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.)


Itche Goldberg and “Secular Judaism”

There is a girl I fell in love with in the fifth grade. She was the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and already passionate about acting and the theater; she was tall and very feline; she had unmistakable mystique. We had deep conversations that awakened my soul and stirred the artist in me; I began hanging with her rather than playing ball after school. But she wouldn’t fall in love with me, never felt romantic about our relationship. She became my muse.

I met my muse again during this past Rosh Hashone season, after about a 30 year absence. We spent an afternoon catching up, evaluating our progress, and recapturing what we liked about each other. We may become friends again; we’re e-mailing, and we exchange artworks. I’d like to get her to stop smoking cigarettes.

Yesterday I got an e-mail from her asking: How did you became so deeply involved in Judaism the way you did?

At first, I thought to correct her: I’m involved in Jewishness, not Judaism. Morris Schappes, the long-time editor of Jewish Currents, used to make a big deal about this, editorially: every time someone wrote “secular Judaism” he’d change it to “secular Jewishness.” “Secular Judaism,” he believed, was an oxymoron.

Morris’ editorial injunction got into my brain, but I don’t buy its logic any longer. One reason for this is Itche Goldberg, the great Yiddish literary critic and teacher, who died at 102 last week. At his funeral, I read the following two passages from Itche. The first is from an interview with him that I conducted along with Yankl Stillman, early in 2004, when Itche turned 100:

The question of where we go from here is on my mind a lot. What’s happened to socialism? What is the future of Yiddishism? When I came, at age 21, into the Workmen’s Circle shule in Toronto, I had so much eagerness, energy, and faith in socialism and in Yiddishism. Now I have insecurity. But I am used to insecurity. For over forty years I have published Yidishe Kultur without ever being able to secure its existence!

. . . I sometimes feel that we were wrong in failing to incorporate more Jewish values in our yidishkayt. I’ve always enjoyed reading the Bible, particularly the prophets, and I wonder at times if we were a bit too dismissive, or ignorant, of our Jewishness. . . . I would not now permit so much to be brushed aside.

The second passage comes from an article Itche wrote for Jewish Currents in 1980, “A Jewish Agenda for the ’80s”:

There will . . . be a full ‘transfer of power’ to the new emerging generation. I stress emerging, because I do not anticipate a Venus-like birth of a new Jewish Homo Americanus flowing out of the foam of the Sea of History. It will be a slow process of continuity and change. . . . The historic challenge for us will be: can we carry over and implant our secular and humanist national values into the Jewish cultural patterns of the ‘80s?

. . . I am not going to define secularism here. However, I want to make a very broad statement: secularism is for us the only point of entry into Jewish life. We have ideologically and philosophically rejected for ourselves religion as the point of entry. Zionism — despite our positive stand on Israel — is not our link, either. National negation we eschew and reject. We therefore have no alternative whatsoever except a historic-cultural secular tie which binds us with the people. Realistically and historically we have no alternative. However, to influence others — yes, and to give identity to ourselves — we must raise secularism to a meaningful expression and link with the people. . . . Meaningful implies depth, knowledge, commitment, involvement, renewal and — yes, of course — tradition.

Secularism as the point of entry — but entry into the whole world of Jewishness, of what Mordecai Kaplan called “Judaism as a Civilization” — that is the perspective that Itche championed, especially in his later years, his years of doubt and reconsideration. In this, he was wholly consistent with his own mentor, Chaim Zhitlowsky (Itche’s main institutional seat was the Chaim Zhitlowsky Foundation), the Yiddish theorist who lived from 1865-1943. Zhitlowsky championed the idea that nothing Jewish should be foreign to the Jewish secularist — that “not everything is rotten in the old treasures of our people . . . A critical examination of our cultural heritage,” Zhitlowsky wrote, “will disclose immense treasures . . . They are valuable because of the deep generally humanistic elements they contain and not simply because they were developed by our forefathers.”

Both Zhitlowsky and Itche Goldberg were marvelous, expressive writers, but the great bulk of their output was in Yiddish, and has not been translated, and will therefore be closed off to me unless I devote a whole lot of time to studying Yiddish instead of blogging or e-mailing with my muse. What they’ve both provided me with, however, is a sense of continuity for my conviction that secular Jewishness can, indeed, be described as secular Judaism — or, at least, that secular Jewishness should include a full-bodied secular(ized) Judaism in its treasury.

And so I wrote back to my muse:

“Judaism, or Jewishness, has always worked for me as a counterculture — something insurgent and anti-establishment. Certain aspects of the tradition's spirit —- its call for communitarianism; its sense of restraint; its anti-idolatry sensibility —- these and other aspects seemed to constitute a really strikingly different worldview from that of mainstream America.

“Here's how I described it in the most recent issue of Jewish Currents: that the Jewish tradition is worth preserving 'because the historical experience of Jewish oppression has yielded a soulful commitment to social justice that makes the Jewish people a force to contend with. Because the international quality of Jewish life has always been a healthy counterpart to rabid nationalism (Zionism notwithstanding). Because Judaism purports to civilize human beings (especially men) by dissuading us from indulging our lusts destructively and persuading us to develop our intellects. Because Jews, as Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “can't sleep themselves and let nobody else sleep.” Because Jewish culture is deeply ironic and humorous. Because we are the children, as Chaim Weizmann once said, of old-clothes dealers, and the grandchildren of prophets.’

“You understand, I'm an atheist and a skeptic. A weird Jew. Never went to Israel until last year. Don't go to shul for the high holidays or any other days. Highly interpretive, highly intellectual about it all. Yet I find in the Jewish calendar and in Jewish texts a good deal of life-enhancing practice and a balanced, realistic, and very entertaining discussion, spanning the centuries, about how we can live together in community.”

I thank Itche for giving me permission to feel that way — and incentive to develop my intellect and body of Jewish knowledge so that I can be a worthy interpreter of “secular Judaism.”