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.