September 18, 2019

‘The Genius of Judaism’: An excerpt

I remember a preface I wrote thirty years ago … for a book of photographs devoted to the men in black of Mea Shearim.

In that text, now lost, I expressed my wonder and amazement at these tenuous beings, suspended between heaven and earth and so different from the standardized, globalized beings that were beginning to clone and spread from one end of the world to the other.

I was moved at the grace of their existence, plainly abstemious yet so very light and, I surmised, studious and in dialogue with the beyond.

I had agreed to write that text, I suppose, because a part of me believed them to be depositories of the secret that I attribute today to the treasured people and because another part liked thinking that they were there, committed to their misfit status and their paradox, as if I were telling myself that one day I might have to defer to them as one might defer to a bum after learning that he was the messiah hidden among the beggars of Rome.

Well, I have not changed my mind.

And I do not mind repeating here, in today’s words, though hardly less ignorant than I was then, the distant respect that they inspire in me.

I am even less reluctant after reading the papers and being troubled by the witchcraft trial to which they have been subjected since a man with sidelocks who obviously came from their world joined the ranks of the murderers — terrorists, fascists — by stabbing to death a young homosexual during Jerusalem’s Gay Pride event while others from a nationalist religious group firebombed a Palestinian house in Duma, burning a baby alive and killing his parents.

I watch the Jerusalem man on television in the hideous pose of ugly self-righteousness that all assassins seem to adopt when arrested.

Looking at the mask (it is hard to call it a face) of this somber Jew with the long beard who I imagine passed through one of those houses of study whose innocence intrigued me at the time I wrote the preface for the book of photos of Mea Shearim, I see the finger extended for the world’s cameras, but it is not toward the Sefer Torah that is held up three times each week in the houses where he studied; he holds a ghastly pale dagger that contrasts with the black in which he is clad.

Over and over, I see the image of this Jew pinned to the ground, handcuffed by Israeli police officers who — this should go without saying, but is better said, given the wave of hatred that was immediately unleashed on the theme of the cancer-eating-at-Israeli-society and the growing-danger-of-ultra-orthodoxy — do their work well.

And suspended, no longer between heaven and earth but between texts and sewers, I tell myself that justice will have to be severe; I want to see clearly displayed the theological reasoning (and that reasoning exists, alas — it is explicitly laid out as far back as Rashi’s commentary) that these sorts of bastards rely on, which always turns, as it did in the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, around the figure of Phineas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, of whom Rashi says that he became Kohen — in other words, that he acceded to the priesthood, only after he had killed Zimri, Prince of Israel, because Zimri had slept with a Madianite princess and threatened to lead the treasured people into the debauchery sought by Moab’s people. I also tell myself that, while waiting for the other murderers, the ones who murdered the baby and his parents in Duma, to be put out of harm’s way, it is necessary to outlaw from society the very few rabbis — perhaps it was just one, but that is one too many — who, like Rabbi Ginsburg, uttered words that might be construed as justifying the appalling act. But I would also like it if a fraction, even a small fraction, of the legitimate concern that we have not to lump things together each time a Muslim kills in the name of Islam and, in so doing, disfigures and disgraces it, I would like it if the reflexive warning against guilt by association that is rightly broadcast each time a follower of Daesh takes the message of the Koran hostage and claims to act not only in his own name but in the name of the entire Umma, I would like it if a fraction of that restraint could also be applied here so that the crimes in Jerusalem and Duma are not used to exaggerate the danger of ultra-orthodoxy in Israeli yeshivas.


I said it.

It has now been said (and by a secular Jew) that the line intoned by the media, who were just waiting for this to happen, about “all those with beards, the intolerant ones, the obscurantist, they’re all the same, all equally horrible,” is simply intolerable.

It has now been said (yes, by a secular Jew!) that we must resist the reductionism of the ubiquitous form of reporting that forswears all nuance and, just as it ignores any differences there may be between ultra-anti-Zionists who see in Israel’s existence an obstacle to the coming of the messiah, the ultra-Zionist crazies of the “hilltop youth” responsible for the Duma murder, and the Zionist state that both of the previous groups hate with equal fervor but for opposing reasons, jumps on an event in order to settle its score with the “backward men in black” who are supposed to be the fertile womb from which the foul beast will forever give birth to its theological-political monstrosities.

It has now been said that reasoning like that leads straight to an auto-da-fé. But this time the burning will not stop with the Talmud: Thanks to Facebook and Twitter and in the climate of hate for the exceptional that underpins the spirit of the moment, it will carry away writers who are too good at writing, painters who are too good at painting, and thinkers who have not yet grasped that we are entering a world in which there must be no more Jews (but rather anti- globalists) and no more ancient Greeks (but professors of philosophy), and no more slaves (but ultraorthodoxies), and no more free people (but a free pass to post and tweet and lurk).

And it has been said that the genius of Judaism that I am seeking most certainly resides in the effort of going to Nineveh, in the relationship with the other and with the outside world that is the meaning of the lives of so many Jews and definitely of mine. But it lies also — no, it lies first and foremost — in the profusion of intelligence that flows from reading the Talmud, a practice that some would have you believe is the invisible church of ultraorthodoxy.