Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jewish Identity: The Battle for Self-Definition - 2

(NOTE: This is the continuation of an essay originally written to be posted as one long blog entry.  I had to break it into two parts because of technical issues I'm having with the Blogger draft window.  Part 1 is here.)

The reason they so desperately wanted us to rebuild the Temple for them was so that the Antichrist could defile it.

THAT was the fulfillment of the prophecy they were trying to fabricate.  It originates in the book of Daniel, specifically Daniel 9:27.  Google that verse and you will turn up more paranoid crackpot websites than you could possibly deal with in several lifetimes.  I suppose I should have been grateful (at least a little bit) that they believed the magical goose still had one more golden egg in her, and was therefore worth keeping alive in order to produce it for Redemption 2.0. After all, only Jews would be capable of rebuilding the Temple and re-instituting the animal sacrifices--assuming we were interested.  And of course only certain Jewish males belong to the hereditary priesthood, now clearly identifiable by the “Cohen gene” on their Y chromosomes.  But even if the starring role remains within the tribe by necessity, the High Priest is reduced to just another bit player if the script is written by the adherents of another religion, who claim to derive their legitimacy from us but who have all too often been our enemies.

For me that was absolutely last straw, the final insult—that they appropriated to themselves the authority to write the script.  I said so to anyone who would listen, and I wasn’t tactful about it either:  “They are trying to turn the Jews into bit players in our own messianic drama, extras straight out of Fundie Central Casting,” I said about a couple of my more obnoxious sparring partners.

That was what enraged me more than anything--that our enemies would try to co-opt the ultimate meaning of our long and tragic history, to twist and distort it into something that had nothing to do with us.  But underneath that there was a deeper injustice that filled me with sadness more than anger.  They never asked me what Judaism was or what it meant to be Jewish; they told me!  They not only would not, but could not, ever grant me the right of self-definition because they could not grant it to any Jew, or to Judaism itself.  That’s how cognitive dissonance works, after all.  If to hear and understand something would unravel your entire belief system, well…you simply don’t hear it.

I didn’t express my frustration in those words at the time, but I found a closely related frame in the language of existentialism, and specifically in the I-Thou philosophy of Martin Buber.  My friend and unofficial debating partner Barry considered himself a Catholic existentialist, although I don’t know if he’d still describe himself that way.  He had read Buber and had no problem understanding me when I told him the fundies were incapable of entering into an I-Thou relationship with me or even approaching it.  That is to say, they were incapable of a subject-to-subject relationship with me, where they saw me as another person like themselves.  The stereotype of “Jew” always got in the way and so they always saw me as an object, not as a person.  Even when they claimed to be awestruck by my perceived status as a member of the Chosen People—and believe it or not, some of them did!—it only turned me into a glorified object.  It still didn’t make me a person in their eyes.

When I first conceived the idea for this post, which has been incubating for several months, I felt a strong need to get Barry involved if only for moral support.  In our Prodigy days we engaged in an extensive email correspondence, trying among other things to understand the fundies and their manifold forms of cognitive dissonance.  Barry has never lost his addiction to the interfaith debate boards, and I knew where to find him.  So about two weeks ago I signed up with his home board again and began posting on a topic he started.  Although I haven’t been active in that forum for a couple of years, a few of the regulars who have been there for a long time still vaguely remembered me.  One of these regulars immediately started interrogating me—not about Judaism per se and how it differs from Christianity—but about being Jewish and why did I self-identify as a Jew?  That was the start of the mini flame war I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Although there was no overt hostility, I call it interrogation because that’s what it felt like. Right from the beginning I sensed a note of challenge.  This created a feeling of tension that made me very uneasy, but I tried to ignore it and answered her questions as straightforwardly as I could.  As it turns out, my instincts were right and I really was being baited.  In retrospect, I realize that it was just a turf war, a struggle for dominance.  She’s been a regular on that forum for years and has a lot of seniority.  She has an established position there as the resident alpha female.  As soon as she registered the presence of a newbie “challenger” on her turf she just had to challenge me; it was almost a conditioned reflex.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realize she was doing it until after she pushed me too far.  Then she discovered she was taking on another alpha female even more territorial than she is—and with much more reason to be.

So do you consider being Jewish as your ethnicity or your religion?  Is there a difference?  Have you ever known a fellow Jew who is an atheist? If so, does he/she still self-identify as Jewish?  Also, if you don't ID yourself as religiously Jewish, why do you self-identify as a Jew at all, especially if you live in the USA?  IOW, what does being Jewish mean to you personally, and why is it so important to you that people know you are Jewish?

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with those questions.  As a matter of fact, they are very good questions, but they are open-ended questions.  They don’t allow for sound-byte answers.  And before I can even begin to answer them, I need to know something about the person asking them, especially if that person is a Gentile.  What does this individual know or think he or she knows about Judaism?  Or as Mark Twain famously said:  “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble.  It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”

As a rule it’s the more fanatical evangelical types who are most likely to shout me down with “what they know for sure that just ain’t so.”  But in the past I’ve also had plenty of trouble with secular types, usually over questions like “if you aren’t religiously Jewish, why do you self-identify as a Jew at all?”  It became clear as the interrogation proceeded that my challenger had picked up some negative stereotypes from somewhere, even though she said she had never met a Jew.  And that meant I had to put my foot down.

“Defensive? Oh absolutely, although personally I think of it as protective. My screen name, Raksha, has a curious double meaning in Sanscrit. It means both demon and protection. Raksha was also the name of the she-wolf who adopted a human baby in Rudyard Kipling's “The Jungle Book.” Kipling made it clear that Raksha would fight to the death for her cubs both wolf and human. I have very similar instincts in certain areas, as I'm sure you've noticed. When anyone makes an insensitive or borderline anti-Semitic remark they are encroaching on my territory, so they shouldn't be surprised if I bare my fangs at them.”

By then we were both getting pretty tired of the whole thing and agreed to call a truce.  It became clear to me however that if I really want to explore the questions she asked me, and all the other questions that branched off from them, that I would have to do it on my own turf.  And that can only be here on my blog, where my right to define myself in my own terms is unquestioned and unchallenged.  I can’t explore them in any depth and guard the boundaries against intruders at the same time.  And they deserve to be explored in depth, which can’t happen in the combative atmosphere of an interfaith discussion board.  Also, Jewish identity is itself in a state of flux or transformation, as it has been for most of my life.  We are moving into uncharted territory now, which gives those questions new relevance and urgency.  So I’m going to take a deep breath and take them on one at a time

Jewish Identity: The Battle For Self-Definition

I don’t know why I never got around to saying this in so many words before.  For years I’ve believed that the foundational freedom, the one essential right that precedes and supports all the others, is the right to self-definition.  By that I mean the right of any identifiable group to define itself in its own terms, rather than being defined by outsiders--often hostile outsiders--but in any case outsiders who never seem to question their own right to make authoritative pronouncements about the inmost nature of a category of humans to which they do not and cannot belong.   I’m acutely sensitive to this issue of self-definition because I belong to two such identifiable groups:  Specifically, I am Jewish and I am female.

My frustration in both areas is roughly equal.  I’ve asked myself many times which stereotypes are more infuriating, the ones men project onto women or the ones Christians project onto Jews.  It’s always a toss-up.   I guess it just depends on what I’ve been reading in any given week or who I’ve been arguing with.  Last week I found myself unexpectedly challenged on the subject of my Jewish identity.  Oddly enough, my interrogator wasn’t the usual Christian fundamentalist who wanted to debate the old and new covenants, but a self-proclaimed atheist living in the buckle of the Bible Belt who claimed she had never met a Jew.  During the brief flame war—a skirmish, really—and the intense email post-mortem that followed, I have been trying to understand why she was able to push my buttons so easily.

“What does being Jewish mean to you personally?”  A seemingly innocuous question, and yet personal to the point of being invasive—not so much because of the question itself but because no matter what your answer is, it’s almost always going to be judged by somebody.  It could be somebody who knows a lot about Judaism or somebody who knows next to nothing.  But somehow the questioner always feels perfectly entitled to measure you against some arbitrary yardstick.  And so especially if you are a nonobservant or only marginally observant Jew, you can find yourself locked in a battle for self-definition whether you asked for it or not. 
At least that has been my experience.  You could say that I’m sensitized and it’s true.  I could have avoided taking on the stereotypes if I had really wanted to, but instead I went out of my way to confront them.  I don’t know why exactly, but I guess I was on a one-woman crusade to raise consciousness.  In the 1990s especially, after my husband’s death and after I got my first computer with a modem, I spent endless hours on the Prodigy Debates/Religious Issues board debating religion with Christian fundamentalists and others.  These debates could get quite heated, and occasionally I’d be confronted with full-blown anti-Semitism of the most toxic variety.  It’s well known at this point—or it should be-- that the Jews have been the primary focus for Christian shadow projections for close to 2000 years, and that these projections can be and have been secularized without losing any of their toxic and dangerous quality.  As a member of the first post-Holocaust generation, I have always been acutely aware of these negative projections and was to some extent prepared for them.

What I was absolutely not prepared for were all the other kinds of projections about Jews I would encounter on the interfaith boards.  Not all of them were negative, although many were.  Some were quite positive on the surface.  Often they were completely bizarre and very personal, although the personal ones usually turned out to be the fever dreams of some deranged cult leader.  But to me they all seemed equally bizarre.  The main difference between the obviously cultish projections and the more mainstream ones by Christian standards was the number of adherents.  All of them centered around one major piece of cognitive dissonance:  God made an everlasting Covenant with Israel and the Jews are God’s chosen people...BUT at the same time Jesus is the fulfillment not only of biblical prophecy but of the Torah itself, which became obsolete at the Crucifixion.  So there is no longer any need for the Jews to observe the commandments.  No more reason for our continued existence, come to think of it, since we had already served our purpose in God’s plan of redemption.  From the standpoint of orthodox (post-Nicene) Christianity, we were the theological equivalent of the goose that laid the golden egg.  (I just now thought of that.)

This glaring contradiction--together with the fact that the Jews were emphatically unconvinced by any of it and refused to cooperate in their own extinction whether physical or religious—gave rise to a whole new set of bizarre theological fantasies, mostly centered around Christian eschatology, i.e. the End Times or Second Coming.  The fact that the year 2000 was rapidly approaching gave these fantasies an additional boost of hysterical urgency that manifested on all the religion boards.  I called it “Millennial Fever” and the late 1990s were the height of the epidemic.  We could very well be dealing with a newer and even more dangerous outbreak this year, but that’s a subject for another post.
It was on the Prodigy Debates/Religious Issues forum, that I first encountered Christian Zionism, and I haven’t fully recovered from the shock yet.  The nakedly imperialist, power-seeking aspect of it was very much a reality but it was still somewhat camouflaged, not quite as overtly political as it is now.  On the interfaith board the regulars thought of the millennialists primarily as religious nuts.  I don’t think the term “Christian Zionist” even existed at the time.  But whatever they were or weren’t called, I still found them unbelievably offensive the first time I encountered them.  Their belief system, or at least that part of it that concerns the Jews specifically, centers around a crudely literal understanding of certain prophecies in the book of Daniel.  It is a recent interpretation, predicated on certain crucial historical events of the 20th century, especially the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, reinforced by the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.  Without the existence of an actual Jewish state, it would be impossible for even the most delusional Christian millennialists to imagine this particular end-times scenario.  And they not only imagine it but act on it, with the cooperation of certain extreme right-wing elements in Israel.

Roughly summarized, the preconditions for the Second Coming involve the building of a new Temple in Jerusalem on the site of Herod’s Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.  Then the re-instatement of the sacrificial cult.  Never mind about what’s supposed to happen to the Dome of the Rock that already exists on the site.  God and Gush Emunim will take care of that.

This unholy alliance between the most extreme and fanatical of the Christian fundamentalists and their equally insane Israeli counterparts terrified me then as it does now.  But my overwhelming emotion when I finally understood what the Christian Zionist end-times scenario was all about was rage—overwhelming rage such as I have rarely felt before or since in my life.  That’s saying a lot because I have a famously short fuse, and when it finally sank in I went totally ballistic.

The reason they so desperately wanted us to rebuild the Temple for them was so that the Antichrist could defile it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Raise High the Roof Beam

On Friday, January 13th, I decided at the last minute to light the Sabbath candles for the first time in about a year.  I also bought a loaf of challah at the bakery, and this time I asked David to leave it unsliced.  “Last one,” he said as he slipped it into a plastic bag.  It was long after sunset by the time I got it home, along with the box of utility candles from the outlet store.  But I knew from experience that it would work, and it did.  The atmosphere in the room changed and I felt peace for a few minutes.  I have always been surprised at the power of this small ritual, and the immediate sense of Presence it always brings.

Then on Saturday morning I received a notice from Congregation Emanu El in my email and made another last-minute decision.  The construction of the new temple in Redlands is proceeding very rapidly, and on Sunday we were all invited to sign the massive ceiling beam destined to support the roof of the sanctuary and the social hall.  It reminded me of the construction of another Reform temple, where it really all began for me 50 years ago.  The confirmation class of 1961 was the last one to be confirmed in a rented hall.  After that the congregation moved into the new building in time for the High Holiday services and the beginning of religious school in September.

What does being Jewish mean to you personally?

Even if I can't answer the question verbally I can answer it graphically.  It suddenly became very important to place a design symbolic of my karma and my Jewish identity on that roof beam.  I wasn’t sure I could pull it off at the last minute because of the usual transportation problems, but on Saturday afternoon my son agreed to drive me there.  I made a point of wearing the filigree Star of David my sister sent me from Israel years ago.  It was important to get the design for my symbolic graffiti just right, so I worked it out on paper first on Saturday night and Sunday morning.  When we arrived at the construction site, I discovered there was plenty of room on the beam to write whatever I wanted, so I added a last-minute inscription:  To the Jewish community of San Bernardino & Redlands from Linda Siegel Sang—her own private gate.