Wednesday, July 21, 2010

More on Mixed Premises: Part II--Common Themes

This is part II of a discussion piece related to my Sunday July 18 blog entry entitled Mixed Premises: Glenn Beck, Collective Guilt and "the Jews". Yesterday, in More on Mixed Premises: Part I--Challenging Assumptions, I outlined the differences between Judaism and Christianity that I believe are the most important and most commonly misunderstood, so that they contribute to Jews and Christians in dialogue talking past one another. In today's post, I am going to discuss three common themes in the comments on the Mixed Premises post, found both here and on my Facebook link to it.

Part II: Discussion of Common Themes in Comments

כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמיים, סופה להתקיים; ושאינה לשם שמיים, אין סופה להתקיים
"All controversy waged in the name of heaven shall be of lasting worth,
but that not in the name of heaven shall not be of lasting worth."
--Pirkei Avot--The Ethics of the Fathers--5:20

My blog post on Sunday discussed Glenn Beck's anti-semmitic comment, an aside the appeared to assign collective responsibility for the death of Jesus to "the Jews." I used the example of this blunder--and I do think it was a blunder--to illustrate what happens when one does not examine, question and discard premises that are in conflict with one's bed-rock principles and values. Before I go further in this discussion, I want to emphasize two things:

1. I believe this is exactly the case for Glenn Beck. I don't think this clearly anti-semitic statement, made as an aside, can be used to claim that Glenn Beck is an anti-semite. I don't believe that the comment is a thoughtful expression of his position on the charge of deicide against "the Jews". Rather, as I wrote in the first essay on this issue, I think that his statement was the result of an unquestioned premise that he probably absorbed with his mother's milk, an unnamed collectivism that he applies reflexively and only in this particular context of his Christian religion; the context of his literal interpretation of the trial and death of Jesus as taken from a conflated version of the gospel accounts. Since I only know the man from what I have heard him say over the period of four years, I could be wrong. However, I do listen closely to what people say on a variety of issues and I don't think I am wrong in this instance.

2. I believe that this discussion is "for the sake of heaven." That is, it creates the opportunity for all who participate--including me--to examine our own premises, to question them, and to determine if any should be discarded in favor of the premises that are more consistent with our most deeply held values and principles. Therefore the discussion should remain on the level of ideas and concepts, and it should not deteriorate into attacks on persons, name-calling and other manifestations of sinat channam--causeless hatred.

Given that, I also believe that Glenn Beck has moved on with respect to this issue. That is, he is either unaware or unwilling to make himself aware of the real cause of the controversy, which has nothing to do with the politics of the people who tried to call him on it. I am sorry for him for this, because had he not been a celebrity, had he not conflated those who hate him with those who wished to see the matter corrected, he could have learned something important, something that would have made him a better man. "Who is wise?" asks Ben Zoma, "He who learns from all men."

We can learn from one another, even if Beck misses the opportunity.

The Discussion Its-Own-Self:

I. The most common response I received to my concern about Beck's remark, while varying in wording, went something like this: "I watched the whole video and I did not get that Beck made any mistake other than the use of a bad metaphor.

Response: The fact that this was the bad use of an example was part of my point. That it was so obvious to Beck--and to many of his listeners--that the charge of deicide is a fact, is my entire point. That Beck did not clarify this specific example, indicates that he did not see it as the problem. Rather, the problem to him was the entire idea of "collective salvation." And I agree that this is a problem, however, his lack of clarification made it possible for listeners to hear the remark either way. As I said, it was the fact that Beck approved Pat Gray's interpretation that "the Jews wanted him [Jesus] executed" on the Friday morning radio show that made the whole thing much more offensive. He never did complete the thought that began with "I'm saying that in a perverted world--", demonstrating that the remark was not important, that he never did understand the reason that many of us objected to the original remark. And this in turn demonstrates that Beck is indeed operating from mixed premises. That was the thesis that I was discussing.

II. The second most common objection to my essay was to my statement that Glenn Beck does not know the history behind the charge of deicide, and therefore he does not get how serious an issue it is to most American Jews. I was told by several people that they believed he does know the history, because he objects to National Socialism as a philosophy that leads inevitably to mass murder.

Response: I agree that 1) National Socialism (and all forms of collectivism) leads inevitably to mass murder; and 2) that Glenn Beck knows that history. However, I do NOT believe that he knows the extreme nature of the deicide accusation and the 1500 years of horror that it created. If he got that, he would certainly have hastened to clarify his example for his audience, if not immediately on the TV program, then certainly on the Friday program. Of course, I could posit the much more serious charge that Glenn does know the history of the deicide charge and refused to clarify in order to spare himself and other Christians a vicarious discomfort for the past, but that would mean that Glenn is willing to fudge on the truth. I certainly hope that is not the problem, although his defensiveness on the matter may indicate that it is.

I have noticed at various levels of Jewish-Christian dialogue that some Christians become as uncomfortable with a discussion of the truth about how Christian institutions treated Jews in the past, as if they were personally responsible for it in the here and now. Of course, that is also an indication of the very mixed premises we have been discussing. That is, if they feel guilty, they accept the premise that collective responsibility and guilt is correct. The answer is not that Jews should stop telling the truth about the history, but that those people who feel inappropriate guilt should discard such collectivist ideas. They can no more be guilty of persecution of Jews in the past, than Jews now can be guilty of the death of Jesus.

III. The third most common statement goes something like: "We all know that it was not the Jews that killed Jesus, it was the Romans that did it." Some people also stated that the Jews present in the crowd on the day of Jesus' death were responsible, even if present day Jews are not.

The short response to both of these statements is: Why is it so important to assign blame for the death of Jesus? Even if the gospel accounts are literally true in every detail, who killed Jesus should not matter to Christians because of their particular theology of the meaning of his death. The answer of a Christian should be: "We killed Jesus by our sins." Which illustrates that Christianity is itself mired in the premise of collective guilt and punishment, which seriously undermines the competing Christian claim of personal responsibility. There are the mixed premises again. And this is an issue that only Christians can sort out for themselves.

I am not a scholar of Christian scripture, but my knowledge of Jewish law and custom makes me doubt that the story is literally true. In fact, I did take a course in Christian scripture in which we used "The Synopsis of the Four Gospels" which lays out the same story from each gospel side by side in four columns on the page. It is quite interesting how many differences there are in the four accounts. My professor (a Catholic priest) taught that these accounts each had a larger theological point and should not be read literally. I realize that this will anger the literalists in Christianity, but there it is.

I don't think "the Romans" put Jesus to death any more than did "the Jews." Roman soldiers under the command of a Roman governor did. Most of the Roman soldiers doing occupation duty in Judea at that time were freed slaves from the wars with Gaul, and they probably had no clue about why they were executing Jews. Jesus was just one of the many thousands of Jews crucified during the time 'the Senate and People of Rome' governed Judea. Most Romans probably had little to no idea about where Judea was and why Rome was governing it. Even those in the Senate who did, probably thought of Judea as an abstraction and nothing more.

More to the point, no matter how much the governor supposedly abjured his own responsibility--"I did what the ubiquitous they told me to do"--it was his, not theirs. If he gave the order, he--and he alone--was responsible. With great power comes great responsibility. I doubt the literal truth of that portion of the story as well, because it would be a rare Roman who would care much about justice towards barbarians, and the history of Pontius Pilate indicates that he was a brutal governor to the point where even the Roman Senate--hardly the sensitive types--thought it was excessive and removed him from office.
So even if you take the gospel accounts to be true, an individualistic assessment of responsibility would require you to assign the blame to Pontius Pilate, and the over all responsibility to those who gave him power, the Roman Senate.

However, this belated excuse that "the Jews" are cleared from blame because "the Romans" killed Jesus, is in itself an evasion. Perhaps, the evasion takes place because present day Christians become very uncomfortable with the actions of previous Christians, which is also an error of assigning collective responsibility (see Response to Point I above). Or perhaps it is an evasion of the bloody history of Christianity, which was just as inevitable as the bloody history of any other religion or state that reasons from a collectivist philosophy or from mixed premises. But as an individualist, I do not assign responsibility to present-day Christians for the past sins of Christians against Jews or anyone else.

I think that blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus was just an excuse to rob, plunder, rape and kill the strangers living among the Christians of Europe. It has the same root as the excuses that Che used to kill dissenters in Cuba, or that Stalin used to starve the Kulaks off their land. That collectivism leads to this bloody end over and over again in history cannot be disputed. That is why I agree with Glenn Beck that collectivism is evil.

And this is why I wish that Beck would open his eyes and see past the accusers to the accusation itself, and acknowledge his mixed premises. He has a lot of influence, which gives him great power. And with great power comes great responsibility.


Brianna said...

So if I understand you correctly, your main objection is not so much about whether he was reporting on the viewpoint of the people he was talking about as that he would not have done it in that way unless he on some level accepted the collectivist principle involved?

As an aside, I would like to point out that when I went into the details about Jesus's death, I was merely outlining the facts as best I knew them, in order to point out that even in the absolute nastiest interpretation of that biblical record by the most bigoted, anti-semitic jerk, you can't honestly claim that any jew who is alive today is in any way responsible for what some self-contradictory book says some members of their race did or didn't do 2000 years ago. I'm not Christian, I disagree with the fundamentals of Christian doctrine on principle, and I don't really care about who did or didn't do what on that day Jesus died.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


1)No--he would have clarified on his Friday radio program--see the Sunday blog--if he did not unconsciously accept the collectivist principle involved. My objection is that he is inconsistent because on the one hand he objects to collective salvation, slavery reparations (and he is right about these!), but on the other hand agreed that the death of Jesus is the fault of "the Jews."

Briana, you went in to very few details about Jesus' death compared to some comments I received as FB messages. I figured you were not a Christian, but some of these people are, and they mentioned quite a lot about Pontius Pilate washing his hands, which placed the responsibility on "the Jews" apparently. Perhaps I erred, but I thought it a good thing to deal with all the comments at once. However, I think you underestimate the depths to which a bigoted, anti-semitic jerk will stoop! I have been called "Christ Killer" within this year. I was shocked, even though I thought I couldn't be.

I imagine that you disagree with Christian doctrine for the same reason that I disagree with Glenn Beck? It is collectivist and it is altruistic?

Thanks for all the comments.

Brianna said...

So you simply disagree with the possibility that his statement could have come from the fact that he was reporting on a collectivist and undoubtedly anti-semitic group, rather than from any premise he holds on his own part. OK. Certainly I have no evidence to contradict you with that you haven't already considered, and I admit that the longer I consider it, the more I think that he would not have said it that way unless he held the premise on some level.

"Briana, you went in to very few details about Jesus' death compared to some comments I received as FB messages."

OK. I just wanted to make sure this hadn't been set off by me somehow, since I hadn't actually seen anyone else mention the death of Jesus.

"However, I think you underestimate the depths to which a bigoted, anti-semitic jerk will stoop!"

I meant rationally. Once you've thrown out reason, of course you can stoop to any depths you want. Not that it makes such stooping any more understandable from a rational standpoint.

"I have been called "Christ Killer" within this year. I was shocked, even though I thought I couldn't be."

OK... that's just a wee bit creepy.

"I imagine that you disagree with Christian doctrine for the same reason that I disagree with Glenn Beck? It is collectivist and it is altruistic?"

I was 9 when my mother married my stepfather. My stepfamily was roman catholic, but we did not go to church before then. Unfortunately for them, this meant that I, being a rather precocious and stubborn child and something of a reader, was past the age of easy indoctrination. There were a few things I objected to. Galileo's bout with the Church, and the Crusades. The idea that Jesus had either the right or the ability to take my sins on his shoulders; I once heard it compared to a guilty guy getting off death row because an innocent man offered to take his place and that was it for me, I was out. Abraham and Issac: where the heck does God get off telling you to sacrifice your firstborn, anyway? I figured that if God was an invisible guy in the sky who didn't talk, then any idiot who claimed to know God's will was impossible to contradict, and if he said it was God's will that group X be slaughtered, well how would Joe Schmo be able to prove otherwise? My view of original sin was that it was stupid and unfair, and my version of the eating of the fruit of good and evil was/is pretty much exactly the same as the Jewish version (or the Phillip Pullman version), except back then I didn't know that that WAS the Jewish version or that anyone else had ever thought of it that way.

Anyway, the upshot of the whole story was that my family eventually gave up on hoping to sway me to their religion, and by the time I was 15 or so I had the house to myself on Sunday morning. I think I caught hints of the collectivist/altruistic stuff when I was younger; I read what Rand had to say about Christianity in her fiction, and basically agreed with it, and certainly I was surprised last year when I read Rand's opinion of Jesus's sacrifice, and it was pretty much exactly the same as mine was. But that wasn't something I understood in full and explicit detail until fairly recently, for the simple reason that I'd never really heard it before.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Briana:

1)Yes--and No. The first statement could very well have been "reporting on a collectivist" group; but since he did not clarify, most Jews heard only the very scary collective responsiblity. Thirty seconds of clarification would have solved that problem. Still, that was a blunder.
What was not a blunder was his agreement with his side-kick Pat Gray's statement in the radio program on Friday. (I find that since Pat Gray has joined the show, Glenn gets distracted a lot--however he did agree with the substance of what Gray said a week ago).

2) About stooping.
None of it is rational, as you pointed out. And that's the problem--it's really hard to discuss irrationality. I have come to the conclusion that I am going to need to stop listening to Beck. I find myself talking back to the computer, because I am hearing more and more irrationality. And I am beginning to understand that it is "either-or"--that if there is a refounding of this country on Beck's terms, we will be in the same boat within a generation.
I do think Beck is right on the crisis approaching, but I know that and don't need him to know what to do about it.

3) I had some of the same conclusions as you had, fairly early in life. When I heard in High Holy Day sermons that the rabbis had some of the same questions I had, I realized that all religious people are not stupid. (I thought they must be if I could come up with such questions at my age).
Many rabbis thought that the story of Abraham's near sacrifice of his son was a warning not to accept personal revelation; that Abraham had looked around him and saw what other people were doing and assumed that this was what he should do. Since Judaism is a religion of separations, to be holy means to be separate--not to do it like others just because that's the custom, their interpretation makes sense. (Of course those ideas came with Rabbinic Judaism--the Israelite Religion, especially the Temple Cult, was pretty standard middle eastern barbarism).
In Midrash and Talmud the Rabbis focus on the Abraham who argued that it was not just to destroy Sodom and Gommorah--though he didn't go far enough--as the model of a Jew. They saw the Akeda--the story of the near murder of Isaac--as a fall for Abraham, one that G-d had to rescue him from at the last moment. ("Abraham! Ayecha!). Although I know from the Jewish-Catholic dialogue that many Christians interpret the story as an example of perfect obedience, that is not a Jewish interpretation. We take pride in our stubborn willingness to argue even with G-d. Rather, normative rabbinic interpretation is that G-d does not demand human sacrifice.

4) We liked Phillip Pullman's novels. Used them in homeschooling. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has made sure that there will be no more movies. But the books are better anyway!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.