06 June 2010

Normal Isn't So Impressive

I noticed on the Times website that Michael Chabon's essay, Chosen, but Not Special, is the number one emailed article right now.  It affirms, in its title alone, that thorny position we Jews have been in since Abraham heard the call of his God and decided to start a new people.  The uncomfortable reality of our inherited sense of uniqueness.  Some Jews have been trying to escape chosenness for centuries, others have attempted to re-write its meaning, while still others embrace it with pride.  It's ur-text?   Living at the time in what today is Iraq, Abraham was told, "Get out of your land, your birthplace, your father's home--and go to the land that I will show you."  (Genesis 12.1, a text which no doubt eluded Helen Thomas this week.)

There Abraham was told, "I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  And I will bless those that bless you and curse those that curse you and through you will all the families of the earth be blessed."  The Jewish Biblical idea of chosenness makes quite an impression right out of the gate and seems presciently cognizant of the future reality that both Christianity and Islam would emerge from the Jewish ideas of ethical monotheism.  Though not Jewish themselves, billions on our planet who adhere to the teachings of Jesus and Mohamed can trace their roots back through to Abraham and the call he received from God.  I'll admit to being really proud of that.

To take nothing away from Michael Chabon, clearly a very clever fellow, Abraham was never told to be intelligent.  God's first words were to "be a blessing," and later, at Sodom and Gomorrah, as God and Abraham argue about whether or not a town of evil people should be destroyed, Abraham famously asks of God, whose wrath is ready for pouring, whether innocent people might be killed along with the guilty.  Abraham's character is less confident in its own intelligence than in its inherent sense of justice, and so Abraham asks God the rhetorical question we all have wanted to ask on one occasion or another, "Should not the Judge of all the Earth deal justly?"  (Genesis 18.25)

It's equally true of Judaism's next great Biblical leader, Moses, who ascends Mt. Sinai and brings the Ten Commandments and the entire Torah tradition down to the people, a text that more observant Jews say is the basis for the 613 commandments we are meant to fulfill--but being intelligent is not among them.

Even Woody Allen seemed to understand it back in 1988, in his New York Times essay decrying the IDF's "bone-breaking" tactics then being encouraged by Yitzhak Rabin, in the first intifada--the bone-breaking and the rubber bullets meant to be a "less lethal" approach to crowd control than live fire.  Allen's essay caused a stir, because mostly, like Chabon, he voiced what made so many liberal Jews terribly uncomfortable--the Jewish use of power (lethal or not) to put down what some began to see as a just rebellion against an occupying power.

Chabon repeats one of the classical tropes of several early leading Zionist thinkers and the Declaration of Independence--that the goal of revitalizing the Jewish nation was to live, as he puts it, " 'to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state,' then the inescapable codicil of this natural inheritance is that the Jewish people, 'like all other nations,' are every bit as capable of barbarism and stupidity."

While Zionism's end remains just--it was never meant to be driven by intelligence but by justice.  That's where Chabon makes a wrong turn, I believe.

Ehud Barak, who takes apart watches for fun, is famously intelligent.  But his decision as Defense Minister to sign off on a very poorly executed raid of the Gaza flotilla, was a demonstration not of stupidity but poor judgment; not a lack intellectual intelligence but a lack of military intelligence.  And the rehearsal yet again of the struggling moral conscience of the liberal Diaspora Jew who comes dangerously close to worshiping at the altar of his own cleverness--"I thought Jews were supposed to be so smart!" (repeated by the way over the last decade on Larry Sanders and Glee--check the references, folks, it's an old joke) is beside the point.

A smart guy like Chabon too easily passes over a three thousand year Jewish tradition of learning and privileging education that has produced a disproportionate number of high-achieving, pride-inducing successes from science and math to music and art--that deserves to remain a great source of pride for a tiny people the world can't seem to shake off.  And surprisingly, he fails to acknowledge that until 200 years ago, the principle source of that literacy and learning was in the very moral and ethical tradition that Abraham began, passed on eventually to Moses, and brought down to us in this day.

But even here, Torah won't let us off the hook.  It's not how much Torah you know--it's how you use it.  Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariyah said so:  "He whose wisdom surpasses his deeds, to what is he compared?  To a tree whose branches are abundant, but whose roots are few, and the wind comes and uproots it and overturns it.  But he whose deeds surpass his wisdom, to what is he compared?  To a tree whose branches are few, but whose roots are abundant; even if all the winds of the world come blow upon it, they cannot move it from its place."  (Pirke Avot 3.17)

The great rabbi then quotes the prophet Jeremiah, hounded in his own day for calling attention to the corruption of Judea's kingdom and priesthood:  "For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not fear when heat comes, and its foliage shall be luxuriant, and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, neither shall it cease from yielding fruit."  (Jeremiah 17.8)

Yes, there are smart Jews and dumb Jews and I have to say, more often than not, I can't tell the difference when it comes to doing good deeds and living a life of righteousness.  The point is not how smart you are; nor is it to say to the world, "Ukh, leave us alone.  We want to be normal, just like you."

I cross the street every day thinking about how exceptional it is to be in a tradition that demands of me goodness, righteousness and peace.  Normal--with its fair share of deceit and laziness and violence--isn't so impressive.

In this regard, I'm with Shammai, Hillel's great foil, who said with a bit of impatience, "Say little, do much."

Let's leave it at that.

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