Archive for May, 2012

Judaism as a Protest Movement

Jewish protest — voiced by prophets, judges, and rabbis — frequently targeted the rebellious people who had abandoned the straight path that finds favor with God, or who simply stopped advancing along it. But a close reading of the classical Jewish texts reveals that Jewish protest was directed, not only against the people, but also, on a far more profound level, against God. It is not only that throughout Jewish history we find frequent cases of complaints and anger vented against God; it is that Jewish history itself is one long bitter protest against Him. For it is possible to conceive of God in two ways, and in opposition to both these ways, Judaism is a protest movement

The Jewish God was never an abstract entity totally cut off from the world. Despite Maimonides’ attempt to win adherents for it, the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover never spoke to the heart of the Jewish people — as opposed to the paternal and regal figure whom we meet from the Bible onwards to the Chassidic movement. This is the first way in which we can conceive of God: as creator and governor, as the primordial apex that precedes the universe, as the being who holds the world in His hand — and as such, bears responsibility for making sure that it runs smoothly. But His attempt at this is not always successful, in ways that are often dreadful and terrible, and men and women stand up and cry out their protest.

The contemporary philosopher, Prof. Rabbi David Hartman, has noted that whereas Abraham, the first father of Judaism, tends to be rooted in the collective consciousness as a man who quietly obeyed when God commanded him to sacrifice his only son, we can also perceive Abraham as the one who protested when God intended to destroy Sodom and all its inhabitants. Unlike the compliant figure of the Binding of Isaac, the Abraham of the episode of the Cities of the Plain remonstrates with God against His plan to destroy “the righteous with the wicked” (Gen. 18:23), that is, against His blindness to the complexities of the situation.

In the case of Sodom, Abraham engages in a fierce debate with God, coming very close to rebuking Him when he cries out, “Will the Judge of all the earth not act with justice?” (v. 25). In this case, God’s very authority to define the ethical matrix is challenged; Abraham makes it plain to Him that harming righteous people who happen to live among the wicked is itself a wicked act. Such collateral damage, to use the modern term, is unacceptable to the father of the Jewish people; he is not willing to sit idly by while God does something immoral.

In the name of what moral code is Abraham crying out against God? Isn’t it God Himself who determines, a priori and for all time, what is good and what is bad? A protest against God is fundamentally problematic, because we may doubt the existence of a moral fulcrum for challenges to His decisions. Evidently Abraham identifies within himself a conscience, a spark of natural morality, planted in him by the Creator but not programmed by Him. It is in the name of that conscience that he cries out against heaven; that conscience will judge the Lord’s actions, not only when applied by Abraham, but also in the future by every other human being, those of “all the earth,” who will see, all too clearly, that “the Judge of all the earth” does not act justly. A god who sins against human morality will become irrelevant — or, worse still, demonic. Abraham is protesting in the name of all humanity.

Protest by Groups and Communities

The protest by Abraham, the first Jew, is a sign of things to come. After the Israelites coalesced as a people, from time to time an incident arose in which they objected not only to abstract divine morality, but also to God’s explicit statutes, that is, the law that He established. This happened, for example, following the death of Zelophehad in the wilderness, on the way to Canaan, only one year before the Israelites were to enter that land. Because he had no sons to inherit his rights, his family was not going to receive a family estate in the land of Israel. He had no sons, but he certainly did have daughters — five in number — and they protested to Moses (“why should our father’s name be excised from his family?” [Num. 27:4]), who in turn transmitted their protest to God. They are objecting that, under the existing law, they cannot inherit from their father, and ask to be allowed to receive his portion of the Land and thereby to carry on his name.

God confesses the justice of their claim and gives instructions to change the law: “The daughters of Zelophehad are right,” He tells Moses. “You shall give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen and transfer their father’s share to them” (Num. 27:7). Unlike the case of Abraham, this is not the complaint of an individual, but of a group, or even a protest advanced in the name of all the women of Israel. Still, as with Abraham, here too it is a truth that sprouts from the earth and cries out against heaven, a wailing below that arouses the higher realm as well, a grievance that prompts a more appropriate conception of justice.

An era when emancipated slaves are coalescing into a nation is a prime time for protests. In the wilderness, we also encounter the protest by Israelites who were ritually impure when Passover came and were consequently unable to bring the festival sacrifice and celebrate the holiday with the rest of the people. They came before Moses and Aaron on that day. And those men said to him, “We are unclean through touching the dead body of a man. Why should we be excised [from the congregation], not presenting the Lord’s offering at its appointed time among the people of Israel?” (Num. 9:6–7)

The question, as in the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, is “why we should be excised?” The Bible employs the same verb in both episodes, to convey the identical message: an individual does not want to be severed from the collective, not only in practice, but also in principle — neither because she is a woman, nor because he is ritually impure. In this case, too, the protest succeeded and the law was modified.

Protest does not always succeed, of course — as the case of Korah and his faction proves. But it was always there, always voiced by the oppressed against an unfair deity. Such was the protest of the prophets who endeavored to appease God and dissuade Him from destroying the people, the Tanna’im of the Mishnah who expressed doubts about His greatness after the destruction of the Temple, and the kabbalists who endeavored to understand how and why the process of the creation went awry. In every generation, Jewish tradition has fostered protesters and activists, individuals and groups that cried out against the Lord and against His arbitrary will or unacceptable actions.

The Jewish protest against God is as ancient as Judaism itself and institutes relations of dialogue and debate between the lower world and the celestial realm. Yes, God created the universe; but from that moment on He must take account of His creation. Yes, human beings received their being from God; but from that moment they are able to choose good over bad, to aspire to perfection — and, consequently, to protest.

The Protest against the Immanent God

All of this refers to the concept of God as the governor of the world, the “big boss,” the creator, the legislator and “building superintendent.” One can cry out against such a God and complain, expecting and even demanding an answer from Him. But this is not the only possible conception of the deity. For God can also be understood as a presence immanent in the world. Here God is the world, nature, existence and/or its essence, and Judaism as a whole — and not individuals within it — constitutes a protest movement against this God.

This conception of God is more common in the Orient, in the cultures of India and China. It views divinity as the chain of causality, the organic reality that produces itself from within itself, the “way” that paves itself and advances on in infinite circles. Abraham the Hebrew took the other side. It was Judaism that first put forward the idea of a transcendent divinity, that is, the idea that God is separate from and totally other than this world. In this picture, God is an infinite horizon towards which we aspire; human beings confront the divine ideal, in the perpetual tension of the yearning for the unattainable. The purpose of human life is always somewhere else, in the future, in the infinite. Arthur Schopenhauer was right when he blamed Judaism for it’s “pernicious optimism”, it’s unwillingness to be swallowed by the Immanent God, by the comforting emptiness.

According to this conception, Judaism goes beyond the real world. It rebels against the world of immanent divinity and denounces it as idolatry. It rejects the current situation — the present, existence per se — as unacceptable. Judaism embarks on an asymptotic movement that breaks out of what is and aspires towards what is not, and, in practice, towards what will never be. The philosopher Ilan Gur-Ze’ev has spoken of Judaism as always opposing a self-sufficient normality that compensates itself for the lack of transcendence with ever-increasing intensity — that is, opposing life lived for its own sake, caught up in frantic, hedonistic enthusiasm. Judaism is opposed to the call of the divine world to sink down into it, to merge with it, to rejoice in it, and poses against it a future utopia that it sets out to realize.

The Stubborn Insistence on Remaining Other

Anyone who is no longer a teenager knows that utopia is unattainable. Nevertheless, it is the yearning for perfection that improves the world. The constant call to try to close the gap between what is and what ought to be is the original ancestor of the precept to reform the world (tikkun olam); the ideas of moral progress and scientific inquiry are its modern descendents. It is the same experience of the horizon of the inconceivable ideal that led Westerners to develop and better not only their lives (from a moral perspective), but also their world (through technology). It is no accident that the scientific revolution did not take place in the Orient; the immanent worldview does not support such an uncompromising call for rising above oneself.

Thus, Judaism moves towards the messianic horizon, towards the redemption that will never arrive. Here Judaism presents an audacious breakout from what is given and opposes, with all its heart and all its might, the constant temptation to sink down in the comfort of the present. This movement is obvious in the ancient myths: Abraham uproots himself from his pleasant life in his homeland. The tribes conquer Canaan, despite the comforts of the wilderness and the warnings of the spies. The Jews, unlike the surrounding peoples, were always unwilling to see their king as divine, and thereby to close the gulf between heaven and earth.

This movement is prominent, too, in the Jews’ unwillingness to assimilate in the lands of the Diaspora, to settle into the pleasant life among the nations, and in their insistence on remaining Other, different, even at a very high price. Judaism is always opposite, always beyond, always a stubborn focus of moral exclusiveness, of hierarchy, of ethnocentricity — for better and for worse. The angel who wrestled with Jacob is an earthly deity, against whom the Jewish tradition fights, as it is aspiring to rise and ascend it. Israel, by its very essence, wrestles with God.

A Messiah Who Comes Is not a Jewish Messiah

Although the rebellion against the God of the present begins with a messianic call to the infinite, we must not confound it with the idea that the Messiah has already come, or that he will be arriving shortly. In practice, the idea that redemption is imminent is sometimes simply another version, more sophisticated and more insidious, of the notion of the divine world and nature. This is because the desire for imminent redemption may express a desire for an end of the breakout towards the eternal, for the end of the movement, for the end of the arduous journey towards the unattainable utopia – for a complete stop. In such cases it is merely recapitulating the call of the wilderness generation to return to Egypt—a call that expresses profound despair, disguised as hope.

“The Messiah has not come yet,” Ben-Gurion said once. “Nor do I want the Messiah to come. The moment the Messiah comes — he will no longer be the Messiah. If you can find the Messiah’s address in the phone book, he is no longer the Messiah.” The question here is not the identity of the Messiah. Any Messiah who shows up will not be the Messiah. And, we can add: the Jewishness of any Messiah who comes will be doubted. This is because the Messiah signifies the end of the rebellion, the end of the protest against the present reality. The Messiah tells you that you have arrived, that you have made it, and that you are perfect just as you are now. This is why a concrete and tangible Messiah represents despair, impatience, a desire to rest, to blend in, to settle down. Indeed, a Messiah who arrived would proclaim the end of Judaism.

The longing for the messianic era and the unwillingness to accept any messiah who actually shows up are what define Judaism as the oldest and most adamant protest movement in the world. The rebellion against the present and against the God of What Is, the perpetual aspiration to go further and climb higher — those epitomize the ‘stiff neck’ of Judaism. This aspiration, with both its good and bad aspects, is what realizes our very humanity, because it departs from the obvious to seek the mysterious, breaks loose from the “system” to wander the pathless expanses.

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[This is an English translation, by יהודית ברלב, לן שרם, יבר”ט תיעוד ותרגום בע”מ, of a Hebrew article that I wrote for the art exhibitionקול המון in the Beit Avi Chai center. It formed the base for a presentation I gave there on the opening evening, 1/5/12]

Tomer Persico

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