Setting priorities in keeping with your values is a daily task for us all. I may, for example, feel the need to spend two hours exercising every day. But if that conflicts with my family responsibilities, I have to consult an overall worldview, a scheme of values, to decide which imperative comes first.
So it goes in public life no less than in private. The world Jewish community is united in few things, but a rough consensus has emerged that our greatest worry, our top priority in need of being addressed, is the threat posed by Muslim extremists. With some hesitancy about appearing to be a raving heretic, I would like to share with you my reason for doubting the wisdom of this consensus view.
Jewish values would, I believe, direct us to fret about Islamic terror a good deal less than we should about other, much more Jewish causes of concern. What is a Jewish value, a Jewish cause of concern? How can we decide what standard a Jew should use in ordering his priorities?
In the Jewish community, there are two dominant ways of appreciating what it means to be a Jew. One way professes pride in being Jewish even as it follows the lead of secular materialist dogma. It turns Jewish identity into what I regard as a sorry and pathetic thing: a mere tribal affiliation, a function of DNA.
The other way sees the Torah, the constitution of the Jewish people, as a grand statement of eternal cosmic truth, whose value casts race, tribe, and blood as purely secondary matters. The choice is between tribe and truth.
If you were to follow the tribal way of thinking, then a threat from another tribe, that of antisemitic Muslims, must be seen as taking first place among the competing needs of our people. They threaten our lives. Case closed.
Jewish tribalism is a bit like fitness-fanaticism. The fanatic for physical health demands of himself and everyone else that we do all in our power to stave off death. We can do this by eating and exercising according to rigid, exacting standards. That makes sense in the calculus of secular materialism, whose value structure insists above all on clinging to physical life, for death is the end of all things.
However, the health fanatic cannot explain why extending life by a few years matters in the end. He cannot explain why existence itself matters. Similarly, the impoverishment of Jewish tribalism lies in its failure to offer any compelling answer to the ultimate question: why does the existence of the Jewish people matter? Tribal Jewishness follows the imperative of self-protection with mindless devotion, by a crude instinct like that of wolves or dogs defending the pack.
One finds a different outlook in the religious person, who values health and life but only because they make possible the enjoyment of eternal goods, those that accompany us into the next world after death: love of God and family, care for friends, the pursuit of timeless truths.
If existence has any meaning that transcends our physical existence, which is my hope, I see no alternative to the conclusion that this meaning must be supplied from outside our physical universe. The Being who stands in that unimaginable place, beyond time and space, is God. In the Jewish conception, He speaks to us through written and oral revelations, the cryptic Hebrew Bible and its traditional explanations recorded in the Talmud, Midrash, and other rabbinic teachings.
In the tribal conception, it makes perfect sense to throw the lion’s share of Jewish communal resources into the struggle against “Islamofascism”. Which is what you see our communal leaders doing, for instance, in the current preoccupation with Iran’s fanatic president and his country’s apparent race to attain the capacity to wage nuclear war. Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to New York City was attended with fascinated attention by Jews and non-Jews alike.
Thus, Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust-denial is the object of endless obsessing by Jewish journalists and communal leaders. But to deny God — to fulminate specifically against the God of Israel, as, for instance, the best-selling New Atheist authors do — is regarded in the Jewish world as no big deal.
One of those authors, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, spews particular venom at the Hebrew God in his book The God Delusion. God is “arguably the most unpleasant character in fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
About this violent, hateful, wildly simplistic and dishonest tirade, I am unaware of a peep of protest from a Jewish group.
Meanwhile, since the attacks of September 11, 2001, a new species of Jewish activists has sprung up that specialises in exultantly reminding both Jews and Christians of the evil and anti-Western words and deeds of the Iranians, the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Saudis and others. I become uneasy listening to fellow Jews exultantly broadcasting the wickedness of our Arab and Islamic enemies to the world.
I asked a friend who attends the synagogue I do if he did not find it a little annoying the way some Jews seem to delight in taking every opportunity to remind Christians friends and neighbours, now that we have their attention thanks to 9/11, of how evil the Muslim world can be. “Oh, I do that all the time,” said my good-humoured friend, who is a health professional. “Every time the Muslims do something [that is, commit a terror attack or engage in extreme rhetoric against America or the West], I’ll tell my colleagues, ‘Well, that’s the ‘religion of peace’ for you!’”
We have finally found a way to stir up the goyim against our traditional tribal enemies, the Muslims, and some of us are seizing it with a barely concealed glee. It is all so un-Jewish. If anything defines the authentic Jewish worldview, it is the Hebrew Bible, speaking in the voice of the Hebrew prophets. The prophets were familiar with the most terrible dangers to the survival of the Jewish people, dangers posed in their time by Assyrians and Babylonians. But reading their inspired words, you find that the emphasis lies not in calling attention to the offences of foreign enemies. That is a side point, at most. Rather, the prophets again and again urged the Jews to look to their own moral backsliding. They prioritised domestic, not international, concerns.
The prophets mourned the prevalence of sexual immorality and economic exploitation. Above all, they stressed the horror of idolatry, which today we would identify with relativism. The argument that America and her allies are called upon to fight “World War IV” against “Islamofascism”, and that this is the weightiest responsibility of Western leaders and citizens, would leave Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel bewildered.
They saw the vulnerability of their nation to outside attack as a function of internal moral corruption. If the nation was faithful in its devotion to God, He would protect us. Otherwise, not.
The issues that held the attention of traditional conservatives before 9/11 — the classic culture-war questions such as gay marriage, abortion, internet pornography, the sexual exploitation of women and the like — are the issues that would stir the outrage of the Hebrew prophets if they were alive now.
If Jeremiah subscribed to a right-wing Zionist Jewish newspaper today and saw, week after week, front pages full of headlines bewailing the naiveté of Israel’s government in their dealing with the Palestinians, but few or none analysing the cultural degradation and demoralisation in Israel itself, along with the other countries of the West where Jews live, he would be filled with disgust. I subscribe to an American Jewish newspaper that fits that description. Every week, its front page fills me with disgust too.
You do not have to be Jewish to appreciate this. I have come around to the view of the controversial Catholic journalist Dinesh D’Souza. In his recent book, The Enemy at Home, he blames left-liberals for provoking radical Muslims into committing the attacks of 9/11. D’Souza’s point is that not only radical but also traditional Muslims resent America not for our freedom (as President Bush has argued) but rather for “what we do with our freedom”.
As early as the 1950s, a Muslim literary-man-turned-theologian, Sayyid Qutb, lived in America and prophetically foresaw the West’s increasingly decadent way of life. Qutb was not a terrorist, but he inspired terrorists. Though he was executed by Egypt’s Nasser in 1966, he became posthumously the rebbe of Al Qaeda. Qutb warned that Western secular culture threatens to displace that of the Koran. What disturbed him chiefly was not exactly our irreligiousness, but the way we put religion in a box, safe from harm, to be opened only on Sunday — revered but otherwise irrelevant in daily life. The uncomfortable truth is that the Hebrew prophets would find much to agree about with Qutb.
As Osama bin Laden charged in November 2002, Americans (and Europeans too) “separate religion from your politics”, resulting in a culture of “fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling” and other vices. It was because of our temptation to compartmentalise faith, a temptation many Muslims would like to see their culture resist, that the West was attacked on 9/11 and on subsequent occasions.
I do not mean to imply that Jews and our Christian fellow citizens should be unconcerned with the danger posed by Islamic terror. Of course we should be concerned. I, for one, continue to support America’s struggle to pacify Iraq. But we should not turn the Islamic peril into a fetish.
The Jewish language, with its mathematical precision, has exactly the right word for such a disordering of priorities. The 19th-century German philologist and rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch distinguished two similar Hebrew roots, differentiated in their spelling by just one letter: shagah and shagag.
They both mean “to err”. But while shagag has the connotation of erring through mere carelessness, shagah means to err by “a blind attachment of the mind to one particular direction or to one object [by which] it is drawn away from everything else, and has no consideration of anything else”.
Hirsch points out that the sin of shegiah, as distinct from shegigah, is linked in the Torah specifically with the error committed by the Jewish leadership, the Sanhedrin (Leviticus 4:13). It was, and is, a fault to which leaders are particularly prone.
Our leaders set an example not of true Jewish leadership, but of a special kind of error associated with Jewish leaders. The Torah prescribes a method of atoning for this failure, if our leaders would care to study the passage and its commentaries in order to find it. But that they would do so I strongly doubt — which, you might say, is the problem in a nutshell.