Monday, September 24, 2012

800 Words: Jewish Intolerance - Part II


And yet Judaism still remains. Why? Because Judaism is the purest religion of all.

“The two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that of Innvation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made… Now one, now the other gets the day, and still the fight renews itself as if for the first time, under new names and hot personalities… Innovation is the salient energy; Conservatism the pause on the last movement.”

-          Ralph Waldo Emerson

For everything there is a season, and a 
time for every matter under heaven: 
a time to be born, and a time to die; 
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 
a time to kill, and a time to heal; 
a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; 
a time to mourn, and a time to dance. . . .

-          Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

Both Christianity and Islam seek to dominate history – their religions are grounded in the belief that the world will only become a great place when the dominion of Christ or Muhammed is total. Judaism does not seek to dominate history; Judaism seeks to be immune from it. At the heart of Judaism is a superbly ironic paradox:  Our religion is very strict in its guidelines to its adherents, but it does so because it sees the world as a place in need of accommodation. It is profitless to chase the wind, and Judaism therefore instructs its followers conduct themselves strictly so that they may blow with it. So let it never be said that religion does not blow.

It is because the world is not an accommodating place that Jews bend over backwards to accommodate it. But occasionally the world becomes an accommodating place, and when it does, no civilization is less equipped to deal with acceptance from the world than Jews. Judaism is a prescription for how to deal with a world that is adverse to it, and at the historical moments when Judaism is on the verge of mainstream acceptance, Jews inevitably (and entirely unwittingly) seem to shoot the gift-horse in the mouth.

No religion puts greater stress on rationalism. No religion puts greater faith in the resolution of conflict through discussion. No religion puts greater emphasis on education, reason, and empiricism. It is a survival kit for how to be a light unto nations when the world goes dark. But what about when some of the world is ruled by light? However dim?

All religions are, in a sense, a belief in a higher power. When you surrender your will to a man upstairs, all the theological talk about free will is at best a weakened brew. Once God is in the driver’s seat, you’ve surrendered a large part of your will for the security that comes with knowing your place in the universe. Those of us without that security must doubt our place in the universe, and that is far too scary a proposition for many people.

The truth is that Judaism doesn’t provide much comfort for those who want to know what happens to us after we die. There is no real hell in Judaism, just a very brief purgatory that’s inevitably over within a year (hence why mourners say Kaddish for eleven months). There is no canonical text about what happens in the afterlife, only Rabbinical speculation. The afterlife is of very little concern to Jews. What is of concern is how to conduct ourselves in our own lives.

The genius of the Jewish religion is to provide a series of laws so inconsequential, so obsessive, so controlling, that its adherents don’t have the time or mental effort to concern themselves with anything but their proper observance. Judaism prospers through the eons because it is probably the ultimate surrendering of free will which mankind has yet conceived. It takes for granted that people’s vices are so overwhelming that they cannot be trusted to control themselves. Instead, Judaism directs their observers’ vices – their insecurity, their vanity, their desire for control – into finding the proper observance for every possible hypothetical to which Judaism’s 613 laws pertain.

When I call it the ‘ultimate surrendering of free will,’ I don’t necessarily mean it as a bad thing – perhaps it’s even a good one. Judaism does not require the surrender of free will in the same way that Fascism or Communism or Radical Islam does. There is no authority so final in our religion that a particular interpretation must be considered final. Every observant Jew is a partner in this social compact, which means that two-thousand years of Jewish willpower has gone into debate over precisely how we will surrender our wills to God. No religion takes theology more seriously than Judaism, and the debate of precisely how we surrender our free will is continually evolving and takes on new meanings for every generation through the millennia. In this way, Judaism is much like capitalism or republican governance – in which people’s vices are turned on themselves so that they may become virtues. But if a republic or capitalist society does this to a certain extent, then Judaism – by virtue of being a religion – does the same to the nth degree.

And this leads us to a second Jewish paradox that’s just as inexplicable. When Jews are first accepted into society, they quickly establish themselves as a yeast (to use a Hitchens metaphor) that enables a society to rise up and achieve its greater potential  – intellectual potential, economic potential, and yes, moral potential. With the help of a Jewish population, all societies will inevitably become more diverse and more tolerant simply by welcoming Jews into their population. But these societies also attach themselves to a culture that promotes learning and industry.

 And yet, it’s precisely because Jews have been such a vital part in the success of so many societies that they’re inevitably blamed when those same societies experience failure. When a society rejects its Jews, it rejects tolerance, it rejects open exchange, it rejects learning, and it rejects industry. It openly embraces irrational superstition over rational tolerance (and let’s be clear, rational intolerance is just as bad…), and once irrationality is embraced, it’s not too long before mass murder and a culture of death begin to seem like better ideas than they once were.  One could make a great argument for the fact that there is a direct correlation between the health of a society and their treatment of Jews. When the society begins to rot and human life is cheap, so is the opinion in which Jews are held. And we Jews, allegedly intelligent enough to control the world by private conspiracy, are completely powerless every time the world gets volatile. Judaism survives from age to age because it seeks to be immune from history. But the price for the survival is that no religion, and no culture, is more beholden to history than Judaism. 

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