Judaism is a lyrical trove. It embodies mournful steadfastness, defiant pluck, and impervious amour propre. But it is also an agonized victimology. Even the historical premise of Judaism, i.e., faith in an immanent, moral God, is quite secondary to how Judaism actually functions, its role in the world, and the way its adherents construct meaning.
A disclaimer before I continue: what follows is an introspection. People are people, no culture is perfect, and those of us who have the brains have the duty of self-examination. So none of the very critical things I’m about to say should be taken as precluding positive feelings toward yiddishkeit or denying that it entails many great and worthy characteristics. But I digress.
So: how does Judaism actually function? What is its role in the world, and just how do its constituents construct meaning? Can Judaism’s many disparate tendencies and factions be shown to have something fundamental in common? And is that something worthwhile, or pernicious?
I won’t belabor the build-up. In my fairly large experience of the subject, Judaism’s basic narrative structure is that the Jews are the elect of God or of history—congenitally more special, intelligent, persevering and misunderstood than all other peoples, with a special destiny to be vindicated before the rest of mankind, either (1) religiously, in a coming messianic age; (2) historically, over the linear course of history, or (3) in daily life and society, as sagely sorts with a penchant for overcoming long odds. Every (yes, every) disparate form of Jewish identity, whether secular, religious, Zionist, leftist, etc., is characterized by this basic narrative structure. Even Jewish self-hatred just turns it all inside out. I know Jews who are adamant in their apostasy and anti-Zionism, who ostentatiously adopt eastern spirituality or granola radicalism or some God-awful fetish for indigenous people. On the surface this appears to be alienation or self-loathing, but you’ll notice that these types never truly walk away from Jewish identity. Like a psych major with daddy issues, when it suits them they’re more likely to emphasize the importance of Jewishness to their identity and beliefs. It’s a very strange thing.
Now, the reality of human psychology is that any enduring group identity will involve mythos, conceit, xenophobia, perhaps inferiority complex. But has any people taken this as far as the Jews? Mark Twain didn’t think so:
The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was… All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.
What Twain has given us is a photo negative of the thesis I’ve put forward here. But while it speaks to certain virtues, e.g., perseverance and religiosity, it is also a testimony to the sustaining power of piss and vinegar, because so much of Jewish collective memory is an accounting of wrongs done to us by others. In daily life we rightly avoid those who tend to snivel and castigate fortune. A great deal of Jewish pride since emancipation has been based around living down stereotypes, but if the stereotypes have no basis, then what could there possibly be to live down?
(…..Part II here…..)