Ezra vs. Ruth; Dr. King vs. the Yetzer Hara; or, What Am I, a Philosopher?
I led a text study session with about 60 people on the weekend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. We read aloud four sets of texts from Dr. King and from the Jewish tradition (Talmudic, midrashic, 16th century, & contemporary) — on materialism and society, on economic interconnection, on non-violent resistance, and on what counts in life — and discussed them in groups of six. It was a novelty for many of us, as secular Jews, and the discussion was quite animated.
Mostly the texts dovetailed in spirit, but one contrast was striking. In his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Dr. King expressed the belief that “In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers’ keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality.” And in an earlier article (1958) in Jubilee magazine, he expressed his belief that “God [will] triumph over all the forces that seek to block community . . . He who works against community is working against the whole of creation.”
There are many texts in our Jewish civilization that express similar thoughts about interconnection as an essential part of the architecture of reality. I believe that the spirituality of Judaism is essentially socialistic — that is, it is built upon the recognition of community as basic to human life and of our covenanted obligation to one another. In fact, I believe that what we call spirituality is itself, by definition, socialistic — for I define spirituality as the surging feeling that human beings have when their awareness of interconnection with other beings is heightened and their sense of ego, of ‘bounded self,’ is diminished. There is a broad continuum of such experiences, from simple encounter and eye-contact to group singing, from sexual love to outright mystical bliss, all of which light up our brains in unique ways.
Nevertheless, for me, one of the impressive aspects of Jewish philosophy is its acknowledgement of the countervailing human forces of greed, fear, self-interest, competitiveness, and “bounded self.” And so I posed the following text, from Genesis Rabbah (8th century), to contrast with Dr. King’s concept of “the beloved community”:
”Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman said: The words, ‘Behold, it was good’ refer to the impulse to good, and the words, ‘Behold, it was very good’ refer to the impulse to evil. But how can the impulse to evil be termed ‘very good’? Because Scripture teaches that were it not for the impulse to evil, a person would not build a house,get married, beget children, or engage in commerce. All such activities come, as Solomon noted (Ecclesiastes 4:4), ‘from a man’s rivalry with his neighbor.‘”
And, for a kicker, I added a proverb from Rabbi Judah, the “prince” of the Mishnaic period (200 CE): “The world endures because of three things: rivalry, lust, and mercy.”
I call this an “impressive” aspect of Jewish philosophy because I believe it critical for us, in seeking to change or redeem the world, to be realistic about the human animal. As I wrote in Jewish Currents in 2004, “We will not overcome the dark elements of our social reality by attributing them only to ‘outside’ influences of corruption, whether ‘the system’ or Satan. Our challenge, instead, is to . . . channel problematic human urges in socially constructive directions. Environmentalists, for example, might take the instinct for territoriality into account by developing a perception of the Earth as the human race’s shared, endangered territory. Similarly, if status-seeking is a fundamental human motivator, we need to design a sustainable economic system that gives license to some self-interested activity and encourages new cultural definitions of what, exactly, imparts status to individuals. In short, we need to grasp the tools of sociobiology and apply them creatively to make change. Our opponents, after all, will happily exploit the same tools to justify, and therefore preserve, the status quo.”
Part of our political challenge is to awaken spirituality/socialism, as Dr. King so often did with his courage and eloquence. But another part of our political challenge is to satisfy the yetzer hara, the evil or lustful urge, in socially constructive ways. We can only do this by first acknowledging its fundamental presence in our psyches.
(If readers of this blog know of texts by Dr. King addressing this question, I’d like to know about them. And if you know of other Jewish texts that might deepen my understanding of Judaism’s view of the yetzer hara, I’d like to know about them, too. And if you'd like a copy of the texts we studied for Dr. King's birthday, e-mail me and I'll e-mail you the packet.)
Meanwhile, whenever I write in praise of Judaic philosophy, I am always forced to consider the question: If Judaism’s so great, how come the most observant Jewish communities tend to be the most conservative?
In truth, I personally know only a handful Orthodox Jews, and they are far from conservative in their politics (though they tend to be very skeptical towards people who identify as leftwing). So I feel constrained about theorizing about this question. I will say, however, that I have always been impressed by Rabbi Harold Schulweis’ formulation about the two trends in Jewish history: the Ezra tradition of particularism, and the Ruth tradition of universalism.
Ezra the Scribe led the Jews back from 75+ years of Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE and demanded that Jewish men renounce their non-Jewish wives (Ezra 9-10). Motivated by the need to consolidate Jewish identity in order to survive persecution and assimilation, the Ezra tradition preaches a spirituality of proscription and could cite the Maccabeean uprising as its greatest achievement.
Ruth the Moabite was a non-Jewish woman who attached herself to the Jewish people and became the mother of the House of David, that is, the messianic line (Ruth 1-4). Motivated by the desire to universalize Jewish wisdom in order to put an end to persecution, the Ruth tradition preaches a spirituality of inspiration and might cite Jewish participation in the modern civil rights movement as its finest hour.
At its best, the Ezra tradition promotes Jewish self-reliance through mutual assistance; at its worst, chauvinism and isolation. At its best, Ruth promotes the renewal of Jewish values in a real-life crucible; at its worst, total assimilation. From a long view, both traditions have been critical to the survival and evolution of Jewish civilization. In any given historical period, however, one side or the other has had both realism and righteousness on its side.
Today, Ezra is the overwhelming trend, it seems, for Orthodox Jews, while Ruth is clearly dominant for the rest of us. The prosperity, prominence and safety that we have achieved in the U.S., in combination with the renewal of identity and literacy that we are currently enjoying, seem to obviate any need for an Ezra program of self-imposed isolation and purification.
Ruth does face a credibility challenge, however. While America Jews have famously worked for justice, few of our landmark activists have explicitly rooted themselves in Jewish economic values or made the Jewish community their base. To maintain a constructive role in Jewish life, the Ruth tradition must emphasize not only helping “the stranger in our midst,” but propose Jewish social action partnerships that truly strengthen, deepen and revitalize Jewish identity.
I see this as a fundamental raison d’etre for Jewish Currents — and an interesting topic to discuss in the magazine’s pages in the year to come, perhaps in dialogue with some Orthodox Jews.
(Illustrations on this blog by the author; please contact me if you want to reproduce them.)