Friday, October 13, 2017

Modern Jewish Literature: Class 1 - Jews Under Imperial Rule - The Austro-Hungarian Empire - First Half

Let's start with one of the most extraordinary photographs in the history of the world. No fiction writer could have written anything this perfect. Some people 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. Look at it as we pass it around, nothing extraordinary 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, generally regarded as the 20th century's greatest philsopher. Top row, held back a year, appropriately far right, Adolf Hitler. Twin polls of German fate, of everything that Germany was and is, thesis and antithesis, classmates for a year.

Wittgenstein, Jewish, son of one of Europe's richest families, family owned 13 mansions just in Vienna. Utterly brilliant, like everyone in his family, educated to a level that boggles the mind, given every advantage, determined to make proper use of them, utterly difficult, treated everyone around him like something on his shoe. 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. Three of his older brothers committed suicide, or died in circumstances that looked like it. For Wittgenstein, Linz was the boonies.

The other, a boy from a town called Braunau am Inn, literally the name means it's near a hotel. As a boy he considered becoming a priest until his younger brother died of measles, and his personality completely changed. He became sensitive, 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 the two archetypes. 

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 the arrogant boy king who knows the answer to every question, who mercilessly trounces him in a class discussion, and the disadvantaged boy thinks thoughts like 'If I had his advantages, I'd 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 that makes him intelligent and horrible.' It's just as easy to think of Wittgenstein hearing the idiocies of Hitler in high school, talking of blood and soil, and thinking to himself - this is lunacy, the only thing that connects these people 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 mistrusted.

The point of this thought-experiment is not to psychologize either of them. The point is just to say that there's something about the speculation about how these two historical giants and monsters might have helped form each other that makes us more easily see the fundamental schism in life of Germanpeople 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 believe, as reactionaries everywhere do, that their way of life as they think it's been practiced forever is under threat, and they have to revert to extreme measures to protect their way of life. On the other side of the schism, you have self-consciously cosmopolitan Germans of the cities, who find much more common cause with progressive residents of large cities elsewhere than they do with their own rural countrymen, who see the rural life as being created on the backs of oppression, and possibly that everything in history until this moment was created by idiots and charlatans who still want to keep the world in the Dark Ages, .

I know the answer here, but does anybody see any similarities to our own time?

If these two sides are hurtling toward unalterable violent conflict, what could have been done to stop them, or is it worth simply letting them clash and let all the poisonous snakes hatch?

Personally I'd prefer to stop a war between these two sides. I'd rather live a mediocre life than die so that somebody else can live a better one. But whether or not it's possible to stop it again, 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 perspectives as checks and balances on each other and a constructive way of synthesizing every point of view - even as, and particularly because, it allows every side to criticize each other mercilessly. 

An historian I love called this the 'vital center' of discourse. It's not a vital center in the sense of a mushy ideological center that takes the center point between any two sides. It's an analytical center that processes millions of variables to create a context and finds solutions that do the most help to the most number and the least harm to the least. That's the liberal way, that's the Jewish way.

Now I'm a Jew of a very particular type. Growing up, my Dad always said 'There is no God, and He gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai.' All non-Charedi Jews just kinda 'do it', whether we totally believe or understand. There's something about the idea of devoting yourself completely to any cause at all that seems kind of un-Jewish, including Emunah (faith). Whether you're a Christian Conservative or an atheist progressive, you would hear all this about milions of variables and debate and you'd say 'Where's the action?? People are suffering and dying! People are being damned to Hell!' I suppose the proper Jewish response is (shrug) "we'll get to it!" They would never be able to understand why Jews do what they do no matter how clearly you explained - and nobody has; because true believers abide by a different timeframe, a different frame of reference, a different sense of self, and different conception of community, that, I believe, makes little to no sense in a Jewish rubric.

Can someone define intentionality for me?

Intentionality is a word with lots of philosophical meanings which have nothing to do with how it's generally used, but in the sense which Social Justice circles generally use it, it seems to mean to live with the purpose of devoting yourself and everything about yourself to the cause of making a better world. 

Think about the idea of devoting the 'self' to a higher cause. That alone is Christian terminology. Judaism certainly has a self, an Atzmi, or a neshawmeh or whatever else, and it even has a word for intentionality - Kavanah. But, Kavanah can only exist within the framework of Kevah, the routine, the framework, the details, the structure. There's certainly choice in Judaism, but freedom of choice is not our thing - and that's not necessarily to our credit. In Judaism, if you want to devote your self to making the world better, you first have to convince everybody else that this is the way to make a better world. And that's a multi-century process.

 Our religion is designed to move as slowly as possible. One Talmudic scholar would mention the idea that we should devote not just lives or our careers but the kavanah of our very beings, our atzmenu, to the cause of social justice, another would respond eight months later 'Are you sure about that?' There would be fifteen years of harumphing. The Rosh Yeshiva in Lakewood New Jersey would issue one ruling, then the Rosh of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem would issue another, there would be fights in the streets in Crown Heights and nobody would have a definitive conclusion until it's either self-evident to everybody or no longer an issue.

BUT, the point in Judaism is ultimately not the devotion itself but the debate. The weighing out of every practical consideration bit by bit until we figure out the best course of action. Hinduism is the only other religion that seems to exist on this near-eternal timescale that can't possibly be measured in a lifetime. Christianity finds an elegant way around it by saying that everything in this world is just a foretaste of eternity, so if we don't get it right in this world... not the biggest deal. In Judaism, what matters is here, not the next world, but 'here' is a very different concept than in secular life, because what should be done to increase quality of life is not measurable in any conception of 'now.' The conception of 'now' is hundreds of years long as every problem is studied in the context of every other problem, and therefore, our individuality means a little less than it does in Christianity, and I won't say that that's to our credit...

It's not that individuality doesn't matter in Judaism, it's just that it's one small hub in the long and and hopefully eternal unfolding of our History, to which each of us has our own chapter of the story, and the individuality of each of our personalities is only strengthened by the tensions that exist in our interactions with both each other and with the larger world - tensions that can be burdensome. 

Many Jews try desperately hard to leave the covenant behind (does everybody know what's meant by covenant?), only to find that it takes an unfathomably enormous psychic toll either on them or on their families. We are, for better or worse, utterly glued to this religion, and by modern standards we're emotionally blackmailed to stay in it, and any fulfillment in our lives might be dependent on finding any place within it at all. 

So because we're the world's timekeepers, or at least the Western World's, we have seen things nobody else has seen, we have memories that go back much longer. 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 though we used to be celebrated as the world's yeast.

So let me ask a provocative question. In 2017, we all know the disadvantages to assigning collective mentalities to groups of people. But what might be the advantages of saying that 'Jews are a certain way'? Or, for that matter, any other group of people?

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, 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 been so dangerous over so long a history. 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 if you confront Trump voters, you realize that they can argue, not entirely without merit, that we stereotype them as much as they stereotype us. Many of them will say more... screw them...

But 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 'I DECIDE WHO IS A JEW!'

So with that in mind, I want to go around the room. Everybody name on good trait associated with Jews, and one bad trait.

Good, we've 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 they're found out and that whatever blood libel Hitler or Torquemada or Chmielnicki or Paolo Christiani tells about us turns out to be absolutely true?

So now, picture yourself around 140 AD. Emperor Hadrian and General Severus have just ordered the deaths of 580,000 Jews. We've just barely been snatched from the jaws of annihilation. You have recreate your religion as something that can survive, possibly forever, in the most adverse of circumstances. What practices can you create to help secure your people's survival?

(Everybody dresses a certain way, everybody has the same food restrictions, everybody follows laws which might be pointless, everybody learns the same prayers, everybody learns to read, and everybody learns critical thinking to interpret the laws for themselves if need be)

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 reckoning the world exactly as it is with no illusions about how dangerous it can be. For a people who should have died out 2000 years ago, solutions to the problems of living on are unending. They have to constantly be experimented with and debated. And every event in everyone's life has to be seen in the context of everyone else's life.  

This is Jewish intersectionality - not the idea that all oppressions are interlinked and that you have to throw off the whole thing together, but the idea that oppression can ever be thrown off, it can only be thrown from one group to another, and therefore, we all must take on some share of this collective psychic wound, 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's value pluralism, the idea that the world consists of a clash of many truths and rights that inevitably come into conflict with each other, so therefore we must explore all these tensions and weigh them in the balance. Not to compromise on right, but to figure out with some kind of certainty what's the most right. It sounds a little brutal to modern ears, but 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 sympathy. And this view of the world was constructed nearly two thousand years before philosophers thought about value pluralism, just about all of whom were Jewish themselves.

And this sort of critical exchange has other uses. We were a people without a land, therefore a people without defense, therefore a people who had to gauge exactly what the world is like in order to survive. There are lots of reasons Jews are supposed to dress differently, but ask yourself if it might be a barometer to see whether or not our host countries will tolerate our differences, so we can therefore act accordingly? From the Bible onward, we speak to each other, to Hashem, Rabbis to other Rabbis, in a discourse full of what we now call microaggressions that seem almost meant to test the patience of the interlocutor. It's a process we learned from the very top down, you cannot read the books of the Torah and not realize that we have been this obnoxious from the very beginning. This is the kind of discourse that tempts non-Jews to think that we brought our suffering on ourselves, but  for two-thousand years, we have been living on borrowed time, and there have been so many periods in which our time has seemed to be up. We've needed a discourse that 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. Take microaggressions out of Judaism and the whole religion wouldn't exist. 

This is Rabbinic Judaism, not Biblical, it's a Judaism of low expectations. Judaism certainly has ideals, but it is not the kind of ideals which other people and places have - and the kind of idealism which the Tanakh showed them how to have - to rise up and say that we are a nation with a destiny of our own choosing. For two thousand years, that's existed in its various ways for Christians, but not for Jews, and it still doesn't exist for Charedim even. But the idealism of so much of the Tanakh, of Yishayahu who says that the Lord increases the power of the weak, that those who hope in the Lord will soar with wings like eagles. The idea that this was achievable on Earth died out for us with Shimon bar Kokhba, and a hundred-fifty years later when Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire en masse, the same texts would begin a process of awakening that desire in a hundred other nations.

But the ability of Jews to succeed in any given place was dependent on the tolerance, maybe even the liberalism, of their hosts. Fast forward a millennium to Charlemagne. Germany housed Jews for nearly a thousand years before the 18th century Enlightenment. When they first invited Jews in, the Holy Roman Empire was created. It was roughly 800, probably because of Charlemagne's own decree, that Jews were first allowed to be moneylenders, and because of this practice, the Holy Roman Empire grew in prosperity. Three hundred years later, when the Holy Roman Empire lost a long power struggle against the Catholic Church, even the allies of Jews felt compelled to expose Jews to persecution; the Church felt free to begin the crusades, and Jews began to be massacred all around the Rhinelands. The Crusades continued on and off for two-hundred fifty years, and eventually were halted by the Black Death which killed one-third of the European population.

Through the centuries, lots of Jews want to attribute divine retribution to these moments when the goyim suffer for how they made us suffer, but as we say in the Talmud, Lo Ba'Shamayim Hi! Which ultimately means that the truth is not in the skies but here on Earth. A world preoccupied with saving souls and crushing the infidels will neglect the needs of this world and let it go to seed. If the powerful were more preoccupied with establishing success here on Earth and creating prosperity, they would have empowered Jews rather than persecute them, and the prosperity would have led to better practices of science and medicine, and in turn, the Christians would have learned, as Jews long since had, to sanitize their water wells, rather than blame Jews for poisoning them.

Can people in here give some examples in recent history of how a moral decline has lead to a decline of the powerful in privilege? Even of the relatively powerful?

What Charlamagne and his successors of the Carolingian Dynasty practiced was, in its own absurdly non-equivalent way, the closest thing to liberalism anyone knew how to practice in 800 AD. And just like socialists accuse many liberals today, you could say that it had more to do with self-interest than justice, but justice is ultimately in everybody's self-interest if they understand it properly! 

So let's take it as a given that it's in people's self-interest to be generous. They were practicing the wisest governance they knew how to form, and the best the world was going to get. They probably found these infidels distasteful, but the Church banned usury - money-lending, so they made the compromises they needed to build a society that worked better. They chose prosperity, they chose life, while the Church of their period chose fanaticism and death.

So now let's fast forward another thousand years. Whatever it is that we now call liberalism and absurdly apply to the practices of other ages, it is a very fragile thing that depends on so many factors going the correct way. So let's think for a bit about the Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867 - which is something I'm sure that sounds scintillating. Traditionally, Austria was the most conservative of the great European powers, and after the devastation of the French Revolution, it found itself the most prosperous Empire in Europe. Its economy was table, its budget always balanced. The lesson learned by Metternich, their longtime Prime Minister, was to clamp down on any liberal reform which, he believed, would automatically turn into revolution. The result was that he provoked a revolution in 1848, and this led not only to his resignation, but the abdication of Emperor Ferdinand and the accession his nephew Franz-Joseph, who would rule for the next 70 years. Twenty years later the relatively new Emporor issued a compromise which declared all races equal before the law, and the decline of the Empire was sealed. 

So here's series of important questions. Let's say you're someone like Michael Bloomberg, or for that matter, David Ben-Gurion. You are a very intelligent, generous, and public-spirited person who has acquired an incredible education. Let's further say that you have truly enormous power and privilege. You know how to guarantee rights better than any democracy. Is it better, then, to rule like a benevolent dictator when you know for a fact that you can run your city or country much better than it would be in the messiness of any democracy? Or is it better to let your people choose their fate for themselves when you know that they will probably make a hash of it?

This was not unlike the situation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Emperor Franz-Joseph I, 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 compared to just about every other country in the world - though hardly tolerant by our day. There was freedom of speech, press, movement, and economic mobility. But right up to the end of his rule, 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 sovereignty, he caused World War I.

But that was the best anybody had done until that moment. And 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. 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 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 not for and in honor of his country, but for and in honor of him.

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 there were two principle problems with this. 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. For three centuries, 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. And in a pre-modern era, the glory and honor which was always the reason for living in the courtly class becomes the great reason for living for any man of property. Life may not be worth much, but at least I own something, I've proven that my life is worth living, and perhaps more worth living than yours. Transfer that individual sense of honor to a nation, and you have the German mentality that led to Hitler. 

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 these compromises long past the moment when the majority of everyone else has taken definitive sides - the end result of course being that these weak, waffly, untrustworthy Jews are the perfect scapegoat.

No comments:

Post a Comment