Thursday, September 24, 2015

  • Thursday, September 24, 2015
  • Elder of Ziyon
Recently, to some celebration among Jewish Israel-haters, a new synagogue opened up in Chicago called Tzedek Chicago. (Tzedek means justice, a keyword for destroying Israel.) Even Max Blumenthal enthusiastically spoke at their services on Yom Kippur..

The rabbi is well-known Israel hater Brant Rosen. On his blog he has lots of material about how he and his congregation thinks, which invariably has little to do with Judaism. For those for whom Judaism is important, reading his writings induces nausea.

The guest lecturer on the night of Yom Kippur said this:

A good structure means little without substance. We need not to only identify injustice but also work to correct it. We need to do our part. We need to take Yom Kippur seriously; we need to take the project of teshuvah seriously.

Again, we face obstacles. Traditionally, the Yom Kippur liturgy dances between two problematic theologies of an authoritarian deity: one, a strict adherent of reward and punishment, and the other, a completely arbitrary megalomaniac. How can we reconcile our knowledge of justice with these concepts of the Divine?

So we are doing liturgy differently at Tzedek. Tomorrow, we will not read from the passage in Leviticus which describes the ancient practice of transferring our sins onto goats and arbitrarily killing one and sending the other away. We know we cannot make teshuvah by putting our sins onto any scapegoat. Instead, we will read the passage in Genesis about Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau. With themes of generosity, transformation, and moving forward from wrongs done without revising or denying past harms, this text reflects the kind of teshuvah we wish to do. It provides hope for intractable conflicts to be resolved justly. We will read about a moment so transformative it turned Jacob from a conniving person into a gentle one. We want that for ourselves. Why is this Yom Kippur different from all other days? Because we can find an example of teshuvah in our text we wish to emulate.

...In tomorrow’s text, we identify with both twins. Jacob victimized Esau. He erred when he stole Esau’s birthright. But we root for Jacob in this reconciliation – not because of lineage but because we know a deep truth. God is the ally of those who seek forgiveness. The story makes us more inclined to forgive and to believe we can be forgiven.
Normally I wouldn't bother to spend time showing how utterly condescending and wrong the "Torah" of this pseudo-temple is. But it just so happens that I used the Yom Kippur Machzor (prayer book) of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and he discussed this very episode. If you want to see the difference between false political interpretations of the Torah , and a real interpretation, read on.

There are moments that change the world: 1439 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press (though the Chinese had developed it four centuries before), or 1821 when Faraday invented the electric motor, or 1990 when Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web. There is such a moment... when Joseph finally revealed his identity to his brothers. While they were silent and in a state of shock, he went on to say these words:

“I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45: 4-8)
This is the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgives another.

...Forgiveness does not appear in every culture. It is not a human universal, nor is it a biological imperative. We know this from a fascinating study by American classicist David Konstan, Before Forgiveness: the origins of a moral idea (2010). In it he argues that there was no concept of forgiveness in the literature of the ancient Greeks. There was something else, often mistaken for forgiveness. There is appeasement of anger.
When someone does harm to someone else, the victim is angry and seeks revenge. This is clearly dangerous for the perpetrator and he or she may try to get the victim to calm down and move on. They may make excuses: It wasn’t me, it was someone else. Or, it was me but I couldn’t help it. Or, it was me but it was a small wrong, and I have done you much good in the past, so on balance you should let it pass.
Alternatively, or in conjunction with these other strategies, the perpetrator may beg, plead, and perform some ritual of abasement or humiliation. This is a way of saying to the victim, “I am not really a threat.” The Greek word sugnome, sometimes translated as forgiveness, really means, says Konstan, exculpation or absolution. It is not that I forgive you for what you did, but that I understand why you did it – you could not really help it, you were caught up in circumstances beyond your control – or, alternatively, I do not need to take revenge because you have now shown by your deference to me that you hold me in proper respect. My dignity has been restored.

There is a classic example of appeasement in the Torah: Jacob’s behaviour toward Esau when they meet again after a long separation. Jacob had fled home after Rebekah overheard Esau resolving to kill him after Isaac’s death (Gen. 27: 41). Prior to the meeting Jacob sends him a huge gift of cattle, saying “I will appease him with the present that goes before me, and afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me.” (Gen. 32: 21). When the brothers meet, Jacob bows down to Esau seven times, a classic abasement ritual. The brothers meet, kiss, embrace and go their separate ways, but not because Esau has forgiven Jacob but because either he has forgotten or he has been placated.

...There are forms of appeasement and peacemaking that are pre-moral and have existed since the birth of humanity. Forgiveness has not. Konstan argues that its first appearance is in the Hebrew Bible and he cites the case of Joseph. What he does not make clear is why Joseph forgives, and why the idea and institution are born specifically within Judaism.

The answer is that within Judaism a new form of morality was born. Judaism is (primarily) an ethic of guilt, as opposed to most other systems, which are ethics of shame. One of the fundamental differences between them is that shame attaches to the person. Guilt attaches to the act. In shame cultures when a person does wrong he or she is, as it were, stained, marked, defiled. In guilt cultures what is wrong is not the doer but the deed, not the sinner but the sin. The person retains his or her fundamental worth (“the soul you gave me is pure,” as we say in our prayers). It is the act that has somehow to be put right. That is why in guilt cultures there are processes of repentance, atonement and forgiveness.

That is the explanation for Joseph’s behaviour from the moment the brothers appear before him in Egypt for the first time to the point where, in this week’s parsha, he announces his identity and forgives his brothers. It is a textbook case of putting the brothers through a course in atonement, the first in literature. Joseph is thus teaching them, and the Torah is teaching us, what it is to earn forgiveness....
The entire essay is worth reading. And this portion is worth publishing here because it shows the stark difference between the pseudo-Jews of Chicago and real Judaism.

Rosen has bought into the honor/shame culture of the Arab world. He believes that Arabs have been shamed and only Arabs can demand justice, with Arabs acting as judge and jury to ultimately deny Jews any rights. Jacob stole from Esau and must make amends by abasement and groveling, and only Esau can decide whether Jacob meets his own criteria of justice - when his shame disappears. There was no request for forgiveness nor was there any given. 

In this case he was appeased, but in the case of the Arab world, nothing would appease them short of the destruction of the Jewish state - a goal that Rosen shares.

Rabbi Sacks, on the other hand, describes the guilt culture as morally superior to shame culture and indeed it is the basis for today's Judeo-Christian morality.
We owe to anthropologists like Ruth Benedict the distinction between shame cultures and guilt cultures. Shame is a social phenomenon. It is what we feel when our wrongdoing is exposed to others. It may even be something we feel when we merely imagine other people knowing or seeing what we have done. Shame is the feeling of being found out, and our first instinct is to hide. That is what Adam and Eve did in the garden of Eden after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. They were ashamed of their nakedness and they hid.

Guilt is a personal phenomenon. It has nothing to do with what others might say if they knew what we have done, and everything to do with what we say to ourselves. Guilt is the voice of conscience, and it is inescapable. You may be able to avoid shame by hiding or not being found out, but you cannot avoid guilt. Guilt is self-knowledge.

There is another difference, which explains why Judaism is overwhelmingly a guilt rather than a shame culture. Shame attaches to the person. Guilt attaches to the act. It is almost impossible to remove shame once you have been publicly disgraced....

Guilt makes a clear distinction between the act of wrongdoing and the person of the wrongdoer. The act was wrong, but the agent remains, in principle, intact. That is why guilt can be removed, “atoned for,” by confession, remorse and restitution. “Hate not the sinner but the sin,” is the basic axiom of a guilt culture.
But for the Arab honor/same culture, and Brant Rosen, "hate the one who shamed you" is the (one-way) rule for the Middle East. Jews are the original sinners for winning wars with Arabs who regarded them as weak, the ultimate source of Arab shame.

That can never be erased, no matter how abjectly Jews like Rosen and his congregants attempt to abase and debase themselves with them.

(In interests of completeness, Rabbi Sacks actually writes that Esau was wronged by Jacob from his own perspective, and he also says that in any peace agreement Israel should respect the Arab honor-shame culture, but not surrender to it.

(And last year I did write about the same topic after Yom Kippur. )

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