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Testifying Against Idolatry
by Lawrence Bush
Shock and Awe.
The Pepsi Generation.
Drill Baby Drill.
Kill It and Grill It.
Lock Them Up and Throw Away the Key.
I’d Rather Be a Conservative Nut Job than a Liberal with No Nuts and No Job.
Taxation is Theft.
Whoever Dies with the Most Toys Wins.
The American Dream.
PERHAPS THIS IS WHAT it looked like to Abraham — that idol shop that his father ran in Mesopotamia. Perhaps it looked like our own dazed and angry country.
Ye olde idolatry shoppe: At the front door, two young models dressed like temple prostitutes, eye-candy to get your lizard brain hopping with anticipation. Inside, on sale back at the rear wall, amulets and incantations and magic potions guaranteed to turn your suffering into self-improvement programs, your hopes into fantasies, your yearnings into vanity, your anger into hatred. And on every wall, graven images of celebrities, and trademarks, and the heads of rare animals, to take home as your household gods.
Abraham took a stick and smashed it all to smithereens. That rebellion is what made him into a Jew, the first Jew — because “Whoever testifies against idolatry is called a Jew.” That’s what the Talmud says, in the tractate Megillah (13a).
For me, that brief passage from the Talmud defines the essential calling of Jewish identity. Certainly, there are lots of other pithy, wonderful formulations about the fundamental mandates of being Jewish — from the prophet Micah’s “do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God” to the prophet Abbie Hoffman’s statement that “Jews have to choose early in life whether to go for the bucks or to go for broke” to the prophet Nelly Sachs’ post-Holocaust statement to the human race, “Despite all the horrors past, I believe in you.” Eloquence abounds, but for me, in this era of the tweet and the five-second sound bite, it is our venerable Talmud, for all of its seventy-whatever volumes of compressed discussion, that deserves pride of place for zeroing in on the Jewish vocation: “Whoever testifies against idolatry is called a Jew.”
But it’s easier said than done. The idols we confront are not little clay or wooden sculptures, but the streamlined products of multi-billion-dollar industries — and they’re fabulous! People would not love us for pulling the plug on American Idol, which fetches far, far more votes in every season than any presidential contest. Polls are showing that the public is still saying “drill, baby, drill,” in expectation that they’ll be able to drive away from the despoiled shorelines, drive away from the coastal wetlands slaughter, drive away from all Superfund disaster sites, with cheap gasoline in their SUV tanks. No, testifying against idolatry does not make us popular. People want their breast enhancements, damn it!
And beyond our discouragement at what we may read in public opinion polls, it’s also important for us not even to want to build our own version of a theocracy, or a politically correct vegan dictatorship, even if we could. Progressives must know from our own history how moral conscience too quickly becomes moralism; that ideology cannot possibly contain or explain the world’s complexity; that even our most deeply held beliefs about what is good and what is evil, what is natural and unnatural, what is worthy and unworthy, are fueled by our own psychological biases, our own aesthetic preferences, and our own self-interest — and therefore are not altogether to be trusted. The “road to perdition,” as Albert Einstein once put it, “has ever been accompanied by lip service to an ideal.” Therefore we are forced as progressive Jews to keep side-by-side the impossibility of our utopias, and the impossibility of leaving things the way they are. It is a matter of historical wisdom, not cowardice, for us to restrain our moral certitude.
Besides, I myself can’t even affirm the existence of a true God, so how can I wag my finger against false gods? How can I, as a card-carrying or, at least, book-publishing atheist, deliver an exhortation for us to testify against idols? The answer is that there is a common denominator of faith that we do share, as theists and atheists. Very simply, we share a belief in — no, a recognition of — the reality of human interconnection. We share the understanding that human beings stand poised at all times between the magnetic pull of our selfhood, our individualism, our ego, our yetzer hara, or lustful urge — whatever you want to call it, it’s the capitalist system within our hearts —and the spiritual pull of our interconnection, our interdependence, our love for each other — whatever you want to call it, it’s the socialism within our hearts. Whether this “socialist” reality testifies to the existence of God or not is almost beside the point; our least common denominator, as Jews, is our commitment to the cultivation of what Martin Buber, the great socialist Zionist and theologian, described as “the genuine We.”
“We will not persist in existence,” Buber declared, “if we do not learn anew to persist in it as a genuine We.”
THERE YOU HAVE IT, in my opinion: the true humanistic, socialistic heartbeat of Judaism, the key reality principle of our political world, and an actual measuring rod that we can use to measure and identify idolatry. The embrace of interconnection versus our willful blindness to it: That seems to me to be the fulcrum on which our world, including our country, now teeter-totters.
“The genuine We” — I call it a reality principle because it is testified to by the science of genetics, which points back to our shared homeland, Africa, and our shared mitochondrial mother — and to our relatedness, also, with non-human beings of this planet, whom we treat so glibly and shamelessly as objects rather than as beings.
I call “the genuine We” a reality principle because it is testified to by our personal origins, our being mothered, our being parented, our being born through the blending of human beings, our being raised through the efforts of human community.
I call “the genuine We” a reality principle because of the nature of the spirituality that is hardwired into us, our capacity for elevation and meaning and purpose beyond self-aggrandizement, which we access through love, through the arts, through nature, through organizing. That spirituality is, at bottom, a humanistic phenomenon, a surging recognition that we are not alone, that we are part of a larger fabric of living beings. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, put it most brilliantly (in The Future of the American Jew, 1948) when he contrasted “natural selection,” the competition for survival to which the all life is subjected, and what he called “spiritual selection,” which marks our unique capacity, as human beings, “not only to make for the survival of the fittest, but to aim to make the greatest possible number fit to survive.”
The cultivation of “the genuine We” is a central obsession of Judaism. Ours is not a faith of individual salvation through individual belief and individual action; as Judith Plaskow put it in her groundbreaking book, Standing Again at Sinai, in Jewish thought, the individual “is not an isolated unit who attains humanity through independence from others... Rather, to be a person is to find oneself from the beginning in community.... The conviction that personhood is shaped, nourished and sustained in community is a central assumption that Judaism and feminism share....”
In the all-important economic realm, especially, Judaism subordinates private property to the needs of the larger social network. “The Earth is the Lord’s, and all of its fruits,” says Psalm 24, which the foundational text of Jewish economic philosophy — to remind us of the natural resources, the blessings of sun and water and minerals and flora and fauna that we all share, of the great “commons” that is our planet and from which we derive our wealth: it belongs to none, it belongs to all. And our tradition’s teachings about that wealth are nearly all expressive of the recognition that economic activity is social, that no one creates livelihood without the centuries of education and achievement that preceded us, without the infrastructure that surrounds us, without the culture that informs our every novel invention.
This insight is unpacked and responded to in great detail. We have the Torah tradition of the Jubilee year, which assures that the rising of some families into wealth and the sinking of others into poverty will be curbed through the redistribution of land every half century. Imagine such a system of redistribution in America. We have the everyday tradition of tsedoke, the mandatory redistribution of wealth in the name of justice, which the Talmud calls “equal to all the other commandments.” Imagine that attitude towards taxation in America. We have numerous proclamations of the equal humanity of both rich and poor, and of the whole community’s responsibility for social and economic uplift. Imagine that in our cruel country. We have ancient laws about agricultural land that consistently compromise private property rights to allow for the gathering of wood by all, gleaning of the harvest’s remains by the poor, communal access to water and fishing, and other kinds of sharing in nature’s resources. Other laws ban predatory practices from the marketplace, such as false advertising, windfall profiteering, and worker exploitation. There are laws against armaments sales and other forms of assistance to “perpetrators of evil deeds,” and there are laws that can be readily interpreted in opposition to union-busting, excessive compensation, wholesale layoffs and other forms of corporate abuse. Imagine...
And if all of this is just too religious for you to take seriously, we have two and a half centuries of secular Jewish history, activist Jews pursuing that balance between self-interest and communal interest in real life, as social activists, union organizers, democratizing capitalists, creative artists, progressive philanthropists. We have Jonas Salk refusing to patent his polio vaccine: “There is no patent,” he said. “Could you patent the sun?” We have Lillian Wald, the founder of public nursing in America, declaring, “The whole world is my neighborhood.” We have Emma Lazarus, from a family that dated back to the Revolutionary War, whose gorgeous sonnet is engraved on the Statue of Liberty, and who declared that “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” We have Stanley Levison, the leftwing Jew who was Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest advisor, saying that “the liberation struggle is the most positive and rewarding area of work anyone could experience.” From A-Z, as I tried to show in my little video, you can construct a very full history of the pursuit of the social good just by filling in Jewish names.
As Rabbi Leo Baeck, the mourner and survivor of German Jewry, put it in 1949, “We are the sons of the revolution, the daughters of the revolution. We should be aware of it.”
HOW, THEN, do we go about cultivating that sensibility of “the genuine We,” especially on a scale beyond our intimate families and communities? Judaism and Jewish identity offer many insights that date back 1,500 years or more. Perhaps most important, our texts seem to understand the role of rakhamim, or rakhmones, in Yiddish — compassion, or mother-love, from the word for “womb” — as the glue of our existence and as an inoculant against our self-destruction. Our tradition teaches the cultivation of rakhmones in order to break the cycle of vengeance, violence, and abuse that is handed down, generation to generation, in the name of self-righteousness. Our tradition teaches that justice without mercy will simply consume the world. That insight is expressed in one of the most peculiar and amazing religious scenes in the Talmud, from the tractate Berachot: “Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha said: Once when I entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense, I saw... the Lord of hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me, ‘Ishmael, My son, bless Me!’ I replied, ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy subdue Your wrath and Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes, so that You deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy; and may You, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice!’ And He nodded His head toward me.”
The theme is also reiterated at Rosh Hashone, the Head of the Year, when the shofar is blown to alert the congregation to the start of the holiday. The shofar symbolically alludes to the biblical in which Abraham is spared from having to ritually murder his son Isaac by the appearance of a sacrificial ram; ever since, says at least one passage in the Talmud, the sounding of the ram’s horn has served to remind the heavens to leaven judgment with compassion — and to remind us, the inventors of these metaphors of heaven, that we need not hand our anger on to the next generation.
Even for animals like that poor ram in the bushes, Jewish texts urge compassion. In one of his less-known stories, titled “Pity for Living Creatures,” the great humanistic Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem describes a sensitive boy who is reviled and assaulted again and again for showing compassion to animals. “Pinye,” he declares to his friend, whose father, a shoykhet, has just slaughtered a rooster, “your father’s a goy... because he doesn’t have pity for living creatures.”
Now, compare such teachings about rakhmones, womb-love, with the hard-heartedness that has spread across the American landscape in our time. Contrast the emphasis on rakhmones with the world-record two million-plus people in American prisons, living in grim, dehumanizing conditions and sometimes for years at a time in solitary confinement — and how our politicians are confident of rising poll numbers if they endorse policies of punishment rather than rehabilitation.
Contrast Jewish teachings about lashon hara, evil and careless speech, with the dehumanizing poisons that are spewed on Fox News and other media outlets each and every day, even while they offer relentless violence and sadism as our entertainment.
Contrast the Jewish relationship to immigration — our lives enabled by the open door, our survival denied by the closed door — with today’s rhetoric, which equates border-crossers with criminals and turns “amnesty” into a dirty word. Contrast that magnificent sonnet by Emma Lazarus — ”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — contrast that with Arizona ‘s new immigration law.
Contrast the Jewish recognition of the reality principle that wealth is a social product, with the incredible polarization of have’s and have-not’s in our country — with over 13 percent of our people, including 20 percent of children, living under the poverty line and as much as 40 percent of Americans dipping below that line in the course of a decade. Contrast Jewish teachings about the sinful city of Sodom — “the cause of their cruelty,” says Louis Ginzberg in Legends of the Jews, “was their exceeding great wealth.... Their laws were calculated to do injury to the poor. The richer a man, the more he was favored before the law” — this in the city that Abraham has to plead with God not to destroy on behalf of the righteous few — contrast this with our worship, in America, of the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.”
Contrast the Jewish emphasis on tsedoke as a path to humanistic consciousness — with the Midrash declaring that “the poor person does more for the householder than the householder does for the poor person” — with the punitive attitudes towards poverty in America, which actively promotes indignities so as to deter people from seeking assistance, which refuses to prevent homelessness but waits for disaster to overtake families, which refuses medical, nursing home and other benefits to the elderly until their personal resources are utterly depleted, which means-tests and humiliates before bestowing its tsedoke on its own citizens. Consider how the mythical “welfare queen” is so much more despised than the real-life defense contract who steals billions from the taxpayer.
Contrast the Jewish emphasis on devek, cleaving, in sexual love, which locates the power of human sexuality in its capacity to deepen our perception of one another’s humanity, contrast this with the pornographic image-making of America’s commercial culture.
Contrast the Yiddish story of the Jewish draftee in the tsarist army who fires his gun up into the air time and again instead of aiming at the enemy soldiers. “Over there, over there!” his Cossack captain keeps hollering, until the Jew responds: “But Captain, there are mentshn, human beings, over there!” — contrast this bit of our folk wisdom with the Global War on Terror, the easy resort to warfare, the willing resort to torture and the denial of human rights in the name of national security.
Contrast Judaism’s precautionary principle, s’yag l’torah, building a “fence around the Torah,” which bids us to err on the side of caution when it comes to matters of life, limb and spiritual integrity —contrast this with “drill, baby, drill.”
Contrast the Jewish concept of the minyan, of gathering the community before we can proceed with our sanctifications, with the prideful American mystique of “rugged individualism,” which lends an egotistical perspective to every success and every failure, and renders Martin Buber’s concept of “the genuine We” inconceivable or highly subversive.
IT IS DEEPLY PAINFUL to me to see how the abandonment of “the genuine We” and the worship of individualism have become the foundationstones of our idolatrous temple in America. We don’t even need the extremism of the Tea Party — their insane devotion to unfettered individual liberty at the expense of the planet itself — to identify the idolatry of individualism that surrounds us. For thirty or more years, the conservative movement has been seeking, in the words of Grover Norquist, to shrink government to the point where they can “drown it in the bathtub.” The very concept of the government as mediator, as arbitrator, as regulator, as protector — the very concept of the government as a hub of our interconnection — has been demeaned, vilified and all-but-shattered. Meanwhile, the corporate system, with its streamlining technologies, has so streamlined our lives and our culture as to leave us all independent, isolated, and perfectly happy to be so.
Don’t get me wrong: I recognize that the freedom of choice in our lives, including the choice to associate with people or not, is a blessed thing. Individualism was indeed America’s greatest innovation at the time of our nation’s founding: It marked what the historian Gordon S. Woods has called “the radicalism of the American Revolution.” It was on these shores that money became the medium of transaction among people — at least, among white men — which meant that your circumstance of birth, in the serf’s hut or in the lord’s manor, would not necessarily be determinative of your destiny. Capitalism, in its day, was a mighty revolutionary force: Marx and Engels saw how the force of the marketplace caused “all that is solid” to melt, “all that is holy” to be profaned. I would add that this, too, is part of the progressive portmanteau of the Jewish people, for we were among the pioneers of capitalism, going right back to the Middle Ages. Driven by the enmity of the Church into the theologically despised fields of money-lending and commerce, Jews unwittingly helped lay the foundations for a system that would bring about the end of the Church’s temporal power. We helped make possible the invention of the modern individual.
But “when there is too much of something, something is missing,” says another Yiddish proverb, one of my favorites. Today, our individualism has been inflated into a golem of self-salvation, self-involvement, self-entertainment, and self-satisfaction. We have Netflix as our living room, take-out food as our kitchen, and Facebook as our front porch. We have a government that runs on the fumes of the New Deal while offering the public nothing but scraps from corporate boardroom tables — and we have a public ready to believe that even those meager hand-outs constitute something evil called “socialism.” We have a school system that exposes kindergarteners to tests and competitive pressures as much as to group play and fundamental ethical values. We have SUVs in our driveway and oil spills in our rear-view mirrors. We have a professional, so-called “volunteer” military that we can send with its drones to nations all around the world, while fewer than 25 percent of us even hold passports and would dream of visiting those places. We have free-floating anger and resentment at the very real betrayal of the American dream — the jobs that have migrated to cheaper markets, the houses that have been turned into Wall Street “derivatives” — and we’re on the lookout, with an American eagle-eye, for an “other” to blame.
“When there is too much of something, something is missing.” With the golem of individualism running amok, we are losing our capacity for social response-ability — that is, the ability to respond to the social, to recognize one another as fully human beings. We are losing the ability to subordinate those desires we want to gratify to the needs of the planet. We are losing the ability to stand again at Sinai, the whole lot of us, and respond once again to the call that converted a mass of slaves into a people bonded by ethical law and conscience.
It has only been a couple of years I came upon that quote from Leo Baeck, that “We Jews are sons of the revolution, daughters of the revolution...” I don’t know its context, only that it appeared in Judaism magazine in 1949. And I used to wonder: Was he talking about the French Revolution, which enabled Jews to be individual citizens of the “Hebrew persuasion”? Was he talking about democratizing revolutions of the mid-19th century in Europe, which were repressed and drove leaders of Progressive Judaism to America? Could he have been talking about the Russian Revolution, which did ultimately yield the defeat of Nazism and Leo Baeck’s own liberation from the Theresienstadt concentration camp?
Only finally did I realize that he must have been talking about the revolution that we are celebrating this week: The revolution of Passover, of liberation from enslavement — the story that is at the very, very core of Judaism and pervades its entire literature.
As the hagode says, it is up to each generation to make meaning of that revolution. For me, today, it is the revolution of “the genuine WE” that I seek — the revolution that seeks to redress the imbalance between individual consciousness and collective consciousness, between “natural selection” and “spiritual selection,” between survival of the fittest and our human capacity to make the maximum number “fit to survive.”
The revolution that is ours to make is the revolution of social response-ability, the ability to respond to the social, which desperately needs cultivation in our land.
I HAVE THROWN together enough Jewish text and interpretation in this piece to drive people crazy, whatever part of the Jewish spectrum (or, for that matter, the non-Jewish spectrum) they may hail from. What I have tried to is offer a little intro and/or refresher course on “Why Be Jewish?” — why express your dissatisfaction with the world-as-is using Jewish idioms and in affirmation of our peoplehood. I know that we all have our hang-ups about Jewish identity, our reasons for participating and our reasons for withdrawing — and we have the good fortune in America for this identity to be, fundamentally, voluntary.
I share in the ambivalence: I have my passport from Jewish identification at the ready each time I hear of an Israeli atrocity and a spirited defense of it by one of our mainstream unelected Jewish leaders; I have my passport at the ready each time I encounter Jewish religious fundamentalism; I have my passport at the ready each time the tribalism of our people turns into chauvinism; I have my passport at the ready whenever the fluid, evolving, and hard-to-pin-down nature of Jewish identity frustrates the ideologue in me. Still, I pursue the work, my life work, really, of cultivating Jewish consciousness as something countercultural, something radical, something that defies what Sigmund Freud called “the compact majority,” and insists on carrying the world up the twin peaks of justice and compassion. I believe the tenacity of Jewish liberalism, especially at the ballot box and in the world of tsedoke, to be a mighty political resource for our country — and I believe that the tenacity of that liberalism gives testimony to the fact that there is a progressive pulse at the core of Jewish thought. It is this pulse — humanistic, engaged with the world, dissatisfied with the status quo, and deeply committed to the cultivation of social consciousness — that keeps me most engaged with Jewish identity and committed to its nurture, and keeps me noodging people to do the same.
May the circles of those who listen to us all expand and help heal our battered country.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.