11 January 2011

Who's Free from Sin?

on Joshua Seven

After writing about the Psalms for 150 days and then writing about Proverbs for another 31, I felt it was time to turn to more brutal material, if only to face certain narrative tropes of our tradition in the context of what many people believe is a growing brutalization of American politics.  In particular I wanted to face, to the degree that I am able, the perceived divide among Jews over the role of Divine Providence with regard to the Land of Israel and, additionally, with regard to domestic politics here in America.  The growing radicalization of the extremes across the political spectrum concerns me greatly and I often despair of my relative powerlessness from the pulpit to do anything about it.

When I was in politics my first few years of college--interning at the State Capitol in Madison, holding a student senate seat at the University, I ended up getting turned off by the incessant atmosphere of compromise and slow processes of decision making in the Capitol on one hand and the self-righteous and deeply annoying grandstanding of my peers on campus on the other.  One system was too slow; the other seemed, well, useless.  Therefore, when I started studying Judaism seriously after my father died, I found the combination of scholarship, theological reckoning and faith to be a more deeply satisfying engagement with the world.  For more than 26 years I've been deeply engaged in Jewish life, steadily gaining understanding and moving from one project to the next (I seem to have averaged 5-7 year stints) in an effort to have a substantive impact on a community.

I think I've always been a soul-searcher and these days, as I examine my own in the wake of the horrifying assassination attempt on Congresswoman Giffords and the death of six others, as a citizen of this great country I feel partly responsible for my own lack of involvement--beyond voting and an occasional campaign contribution.

For the past five years I have bloviated on this blog but I know that's not enough.  In a neighborhood of writers, one gets the impression sometimes that writing about stuff is simply what one does; and oh, how acutely aware am I of the relative uselessness of my thinking out loud.  Several devoted readers, to be sure, a reality I deeply appreciate.  But in the end of the day, as I look in the mirror, particularly with an awareness "out there" that things are terribly wrong, I have to ask, "What have I done?"

There are times when the rhetoric in politics is so debased, it's like a runaway train that's impossible to catch, grab hold of the brakes, and bring to a halt.   It's no surprise that likes of Sarah Palin and her supporters lack the political courage to take stock of their own mendacious and violent rhetoric as contributing to an *atmosphere* of hate, but even on the left, for example, as I was listening to Roger Hodge, author of The Mendacity of Hope, talking about Obama's betrayal on WNYC, it was with such an expectation of partisan purity, radically unrealistic in its own right, that reminded me of the unproductive narcissism of politics that drove me from it in the first place back in the early 1980s.  At one point he called Bill Daley a "plutocrat."  It would have been funny if it weren't so sad and off the mark.  Still, at least he didn't create a graphic of someone with the cross-hairs of a gun over their face and then deny it was a gun like these other jokers out there today.

How bitterly ironic that target of assassination in Tuscon was a mainstream, middle-of-the-road Democrat; a centrist; a principled woman, unafraid to take a stand but where necessary, willing to compromise.

Joshua quakes in the face of dissension, in the face of fear, in the face of the brutality for what he'll have to do to take over the land and lead his people into it.  In particular, he is aware of how badly his own people have behaved, in their looting of Jericho after conquering it, and he doesn't want to face the hard work of reckoning that lies ahead.  He voices that fear to God and God will have nothing of it:  "Get thee up; wherefore, now, art thou fallen up thy face?  Israel hath sinned; yea, they have even transgressed My covenant which I commanded them; yea, they have even taken of the devoted thing; and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have even put it among their own stuff.  Therefore the children of Israel cannot stand before their enemies, they turn their backs before their enemies, because they are become accursed; I will not be with you anymore, except ye destroy the accursed from among you."

Now, these fanatical weirdos from Kansas, who take the Bible literally, love this stuff.  We theologically liberal or agnostic traditionally don't.  But these sacred texts speak to a deep desire to connect with what is right in a covenantal, civil society, forcing us to reckon with our own collective sin when things go wrong.

Joshua carries out a brutal stoning and burning of the sinners, a horrifyingly violent response that, God forbid, should never be repeated.  But beyond rejecting such a text, I would propose that we read its testimony of devotion to the idea that we must always remain committed to rooting out evil; to finding it, like hidden crumbs of bread before Passover, in the small, dark places of our own souls, and being vigilant and ever-aware that our well-being as a nation depends upon it.

None of us is free from sin today.  That Congresswoman Giffords continues to miraculously fight for her life is proof, is the precious gift, that life itself and its animating ideals, remain worth fighting for.

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