Thursday, May 19, 2016

Notes on the Jew in Historiography


Spiritual Jews in America like to sneer at Maimonides for replacing the living God of the Bible with a colorless Aristotelian ghost.

You’d just as well sneer at Socrates for denying that Venus jumped into bed with Mars. Yes, Maimonides was unbiblical and humorless, but why let that raise your blood pressure? If you least pretend to be a scholar, can’t you look at both Maimonides and the Bible as alien, context-bound historical objects?

You might be a Jew with respect to the past, not a scholar; but if that’s the case then say so. It’s not a sin.


“The most important event in New-Testament scholarship last century wasn’t the Dead Sea Scrolls or Nag Hammadi. It was the Holocaust.”

A professor of mine made this observation to our seminar last year. It is true. The Holocaust poured fog over our knowledge of the New Testament. First the aghast Christians realized that their anti-Semitism had gone too far, and tried to prove that Paul and John was never actually anti-Jewish. Relieved Jewish scholars were only too happy to help out this scholarly cause. Then the Jews got clever and postcolonial, and showed that yes, John was an enemy of the Jews after all. Lost in the debate was the irrelevance of “anti-Judaism” and “anti-Semitism” to any substantive understanding of the New Testament. The truth became a hostage to a twentieth-century intellectual project. Remember that this project—the reconciliation of Jews and Christians—was important, and its moral stakes were high. But the project polluted scholarship.

The historian will read Paul carefully, and figure out what he said in what context, including the lines about the Iudaioi. He will forget that there are still people in the world who claim descent from these people. He will treat the word Iudaios with exactly as much passion as he treats, say, Korinthios.


Leviticus, like any frightening Near Eastern book, said to destroy any man who lies with another man. Paul sneered like any good Roman at soft homosexuals. And Jay Michaelson, for whom both of these facts are inconvenient, wrote God vs. Gay, which shows that it’s a misinterpretation to call the Bible homophobic.

He, together with hundreds of other Jay Michaelsons, was wrong on the surface: yes, the Bible does say those things. And he was wrong in a deeper sense: he played the game of asking whether the Bible fits x modern category, be it homophobia or gay affirmation; misogyny or feminism; coercion or freedom. The Bible’s authors thought about things like slave-girls, blemishes on yearlings, and sometimes sex between males—not our own century’s political preoccupations.

The historian will find out what the Bible said. He will not care what the Bible said. He will not think about whether Dan Savage can be brought around to like what it says in the Bible.


“Belief is compatible with history, and it can even enrich it.” So say the theologians in history departments. This is like someone with bronchitis thinking that her illness is compatible with a night at the symphony. She might get something out of the music despite her coughing; no one else in the house will.


The profoundest thing that a Rabbi can say:
And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. (I Kings 19:11–12)
Said Rabbi usually does not quote what the still small voice then proceeds to say:
Anoint Hazael to be king over Syria: And Jehu the son of Nimshi shalt thou anoint to be king over Israel: and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room. And it shall come to pass, that him that escapeth the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay: and him that escapeth from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him.
That is, the voice commanded Elijah to slaughter every last person, down to the women and babies, in the house of Ahab. It was a military order issued by an angry god who wanted to crush his enemy Baʿal.

The meaning of Jewish life is corroded if that fact is brought up too often. How many thousands of Jews have been comforted in their sleepless nights by the still small voice of God!


After all, the Jews need something from the past. They need many things, in fact:

  • A father Abraham and a mother Sarah. The comfort that God loved Isaac and Jacob, but coldly cast Ishmael and Esau away.
  • Liberation from Egypt. A sense that there are Egypts and Jerusalems in the world; alien lands and home.
  • Amalek. An eternal enemy who destroyed the Jews in the First Crusade, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust—and who can be overcome.
  • A reason not to eat pigs and to be circumcised. Otherwise the world is a dizzy and meaningless place.
  • A historical connection to the land of Israel.
  • A traditional shtetl that was a warm community and a cradle of culture. Or an enlightened, happy Medieval Spain to serve the same purpose.
  • A family that stretches deep into the past, who are beloved though they’re gone.
  • A God who has loved them tenderly despite everything that has happened to them.
A scholar cannot give these to the Jews if he is loyal to his craft. In fact, very often he will uncover facts that make it far more difficult for Jews to be nurtured by history. Which tempts us to say: “let knowledge rot, as long as the human race is fed spiritually by its concept of the past.” But we must resist this temptation. Zealous attachment to the truth, after all, is the only thing preventing the world from lapsing into idealogical wars of words and guns. Besides, open quotation marks, all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use, close quotation marks. There is a value in history; dignity that we we win for ourselves just by unflinchingly looking at the record.

But Jews must find some way of coming to grips with the fact that many—if not all—of their comfortable illusions are upset by what scholars have discovered. Perhaps the answer is double-think and compartmentalization, perhaps it is atheist ritualism, perhaps it is modern nationalism, or perhaps it is assimilation into the gentile world.

For Christians, by the way, the problem is sharper: the scholar must believe that Jesus did not rise from the dead, and the Christian must believe that he did. It is as simple as that. The same obviously goes for believing Muslims, whose faith is opposed to modern scholarships’ assertion that the Koran was written by men.

Now, of course the best answer for Jews is just to live, and go on keeping kosher and praying if they must. The past, and the Bible for that matter, can still be pillars holding that life up. But Jews should not think that the information to be had about the world’s history will inevitably work to confirm their sense of who they are. That was last true in the seventeenth century.


In the end, as long as we don’t go around saying things that are false or that we only slightly mean, there isn’t so serious a problem as it might seem. Life can be lived without being explained.

Again, it could be worse: Jews don’t have to declaim a list of specious historical assertions in English on a weekly basis in front of everyone they love. They have the luck of praying in Hebrew, which lets them separate our religion from the forthright, steady-eyed statements about the past that they're willing to stand behind.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

David to Himself

Watcher in the fragrant darkness, speak:
what can you want from her watersprinkled face?
Her hair is wondrous black; her cheek
is flushed like pomegranates, and her race
is of Gilòh. But can she slake the lust
of a king who’s danced under the sky;
who knows that perfumed heads are matted dust,
and that it’s grief to think of twining thigh
to thigh? What though Jonathan’s honey dripped
from her lips to yours, and lingering there, could cloy
your senses, still your head would be undipped
in heaven’s springs. Nor such enormous joy
as fires the flashing Seraphs could alloy
your breast and limbs in her embraces gripped.

Sweet-seeming mouths are pots of spit and tongue,
skinned by luring cheeks. So go and spill
the blood of bulls on the altar—there, among
the smoke and joyful songs that overfill
the priests—know God! but He does not dwell
In breathing frames or touch the sons of man.
For flesh cannot hold God; nor thirst upwell
In a God-drunk heart for anything so wan.
Strange, then, that your righteous spirit clings
so sickly to its trunk of hungry flesh,
wasting for want! Yet awful God shall thresh
your little soul, and spare its worthy things.
He’ll keep your hand from her, for He unstrings
The cords of sin and splits their choking mesh.

But David, what is this? O lightless mind,
is God not in Jerusalem revealed?
A body in the bath is putrid rind,
but what a goodly fruit it has concealed!
Yea, once in ancient night beside a flood
was He not sinewed and alive in blood?
He strove at Peniël
till light
with father Israël,
who saw His anxious brow and seized His loin.
And I his mighty seed, shall I not join
my soul to His when He is bared to me?
Bat-Sheva’s person is a painted screen
that sunders now—yes by my life, I see
the stirring God, no more a moonlit queen.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1889

Vandalized Book of Hours, France, ca. 1400
(Nat. Lib. of Australia)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Halfway through Life

Half of Life, Friedrich Hölderlin, 1804

The land with pears all golden
And full of wild roses
Hangs in the lake—
You lovely swans!
And drunken with kisses,
You dunk your heads
In the sacred-sober water.

But ach! where will I find
The flowers when winter comes, and where 
The sunshine,
And shadows of the earth?
The walls will stand
Speechless and cold; in the wind
The weathervanes clatter.

My back on Spednic Lake, 25 July 2013
Hälfte des Lebens

Mit gelben Birnen hänget
Und voll mit wilden Rosen
Das Land in den See,
Ihr holden Schwäne,
Und trunken von Küssen
Tunkt ihr das Haupt
In’s heilignüchterne Wasser.

Weh mir! wo nehm ich, wenn
Es Winter ist, die Blumen, und wo
Den Sonnenschein,
Und Schatten der Erde?
Die Mauern stehn 
Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde
Klirren die Fahnen.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Resurrection: A Fable

A train trundled into Grand Central, and Professor Alfred Smithson raced to finish the page he was reading. Today’s reading was the Maude translation of Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief:
To avoid falling into human illusions we must think not of the physical but the spiritual life. If a man understands that life consists solely in now being in the Father’s will, neither privations, nor sufferings, nor death, can seem dreadful to him. Only that man receives true life who is ready at every moment to give up his physical life in order to fulfill the Father’s will. And that everyone may understand that true life is that in which there is no death, Jesus said: Eternal life should not be understood as being like the present life. For true life in the will of the Father there is neither space nor time…
The train lurched and stopped; Alfred closed his book and stuck it into his jacket. It was a little volume, just narrow enough to fit into the breast pocket. Tolstoy passed out of his mind in the scuffle: he got off the train, walked through the crowded concourse to the IRT shuttle, and changed at Times Square for the uptown 1. He spent the ride up to 116th street staring blankly at the man sitting across from him.

Alfred was a professor of German at Amherst College, which he hardly ever left. But this week, it had turned out that an uncle of his had left a thousand dollars in his will to Columbia University, and as the late uncle’s closest living relative, he had been asked to make a speech in his honor on the steps of the just-built South Hall.

It had been a long two days. Alfred left Amherst early on Friday morning, taking a bag of lunch from his wife, who was going to Boston herself for the weekend to visit her dying mother. It was always a relief to be gone from her. Their marriage had been long and infertile; but intact, for each party was kept from adultery by a combination of sloth and ugliness. He stayed in New Haven for the night with his brother, who was also a German professor (not, to his shame, at Yale, but at New Haven University) and took the train down to New York in the morning.

Alfred arrived at Columbia, and he found himself standing under a little canvas tent, drinking sugary wine and eating cheese and crackers off a china plate. He found the two people he knew—professors Lawrence and Braunschweig, both Nibelungenlied specialists—and cleaved to them next to the tea table. He couldn’t follow their conversation—it was about Middle-German textual criticism—and he could sense that both of these learned men held him in contempt. In fact, they had chosen their conversational topic in an unconscious attempt to humiliate Alfred. But the world is just: unknown to Alfred, neither of these professors was taken seriously at all when they went to conferences in their own field.

After fifteen minutes or so, the president of the college clapped his hands to silence the tiny crowd, then invited them cordially to start making your way, please, to the Hall, it’s almost time for the speech to begin. They obeyed, and the group of twenty-or-so aging men were soon sitting on metal chairs under the hot sun. The president made some remarks, had his photograph taken for the university newsletter, and then invited Alfred to speak.

Alfred got up, and began to read from a piece of paper on which he’d typed about three paragraphs about his uncle and the importance of scholarship to a healthy society. He explained to the crowd why his uncle, despite having spent his life in Pittsburgh in the silverware industry, always remembered fondly his years as an undergraduate at Colombia. But the audience never got to hear why scholarship was important, because Alfred was shot by an insane man from the street before he got to that part of the speech.

He felt no pain at first, only a sickly wave of heat. He backed up from the lectern, making for a small wooden seat behind him. He was too dizzy to get there, though, and with a whimper fell to his knees, then onto his back. 

The paramedics who arrived pronounced him dead on the spot. Soon after, someone pulled the bloodspattered Gospel in Brief out of his jacket. It was a thin blue volume, containing only a few selections from the gospels and a little commentary by Tolstoy. The bullet had gone right through it.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Boaty McBoatface and the Fate of Democracy

Boaty McBoatface was the name chosen by the British public last month for the new polar-research ship due to sail in 2019. And the committee in charge of naming the ship, which had put the question up for a vote in the first place, threw out their choice this morning and called it the RMS David Attenborough instead. A public vote was judged to have its merits—public engagement is a good thing, after all—but in the end, its result was just too ludicrous to be tolerated.

I think we’ve just seen the fate of Western democracy played out in miniature.

Boaty McBoatface, that is, has just won the Republican primaries. Like it or not, the people have spoken. And they might very well speak again on the eighth of November, choosing the man who loves them, unlike the simultaneously icy and unctuous progressive elite. Trump is ludicrous, and unlike that boat, frightening. But he is what a majority of Americans might want.

In America’s mind, demagoguery has historically been kept conceptually distinct from democracy. This is a very good thing. It means that we can usually endorse the will of the people as a force for justice and good government. Tyrants kill their flocks with impunity, but in America, the people have been known to stand up for fairness and humanity. It’s not so much that demagogues don’t exist here as that we have no conceptual space for them. If a man is popular, then he gets elected. We might disagree with him, or even hate him, but in that case his sin consists in his beliefs: not the simple fact of his being liked by the people.

This is why I’m terrified when I hear intelligent progressives call Trump a panderer, a demagogue, and a populist. Not because I disagree, but because their description suggests that they have stopped treating the popular voice as a source of legitimate power. These progressives are suggesting that being wildly popular with Middle America is scummy and vulgar, not ennobling.

Now, that might be true. It might well be that American voters are ignorant, sentimental, racist, illiberal, and liable to be dragged behind anyone who can appeal to them with enough charisma. But that fact is best forgotten. After all, the myth of the wise and moderate electorate has sustained the American project from the beginning. It has sustained the European project, too, since 1945, and it’s what supported the wave of democratization that swept the world from 1985 to 2010. But as soon as progressive elites no longer believe that democracy is a recipe for justice or progress, then they might stop being democrats. We have already taken this as a given with respect for the third world: you won’t find too many people insisting that King Abdullah of Jordan be thrown out of office because he is a dictator. It’s also common wisdom that Hillary Clinton was right in 2011 to be skittish about letting the democratic crowd swallow Hosni Mubarak. The Arab Spring has convinced us that populist democratic uprisings are the forerunners of popular tyranny and Islamism.

In the West, democracy is still treated as a ritual worth protecting, but it is now in danger of producing something too awful for progressives to swallow. And we might end up seeing where American progressives’ commitments really lie: not with democracy, but with progressive dominance.

This commitment has already been revealed to some extent. Congress and state legislatures have gradually ceded control over nearly every disputed domestic issue—campaign finance, gay marriage, abortion, affirmative action, gun rights—to the unelected and fashionably educated Supreme Court. No question is now taken as resolved until the court rules on it. This is for an unnerving reason: graduates of Harvard Yale are happy to rely on democracy as long as it does not put any real power into the hands of corn farmers. When democracy fails to deliver things like marriage equality or legal abortion, they toss the question to the reliably progressive court, and then insist that democracy only works if that court can keep certain holy decisions from the people’s grasp. (The elite conservative faction has tried this strategy too, with some success. It is just as anti-democratic in their hands as it is in the progressives’.) No wonder Antonin Scalia’s death uncorked so many bottles of champagne: it made this process even smoother for progressives.

But an election of Trump would put democratic rule into even more serious danger. His candidacy is setting up a conflict between his populist supporters and their oligarchist opponents in the big cities. I do not know who will win, but the results will be bad either way for the Constitution.

Trump has already been compared to Julius Caesar.

I think the comparison is apt. Caesar supported the popular faction against the oligarchical Senate: he represented the voice of the oppressed people against the entrenched intellectuals who had monopolized wealth and power in Rome. When Caesar and his successors built the Empire, the people’s voice, ever more lauded, became a vulgar legitimator of their thuggish and centralized power.

The last defenders of the Republic, among them Cicero and Pompey, were aristocratic anti-democrats. In earlier generations, politicians of their natural bent had felt far more sympathy for the common people. Indeed, the patrician Senate relied on the plebeians for its power. But the threat of Caesar made the aristocrats conclude that the common people were a herd of dangerous thugs, who must be kept away from the levers of power at all costs. Their opposition was only crushed in 43 B. C. when Mark Antony had Cicero murdered along with a large portion of the Senate.

I think something similar might happen to us. If Trump wins the presidency, then progressives who might otherwise have loved democracy might start seeing it as a legitimator of tyrants. And then, whichever faction wins out—the Trumpian populists or the Clintonite oligarchs—the republic will have been thoroughly discredited. Populism, after all, is just as compatible as oligarchy with dictatorship.

(Bernie Sanders, in this analogy, is Gaius Gracchus: the man who tried to represent the people from the Left by promising redistribution of wealth. He was crushed by the people and the Senate alike.)

I am afraid that Trump’s populism—and the progressive oligarchy’s denunciation of that populism—might mean the end of the American republic as we know it. Think: is democracy nearly so sacred in our minds as it used to be? Even in my lifetime, our enthusiasm for the Constitution’s institutions seems to have waned. I am not predicting doom: I’m just suggesting that the end of our political form of life might come sooner than we think.

In the meantime, pray to God and vote for Hillary.

Man’s Search for Meaning

The modern world’s problem is that life is about less and less. Many, many people in the West have no sense of urgency, of any holy values that are worth any sort of sacrifice or deprivation. They serve no higher goals than comfort and self-preservation.

Perhaps the main cause of this—and perhaps an effect as well—is that the birthrate is falling in America and Europe, and families are unwinding. What’s left? If you’re lucky enough to live in a world city, you can live a mild life decorated with Hamilton lyrics, casual sex, expensive pints of beer, and savagely clever tweeting. Or perhaps you’ll manage a Denny’s in a ticky-tacky suburb, watch Avengers movies when they come out, and drive an hour to New Haven to see Taylor Swift when she’s in town.

But this leaves some cold and frustrated. Men and women must have meaning, they say. Life as it’s given to us is gray and pointless, and no one knows what his orders are. No more does the world reveal our task to us. The stars no longer decide our fate, but glide dumbly overhead, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson says nice things about them now and then. Pleasure and self-gratification, the obvious refuges, are flashes in the pan.

If life is so meaningless, the solution must be—to find meaning. But that’s a wild-goose chase. Not because the proposition ‘there is meaning to be had’ is false. It is not true either. It is nonsense. We are tempted to say: here is life, and there is the meaning that it can have. Life is empty without meaning. So meaning must be found for life, like a husband for a bride.

But meaning doesn’t really amount to anything at all. At least, there is no such thing as meaning in general. The meaning of a person’s life, if it exists, is specific. Perhaps it is your love of God that stirs you, or France, or your family, or Christ. So we should talk about these things, because they are things that human beings can really love. No one will die for the sake of the empty concept ‘meaning.’ No one will find it either, no matter how many mass-market books of pop-philosophy try to convince us otherwise.


Now, I think that modern life is as lost and blind as the next guy. But what it lacks is not ‘meaning’. That would imply that we know what has been lost, and that we can take steps to get it back. Precisely the problem is that for a person without a home, the lack in his life cannot be expressed clearly. A modern person is lost at sea, but because he comes from nowhere in particular, he has no green England to crawl onto. Even if he does find an island, it’s not his own: it’s inhabited by seabirds and cannibals.

It is one thing to say: ‘Jews are suffering because they have forgotten the Torah.’ Or: ‘Europe is sick because the people have forgotten God.’ Or: ‘Americans are doomed because the spirit of democracy is no longer alive in their minds.’ These are all specific diagnoses that have their place from time to time. Sometimes they can even be successful in summoning a people back to its homeland, whether spiritual or literal.

But a cry for ‘meaning’, tout court, is languid, wishy-washy, and useless for actually getting you what you need. It expresses a real desire, but it is misguided. “I’m going to try Buddhism,” said a woman behind me in line to her friend, as she bought a tabloid magazine and a frozen pizza. “I think, you know, I need more spirituality in my life.” Karen Armstrong writes books that express essentially the same thought in three hundred pages.

Now, a meaningful life is something you have from birth. It is not a thing you can acquire: it is more like a home and a family that you belong to. The ‘search for meaning’ is usually a psychological expression of homelessness, not a coherent desire for improvement in one’s life. That does not mean that the expression should not be taken seriously. We really do suffer from homelessness more than our ancestors did. But we should not think that we are any closer to a solution by expressing the platitude that past generations possessed some universal ‘meaning’ that we do not.

You either live a life that makes sense, and inhabit a small world that you call home, or you do not. This is decided for you before you are born, just like it is decided whether you are German or Bangladeshi, free or miserably oppressed, a human being or a hagfish. This applies to communities as well: a group of people can be born into a life whose sacred demands are obvious to them, like Shakers in New York or Muslims in the eighth century. Or, as in much of the modern West, a generation of babies can be born to cities of the plain, with no master but their stomachs. A meaningful life is something that enfolds you. It is not something that you can win for yourself by setting your sights on the target meaning.

A related line of thought: much of modern religion is based on the trumpeted value of ‘ritual.’ Or perhaps ‘tradition’. In fact, you will be lucky to escape a Jewish or neo-Catholic service without hearing one of those words. Organized atheists, catching onto the fashion, have designed religious services to make up for their perceived lack of a community or communal rites, complete with set texts to be sung tunelessly by the congregation.

But unless the need for specific rites is felt from within, they will probably feel pointless. A human mind can be convinced that ritual is really important for, I don’t know, keeping the community together, or making time orderly, or something. But then when it comes time to doing rituals because of how important you know they are, everyone ends up feeling childish and bored. And it’s even worse to treat tradition or ritual as an end in itself. That is a frighteningly nihilist attitude. No: tradition should be neither a means nor an end. If it exists, then it simply exists as a living part of people’s lives.

My home synagogue is one of the most traditional places in the world. You can tell this because no one ever utters the word ‘tradition’ there: they just do what needs to be done. There are songs for Saturday morning and songs for Friday night. The scrolls are wrapped in colored cloth for festivals, red for the Sabbath, white for the High Holidays, and black for the ninth of Ab. There are places you may walk and places where you may not. It’s all in Hebrew, and the music is Baroque. On holidays, the high-born Kohanim take off their shoes, wash their hands, cover their faces, and bless the congregation. But none of this ritual is fetishized for its own sake: that would be reactionary and grotesque. It simply is, because it has to be that way, and it is good.

Most synagogues in the diaspora, especially if they’re non-Orthodox, go on for hours about the need for tradition and connection to our ancestors. And sure enough, they sing Kol Nidré on Yom Kippur because it’s a tradition. But for all that, synagogues are generally boring and sentimental places.

I don’t condemn people who want tradition for its own sake: they think it will give them a rope to hold on to in a dark cavern. But they usually end up worshipping nostalgic emotion. I’m thinking now about this horrible song, which tells you far more about the Americans who made it than it does about the old shtetl:

Now, attachment to tradition for its own sake is grotesque, in much the same way as emotion for its own sake (the essence of camp) is. Chasing ‘meaning’ for its own sake is worst of all. It means enslaving the noblest longings of the human soul—for justice, love, and belonging—to a cheap, moralizing emotionalism. The usual spoils of the quest are nothing more than a spinetingle, which is, admittedly, a pleasant animal sensation.

So: there is a problem, which is that no one in the Western world knows what to do. This is because the old homes of humanity have thrown us out, and we are anxious, lonely, and upset. But our wandering will never be ended by ‘discovering meaning’; still less by chaining ourselves to what we think our ancestors’ rites were in the hope of finding their happiness too.