Friday, October 16, 2009

Living Ahavas Yisroel: Why Identify Matters

Borrowing from Jeffrey Goldberg's post of last Friday. Rabbi Wolpe's observation reminded me of Seattle Professor Martin Jaffee's eloquent take on why particularism must precede universalism. See also my blogpost on Natan Sharansky regarding the importance of identity from August of 2008, when he was here on his book (Defending Identity) tour.
david brumer

How to Be Human

Rabbi David Wolpe:
Rabbi Shlomo Carelbach used to say that if he met a person who said "I'm a Catholic" he knew he was a Catholic. If he met a person who said "I'm a Protestant" he knew he was a Protestant. If he met a person who said "I'm a human being" he knew he was a Jew.
Jews have led some of the great universalist movements of the world. They did so under the illusion that if all people were just alike, the thorny problem of being different would disappear. It never did. It never should. Being a Jew is not a problem but a blessing and a destiny.
There is no such thing as a person in general. Each individual grows up with a certain family, land, heritage, language and culture. To deny it is to cast off a piece of oneself. Jewish is not opposed to being human; rather it is an ancient and beautiful way to be human.
In every age there are those who dream of homogenizing the world. It is an ignoble dream. When we honor difference we honor the One who created this diverse, multicolored pageant of a world.

Living Ahavas Yisroel
Martin Jaffee • JTNews Columnist

The k’lal (the universal) was always known only through the prat (the particular). The road to universal human fellow-feeling first wound its circuitous route through the tangled pathways of intense Jewish communal solidarity.Which may have something to do with my dad’s response when, years ago, I came home from college touting the prophecies of Rosa Luxemburg, about whom I’d learned in a political science course. Jews, I proclaimed (over a plate of borscht with sour cream), should lead humanity out of the darkness of its particularistic atavisms into the clear light of “world citizenship.” This time, Dad knew better than to argue. He just looked up to the Heavens, spread out his hands in the classic Zero Mostel-Tevye pose and mocked: “I love humanity; it’s the people I can’t stand!”It took me years to understand the depth of his insight and satire. How easy it is to love a concept, and how difficult to love reality in all its particular messiness! How easy to forget that, if humanity is a family, it begins with a real mother, a real father, real brothers and real sisters — those who speak your language, know the smells of your kitchen, share your nightmares, and, it must be said, hate your enemies and love your friends, because, after all is said and done, “you are our flesh and blood.”

Just this, I suppose, is what irritates so many “universalists” (Jewish and otherwise) about the centrality of the concept of ahavas Yisroel (“Jewish love for Jews”) in Jewish ethical thought. Why shouldn’t Jews love all humanity equally? Why focus on the insular, bounded “tribe” at the expense of the whole? Isn’t “tribalism” the root of all social evil? The simple answer is: You can’t love “humanity” unless you see in it some familiar faces. It’s through the love called forth by those faces that we learn to see in them something larger — “humanity” as a potential community — something that never really exists, although we strive to reach it. While love of the “tribe” can certainly descend to “tribalism,” it is also true that “humanity” is revealed most richly through the “tribe.” When we lose our “tribe,” we lose the very thing that enables us to find a wider place in the universally “human.”

Why Identity Matters: Natan Sharansky
blogpost from August 2008

On July 16th, former refusenik and living hero, Natan Sharansky spoke before about a hundred people at Seattle Town Hall, making the case that strong identities are the best bulwark against tyranny and fundamentalism. His new book, "Defending Identity" points the way towards reinvigorating the West in its struggle to maintain its freedoms and democracies in an increasingly intolerant world.Sharanksy begins with John Lennon's idealistic song "Imagine," where the future utopia will consist of a borderless world "and the world will live as one.

Imagine there's no countries,
It isn't hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
And no religion too.
Imagine all the people,Living life in peace.

He contrasts this with the declaration by the spiritual leader of Al Qaeda that "we will win because the West loves life and we love death." Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said the same in an interview in 2004, after a prisoner swap (yes, another earlier one) between Israel and his group: "We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win, because they love life and we love death."

It would be a mistake though to assume that these Islamic fundamentalists are crazed martyrs who wish death upon themselves for its own sake. Rather, their identity is a powerful force that gives meaning and purpose to life beyond the physical and material. The jihadists hold beliefs--however horrifying and foreign to us--for which they are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. And they see the West as divorced from any distinct sense of identity, unwilling to make sacrifices for any cause larger than the self. In short, they see us as having lost the will to fight, defend or die for our beliefs. And indeed, for many in the West, John Lennon's song has become an anthem of post-modern, post-nationalist universalism.

1 comment:

George Jochnowitz said...

If you ask atheists who were born Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish what their religions are, the non-believing Protestant will say, "I'm not a church member."
The non-believing Catholic will say, "I'm a renegade Catholic."
The non-believing Jew will say, "I'm Jewish"