Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sukkot: An Appropriate Response to Jewish Chauvinism

Many Jews don't get it.

But some go beyond that, and into the realm of the rabid. Barbara Kay in today's National Post has joined that latter group.

Kay basically accuses the majority of American Jews of being enemies of the Jewish People. So myopic is her view, that at the same time as she accuses left wing and liberal Jews of being sonay yisrael (haters of Israel) it is she who is spewing hatred of the majority of North American Jews. And its is she who - despite what Kay and her neocon gurus might hope - is out of step with the still normative streak in modern Judaism: identification with the downtrodden and looking for Jewish salvation within the salvation of all. It this universalism within particularism that Kay really hates.

Here is some of her venom. I have annotated in italics - just in case all the falsehoods aren't obvious.

Nothing has the power to divide Jewish hearts like Israel, daily proof of which appears in the news. On the extreme end of anti-Israel agitation we find Canada's most famously faithless Jew, Naomi Klein, rarely out of the headlines between tearful photo-ops in Ramalla and attempted film-festival smears in Toronto. [Actually Klein spends very little of her time on Israel/Palestine issues; is famous for her more general critique of Western consumerist and corporatist society; and has come to the I/P issue only recently.] And then there's the slightly more demented Diana Ralph, stalwart of the Israel-hating fringe group Independent Jewish Voices, recently outed as a tinfoil-hatted anti-Zionist, anti-American conspiracy theorist.

As candidly hopeful Israel executioners, they are but a melodramatic tip of an underlying iceberg. Klein and company won't administer the coup de grace to the Jewish people. That will come from more seemingly trustworthy, influential elites, [later in the article she admits that these "elites" include 75% of American Jews ] nominal Jews [nominal because they don't agree with Kay] who don't realize that they have abandoned Judaism for another religion, one presently antithetical to Judaism's existential portion.


In the course of an Aug. 19 conference call with 1,000 or so American rabbis, Barack Obama urged them to use their High Holiday sermons to "tell the stories of health-care dilemmas to illustrate what is at stake." Rather creepily, he added -- imagine if it were George Bush intoning these words to 1,000 evangelical ministers -- "we are God's partners in matters of life and death." [Obama, of course didn't mention God. But even if he did why is religious talk creepy? Especially when talking to clergy. Religious talk is creepy for Kay, who is a secular nationalists (or is that "neo-fascist") for whom the only values that matter are ethnic loyalty and power. For real people of faith there is nothing wrong with talking about deeply held transcendent values]

... With all due respect to Medicare, a universal health system is not a "matter of life and death" to the Jewish people. Defending Israel is. [And here is the crux of the matter! For Kay and her ilk, Judaism has nothing to do with humanity s a whole and Jews are a special category outside of the societies in which they live. Why wouldn't the health care of their congregants and their congregants friends be a moral issue worthy of discussion by American rabbis. What could be more a "matter of life and death" than health care?] What were these rabbis thinking, taking their holy day sermon orders from the state? [This, from a woman who wants Judaism to be subservient to the State of Israel.]

... It's almost as if they could no longer distinguish between Judaism and the Democratic party.

In fact, there's no almost-as-if about any of these conditions. Liberalism is today the de facto religion of most American Jews, a stunning 78% of whom voted for Obama, no particular friend to Israel, to say the least....

Ahavat Yisrael, the (not uncritical, but steadfast) love of Israel is the heart and soul of Judaism, like it or not. [Actually, Maimonides, among many others, would disagree. But that is all you are left with when you have no Jewish values (and Kay probably wouldn't know a Jewish value if it hit her in the head) other than ethnic identification.] ...

When the left abandoned Israel in 1967, leftist Jews abandoned Judaism [No! They abandoned Israel - and for many only slowly and painfully], but in galling displays of self-love (please don't call them self-hating Jews; they adore themselves), they refuse to hand in their Jewish passports. Our publicly anti-Zionist Jews flay their fellow Jews, but flaunt their Jewishness to clothe their non-Jewish anti-Zionist colleagues with respectability. [Wait a second ! Whose flaying whom! Didn't Kay just condemn all those deluded American Jews who voted for Obama?] They insist, even as they scream for boycotts of Israeli academics or films [How many times did the TIFF protestors explain they weren't advocating a boycott of Israeli films - just protesting TIFF's honouring of Tel-Aviv?] , even as they denounce Israel as an "apartheid" state, that they are the true standard-bearers for Jewish values like "social justice," that catch-all shibboleth for the ennoblement of myth-driven anti-Semitic Arab revanchism. [So... she is against Social Justice? That's NOT a Jewish value?]

...The Jews have been expelled from 94 countries. There is but one, our homeland since time immemorial, from which Jews can be blown to smithereens, but not expelled. [Does Kay really think that Jews will be expelled from the U.S. (or Canada where she lives) ? That is, no doubt, why she thinks that being concerned about American issues is such a foolish waste of time for "real" Jews. Kay is consumed by her paranoia - see her sentence above - and has taken self centredness and ethnocentrism to a new level] ... That in such parlous times 1,000 establishment Jewish spiritual leaders think pleasing the Oba-messiah is more important than encouraging their flocks' ahavat Yisrael on Judaism's most sacred days is a measure of the religion of Judaism's decline and the religion of liberal-ism's ascendancy in America. [Jewish libalism in America has been a fact for at least 100 years. It is not something new.]
. source: The National Post Online
So much for Kay's diatribe.

But Kay is wrong. Judaism has long mixed particularism with universalism. Ritual, faith and worship are particular. Social obligations universal. "One law for you and the stranger among you." Our obligations start with family, and expand by stages to all humanity. Our Jewish obligations are but a step on this continuum.

And the truth is that the holiday of Sukkot - which starts Friday - is the quintessential holiday where Jews are to be outward looking: concerned with the welfare of all humanity. Sukkot is a harvest festival - giving thanks for the bounty of the previous year - and a holiday of prayer for rain in the coming year. And as the rabbis of the Talmud put it, "The rain falls on Jews and non-Jews alike." Indeed, on Sukkot, the High Priest offered up 70 sacrifices for the 70 nations of the world, and non-Jews where invited to come to the Temple to offer sacrifices to Yaweh. As far as can be told, many of them did just that.

On Sukkot we are enjoined to invite guests - Jews and non-Jews - to our sukkah: to share our bounty and the holiday spirit. At my own synagogue, we have long used Sukkot - the holiday where we live (or at least eat) in flimsy temporary shelters - to advocate for the homeless. My synagogue has helped run a weekly homeless shelter program for 16 years now, and we have sponsored two low cost housing projects to help get the poor - Jews and no non-Jews - off the streets and into decent housing. More recently we have formed a Social Justice Advocacy Committee to lobby government, and raise public support for, better poverty alleviation policies.

This year on Sukkot, myself and some of my synagogue hevre will be participating in an event sponsored by another Toronto congregation: a multi-faith peace "pilgrimage". Jews, Muslims, and Christians will march for Peace, and to highlight human solidarity above day to day political differences.

I will be walking with my lulav and etrog: partly to say to Ms Kay - that it is she that is out of step with historic Jewish values - not liberal Jews who wish, and work for, a better world for all.

If you are in Toronto and can make it, try to come. What better way to spend chol hamoed sukkot?


Anonymous Shmuel said...

I don't know what "Jewish values" are anymore, Syd. Kaplan said (paraphrasing) that Jewish values are the best values of the time, expressed in terms of the Jewish civilization. That's awfully subjective. Your best values are not Kay's. Knowing that Jews are just ordinary human beings (as shocking as that may be to some) and that they may have a wide range of opinions, Kaplan's statement means that Judaism is about language and culture more than about specific content. Kay has one up on you and me though. Ethnocentrism and tribalism are more manifestly Jewish (or Irish or Haitian) than simple values or views, left right or centre, expressed in Jewish terms. (I am reminded of the elderly Jews I used to meet on the bus in Montreal, when I was kid. Seeing my kippah, they would inevitably ask: "You speak Jewish?" - meaning Yiddish, of course, but "speaking Jewish" also has a much broader meaning in this context.)

Hag sameah

4:50 am  
Blogger Sydney Nestel said...

Yes Kapland says Judaism is about culture ("civilization" in his terms)but for him culture includes values and ideas. He meant to broaden the then current idea of "Judaism" to include dance, music, food, literature - not to narrow it to preclude values. (This concept is so obvious to us today, that we barely grasp what he was going on about.)

Kaplan also said that Judaism is the ever evolving civilization of the of Jewish People. And in that light the question is not so much what Judaim is, or has been, but what we want it to evolve into. Kay and I are pulling in opposite directions.

Of course, historically, Judaism has had both admirable and less admirable aspects. Jews in each period pick and choose from the past and innovate a bit to create the Judaism of their time. No one still believes we should stone to death the "wayward son", and this traditional law was already dissavowed in Talmudic times. The Hassidim where radical innovators in their day (1750.) Now they are considered normative - at least of Orthodoxy - and the most traditional of the traditional.

Is ethnocentrism (to the exclusion of all else) the norm among Jews today? No - as Kay's article proves. But she would have us believe it should be (and once was) - based on a false view of the past. In inter-war Poland the Bund was as strong as the Zionist. and for every yeshiva bucher, their was a Jewish Communist. And with all due respect to your youth in Montreal, those old Jews on the bus did not, even then, represent the limits of Jewish experience.

And the opposite of exclusivist ethnocentrism does not preclude "speaking Jewish". The choice is not between the "French Model" (harmony through forced "sameness") and the "Yugoslavian Model" (ethnic hatred and violence). In fact those are two sides of the same coin: people can only get along if they are the "same". We need to build on our years as a minority people and learn to get along even when we are not the same: to nurture identities and still respect Others. We need to regain the confidence (and perhaps the communal skills) so that we can survive without state coersion.

Multiculturalism perhaps? A state of tension - to be sure - but better than a state of war.

10:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Syd,

Interesting blog. I really enjoyed hearing about your synagogue's way of using Sukkot to focus on social justice while reaching out to different faith groups. I'm really interested in interfaith projects spearheaded by the Jewish community. I wasn't clear if the low-cost housing project you mentioned was specifically for homeless Jews or for all homeless individuals. Can you please clarify?

2:16 am  
Blogger Sydney Nestel said...

We have several projects. They all target everyone in need - not just Jews and in fact serve mostly non-Jews. Since they involve government money as well as private money, this would pretty much be a legal requirement. But that is not the reason we target everyone. It just seems the right thing to do.

7:26 am  

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