Sunday, August 12, 2012

Loving Fellow Jews, Loving Fellow Humans, Loving "Folks Like Us"

I suppose I should be pleased that Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, whose blog I occasionally read with pleasure, contrasted favorably the Magnes Zionist's posts with Avraham Burg's recent op-ed in the New York Times. Burg was indirectly admonished by the rabbi for criticizing Israel harshly to an external audience, whereas he singled out the  Magnes Zionist for his harsh criticisms of Israel to an internal audience. Since the subject of Rabbi Rosen's blog was "Ahavat Yisrael," love of one's fellow Jews, one can reasonably infer  that he thought that Mr. Burg was more deficient in that trait than is Jeremiah Haber.

I certainly hope that wasn't his point!

For one thing I write a blog that, while having a tiny fraction of the circulation of the New York Times, is addressed to anybody who can read it, and I have a lot of readers who are gentiles. True, I have a tendency to talk insider language, but that is just because blogs are "unbuttoned" affairs, with scads of spelling mistakes and punctuation errors.  I do want to address Jews, of course, but not just. At times I am very happy to be seen in other company.

For example, I just published an essay in an anthology called, After Zionism, ed. by Antony Loewenstein and Ahmed Moor. Among the other contributors were Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy, Diana Bhuttu, Jeff Halper, Joseph Dana, Ahmed Moor, John Mearsheimer, Phil Weiss. The audience of this book is not mainly a Jewish one, and I would not be surprised if those individuals  fail to make most people's Ahavat Yisrael list. (Some of them WILL make mine.)  I wrote in my essay that not all forms of Zionism are treif (there I go again), and that there is a place for a certain kind of Zionism in a transformed Israel/Palestine.  My essay sticks out like a sore thumb in this company, but the editors accepted it because they felt that this book is about trying to envision a more just Israel/Palestine than is the horrible state of affairs today.  

As for Mr. Burg -- well, I assume that he wished to publish his piece in the New York Times because he wanted to reach Americans (including more American Jews than all the readers of all the Jewish media outlets combined)  who consider themselves liberal and supporters of Israel. He has been carrying on a debate with Rabbi Daniel Gordis about Jewish fundamentalism on the pages of the Economist, even though the both of them work withing a five-minute walk of each other. Is this bad? To some it may suggest a lack of ahavat Yisrael to wage the wars of the Lord in the goyyische press.  I don't see it that way. I see Burg's writings as a kiddush ha-Shem, a sanctification of God's name. 

Re ahavat Yisrael, I once wrote:

When people ask me whether I am pro-Israel, I unhesitatingly and unabashedly say yes. I am for Israel, which is the classical name for the Jewish people, I believe in and practice, to the best of my limited capacities, the love of the Jewish people, ahavat Yisrael. But what does that phrase mean? Hannah Arendt pleaded guilty to Gershom Scholem’s charge that she lacked ahavat Yisrael, stating that she loves people, not “the people”, not an abstraction. But even if “Israel” is not taken to represent an abstract collective but rather each and every individual Jew, it is arguably impossible, not to mention undesirable, to love people you have never met, or worse, whose ideology or character revolts you, simply because you are a member of their tribe. (Do you love everybody in your family?)

And yet, for me, ahavat Yisrael means to accord members of the Jewish people a special place in my heart, because I view them as extended family. And that is why as a member of the family I feel worse when some of family act atrociously. 

The basis for the commandment of ahavat Yisrael is the rabbinic interpretation of the Biblical commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The philosopher of education Akiva Ernst Simon wrote an essay in which he showed (much to his dismay) that the rabbis interpreted "neighbor" not as one's fellow human being, but rather as one's fellow Jew. That much is clear; there is love for one's fellow Jew and respect for God's creatures. Still, one does hear the phrase nowadays, "ahavat ha-adam," love of human beings, if not as much in traditional rabbinic Judaism, than at least in the Judaism I admire and cherish.

But I propose here another reading of the verse, "You shalt love your neighbor as yoursefl" -- you shall love the neighbor who is like yourself, that is to say, you should love like-minded individuals, or what we Yanks call, "folks like us."

In my case, "the folks like us" are composed of what my mother-in-law, of blessed memory, would call kol ha-minim, 'all kinds': Jews, Christians, Muslims, lefties, righties. I will stand shoulder to shoulder with all of them provided that we share the same values. As the song goes, "We are family." True, the family may not be a traditional one, but it is family nonetheless. And if this non-traditional family can help members of my traditional family do the right thing...well, that's fine.

Of course it is also nice when members of your family are also "folks like us" -- in this case, folks like Rabbi Jeremy Rosen and Avraham Burg.


Richard Witty said...

I have a similar but slightly different take on "loving one's neighbor" in the various forms it is articulated.

One correction, on the "rabbis" interpretation, there is a strong theme of loving fellow Jews as oneself - a good thing compared to individualistic selfishness. But, there is also a strong theme loving another as a person, if not one with the same specific covenant and generational obligation.

I use the native American term of "all my relations" as comprising my spiritual and political obligation. As my real relations are primarily God, self, family, friends, neighbors, community, my emphasis should be on the more local circles. My political sensitivity as to strangers is realistically less intimate. Still, we are commanded to even honor strangers, even those that are remote.

Political commitment though contains a great deal of distraction from loving all one's relations. One gets permission to hate one's political opponent (in thought and in action), even someone whose sensitivities are kind and humane but pulls the rug out from one's own political agenda.

While many progressive Jews refer to tikkun olam (the root meaning to make whole, to repair the world), that that stance gives them permission to ridicule and harm others with even similar sensitivities, reveals a confused spiritual stand.

Among some Jews that even hold the view of emphasis on loving one's fellow Jews even only, there is also the acknowledgement that the person that it is impossible to know if the person you are talking to is Jewish, by conscious association or matrilineal descent.

Further, that it is impossible to know if the person you are addressing is the messiah, or a tributary to the messianic condition.

Both should give a sense of humility to a spiritualist, a predisposition to honor, rather than a knee-jerk to ridicule.

It is possible to greatly honor the potential for enlightenment, service, integrity that is human, and still also greatly honor the specific covenant and obligation to aspire to be a member and supporter of authentic nation of priests (in the sense of transformation, repair) that is a Jew's obligation per Torah.

Frank Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frank Thomas said...

It's sad that things have gotten this bad, but it's important to note that the spirit of god, in such a people who defend loved ones, do public service, and recognize God's name, but are not guided by anything but the particular way the media markets to them is at its root going to produce nonsense. Resistance to this false religion only exists in the counter-culture (I've found), in people who want independence, not strategic anti-Antisemitism.

First, it has become a widespread belief through the culture industry from elite to the masses, therefore a function of US power, not an individual one. In the Torah, it has its roots in the decrees to wipe out resistance to Moses and idolaters, maybe Joseph hating his brothers too. So the logic you advocate means nothing close to democracy. Love your neighbor as yourself, but not democracy? In that line of thinking, we have no reason not to charge ahead inviting corrupt rulers, exile, and misery, unless those are re-interpreted to mean something else too. I once did believe that our values and fears came out of US political culture, and the odd pattern that was underneath was the problem. But that is not the case. What came out of it was life, despite the elite perspective, by work from the people and their labor organizing.

Second, not only is it anti-neighbor so to speak, but makes any serious attempt at love fail pathetically. If you share a house with someone and there's a storm, you are both affected. If he doesn't believe in what I believe in, I don't have to care if he trips over the fallen tree in our yard? (My yard?) As I noted before, it comes directly out of identifying with the market-driven culture, specifically the kind that is currently holding back the entire First World psyche -- New Age/post-modern definitions -- where community, and your "neighbor" is just someone with a shared interest (Bernays, Propaganda) and objective truth is impossible (Derridda). It doesn't just so happen to be the case that those ideas produced repressive lifestyles. Jews my age follow this doctrine because it is successfully propagated. They see marijuana as a legitimate form of protest and self expression, and fear democracy. Some even proudly boast of confronting Arabs in the supermarket, and in the same matter-of-fact tone narrate Israeli wars with words like "we" and "us" meaning Jews, not US or European empire. That's not loving their neighbors, that's just giving up on trying.

Anonymous said...

Hannah Arendt’s vision of Palestine was a federated secular and democratic state for both the foreign Jews and the native Muslim-Christian Palestinians without a state religion. She was labeled an ‘Enemy of Israel’ and a ‘Self-Hating Jew’ not for her vision, but for writing the truth in her book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’.

Donald said...

"One gets permission to hate one's political opponent (in thought and in action), even someone whose sensitivities are kind and humane but pulls the rug out from one's own political agenda."

The problem on the one hand is, as you describe, that political commitment can lead people to hate those whose views are different. But on the other hand there are those who see themselves as kind and humane and yet take some positions which are anything but kind and humane. And these people really might be kind and humane except where their blindspot takes over, where their own ideological commitment gets in the way of moral consistency.

And it happens on all sides in this issue to varying degrees. On the pro-Israel side many end up downplaying or whitewashing its crimes, pretending that ethnic cleansing never took place or endlessly throwing up excuses for not taking evidence of its war crimes seriously. That's not humane or sensitive and people who take this position shouldn't hide behind a claim that they are sensitive and are being abused for their different political views. On the pro-Palestinian side I've seen a small number of people lump all Israelis of European descent into the category of interlopers, people who should move back where they came from, though they were born in Israel and in some cases might be third or fourth (or even more?) generation Israelis. Not that one should say this even about 1st generation Israelis (except for Brooklynites who think they have the right to live on the West Bank and oppress Palestinians.) The problem is that Palestinians are living under an apartheid-like system, not that there are people living in Israel of European descent.


Richard Witty said...

The condemnatory political stand is fraught with very gross moral difficulties.

Willingly slandering one's colleague is a violation of any ethics worth the name and of Torah (as much as it is done, even by some authoritative rabbis, they should know better).

Willingly slandering another dissenter because they regard the relationship as the issue (a conflict) rather than use the term "oppression" is a vanity, a presumption of knowledge (when the truth is of incomplete knowledge) and a presumption of authority.

Most importantly for the very important goal of improving the condition of Palestinians, is the predictable and rational fortress response to assault on rational and considerate people.

It will be impossible for BDS to succeed so long as it is punitive, and it can only succeed if it is effectively punitive.

In contrast, genuinely non-violent but still assertive dissent, has the prospect of changing hearts and minds as to treatment of Palestinians, and if there is a large enough community of conditionally willing Palestinians to realize a peace, then there is the prospect of self-governance.

Verbal assaults (within limits) are fine among those that agree to disagree (very very few do though, just consider how many family and personal friendships have been broken by activist behavior).

But, they are seen by others. Every liberal zionist that I know (lots) that have visited Mondoweiss, including those very willing to stick their neck out in Israel and the US, to attempt to change policies, are at least partially sickened and frightened from doing so (more than they are afraid of say arrest).

It is an utterly self-defeating approach.

Yehudit said...

I am concerned about you as you've not posted in awhile. Are you OK?
L'shana toba; tizku l'shanim rabot.