Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Theological Revisionism: Parshat Ki Tissa 2017-5777

Budapest’s Szabadsàgtèr Park (Freedom Square) has become a gallery of monuments to a spectrum of political ideologies:

A stone’s throw from Budapest’s majestic Gothic revival parliament building, Freedom Square teems with monuments attesting to Hungary’s turbulent 20th century. Dominating the north side of the plaza is a giant obelisk constructed by the Soviet Union and dedicated to the city’s Red Army liberators. A few paces south one finds a statue of Imre Nagy, the executed hero of Hungary’s 1956 anti-Soviet revolt, standing on a bridge looking forlornly on parliament. At the southern end of the square, outside a Calvinist church, stares a bust of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the authoritarian regent under whose reign Hungary passed the first anti-Semitic law of 20th-century Europe in 1920, allied with the Axis powers, and deported some half-million Jews to Auschwitz in the largest and swiftest mass transfer of the Final Solution. In the middle of it all, a bronzed Ronald Reagan walks briskly toward the nearby U.S. embassy. With its abundant memorials, this one plaza commemorates the grand sweep of Europe’s most influential 20th-century ideologies: communism, nationalism, fascism, and democracy.[1]

Today a fifth monument, the pet project of Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Victor Orbán has been added: the Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation. A German imperial eagle attacking the Archangel Gabriel, symbol of Hungary, conveys a clear message: The Hungarian nation was a victim of German aggression during World War II and, as an occupied country, bears no responsibility or guilt for its complicity in the Holocaust. In the world of Orbán’s historical revisionism, the “victims of the German occupation” are not Jews; they are non-Jewish Hungarians. In response to a Hungarian art historian who questioned the meaning of the monument, Orbán wrote that “it can hardly be disputed that Germany bears responsibility for what happened in Hungary after March 19, 1944… We cannot bear a responsibility that is not ours to bear… The victims, whether Orthodox, Christian, or without faith, became the victims of a dictatorship that embodied an anti-Christian school of thought.”[2] In sculpture and words, Orbán rewrote history: he made invisible the nearly one million Jews who were the primary victims of the Nazis and declared the Hungarian state’s enthusiastic endorsement and active collaboration in mass murder evidence of its “victimhood.”

Revisionist history takes many forms and it is always noxious, shifting blame from the guilty to the innocent. It happens not only in the post-Holocaust world of lies, distortions, “alternative facts,” and deceptions, but in the world of theological retellings, as well.

This week’s Torah portion, whose most salient story is that of the Golden Calf, and Talmud’s reflection on, it provide a case in point. While Moses is still at the summit of Sinai, God tells him what is happening down below and urges him to hurry down.[3] God’s declared intent is to annihilate the people, but Moses successfully talks God out of it. That accomplished,

וַיִּפֶן וַיֵּרֶד מֹשֶׁה, מִן-הָהָר, וּשְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת, בְּיָדוֹ:  לֻחֹת, כְּתֻבִים מִשְּׁנֵי עֶבְרֵיהֶם--מִזֶּה וּמִזֶּה, הֵם כְּתֻבִים

Thereupon Moses turned and went down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, tablets inscribed on both their surfaces: they were inscribed on this side and on that side. (Exodus 32:15)

The first set of tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, which he subsequently hurled to the ground, were engraved on both sides. (They are typically depicted as being engraved on only one side; for example, see the image to the right.) The language used to express this idea is mi-zeh u-mi-zeh (lit: “from this [side] and from that [side]).

A similar construction involving zeh…zeh appears in the Book of Esther. To set the scene: Mordechai has just learned about Haman’s decree to kill all the Jews of Persia. He rends his clothes, puts on sackcloth and askes, and walks through the city wailing. Jews throughout the kingdom have also heard the news of Haman’s decree. Like Mordechai, they are mourning, fasting, weeping, and wailing; like him, they don sackcloth and ashes.

Esther, in the palace, sends clean clothes for Mordechai, but he refuses to remove his sackcloth. Here is where we find zeh…zeh.

וַתִּקְרָא אֶסְתֵּר לַהֲתָךְ מִסָּרִיסֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱמִיד לְפָנֶיהָ, וַתְּצַוֵּהוּ, עַל-מָרְדֳּכָי--לָדַעַת מַה-זֶּה, וְעַל-מַה-זֶּה

Thereupon Esther summoned Hathach, one of the eunuchs whom the king had appointed to serve her, and sent him to Mordechai to learn the this and that of it all. (Esther 4:5)

On the basis of the use of zeh…zeh in both Esther and Exodus, the Talmud observes:

לדעת מה זה ועל מה זה אמר רבי יצחק שלחה לו שמא עברו ישראל על חמשה חומשי תורה דכתיב בהן (שמות לב) מזה ומזה הם כתובים

…“to learn the this and that of it all.” R. Yitzhak said: [This teaches that Esther] sent a message to [Mordechai, saying]: “Perhaps Israel has transgressed the Five Books of the Torah, of which it is written, “they are inscribed on this side and on that side.” (BT Megillah 15a)

R. Yitzhak’s suggestion, that persecution and suffering are divine retribution for sin, is a theological staple of the rabbinic stable. The presumption that God’s power trumps the power of all human rulers leads the Rabbis to analyze history along a single vector: Bad things happen to Israel in response to Israel’s sins. The mere use of zeh…zeh is enough evidence—and, indeed, the sole “evidence”—to draw this conclusion and blame the Jews rather than lay the blame on the proper doorstep: a narcissistic and maniacal prime minister.

And, in the words of too many infomercials, “Wait, there’s more!” Earlier in the same tractate, R. Shimon b. Yochai explained that the Jews of Esther and Mordechai’s generation deserved the genocide Haman devised for them:

R. Shimon ben Yochai’s students asked him, “Why did Israel’s enemies in that generation deserve extermination?” He said to them, “Because they derived pleasure from the feast of that wicked one [i.e., Ahasuerus].” “If so, [only the Jews] of Shushan should have been [subject to being] killed; [Jews] throughout the rest of the world should not have been [subject to being] killed.” They [the students] said to [R. Shimon b. Yochai], “You tell us [why our reasoning is flawed].” He said to them, “Because they prostrated themselves to an image [i.e., engaged in idolatry].” They said to him, “Should favoritism be should in such a matter?” [I.e., if they Jews were engaged in so heinous a sin as idolatry, why did God permit them to be saved?] He said to them, “They performed [the prostrations] only outwardly [i.e., without genuine conviction]. So, too, the Holy Blessed One dealt with them only outwardly. Thus it is written: For [God] does not willingly [lit: “from the heart”] bring grief [or affliction to people] (Lamentations 3:33). (BT Megillah 12a)

When R. Shimon says, “Israel’s enemies in that generation,” he does not mean the Persians: he means Jews![4] The students assume that the Jews who suffered did so deservedly—they have been taught to think this way. Their teacher, R. Shimon b. Yochai, supplies the sin to justify the punishment: They participated in the king’s lavish banquet, which is described in Esther chapter 1. But that’s illogical, the students point out, because only the Jews of Shushan could have attended the king’s party. Yet Jews throughout all the provinces of Persia were designated for destruction. Okay, R. Shimon says, then it’s because they were engaged in idolatry, the catch-all sin. All of them? Really? There is not a single word in the Book of Esther that supports R. Shimon’s claim, nor does he attempt any fancy interpretive footwork to pin his claim on a verse.

R. Shimon reconstructs history from out of his theological framework; his is a theologically-inspired revisionist history. He blames the victims and thereby absolves the guilty.

Stepping away from Jewish tradition for a moment, we see that this is not merely an attribute of the ancient world and far from a uniquely Jewish phenomenon. Every time tragedy strikes in America, someone steps before a microphone or camera or keyboard and opines that this event was the just punishment of God in response to our sins. No sooner had Adam Lanza killed his mother and massacred 20 first-grade children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 than the radio show host Bryan Fischer declared, “We’ve kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentleman.”[5]

Journalist Brandon G. Withrow has written:

This phantom idea of God’s judgment eagerly waiting to drop the sickle “haunts” — to use a term of Flannery O’Connor — the conservative Evangelical mind in America, whether or not they know its roots. That is why a pastor can blame a hurricane on the so-called “homosexual agenda” and not feel in any way unjustified in doing it, and why those outside of that dark worldview might find it to be an absurd idea.

I think there might be a better way: If you are unable to console, consider silence.[6]

If the best you can do is silence, that is certainly far better than theologically-inspired revisionist history and victim-bashing. But Withrow is entirely right: consoling is a far holier response.

There is a deep connection between truth in the factual sense and truth in the religious sense. When we untether ourselves from factual truth and go chasing after lies, distortions, and revisionist history, we disconnect ourselves from morality and decency, and thereby from genuine holiness.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


[1] James Kirkpatrick, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age (2017: Yale University Press), pp. 40–41.
[2] Ibid., p. 44.
[3] That, in itself, is strange because God’s declared intention is to destroy the people and start anew with Moses. How will that happen if Moses hurries down and is destroyed in the ensuing genocide?
[4] This viewpoint is consistent with another famous story in the Talmud in which R. Shimon b. Yochai severely criticizes Roman society and culture and, by implication, Jews who indulge in Roman society. As a result, the Romans place a bounty on his head and he is forced to hide for twelve years in a cave. This story is found in BT Shabbat 33b-34a.

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