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


Yours Truly, Penny Collins said...

Be careful to not project onto Christians what you say they project onto you. I am in no doubt that you have encountered innumerable XTian bigots - as have I. However, the internet is full of assholes and bullies and bigots.

There are so many factions of us (XTians) that it is ridiculous. I read the book I am actually supposed to be following (the Bible) and it doesn't seem to be the same book that the Greasy Wheel Christians supposedly read.

The Temple is to be restored because it is God's house on Earth. Now -- in the belief in Christ and the 2nd coming and all those covenants:

Christ did NOT come to make a new religion. He came to fulfill the prophecy and uphold the law.

Jews did not kill him - RELIGION did.

And - the Nation of Israel/Jewish are The Chosen. God never backs out on a promise.

What does all this mean for me as a XTian? Heck if I know. I am having a hard enough time BEING a Christian and trying to NOT apologize for my supposed brothers and sisters in spirit.

I guess what I am saying is this: Try to not be offended - assholes are assholes - regardless of what they are hiding behind (be it faith, culture, sex, etc).

Raksha said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Penny. I've actually got NO problem with Christians, provided they don't try to tell me who I am. My problem is with what you call Greasy Wheel Christians (good one - but shouldn't it be Squeaky Wheel Christians?), or what I call fundies. And guess what? They exist in all of the Abrahamic religions.

To my great shame and embarrassment we've got Jewish fundies too. Lately they've been getting more and more fanatical and out of control, especially in Jerusalem. That's a subject for another post, although I did touch on it in this one in the reference to Gush Emunim--check out the link in the first installment.

Re "Jews did not kill him - RELIGION did."

Yeah, no kidding! It's been the same damn thing forever: the unholy alliance of religion and politics. That's what all fundamentalism boils down to in the end. It's always about temporal power and CONTROL. You would think that anyone with even a superficial knowledge of the period (or just some small degree of common sense) would realize that nobody got to be either King of Israel or High Priest who wasn't a Roman puppet. To think otherwise just isn't political reality. If I told 'em that once on Prodigy I told 'em a hundred times. (sigh)

I better cut this short because I feel another rant coming on, and I don't have time for that now.