Your people are whose people?

According to Ze’ev Maghen, Jews feel affiliation due to a feeling of kinship rather than a rational faith-based mechanism.

London rally for Israel 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
London rally for Israel 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Reading John Lennon and the Jews, Ze’ev Maghen’s ferocious new book, raised many issues in my mind. Or was it in my heart? The battle for dominance between head and heart, rationalism and emotion and truth and love, are all, indeed, at the heart of this dazzling intellectual amusement park, which asks and answers the question, “Why on earth be a Jew in the (post) modern world?”
Or, put another way, “Who needs this?”
It was a generation ago when the religiously devout Maghen (currently department chairman of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University) encountered a posse of Hare Krishnas in Los Angeles, composed entirely of post-army-service Israeli children of privilege – “yaldei shamenet” in Israeli parlance.
Friendly banter led to a wholly un- Krishna-like outburst from one of Maghen’s head-shaved, bed-sheet-draped interlocutors (“You fascist!”), but the gist of their naïve message was that “we must strive with every bit of our inner strength to love all people equally.”
This is where Lennon gets wheeled in, with the distinctly Krishna-esque lyrics to his 1970 classic “Imagine” – a song whose notes have made guitars gently weep ever since. Maghen, who professes to have once loved the song, proceeds to attack its seemingly benign universalist message as not only utterly ridiculous, but dangerous for the world – Jew and gentile alike.
This book, then, is Maghen’s response to the Israeli Krishnas’ challenge, 20 years in coming – a challenge he claims he failed to address at the time with sufficient heft.
What Maghen most takes issue with in his exploration of the roots of Jewish affiliation is the notion of loving all people equally. This is also known as “non-preferential love,” a principle shared by Krishna, Lennon and even Jesus. Does the love you harbor for your child equal your love for some stranger on the subway? Or a suicide bomber? If you claim to love everybody, Maghen concludes, you really love nobody.
Yet he insists that love, the strongest of emotions, is what motivates people to get out of bed in the morning, and that for the world to work properly, emotion and love must rule over rationalism and truth (wonder what the eminently logical Mr. Spock, the Star Trek character Maghen so admires, would have to say about that).
In his high-octane style, Maghen trots out everyone from Kant, Hume and Nietzsche, to Plato, Confucius, Tolstoy, Akiva, Jesus and Jacob to prove that “everything we care deeply about in our lives, our dreams, our desires, our loves, our passions, our ambitions, our imaginings, our selfhood, partakes not of the realm of the rational, but of the irrational.”
Now, this love isn’t the non-preferential sort expounded by the Krishnas or Christianity, but one strictly preferential – loving not everyone, but those closest to you, namely kin. Preferential love is structured in concentric circles of kinship: wife and children, parents, extended family, tribe, and finally people. Any other love, he says, just isn’t love.
So if human affairs are ruled by emotion and love, and authentic love is by definition preferential, it’s only sensible for us to love our kin and those close to us more than others. Could this mean that members of a given group – Jews, Armenians, Estonians or Koreans – are actually behaving rationally when they love their own first and foremost? Maghen’s argument for the dominance of the emotional over the rational in human affairs recalls the theories of behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who describes human behavior as “predictably irrational” and has demonstrated that the decisions humans make are based largely on emotional impulse rather than logical conclusion.
And thus it must remain: head, Maghen warns, must always serve heart. Should roles reverse, he says, we’d end up with likes of Mao, Lenin, Pol Pot and Hitler and their utopian truths.
Maghen links the “One World” sentiments of Eastern mysticism with the politically correct relativistic Western rationalism now common in Western Europe and many college campuses, where one man’s suicide murderer is frequently shrugged off as another’s freedom fighter. The odd confluence of positions between radical secular leftists and Islamic jihadists relates to this, too.
So why doesn’t being Jewish make sense? Let’s start with “Judaism,” a notion wholly artificial, according to Maghen, rationally created in the 19th century as a means of implying that Jews are essentially members of a faith community similar to Christians and Muslims. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Rather than being “followers of Judaism,” leading from a rational decision, Jews (short for Judeans) are first and foremost a people (“am” in Hebrew), kinsmen from time immemorial, from a land called Judah. Since we kinsmen have so much in common – ancestry, history, traditions, ancient language, land as well as theology, we innately possess a preferential love for each other, residing presumably in the Jewish soul, or neshama, inside each of us.
One isn’t Jewish, then, because it makes sense; you don’t think Jewish, you feel it, and we ought to be Jewish despite – or indeed, because of – its inherent irrationality. And the way to feel our Jewishness, says Maghen, is by embracing our ancient laws, however anachronistic or illogical they may appear, and making them an expression of our identity.
The author would certainly take issue with Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, the organizer of an August 2007 summit of Jewish intellectuals in Park City, Utah, who gathered to mull over the very question with which Maghen wrestles. Thus opined Stern at the time: “The big question this generation is asking is, ‘Why should I be Jewish? How does Judaism influence my life?’ The old ‘peoplehood’ argument doesn’t resonate with them.” Stern ought to buy this book.

My quibbles are relatively minor: Repeated use of Obama-isms such as “folks” and Palin-isms like “you betcha” are entirely unnecessary. Also, Maghen’s call to embrace prayer and mitzvot as an (irrational) act of kinship doesn’t resonate with many agnostic Jews like me. Rabid Zionism, kosher food, fasting on Yom Kippur and sending my kids to Jewish day school currently suffice as my own acts of identification.
All in all, a 1,000-word review cannot do justice to this intellectually stimulating, provocatively funny tour-de-force, which is a must-read for all thinking Jews. Ben Bag-Bag’s quote in Ethics of the Fathers, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it,” might refer to the Torah, but can easily be applied to this volume as well.
John Lennon and the Jews is meant to be a combination to a safe – a power drill, really – designed to crack open and release the slumbering and immortal Jewish soul within.