Friday, September 25, 2009

Ha’azinu: “It’s Not Personal; It’s Business”

History/Never repeats/I tell myself/Before I go to sleep—Split Enz

For most of the past decade, I’ve spent a good portion of the Rosh Hashana—whether at home or in shul, during a lull in prayers [or sometimes if I get bored during the actual prayers]—reading through Shoftim and/or Melachim. The stories therein generally brought home two particular points to me: one, that people—particularly my own, as the stories were generally about them—oftentimes indulged in behaviors that were grossly criminal and immoral, even given the extreme cultural differences between their times and ours [the ma’aseh of pilegesh b’givah in Shoftim 19 is paradigmatic]; and two, many of said incidents were perpetrated by individuals with WAY too much power and/or success [not for naught does one find the verse “And he continued in the evil ways of his father[s]” recurring in both books of Kings].

Mostly, it was an exercise in making myself feel better during the time of year that my tradition calls for an intense degree of introspection, both because I didn’t a) want to think I was ever that bad and b) not having to kick myself for mot having reached what ever “madrega” I was “destined” for [obviously, the bigger they were, the harder they would fall]. [This year, instead of perusing the neviim, I found myself reading about Jews in Sing Sing, and Jewish criminality in US from 1900-1940. Le’havdil, of course, but a similar theme applies.]

Similarly, around this time of year I remember my initial reaction to the Oslo process which was truly commenced on September 13, 1993 [right before Rosh Hashana] with the famous White House handshake, outside of the obvious political implications: the “frumer” elements in and out of Israel would be quicker to proclaim the need for teshuva to counteract the effects rather than resort to all-out vicious opposition. I can’t really speak for whether there was actually any introspection within those communities and its members, but my expected public proclamations and calls for tshuva didn’t happen.

When you get down to it, all of Sefer Dvarim—from the opening parsha thru the end of Vayelech—Moshe basically tells bnei yisrael two things: 1) You were bad. A lot. 2) After I pass, you’re gonna be even worse. Parshas Haazinu basically encapsulates this entire notion in peotic form [according to the midrashim, Moshe had Bnei Yisrael recite it with him responsively, lest they miss the point]. Obvious questions are raised: what is the purpose of such a national endeavor if Jewish life—and, by extension, our history—is one long rerun of the Tochacha? And does this affect any notion of an intellectually honest bechira chafshis, if our collective gross misbehavior has been decreed from on high?

While those are important questions, they are almost ancillary to the real main theme of Haazinu, which might serve to reframe he entire cycle of “Were bad, Will be bad” that runs through Sefer Devarim.

One might, in a sense, see a form of a pre-emptive rejoinder to what Bnei Yisrael tell Shmuel when they request that he set up a monarchy, so that “ve’hayinu ke-chol ha-goyim”. In a sense, Moshe is telling Bnei Yisrael throughout Sefer Devarim and especially in Haazinu: Don’t expect that your Covenant with the Divine is an ipso facto guarantee that your lives will be less nasty, brutish and short as anyone from kol hagoyim—in fact, chances are that you’ll fail, occasionally spectacularly, and incur what might seem to you and/or others excessive nastiness and brutishness, but is actually almost a built in consequence of your relationship with G-d, the only thing that makes you chosen and “special”. We may take this a step further when we see how G-d Himself will avenge his servants—but, while He k’vayachol takes our persecutions “personally”, he doesn’t spend all that much time [in Haazinu’s pesukim, anyway] detailing how he will facilitate OUR revenge: He does it all for us.

And/or Him. It’s personal AND business.

But there’s another, more positive message we can take: there is a “happy ending” to the cycle of history, hinted at in the [admittedly violent imagery of an] ending of the “poem” section of Haazinu. And while Moshe states at the beginning “Zechor yemos olam, binu shnos dor vador” [“Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past”] [32:7]—Moshe certainly would not object to Shlomo Hamelech’s admonition regarding nostalgia: “Do not say, ‘Why is it that the former days were better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this” [Koheles 7:10]

I propose that the historical example of the recent rebirth of Israel--but particularly as a secular democratic state—is actually the sign we would be looking for. I submit this is counter intuitive, if radical, but I would use this assertion to futher support my point: Israel is the only state in the world that, in the democratic Zeitgeist of our day and age, should be allowed to have any religious character allowed in its makeup at all [and the only state in the world that should be allowed to have nuclear weapons, if only because we invented them. But that’s another discussion]. This is in no small measure due to the ironic reason that only Jews ostensibly subvert our own religious “prerogatives” and keep the state from becoming a theocratic dictatorship [which it would be without a direct Divine imprimatur.] Can you imagine any other state with a religious foundation even allowing that sort of subversion to its “traditions”? The only other example I can think of that comes close is Ireland [and only because they elected women as their President[s] and liberalized their abortion laws, through clenched teeth, in complete contradistinction to their “traditions”], but when you consider how its adoption of Catholicism in the 16th century was a histori-political accident in the first place, one can argue that its claims to its “inexorable” spiritual roots are of far more recent vintage than ours. To those who would say that Israel should more closely emulate theocratic regimes, I would venture that we’ve demonstrated the opposite [with lots of help from contemporary theocracies]. Religion and government, religion in government—is OUR business.

[No one else would ever follow our example [or would want to]; such concepts are completely foreign to them; owing in no small part to my Judeo-centrism, I would almost say it is due to some deep-seated fear that we’re right and they’re wrong; the historical example of St. John Chrysostom’s declaration that persecution of Jews be stepped up for this very reason provides a clear illustration of this. I would ever go so far as to say it drives much of current Islamic anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. But don’t quote me on—oops.]

[Oh, and as a mildly tangential closing of the circle regarding happy endings: in both of the books I read this past Rosh Hashana—and other books about US Jewish criminality in the early part of the previous century—after 1950 or thereabouts there was a VERY significant dropoff in Jewish criminality in this country, and for the most part it has stayed that way.]

Gmar chasima tova and mechila on the House.

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