As I scurry around my house preparing for Passover, the cynic in me recalls the old joke: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” Judaism is a very “Us” versus “Them” religion, often more within the community than outside. If you’re religious, the secular are the threat. If you’re secular, the religious are the problem. (Unless, of course, you’re secular with money, in which case you fund a new Yeshiva to assuage your guilt.) If you’re liberal, the Republican Jews are a problem. If you’re conservative, liberals are “bad Jews” And if you’re a socialist, anyone who is against BDS is part of a conspiracy to silence your anti-Occupation voice. Which leads me to wonder who exactly the “they” is in our infamous holiday joke. Are we really talking about Pharaohs and Hamans? Or are we the real threat to our own survival?
In this month’s issue of Commentary, Seth Mandel theorized “why Bernie Sanders doesn’t talk about being Jewish,” an assertion J.J. Goldberg disputed quite successfully nearly a month ago in The Forward. According to Mandel, Bernie avoids the Jewish question because he identifies more closely with his socialism than his Judaism. It’s a pretty common theory among politically conservative Jews, most of whom, including Mandel, are Orthodox. Their argument can be boiled down into two words: Bad Jew. End of story.
For those like Goldberg, whose politics fall to the Left of the spectrum, the simplistic accusation of “bad Jew” is highly insulting, albeit nothing new. Socialism was one of the closest movements to the Protestant Reformation that many Ashkenazi Jews ever encountered (the other being Zionism). Whether or not you agree with the tenets of socialism, the ethos inspired denizens of the ghetto to rebel against a Rabbinical hierarchy that claimed a Pope-like authority, “lower than God, but higher than man.” (As Paul Kriwaczek details in Yiddish Civilization, “Perhaps the Rabbis feared that access to the primary source [Torah] would lead to each man deciding on its meaning for himself and thereby falling into heresy.”) The two factions have been at war ever since, accusing each other of being a shanda, a shame to the Jewish people.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently delved into the concept of shame in his commentary on tzara’at, the Biblical punishment for lashon hara (evil speech). Sacks interprets tzara’at, a mold that spreads from body to surroundings, as God’s way of teaching the Israelites that evil speech led to decay within the community. He explains:
Why specifically in the case of lashon hara, “evil speech”? Because speech is what holds society together. Anthropologists have argued that language evolved among humans precisely in order to strengthen the bonds between them so that they could co-operate in larger groupings than any other animal. What sustains co-operation is trust. This allows and encourages me to make sacrifices for the group, knowing that others can be relied on to do likewise. This is precisely why lash on hara is so destructive. It undermines trust. It makes people suspicious about one another. It weakens the bonds that hold the group together. If unchecked, lashon hara will destroy any group it attacks: a family, a team, a community, even a nation. Hence its uniquely malicious character: It uses the power of language to weaken the very thing language was brought into being to create, namely, the trust that sustains the social bond.
I’ve been on the receiving end of ugly smears from both sides of the political aisle in Judaism. When I marched with my husband’s Habonim Dror youth alliance in the Israel Day parade I was referred to as a “conservative pig” who needed to “change her politics” by one angry camp alum. At the same time I was being booed and told I was a “bad Jew” by politically conservative parade watchers. What was supposed to be a celebration of Jewish unity was an exhausting shame fest. Is it any wonder that most young Jewish Americans are walking away from Israel and Judaism in droves?
Liel Leibovitz argued that we need to stop defending ourselves and instead keep our Zionism simple:
Here is what we ought to say about Israel, when asked by our fellow students or by our children or by the anchor on the evening news: We love it, simply and truly and without complications.
Our Judaism should be likewise. If we cannot love each other “simply and truly and without complications” we are all falling short of what God instructed us to do. And there is nothing more shameful or destructive than that.
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