Tuesday, March 17, 2015

We are All Chosen People

Europe has blamed the Jews for an encyclopedia of sins. The Church blamed the Jews for killing Jesus; Voltaire blamed the Jews for inventing Christianity. In the febrile minds of anti-Semites, Jews were usurers and well-poisoners and spreaders of disease. Jews were the creators of both communism and capitalism; they were clannish but also cosmopolitan; cowardly and warmongering; self-righteous moralists and defilers of culture. Ideologues and demagogues of many permutations have understood the Jews to be a singularly malevolent force standing between the world and its perfection.
-- 'Is it Time for the Jews to Lave Europe?' The Atlantic Monthly (April 2015)


Set against this backdrop, the topic I want to broach may seem innocuous. Namely: that 'being chosen' is a 'serious' issue that the 'chosen people' must confront.

Most will think words overheard at a self-important academic conference, or skimmed over in another career-minded career publication, hardly worthy of comment. No doubt they are right.

Still, the sentiment (which may be growing in the ranks of academia, though I can only produce anecdotal evidence to demonstrate the point) surprised me enough to have stuck in my head.

The essence of the sentiment is that the next thing Judaism must deal with is with the idea that the Jewish people are 'chosen.' The import of the adjective 'next,' of course, is temporal: if the Jewish people are to keep up with the times, they must confront the exclusivity of their traditional inheritance. Presumably they can keep their ritual practices, but the intellectual moorings of those practices have to go. Those mooring aren't compatible with our secular modernity.

Surprised? I was. It's not that I don't see the logic of the argument. A religiously plural outlook will naturally be uncomfortable with even the slightest hint of exclusivism. But, call me naive, I had assumed that Judaism peculiar form of exclusivism stacked up pretty well on a secular balance against other religious traditions like, say, Christianity or Islam.

Imperial, missionary, Christianity gets in your face and under your skin. God became human being and commanded his followers to preach the good news to everyone, whether they want to hear about it or not. Militant, fundamentalist, Islam is the next big threat to the comfortable secular order. God spoke in Arabic the truth of peace through submission, which everyone needs to hear, again, whether they want to or not.

Judaism's outlook seems tame by comparison. Sure, it is exclusive, in the sense that God's claims the Jewish people as his own. But they are not particularly in your face about it. Christians want you to get baptized. Muslim want you to recite the Shahada. Jews aren't saying the same thing about circumcision.

Judaism inculcates the charitable attitude of we will do our thing, and you do your thing, and we will both be better for it. The basic structure of the attitude fits with God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, where he says, I will bless you to Abraham's progeny, and the whole world will be blessed through you--just by being you.

So how did the Jewish version of religious exclusivism even rate a seemingly serious and concerned comment? My confusion was doubled since this is not the sort of thing you are supposed say in polite company. The Holocaust? That was not so long ago. Saying Judaism has to give up its particular version of exclusivism verges on blaming the Jews for their troubles. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees, among other things, the freedom of religion and conscience? That was formulated, in large measure, in response to the human capacity to run roughshod over human peculiarities and specificities, among which Jewish experience in the run-up to and during WWII seems to quintessential expression.

I should put my Christian credentials on the table. Judaism interests me primarily so that I can understand Jewish people; to understand the difference between how a Christian understands Judaism and how a Jew understand Judaism. My interest may seem rather abstract, but it goes to the heart of the question of peculiarly human differences: the difference between what I think of another person in relation to myself, and what they think of themselves. As I am not myself Jewish. Judaism does not and cannot interest me for its own sake--which brings us to this post.

Judaism is the canary in the goldmine of Western civilization, a Jewish friend of mine said to me. I agree completely. Regardless what your political sentiments are regarding the nation of Israel from one moment to the next, how one regards the concept of Judaism does seem to function as a sort of intellectual bellweather.

Now, I am most emphatically not claiming, as some 'dispensationalist' Evangelical Christians might claim, that the Jewish people must occupy the land of Israel, must occupy the Temple Mount, and must build a new temple; all of which can be taken as 'signs' of the end-times.

The last drops of humanity have long since been drained from contemporary dispensationalism. I recall that the only time I saw my grandfather (on my dad's side of the family) cry was while he read the Book of Revelation at the supper table. He closed the Bible, unable to finish the passage. I asked him why. He whispered hoarsely about the 'terrible things that must come.'

I can't be sure whether he was referring to the coming sufferings of the righteous at the hands of the wicked, or to the sufferings of humanity in more general terms. (I was never clear to which version of dispensationalism he subscribed.) But, having some experience of poverty and war, he could empathize with the coming sufferings of at least some other people. Not so with contemporary 'dispensationalists.' Their attitudes towards suffering in the coming apocalypse have the moral depth of a first-person shooter video-game. They state matter-of-factly that in order for prophecy to be fulfilled, lots of people are going to have to die--including a lot of Jews. They appear not to notice that their Jewish Lord never smiles kindly upon such gruesome nonchalance.

My claim accords much more closely with a quote that my memory attributes, perhaps in error, to G.K. Chesterton's The New Jerusalem (1921): the Jewish people are exactly like everyone else, only a little more so.

This idea rests in the firm conviction that Judaism has its notion of religious exclusivity--but then so does every outlook on life, religious or otherwise. The Jewish difference is to see this as a fundamental fact of human life, and to work with it. The Jewish people may claim to be chosen God. But everyone, in this sense, is chosen by a Someone or a Something.

The Jewish difference, again, is carry around a collective memory of being chosen by a Someone (explicitly not a Something) who admonishes them for thinking they are any better than anyone else, who reminds them that they are only human.

Most other outlooks appear intent on leveling exclusive identities. They contain a barely suppressed conceit that everybody else ought to see the world as we see the world, think about the world as we think about the world, and act in ways that we understand as rational. The academic sentiment that insists that 'being chosen' is a 'serious' issue that the 'chosen people' must confront falls squarely into this category.

Indeed, most communities have seen fit to hold their outlook over other communities, or over minority communities within their bounds. And within communities, some will hold this over the rest of the members. Conform, or suffer the consequences of being left out, is the usual refrain. The claim to be chosen is what makes the majority communities and the elites within a community 'better' than the rest; and so belonging to the majority elite the best of all. Imperial Britain had its 'white man's burden.' The United States of American has its Manifest Destiny. China remains the Middle Kingdom. These are only the most obvious examples: the list could go on. (I couldn't think of an example for Canada.)

I will briefly mention Karl Marx' 'On the Jewish Question' (1843) and Sigmund Freud's Moses and Monotheism (1939) to confirm the point. Both works make roughly the same claim: the Jewish people have failed to universalize their particular historical consciousness, which prevents them from fully participating in our secular modernity. For Marx, this means it is a legitimate question whether Jews, as Jews, can be full participants in the modern state. For Freud, this means a pathological guilt remains lodged in Jewish consciousness for the death of Moses, which manifests itself as a deviant attachment to religious ritual, and a desire for a new Moses, a messiah.

Both Marx and Freud, of course, had Jewish backgrounds. Their positions, in some sense, were personal attempts to make sense of their personal histories. But the form of their arguments is very easily turned to much more sinister purposes.

The depravity of contemporary anti-Semitism, even the sort that masquerades as enlightened opinion, is precisely this: what it despises in Judaism it actually despises in itself, and displaces it onto Judaism. It is driven by the inordinate desire to be more than human, to transcend the peculiarities that define us, which ends with what Augustine called the libido dominandi, the desire to dominate others. That is what makes it so disquieting.

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