Friday, May 01, 2009

The Jewish Antisemite

The "Jewish Anti-semite" is a commonly invoked pejorative appelative these days. It seems like on oxymoron: If you're Jewish, why criticize yourself? Doesn't make any sense! Come to think of it, though, I just realized that --along with all the other long-despised and utterly-shunned appelatives such as "kopher", "apikoros", "upgafurune yid, nebech", I am probably also a Jewish Antisemite.

Let me explain.

Antisemitism --the hatred of Jews-- has existed ever since the fall of the Roman Empire in the fourth century (recall that the Romans actually granted the Jews special privileges such as not having to worship Roman Gods), when Christianity was burgeoning and it resented the stubbornness of its parent-sect, Judaism, in rejecting the message of one of its own. However, the prototype for what can be called "modern antisemitism" is the movement in Western Europe in the late 19th century.

At that time, the Jews of Western and Central Europe had been "emancipated" for nearly a century and were generally given equal opportunity to Christians to engage in whatever trade they chose and live wherever they wished. This indeed led to a precipitous drop in the level of Jewish observance, appearance and culture. However, Reform Jews of the late nineteenth century still identified with their faith and attended synagogue periodically and sought to provide their children with a distinctively Jewish education, in addition to their regular education. Some Christians, however, felt that the Jews hadn't come far enough. Considering their own culture and religion superior to that of the Jews, they pondered the implication of Jews still living a lifestyle that they deemed "inferior". Is it that they are genetically incapable of anything "better"? Thus was born the movement of "racial antisemitism". It is the rejection of the Jew based on deeply-rooted, immutable racial grounds, not because of their actual practiced religion. This ideology is associated with the Eugenics movement and is also the force behind the Nazi hatred of Jews.

Now I am not devoid of any emotional drives. I do find comfort and support in the Jewish community. I often feel that Jews understand me better than non-Jews; I have an easier time communicating with people who speak Yiddish, for example, and have been raised with customs identical to mine. But I have also made it my modus vivendi to analyze, criticise and dissect every argument I come across. When I was told in Yeshiva: this is how you do it because the Shulkhan Arukh says so, I asked: But why does the Shulkhan Arukh say so? When I found the source in the Rambam, Rosh or Riph (the big three) I did not content myself but followed the trail to the Talmud and from there I eventually hopped on the bandwagon taking me all the way back to plain and simple "miqra": reading the Torah and seeking to understand it as it was originally meant to be understood. What did the author have in mind in penning those words? I would ask.

After a long, exhausting, tortuous investigation I made some shocking discoveries. It turned out that the Jewish culture, with all the laws and customs it entails, were all originally meant to aid us in establishing an optimally functioning society, nothing more. Its the tremendously powerful force of "status quo" that did the rest in shaping the Jewish religion and culture. Through the Roman-Mishnaic era, the Middle ages, and --for some Jews-- the Modern Era, the Jews simply refused to allow any modification of this long-antiquated legal and theological system. They held on tenaciously to their hand-me-downs. That, and only that is the ultimate rationale behind Judaism as a distinct religion from Christianity. Think about it: Jesus from Nazareth preached to the Jews 2,000! years ago. He urged them: Stop being silly! Sabbath was meant to be a day of relaxation and pleasure. Surely healing someone on the Sabbath accords very well with such a noble day; why should the medical practice be prohibited on the Sabbath? He also said: Cut out the bullshit! God doesn't need your "sacrifice". Do you really think that an all-powerful omnipresent God needs the fats and blood of an animal for propitiation in order to grant a worshipper his wishes? What God really wants is compassion, kindness towards the poor and upright behavior! He also said: Instead of focusing on the ritual hand-washing before meals, why not invest our energies to avoid what really defiles a man: lies, and deceit!

Book of Matthew. Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.

Take note also of the following passage in Matthew:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

From this last passage we see that Jesus presented himself as a reformer. He sought to eliminate the elements of Judaism that were no longer serving a useful purpose and instead highlight those elements that did serve a purpose. He sought to augment the existing law and the essential spirit behind it by getting rid of those laws that had become detrimental to the spirit of the original law.

Accordingly, it is firm rational affirmation that Christianity is indeed a "superior" religion to Judaism. Take special note of my wording: I'm, using the comparative here. I'm not saying that in absolute terms Christianity is a valid way of life. I'm saying that despite all the problems Christianity has exhibited through the ages, it's the full package that needs to be evaluated. I know that Jews were generally more educated than Christians. I know that the Christians made up "blood libels" and ignorantly blamed the Jews for their daily woes without having any basis whatsoever (such as the plague of 1333). But remember: two wrongs don't make a right. The essential message of Christianity is in fact more valid than Judaism, from a rational perspective (considering how the religion has an observable beneficial effect on society). Negating the value of Christianity simply by invoking those millions of poor, ignorant peasants who desperately sought a scape-goat for their troubles and found the Jew as the perfectly suitable candidate -- is utterly missing the point here. The messenger does not matter; the message is what counts.

I strongly admire the courage and persistence demonstrated by the French revolutionaries in the Late 18th century. There's no question that the result of all that chaos -- the Napoleonic regime-- was a major boon for Europe. It opened up the eyes of millions of Europeans and showed them what freedom was like. It empowered the majority "third estate" (commoners) through Europe,regardless of nationality. It emphasized equal opportunity over right-of-birth --the same ideal that we have come to admire so strongly in America and what has made this country so great. But let's not forget that there is effort to be made in order to achieve success. There was no silver bullet in the Napoleonic message. Those emancipated peasants would have to work really hard to overcome centuries of prejudice in order to trump their erstwhile superiors.

Jews had been emancipated by Napoleon as well and they were expected to make the same backbreaking effort for success, just like the rest of the emancipated. Did they pass the test? Well, it depends on how you look it it! Is the glass half full or half empty? Apparently, the Christian critics of the late 19th century who advocated Racial Antisemitism believed that the Jews had failed; they hadn't done enough to utilize their liberty in order to achieve true equality in rights as well as culture. If I were to score the test I would definitely not have failed them, especially the German Jews who made monumental progress and showed great bravery in reasoning their way out of a flawed, outdated and worthless system.

Regardless of the correctness of the ideas swirling in the mind of the 19th century advocate of Racial Antisemitism, as a Jew I would have greatly welcomed such criticism. Educated people know that being criticized is a good thing. It prompts them to reevaluate their positions and refine their behavior and stance on the issues under discussion. It's like the aphorism that goes: stay close to your friend but be even closer to your enemy. It's the enemy that makes a person great. It's the immunities and defenses that one develops against an enemy that ultimately distinguishes the winner from the loser in the game of life. Someone who only has friends is the real loser. If I was living in 1880's Germany or Austria or France I would be very appreciative and receptive to criticism, regardless of whether it's well-intentioned or not. As a result, I would have learned to accelerate my pace towards assimilation and I would have theoretically avoided the all-out catastrophe that ensued a half-century later.

So, to repeat the question: is the Jew (who identifies as such) as a racial being inferior to the "Nordic" race? Yes! Do I hate myself? No! Do I self-criticize myself and acknowledge the painful truth that I was not born into the greatest race in the world? Yes! Does this motivate me to do something about it? Absolutely! Do I have negative feelings about my self-worth? Not at all! It is folks who refuse to acknowledge the problem who should have negative feelings about themselves! I am just playing out my hand as best as I could.

Some players are dealt pocket aces, some pocket jacks, some ace-king and some seven-deuce. I sure wish I was the one holding the aces but I'm not. I'm on a draw! It's a long shot. With some luck and gritty determination I may get there or bluff my way into winning the pot but at least I have the clarity of mind to read my own hand: It's not an AK, I need help, fast!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Raison d'etre of Biblical Commandments

I had a debate with my older brother last night on this topic. I already knew approximately his stance on this but I sought to define it better and put myself in his shoes trying to perceive religion the way he does. In this article I'd like to break down the purpose of Biblical commandments and injunctions according to the various schools of thought, some of which have existed for Millenia.

1) my position. My view is that biblical jurisprudence is the natural man-made outcome of historical conditions in the Ancient Near East. Some case laws in the Covenant Code (parashath mishpatim), for example, are found almost verbatim in the Hammurabi code, which was codified long before the bible, indisputably. No modern religious adherent would posit that the Hammurabi code was inspired by God; all evidence points that Hammurabi and his lieutenants invented and compiled the code for the benefit of the people; it's a thoroughly natural process. Likewise, the Bible, bearing great resemblance to the Hammurabi code as well as Egyptian laws and customs and others, is the offshoot of human endeavor.

Every single law had a 100% "rational" explanation when it was first codified. For example, in modern times, the FDA forbids the use of red # 2 (Amaranth) as food coloring as it is a suspected carcinogen based on the results of surveys or experiments. This is a "rational law" because the action it forbids can be associated with an undesirable consequence using our reasoning faculties. The law says, you must not pass a red light; another example of rational law.

Likewise, when the bible says "do not eat blood", it is because it was thought to cause bodily harm, possibly due to its attraction of bacteria and pathogens in the absence of refrigeration. When the Bible says "do eat matsah and maror on Pesach" it's because matsah is the more genteel, classy food as opposed to the vulgar, fermented hamets. Maror, also, as a vegetable only affordable by the wealthy is an appropriate item to include on the menu of a meal which celebrates liberation from slavery. Perfectly rational.

Many laws of the Torah have --over the centuries-- ceased to serve the purpose they were originally meant to serve, which created a major conundrum. Do we continue to observe them or do we modify and revise them to make them accommodating to an evolving culture? Over the years, that have been many groups within Judaism who have chosen one path or the other, conservatism or reform. Christianity is an example of a Jewish movement that chose to cross out from the text those laws that no longer seemed relevant. Jesus denigrated the Sabbath (by healing a person on it, how ironic that such an activity came to be viewed as "unsuitable for a relaxation day"), ate without washing his hand first and his disciples even had the chutspah to declare circumcision unnecessary. The Pharisees, from which Rabbinic Judaism is derived, were situated on the other end of the spectrum. They insisted that everything in the bible is 100% valid, no matter how unreasonable the laws seem to us. They, moreover, concocted intricate bylaws designed to bolster the antiquated biblical law and they then claimed that this "oral law" is just as important as the "written law".

2) Symbolism. This is my brother's opinion and is purportedly advanced by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the German, Orthodox Rabbi of the nineteenth century. According to this school, the Torah teaches us what kind of behavior is good and what is bad. The Torah tells us what the formula of life is. We must have faith that God knows what's best for us, just like we have faith in our doctors when they prescribe medicine or advise us to "sacrifice" immediate pleasures for the sake of long-term health. We don't kill other people because God has willed that such an activity be immoral. We sit in a Sukkah on Sukkoth for the same reason: God sees this activity as symbolic of "good" and thus its observance is required for us to remain God's good, chosen people.

According to this theory, associating Biblical material directly with physical welfare is "apikorsus" (heresy). We must NOT look for rationalistic explanations because there truly are none. The benefit to society of its members not murdering each other is only secondary to the primary benefit of it being a manifestation of god's will. He views a such a society as perfect and THAT is why we don't kill each other. It's a formula that we cannot understand and must not try to understand. God reveals to us in the Torah what the formula is and it's up to us to follow it without question.

3) Kabbalistic explanations. This school, advanced, by the Zohar and Arizal, posits the existence of "olamoth" (worlds) beyond our physical perceptions that are affected by our actions. The Torah instructs us to behave in a manner that will achieve "tiqqun olam" (correction of the world).

4) We observe the Torah because god said so. Why did god say so? It does not matter! We must follow God's will and command.

This fourth school is the one adopted by most contemporary Orthodox observants. They put absolutely no thought at all into Orthodox practices. To them, it's a very simple construct: God tell us to do so and we must listen because God is almighty and all-powerful.

It's important to note the difference between the second, symbolic school and this last one. The symbolic school does not advise adherents that we do things simply because it's god's will. It acknowledges that god's will is tied to other, temporal as well atemporal events and practices. According to the symbolic school, it may be sensible to investigate the meaning of mitsvoth; however, this is done in order to discover the symbolic meaning of the commandments, in other words: how do these commandments provide a lesson or edification for us? If we don't find any edification in the mitsvoth, that's fine too, since the validity of the formula is still there. What should not be done, however, is attribute the mitsvoth to man-made codes of law designed to institute order within civilization.

The Reform movement as well as modern Christian scholars of the Old testament overwhelmingly espouse my school of thought, the first one.

Puritanical Orthodox observants espouse the second school, as per the advocacy of Rabbi Hirsch. Keep in mind that R, Hirsch is the ONLY Orthodox Jewish scholar who had thoroughly investigated the matters at hand and methodically and laboriously deflected all the missiles hurled at him from the liberal-minded elements who sought to trash orthodox observance. In other words: Rabbi Hirsch is all the Orthodox faith has to rely on, there is nothing else.

Thus, as irrational and closed-minded as the symbolic school seems to me and to many others, it's essential to comprehend it properly because ultimately it is the ONLY rational justification of continued observance of the Old Testament. It's the only conservative holdout that actually makes sense. If I had a polemic with my brother on this topic, there's no way I can defeat him using logic. The Symbolic school is logically unbreakable. There is one premise that I don't make and so I cannot draw the Orthodox conclusion: that God has created an immutable formula for "proper living". This is a very bold and pervasive claim that I find no evidence to establish (even if we premise the existence of God). Once this premise is established, though, one can logically and rationally proceed to infer the validity of modern Orthodox law.