Modest Jewish Mythology
September 8, 2010 2 Comments
“Muslims believe they are always right. And don’t underestimate the power of their lobby in Washington.” And by the way, “Saudi Arabia is a scum state.”
Were these statements actually made, ten thousand condemnations from ten thousand well-intended oppressors of racism would issue.
The Jews and Israel are special cases. The standards of political correctness are relaxed. I’ve explored the double standard before, and now I yawn, watching European fame-seekers slander Jews or Israel, and then, with or without an empty apology, acquiring precisely the panache they cravenly seek with the network of Jew- and Israel-slandering haters. In Europe, it is courage to challenge this craven nonsense.
Let’s do something different. Instead of condemning obvious stupidity, let’s look at Karel De Gucht’s (the European Trade Commissioner) statement literally. “Jews believe they are always right.”
Really? (Never mind the embarrassing ease with which too many Europeans speak of “Jews,” as though Europeans truly understand Jews sufficiently to generalize. We’re putting that aside and doing something different.) Do Jews — do a critical mass of Jews, do lots of Jews — “believe they are always right” in disproportionate numbers compared to other ethnicities?
A people are a product of their founding mythologies. While it’s admittedly difficult to make that case with modern Greeks and their ancient counterparts, or modern Egyptians and their ancient counterparts, one could say in both cases that the ancient mythology has been superseded, that a newer mythology (Orthodox Christian in the Greek case and Muslim in the Egyptian case) dilutes the ancient, for which only the most tenuous connection still exists.
Not so for those Jews. They may be the most ancient extant people. Still they cling to their guns and religion, if lightly. And so Jewish founding mythology remains connected to modern Jews in a way that it doesn’t for modern Greeks and ancient Greeks or modern Egyptians and ancient Egyptians.
Returning to Karel De Gucht’s insistence that Jews believe they are always right, Jewish founding mythology is all about Jews not being right — and suffering the consequences. I’m not aware of any cultural mythology that focuses anywhere close to the attention on the sins, lapses, mistakes and abominations of the people than Jewish mythology. Let’s take this anthropological journey into Jewish rightness and wrongness — mindful that European mythologies, the thing that makes Europeans proud to be Europeans, has very much less to do with the people’s sins, lapses, mistakes, and abominations.
Miraculously, the Hebrews exit Egypt. The ten plagues, the parting of the sea — this is God in earnest — but when Moses took a bit too long on the mountain, the Hebrews decide to worship something else. (Exodus 32:1.) A golden calf — the ultimate confirmation that miracles do not matter. An enormous mistake. God is upset, and who can blame Him?
Then the Hebrews get close to the Promised Land. Moses sends twelve spies to observe the land of Canaan. Ten of them cried panic, despair, and war-is-not-the-answer, and only two (Joshua and Caleb) said go for it. Another mistake — another failure of faith by the Hebrew people that is part of their story of themselves. God, in disgust at their lack of faith, kept that generation out of the Holy Land. (Numbers ch. 13-14.)
And then a while thereafter, the Hebrew people start picking off Canaanite cities. This is the period of the Judges (military leaders, not adjudicators). The most common phrase of consequence in the Book of Judges is how the people “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Abjectly failing their God — being profoundly wrong — is a uniquely prominent part of the story of the Jewish people.
Through Barak, Gideon, and Abimelech, the Hebrew people make military and cultural progress, but not without extraordinary moral cost. Abimelech (Judges 8-9), before crowning himself king, murders 69 of his 70 brothers whom he sees as rivals. This is part of the Jewish story.
Samson is a hero and an exemplar of faith — but only with his death, a fate ordained by his marriages to Philistine women. His first wife betrayed him and was murdered, along with her family, by Philistines. His second wife, Delilah, also betrays him and occasions his blindness and death, though he takes many Philistines with him (Judges 16). Delusional, and finally literally blind, Samson, is part of the Jewish story, a lesson learned.
When the Hebrew people secure their homeland, they demand a king, though Samuel warns them that their demand is mistaken, and a rejection of God (I Sam 12). Samuel anoints Saul as king and the royal disasters begin.
Even with the magnificent David as their king, he desires Bathsheba, though he and she are married. He arranges for her husband, Uriah, to be killed on the front line of the battlefield so that he can have her. It is a sin with grievous consequences and it is part of the Jewish story, this sacred story of relentless misstep and travesty.
The twelve tribes eventually split into the two northern tribes of Israel and the ten southern tribes of Judah. The travesties persist. The prophet Ezekiel relays God’s take: “The iniquity of the house of Israel and Judah is very, very great, and the land is filled with blood and the city is full of perversion; for they say, ‘YAHWEH has forsaken the land, and YAHWEH does not see!'” (Ezekiel 9).
First Israel, then Judah are conquered by foreign powers. Faced with children racing to the bottom, God triangulates, with what must have been a heavy dollop of exasperation. The two northern tribes are faithless and the ten southern tribes are treacherous. “Treacherous” tries divine patience a bit more than “faithless,” so God says through Jeremiah: “And YAHWEH said to me, “Faithless Israel has proved herself more righteous than treacherous Judah. Go and proclaim these words toward the north and say, ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares YAHWEH; ‘I will not look upon you in anger. For I am gracious,’ declares YAHWEH; ‘I will not be angry forever'” (Jeremiah 3:11).
It took 40 years of relentless faithlessness for Israel to get swallowed by foreign invaders. The prophets warned Judah for two centuries. The Babylonians won.
Jews messed up. And more than any other people, Jews make the fact that they messed up part of their story. They own making enormous mistakes. There is a modesty about Jewish mythology that Europeans might distantly respect.
So for Karel De Gucht to say, “Jews believe they are always right,” not only betrays him for indefensible stereotyping, but condemns him for profoundly misunderstanding an entire people.