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On Judaism as protest

“One of the great tasks of Jewish education is to deliberately create an atmosphere of rebellion among its students. Rebellion, after all, is the great emancipator. We owe nearly all of our knowledge and achievements not to those who agreed but to those who differed. It is this virtue that brought Judaism into existence. ....

What has been entirely forgotten is that the Torah was the first rebellious text to appear in world history. Its purpose was to protest. .... The text includes all the radical heresies of the past, present and future. It calls idol-worship an abomination, immorality an abhorrence, the worship of man a catastrophe. It protests against complacency, self-satisfaction, imitation, and negation of the spirit. It calls for radical thinking and drastic action without compromise, even when it means standing alone, being condemned and ridiculed.”

I am quoting by an article written in 2015 by another Rabbi Nathan, far more accomplished than I am, the Dutch orthodox rabbi, Nathan Lopes Cardozo. His 2018 book Jewish Law as Rebellion continues along a similar theme, and he attacks establishment Judaism for seeking to cultivate obedience among its students, and not foment rebellion and protest.

If you rebelled against Sunday School as a child, perhaps you were not far wrong. But did you ever imagine that our ownBible stories, and our own Halacha, were teaching you to rebel against them, and training you in the fight for justice, to argue and to disrupt.

We can see it in the Exodus story, where plenty of hints leave us feeling sympathy even for our enemy, Pharaoh, his heart continually hardened by divine decree. It helps us as readers to challenge even God, our deity. But this week in the Korach Rebellion - my favourite Biblical Dan Brown title of all - it is not encouraged at all. Moses quashes the mutiny by means of “firepans at dawn”, with a display of divine pyrotechnics and the ground swallows up the rebels and their families. The commentators are quick to tell us what went wrong: “they persisted in an argument (Rashi) when it was the time for reconciliation”, “he was jealous of his cousins” (Midrash Tanhuma), he made of mockery of Moses and jeered at him (ibid) for becoming too high and mighty.

And yet, while I can accept these commentaries, I still retain a sneaking admiration for Korach in making his point. Probably Moses did seem a bit holier-than-thou at times, and it was perhaps not unreasonable to bring him back down to earth with the reminder that hey, “we are all holy; what makes you so special?” (Numbers 16.3) And while the older I get, the less radical my own challenges become, perhaps now I understand that even Korach is supposed to have our sympathy, and that’s why his challenge has some merit.

Another European thinker, the Slovenian contemporary Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, also opined this week about the radical nature of Judaism. In a Q and A in the Times of Israel online newspaper, he wrote:

“Down through the ages, Judaism was perceived as an almost radical idea. As opposed to other peoples who had a homeland, the Jews had no territory for hundreds of years. The model of a people drawn together and defined by a system of values, by culture and not by land — in my eyes this is a humanist idea.

Therefore, the Jews had a great role in the Enlightenment in Europe and also in the socialist and communist revolutions. Without them Europe would not have achieved what it did.”

Zizek is known for his defence of Palestinian rights and is often accused of being an anti-Semite and a hater of Israel, which in the article he refutes. But he continues by attacking Zionism as being too attached to the land, defining Jewish identity by territory in a retrograde step to the Diaspora, becoming just another “race enjoying privileges over the natives”.

I disagree with his conclusions, but it is hard to deny his engagement with the challenges of modern Jewish identity, even as a non-Jew. The identity of the Israelites during their forty years of wandering in the desert is necessarily and essentially different to that of the past time spent both in Egypt, and the future time in the Promised Land. Moses and the Torah takes us to the edge of that better future, to the cusp of the honey, the very curds of the milk. Mosaic leadership is suited to the wilderness, but fresh approaches will be required both for the conquest and the daily realities of living in the land.

As now in Israel the threat or the promise of annexation of the West Bank looms large this summer. It will take every ounce of our training, energy and protest for the future success of the Jewish people to ride on through our generation as well. And we must all play our part through our training and critical thinking, favouring rebellion over obeisance, protest over obedience.

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