Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Response to M.

The blogger M. raised some interesting questions in a comment to my post on "Judaism's Culture of Death." I reply below.

Dear M.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. The point of my post was to help illuminate some of the important links between Judaism and Zionism. The culture of death in mainstream Judaism (but which does not characterize the full depth, breadth, or potential of Judaism) as it is practiced today is the same culture of death that energizes Zionism and its violence. My purpose is the same as the prophets who railed against injustice and violence--to stop the injustice and violence! Here's one of my favorite passages from Isaiah:
The prophecies of Isaiah son of Amoz, who prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem ...

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth,
For the LORD has spoken:
"I reared children and brought them up--
And they have rebelled against Me!
An ox knows its owner,
An ass its master's crib:
Israel does not know,
My people takes no thought."

Ah, sinful nation!
People laden with iniquity!
Brood of evildoers!
Depraved children!
They have forsaken the LORD,
Spurned the Holy One of Israel,
Turned their backs [on Him].

... Trample My courts no more;
Bringing oblations is futile,
Incense is offensive to Me.
New moon and sabbath,
Proclaiming of solemnities,
Assemblies with iniquity,
I cannot abide.
Your new moons and fixed seasons
Fill Me with loathing;
They are become a burden to Me,
I cannot endure them.
And when you lift up your hands,
I will turn My eyes from you;
Though you pray at length,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood
Source: Isaiah 1:1a, 1:2-4, 1:12b-15; see note 2 to Word to Chuck W. on the translation of this text.

It is a commonplace that modern political Zionism was founded by secular Jews but that is not the whole truth. Even Theodor Herzl, in his Zionist manifesto, The Jewish State, had a definite, positive role for rabbis--"on whom we especially call"--and synagogue in the movement. Herzl argued that Jews "feel our historic affinity only through the faith of our fathers" and the Jewish "Faith unites us." The influential Moses Hess, in "Rome and Jerusalem," wrote of the Zionist movement: We will "draw our inspiration from the deep well of Judaism."

To turn to a more contemporary source, in Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, the late Israel Shahak writes:
The ideological defence of Israeli policies are usually based on Jewish religious beliefs or, in the case of secular Jews, on the "historical rights" of the Jews which derive from those beliefs and retain the dogmatic character of religious faith.

... close analysis of Israeli grand strategies and actual principles of foreign policy, as they are expressed in Hebrew, makes it clear that it is "Jewish ideology," more than any other factor, which determines actual Israeli policies. The disregard of Judaism as it really is and of "Jewish ideology" makes those policies incomprehensible to foreign observers who usually know nothing about Judaism except crude apologetics.

The existence of an important component of Israeli policy, which is based on "Jewish ideology," makes its analysis politically imperative. This ideology is, in turn based on the attitudes of historic Judaism to non-Jews, ... Those attitudes necessarily influence many Jews, consciously or unconsciously. Our task here is to discuss historic Judaism in real terms.

Although the struggle against antisemitism (and of all other forms of racism) should never cease, the struggle against Jewish chauvinism and exclusivism, which must include a critique of classical Judaism, is now of equal or greater importance [emphasis added].
Like Shahak, I am interested in going beyond "crude apologetics" to discuss the influence, conscious and unconscious, of Judaism on Jews and non-Jews. I cannot help but think the celebrations of death-victory at the heart of some Jewish holidays, esp. Purim and Passover, have deleterious effects in the world today. I know I'm not alone, in my "Reflection On Passover," I quote Aaron J. Tapper and Jacob Pinnolis who have wrestled with violence in the Jewish tradition. In "3 "Ex-Terrorists"; UM Cops Suppress Free Speech Again (Part 1)" I cited Elliott Horowitz and his book, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence.

You asked about my choice of images to illustrate the post. The article is about a culture of death, hence my choice of the Grim Reaper. You wrote, "you claim that the 'real story' behind many of the major jewish holidays is one of death and murder." I encourage you to examine the narratives behind those holidays on your own. A common joke about those holidays was my point of departure and my claim is that the underlying narratives are not congruent with the joke or the common interpretation of those holidays as simple, noble struggles for liberation and, further, that these holidays actually are part of the "culture of death" and victimhood identified by Idith Zertal. Although, as I hope I have made clear, my use of those concepts expands upon Zertal's use.

As for Yom Kippur, I think the main thrust of my argument remains intact without it. Its inclusion as part of a culture of death could be easily defended, I think, but I am also open to treating it sui generis. In short, I don't think it should be a stumbling-block to grappling with the broader issue raised.

You wrote, "you include a quote from numbers to claim that the jews didn't really appreciate being freed from slavery ..." The point was that the biblical Passover story is far from being a case of "They tried to kill us." If that added information "further discredit[s] the story of passover" then I'm totally fine with that. The only way--and it's a stretch at that--I can see to salvage Passover is to change it to an Exodus holiday and to eliminate or repudiate the Passover i.e. the divine slaying of the Egyptian first-born by the Destroyer. But, hey, that's not up to me but I will critique it as it is. By the way, my interpretation of the text from Numbers and the related verses from Exodus is the mainstream Jewish reading.

You talked about "other cultures within judaism." It's fine to talk about those and there is no shortage of people willing to promote (often dishonestly, e.g. the Zionist Michael Lerner) them. However, the truly progressive expressions of Judaism are by no means representative of, or grounded in, mainstream Judaism. To focus on them is to "disregard ... Judaism as it really is" and to fail to go beyond "crude apologetics," to quote Shahak.

In closing, I'll take a whack at the much-hyped tikkun olam. Steve Bhaerman is typical when he tells us "the heart essence of Judaism" is "Tikkun Olam-- the healing of the world." Now, you would think that the "heart essence of Judaism" would merit some explicit mention in the Tanakh (Christians usually call it the Old Testament)--it apparently doesn't. Tikkun olam doesn't even merit its own entry in the 12-volume Jewish Encyclopedia (1906). So far as I know, the concept appears in only one chapter in the Mishna.

Its source, in reference to repairing a broken world, is in the Lurianic Cabbala, named after Isaac Luria, who lived in the Middle Ages. According to Lawrence Fine ("Tikkun Olam in Contemporary Jewish Thought"), the first evidence of its migration from Hasidic mysticism to liberal Jewish American thought comes not until the 1950s.

Here's a quote from Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky (Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, 2004, p. 58) on Cabbala and Luria:
Yesaiah Tishbi, an authority on the Cabbala who wrote in Hebrew, explained in his scholarly work, The Theory of Evil and the (Satanic) Sphere in Lurianic Cabbala (1942, reprinted in 1982): "It is plain that those prospects and the scheme [of salvation] are intended only for Jews." Tishbi cited Rabbi Hayim Vital, the chief interpreter of Rabbi Luria, who wrote in his book, Gates of Holiness: "The Emanating Power, blessed be his name, wanted there to be some people on this low earth that would embody the four divine emanations. These people are the Jews, chosen to join together the four divine worlds here below." Tishbi further cited Vital's writings in emphasizing the Lurianic doctrine that non-Jews have satanic souls: "Souls of non-Jews come entirely from the female part of the satanic sphere. For this reason souls of non-Jews are called evil, not good, and are created without [divine] knowledge." In his illuminating Hebrew-language book, Rabbinate, Hassidism, Enlightenment: The History of Jewish Culture Between the End of the Sixteenth and the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century (1956), Ben-Zion Katz explained convincingly that the above doctrines became part of Hassidism. Accurate descriptions of Lurianic doctrines and their wide influence upon religious Jews can be found in numerous other studies, written in Hebrew. In books and articles written in other languages, and thus read by most interested non-Israeli Jews and non-Jews, such descriptions and analyses are most often absent. The role of Satan, whose earthly embodiment according to the Cabbala is every non-Jew, has been minimized or not mentioned by authors who have not written about the Cabbala in Hebrew. Such authors, therefore, have not conveyed to readers accurate accounts of general [National Religious Party] or its hard-core, Gush Emunim politics.
So, it is quite conceivable that tikkun olam, in its original Lurianic sense, referred to a world where Jews ruled and everyone else obeyed, if they existed at all. Now, I'm in favor of appropriating and reinterpreting things as much as the next person but let's be honest about the very negative aspects of "classical Judaism" and knock off the "the heart essence of Judaism" nonsense.

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Why look to religion to illuminate links between Judaism and Zionism when so much of Zionism has traditionally been secular? Although certainly rooted in Jewish mythology, modern Zionism is a significantly different beast than its religious antecedent. I fail to see the causal relationship between religious violence in the Bible and the modern state of Israel. You certainly didn't make the case in your post, except to say that they're both violent.

Furthermore, if the bloodthirstyness of the Jewish religion was all that Zionism had, it would never have succeeded. It needed the support from the colonialist regimes of the time, and it still needs the support of the US and Christian Zionists.

I think your claim that your earlier post's purpose was to illuminate links between Judaism and Zionism is too little too late.

What if someone had posted on the violent religious heritage of Islam. Then when somebody suggested that that might be a problem in the current political climate, the original poster replied that they were trying to illustrate links between Islam and so-called Islamic Fundamentalism. I don't think that would work exactly.
M., I wrote my response to you as a separate post at http://zionistsout.blogspot.com/2007/05/another-response-to-m.html or http://tinyurl.com/37xj2t
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