fbpx
Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Star Wars and Jewish Cosmic Wars

I made a bet with myself that I could resist using the Star Wars craze as an analogy to write something about the state of the Jewish world. The moment I lost that bet was when I discovered, in Terror in the Name of God, Mark Juergensmeyer’s landmark book about religious extremism, the concept of “cosmic war.”  Then I realized that, just as Darth Vader and Han Solo are involved in a cosmic struggle, so too are we. Sadly.

Juergensmeyer and others use the term “cosmic war” to characterize conflicts in which one or both sides are extremely polarized, perceiving their fight to have larger-than-life proportions.

In a cosmic war, a disagreement over a specific issue—say, a government policy, or a territory—becomes much larger and much simpler. It’s a supremely significant struggle between pure good and pure evil, a fight to carry out the divine plan or enact the group’s ultimate destiny. Losing such a war is unthinkable, compromise with the “primary enemy” is impossible, and even those in the in-group who  consider compromise, or question the cosmic nature of the struggle, come to be seen as the enemy themselves (“the secondary enemy”). In a fight between martyrs and demons, moderates can’t be tolerated, and the primary and secondary enemy become so conflated that they are interchangeable.

Cosmic warriors feel ennobled, exalted. They aren’t just thugs or bullies; they are saving the world. Simultaneously, they invariably see themselves  as victims. Any violent act they commit is always self-defense, and in any case the urgency of the fight supersedes all laws and scruples. The dramatic denouement is always near, and the actions of a cosmic warrior can tip the balance to ultimate victory. That’s how jihadis of all religions go about murdering noncombatants without the slightest pang of conscience.  

These characteristics are demonstrated clearly by Islamic radicals, who fight for world domination and completely blur the distinction between primary and secondary enemies. The FIS in Algeria mainly killed moderate Muslims and neutral villagers for not joining their jihad. All Islamic terrorists see themselves as victims and “martyrs,” and compromise isn’t possible or desirable. Believing their cosmic war to be simple and binary, Islamic radicals are untroubled by inconvenient facts; radical Muslim clerics can claim — against all evidence — that there was never a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount.

The mentality of cosmic war, while most prominently expressed in Islamic fundamentalism, is not the exclusive patrimony of Islam. All our communities, to different degrees, are infected by the same virus. In the Jewish world, the notion that we are at cosmic war is gaining ground, and creating a culture of unprecedented polarization and violence.  

When Yigal Amir killed Yitzhak Rabin, he was conflating the primary enemy with the secondary enemy who negotiates with him. Not all manifestations of cosmic war are immediately violent like Amir’s act of murder, but they do contribute to creating the ferment of violence. The latest of many examples in Israel include the vicious and verbally violent attacks on Israeli President Rubi Rivlin for daring to attend a conference of “left wingers,” and a video of wedding revelers singing as they stab the photo of a Palestinian infant. These unthinkable expressions of violent intention toward a president with whom they disagree, or a child far too young to deserve anyone’s enmity, can only be explained by the paradigm of cosmic war. A similar pattern emerged in the American Jewish community during the debate around the Iran deal. Both sides saw their opponents not as holding valid but dissenting opinions, but rather as cosmic foes.

We see the same ideology gaining ground in the larger American political scene. Policy debates and discussion of ideas are conspicuously absent from a political discourse that focuses increasingly on demonization. As with the Temple Mount, facts become irrelevant; the more outlandish the claim, the more political rewards one reaps. When reading the “fact check” after a recent presidential debate, I was bewildered; only one claim was qualified as “true but misleading”— all the others stood in diverse degrees of falsehood. It doesn’t seem to matter.

Cosmic wars, religious or secular, never end well. Their fighters hope their martyrdom will bring final victory, but while they may find death, they do not achieve their utopias. They come to the end as pathetic extremists, dying for no cause except hatred and paranoia, and creating vast suffering around them.

The weakening of the moderate center is changing the face of the Jewish community, which seems now to be dominated by extreme positions on the left and right. Without a conscious effort, the wave of radicalization sweeping the world will drag us, too, into the abyss of self-destruction. Now, more than ever, we need to be advocates of rationality and moderation. True, traditional Judaism embraces the vision of a future utopia where there’s no war and suffering: It’s called “the messianic era”. We pray for that several times a day and we never cease yearning for that time. But our sages, conscious of the dangers, never perceived this aspiration as a call to jihad or cosmic war. Rather, they saw it as a beacon that would guide human self-improvement until the final goal is attained at the “end of days.” Furthermore, the Jewish promise of a messianic future enables more pluralism in this world; disagreements don’t require an absolute winner now, because —as the Talmud says—the messiah will elucidate who’s right.

We must reject the notion of cosmic wars. Our disagreements are differences of opinion that can be bridged, not monumental fights to the death. We must reclaim our heritage of “elu v’elu,” the principle that two divergent opinions can be true and Godly. We need to reframe our conflicts as specific rather than cosmic, and rescue the notion of pragmatic compromise that was so dear to the Talmudic masters. This fight for moderation is a worthy and noble one, and it is one that we can win with the force of our reason and our passion.

May that Force be with you—and may we all remember that any Force worthy of the real world is a lot more complicated than one that has only two sides of Light and Dark.

Andres Spokoiny is the Executive Director of Jewish Funders Network

Did you enjoy this article?

You'll love our roundtable.

Select list(s) to subscribe to


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Enjoyed this article?

You'll love our roundtable.

Select list(s) to subscribe to


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Latest Articles

An Adventurous Rosh Hashanah for the Books

Sometimes it’s possible to show up with an open mind, not knowing what you’ll find, and to discover exactly what you need. 

Democrats’ Proposals Are the Latest Threat to Checks and Balances

The genius of our Constitution is the concept of checks and balances. The President, the Supreme Court, and Congress each limits the power of the other.

1 in 5 British Universities Have Adopted IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism, Survey Says

Eighty universities said they weren't going to adopt it.

Barrett’s Nomination Tests Both Sides

Who will be more motivated in the closing weeks of a presidential campaign taking place with the backdrop of a historic Supreme Court nomination debate?

StandWithUs Files Brief Supporting Fordham University’s Decision Not to Recognize SJP

A court had ruled against Fordham in August 2019.

Jewish High School Students in Northern California Ask District to Take Action Against Anti-Semitism

An Instagram account had called on its followers to provide list of all the Jewish students at a Marin County high school.

20 Years After the Second Intifada

Since the Second Intifada, many Israelis no longer see peace with the Palestinians as a realistic goal.

AJU’S Brandeis-Bardin Campus Provides Weekend Getaways for Sukkot

As Jews continue to navigate celebrating the holidays, American Jewish University (AJU) is creating unique, family-friendly, socially distanced getaways.

Nefesh Community Explores How to Become an Anti-Racist

Organizers say this is part of an ongoing dialogue about anti-racism, in tandem with the Tikkun Collective, the wing of the Nefesh community working with other organizations around specific campaigns and social issues.

Culture

AJU’S Brandeis-Bardin Campus Provides Weekend Getaways for Sukkot

As Jews continue to navigate celebrating the holidays, American Jewish University (AJU) is creating unique, family-friendly, socially distanced getaways.

Nefesh Community Explores How to Become an Anti-Racist

Organizers say this is part of an ongoing dialogue about anti-racism, in tandem with the Tikkun Collective, the wing of the Nefesh community working with other organizations around specific campaigns and social issues.

My Not-so-Typical Jewish Mother

My mother was not adept in the kitchen. There was always a ruckus of noise before dinnertime — a cacophony of clanking and clattering. I remember...

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, ‘Veep’ Cast to Host Biden Fundraiser

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her castmates are reuniting to help former Vice President Joe Biden win the White House with a fundraiser for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Sacha Baron Cohen to Unleash ‘Borat’ Sequel Before Election Day

A secretly-shot sequel to “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” will premiere on Amazon Prime, just days before the Presidential election. 

Latest Articles
Latest

An Adventurous Rosh Hashanah for the Books

Sometimes it’s possible to show up with an open mind, not knowing what you’ll find, and to discover exactly what you need. 

Democrats’ Proposals Are the Latest Threat to Checks and Balances

The genius of our Constitution is the concept of checks and balances. The President, the Supreme Court, and Congress each limits the power of the other.

1 in 5 British Universities Have Adopted IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism, Survey Says

Eighty universities said they weren't going to adopt it.

Barrett’s Nomination Tests Both Sides

Who will be more motivated in the closing weeks of a presidential campaign taking place with the backdrop of a historic Supreme Court nomination debate?

Hollywood

‘Dirty Dancing’ Sequel Starring Jennifer Grey Announced

It’s official: A “Dirty Dancing” sequel is coming, and it’s starring Jewish actress Jennifer Grey, who played Frances “Baby” Houseman in the 1987 original.

Roy Moore’s Lawsuit Against Sacha Baron Cohen Over Being Pranked Can Proceed, Judge Rules

By the time the episode aired, it was widely known that Cohen was punking public figures.

Podcasts

Pandemic Times Episode 91: Gaining Strength During Holidays

New David Suissa Podcast Every Tuesday and Friday. How Jewish holidays offer ideal "timeouts" for healing and growth. How do we manage our lives during the...

Pandemic Times Episode 90: Yom Kippur in a Pandemic Can Be Our Most Meaningful

New David Suissa Podcast Every Tuesday and Friday. Reflections from Rabbi Mordecai Finley on going deep on Judaism's holiest day. How do we manage our lives...

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

Select list(s) to subscribe to


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

x