(Mutation) Political Judaism & Anti-Arab Racism (Lod)

I am watching this from the outside and at a distance, but the more events unfold in the violence between Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians it appears more and more prominent that the violence is not simply between “Jews and Arabs.” On the Israeli side reports are coming in that chief institagors are the kahanist racists associated with Itamar Ben Gvir and settlers coming in from the West Bank to cause mayhem in Israel. On the one hand, the violence is multi-faceted and dynamic. On the other hand, the violence is organized by non-state religious racists whose political projects and leaders are backed up by the state and society.

Analytically, it is important to focus attention. There is [1] the complex swell that is modern Jewish history and the history of Zionism and the State of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. [2] The emergence of the settlement project in the occupied West Bank, the history of religious Zionism as a particular ideological and religious formation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [3] The radicalization of religious Zionism and of racism in Israel since the Jewish Underground in the 1980s, the murder of Muslim worshippers in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s, the “Judaization” of Israeli politics in the 2000s and the emergence of fascist and racist political elements in Israeli governing circles.

How much of the currently ongoing radical anti-Arab violence and racism in Israel roots itself in this emergent form of political Judaism that runs rough shod over the state function that gave it its political lease on life? Without absolving the government of Netanyahu of the ultimate responsibility as state sovereign, and as the singular politician who has done so much himself to cultivate anti-Arab incitement, tear down and demonize the left and center-left, and prop up the religious right in Israel while tearing down civil governance in order to maintain his grip in power and stay out of jail, it would still seem a lot.

This article here and the following quote from the leftwing +972 suggests as much. Religious settlers are coming in from the West Bank to create havoc in places like Lod and other towns in Israel; and the police and Border Police do little to stop them. This is the same violent, state-coddled, state-sponsored anti-Palestinian havoc they create in the West Bank:  

The Palestinian residents who I interviewed on Wednesday repeated what I was told by youth participating in the riots. Their problem isn’t with Jewish people, but with the settlers who have been coming in and taking over the city over the past several years with the mayor’s blessing, they said. “We have been living here for decades with religious and Jewish people, there are good neighborly relations, but they [the settlers] are coming for war,” said one of the Palestinian residents.

As does the report about a top Israeli police official blaming Ben-Gvir for the key role in whipping up making the anti-Arab violence worse. Netanyahu it should be remembered did everything to get the racist Religious Zionism party elected into the Knesset and did so by pulling in Ben-Gvir and the Kahanists.

This thread here at Twitter by Breaking the Silence supports as well that contention about Ben-Gvir.

Turning citizen against citizen is at the heart of the issue in Israel. The non-citizenship and statelessness of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are also there at the heart of this inferno, the non-recognition of Palestinians and Palestine in Israeli society. The point that I want to make concerns the super-hot impact of political religion and political Judaism on state function and civil society. Religion is a potential and actual force of political chaos that needs to be contained. As much as Zionism distorts Judaism, it’s as true that Judaism is also a problem, that Political Judaism distorts Zionism, and that this is a Gordian knot that needs to be cut. Religion makes everything worse.

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(Mutation) Political Judaism (Jerusalem Day)

After 9/11, there was a lot of back and forth about Islam and Islam and Politics. Over the years, the term Political Islam emerged to define a distinct and reactionary mutation in modern and contemporary Muslim cultures. No such critical inquiry has been extended to Judaism. It is as if Judaism is sacrosanct.

In Israel rightwing religious nationalism is so socially entrenched that no one really talks about the religious dimension that has driven the occupation/annexation of the West Bank after 1967 and then after 1977, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, and then the utter radicalization of rightwing ethno-nationalist politics and the intensification of anti-Arab racism in Israel after 2000. On the anti-Zionist left, Judaism is left untouched in order to avoid the hotwires of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism while pinning all the critical onus on Zionism tout court (i.e. the problem is Zionism, not Judaism). For Jewish leftists to call these acts “pagan” or “idolatrous” misses the critical point.

A genuine Jewish critique begins with the recognition that these acts are “Jewish.”

The problem is not Judaism itself, but a mutation in Judaism, at once organic and artificial, both in Israel and in the United States, especially in modern-orthodox and ultra-orthodox circles. Jewish Studies text scholars can you show you the rot in the texts, traditions, traditional readings of traditions, and post-traditional readings of traditions.

From the Jewish Underground in the early 1980s to the murder of Rabin in 1994, to the “Jewish nationalists” attacking Palestinian families and villagers in the occupied West Bank, the “non-state actors” are wearing the same knitted kippot of West Bank Religious Settler Zionism. On the basis of a religious mission and religious values, they are bringing the State of Israel, the Jewish people, and Palestine and the Palestinian people to the brink of an abyss. The Covid crisis, the catastrophe at Mt Meron, and the events surrounding the expulsion of families from Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem by religious nationalists around Ramadan and Jerusalem Day 2021 make it abundantly clear that, unregulated by state actors whose primary concern should be the general welfare, religion and politics make for a bad mix.

There’s every reason to call this religious mutation Political Judaism, with all the negative connotations typically applied in the liberal west to the term Political Islam. It stands to reason that the two forms of political religion are symbiotic. Political Judaism is likewise non-compromising and exclusivist. It is an aggressive political formation that stands religion in a hostile relation to human values and to the liberal state, an aggressive religious formation that seeks to take over the state and state functions.

What would oppose Political Judaism?

Arguments about political theology, Zionism as secularized messianism, “religion” is a modern construct, and so on are maybe more or less interesting, more or less radical, more or less reactionary. Intellectual exercises such as these evade, as if intentionally, the problem of religion, not unusually by leftwing and rightwing critics of liberalism and secularism. It is not even secular Zionism that interests me today in Israel today as much as it is some “normal” form of Israeli secularism as a political force to block Contemporary Haredi Judaism, and Political Judaism and to contain the fascination exercised by “formations of the religious” unregulated by the public sphere which it seeks to take over and remake, to repopulate, in its own image.

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(Boundary Stones) Moses Mendelssohn (State and Religion)

I have been thinking a lot late about religious (Haredi) response to the Coronavirus and the problem of religious-state violence in Israel. Against all that, maybe it’s time for a little neo-Haskalah. Whereas postliberal theorists, political theologians, and theo-politicians, especially the reactionaries, would efface the line, I will note instead the supple plasticity, the architecture and territorial thinking, that typifies Mendelssohn thinking about relation between state and religion as distinct zones that overlap into each other. His thinking refers us to pillars and foundations, one the one hand, and provinces and boundary-stones, on the other hand. The pillars of society are two-fold. But the territorial lines are not fixed; they are fluid; subject to drawing and re-drawing. The territories move one into the other, and they can also be pushed back from each other. While we may not share the neoclassical taste for an aesthetic of balance and harmony, these introductory remarks have not lost their perennial force. Mendelssohn was preoccupied by the problem of human evil and violence in religion and state. Here is the opening paragraph of Jerusalem, which I have broken into segments:

“STATE and religion –civil and ecclesiastical constitution-secular and churchly authority– how to oppose these pillars of social life to one another so that they are in balance and do not, instead, become burdens on social life, or weigh down its foundations more than they help to uphold it –this is one of the most difficult tasks of politics.

For centuries, men have strived to solve it, and here and there enjoyed perhaps greater success in settling it practically than in resolving it in theory. Some thought it proper to separate these different relations of societal man into moral entities, and to assign to each a separate province, specific rights, duties, powers, and properties.

But the extent of these different provinces and the boundaries dividing them have not yet been accurately fixed. Sometimes one sees the church move the boundary stone deep into the territory of the state; sometimes the state permits itself encroachments which, according to accepted standards, seem equally violent.

Immeasurable evils have hitherto arisen, and still threaten to arise, from the dissension between these moral entities. When they take the field against each other, mankind is the victim of their discord; when they are in agreement, the noblest treasure of human felicity is lost; for they seldom agree but for the purpose of banishing from their realms a third moral entity, liberty of conscience, which knows how to derive some advantage from their disunity.”

(p.33 of the translation by Alan Arkush)

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The State of Israel Does Not Exist (Judaism)

If a state is defined as a sovereign territorial body, then, by the reckoning here by Zvi Bar’el in Haaretz, the State of Israel does not exist. Instead of being a state in which the rule of law applies throughout the territory, there is a cluster of autonomies.

“The State of Israel is gradually coming to resemble Lebanon, Syria or Iraq, where organizations, religions, ethnic minorities and gangs have become the real rulers of the country. The physical and legal territory controlled by the government covers only selected portions of it.”

What Bar’el notes but about which one could make more is that organized religion is the dominant part of the problem. In the West Bank and in the Haredi enclaves of Israel proper, religious communities constitute autonomous and lawless zones of semi-sovereign power. The public good defined by vital interests (health, law, safety, education) suffers in the process.

Religion has a set of values peculiar to it, its own kedusha.

Religion is one singular sphere that overlaps into other social spheres. Religion can serve but does not secure and can do great damage to the public sphere. These are basic notions in the Enlightenment theory of Spinoza and Mendelssohn.

Unique to the 21st century is the emerging recognition that there are discrete types of the religion of Judaism that are now part of the social problem, that they are deeply detached from and entrenched in the larger social fabric, that there are basic and constitutional conflicts between autonomous zones of rightwing/conservative Judaism and the idea and constitution of a democratic and Jewish State.

Judaism included, religion is a spiritual force of order that has the potential to create actual chaos in this world.

The chaos is social, political, moral.

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(Haredi) Simulation (Shtisel)

Late to Shtissel, and just now completed watching seasons 1-3 in the span of one extended binge, I should have known better. But I was surprised to find, after poking around online late in the middle of season 2, that the cast is composed of secular Israelis. This should have been obvious from the start; except that it’s one thing to know something beforehand an in theory. It’s another to realize the same thing once already into the fact, as it were. Not “authentic,” the show is a simulation of Haredi life. A takeaway: it is possible to fake it, to fabricate anything, any way of life if you have the key. At the heart of the simulation in theater is what Brecht called the gestus or gest. Shtisel is the more or less convincing capture of a Haredi gestus; in scene on top of scene, one type in relation to another body and social type. The gestus or gest creates the illusion. The way people stand, sit, smoke, talk, walk, wear a dress or a shirt, and otherwise hold themselves. These are/not Haredi Jews at Temple Rodef Shalom at a public event in New York City. In the non-technical sense, a gestus or gest recalls precise physical gestures and movement thru space, the way an actor inhabits a body habitus. As meant by Brecht, the gestus or gest refers to these movements, this body character in relation to society.

Not to compare one and the other. Shtisel is entertainment. Bu here from Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theater,” are two passages directly relevant to the gestus or gest in general and which remind me of Shtisel:

section 61: The realm of attitudes adopted by the characters towards one another is what we call the realm of gest. Physical attitude, tone of voice and facial expression are all determined by a social gest: the characters are cursing, flattering, instructing one another, and so on. The attitudes which people adopt towards one another include even those attitudes which would appear to be quite private, such as the utterances of physical pain in an illness, or of religious faith. These expressions of a gest are usually highly complicated and contradictory, so that they cannot be rendered by any single word and the actor must take care that in giving his image the necessary emphasis he does not lose anything, but emphasizes the entire complex.  

section 63: Let us get down to the problem of gestic content by running through the opening scenes of a fairly modern play, my own Life of Galileo. Since we wish at the same time to find out what light the different utterances cast on one another we will assume that it is not our first introduction to the play. It begins with the man of forty-six having his morning wash, broken by occasional browsing in books and by a lesson on the solar system for Andrea Sarti, a small boy. To play this, surely you have got to know that we shall be ending with the man of seventy-eight having his supper, just after he has said good-bye for ever to the same pupil?

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(Franz Marc) Fox (Holocaust)

Thinking about Laura Levitt’s The Objects That Remain after seeing this news article here about the return of this lost property.

It’s an amazing painting by German expressionist artist Franz Marc. The legal details are a little complicated and of interest in their own right. I’m posting here because I just really like the gentle painting, which I’ve never seen before, and the artist, the great painter of animal life.

The item need not be spectacular, Markus Stoetzel, a Germany-based attorney for the heirs, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It is not always a Franz Marc painting,” he said in a telephone interview. “It can be a book or a piece of furniture that has a connection to the past, to what they lost.”

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(Cloud Recording) Haredi Response to Covid (Benny Brown)

I am posting below the link and passcode for anyone who wants a cloud recording of the annual B.G. Rudolph Lecture sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program at Syracuse.

The lecture by Benny Brown as on “Tradition and Change: Haredi Response to Covid.” Among other things, the lecture and discussion explored questions relating to civil society, alternative communities, cultural-religious autonomy, halakha, and governmentality. Many thanks to Benny and to everyone who came.


Passcode: G%VQta+0

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Haredi Response to Har Meron (Chaim Kanievsky)

I’m posting this statement that was issued in the name of Harav Chaim Kanievsky responding to the Lag Ba’Omer disaster at Mt. Meron in Israel. Some forty-five people were killed at a stampede at a religious pilgrimage site, a mass event about which you can read here. By way of a in-real-time religious response to the problem of suffering. It’s bare-boned and simple: [1] there is no way to understand the calculations of God, [2] the victims who died in a “strange and terrible way” were unblemished, and [3] here is the human obligation; the entire community is connected. It is maybe an anti-theodicy. The statement does not not justify God, but nor does it justify God. While one can appreciate the theological modesty, there is a strange and terrible human flip side, as Marilyn Braiterman notes in the caustic comment below. The statement makes no communal cheshbon nefesh, no public accounting for a disaster that was not unpredictable and for which community leaders are responsible. What Marilyn Braiterman does not note is that, in a theological system, God has to have a part to play in the human debacle, and it is what makes this particular statement interesting.

BS”D  Erev Shabbos Kodesh Emor, Lag Baomer 5781

The hand of Hashem has stricken us: amidst the simchah shel mitzvah, dozens were killed in a strange and terrible way at the tziyun of the G-dly Tanna,Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. Among the victims are fathers of children, sweet bachurim and children, tinokos shel beis rabban. 

We do not understand Heavenly calculations and every individual is obligated to do teshuvah. Teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity) avert unfavorable decrees.

As an atonement for our souls, we have requested that Kupat Ha’ir establish a fund to support the families of the dead and wounded, and the money will be distributed in accordance with the need, based on the decisions of the undersigned rabbanim, shlit”a.

Every individual should contribute NIS 430, the numerical equivalent of nefesh, as an atonement, and may the merit of tzedakah for the families serve as atonement for Am Yisrael and the blood that was shed.

No one can absolve himself, because all residents of Ererz Yisrael are close to the victims, who were pure and unblemished. 

May Hashem help us do teshuvah sheleimah before Him, amein kein yehi ratzon.

Since some of the victims were fathers of families, whoever contributes NIS 3000 (NIS 100 X30 payments) is considered a “saver of lives,” and this is a great merit, when middas hadin is prevalent, to be spared.

Chaim Kanievsky

A few days later came this statement, also in Kanievsky’s name, which I am posting below and which you can read here.

The statement contains a communal cheshbon nefesh. It confirms that the disaster was a decree from God and that people need to be “mechazeik b’Torah and in hasmadas haTorah,” and “women should be mechazeik b’tznius,” and that “people aren’t mapkid enough in the halachos of netilas yadayim for a seudah in all its details. And we have to be mechazeik to have kavana when we say brachos in order to feel kirvas Elokim.”

These statements are barely articulate. I would not want to read them except being steeped in sadness. But there’s no “realism” in this theological frame, no understanding about how and why things go wrong in this world. What a critical reader might think is cynicism might be more like innocence. Unlike Kanievsky’s statement, reading the Haredi press online reads like sharp pain and shock and confusion coupled with a commitment to a way of life in the stories about ordinary people and the loss of life, but little to nothing by way of critical questioning or comprehension.

For more against women, see here in relation to a mass death event.

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Creation/Contemplation of the Virtual World (Genesis Rabbah)

Reading in seminar with Syracuse undergrad students Naama Erez, Sam Gelfand, Giulia Kean from Genesis Rabbah 1:4. According to the rabbis here, the Torah and Throne of Glory were created before the creation of the physical world, and the contemplation of the patriarchs, and Temple, and Israel, and mitzvot of hallah, tithes, and first fruits precede their actual creation in real time and place.

Last week we were talking about Jacob Neusner and the virtual (i.e. non-actual) world of Mishnah. And now this, the creation and contemplation of virtual object in some animate artificial intelligence, “wisdom” in the mind of God. ” The circular coherence of the midrashic virtual is captured in this line. “[I]f there was no expectation of Israel receiving it after 26 generations, God would not have written in the Torah: “Command the children of Israel” or “Speak to the children of Israel.”

About the passage from Genesis Rabbah, Sam suggested the online game Tetris. “In Tetris, players complete lines by moving differently shaped pieces (tetrominoes), which descend onto the playing field. The completed lines disappear and grant the player points, and the player can proceed to fill the vacated spaces. The game ends when the playing field is filled” (Wikipedia).

Giulia suggested the holographic world-projections in Iron Man 2. But I’m still entirely unsure of what I’m looking at here. Giulia explains that this is Tony Stark’s workshop at his mansion in Los Angeles. (He’s super rich). The artificial intelligence that runs the thing is Jarvis. It moves things around in real and virtual space. Here Stark comes to the realization that the blueprint of the 1964 World’s Fair is actually the structure of a new element. The globe in the middle of the old fairground is actually a nucleus of the new element. These sequence shots mimic the virtual logic of the ancient source.  

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים

, שִׁשָּׁה דְבָרִים קָדְמוּ לִבְרִיאַת הָעוֹלָם, יֵשׁ מֵהֶן שֶׁנִּבְרְאוּ, וְיֵשׁ מֵהֶן שֶׁעָלוּ בַּמַּחֲשָׁבָה לְהִבָּרְאוֹת. הַתּוֹרָה וְהַכִּסֵּא הַכָּבוֹד, נִבְרְאוּ. תּוֹרָה מִנַּיִן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי ח, כב): ה’ קָנָנִי רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ. כִּסֵּא הַכָּבוֹד מִנַּיִן, דִּכְתִיב (תהלים צג, ב): נָכוֹן כִּסְאֲךָ מֵאָז וגו’. הָאָבוֹת וְיִשְׂרָאֵל וּבֵית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ וּשְׁמוֹ שֶׁל מָשִׁיחַ, עָלוּ בַּמַּחֲשָׁבָה לְהִבָּרְאוֹת, הָאָבוֹת מִנַּיִן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (הושע ט, י): כַּעֲנָבִים בַּמִּדְבָּר וגו’. יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנַּיִן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים עד, ב): זְכֹר עֲדָתְךָ קָנִיתָ קֶדֶם. בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ מִנַּיִן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ירמיה יז, יב): כִּסֵּא כָבוֹד מָרוֹם מֵרִאשׁוֹן וגו’. שְׁמוֹ שֶׁל מָשִׁיחַ מִנַּיִן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים עב, יז): יְהִי שְׁמוֹ לְעוֹלָם וגו’. רַבִּי אַהֲבָה בְּרַבִּי זְעִירָא אָמַר אַף הַתְּשׁוּבָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים צ, ב): בְּטֶרֶם הָרִים יֻלָּדוּ, וְאוֹתָהּ הַשָּׁעָה תָּשֵׁב אֱנוֹשׁ עַד דַּכָּא וגו’, אֲבָל אֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ אֵיזֶה מֵהֶם קֹדֶם, אִם הַתּוֹרָה קָדְמָה לְכִסֵּא הַכָּבוֹד וְאִם כִּסֵּא הַכָּבוֹד קֹדֶם לַתּוֹרָה, אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּא בַּר כַּהֲנָא הַתּוֹרָה קָדְמָה לְכִסֵּא הַכָּבוֹד, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי ח, כב): ה’ קָנָנִי רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ וגו’, קוֹדֵם לְאוֹתוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב בּוֹ (תהלים צג, ב): נָכוֹן כִּסְאֲךָ מֵאָז. רַבִּי הוּנָא וְרַבִּי יִרְמְיָה בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר רַבִּי יִצְחָק אָמְרוּ, מַחְשַׁבְתָּן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל קָדְמָה לְכָל דָּבָר, מָשָׁל לְמֶלֶךְ שֶׁהָיָה נָשׂוּי לְמַטְרוֹנָה אַחַת, וְלֹא הָיָה לוֹ מִמֶּנָּה בֵּן, פַּעַם אַחַת נִמְצָא הַמֶּלֶךְ עוֹבֵר בַּשּׁוּק, אָמַר טְלוּ מִילָנִין וְקַלְמִין זוֹ לִבְנִי, וְהָיוּ הַכֹּל אוֹמְרִין, בֵּן אֵין לוֹ וְהוּא אוֹמֵר טְלוּ מִילָנִין וְקַלְמִין זוֹ לִבְנִי, חָזְרוּ וְאָמְרוּ הַמֶּלֶךְ אַסְטְרוֹלוֹגוּס גָּדוֹל הוּא, אִלּוּלֵי שֶׁצָּפָה הַמֶּלֶךְ שֶׁהוּא עָתִיד לְהַעֲמִיד מִמֶּנָּה בֵּן לֹא הָיָה אוֹמֵר טְלוּ מִילָנִין וְקַלְמִין לִבְנִי. כָּךְ אִלּוּלֵי שֶׁצָּפָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶׁאַחַר עֶשְׂרִים וְשִׁשָּׁה דּוֹרוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲתִידִין לְקַבֵּל אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, לֹא הָיָה כּוֹתֵב בַּתּוֹרָה צַו אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. אָמַר רַבִּי בַּנָאי, הָעוֹלָם וּמְלוֹאוֹ לֹא נִבְרָא אֶלָּא בִּזְכוּת הַתּוֹרָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי ג, יט): ה’ בְּחָכְמָה יָסַד אֶרֶץ וגו’. רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה אָמַר בִּזְכוּת משֶׁה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים לג, כא): וַיַּרְא רֵאשִׁית לוֹ. רַב הוּנָא בְּשֵׁם רַב מַתְנָה אָמַר, בִּזְכוּת שְׁלשָׁה דְּבָרִים נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם, בִּזְכוּת חַלָּה, וּבִזְכוּת מַעַשְׂרוֹת, וּבִזְכוּת בִּכּוּרִים, וּמַה טַּעַם, בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, וְאֵין רֵאשִׁית אֶלָא חַלָּה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (במדבר טו, כ): רֵאשִׁית עֲרִסֹתֵיכֶם, אֵין רֵאשִׁית אֶלָּא מַעַשְׂרוֹת, הֵיךְ דְּאַתְּ אָמַר (דברים יח, ד): רֵאשִׁית דְּגָנְךָ, וְאֵין רֵאשִׁית אֶלָּא בִּכּוּרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות כג, יט): רֵאשִׁית בִּכּוּרֵי אַדְמָתְךָ וגו’.

“In the beginning of God’s creating…” –

Six things preceded the creation of the world; some of them were created and some of them were decided to be created. The Torah and the Throne of Glory were created. How do we know the Torah was? As it says (Proverbs 8:22): “God made me at the beginning of his way.” How do we know the Throne of Glory was? As it says (Psalms 93:2): “Your throne is established as of old etc.” The Patriarchs, Israel, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah were decided to be created. How do we know the Patriarchs were? As it says (Hosea 9:10): “Like grapes in the wilderness etc.” How do we know Israel was? As it says (Psalms 74:2): “Remember your congregation, whom you purchased from old.” How do we know the Temple was? As it says (Jeremiah 17:12): “Your throne of glory, on high from the beginning etc.” How do we know the name of the Messiah was? As it says (Psalms 72:17): “May his name exist forever etc. [his name shall be Yinnon as long as the sun].” Rabbi Ahavah said in the name of Rabbi Ze’ira: Even repentance was, as it says (Psalms 90:2): “Before the mountains were birthed,” and at the same time (Psalms 90:3), “You turned man to contrition etc.” However, I do not know which was first–if the Torah preceded the Throne of Glory or the Throne of Glory preceded the Torah. Rabbi Abba Bar Cahana said: The Torah preceded the Throne of Glory, as it says (Proverbs 8:22): “God made me at the beginning of his way, the first of his works of old.” This is before that of which it is written (Psalms 93:2): “Your throne is established as of old.” Rabbi Hunna and Rabbi Yirmiyah in the name of Rabbi Shmuel the son of Rabbi Yitzchak said: The thought of Israel was before everything. This is like a king who was married to a woman and did not have a son. One time the king was in the market and said: “Take this ink and pen for my son.” They said: “He does not have a son.” He replied: “Take them; the king must expect a son, because otherwise he would not command that the ink and pen be taken.” Similarly, if there was no expectation of Israel receiving it after 26 generations, God would not have written in the Torah: “Command the children of Israel” or “Speak to the children of Israel.” Rabbi Bannai said: The world and its contents were only created in the merit of the Torah, as it says (Proverbs 3:19): “God founded the world with wisdom etc.” Rabbi Berachiyah said: In the merit of Moses, as it says (Deuteronomy 33:21): “He saw a first part for himself.” Rabbi Hunna said in the name of Rabbi Matanah: The world was created in the merit of three things–challah, tithes, and first fruits. The verse “In the beginning God created” refers to challah, as it says (Numbers 15:20): “The beginning of your doughs.” It also refers to tithes, as it says (Deuteronomy 18:4): “The beginning of your grains.” It also refers to first fruits, as it says (Exodus 23:19): “The beginning of the fruits of the land.”

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Anti-Black & White in Jewish Texts (Abraham Melamed)

Abraham Melamed’s The Image of the Black in Judaism was first published in Hebrew in 2002 and then translated into English in 2003. While the title does little to recommend itself and the theoretical apparatus is dated, the data are excellent. This is a long-arc study of the image of Black people in Jewish thought and letters: Bible, rabbinics, Islamicate (medieval) Jewish thought, ending in the early modern period in Christian Europe. The material create a larger frame for contemporary discussions of Jews, Judaism and race in their American context while framing writing by Jonathan Schorsch and others about Jews and the African slave trade. Melamed traces the vein of anti-Blackness in Jewish tradition. And he makes the case that, yes, “Jews” are white. They always saw themselves in relation to and against Black Africans.

Even if the exact terms “race” and “racism” are contestable (being modern pseudo-scientific terms for ideas about immutable genetic differences), these Jewish traditions are inarguably “anti-Black.” In the Bible, Black people are from faraway. Melamed suggests that the Bible is neutral in this respect. It’s in the rabbinic, medieval, and modern materials where we begin to see what we can call anti-Blackness. Associated with the slave trade, the stereotypes are nightmarish and brutal. Blacks are ugly, bestial, sexual, violent, thoughtless, not really “human.” Jews are not too white, not too black (m.Negaim 2:1) and then, later, simply white.

Two things surprised me, suggesting the need to reorient thinking about race and Judaism and Jewishness. To date and still, these discussions are too narrowly focused upon the European and American experience; the context is too modern, and too freighted by the phenomena of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Assumed still is the outsider status of Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness in relation to Christian society. In Melamed’s study, there is relatively little of this. To be sure, he argues the notion that the Jewish other turns on the other-other in order to mirror Jewishness in relation to the majority dominant. But there is really no need for that psycho-social analysis to explain the “image of the Black in Jewish culture.” Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness are very much inside the dominant discourse in relation to anti-Blackness.

[1] The first thing to note is the systemic scale of anti-Blackness in Jewish sources. Anti-Blackness in the late antique, medieval and early modern worlds and in Judaism is aesthetic, social, pseudo-scientific, and textual. (The word “aesthetic” appears 54x in Melamed’s book). Anti-Blackness is not a structural feature of Jewishness like the Israel-Jew/Esau-Rome-goy differential without which it is hard to imagine Jewishness and Judaism. The anti-Black strain in Judaism is more like background noise. It is not at the foreground and not ubiquitous. It is not everywhere you look, and is relatively easy to ignore if you wanted. But anti-foreign and anti-Black ideas were in wide circulation in Hellenistic and Roman society and then in Islamic society. It’s there that the institutions of the slave trade and slavery mingled with ideas about the impact of climate –i.e. the superiority of temperate versus the inferiority of intemperate zones that are too cold and too hot– upon human potential and intellectual.

Students of medieval Jewish philosophy should note with interest the argument by Bernard Lewis in his 1993 book Race and Slavery in the Middle East: A Historical Inquiry about the influence of Aristotle and in al-Farabi relating to the notion that some people are by their very nature fit to be free and some to be slaves. About Avicenna, Lewis writes about the notion that, “in regions of great heat or great cold, peoples who were by their very nature slaves, and incapable of higher things—“for there must be masters and slaves.” Such were the Turks and their neighbors in the North and the blacks in Africa” (Lewis, pp.54-6). This influence explains the blood curdling statement by Maimonides in the Guide about the non-humanity of these same Turkic and sub-Saharan African people. In this same respect, it is worth noting that, in Halevy’ Kuzari, the claims about Blackness and human potential belongs to the philosopher.

Not simply a foreign social-cultural import, Melamed insists that anti-Blackness is also internal to the Jewish religious source material. In the Bible, Black people are from faraway and are even fascinating. The stigma against Black people begins to show in the rabbinic textual material, in part in relation to the institution of slavery. Anti-Blackness in Judaism has a stubborn place there in the rabbinic and medieval sources from which it wends its way into the early modern sources. It is easy to find if you know where to look, especially in the interpretation of key Biblical texts –the so-called curse of Ham, Sarah in Egypt, Moses’ Black wife, the Shulamite (“black, yet comely”) as picked up in rabbinic aggadah. There are more or less isolated passages in Ibn Ezra, Halevy, Maimonides, pronounced in Abravanel, travel literature (Benjamin of Tudela), biblical commentaries, Manasseh ben Israel, and early modern editing of rabbinic texts.  

Anti-Black source in Jewish culture do not represent isolated dots so much as a meandering line or thread.

[2] What really surprised me was the whiteness. I thought that the white-Jewish theme was a late modern thing in postwar America. But it’s more complicated and runs more deeply. Here I’ll simply quote Melamed:

“This assumption that the Jews were originally white and therefore handsome finds different forms of expression in the course of Jewish cultural history. The desirable woman in Song of Songs is ‘fair as the sun, clear as the moon’ (6: 10) while her beloved is described as ‘white [and ruddy]’ (5: 10).60 A story in BT Sanhedrin 92b relates that the young men of Israel going into exile were so handsome that the wives of the gentiles lost control of themselves, and the men had to be killed. In a Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 13: 10, we find: ‘“Thou art all fair, my love, and there is no spot in thee” (Song of Songs 4: 7) which speaks of Israel.’ Not by chance did Abarbanel understand that this beauty meant a white skin. In his commentary on Genesis 12: 11 on the descent of Abraham and Sarah into Egypt, following the Sages, he explains Abraham’s description of Sarah as ‘fair to look upon’ as ‘a woman fair to look upon … because her appearance was her whiteness (ha-loven shela)’. That is why Abraham feared lest the ugly, black Egyptians would kill him and take her. As it happens, this commentary has a much earlier predecessor that Abarbanel could not have known about. The apocrypha on Genesis found in the Dead Sea Scrolls describes the praise of Pharaoh’s ministers for Sarah’s beauty. Here too it is identified with white skin: ‘How beautiful her eyes are, how charming her nose and the whole radiance of her countenance. … How beautiful her bosom and how fine all her whiteness is.’ There are parallel Midrashim in the Aggadah (Bereshit Rabbah 40: 4).61 It turns out, then, that a long tradition associated Sarah’s beauty with light skin” (p.35, emphasis in bold is mine).

For more on lavnut (whiteness) in the early modern period with reference to a ms. edition of Pikrei de Rabbi Eliezer 24:

As early as the thirteenth century, a manuscript described Shem as white. In the Venetian edition (second printing, 1544) and in the second Venetian edition (1608) the original version appears in the body of the text. In the table of contents, however, we find ‘blessed Shem and Japheth with whiteness (lavnut) … and Ham with blackness (shaharut)’. Shem becomes white in all respects, and instead of the dangerous common denominator with black Ham, he gets to resemble the attractive white Japheth. In parallel fashion, Japheth’s whiteness becomes more positive in the early printed versions (Constantinople 1514, Venice 1544 and Sabbioneta 1567), when the adjective ‘handsome’ (yafeh) is added to ‘white’. Furthermore, the ambiguous description given of Ham as ‘black as the raven’ is replaced instead by the unequivocal ‘black and ugly’. Jews were trying to resemble the fair white Japheth, i.e. the European identified as the model to emulate, and thus more handsome and ‘cultured’, a process discerned elsewhere as well” (p.213).

The anti-Black and white-Jewish pieces are persistent. Today, they look like horrid Baroque objects, like old folio pages placed into a special portfolio made of paste-paper boards. With enough historical distance, one can take them more or less for granted; view them individually and as a group. Nothing commits contemporary Jews to these antiquarian sources. Most liberal Jews today don’t read Rashi or Abravanel, if they read the Bible at all. But there is a harsh conclusion that Melamed does not make, except by way of a quick reference to Abraham Isaac Kook. It’s not that the tradition is racist in anything like a straightforward way. But there is simply nothing in Jewish tradition to put a brake on racism and anti-Black racism in Jewish culture today. Apart from a pool of generalizable humanist teachings, there are no ideas or images that would speak directly to the full particular humanity of Black people, their particualr equality in the divine image. In conservative Orthodox communities, leaning more and more to the political right nowadays, the anti-Black and white-Jewish theme is not simply dead cultural tissue. Racism especially in the orthodox world is a social phenomenon, just like everywhere, but more worked into the form of intentionally lived tradition.

The image from the Venice Haggadah (1609), a baroque Jewish artifact, I’ve never seen before having just read about it in Melamed’s study.

In response to pushback at FB about this post and Melamed’s study, I replied that i picked up Melamed’s book after stumbling upon images of black servant/slaves at the Passover table. And of course there is the infamous passage in Maimonides’ Guide. Melamed’s is a historically and socially contextualized sketch of the figure of Black people as appears in antique, medieval, and early modern Jewish sources, no less and no more. I am not sure why anyone would have expected that this would be a humanizing image (i.e. would be anything other than what it is).

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