Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Exclusivity and ethnocentricity

This morning, a blog I follow for professional reasons included a truly astonishing quote from the Chabad organization. For those unfamiliar with the various strains of Judaism, Chabad-Lubovitch is a messianic branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism -- yes, the guys with the sidelocks and black hats you see occasionally on the subway.

In a rather tendentious argument about inside-baseball Jewish stuff, comes the following:

"When a Jew gives tzedakah, he's basically a Divine being accepting human obligations; he is basically humbling himself, lowering himself into the worldly human condition. When a non-Jew gives charity, he is basically a human being trying to elevate himself to something more Divine. So are the Jew and the non-Jew doing the same thing? Not at all. They're doing opposite things. The same act, but coming from opposite directions and accomplishing opposite results." (The full context can be found athttp://mondoweiss.net/2011/03/anti-muslim-hate-rally-organizer-eliezrie-to-teach-%e2%80%9ckabbalah-of-love%e2%80%9d-at-jewish-federation-vegas-mega-event.html.)

Now, this is an extremist point of view from an extremist strain of Judaism. Most members of liberal Jewish organizations would find this horrifying. My own liberal Hebrew Day School taught me many years ago that the concept of the "Chosen People" means that Jews are chosen for special responsibilities, not some version of quasi-divinity. And these same liberal Jews are quick to cite the obligation to Tikkun Olam -- fixing the world -- as the real responsibility of the Jewish people.

And yet. Even the liberal version of Jewish chosenness is fraught with problems. The concept of the special covenant between God and Abraham, inherited by every Jew, is central to Judaism. Many have argued that the concept of an exclusive contract with the divine is one reason the Jewish people survived centuries of exile and persecution. Only the divine dictat of an in-group could prevent assimilation into the surrounding culture, goes the argument. Perhaps so.

But as anyone who works on Middle Eastern issues realizes, this same concept complicates the concept of a Jewish state for a Jewish people. It infects arguments over land and history and sovereignity with an ethnocentricity that is understandable but often pernicious in practice. And, of course, a victimized people in a theocratic state, where ultra-religious rabbis regularly provide racist rulings to justify discrimination and occupation, is not usually going to be conscious of how the concept of chosenness has been used and perverted for political ends.

The Jews of Israel confront a people, the Palestinians, who are largely Muslim and have their own narrative of oppression and victimization -- a narrative also complicated by the religious dictats of Islam. Islam also insists on revealed truth available to its own adherents. What major religion does not?

Musing over Jewish history in the context of Israel is inescapable for anyone involved in the issues there, professionally or personally. Understanding that even liberal "Jewish values" involve self-imposed separation from the rest of the world, a paler and more acceptable version of the outrageous Chabad concepts, is not a popular notion among well-meaning social-justice Jews.

But it's the world I live in, and I'm stuck with it.


Gary Berg-Cross said...

People's history and culture promotes some good things and traps them in others that may not be so good. I see that even secular "Jewish" groups hang on to rituals that may promote some degree of separateness you mention. People are able to join a history-bsed ritual, but not easily substitute a new one for it. So one celebration of freedom for the Jews has the Egyptians being the bad guys and being punished by God. This builds group solidarity, but does make others the enemy and it can transfer to current nation state competition, especially if your believe that God was, as they say, a land Realtor, giving out ownership.
There is a good side to seeing yourself as chosen and special. It creates a self fulfilling prophecy. In other words, what we expect is often what we get. So we expect to be special we may become so. It is just that everyone deserves this.

BTW, the self fulfilling prophecy concept has been verified by many experiments and observations. For example, parents who believe that their children will not do well in school tend to make it come true - perhaps by reducing emphasis on the importance of school work to their children and accepting poor grades from them. On the other hand, parents who believe their children can excel in school will create a home environment suitable in promoting reading and knowledge, emphasize the importance of school work and generally will not tolerate poor grade from their kids. All these will eventually propel their children to excel in school.

One problem with all of this is that we live in a hyper-competitive environment and so other if other people's children excel they may eliminate opportunities for our kids. So there is a natural pressure to not believe they are special or deserving.

Explicit Atheist said...

The article where that quote about charity by a non-Jew being in some sense from "opposite directions" and "opposite results" of the charity of a Jew can be found here: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2902/jewish/What-Is-the-Cause-of-Antisemitism.htm . Note that when that paragraph is read in the context of the article it is clear that the author of the article is characterizing different motives for giving charity. It is actually a reasonable argument that there are at least two different motives for charity with one of the two motives being preferable to the other. A problem is that instead of just characterizing better and worse motives, he attributes the better motive to people of his own religion and the inferior motive to people of a competing religion generally and he utilizes exagerated language in what appears to be an attempt to turn it into an argument for one way that his religion is better than that other religion. Religious people are going to tend to look at the world in terms of competing religions and the different influences of those religions on their followers, and they are going to tend to exhibit a bias for their own religion over the other religions when they do this.

lucette said...

Payis Athena wrote:

"My own liberal Hebrew Day School taught me many years ago that the concept of the "Chosen People" means that Jews are chosen for special responsibilities, not some version of quasi-divinity. And these same liberal Jews are quick to cite the obligation to Tikkun Olam -- fixing the world -- as the real responsibility of the Jewish people."

To be chosen, there must a "chooser" and in the contect of this blog, the "chooser" is god.
This blog does not make sense for people who are not theists. Since secular is the opposite of religious, how does this post relate to this "Secular Perspectives" blog?
As an atheist, I am totally unable to relate to this narrative.