I want to start this by showing you one of the most extraordinary photographs in the history of the world. No fiction writer could have written anything this perfect. Some people even dispute its veracity, but if it's true, and it seems that a majority of people think it is, the coincidence boggles the mind.
This is a photo taken in Linz, the fourth largest city in Austria, from what Germans call a Gymnasium - roughly equivalent to a high school. Nothing extraordinary about this photo seems apparent. But look at the right corner of this photo. Bottom row, three from the right, is the young Ludwig Wittgenstein, skipping a grade, and even today, regarded almost universally as the greatest philosopher of of the 20th century. Top row, held back a year, at the appropriately far right, is none other than the young Adolph Hitler. The twin polls of German fate, of everything that Germany was and is, the yin and yang, or perhaps more appropriately - the thesis and antithesis, were classmates for a year.
Wittgenstein, a Jew, coming from one of Europe's richest families, whose family owned at least 13 mansions in Vienna. Like everyone in his family, he was utterly brilliant, educated to a level past what most human beings could ever conceive, given every advantage in life and completely determined to make proper use of them, utterly difficult, and treated everyone around him with complete disdain. Like all his brothers, could have been or done anything, and his father did everything he could to force his sons to follow in their father's footsteps to be an industrialist. For Wittgenstein, Linz was the boonies. The other, a boy from a town called Braunau am Inn, literally a town whose name means it's near a hotel. As a boy he was a humble, devout Catholic who considered becoming a priest until his younger brother died of measles, and his personality forever changed. He wanted to become an artist, and his domineering father wanted him to follow in his footsteps to become a customs inspector. For a Hitler, a gymnasium in Linz was probably the best they could ever hope for, and to be held back a grade was humiliating.
Please understand, I'm not trying to explain Hitler or Wittgenstein. I'm trying to explain how their stories are so unbelievably typical of their time and place. They're almost archetypes of the two defining questions in Austro-German life of the period. Why are Jews so successful? And have they achieved success on our backs?
It is so easy to imagine a shy lower-middle-class kid from rural Austria who knows he's much much brighter than anybody gives him credit for, looking at this incredibly arrogant boy king who knows the answer to every question and thinking thoughts like 'If I had his advantages, I would be just like him.' or 'All that money buys him time to learn all the knowledge, but all that knowledge doesn't stop him from being a complete scheißkopf.' or 'If all the knowledge of this scheißkopf can't stop him from acting like this, maybe it's something innate in him that both makes him so intelligent and so horrible.' It's just as easy to think of Wittgenstein seeing an article in a newspaper about this insane racist in Munich stirring up trouble in the early 20's and thinking 'Hey! I know that guy!', or just hearing the idiocies of any number of other Nationalist antisemites Wittgenstein no doubt came across long before Hitler made a name for himself, and thinking to himself - all this talk of blood and soil is lunacy, the only thing that obviously connects these people together is a language, and if other people don't speak the same language, or speak the language 'mit a heccent', they are bound to be misunderstood, and therefore mistrusted.
The point of this thought-experiment is not to psychologize either of them. We're not even going to talk about either of them all that much. The point is to psychologize all those normal Germans who either followed Hitler or disdained him. There's something about the speculation about how these two people so seminal in the life of the world might have helped form each other, that makes us more easily see the fundamental schism in life of German-speaking people that led directly to the most progressive place in the entire world tearing itself to shreds.
One side of the schism believes in roots without wings, the other believes in wings without roots. On one side of that schism, you have Germans of small towns who think their way of life as they believe it's been practiced since time immemorial is under threat. On the other side of the schism, you have self-consciously cosmopolitan Germans of the cities who see everything that happened in history until this moment to be unworthy of praise, who see their progress threatened by a people who want to keep the world in the Dark Ages, and find much more common cause with the self-consciously progressive residents of large cities in other countries than they do with their own rural countrymen.
But a liberal society, a pluralist society, exists to find ways to make both ways of life and any way of life, able to be lived in such a way that it does a minimum of harm to people who live differently - and exploits the tension between all these multiple perspectives as checks and balances on one another and a constructive way of synthesizing all points of view - even as, and particularly because, it allows every side to criticize each other mercilessly. A process like this is what one historian I love called the 'vital center' of discourse. Not a vital center the sense of some mushy ideological center that unthinkingly takes the center point between two sides, but a relentlessly analytical center that is able to process millions of variables to find the solutions that do the most help to the most number of people and the least harm to the least number. That is the liberal way, and that is the Jewish way.
History is not something with hard and fast rules, and yet if there is a hard and fast rule to history, it seems to be this: The more and better space a country makes for Jews, the further the country rises in prosperity, glory, well-being, and even virtues like freedom, justice, and equality. But if or when the country tires of Jews, and it's always a when, the persecution and expulsion of Jews results in near-equivalent catastrophes for the offending nation.
For better or worse, we're not going to talk much about of these catastrophes before the 20th century, which is a shame because so little is taught about them in the wake of the Shoah. But if you add them up, I would at least imagine that 2000 years of murder of Jews would at very least be equivalent to what happened under the Nazis, and might exceed it by quite a bit. This is a topic we all should know much more about than we do and which I'd like to teach about somewhere - though would that most people under the age of 70 knew enough about 20th century history...
And please also understand, I'm not saying this to give supernatural credence to the Jewish covenant. I'm definitely a Jew, but I subscribe to my father's point of view that 'There is no God, and He gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai.' That nebulous concept we currently call 'intentionality' makes no sense in a Jewish rubric.
Intentionality; not in the various philosophical senses, but in the sense which Social Justice types generally use it, means to live with a purpose that you choose for yourself with complete independence - and it's amazing how everybody who lives with this kind of intentionality chooses to live for the exact same causes. In Judaism, there is no such thing as complete independence of choice. Jews are all individuals, God knows..., but our individuality is just one small hub in the long and and hopefully eternal unfolding of Jewish History, to which each of us contributes our own chapter of the story, and the individuality of each of our personalities is only strengthened by the burdensome tensions that exist in our interactions with both each other and with the larger world.
I'm not giving this thesis of Jewish history for any reason having to do with God, the reasons for this should be obvious in human terms - yet it never seems to be. By definition, a society which values Jews is a society primed to value people who are different from themselves and grow from the benefits of an exchange of knowledge. We Jews are the world's natural guests, the world's travelers, and please don't make this think that I mean this in any sense of self-congratulation, the world's glue.
We have been everywhere, we have experienced all manner of societies whose perspectives would never occur to people born in the lands their ancestors lived a thousand years ago or even a hundred years ago. Every place Jews have been, we have assimilated part of its ethos and carried it everywhere we've gone afterwards as part of our body of knowledge and spirit. This is a process that, whenever things get hairy, our host countries call parasitic, even though their parents were all too happy to soak up all those things we brought to them. In bad times, we're known as the world's parasites, but we used to be known as the world's yeast.
In the 21st century, there isn't supposed to be any such thing as a collective mentality, there is only the mentality of each individual and to say that any person conforms at all to an archetype is no different from saying that we are being placed into stereotypes. There is no question, none at all, that archetypes, the idea of saying that 'Jews are a certain way' and so is any other long-banded together group of people, has been terribly abused. Yet hard as we try, this is 2017, look around you, the harder some of us try to move the world away from archetypes and stereotypes, the more tenaciously other people cling to it. Whether or not this way of looking at the world is dangerous, it is going nowhere. The human brain is hardwired to assign individual traits to large groups of people, and whether or not it's truly a disease, there is no cure even on the horizon.
So with all those statements I've made and will make which I know some people in here will disagree with, we still have to be especially careful to never say that any group of people 'are a certain way,' including and particularly Jews, because there is no group of people in the world for whom this kind of archetypal thinking has ever been so dangerous. But in order to make sense of how other people have thought of Jews, we absolutely have to think in terms of archetypes. Particularly because that is precisely how they've always thought of us. Without even realizing it, this is the way people inevitably perceive each other. If you don't believe it, all you have to do is look at the difference in totals between the people who said they voted Trump and the people who did, and you realize that no amount of public shaming will change these people's private behavior, if anything, it may make it worse.
The human brain, and particularly the hippocampus within it, has a shorthand for each person it sees, and then moves from the collective to the individual, assigning types and traits, then moving on to make exceptions, provisos, quid-pro-quos. The best example I can give of this process to tell how the antisemitic mayor of fin-de-siecle Vienna, Karl Luegger, a huge influence on Hitler, was asked why he had so many Jewish friends, to which he replied, immediately and impatiently 'I DECIDE WHO IS A JEW IN VIENNA!'
So with that in mind, what are the traits, good and bad, that are generally associated with Judaism? (take answers from students)
Good, we have now made a composite of Jews from the average human brain which applies good and bad features to everyone it comes into contact with.
What then does the average person do with that knowledge? When Jews are under threat, how do they make decisions about what to do with their composite of experiences with Jews which they think they've had, for good or bad, whether their perceptions are based in reality or not? Do they help hide these smart, clever people who might accrue them financial rewards in gratitude and are occasionally as known for their moral and emotional generosity as they are for their moral and emotional pettiness - you can see how contradictory these archetypes are right away, or is it even worth taking the chance if they will be deemed enemies of the state if found out and that whatever blood libel Hitler or Torquemada or Chmielnicki or Paolo Christiani tells about us turns out to be absolutely true?
Modern normative Judaism, the Judaism that has existed since the Sanhedrin, was formed in reaction to exactly this problem, and it was created to be a portable religion that put down no roots and could be practiced anywhere with a minimum of necessities. It is a religion concerned with a reckoning of the world exactly as it is with no illusions in which solutions to the problems of living are never supposed to be taken as a solved issue, but constantly experimented with and debated. To see every event in the lives of everyone within the context of every other event that happens to everything else. This is Jewish intersectionality - not the idea that all oppressions are interlinked and that by throwing off one we'll throw off the whole thing, but the idea that nothing can ever be thrown off, and all events in the world must therefore be seen and studied in the context of all other events. What is the most archetypal word in Talmudic discourse "EPHES", or as Tevye put it, 'ON THE OTHER HAND!' It is that most Jewish of ideas: value pluralism, the idea that the world consists of a clash of many truths and rights that come into conflict with each other, and constructed nearly two thousand years before Moses Mendelssohn and Isaiah Berlin.
As all Jews have drummed into us from the bris onward, community is of existential importance in Judaism. But community is only the second responsibility. What's more important than community is the polity, in which debate, rather than distance us from each other, binds us together. Debate can only break us apart if ending the debate seems like an option. And in this religion, ending the debate is obviously never an option. If we realize that life's a debate we can't escape having, then our opponents become people we're bonded together with in understanding and sympathy.
Why did Jews embrace this philosophy, because we were compelled to. In the wake of the Second Temple's Destruction, in the wake of what I think should be called Shoah Rishon, the killing by Emperor Hadrian of something like 580,000 Jews in the wake of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion of 132-135 AD (and please, none of this CE/Common Era nonsense, Jews are supposed to adjust to the world we live in, and the world we live in is trayf), the Sanhedrin or the Tanna'im, rebuilt Judaism along the lines of this extreme realism that realized that if Jews did not have a land of their own, we would be a people without defense, and we had to operate in perpetuity at the mercy of the world's brutality. A people without a land, therefore a people without a defense, therefore a people who had to gauge exactly what the world is like in order to survive - to speak to other people in a discourse full of microaggressions almost meant to test the patience of our interlocutors, the kind of discourse that tempts non-Jews to think that we bring our suffering upon ourselves, but allows us to immediately understand the limits of what's permissible, like a vaccine that builds up an immune system's antibodies by exposing us to a small amount of the disease.
But liberalism is a very fragile thing that depends on so many factors going the correct way. Ironically, from the moment of the Austro-Hungarian compromise in 1867 when the Empire declared all races equal before the law, the decline of the Empire was sealed. We will talk quite a bit more about the humiliating compromises needed to create and maintain a liberal rule of law, particularly because so often seems that the majority of Jews have the stomach strong enough to maintain political compromises long past the moment when the majority of everyone else has taken sides - the end result of course being that these weak, waffly, untrustworthy Jews are left as the perfect scapegoat.
Emperor Franz-Joseph, who ruled the Empire for roughly 70 years, is about as much evidence as the world has that a dictator can be benevolent. The Emperor may have thought that he could provide a freer, fairer, more equitable system of government than any messy democracy, and by the standards of his time, it's shocking how tolerant his empire was. During a period when America was segregating itself, England and France were consolidating their imperial kleptocracies, and Germany put all its money into building its military, Emperor Franz-Josef was trying to find ministers who would create an empire in which everyone could have freedom of speech, press, movement, and economic mobility. But right up to the end of his rule in 1916, he insisted that it was his prerogative to name every minister of his government. It is amazing how well Franz-Josef ran the Austro-Hungarian Empire for so long, but by not compromising on issues of sovereignty, he in effect caused World War I.
To put him in American terms, one would perhaps think him as a more extreme version of Bull Moose progressives like Teddy Roosevelt or Robert LaFollette. Perhaps in modern America we would call people like them the 'White Saviors'; people of enormous power and influence who give their subjects freedom and prosperity not as their fundamental right, but as a gift. Give everybody fundamental prosperity, give them the freedom to do whatever they want to do and express whatever they want to express, but don't let them decide how administer that for themselves because they don't know what they're doing and will only screw up a good thing. As Americans, most of us hear that and say 'That's monstrous.' As Jews, most of us hear that and say, 'OK, what's the catch?'
Of the two-dozenish peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the only people in the Empire who truly loved being Austrian subjects were Jews. Jews, who had no nation to go home to in this era of extreme nationalism, believed in the dream of a far-reaching Empire of many nations under a benevolent sovereign who cares about his people, even if he sees himself as their superior. We didn't just love Franz-Joseph, we quasi-worshipped him. You look at Jewish siddurim of the period and you see prayers and songs It was a dream of its time and place, no 20th century person would ever believe that a dictator can guarantee rights like that. Even if a dictator somehow does, the very fact that he's a dictator makes his subjects bristle at his rule.
But Jews believe that an aristocratic sovereign like Franz-Joseph I, who seemed to live forever, can guarantee them all the rights and opportunities denied them by monarchs and mobs everywhere else. All they have to do is be Austrian: convert to Catholicism, go to concerts and the theater, take jobs into the civil service and on the courts, go into businesses that would help this trans-national Empire that gave us everything stay prosperous.
There were many problems with this worldview, but the main one is that even most Austrians did not want to be Austrian, they wanted to be German. They did not want to be at the head of an Empire where all other dirty races were considered their equals before the law. They wanted to be united with their true brethren in Germany, and Germany had not been anything resembling a united country since the Thirty Years War, 300 years before that. Every nation has an adolescent trauma, and the Thirty Years War was Germany's. In the meantime, there was no Germany - just dozens of kingdoms and electorates and duchies and principalities and free cities whose leaders were always forming alliances that they tore up the next day to make new alliances.
In a pre-modern era when quality of life can only be raised in relative terms, you need a greater reason for living. In an era like the Dark Ages, which could promise no quality of life at all except among the noble class, salvation was the reason for living - if you endure the horrors of this life, you can attain a far greater life in a world to come. But in an era like the Renaissance or Baroque which could promise at least a marginal improvement in quality of life, the glory and honor which was always the reason for living in the courtly class becomes the great reason for living for any free citizen. Life may not be worth much, but at least I've proven that my life is worth living, and perhaps more worth living than yours.
Even when the situations in Germany weren't desperate, they were considered humiliating. For three or four hundred years, France and England were bathed in all the honor and glory that Germany never attained, and Germany's tragedy is to finally achieve some measure of honor and glory in an age when honor and glory were irrelevant to everybody else. Except for Prussia for under Frederick the Great - one of history's greatest leaders who wanted to make Prussia into a great European country, not a German one; no great military glory ever seemed to come from Germany. . For the six hundred years before the twentieth century, it was almost a given of practical wisdom that a great country required the strongest possible sovereign. When Hitler came, some people greeted it as finally the moment, three-and-a-half centuries overdue, when a strong sovereign could do for Germany what Elizabeth I had done for England and Francois Premiere had done for France. Finally, in 1871, a Prussian Minister named Otto von Bismarck found a way to unite Germany, and Austrians were completely cut out of this glorious moment which German-speaking peoples had longed for for well over two-hundred years.
But before an adolescent trauma must come a formative experience. The formative experience of the German people, not as tribes but as a collective people, was the Reformation; a, literally, multi-century event which ended in a thirty-year war between Catholics and Protestants claiming eight million martyrs. What was the founding idea of this Reformation for which so many people martyred themselves; no doubt mostly unwillingly?
(wait for someone to say Salvation by Faith...)
Salvation by Faith. The idea formed in response to the corruption and decadence of the Renaissance and Baroque Catholic Church, that no Christian pilgrim needs a priest to intercede for them. God is everywhere, including in your hearts and minds, He hears your prayers, He responds, and your relationship to Him needs no intermediary at all.
Whether or not that's at all true, that belief set all of Northern Europe course whose effects are felt to this day, particularly in Germany - a country whose "Protestant" work ethic is finally allowing them some liberal success after so many generations striving to do good amidst so much evil.
Look at a few quotes from Luther (call on reader):
What does this mean? (wait for answer...)
…the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks…all works are measured before God by faith alone.
At least in the traditional interpretation, it's intended to mean that all work is holy work, and the more you work, the more favor you find in God's eyes.
Second quote (call on reader):
Let the man who would hear God speak read Holy Scripture.What does this mean? (wait for answer)
The traditional interpretation of this is, 'teach them to read.'
There's no questioning the radicalism of this idea. No longer would clergy be the intercessors for people who had no way of following a paper trail to see if they were being duped. Whatever hidden, mystical truths exist in the Bible, every Protestant has the right, and indeed, the responsibility to find them. But every revolutionary idea is paid for in blood, and if we in the 21st century owe Martin Luther a huge debt of gratitude for the gifts he gave us, perhaps we should thank him over the centuries of dead bodies for which he's responsible.
So now, let's go to a third quote (call on reader):
You read this and you wonder how anyone could doubt where all this is eventually going. And just in case, let's read one more Luther quote:
They are our public enemies. They do not stop blaspheming our Lord Christ, calling the Virgin Mary a whore, Christ, a bastard, and us changelings or abortions (Mahlkälber: "meal calves"o). If they could kill us all, they would gladly do it. They do it often, especially those who pose as physicians—though sometimes they help—for the devil helps to finish it in the end. They can also practice medicine as in French Switzerland. They administer poison to someone from which he could die in an hour, a month, a year, ten or twenty years. They are able to practice this art
We want to deal with them in a Christian manner now. Offer them the Christian faith that they would accept the Messiah, who is even their cousin and has been born of their flesh and blood; and is rightly Abraham’s Seed, of which they boast. Even so, I am concerned [that] Jewish blood may no longer become watery and wild.
There it is, 300 years before the 'new', un-Christian antisemitism of 19th century Germany which holds that a Jew cannot help but remain a Jew, even after conversion. We are not a religion, we are a race, our blood is 'watery and wild', and it's only one step removed from saying that Jewish blood will pollute German blood.
So how then, did the German-speaking lands go from a place with a charismatic leader that hated Jews so mercilessly, to a country that celebrated Jews so vociferously, back to a country with a charismatic leader that hated Jews so mercilessly?
We're not going to talk much about Wittgenstein's writings. I don't have the competence or the particular kind of intelligence you need to have any meaningful insights about philosophy. I'm not an intellectual, I just play one in classrooms and on the internet. I am, however, what used to be called an aesthete, somebody who tries as best he can to appreciate art and culture, and in order to do that, you have to delve at least shallowly into intellectual matters. And in my pretentious opinion, Wittgenstein has the precision of poetry. That may seem like a contradiction, but if you've ever tried to read most academic writing, you'll understand exactly what that means. There are plenty of famous intellectuals who will claim that their works can't be understood unless you're indoctrinated into their lexicon, or jargon... The problem inevitably becomes that you have to be a true believer in what they're selling in order to sit down for long enough for the jargon to make any sense at all, rather like certain passages of commentary in a certain religion we know..., and even after you do, if you disagree, many people will simply say that you don't understand it. Wittgenstein is exactly the opposite, you look at his work, and you instantly realize that this is not just the opposite of sludge, but that you look at nearly every sentence and every sentence and at very least, three or four meanings occur to you instantly. Even if you don't understand everything, you can't come away from Tractatus, his most famous book, without looking at the world completely differently. The most famous line is the last one "Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent." It seems like obvious homespun wisdom, but go home and think about that line, you'll realize that can mean a hundred separate things about the limitations of what we can say to each other - whether by choice that it's too painful to say, or the limitations of our intelligence that can't truly convey the complexity of our thoughts, or those simple times when you think you've explained yourself perfectly only for the person listening to completely misinterpret everything you said. Or think of the quote: "It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists." Taking Kabbalistic texts out of the equation, can any sentiment be more Jewish than that?
Luther was a revolutionary, and whether revolutionaries are reactionary revolutionaries like Hitler, or progressive revolutionaries like Stalin, they always seem to have a big problem with us. As ever, we see the seeds of this problem in the US - not to a terrible extent, but there is neither any mistaking the antisemitism of the torch rallies who believe that weak cosmopolitan liberals like Jews are conspiring to harm us - all you have to do is remember that the tiki torch carriers in Charlottesville were chanting - 'The Goyim Know', 'Blood and soil', 'Jews will not replace us.' And then, you hear the chants of anti-zionist protestors who chant 'From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free', which is of course a reference to the Palestinian vow to toss all Israelis into the Sea. So let's be perfectly clear on this, this is a classroom where almost all manner of criticism on Israel is fair game, but just in case I have to say so, criticism of Israel's existence will get you politely asked to leave.
Every country, as the West Wing pointed out, has an original sin. The original sin of Germany was its Jews. And yet, it took 400 years from Luther's final sermons, which were warnings against Jews, to get to the Shoah. In the meantime, the relationship between Jews and Germans could not have been more fruitful, or more mutually beneficial. As happens so many places, a country on the make imports Jews for their intelligence and practicality, they become the toast of their host countries, and then when times get rough, the same people who celebrate Jews so highly turn on them just as vehemently.
Even in this era of ideological polarization, and let's say it, extremism, still appears to be just a tempest in a teacup compared to where the hatreds of a hundred years ago. Who knows? That may change very very quickly. And whether mass violence and war and democide comes again in the next few weeks, months, years, decades, or centuries, it will come again, and it will be barbaric.
But for the moment, 15% of each side of the country finds 50% of the country absolutely intolerable to live with. Yes, the two Americas clearly have different values, and yes, these differences are being masterfully exploited, as they always are. But think of Seinfeld talking about breakups (call on reader):
"Elaine, breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine. You can’t do it in one push; you gotta rock it back and forth a few times and then it goes over.”If history is any guide, we're probably not there yet. Europe had at least a misunderstanding every year for forty years before the one that began World War I. It had lots of Communist uprisings before the Soviet Union became a quasi-permanent fixture. The truth is that to anybody paying attention, peace time is not much less anxiety provoking than wartime.
Like 50% of the country, I panicked when Trump was first elected. But even if the worst about Trump is true and he wants to be like Mr. Shicklgruber, he is clearly much too stupid to be anything like the Austrian in that picture, he wouldn't know the first thing about how, and he has 100x too much ego to listen to the people who could make him that. But the fact that we have elected someone both this evil, and this stupid, who can still do this much no matter how ineffective he is, and can still says that when someone with both murderous intentions and the intelligence to enact them comes around, we seem like we would be rather powerless against him. For a person of my generation, the cusp between Generation X and Millenials, I am nearly positive that we will be dealing with crises like this every year for the rest of our lives. The great tragedy is that sanity will prevail in most of them, but all it takes is one chain reactions of misunderstanding and the life of the entire world is at stake. It's one thing to believe we can withstand Trump, it's entirely different to believe democracy can withstand fifty years of Trumps, all of whom will learn from the mistakes of the last.