November 24, 2011

The Chosen

I cannot begin to tell you how much I dislike the expression "The Chosen People". It is not that I have any problem with what the Bible says. To me it is the most essential text (and also its Talmudic expansion). But the fact is that some of its ideas and laws have fallen by the wayside, even as it remains a source of moral and legal guidance, an inspiration to some and the word of God to others.

It should be obvious that certain aspects of a document revealed in time would be time-bound. Slaves were common currency then and needed regulation and protection. Biblical laws about slaves are no longer relevant other than in symbolic ways. The Canaanites no longer exist. Amalek cannot literally be identified, only figuratively. And Biblical diseases that attacked humans, buildings, and clothes might be called leprosy but it is not what we call leprosy. Nazirites are pretty rare nowadays and no husband gets to bring his rebellious wife to the priest. As for the Temple, recently an eager youngster asked if we will be allowed to use modern technology to rebuild it. I replied that I'd be amazed if we could ever agree on who the architect would be without Divine intervention but we have been told by our sages to leave all that to Elijah to sort out.

The idea of "The Chosen People" falls within this category. It is an idea that was indeed relevant in its pagan context and at a time when Judaism offered a dramatic and the only ethical alternative. But no matter how rabbis twist, turn, and squirm to remove the implied sting of superiority, it must now be consigned to those ideas no longer in currency.

The Biblical source is in Exodus 19:5-6: "Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own treasure among all peoples, for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

In a pagan, primitive world, a nation of slaves emerges into the Sinai desert and there at Sinai they are given a new constitution. They need inducements (all the more so because of the large number of restrictions) and God promises them a special relationship if only they can adhere to His program. This relationship with God is part of the reciprocal Sinai Covenant.

The history of the succeeding years shows how the Israelites did not succeed as a nation to do this and, as a result, headed slowly and surely towards disaster. The amazing thing is that there were enough individuals who were indeed loyal and did succeed in keeping the flame of the Torah alive. Chosenness has never protected us from ignominy and destruction. If anything, it has been our stubbornness that has kept us alive. God called us that too more than once, "a stiff-necked nation" (Exodus 33).

It is true that even today when we are called to the Torah we recite a blessing thanking God for choosing us from other nations through giving us the Torah. But that is no more than statement of delight in and commitment to our religion and our constitution. That is no more pernicious than saying, "I am glad I am an American" (or whatever).

But here's the issue. We Jews are still attacked for claiming we are Chosen. What does that mean? Does it mean that we are automatically guaranteed salvation? No. But that's what most Christians think they are. How often, even in America, do little kids come home from school in tears because a pious Christian has informed them that they will burn in hell because they have not accepted Jesus? Why does nobody accuse Christians of being God's Chosen? If you answer because it is a matter of choice, so too is being a Jew; we still accept converts. (We do make it rather difficult, but that is, in part, because we don't think you have to be a Jew to be "saved".)

In how many Muslim Madrassas are Jews described as the doomed Dhimmis who will not enter paradise for rejecting Mohammad? Aren't Muslims guilty of thinking they are chosen by Allah? Other religions claim only their members are saved. Jews have always claimed that goodness and a relationship with God are the universal criteria, rather than notional membership. Only one's actions can ensure a relationship with God.

The problem is that many Jews, from across the spectrum, actually seem to believe they are superior in one way or another. I find it to be spiritually and intellectually ridiculous, unsustainable hogwash that anyone should automatically, by birth, be better. That is prejudice. It may be a defense mechanism and a response to the constant delegitimization and prejudice that simply will not die. But I find it really offensive. Not only is it offensive, but it flies in the face of the famous Talmudic statement that we are all the children of the one God and descended from one source and we can all say, "The world was created for Me" (Sanhedrin 37a).

I am not objecting to the desire to perpetuate the people by encouraging Jews to marry Jews. That is a choice and no different than, say, money marrying money or aristocrats marrying aristocrats. I haven't heard anyone trying to ban that. Though I have to say, the way to perpetuate the people is not simply by marrying a coreligionist, but by living a Jewish life together and passing it on to one's children. The mere act of marriage guarantees nothing.

Then what can the idea of being Chosen actually mean? I suggest nothing more than a historical statement of how we came to be different. You might say it's no different than choosing a football player for a specific position he's most suited for. This does not make him a better person. And if he's no good at what he does he gets replaced. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Almighty decided we had not done a good enough job in spreading monotheism and decided to give Christians, Muslims and Hindus a chance. But this does not mean we could not come back and try again. Neither does it mean that the Johnny-come-latelies did a better job (though if numbers matter, they certainly did).

I'd put this idea of thinking Chosen means "better" in the same bracket as thanking God for not making me a woman. That might have meant something when women were uneducated and subjugated. Nowadays, with more of them getting a degree than men, being successful in every aspect of modern life, I'd be more inclined to ask to be on their side!

November 17, 2011

Jewish Writers

In 1970, when I was living in Glasgow, a close friend suggested I read Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet. I went right out and bought it. But to my chagrin I just could not get through it. I agree that Bellow is a more accomplished writer than say Philip Roth, whose Portnoy's Complaint came out a year before and was a scandalous success, far more overtly "Jewish" than anything Bellow has written. The judges who decide on the Nobel Prize for literature were right to give it to Bellow before Roth. However, the fact that they gave it this year to a completely insignificant Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer, over someone of Roth's reputation and oeuvre, just shows how insignificant or silly the literary judges of the Swedish Academy are.

Bellow has never been a practicing Jew in any significant way. Has just published two pieces in The New York Review of Books about being a Jewish writer. This is an issue that has been forced on him by others trying to categorize him. He grew up as the son of Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants. As he began to write he became conscious of how American WASP writers regarded him as an interloper. But this didn't faze him. "If WASPs wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates, then let them." He found comfort in Karl Shapiro's In Defense of Ignorance. Shapiro writes, "The European Jew was always a visitor. . .But in America everybody is a visitor. In the United States the Jewish writer is free to create his own consciousness."

But what IS a Jewish writer? What indeed is a Jewish painter? Chagall was, but Rothko not? It is as intractable a question as "who is a Jew". Yet it is fodder for academic courses and symposia and endless, pointless, fruitless self-justificatory debate, usually funded by non-practicing Jews as eager as religious evangelicals to assert their own particular brand of Jewish commitment.

Bellow quotes Shmuel Agnon, who thought you had to live in Israel to write in an authentic Jewish voice. But an Israeli like Haim Sabato writes as a religious Jew of Syrian origin. David Grossman and Amos Oz write as secular Israelis of European Ashkenazi provenance. There are good Arab writers in Hebrew. Israeli culture is not necessarily Jewish. I suspect Bellow and Grossman have more in common with each other than they both have with Sabato or Agnon. Israel has, at least in the arts, replaced "Jew" with something different and broader.

Bellow says that what defines a Jewish writer is "otherness", as when he talks about challenging the nihilism that led to the moral collapse of Europe. "One's language is a spiritual location; it houses your soul. If you were born in America all essential communications, your deepest communications with yourself, will be in English--in American English." So does that make him Jewish?

In truth, it is like being Jewish altogether. No one interpretation of being Jewish covers all cases. We live in a new, freer, more mobile and more fluid world that makes definition difficult and even sometimes undesirable. It includes categories and degrees in which those more involved are forever castigating those less so. It is just like those ghastly attempts to define Orthodox, Chareidi , or a Torah Jew. There will always be those who stand apart. You cannot define who is a Jewish writer. All you can ask is to what degree Jewish culture and values influence a person or his or her writing.

Assume someone discovered that Wagner had a Jewish grandmother on his maternal side. Would that make him a Jewish composer? Was Marx a Jewish thinker? Some academics will argue he is and that Freud could only have been a Jew. What stuff and nonsense. Tell that to Jung. What of all the other alienated, creative minds of nineteenth century Middle Europe? Do they qualify as Jewish?

We are concerned with labels because most people need labels. Our whole education system is predicated on them. But labels are dangerous, usually dishonest, incomplete handles that allow for and encourage discrimination, categorization, and indeed alienation.

Any practicing Jew knows the language of his soul is Torah. Any non-practicing but deeply committed Jew knows it is the practical reinforcement of actions or ideas that strengthens or weakens his sense of belonging. For some, like Bellow, it is enough to feel different. No one can take self-definition away from anyone. But one has the right and should challenge. If that was good enough for him, so be it. I just do not want people to try telling me how to define Jewish writing. It is like asking what identity a Nabokov had when he switched from Russian to English.

You can be a writer who happens to be a Jew, but that does not make you a Jewish writer. Bellow is a great American writer who avoids overtly Jewish issues. He says he is indeed a Jewish writer, but as he also says, to try to put one of the two first is as clumsy as the question, "Whom do you love better, your Papa or your Momma?" I suggest it is silly to label him a Jewish writer altogether. At most he is a Jew who writes.

November 10, 2011

Hitchens Was Wrong

I enjoy reading Christopher Hitchens, the Anglo-American gadfly journalist, even when he gets it completely wrong. Here is an example. In his autobiography, Hitch-22, this is what he says about Israel:

"Suppose a man leaps out of a burning building…and lands on a bystander in the street below. Now make that burning building Europe and the luckless man the Palestinian Arabs. Is this a historical injustice? Has the man below been made a victim with infinite cause for complaint and indefinite justification for violent retaliation? The man leaping from the burning building must still make such restitution as he can to the man who broke his fall and must not pretend he that he never even landed on him. And he must base his case on the singularity and uniqueness of the original leap." (Page 381)

Since the paperback edition has a preface dated 2011, it is reasonable to assume that, whatever else he may have revised or modified, Hitchens stands by that silly, misleading, and completely unworthy metaphor.

If Europe is the fire, which fire is Hitchens referring to? Medieval Europe with its ghastly record of torment and murder when, after continuing oppression, thousands of Jews trekked across Europe desperate to find peace of mind and body in the land they had always looked to and prayed for, for thousands of years? Is it the Expulsion from Spain in 1492 that led to mass migration of Jews to the Land of Israel? Then in fact the Ottoman Sultan welcomed Jews and encouraged them to settle in Safed and the North of Israel, where there was industry and agriculture to support them. Perhaps he meant the depredations of the Cossacks in 1648, when another wave of European Jews made their way to their Holy Land? He could have referred to the migrations of the nineteenth century in response to Russian anti-Semitism. Does Hitchens share with Obama the myth that Israel was simply the creation of the Holocaust? Does he believe the Jews referred to in the New Testament were really Arab Palestinians? Was there no history in between 70 and 1948?

How does he deal with thousands of Jews attacked, tortured, and killed after Israel declared independence, and the millions of Jews expelled from Arab lands without a penny to their names? Were they thrown out of the same window or a different one? Or was it a myth?

And if I stay with the analogy and agree that the Jews were thrown out of several houses over several periods, is there not a difference to their being thrown out into their own back garden as opposed to the street? What if the pedestrian had intentionally stood underneath the falling man instead of stepping aside or trying to break his fall instead of being an unwitting and accidental victim? And what if the pedestrian had actually refused to allow the fire exits to be used and had blocked them up? Would he be so innocent then?

I recognize that history changes, rights change, often there are conflicting rights, and one must always do whatever one can to minimize human suffering and seek as equitable a solution as possible (provided of course both sides are prepared to negotiate). Ben Gurion gave a far better analogy--the analogy of two families claiming the same home. That is closer to reality. Many Arabs migrated into Palestine when Jewish immigration created jobs and opportunities. But still, if two people do share a home they can negotiate a settlement and agree to a partition. But what if one side resolutely refuses to partition the house, then claims foul when he is evicted and keeps on trying to climb back in?

I am not saying Israel was and is innocent of any fault. I am saying that accommodation was once possible and much easier than it is today. Indeed, that was the famous position of King Abdullah I, when he accepted the Peel Commission and partition, before he was assassinated by Arab nationalists who refused to share or even divide the house. Now Muslim fundamentalists unabashedly want the total eviction of all Jews from the house.

Neither am I saying the Jews were or are the perfect tenants. They did indeed take good care of their part and built on impressive extensions. But they also made a lot of noise. They were and are aggressive neighbors, quick to retaliate and overreact. Innocents have been killed. Yet, to be fair, they have given some of the extensions they built back to the original owners. They have encroached more and more into the parts of the house that even they agree should be inhabited by the other side. As for the others, they have stood by as their space is reduced and have refused to deal, expecting and hoping that one day the council would evict the other party and that would be the end of the story.

The Hitchens metaphor is an implicit denial of the rights of Jews under Islam, who were living in another burning house altogether, to find a haven in a home that, after all, they built first. If eviction is the criterion, what about earlier evictions? Is there a statute of limitations? Is Hitchens saying Jews from all over the known world never stayed in that house originally? If Arabs can claim back the place from which they were driven, why cannot Jews? If the objection is to conquest, then object to Arab conquest too. Is eviction the evil? Were not Jews evicted? Is religion the cause of the problem? Why not include all the religions that have coveted the land, and let each recognize the rights of the other. But where one religion refuses to countenance other and teaches its faithful to demand the eviction of the Jews, then it is the man in the street who started pushing people out but then complains when he himself finds he is on the outside.

This proves, once again, the old saying, "Where the heart wishes to go, the mind is sure to follow." It's not the finding fault with Israel I object to. On the contrary, it deserves opprobrium for its failures internal and external. That’s how people grow. It is the now compulsive and politically correct radical Western (and many Jews too) hatred of anything Israeli has become so pathological that it has spilled over into the Wall Street protests and even into Jewish protests against Jews as the following links illustrate. Hatred of Israel has become dogma and, as we know, against dogma there is no room for argument.

More On The "Occupy" Movement:

'Occupy' protestors storm Israeli consulate

Young U.S. Jews aim 'occupy' movement at Birthright Israel

November 03, 2011

The Wall Street Protests

The phenomenon of the demonstrations around Wall Street and elsewhere seems to have taken everyone by surprise. I applaud demonstrations against corruption, unfair trading, and excesses, particularly where they benefit a small elite at the expense of the majority. Protest is our ancient prophetic tradition. I know they will get nowhere. They will fizzle out. But the principle of decrying corruption and inequality is a good one.

The ongoing sore of capitalist excesses in the USA has got worse, not better since the crash of 2008. Books and films have portrayed the way men who brought down companies, cost thousands their jobs, forced the USA government to pump billions into the economy, did inestimable damage, yet simply walked away with billions in bonuses and not one of them has been prosecuted. Government officials, top regulators who advised and oversaw, failed to do both but still kept their positions and their pay checks. It seems there was neither responsibility, accountability, nor repercussion in the world of New Capitalism where supposedly markets rewarded gain and penalized failure but it seems in reality just dished out fortunes regardless.

Capitalism has now become another word for cronyism, corruption, and protection from the consequences of one's failures. Bonuses continue to be so excessive they cannot possibly be justified. A person who clicks some keys on a computer for a few hours a day, moving vast sums of money about, may be rewarded with millions of dollars, whereas someone spending hours every day, constantly under pressure, struggling with reluctant pupils, trying to inspire them, care for them, nurture them, and impart valuable information that is going to be crucial for the rest of their lives is paid a relative pittance. If the argument is that risk should be rewarded, then risk should also be punished.

I do not oppose capitalism. I believe in rewarding effort. Societies that do tend to have more money for social welfare and helping the less fortunate than do those which burden themselves with massively subsidized workforces and protected industries. I support responsible and moral capitalism, with some proportion and concept of relative merit.

Capitalism might be sick. But Democrat ideological rigidity in the USA was just as much a cause of the whole cheap mortgage bubble and collapse. It was the Democrat government that chose not penalize individual irresponsibility and went on paying inflated bonuses with government money.

Once upon time, governments employed under 10% of the workforce in developed countries. Now they account for almost 40%. Once workers needed union protection against rogue employers, terrible conditions, violence, and starvation. Now they are often provided with a greater degree of job security, protected pensions, health care, and paid holidays than much of the private sector. Then what happens? Civil servants, government workers, protected employees care not whether they treat their victims to long lines, curt responses, and blasé attitudes. They fall back on their convenient job security and rely on their unions to fight their case for better conditions and emoluments. If you do a good job as a teacher or civil servant, if you treat other humans better, you deserve better reward and treatment in return. I agree that where there is reward it should be fair, open, and transparent, rather than depend on favoritism, cronyism, or racial preferment, which is every bit as evil and unfair as the capitalist cronyism and nepotism. The fact is that both sides are to blame. The protests recognize the disease and they are right to draw public attention to it.

I was glad the police cut off the usual attempt of thugs and hooligans to use anti-capitalism demonstrations as an excuse for violence and vandalism. But I have a complaint against the peaceful protestors too. Too many of them are ideologically brainwashed and intellectually dishonest. I hold no brief for Geraldo Rivera but whereas the usual "personalities" of the left, like Michael Moore were welcomed he was shouted down simply because he appears on Fox News. Why? Because Fox News is hated by the left in the USA precisely because it offers a different perspective on the news and politics.

Surely a balanced press, alternative viewpoints, is healthy. This one of the reasons I, as a Jew, feel so much more at ease in New York than I ever did in London--because one is not overpowered by a single dominant news chorus coming from the BBC. Here one can hear different points of view. Once I see ideology getting involved in such demonstrations I know they are doomed, because they are no longer genuine and honest but animated by only one point of view. That is precisely what is wrong with American politics. You are either Republican or Democrat. Pro-private-enterprise or pro-big-government. There is virtually no balanced, engaged debate. I use to think this was only true of the way Israel is regarded, but now I see it is a universal problem.

Despite my cynicism I do believe we must make our voices heard. We must play the role of prophet, however unpopular and however accepted it may be, for things can and do eventually change.

In theory, built into our religious system is constant reevaluation--every New Month, every Rosh Hashana, whenever we go back and start to read the Torah again from the beginning. Trouble is I just don't see it happening, anywhere! The world keeps on turning and we keep on dreaming.

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On a different topic, I think you would be interested in Judge Robert Goldstone's article in the New York Times about Israel and Apartheid, in view of the intellectually and morally dishonest conference about to be held in South Africa, attacking Israel.