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June 26, 2010
June 5, 2010
When I was growing up, the rabbi at our synagogue used to give very interesting sermons. He had come to the pulpit in a roundabout way after initially training to be a more scholarly type of rabbi, and it showed. His sermons were cerebral, often ambiguous, and rarely predictable. There was none of the boilerplate moralizing or lazy Jewish triumphalism that I’ve since noticed is much more common in rabbinical sermons. Not all of his sermons were good, but even the bad ones were usually bad in interesting ways, and the good ones were fantastic.
One of them that I remember being particularly interesting was somewhat unusual in that he paused in the middle to get responses from the congregation. There are rabbis who do this sort of thing regularly, but he wasn’t like that, and his sermons were typically much more like lectures. In this sermon, though, he first discussed how people who have suffered extensively often end up inflicting suffering on others and being generally mean and unpleasant, and he posed the question of why, given the long history of suffering we as Jews had experienced, we weren’t like that ourselves. A few people spoke up giving various answers, none of which I remember, and when no one else had anything more to say, the rabbi continued with his answer, which was that Jews were not, in fact, immune to this general tendency to take out personal suffering on others, and that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as necessarily being all that great. It’s true, of course, and sounds obvious, but in the context of a synagogue this was potentially scandalous stuff. I don’t know if this particular sermon aroused any controversy, but many of his others did.
I was reminded of this story by this excellent op-ed by Michael Chabon, where he argues that the Mavi Marmara incident shows that the idea, widely held by Jews and Gentiles alike, that Jews have a particular spirit of intelligence and ingenuity is not only false but pernicious. Jews are much like any other people, he says. Some are smart and some are dumb, and the fact that we have survived all these centuries doesn’t say anything in particular about any inherent intelligence. There’s always been a lot of luck and coincidence, and it’s not like the Jews are the only people to have maintained some form of cultural continuity this long anyway. One thing I found interesting about it is that it’s clear from the way he talks about the incident that his opinions on the bigger issues are significantly more in line with the Israeli government’s approach than, say, mine. Not that he’s necessarily a Likudnik or anything, but he clearly doesn’t have much sympathy for the activists on the boat and he specifically brings up Gilad Shalit, a national symbol in Israel of the need to take a hard line on Hamas. And yet, here he is criticizing a common approach taken by hard-core supporters of Israel and emphasizing the problems with Jewish exceptionalism. It reminds me of Peter Beinart’s recent essay on the problems with the American Jewish establishment, another example of a strong critique of mindless support for anything the Israeli government does coming from a strong supporter of Israel. It’s not just the peaceniks anymore, and if any good comes out of this mess, hopefully it will be a change in the dynamics of the situation. Israel’s increasing isolation even from people inclined to be its strongest friends could lead its leaders to change their tactics and approach. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.