Sunday, March 15, 2015

Two myths about Jews; Part 1

Two myths about Jews that distort nearly everyone’s thinking about Judaism and Israel.

The following essay discusses two important ideas that shape the myth of Jewishness. Those ideas are defined in Part 1 and their impacts on thought and behavior are discussed in Part 2. The core issue I discuss in Part 2 is how these myths are operative in nearly everyone’s mind, but that the more unconscious they are, the more likely they are to incline one towards anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. (Anti-Zionism: the compulsion to hold Israel to double standards and to blame Israel as the cause of many or most problems in the Middle East. Anti-Zionism culminates in the belief that Israel does not have the right to exist.)

1. The Myth of Chosenness
This can be summarized with the two canards that “1. Jews are chosen and others are not chosen; 2. that being chosen means Jews are inherently better than non-Jews.

2. The Myth of the Jew-As-Victim
This can be summarized with the canard that “Jews are supposed to be victims,” and when Jews don’t act like victims they need to be blamed, punished, and suppressed to return them to the status of victims. Sometimes the blame and suppression is a response to Jews being successful in various fields, but just as often it is simply a matter of a society that is failing or dysfunctional that needs to divert attention away from itself towards a scapegoat.

Part 1.

The Myth of Chosenness:
Discussing this concept, a friend of mine said:
“I grew a soft spot for Judaism after sharing hearts with [a friend]. But a Buddhist bud grew in me because they (Buddhists) don't choose, certainly not themselves, for the best jobs!”

My friend just put his finger on one of the great historical myths, and it looks like he didn't even know his finger was on it -- the idea that only Jews are chosen, and/or if you want to be chosen you have to be Jewish.

Jews as a ‘chosen people’ has its origins in the Bible, and it has become an important theological pillar in Rabbinic Judaism.
Here’s how I see it:

I do believe Jews are a "chosen people" although that's a term widely misunderstood and often used as a stick to beat us or a stick we use to beat ourselves. When someone hires you to do a job (teach a class, build a house, write a book), they've chosen you. They think you can do the job, and assume you'll do it well, but they may be critical along the way about your work or attitude, and perhaps even be unhappy in the end with the job you do.

So, we Jews believe God chose us. Those 7 simple words imply a vast mythology that has been translated into millenia of living history. We Jews have been chosen to do a job, NOT because we're inherently or genetically better than other people, although history and oppression may have done a fair amount of natural and unnatural selecting over the last 2000 years to make us into a fairly formidable intellectual cohort. We've been chosen (which translates existentially into "we have chosen ourselves") to be a priesthood people, to be a holy people for the sake of upholding and elevating our God and that God's morality, and in bringing that God and that God’s morality to the rest of the world. And if you want to strip God from the picture, nothing much changes. We’ve chosen ourselves to advocate for a universal morality, and for the principle that organizes that morality (a Divine “organizer”).

This is the basic idea, but it doesn’t mean that all or most Jews are actively pursuing these goals. It does mean that for 3000 years this has been one of the principles driving the thoughts and actions of many Jews, especially the rabbis and leading thinkers of most Jewish communities throughout most of these years.

The theology of chosenness and the existential act of self-choosing evolved together. We Jews took on the job (and continue to take it on). Others, mostly, didn't (and don’t). Christianity absolves the individual of the need for works and law. This is one of the primary arguments of the Christian Bible – Christians are absolved from carrying the law (eg. Epistle to the Romans). Instead, Jesus, as Savior does it all once you accept Him. Nonetheless, plenty of Christians, in spite of that, realize that even if Jesus does it all for them, they still have to do it all, too! Read your Kierkegaard, Barth, Niebuhr. Or read your Epistle to the Romans carefully - it still requires being good (law) and doing good (works).

Nonetheless, most Christians (and Muslims, etc) realize that they have to do at least SOMETHING for their own salvation. When they choose to devote themselves to being ethical, compassionate, educated, and/or helping the weak and the poor, they are choosing themselves in a specifically Jewish way even though they do not self-identify as Jews. In the end, history confirms that Christians have chosen themselves to promote virtually the same universal morality as that defined by Jews and the Hebrew Bible.

Buddhists, also are serious self-choosers in this Jewish sense, even though there’s absolutely nothing (to my knowledge) about being “chosen” in Buddhism, and there is little evidence that Judaism has had a significant influence on Buddhist theology. One chooses this particular Buddhist path for the sake of seeking higher states. And those higher states ineluctably include acting with higher standards of morality and compassion. Buddhists who choose this kind of path are not choosing to be Jewish. They are choosing to be Buddhists in a way that broadly overlaps with the Jewish sense of being chosen.

Thus, it is obvious both theologically and existentially that the Jewish idea of chosenness is not limited to Jews.

Now, some Jews will argue that the idea of being chosen is uniquely Jewish, and one can only be chosen by being part of the Jewish people. I disagree. I am distinguishing between the general act of taking on spiritual/moral leadership (chosenness) with the specifically Jewish form of this act. Paul sought to open the Jewish doors of chosenness to Gentiles. Although I don’t agree with Paul on many matters, I think he got that right. (See John Gager’s The Origins of Anti-Semitism, Part IV: The Case of Paul for a careful and insightful analysis of this position.) Just as the Torah is a text for all humanity, and not just for the Jewish people, so the task of chosenness, though spearheaded by the Jewish people, is not, nor should it be exclusive to Jews.

And let me repeat, the Jewish sense of being chosen has NOTHING to do with a belief in genetic or religious superiority. And unlike Muslim and Christian aspirations for establishing their faith as the one, true, and only faith, the Jewish sense of being chosen utterly rejects religious coercion. Nor does it depend on popular acclaim for its substantiation. That Jews are a distinct minority is irrelevant to the importance we place on the idea of chosenness.

In sum, Jews didn't take the best jobs (ie the priesthood tasks, and particularly the jobs of promoting one law and one moral standard for all people), leaving none for anyone else. There are as many “best jobs” as people to take them. Indeed, there’s a “best job” waiting for every single human on the planet. All you have to do is step up!

Nonetheless, the Jewish idea of being a chosen people is bound up with an extremely negative and hate-filled set of counter-ideas. As with every powerful, world-changing idea, chosenness casts a dark and dangerous shadow behind it. From it devolved the idea of Jewish superiority and its negative amplification, that Jews are diabolical and seek world domination. It is bound up with the belief of Jewish spiritual arrogance, as expressed in both Christian and Muslim texts; that Judaism is intolerant of other faiths; that Jews seek to eliminate other religions; that Jews believe there is only one way to know and find God. All of these are false theologically (and also, for the most part, existentially), but they nonetheless maintain a psychological grip on our thinking, Jew and non-Jew alike. The psychological and social impact of this reality is discussed in Part 2 of this essay.

The Myth of Jew as Victim:
Unlike the former myth, this one does not arise from any theological foundations. It is a product of the long history of Jewish exile, with Jews living in a state of social otherness and political disenfranchisement. And in that sense, this is not a myth at all. It has been a primary theme in Jewish reality, a theme that only fairly recently has began to be challenged by the counter-history of modern Zionism. But Zionism has not brought an end to the history of Jew-As-Other and Jew-As-Victim. It has simply brought on another chapter in the story, with different dynamics. The Jew remains vulnerable to victimization around the world, as we read in the newspaper regularly, from the bombing of the Argentine Jewish Community Center in 1994, to rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel (a daily matter for over 10 years until the Gaza war of 2014), to the targeting and murder of Jews from Mumbai to Kenya to Bulgaria to Belgium to France to the US. This is all ugly living history. It is not myth.

The Jew-As-Victim becomes a myth when it morphs in the human mind to “the Jew is supposed to be a victim.” This insidious transformation has taken on a life of its own, distorting nearly everyone’s thinking. From this perspective, Jews are not supposed to act with self-confidence, and Israel is expected to tolerate Arab terrorism and hatred, and is held to be inherently blameworthy when it responds militarily to such violence.

In Christianity this myth had taken hold by the time of Augustine, who at least in part helped establish as dogma the belief that Jews should be allowed to survive, but as a subjugated and humiliated people, as an example of Christian supersession. It took nearly 1400 years for Christians to begin to seriously question the morality and integrity of this position. It still remains an active ingredient in much Christian thought and in some Christian attitudes towards Israel.

In Islam this myth has been institutionalized in the apartheid-like laws of the dhimma (in which Jews and Christians have a legally inferior status to Muslims; also note that in the dhimma some other religions have an even lower status than Jews and Christians), and I would argue it is a central factor in the Muslim world’s intolerance for an independent Jewish nation.

In the west we see this myth working in the widespread popularity of Woody Allen’s movies and the way he caricaturizes Jews. We also see it politically in the left’s and far right’s double standards for Israel, and in their aggressive misrepresentations of Israel and those who support Israel.

In Part 2 I will expand on the way this myth subtly and unconsciously distorts our understanding of Jews, Judaism, and Israel.


brom said...

Good post. I'd like to add two points. First, genetics don't matter here because any non-Jew can become a Jew if he embraces the Jewish religion. In this sense, there is no difference at all between the notions of a Jewish nation and a Muslim 'ummah', for example. Muslims may hate Jews exactly because they are to them a competing entity.
There is also a tradition that the mountain Sinai was called Sinai because sin'ah (hatred) came from it to the world. In our times it is commonly interpreted as a statement about the source of anti-Semitism, however, its original meaning (and Rashi's comment) is more complex. The hatred referred to here is hatred that descended upon the world as a result of Jews' choosing to reject idolatry (rootedness in this very world). Rejecting idolatry became a beginning of a new era, in which people and nations were held up to a much higher standard, religiously and possibly also ethically. Ignoring the monotheism and pledging ignorance was no longer an option. The fear of incongruity or punishment led to emergence of religions like Christianity or Islam but the pent-up frustration (and disappointment over the loss of the supposedly bucolic past) turned into perennial hatred of Jews.

Stephen Berer said...

Thanks, brom. I'd like to know more about who you are. Normally, I wouldn't have published your comment, since you have no profile that I can check.
One comment on your comment:
Genetics don't matter for one reason only: there is absolutely no data that suggests that thoughts and opinions, including religious proclivities, are passed on genetically. Jewish law says that, technically, I am a Jew because my mother was, but that has no scientific or genetic basis. It is simply an opinion elevated to custom/law.
Now, our understanding of what a thought is, is very primitive. Perhaps if/when our tools are made substantially more sensitive and subtle, we will then be able to measure whether thoughts, or proclivities towards particular kinds of thoughts, can be transmitted genetically. And if they can, we will likely need to revise our thinking about things like genetic transmission of religious identity. Until then, tho, we must hold that people hold their religious views by their own choice. That choice may be influenced by parents and community and society, but it is not determined by them.