Thursday, October 13, 2016

Strength, Repentance, and Jewish Diasporism

What is complete repentance? It is so when an opportunity presents itself for repeating an offense and the offender refrains from doing so because he has repented, not out of fear or lack of strength.” -- Maimonides

To be contrite in our failures is holier than to be complacent in perfection. -- Abraham Joshua Heschel

Another Yom Kippur has concluded, and as my dad likes to say, the best part is that we're never farther away from another Yom Kippur than we are at this moment. A favored pastime of Jewish intellectuals this time of year is to point out various sins of the Jewish community as a whole -- Israel is a frequent target, though not the only one -- and urge repentance.

I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing, framed properly. Over Rosh Hashanah, my home Rabbi gave a compelling sermon about the need to create a positive Jewish spiritual identity that went beyond "survive!", arguing that our communal Jewish institutions had given my generation the short shrift by failing to conceptualize Judaism as anything other than Fackenheim's 614th Commandment (a Commandment which, to be fair, actually does resonate with Millennial-generation-me). Repentance is about becoming better than we were before, and it's never a bad thing for the Jewish community to be better. The idea of being a "light unto nations" imposes a heavy burden on ourselves, but one we should be proud of striving towards even as we know our light could always shine brighter.

I thought about this while reflecting on Mira Sucharov's thoughtful column about the new "non-Zionist" synagogue that recently opened in Chicago. As Sucharov observes, the synagogue is not really "non-Zionist" in the way that she is a "non-NFL fan". It is by no means indifferent to Zionism. It has very strong opinions about Zionism and Israel generally. In a sense, they care a lot about Israel (in the same way that Sucharov does). But in a sense, it seems quite different. Perhaps they "care" about Israel in the same way they "care" about North Korea: "they simply think that Israel is responsible for a significant amount of evil in the world, and are working to try and rectify it -- there is no sentimentality behind it, anymore than efforts to end North Korean brutality are motivated by deep caring about North Korea."

Maybe that pushes too far -- the synagogue does seem to "care" especially about Israel because it is Jewish. But even here, the linkage to Jewishness is of a contingent and regretful kind: they don't want Israel to change so that it becomes a better emblem of Jewishness in the world, they view it as objectionable that it represents Jewishness to begin with -- that it is a Jewish state. They're concerned with Israel because it gives Jews a bad name, but they don't otherwise view Israel as legitimately part of a Jewish future. Instead, the synagogue is based around the concept of "Diasporism" -- that the Jewish home is everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere, because Jews should view their home as wherever they happen to reside. Nowhere, because there is no particular spot -- Israel included -- that we can claim as ours.

The ideal Jewish role in diasporism is a critical one -- we imagine ourselves as the conscience, the gadfly, the light unto that nation. Sometimes, of course, diasporism keeps us busy simply to remain a surviving group, a clinging-by-the-fingernails group, a deeply marginalized and vulnerable group. By definition we are not the dominant group, the powerful group, the in-control group. We certainly are not the oppressor group.

Prior to the establishment of Israel, the Jewish existence was diasporic. It did, largely, take on the qualities identified above. It can and is romanticized, of course -- more focus on the first sentence (conscientiousness and critique) and less on the second (vulnerability and marginalization). The reason diasporism failed in the 20th century is that, between the roughly 50 years of having a state and 50 years of not having one, Zionism decisively beat diasporism on the all-important "not nearly being annihilated in a cataclysmic genocide" scoreboard. But there is no question that having a state, having a place where Jews were more than just a critical voice but voice, a dominant voice, an in-control voice, a powerful voice was a very novel experience for Jews. And one upshot of having power is abusing that power. Of using that power to deeply, seriously, significantly wrong others. As Israel as done. As happens with power. Power gives one the opportunity to do things: terrible things and great things alike. The same dynamic that allows Jews to govern ourselves rather than exist as supplicants, also allows us to dominate others rather than coexist in equality. The same dynamic that allows Jew to save ourselves rather than pray for salvation, also allows us to hurt others rather than to respect their dignity. The coin of power allows either and both to be purchased -- one cannot have the opportunity for one without the opportunity for the other.

Diasporism sees Jewish wrongs -- genuine wrongs -- and yearns to go back to a time when Jews didn't act that way. And it is true: before there was an Israel, there was also no occupation, no Gaza incursions, no military law over Palestinians, no West Bank barrier, and so on. Jews in the diaspora did not need to worry about occupying anyone; we had no nation that could occupy. We would never be responsible for promulgating unjust laws; the laws were not ours to promulgate. We had no risk of significantly hurting others; the hand on the sovereign sword was not ours. Even our uprisings and resistances were blessed in their hopelessness. In Max Weber's terms, we could live a pure ethics of conviction, with zero concern for the ethics of responsibility. There is no true responsibility in diaspora, nothing really falls on our shoulders.

Diasporism is, at root, the Jewish fear of Jewish power. It knows that powerful Jews have the potential to be bad Jews -- in fact, it sees powerful Jews acting as bad Jews -- and its solution, its teshuvah, is to give up the trappings of power and return to the disempowered diaspora state. But as Maimonides observes, this is not repentance. The man who cuts off his tongue so that he cannot slander his neighbor has not repented, he has made true repentance impossible. Complete repentance must coexist with the opportunity, the strength, the power to commit the sin once again and the free choice not to. To "repent" for the sins derived from Jewish power by abolishing that power is no repentance at all -- it is a tacit belief that Jewish power will always, unavoidably, inherently be sinful power. It is a choice precisely to avoid the hard work of repentance, to avoid uncomfortable holiness of having to be contrite in our failures.

Diasporism is in some ways the mirror image of a completely self-satisfied Zionism, the sort that is convinced that nothing is Israel's fault, that all the problems and tribulations of the region are completely attributable to the malfeasance of Palestinians or other Arabs (or the UN, or the EU, or Iran....). In both cases, there is a complacency in (imagined) perfection. And both, in their own way, exhibit a preference for Jewish weakness, a desire to not have the choice to do right.

So on this Yom Kippur, I say we reject both. I say we recommit to Jewish strength -- including the strength to recognize and correct our sins, not because we have no choice, but because we once again are faced precisely with that choice.

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