, dissolved into kindness: born again, perhaps. “I imagine it was something like that,” Segal said. “Some of us may have met people who inspired us, though perhaps not to so great a degree. Each of us will interpret it as we will.”

The sheer, simple brilliance of that observation has never left me. Nor did the many other lessons about religion and the Middle East region–lessons that suddenly came in very handy, starting September 11, 2001–and the sheer joy of learning something new in middle age that I carried away from that class. Alan Segal died a few days ago, after a long illness. He was not much of a believer, he once confessed to me. But I disagree. He belonged to the cathedral of learning, a blessed place where penitents transcend and lose themselves in a larger, deeper, boundless world. Scholarship was his Jerusalem. He inspired me and I’d like to see him off now, and thank him, with a portion of the psalm he used to welcome his students into his classroom:

How can we sing the songs of the LORD

while in a foreign land?

5If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

may my right hand forget [its skill].

6May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

if I do not remember you,

if I do not consider Jerusalem

my highest joy.