A book that I first read a few years ago so captivated me that I bought bulk copies to give away to friends.
The book, John Lennon and the Jews by Ze’ev Maghen, originally surfaced in 2010 and has just been republished by Toby Press. I have never laughed so hard at a piece of writing which both stirred and taught me so much.
The book isn’t merely dazzling, profound, off-the-wall, learned, hilarious, original, biting and passionate.
It speaks urgently to an issue which threatens to tear the Jews apart in both the Diaspora and in Israel.
In America, Jews who vote Democrat support the Iran deal. Republican Jews are frantically opposed.
The row over President Obama’s attitude toward Israel and the world is bitter and visceral.
The fault line in the American Jewish community is, however, far more profound than domestic political allegiance. The split goes even deeper than the issue of Israel, support for which is showing such alarming signs of weakening particularly among the younger generation.
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This deepest of all divisions extends to Diaspora Jews in general and even to Jews in Israel, too. It is a chasm that has opened up over the meaning of Jewish identity itself and about the part played in that identity by religion.
Judaism is exceptional because it consists of a symbiotic connection between the people, the religion and the land. Jews, however, don’t in the main want to be exceptional.
In the Diaspora, they want desperately to fit in. In Israel, they want desperately to be like any other country.
But Israel is not like any other country. It is unique because Judaism is unique. The Hebrew word for the Hebrews, “ivrim,” means “those who dwell on the other side.”
Jews are thus fated to be different.
But that’s hard to endure, so Jews try to pretend it isn’t so. This was the genesis of progressive Judaism, which dispensed with bits of the all-too distinctive outer shell of Jewish practice and promoted instead those Jewish values which could be presented as having universal application.
So there was a natural fit between progressive Jews and the political Left with its universalizing creed.
But Judaism is rooted in the particular.
Without that it is no longer Judaism. And without Judaism, Israel would no longer be Israel.
Maghen is a professor of Persian language and Islamic history at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and also teaches at Shalem College in Jerusalem. He is an Israeli patriot who understands that nationhood matters, that the Jews are not just a religious body but a nation, and that the two cannot be separated without tearing Judaism itself apart.
His book begins with what happened when he encountered a group of saffron-robed Hare Krishna devotees at the Los Angeles airport.
They offered him a psychedelic version of the Rig Veda, a collection of Sanskrit hymns – which enraged him because their names were Shira, Ofer and Doron and they hailed from Tel Aviv.
These were Israeli, Jewish, post-Zionst Hare Krishnas. When he rebuked them by reminding them of their own holy book, the Torah, they tried in turn to correct the error of his reactionary ways.
Choosing one book, one religion, one culture over another, they claimed, was to erect false barriers between people who must be united, as the Hindu Upanishads proclaim, in a “spirit of oneness.”
Judaism with its archaic rituals and hocus-pocus beliefs was irrational and unscientific, and loyalty to the Jewish people was simply fascism.
The encounter was as devastating as it was comic. For Maghen understood that these young Israelis represented a dagger at the heart of the Jewish people. The question they were asking was the one increasingly being posed by Jews all over the West: how to reconcile (if at all) being a “modern, progressive, secular, non-denominationally affiliated American, Canadian or Britisher, or Citizen of the World,” with being “actively and deeply and connectedly Jewish.”
Maghen’s response is an impassioned polemic (he calls it a ‘“philosophical rampage”) denouncing universalism as hymned by John Lennon in his song “Imagine”: “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ and no religion too/ Imagine all the people/ Living life in peace...”
Maghen denounces such sentiments as “a requiem mass for the human race.”
He takes apart the sloppy sentimentality behind Lennon’s concept of universal love, which Maghen ascribes to Christianity because it recognizes no familial or cultural solidarity. But that isn’t love at all, because love inescapably entails preferring some people over others – your children over strangers, for example – and thus preferring your extended family, tribe or clan, aka the Jewish people, over others.
Universal, equal “love,” says Maghen, means in fact universal, equal indifference and worse. John Lennon’s imagined utopia leads straight to the barbarities of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.
But that doesn’t in itself mean we should love the Jewish bit of Judaism. Here Maghen turns the arguments of Judaism’s rationalist detractors on their heads. Yes, he says, Jewish practices such as kashrut, circumcision, shmita, the exigencies of avoiding the fermentation of flour at passover and so on are in themselves illogical and irrational and often a total pain in the neck. As he writes in his diverting, exclamatory style, “WHO NEEDS THIS?” But Jewish identity is composed of these peculiarities. As Maghen observed in his no-less diverting lecture at the Limmud conference in Jerusalem last week, the notion that the shell of Jewish observance isn’t as important as the values it enshrines, and that therefore we can toss aside rituals or restrictions we consider inconvenient while telling ourselves we are retaining the essence of Judaism, is a terrible mistake. It is those often absurd, peculiar or irritating rituals that matter, because it is those particulars that make us Jews.
To be human is to love; and to love is to be illogical, irrational but above all attached; and to be attached you have to have something or someone distinctive or special to be attached to. Which is why to be attached to the Jewish nation is an act of love; and why Maghen’s book is a love letter to his people.
But many Jews have chosen instead to construct their Jewish identity around universalism. That is why in America both Jewish identification and support for Israel are on the wane. It is why Jewish leaders of the Israel-delegitimization movement in Britain claim their position embodies “true” Jewish ethics (although in fact it resembles watered-down Christianity in that it enjoins turning the other cheek in the face of murderous attack). And it is what drives the post-Zionist movement in Israel.
Buy Maghen’s book and give it away to your friends, and you’ll be doing more to defend the Jewish people than a thousand cringing, pointless conferences or symposia about fighting Obama or anti-Semitism or BDS. Imagine! Melanie Phillips is a columnist for The Times (UK).
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