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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Brute God

Salon has published a fascinating piece by rabbi Michael Lerner, former editor of Tikkun, who is obviously angry and horrified by the brutality in Gaza. I appreciate his courage. But one section of Lerner's essay raises questions which go well beyond the current atrocities...
And this is precisely where the American Jewish community and Jews around the world have taken a turn that is disastrous, by turning the Israeli nation state into “the Jewish state” and making Israel into an idol to be worshiped rather than a political entity like any other political entity, with strengths and deep flaws. Despairing of spiritual salvation after God failed to show up and save us from the Holocaust, increasing numbers of Jews have abandoned the religion of compassion and identification with the most oppressed that was championed by our biblical prophets, and instead come to worship power and to rejoice in Israel’s ability to become the most militarily powerful state in the Middle East. If a Jew today goes into any synagogue in the U.S. or around the world and says, “I don’t believe in God or Torah and I don’t follow the commandments,” most will still welcome you in and urge you to become involved. But say, “I don’t support the State of Israel,” and you are likely to be labeled a “self-hating Jew” or anti-Semite, scorned and dismissed. As Aaron said of the Golden Calf in the Desert, “These are your Gods, O Israel.”

The worship of the state makes it necessary for Jews to turn Judaism into an auxiliary of ultra-nationalist blindness. Every act of the State of Israel against the Palestinian people is seen as sanctioned by God. Each Sabbath Jews in synagogues around the world are offered prayers for the well-being of the State of Israel but not for our Arab cousins. The very suggestion that we should be praying for the Palestinian people’s welfare is seen as heresy and proof of being “self-hating Jews.”

The worship of power is precisely what Judaism came into being to challenge. We were the slaves, the powerless, and though the Torah talks of God using a strong arm to redeem the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, it simultaneously insists, over and over again, that when Jews go into their promised land in Canaan (not Palestine) they must “love the stranger/the Other,” have one law for the stranger and for the native born, and warns “do not oppress the stranger/the Other.”
The history lesson given in this last paragraph is, of course, questionable. There is no evidence outside of the Bible that Jews were slaves in Egypt. If one insists on accepting Biblical evidence, then the story told in Judges, Joshua and elsewhere hardly speaks of "love" for the stranger. In any objective reading of the texts, the conquest of Canaan is presented as the world's first genocide.

Although debating ancient history is always a seductive diversion, let's not spend too much time mired in unresolvable arguments. Our main concern is Now.

Recently, while traveling incognito through some obscure byways of the internet, I've communicated with a number of Israelis, maintaining my temper even when the effort required biting my tongue until it bled. These interviews corroborated Lerner's claim. None of the Israelis with whom I've spoken have seemed religious. They had no real belief in God, or in anything that smacks of the supernatural. (For example, they seemed to think that my interest in the Qabala was odd. Which it is.)

And yet -- paradox of paradoxes! -- they think, speak and act exactly like the fundamentalist Christians who have annoyed so many of us for decades.

It's all there: The same arrogance, the same condescension, the same superiority, the same rote answers for everything, the same inability to question one's preconceptions. Most importantly: Both groups share the same conspiratorial mindset.

(Well, not exactly the same; there are differences. For the southern evangelical, the Great Conspiracy is ultimately the devil's work. If geologists say that dinosaurs predated man by millions of years, one may confidently blame His Satanic Majesty: He's the one who put those bones in the ground and misled all those smartypants brainiacs. For the fundamentalist Israelator, the Great Conspiracy is predicated on the pseudoscientific postulate of an Evil Gene running rampant in all non-Jews. Every goy is a secret Hitler. Gentiles eternally dream of Der Tag, of the day when they can finally haul out their hidden cannisters of Zyklon B and finish the job.)

My question is this: How can so many modern Jews be atheists/agnostics and fundamentalist freakzoids at the same time?

A long time ago, someone said that David Ben Gurion didn't believe in God yet remained fervently convinced that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews. I've never been able to get my head around that contradiction, even though others seem willing to accept it with a philosophical shrug.

The heart of modern Judaism can be summed up by two words: Auschwitz and Israel. Those two concepts are real. Moses, Abraham, the whole of the Tanakh: One may toss all such matters into the "mythology" file and remain a Jew. Auschwitz and Israel are the only two really real things that have ever happened in the history of the planet.

I've known Jews who embraced Wicca and other pagan beliefs. They explicitly renounced the Jewish religion and even performed ceremonies intended to "heal" the psychic wounds allegedly inflicted by the patriarchal tradition into which they were born. (I consider such rites silly. Of course, I've never seen much point in any religious ritual.) Yet even though these Jews were now singing the praises of Herne the Hunter and Cernunnos and Hecate and Cthulhu-knows-who-else, their families did not shun them or sit shiva for them.

On the other hand, I knew a Jewish woman whose family sat shiva for her after she married a gentile from a Greek Orthodox family. This woman was irreligious. So was her husband. So was her family. Yet they could not tolerate her marrying a non-Jew, and she was dead to them for the rest of their lives.

With elegant and passionate casuistry, Jews will deny that this contradictory behavior has anything to do with hatred. But of course it does. Hatred is the birthright of the entire human family, including the Jew.

The standard answer here is that being a Jew encompasses more than the Jewish religion. Thus, a Jew may become an atheist or dabble in non-Jewish faiths (except Christianity and Islam) while remaining a Jew.

But I now question that presumption. I argue that even the secular Jew may not be as secular as he or she thinks.

Reverence for The State -- any state -- should be considered a form of religion. The same can be said for reverence of the Tribe, the Race, or the Ethnic Group. Nazi Germany provides us with a too-obvious example; one may also point to Mao's China and Stalin's USSR -- and even to the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist organizations. I think we can even see the same principle at work in those primitive regions of America where "patriots" revere the totems of national identity (the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance) while remaining unable to memorize any of the Bill of Rights -- except, of course, for their beloved Second Amendment.

These people are not genuine patriots. But they are capital-B Believers.

Is it useful to draw a distinction between racism, nationalism and fundamentalist religion? Perhaps these three are a trinity. The racist, the nationalist and the fundamentalist all worship differing forms of the same deity: The Brute God.
there is no contradiction between secularism and religion in this case. Ben-Gurion and others adopted biblical mythology and twisted those myths into history. Israel needed an invented history and an invented language to bind together Polish Jews, and Moroccan Jews, and American Jews, who were as different as gentile Poles, Moroccans and Americans culturally. that's how an atheist can so fervently believe in the Bible, because it was transformed into 'history' through dodgy archeology and other nonsense.
if it interests you, see 'the bible and Zionism'.
Princess Bride reference?
Joe, One of your very best posts. Would that all could read this, comprehend the distinctions and realize just what 'religion' today has morphed into.

I have nothing to add.

In case You missed it

But You really should read the book.
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