Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Martin Buber on Diet Judaism.

Chaim Potok, Wanderings: History of the Jews (New York: Fawcett, 1978).
Martin Buber, The Way of Man According to the Teachings of Hasidism (New York: Kensington, 1994).
Martin Buber, "Hebrew Humanism," in Philosophy for a Time of Crisis (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1959).

Antisemitism is one of the ugliest forms of hatred in world history. Antisemitism has resulted and continues to result in horrible suffering for many people, in many places. If you are an African-American or Latino living in New York or any other American urban center, then you should make an effort to understand something about Jewish people, not only in the U.S. but throughout the world. I am not Jewish. So why do I say this? Why do I think that we need to understand the history of the Jewish people, especially in the United States?

Well, just as you can't really make sense of American history -- especially legal history -- without an appreciation of slavery and the subsequent African-American/U.S. experience, so (I believe) you need to understand the historical plight of the Jewish people in order to appreciate the mind-boggling suffering inherited by your Jewish friends and neighbors. To grasp national identity and world politics today, you need to know something about Israel's history and Judaism.

It is also important to understand why African-Americans and Jews seem to have such a disproportionate impact on music and all of the arts as well as entertainment in U.S. society, if not the world. I promise that it is not a vast conspiracy taking place in a smoke-filled room, with the possible exception of New Jersey, where everything kind of happens that way. What's up with that government shut down? Hey, maybe they'll leave it shut down! Great.

People feel an urgent need to make art -- to make others laugh, to amuse or affect audiences -- when other avenues of self-expression are closed, even as great reserves in feelings of pain and suffering seem to spill over in their lives. Traditionally, this was the situation of both African-Americans and Jews, even when it comes to their contributions to classical European culture, where both groups have made (incomprehensibly to many) disproportionate contributions.

The denial of peoples' humanity will lead persons to insist on expressing that humanity and to insist on its recognition, along with the refusal to be manipulated or conditioned into surrendering it.

Opera singers in America have often been African-Americans and Jews, for instance, even when both groups were "discouraged" (to put it mildly!) from such careers. Why would these peoples have an instinctive appreciation of tragedy in song and music? Guess.

I do not think it is possible to remove African-Americans and Jews from American and global popular and so-called "high culture" in the twentieth century. This is especially true if we expect to understand that unstoppable global force for American values, which is popular culture. American "pop" culture (notably cinema) has become stronger than nuclear power in our time. This phenomenon has amounted to an (unintended?) Americanizing of much of the rest of the world, which goes a long way towards explaining the hostility by some religious fundamentalist factions towards us. And that U.S. artistic and "pop" or commercial culture is, I insist, essentially African-American and Jewish, but not sectarian. This aspect of American national culture is universalizing and welcoming of all people. It is part of what is best about U.S. society. In any case, you will not escape global pop-culture today.

I remember a Latin American Marxist terrorist in the eighties who hijacked a plane. During the entire ordeal, he wore a cap with a Coca-Cola logo on it. I am surprised that he wasn't also sporting a Disneyland t-shirt, like any true postmodernist Marxist.

The last thing that should happen is conflict or tension between Jews and poor ghetto kids, whether African-Americans or Latinos. Jews are the world's champs when it comes to knowing about ghettos. Look up the history of the Jewish ghettos in England and Italy in the medieval and Renaissance era -- Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice is a good place to start -- down to the Eastern European world described by Issac Bashevis Singer (formerly a New Yorker) in his stories.

Despite Fiddler on the Roof, life in the ghettos in Poland and Russia as well as Germany during the past two centuries was not exactly a million laughs. "What did your grandmother leave you? Anything?" Annie asks her boyfriend Alvy, in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. He responds: "Nothing, she was too busy getting raped by Kosacks." As we say in New York, "He wasn't kidding."

Humor out of the narrowly avoided catastrophe is important both in Jewish culture and African-American "salty" stand-up routines. For example, it is the secret ingredient in the work of Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. I could easily write a Woody Allen-like story or script -- with only a few changes in language -- that would fit, say, Chris Rock, as the African-American version of Woody's early screen persona. It has been suggested that, among the all-time great "black" comedians, you have to include Lenny Bruce, who is one of my heros. (Think about my quotation marks in that last sentence.)

New Yorkers are all escapees, "allegedly," from a Woody Allen movie, since we're deeply affected by American Jewish culture. In Manhattan, this is especially true of Jewish street culture dating from early in the twentieth century. "You're kidding. No, that's totally Kosher."

My goal in this essay is to comment a little on Jewish mysticism and faith, as a celebration of life and profound spirituality in the midst of tragedy, which closely parallels much of what I have written about Christian mysticism and gnosticism. The connections between Christianity and Judaism become obvious the more one reads this material, so that it is difficult to distinguish the two faiths in their mystical or "ecstatic" approaches to divinity, which does not surprise me, since passion or feeling is their shared essence. A future essay on Islamic sufism will provide additional analogies.

There are strong parallels between rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), better known to me from my college course in Jewish culture as the "Baal-Shem Tov" or "Master of the Name (of God)" and the figure of "Jeshua" or Jesus ("Christ" is a later Greek designation), emerging from the Christian-Jewish scriptures of the the first centuries of Christianity. The importance of names and naming is crucial not only in Hasidism, but also in Kabbalah.

At the risk of annoying people, I suggest that Christianity may be seen as a universalization of Hebrew ethics without strict adherence to religious law or Tamudic study. There was much debate among the earliest Christian communities concerning whether gentiles would have to comply with all Jewish laws -- as early Christians did -- to become Christians, or whether they did not have to satisfy those Talmudic requirements, which was St. Paul's position. Elaine Pagels is interesting in her discussions of these issues.

I have called Christianity, very respectfully, "Diet Judaism." Christianity is, as Paul of Tarsus might have suggested, "Judaism for gentiles." Christianity is the first historical "franchise," in other words -- like an ancient spiritual version of McDonald's -- offering a very serious spiritual truth for everyone who cares to stop by, but no fries. That religious truth in its mystical form, in both traditions, becomes singular. Mysticism counsels spiritual unity and community in or through love. This applies to Judaism and Christianity, by means of the experience of divinity in life, here and now. The way we experience divinity is by loving.

Martin Buber was born in 1878 and spent his early life in Lemberg, at the home of his grandfather, a Hebrew scholar and leader of the Galician "Haskalah," or Enlightenment. Compare the early life of Gore Vidal, as he read the Congressional Record to his grandfather, Senator Gore. Buber had been a professor in Frankfurt. After 1933, he taught social philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem until 1951. He is important for all students of "the philosophy of encounter," including R.D. Laing and J.P. Sartre, Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas. His greatest work from which I have read only excerpts, is I and Thou.

Buber is funny and accessible, using parables and allegories, that are to be interpreted by students of religious wisdom as a kind of "indirect communication." He should be regarded as a modern exponent of the Jewish mystical tradition associated with Hasidism's "emotive understanding" of Kabbalah. Buber is also very Hegelian in his training as a philosopher and theologian. I have read and can recommend to everyone -- especially non-Jews -- both his essay on "Hebrew Humanism" and his short book, The Way of Man.

God does not say: "This way leads to me and that does not," but He says: "Whatever you do may be a way to me, provided that you do it in a manner that it leads to me." But what is it that can and should be done by just this person and no other, can be revealed to him only in himself. In this matter, it would only be misleading to study the achievements of another man and endeavor to equal him, a man [or person] would miss precisely what he or she alone is called upon to do.

And this essential and unique aspect of one's self is the person's "center," where you will find your way to God, or love, through a unification of all aspects of the self. This is the meaning of the inquiry in the scriptures "Where art thou?":

The man with the divided, complicated, contradictory soul is not helpless: the core of his soul, the divine force in its depths, is capable of acting upon it, changing it, binding the conflicting forces together, amalgamating the diverging elements -- is capable of unifying it. [Recall my discussion of the "unity of the Holy Spirit" in Christianity.] This unification must be accomplished before a man [or woman] undertakes some unusual work.

A man who becomes a unity of body and spirit -- he is the man whose work is all of a piece.

Compare the teachings of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of Heaven being "within" you, with this passage from Buber's writings:

There is something which can only be found in one place. It is a great treasure, which may be called the fulfillment of existence. The place where this treasure can be found is the place on which one stands. ... Israel professes that the two worlds [spiritual and material] are essentially one and shall in fact become one.

Recall my discussions of "dual-aspect theory" and Donald Davidson's theory of "anomalous monism," then take a look at my interpretation of the meaning of the grail myth in light of the concept of "individuation." Finally -- as a taste of Buber's Kierkegaardian playfulness -- consider this very poignant story in light of my discussions of the shared "quest" for spiritual unity or identity in Jewish and Christian mysticism:

There was once a man who was very stupid. When he got up in the morning it was so hard for him to find his clothes that at night he almost hesitated to go to bed for thinking of the trouble he would have on waking. One evening he finally made a great effort, took paper and pencil and as he undressed noted down exactly where he put everything he had on. The next morning, very well pleased with himself, he took the slip of paper in his hand and read: "cap" -- there it was, he set it on his head; "pants" -- there they lay, he got into them; and so it went until he was fully dressed. "That's all very well, but now where am I myself?" he asked in great consternation. "Where in the world am I?" He looked and looked, but it was a vain search; he could not find himself. "And that is how it is with us," said the rabbi.

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