Saturday, March 3, 2007

In Your Face

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I wonder if this same Law can be loosely applied to social science as well. The midrash comments that the exodus from Egypt was predicated on three things: they didn’t change their names; they didn’t change the style of their garments; and they didn’t change their language. By not abandoning their given names, style of clothing and language the Hebrews cleaved to their cultural social and religious identity, refusing to assimilate into mainstream Egyptian society. The biblical account of the exodus story can be understood as the struggle between two competing cultures. It is a beautiful text because it doesn’t give a one sided version of the events, but explains too the concerns of the Egyptians. They were worried that the Hebrews were becoming too numerous and too influential and would one day threaten their political/culture hegemony.

From the text it isn’t clear what exactly their fears were. Were they afraid that the sheer numbers of the Hebrews would turn the Egyptians into a minority? Were they concerned over their rising political influence? Were their fears simply that they didn’t wish to deal with a fifth column, a parallel and perhaps competing culture developing within their midst? We’ll probably never know for sure what their fears were but we can assume that whatever they were, the Egyptians resented the Hebrews because apparently they were “in their face”. This is reinforced by the biblical account that the Egyptians were concerned that the Hebrews were Rav V’atzum Mimenu: much too powerful and numerous. I also believe they were becoming too influential, otherwise why say Rav V’atzum? The antidote of course was to get a handle on their proliferation, and the rest as they say is history.

This story of the Exodus isn’t hard to conceive. If we fast forward to America in the twenty first century we find a similar trend. After all, aren’t Americans concerned that the illegal immigration of Mexicans and others challenging our porous borders might result in a ‘take over” of Anglo-Saxon culture or pose a security risk? In fact there are several states that have passed legislation making English the legal language. Many Americans are concerned with the issue of foreign population control within the borders of the United States. Could you imagine American culture falling under the influence of Mexican /Hispanic culture? Is it possible that we are beginning to experience a backlash to Mexican “in your face” presence with current proposed legislation? What about Jews? We are disproportionately represented as Members of Congress and disproportionately hold academic posts in our best universities as well as a disproportionate presence in the national media. Do you think that we may be “in their face”? Could you imagine if all 5.5 million Jews in the United States were all wearing shtriemels, capotes or “litvishe” style attire –and all speaking Yiddish? How would that impact the way Americans view us? Do you think that there is some truth to Newton’s third Law of Motion within a societal context?

Our history, unfortunately is riddled with terribly ugly shades of anti-Semitism and my intention here is not to exonerate the predators but to pause a moment and check whether or not we may have indirectly become enablers-enabling them to perpetrate their evil. A minority group too visible in its host society is begging for a backlash. Could this be the lesson of the enslavement of the Hebrews? It is very easy to assess the African American or the Hispanic community in the USA through this prism and see the forces of prejudice coalesce in response to the minority groups’ growth politically and socially.

The Jewish community isn’t exempt from this phenomenon. A generation ago the Jewish community wasn’t as strong as it is today, politically or financially and assumed a modest posture within the American cultural/political matrix. We did well, prospered and our children benefited from the best education and living standards in the world. But with the growth of our political presence we became more aggressive and more “in their face”. We began making demands in terms of legislation based upon equality and religious freedom. For example, it became illegal for an employer to deny employment to Sabbath observers. I’m not suggesting that this legislation was flawed I’m only suggesting that there are no free rides and sometimes there are consequences. And I wonder if we can apply Newton’s Third Law of Motion? Sometimes you can push for what is legitimately right but we have to be prepared for the consequences.

I never thought that I would witness anti-Semitism, but in Europe it has once again begun to raise its ugly head. Many of the pundits and Jewish intellectuals are quick to point out that this isn’t your garden variety anti-Semitism that we have experienced in Europe in the past, but something different. It is linked to Zionism and Israel’s position vis a vis the Palestinian problem. Frankly it really doesn’t matter to me what the etiology of this years version of anti-Semitism is. A dead Jew is a dead Jew. Apparently there is enough concern that the rabbinate in France has counseled the Jewish community to be less noticeable, to blend in more to the general population. Rather than wear a kippah on the street one should wear a hat. In a word, the rabbinate is cautioning the Jewish community to be less “in the face” of their gentile neighbors.

What’s upsetting in all this is that we just don’t seem to learn from history. We, the people of the book, scholars who have made it our mission throughout history to be the recorders of history, perhaps more than any other people haven’t learned from history. We may be researching, writing and analyzing, but we lack fundamental intuition and understanding. Apparently we have a tendency that when conditions are welcoming and we seem to aggregate a little power and money we get “in their face”. It happened throughout our experience in Europe and it’s happening again in Europe as well as in America.

Every year after Thanksgiving, I get a little queasy. Queasy, because the war against Christmas becomes a prominent issue among many Americans. Why they argue is it ok to have discussions about Ramadan and Hanukah but not Christmas in the public school system. Why is it ok to display a Menorah in a public building or property, but not the nativity scene?

I have often wondered how is it that we are able to not only display the Hanukiah on public, federally funded property but not have a scene of the Manger. The answer that is most commonly given is that the manger scene is clearly a religious icon and therefore can’t be displayed; however the Menorah isn’t religious but rather cultural. This is news to me! As far as I understand, the Hanukah is clearly a religious article. There is a significant amount of halachic literature written on the Menorah: How it is to be lit, which berachot to say, where should it be lit, how it should be constructed etc. If this was a cultural ceremony, there wouldn’t have been brachot(blessings) associated with it, nor would there have been so much discussion on the nature of the chag(holiday) itsef. To religious Jews the center piece of the chag wasn’t the victory of the Macabim but the miracle of the oil. The emphasis here is on the miracle, which in itself is a religious concept. So I ask myself again, if this is a religious holiday and one is yotzei (fulfills the commandment) by saying the berachot over the Menorah, how is it that it can be placed in public buildings?

Chabad(Group belonging to the hassidic Lubavitch sect) in reality is doing a disservice to the Jewish community by making the public lighting of the Menorah located in federally funded buildings one of its raisson d’etre. Why do they feel the necessity of being in their face? The mitzvah of pirsum(publicly displaying the Menorah) relates to Jews not Gentiles. We are expected to place the Menorah in strategically noticeable places so that other Jews can see it. Gentiles seeing the Hannukiah(menorah) aren’t part of the mitzvah(commandment) formulary. The halacha(Jewish law) also states that if there is an issue of sacanat nefashot(danger) than you shouldn’t publically display the menorah. In other words, in a perfect world we should prominently diplay our Menorot at our doorposts opposite the Mezuzah for other Jews to see. But we don’t live in a perfect world and the halacha recognized this. Besides, if we lived in a perfect world, we would all be in Eretz Yisrael(Israel), and I wouldn’t be writing this essay.

Halacha recognized that “in your face” Judaism is ill advised. The exodus story gives testimony to that. The Ramban(Nacmanides) understood it. The rabbinate in France has slowly come to the same conclusion. We in America still haven’t figured it out. Chabad in particular, is living in a fool’s paradise if they don’t think that one day there may be a heavy price to pay for having been “in their face”. Newton’s Third Law of Motion may, unfortunately, one day prove to be a valid concept when applied to social science.