August 28, 2008

Jesus

Whenever I have an article published in the international press, I get emails from Christians telling me how much they and Jesus love me, and wanting me to know how much better my life would be if only I could accept him as my savior. Alternatively, they ask me to explain those Biblical quotations they believe predict Jesus.

My usual reaction is to politely inform them that I have a direct line to God, thank you, and see no logical reason why I should need an intermediary--certainly not one who manifestly appears to have met neither his proclaimed goals nor those of any contemporaries who dreamed of messianic salvation. As for resorting to the Bible, the only concepts of messianism the Jews had were for a real-life king to return to power or else either a Divinely initiated state of world peace and universal ethics or a total change in the natural order. All of these we still await thousands of years later. And if the Biblical prophets referred to any human incarnations, they thought in terms of the proximate future, not hundreds of years ahead.

There is, of course, another response, which I only go into if I get a pigheaded refusal to take "no thank you" for an answer. I do not believe Jesus ever existed. To be more precise, the Jesus of Christianity is a mythical amalgam of ideas culled from Dead Sea sects dreaming of salvation, Pharisee popular preachers and folk healers, and anti-Roman political revolutionaries. The whole persona is a concoction culled from different sources, created to appeal to Roman pagans, and then modified to meet other traditions they wanted to impress. Essential Jewish messages were watered down or reworked to make them more accessible. A sort of popular, anodyne version of Judaism emerged to appeal to those who found the Hebrews too strict or too nationalist.

I have no gripe with popularists or reformers, particularly if they meet a clear need. But why should I go for a secondary version when the original still works perfectly well for me and makes more sense. As for someone having the insolence and the naivete to tell me that my relationship with my God, which underpins my life, is not good enough, I can only laugh and ask how in Heaven he or she can claim to know what only God can.

In truth, personalities play a far less important role in Judaism than does Torah itself. What matters to me is that direct covenant with God, reinforced by my own experiences which cannot be overruled by any prophet or miracle worker, just as miracles can have no impact on the Sinai Covenant. Being Jewish is a commitment to an ancient spiritual and a historical tradition that satisfies one's religious needs and aspirations.

Yehudah Halevy argued in Kuzari that other monotheistic religions emerged from Judaism so it makes sense to go back to the source. Nowadays, academics argue that Rabbinic Judaism is as much a creation out of Biblical Judaism as Christianity is. Arguably, what really forced them apart was the Christian decision in the fourth century to gain political power. To do so, they needed to assert their radical difference from Judaism and make sure they eradicated any internal heresies. Hence their passion for converting people according to their dogma that only they can be right and everyone else must be wrong. Christians actually killed off far more Christians for heresy than they did Jews. Just as nowadays more Muslims are killed by each other, in the Sunni versus Shia dispute, than by anyone else.

Daniel Boyarin (in Border Lines and other books) argues that it was very difficult to differentiate Jewish Christians from Christian Jews or other sects of Jewish origin during the first two hundred years after the destruction of the Temple. Jews and Christians then focused on heresy as the way to establish their separate identities. Since then, both parties have been constantly redefining heresy. In each era, a new set of criteria emerge to build on the past, and in the process create new fissures and subdivisions. Just think of the divisions in Christianity--Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, in all its varieties--and these are only the largest groups.

I object to Christian hypocrisy as much as I do to Jewish, but I deeply respect all humans regardless of religious affiliation and beliefs who are good caring human beings. If Judaism and Christianity were simply two variations on a religious theme, like, say, Catholicism and Protestantism, then switching would not be such a big deal. But the significance of Jesus is a major issue. Historically, it is associated in Jewish eyes with idolatry and undermining the purity of a non-material, non-human God. It came to represent the very Middle Eastern cults that Judaism distanced itself from. If, as our texts emphasize, God loves humanity despite our failings, why would we need anything more? And if Jesus IS God, then why add another concept, another name?

For a Jew, adopting another set of religious ideas, especially from one that has consistently tried to obliterate Jews or demean them, would require either persuasive ideas or some sort of escapism. Those Jews who do convert, usually have no deep experience of their own tradition (unless of course the conversion is in response to a political crisis, career advancement, or a partner). As for those who claim to be living religious Jewish lives but believe in Jesus as the Messiah, that seems to me to be just another variant of Christianity. Christianity is about Christ. If Christ is your redeemer, then that is where you belong. (And, no, it is not just the same as those Chabad Hassidim who think their dead rebbe is coming back, because they, and he, have never been associated with any breakaway.)

Judaism is a religion, but it is also much more. It includes the idea of a people, its history, its land, and its way of life, in addition to its faith. Different Jews emphasize different aspects. But certain religious traditions are so antithetical to the Jewish experience that, although one can feel close on a human level, adopting their religion makes no sense to the Jewish soul. Certainly there is room for variations on a messianic dream; but convert me to Jesus? You might as well get me to switch my allegiance from Manchester United to Charlton Athletic.

August 21, 2008

Olympic Fraud

[To hear the audio version of this post, click here.]

No, I'm not talking about under-the-legal-age Chinese gymnasts, bribed judges, or even a cute Chinese girl lip syncing because she’s prettier than the real voice. I'm talking about the myth of the Olympic Games, that they represent some sort of sporting ideal in contrast to the dirty, politicized, cheating, dishonest material world we live in. We so desperately want dreams, ideals without any self-discipline or self-denial, we grasp at any chimera.

In ancient Greece there was a myth, too, that all wars stopped for the games. But we know better. We know that the rewards of prestige and money were so great that competitors cheated, maimed, and killed to win, and winners were allowed to get away with murder because of their prestige. The Olympic Games were a fusion of the authority of pagan religion and the worship of human physique. These are not ideals we should try to emulate. The sheer battle for national prestige reminds me of the idea that sport is war by other means.

The Olympic Games were restarted in Greece in 1859. But it was towards the end of the nineteenth century, that Baron Coubertin created the International Olympic Committee with its rules, conventions, and all the faux nostalgia that only those who need to avoid looking at themselves in the present are capable of. This was, after all, the era of white, aristocratic, Christian supremacy. The first myth was amateurism as the pursuit of a goal out of sheer love of competition, regardless of outcome (something only the wealthy (or subsidized), who have no need to scramble to earn a living, are privileged enough to indulge in).

As in ancient Greece, local states, companies, and individuals funded their outstanding athletes (indirectly, of course, to get round the rules) and ensured they were well taken care of. The Olympics dropped shamateurism in the 1970's. Then countries like East Germany took children, and trained, even deformed and drugged them, to the point where soon after winning glory their bodies began to collapse. In China infants are selected and taken away from home to be trained, their bodies molded the way they use to bind feet to keep them small, their puberty retarded in pursuit of glory, and, it appears, they are psychologically damaged for life. We focus on successes--but think of all the abandoned, crushed little kids discarded on the way. Rich countries can pour so many resources into their teams, doctors, psychiatrists, physiotherapists, technology, equipment and training centers. And many countries offer inducements to poach athletes. Britain conveniently made the Afrikaner Zola Budd a citizen in order to compete in 1984.

Then came the scandals of drugs and the questions of where one draws a line between legitimate and illegitimate drugs. Is a cup of coffee or a cold suppressant a drug? Where the rewards are so great abuse is inevitable. As with drugs in general, huge resources are thrown into the mainly ineffective fight against them and as a result they are pushed underground and nasty people make a lot more money out of them. People want them; they'll find a way of getting them and hiding them.

The myth that politics do not enter the Olympics is rubbish too. I do not just refer to the Nazis, or to various boycotts, or even the inhuman incursion of Palestinian terror into the Munich games. The Olympic movement, contrary to its own ideals, bows to pressure and allows athletes to refuse to compete against those they do not want to, as happened this time when an Iranian athlete withdrew rather than face an Israeli, without penalty or rebuke. The games must go on because there is too much at stake financially to allow principle to get in the way.

Almost all sport now generates so much wealth through telecommunications and marketing. Richer teams buy good players and inevitably do better than those who rely solely on home grown talent. But if we live in a world where wealth can buy anything, where do you draw lines? Is it even possible to draw lines that cannot be easily bypassed?

From a Jewish religious point of view, of course, anything that damages or degrades the human body, physically or mentally, is morally unacceptable. Yet I notice that, despite agreeing in principle, few religions have succeeded effectively in banning, say, tobacco, or different forms of surgical or chemical bodily enhancement. In the pursuit of artificial beauty, humans undergo all sorts of pain and medical modifications. And one hears of new legal drug-enhanced memory and brainpower. Is that right or wrong? If moral authority fiddles to suit its tastes and turns blind eyes, how can we object to sport doing it?

So let us non-Olympians enjoy the thrills and the competitions, regardless of how unequal or unfair they may be, but realize it is morally, politically, and every other way you can think of, still a fraud.

August 14, 2008

Solzhenitsyn

[To hear the audio version of this post, click on the "play" arrow below.]



Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died recently, was a great writer. For my generation he symbolized the emergence of a Russian protest movement from within Russia itself. Initially he was welcomed by anti-Stalinist Nikita Khrushchev, but in the anti-Khrushchev reaction he was suppressed. His books about the Russian prison camps, the gulags, were required reading for anyone who claimed to be interested in either culture or politics.

He also blamed the Jews for everything that went wrong in Russia before, during, and after communism. It was no accident that he became a passionate member of the Russian Orthodox Church. His distaste for Jews illustrated once again, as if we needed reminding, that often great art goes hand in hand with great hatreds. We so desperately want to believe that our "personalities" are also good human beings that we delude ourselves into denying that nasty aspect of humanity that many artists tap into.

Roald Dahl is another example that comes to mind, or Jose Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, famous writers but seriously flawed human beings. And, of course, the archetypal Richard Wagner whose disgraceful book, Jews in Music, describing Jews as infecting and degrading pure culture, seems to have been the inspiration of Solzhenitsyn’s two-part book about Russia and its Jews, Two Hundred Years Together, published in 2001 and 2002.

Solzhenitsyn blames the Jews almost exclusively for the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. True, he does not use the terminology of a "Jewish conspiracy", but he does accuse the Jews of wartime cowardice and evasion of active duty. (Incidentally, my grandfather served for many years in the Russian army and ended up fighting the Japanese in 1904.)

Of course, Jews were heavily represented in the anti-Czarist movements. Marx was a nominal, if negative, Jew, and lots of Jews joined the Communist party and rose up its ranks. Trotsky is the obvious example. There were just as many Jews, proportionally, amongst the Nihilists. But then, the Russian intelligentsia in general was heavily invested in all these revolutionary movements. Of course, the really evil men were Lenin and Stalin, and even Solzhenitsyn did not try to pretend they were Jewish. Besides which, Solzhenitsyn says nothing about the horrific conditions and constant oppression heaped upon the Jews for hundreds of years by the Czars and the Church, which were good enough reasons for so many Jews to want to see a change.

His anti-Semitism is clearly there, and reiterated in interviews and articles after his return to Russia, where he notably failed to support modern dissidents and democrats. His primitive desire was to see Russia return to a mythical, earlier, purer state of Christian orthodoxy and devoid of malign Jewish influence.

Coming at a time of increasing anti-Semitism in Russia and the rise of Russian neo-Nazis and extreme nationalists, this was grist to their mill. It just helped revive all those ancient antagonisms, the medieval libels of Jews poisoning wells, killing little children and drinking their blood, fifth columnists, in league with the Devil, and all the other sick rubbish that distilled itself into that notorious forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (It is a bestseller today in most Muslim countries.) Yes, indeed, Solzhenitsyn was revealing his and the Russian sickness for all to see. He looked and tried to present himself as a prophetic figure, but he was a false one.

As always, he has his defenders. So too do T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, both of whom have written enough revolting lines insulting to Jews to warrant the label anti-Semite.

Life has been better in the West for us Jews in general (rather than just for a few favored ones) these past 50 years that at any time since our exile began, with perhaps the exception of the Golden Age of Spain. But one just has to look at the number of the most pernicious sites on the internet to realize that anti-Semitism is as virulent a disease as ever and lurking beneath the surface, even in the USA, whose liberal laws on free speech allow almost anything. I suppose you know, for example, that Judaism encourages the rape of children under the age of 5. (And I’m not going to give you the URL to check it out, because the more who do the higher it goes up the Google ranking!!)

We have focused recently perhaps too much on Muslim anti-Semitism and have underplayed a lot of other hatreds. And, sadly, almost all fundamentalist religions, be they Muslim or Orthodox Christian, still think in medieval terms. Their Gospels still encourage the view of Jews as the antichrist, and the evil is constantly perpetrated amongst the millions of their poorly educated faithful. Their Pope John has not yet arrived. The exceptions prove the rule. Even those who profess to love us usually have an agenda which involves either our conversion or destruction. Take your pick.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, as we know. We need to remember, too, that even great artists can be grubby, nasty little men.

August 07, 2008

The 9th of Av and the Holocaust

[To hear the audio version of this post, click here.]

In his book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Tony Judt describes in detail how virtually every European state simply refused to acknowledge the Holocaust openly or to purge its society of the perpetrators.

All kinds of different reasons are given, such as the guilt of those who participated directly or indirectly in the Nazi evil. France tried to rewrite history and pretend that what happened to the Jews was the fault of the Nazis, even though Vichy introduced laws and sent Jews to death without the Nazis even asking. Poles massacred returning Jews, and Communist states treated the Holocaust exclusively as an anti-Communist tragedy, shorn of its Jewish dimension. The British and the Americans were so busy fighting the Soviet threat they, too, played down the catastrophe and employed Nazis.

I recall, as a child, my father giving me a book by Lord Russell of Liverpool with graphic photos of Bergen-Belsen at liberation. But soon it disappeared from bookstores. It took many years before German writers like Grass began publicly to seek to exorcise the past. Both Germany and Austria were happy to have ex-Nazis as presidents.

We now know from many different sources how survivors simply refused to talk, either because they wanted to forget the horrors or because they were so busy building a new life they simply wanted to look, and go, forward. Although many Israeli politicians used the Holocaust to justify its existence, Israel itself treated survivors with disdain because its modern fighting ethos wanted to repudiate the passivity of Eastern European Jewry. Only the Warsaw Ghetto fighters were honored. Indeed, the treatment of Holocaust survivors in Israel to this day remains a scandal.

It was not until the public and highly controversial trial of Eichmann in 1961 that things began to change. The Six Day War was a catalyst too, because for the first time Jews around the world felt able to assert their pride. It is hard for anyone nowadays to appreciate how radical a change this victory made for European and, indeed, Russian Jews. For the first time I felt comfortable walking the streets with my kippah visible.

Most modern Jews had always tried to find a way of expressing their Jewish identity without having to be too religious. Zionism was the obvious choice. You could give money; feel good without having to change the way you lived. The reaction against Israel, as the memories of '67 began to pale, led to Zionism losing some of its allure. Now the Holocaust became the substitute. Books, memorials, museums flooded the Western world. Laws were passed outlawing Holocaust denial. The hope was this would somehow act as an antidote to genocide or anti-Semitism. If in some areas it has, in others, sadly the contrary is true.

Israel initiated two Holocaust memorial days, one by the state and the other by the Rabbinate. On the other hand, the Charedi world gives added weight to the 9th of Av that commemorates the destruction of two Temples, two Jewish states, and the massacre of half of the Jewish population, treating it as the day it mourns those it lost in the Holocaust. They argue that the Holocaust was just the culmination of the "vale of tears" that is exile. Despite everything that has happened in the Land of Israel, we are still in a state of spiritual exile and mourning. Our alienation can only be removed by the Messiah. Their opposition to the Knesset-decreed memorial and that of the state rabbanut is that both are unnecessary. One should bolster existing custom, as indeed happened when the rabbis of the Talmud decided to put the two destructions of Jerusalem and its Temples, which happened on different days, together.

There is a legitimate debate as to whether the Holocaust was just the culmination, with the technology and logistic commands of modern states, of an ancient hatred. Or whether it was something unique, sui generis, and should be remembered as such.

The Charedi world resists the criticism that it does not observe state memorials and the accusation of not taking the memory of the Holocaust seriously. No one, they say, as an identifiable group within Judaism, suffered greater losses than they. What answers Hitler better than restoring to overflowing the fountains of Eastern European Jewry so drastically destroyed, and by increasing tenfold the birthrate of the Jewish people, whom the Nazis hoped to exterminate? Who is doing more for the survival of the Jewish people spiritually, they or those who pay lip service to the negativity of a memorial but ignore the true victory of Jewish religious survival? (I would feel happier about such an argument if they were also taking practical steps, like fighting in an army of defense.)

Frankly, I do incorporate all our suffering into the fast. But I am reminded of the reason the rabbis give for the destructions. We brought them upon ourselves. To me, the message of Tisha B'Av lies most of all in its commemoration of sinat chinam (needless hatred). And, sadly, all points of the Jewish spectrum are as guilty of this today as they ever have been. What is the purpose of memorials, Holocaust or religious, if they change nothing?