Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Peter Beinart and the Bridge I'm not Buying

Whether or not to dignify Peter Beinart's odious claims in his recent New York Times op-ed and forthcoming book with a response is a question worth thinking about. In claiming that we should refer to West Bank settlements as "undemocratic Israel," and that we should boycott products from this part of Israel, Beinart has crossed a line. From one perspective, to respond is itself to give a modicum of credence to the outlandish position he articulates. We freely acknowledge that there are all kinds of illogical and preposterous claims about Israel and the Jewish people. Yet we let them pass without comment because they represent no threat. We trust that level-headed, straight-thinking people will recognize them for what they are and dismiss them out of hand.

But I would argue that the appearance of Beinart's words in the mainstream media forces our hand. Too many opinions are shaped by arguments like these when they go unchecked. As Leon Wieseltier wrote recently in the Jewish Review Books, the Haggadah reminds us that when questions of consequence about Judaism emerge, we should have confident answers at the ready.

Many good critiques of Beinart have already appeared. Jordan Chandler Hirsch's review of Beinart's book is a good place to start. Daniel Gordis has likewise weighed in on Beinart's editorial.

It is also worth reading Ruth Wisse's Jews and Power. In it, she makes a powerful argument about the perils of our tradition's tendency to go down the path of self-blame rather than point the finger at our adversaries. We are so busy trying to defend ourselves against ridiculousness, we forget that we have a story of our own to tell. If we believe we are the ones possessed of the winning narrative, we should be shouting it from the rooftops.

Whenever the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it opens a door of opportunity to entertain the opposite pole. Perhaps now is such a time.

The moment we retreat from our moral high ground is the moment we play into the hands of our enemies.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Not Your Grandmother's Bible: Canonicity, Dead Sea Sectarians and Revelations

Among the fundamental questions any community must address are questions of canon. What are the core texts that unite the community? What is considered required reading? What teachings are so basic that one can engage in conversation working on the presuption that one's interlocuter is familiar with them?

The Talmud wonders about this when it comes to the Hebrew Bible. Ecclesiastes is included. Ben Sira is not. Songs of Songs is in; Ben Sira is out.

In visiting recently the Discovery Center's exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls (which ends April 15), one notices that the Dead Sea sectarians who authored and/or preserved the scrolls, had a much wider set of texts. In addition to all the books of the Hebrew Bible (with the notable exception of Esther), the Dead Sea Scrolls contain numerous books of the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. (Needless to say, there are no mentions in the scrolls of anything to do with Christianity. The exhibition's bizarre attempt to connect the Dead Sea sectarians to Christianity is baffling.)

I juxtapose this observation to a recent review in the New Yorker:

Given that we have far too little literacy of the Hebrew Bible, it is hard to imagine where there might be room or time to give serious attention to the Christian Bible. But a little time devoted to reading a review of Elaine Pagels' new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, might be time well spent. In his recent New Yorker review, The Big Reveal: Why does the Bible end that way? Adam Gopnik highlights the most compelling aspects of this new text. Most fascinating to me, is the argument that Revelations is not so much an attempt at prophecy as it is a contemporary social critique. In fact, Pagels argues that the book is actually an anti-Christian polemic. This of course, makes the fact that it was canonzied all the more stunning. 

Issues of canonicity are always subtle reminders that we do well to evaluate and re-evaluate our own literacy of the canon. It's often more appealling to venture into the world of the contemporary, but at what expense? Have we claimed sufficient mastery of the texts we are "supposed" to know to justify the attention we give to everything else?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Difference Between Anonymity and Belonging

Much has been written in The Jewish Week recently about Deborah Feldman's memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. And it was telling that the title was out of stock at Barnes and Noble retail outlets in New York City for a week following the book's publication. There is something alluring about be granted access into a world that seems so distant and so opaque.

The story is a fairly typical coming-of-age narrative that just happens to be set in the Satmar community of Williamsburg. The guiding, if not self-conscious, question is this: How does a young woman individuate in a world that privileges conformity over personal autonomy? Although one cannot help but feel compassion for someone who has experienced so much hardship and loneliness, Feldman's answers are neither nuanced nor novel. And I was disappointed to learn that the book's most compelling quality, the brutally honest story-telling of its author, has itself been called into question.

In her closing pages, she raises one point of interest. In college, having discarded her Hassidic garb in favor of jeans and a V-neck, she writes without so much as a hint of irony: "I must look just like everyone else here. Finally, the blessed feeling of anonymity, of belonging; are they not the same?" The girl who has tried so hard to set herself apart, ultimately craves the feeling of fitting in.

But anonymity is not belonging. In fact, the former is quite the opposite of the latter. To be anonymous is to be without a name. And a name, as is so often in the case in the Torah, is a prerequisite for a relationship. Anonymity militates against connectedness.

Belonging is the feeling one gets when one is known. How uplifting to be recognized by others - to have an identity of one's own.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it most beautifully in connection with the priestly blessing:
"You are in a crowd. In the distance you see someone you recognize. This person is well-known. You met him once, briefly. Did you make an impression on him? Does he remember you? Does he know who you are? Briefly your eyes touch. From the distance, he smiles at you. Yes, he remembers you, he knows who you are, he is pleased you are here, and by his eye contact and his smile he communicates these things to you. You are relieved, lifted. You are at peace with yourself. You are not merely an anonymous face in a crowd. Your basic worth has in some way been affirmed. That, in human terms, is the meaning of 'May the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.'"
In my experience, anonymity is overrated. Even those who purport to seek it - celebrities and those overexposed to the limelight - are all-too-happy to be recognized. And what are we to make of the fact that the author uses her real name instead of a pseudonym?

But Judaism teaches that with belonging comes responsbility - not only to ourselves - but to the fellow members of our community. I hope Ms. Feldman not only finds the feeling of connectedness she craves in her new present, but that she develops a sense of care and concern for the people who sought to love and embrace her in her past.