No Holds Barred: American fanatics

Many scientists are deeply religious and believe that amid the lockdowns there has to be hope.

Members of the Proud Boys and their supporters march during a rally in Portland, Oregon (photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of the Proud Boys and their supporters march during a rally in Portland, Oregon
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The middle is dead in America. What remains are fanatics and extremists. They each get crazier by the day.
Progressive Americans believe that conservatives who don’t always wear masks outdoors when they are properly socially distanced (and I, of course, believe in wearing masks) are mass murderers who have killed grandma.
Conservative Americans believe liberals are hypocrites who quote science only when it suits their agenda. Sure, shut down the synagogues and church services as super-spreaders. After all, practicing religion, as far as they are concerned, is capitulation to superstition. But go out and party in the millions when Joe Biden wins the election, now that’s real divine worship.
How are two sides that despise each other ever going to get along?
Here, Hanukkah provides guidance.
In ancient Israel there were two camps, Hellenized or secular Jews, and the Maccabees, religious zealots who fought the Hellenizers and the Assyrian Greeks.
The first camp affirmed its superior culture, education and stature vis-à-vis the boneheaded, knuckle-dragging Maccabees, who still insisted on the old and antiquated ways of the Torah. The Hellenizers looked with contempt at the Torah-observing Maccabees as hopelessly unscientific, pathetically ignorant of Greek philosophy, and all-enamored by the baseless superstitions of the rabbis. The two sides were bound to clash.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to extrapolate from events 2,300 years ago in ancient Israel to modern American times.
Progressives promote themselves as the science party that believes in masks, science, lockdowns and Biden. They look at the Trump hordes as uneducated, buffoonish and militant, ossified in their politics and biased in their cultural and ethnic outlook.
But conservatives, like the Maccabees, want a more traditional America, its oil not contaminated by corrupt Hellenized influence. They feel lockdowns are authoritarian, like the Greeks who tried to tell the Jews how to live and what to do.
Indeed, while there are strong religious elements in the Democratic Party, of course, the party is not nearly defined as being founded on faith the way that the Republican Christian Evangelical base will claim as its raison d’être.
The standard-bearer today for the Democrats is Dr. Anthony Fauci, who espouses an admitted pessimism born of science, having even recently declared that the coronavirus is the “Grinch who stole Christmas.” Fauci is a truthful and good man who wants to save lives. I respect him. But he concedes that his approach can be a necessary downer.
On the other side, the Republican side, you have a loose confederation of born-again Christians, whose churches are bulging with worshipers even during the virus, and devout Orthodox Jews who remain grateful to President Donald Trump for defending Israel at every turn in his administration. Secular Jews see this knee-jerk reaction on the part of Trump to side with the Jews as being based on political rather than strategic considerations, and are therefore less impressed.
Be that as it may, as in Hanukkah times, the two sides are arrayed against each other.
The progressives, it would seem, will press their overwhelming advantage. They can deploy the organs of mainstream media, the universities, the principal influencers of social media, and all the important role models in sports and Hollywood. Surely, progressives will win the all-important battle for the souls of America, no?
But while it appears that the religious crowd and the conservatives have little with which to counter this secular onslaught, they have more than you might think.
Many scientists are deeply religious and believe that amid the lockdowns there has to be hope. They agree that total isolation can breed its own kind of despair – namely, in the form of depression, paranoia and fear. And science, as Fauci has repeatedly shown, is essentially pessimistic. It identifies all the diseases that can kill us and those that might only maim us. Religion, however, is profoundly optimistic, believing as it does that all is from God, and therefore promises eternal life. It employs belief as a cure for death, faith as a vaccine against illness, and prayer as an antibody against hopelessness.
And so religion influences the scientists to overcome the natural pessimism of Darwin’s natural selection and survival of the fittest and invent tools, remedies, that will give the weak – the elderly and those with preexisting conditions – a fighting chance against COVID-19, when all the evolutionary biologists might have given up on grandma, putting their money instead on the young, who can survive COVID-19 with just a few irritating symptoms. Religion, in short, with its ancient biblical promise to banish illness from the earth, is the ultimate catalyst in the scientific race for a vaccine.
This is why progressives and religious, Left and Right, liberal and conservative, ought to appreciate one another and work together instead of hating each other.
WHICH BRINGS us to why the Maccabees ultimately defeated the Assyrian-Greek armies which were the inheritors of Alexander the Great’s undefeated legions.
The Greeks were arrogant and condescending. They underestimated the Maccabees at every turn. How could a ragtag group of priests with little military training ever defeat Antiochus’s elephant-charging hordes?
The Maccabees knew that on paper they had no chance. So, they changed the odds with two critical factors.
To the Greeks the belief in one, all-encompassing God was too simple, too plain, too colorless. They preferred their pantheon of infinite gods who were always at war with each other like a cosmic NFL.
But to the Jews, their most cherished belief – that God is one and indivisible, e pluribus unum – means that God is everywhere in creation. God can be found wherever honest humans search for Him. God would never abandon the Jews, even if the oddsmakers gave them no chance. All they had to do was be true to God, which is why Mattathias’s battle cry was “Whoever is for God, come to me!”
The Maccabees devised a new style of fighting that the established Syrian garrisons had never witnessed. Guerrilla wars, where small bands of incredibly brave fighters – think of Judah the Hammer – would emerge as if from nowhere and crush Greek units until the fear of the Jews filled the Greek camps. It would be a strategy that the Irgun and Hagana would employ two thousand years later to great effect in expelling the British troops from Mandatory Palestine and making way for the creation of the State of Israel
And the second factor in the war that empowered the Jews was that they embraced the Greeks’ condescension as a badge of honor. To them the Greek’s arrogance betrayed ignorance. There are those who think they know, and then there are those who – like Socrates, who was put to death by the Greeks for asking too many questions – know that they don’t know. The Maccabees embraced this humble approach.
Ultimately, after coming to power, the Maccabees blew it several centuries later by destroying their monarchy with the classic mistake of the overarching culture: they went mainstream. They lost their upstart enthusiasm and their entrepreneurship. And by seeking to take the revolution too far, they lost many of the people who once supported them.
And so it is with the Trump revolution which got off to a rolling start and has now ground to a halt with his election loss to Biden.
And yet, two thousand years later, we Jews still celebrate these revolutionary upstarts, these Maccabees, who fought overarching foreign government control, something conservatives believe they’re doing every time Andrew Cuomo shuts down their favorite restaurants or tries to shut the churches and synagogues.
They may not be right. Shutdowns may now be necessary due to the deadly spread of the virus. And still, America was built by those who, even when they submit to government rules to uphold the common good, still believe in the rights of the individual.
So, beware the Maccabees, the zealots who refuse to be suppressed, refuse to be denied, who can be beaten occasionally and may go into hiding, only to spring up to battle for what they believe is their birthright at the moment when you’d least expect.
America right now must surely wear masks, socially distance, and accept the necessary government-imposed separations in order to promote the common good. But we should never forget that, unlike Europe, America was built on rugged individualism and industriousness that can never truly be suppressed.
The writer, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” author of The Israel Warrior, is the international best-selling author of 33 books. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.