Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Monday, 10 December 2012

The Holiday Of Intolerance

Intolerance is a dirty word in today's liberal culture.  Live and let live, everything's okay as long as it doesn't hurt someone, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, you name it and there's a movement demanding tolerance in it.  This is generally touted by secular culture as humanity's moral pinnacle - the creature of a society in which no one is offended and everyone is prepared to see things from the other guy's point of view without allowing for personal bias and thoughts of superiority.
It sounds great on paper but when examined carefully it is quite a dangerous philosophy.  For one thing, it doesn't exactly generate a lot of creative or constructive energy.  If everything's groovy then there's nothing much to strive for.  For another thing, it leaves people enamored by such thoughts in a very vulnerable position.  Another philosophy, one that is aggressive and judgemental, could easily sweep in and take over as it pushes the milquetoast liberalism aside.  We are witnessing this in parts of Europe as a vibrant and very opinionated Islam makes steady progress in intimidating the essentially valueless atheistic culture that replaced Chrisian and fascist nationalism after World War 2.
In fact, if you wonder why some atheist groups are so militant it is exactly for this reason.  They are well aware of the saying in the Gemara (somewhere): "don't be too sweet lest you be eaten up".  They know that only by assuming an aggressive posture of their own can they survive against people who actually have a core dogma.  Thus they have created one of their own out of the framework provided by political correctness and begun to inflict it on general society.  Clearly they are still working on their self-confidence as to date the most the atheist liberal lobby has managed to accomplish is a sustained attack on the sclerotic remnants of Chrisian culture while deftly ignoring any real threats under the rubric of multi-culturalism.  However, there is no reason to believe they won't increase their assertiveness in coming years as it becomes clear that a new culture has come to town and intends to replace secular liberal norms with its own.
Where do we as Jews fit in?
On one hand, the culture of open tolerance has been good to us.  Judaism is a rich national philosophy and as such it is automatically a threat to any other such dogma.  That is one reason for the long and miserable history we have had in Chrisian and Muslim lands.  One can trace the rise of Jews in Western societies directly to the decline Chrisianity has suffered in the last 70 years or so and it is not hard to see that the lowly dhimmi position of Jews in Muslim countries has not changed because public religion remains very strong there.
On the other hand there is a dangerous seductiveness to secular liberalism.  Read through the lyrics of John Lennon's Imagine and it's all right there.  It's much easier to believe in nothing than to actively hold a serious of views that are contested by the world around you.  It's easier to say "live and let live" than to take a stand on an issue and maintain that one view is right and one is wrong.  Perhaps that's one reason for the decline of public religion in the West.  Laziness and selfishness are essential human traits, the principle tools of the yetzer hara.  To have values takes energy and often requires confrontation.  It demands sacrifice and personal deprivation at times.  It sometimes insists that reward for proper behaviour is deferred and it intimates that bad things sometimes happen to good people for reasons we cannot understand.  Better to stand for nothing.  It takes less time and effort.  A random universe in which things just happen doesn't have to be justified, just survived.  Party now because there's nothing after.
Despite heterodox views to the contrary, Chanukah is not a holiday celebrating religious freedom.  It is a commemoration of a war between two cultures, one the forerunner of today's "Pleasure first and second" society and the other our ancestors who were trying to uphold the laws of our Holy Torah.  The Greeks saw no value in self-abnegation.  For them the physical was everything and the idea that a culture would hold that unlimited enjoyment of the physical world was wrong was incomprehensible to them.  For us it is the opposite.  We are special creations of God, the ultimate purpose of all He made and we cannot be like animals that have no greater goal than survival, the next meal and procreation.  Being human means restrictions and being Godly means lots of them but that is the highest goal.  The Greek system was not only different, it was wrong.  It was incompatible.  One could not be a good Greek and a good Jew.  A choice had to be made.
Nowadays we are quietly faced with the same struggle.  Secular views constantly wash up against our Torah bulwarks and sometimes drops splash over.  The new fashionable struggle to find a way to somehow create the openly gay Orthodox Jew, for example, is one such drop.  Another is the effort to create egalitarian worship in a culture that values and emphasizes the uniqueness of each gender and its contributions to the whole of the Jewish nation.  Worst are the values known as "It's only illegal if you get caught" and its innovative cousin "It's only illegal if there's a statement b'feirush in the Shulcan Aruch".  The idea that one can cheat on taxes, cheat on someone from a different cultural group, and it's okay to lie and cover it up, is one that has come in from society and been turned in some quarters into a Torah value.  All of these are examples of how the mityavnim have resurfaced in our day and age to pervert our Judaism slowly, a bit at a time.  The goal of mutual tolerance is not something we see as positive.  We know what is right and what isn't and have to stand up for those ideals.
Therefore as Chanukah descends on us and our arteries slowly sclerose from the unending barrage of oil goodness we are about to consume we should take a step back and ask ourselves if our daily behaviour is as pure as we like to think it is or have we incorporated a practice or two without even realizing it that doesn't belong there?  If there is a time of year for such introspection this would be it.  The light of the flame from the Menorah in the Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) was pure and unadulterated.  That purity is our goal.
May we all have a meaningful and fattening holiday.

8 comments:

The Professor said...

As usual, right on the money!

Ron said...

The seduction of Greek culture is much more complex than you write. The idea that it represented, as a whole, in its entirety, hedonism, is wrong. Epicurius (from which the word "apicorus" is derived), promoted pleasure (and lack of pain), but overindulgence was counterproductive to this principle. Moderation was key. Pleasure was not only physical, but also intellectual and spiritual. It is not difficult to spot these priciples also in Jewish thought. Countering Epicurius were others, such as the Stoics, who were more ascetic in their worldview. This view also has its place in Judaism. The Greek philosophies upon which these, and other principles are based, are based on rational conclusions based on axioms (with which the Torah may or may not agree). The dialectic interaction between the sages in the Gemara of drawing conclusions (halachic or hashkafic) from scripture (axioms) bears some similarity. It isn't difficult to understand why inquisitive, thoughtful Jews would be drawn to Greek thought, and our sages understood its draw. Hence the ban on studying aspects of it, despite their praise the Greek language. They did not say it was all bad, but that, Yephet should sit in the tents of Shem - it should be subservient to Torah values. Even, our oppressor at the time, Antiochus, can be seen to have a rational basis for his decrees to homogenize his kingdom: people who share common values and principles are bound to get along more harmoniously than people who are do not. And this method to assimilate conquered nations and subdue dissent has been used before him and after him. Thank G-d (literally), that it did not work to the extent that he wanted. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to see the great extent to which Greek culture, particularly its intellectual aspects) affected the Torah observant Jewish world to this very day.

ZP said...

Great post!

"This is generally touted by secular culture as humanity's moral pinnacle - the creature of a society in which no one is offended and everyone is prepared to see things from the other guy's point of view without allowing for personal bias and thoughts of superiority." I chuckled. Great sentence.

"It's easier to say "live and let live" than to take a stand on an issue and maintain that one view is right and one is wrong." I don't know if it easier, necessarily Some people thrive better by having to go against the current. That is a common theme around youth. The talk now of legalizing marijuana (like they did with Alcohol) is with the thought that if its permitted, it won't be as alluring. Though this is not exactly the same, the idea is. For some, not all, it is easier and more exciting to go against the current. That being said, I agree that in a world and society of tolerance, we, Jews, have somehow become sheep again, albeit in a different form. The irony: we don't stand up in a society where "freedom of speech" prevails when our forefathers did when the world was against them. It is easier to fight or throw a punch so to speak, when you see the target, when you understand the enemy. That's why Yaakov wanted to know the malach's name and that is why he would not give it. The danger of this seemingly freedom is that we forget that we are not free. We forget we are in galut. We don't realize how its all affecting us. We are also not living in "goshen" separated from everything that is tumah. Our own schools, shuls, and mitzvot, have been infiltrated with tumah.

"Being human means restrictions and being Godly means lots of them but that is the highest goal. The Greek system was not only different, it was wrong. It was incompatible. One could not be a good Greek and a good Jew. A choice had to be made. Nowadays we are quietly faced with the same struggle." I hope to soon write a post about MO really being what the Conservative movement began as, but this nails it. You can't be in two worlds at once. It's not possible. MO and its current philosophy is that you can do both. I think that by being an am kadosh, literally by being "separate" (one translation of kadosh) to a certain extent, is how we influence in the world.

RAM said...

One big difficulty we faced under Seleucid Greek rule was intense government pressure to assimilate, which only added to the intrinsic lures of assimilation. No secular state anywhere has the right to apply such pressure to us.

Princess Lea said...

Are any of our holidays non-fattening? Even Yom Kippur has a stuff-yourself-silly event before and after.

Thoughtful said...

I also think defining liberalism will sharpen the point of this post.

What you call modern liberalism can also be called the "care/harm" moral foundation or way of thinking. (see www.moralfoundations.org which discusses this concept at length). Essentially, modern liberalism can be summed up that with the philosophy that 'if it does not cause harm, it is morally acceptable.'

What is not openly discussed are the implications of this philosophy.

First, it leaves out (and at its worst, actively excludes/denigrates) other ways of seeing the world, including labelling conduct that we would say is holy vs unholy, pure vs impure (there are others), even if there is no "harm" caused to another person.

Second, there is a moral hole or vaccuum between "care" and "harm" that in our day has been filled with, essentially, the lowest commmon denominators (e.g. sex).

Third, and last for this post, and what I think may answer the question of "how can/will liberalism be used against us":

I think the human response to viewing everything in the lense of care vs harm is start to labelling "aggressors" and "victims".

One only need look at Israel that anything it does is labelled within a context of being an aggressor. But the same holds true to 'social activists' who question authority (government, police), especially state authority, which falls under the rubric of 'Human Rights' and 'Civil Rights'.

The same could hold true to religious practices, which fall under the "harm" principle and therefore the collective labelling of "aggressors". We see that practices today (circumcision) were also banned by the ruling authority in the story of Chanukah. It is not a large leap.

This has just been on my mind and I welcome further discussion.

Thoughtful said...

Oops, Just to clarify:

Same is true _for_ social activists, who tend to see authority and government in the lense of "harm" as aggressors, as is typical in Human Rights discourse.

Last paragraph, first sentence: should not have a comma after "religious practices". Changes the whole meaning of the sentence!

Mr. Cohen said...

Tehillim, chapter 14, verse 1:
"The degenerate has thought in his mind: There is no G_d"