Friday, December 21, 2012

The God of Particle Board

There are many ways to take Judaism, demean it, make it tawdry, take its high flown and majestic ideas about the messiah, the upper and lower worlds, humans created in the image of God, loving your neighbor as yourself, and sideline them all for the goal of constructing concrete structures on a barren hill in Judea, or setting up trailers along a stretch of barren gravel and rock.

The diminution of Judaism is the subject of The Hilltops, a short documentary by Igal Hecht.  Hecht is a careful filmmaker; he wants people to tell their own stories without his framing the questions or answers in some meta-narrative that either condemns or honors them.   

Yet it is hard not to feel when watching The Hilltops that the illegal settlers in the West Bank are not only breaking Israeli law and departing from the prime tenants of classical Zionism, but also reducing Judaism to a construction project.  The dream of Greater Israel and its Judaism has become about plywood, sheet-rock, cinder-block and utility poles.

Of course, Judaism posits a love of Zion as one of its central, driving impulses.  But to place it as the jewel in the crown is the reduce so much else that gives the religion it richness.  

What is left are dusty people in slovenly clothes, heavily armed, constructing shitty buildings, abusing Palestinians, all in the divine mission of redeeming the land.  Their singular purpose reduces them to Jewish zombies, so fixated on their God sanctioned goal that they forget, or ignore, or berate that fact that other Jews have vital interests, not only in peace, but in the future of a grand, beautiful religion --- a spiritual tradition that is on  par with all the great traditions of the world.  Not a religion about territory lost or gained, but about hearts turned toward God.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Suffering, and more Suffering, China in the 20th Century

China, A Century of Revolution chronicles the earth shattering changes China underwent through much of the twentieth century.  

From the strangle hold of foreign powers on China, their unrestricted exploitation of it people and its land, to the rise of Sun Yat Sen and his brand of nationalism, taken over by Chiang Kai Shek and his Chinese Nationalist government, to the rise of the Communist Party and its takeover in 1948 under the control of Mao Zedong, there is one steady element in all of this flux, regular Chinese people suffer.

The impetus for the takeover of the Communists was the lack of public appeal of the Nationalists.   Rife with corruption, out of touch with the rank and file, the Communists offered more radical reform to help the people rise out of their abysmal poverty.

But in keeping with Brinton’s book The Anatomy of Revolutions, the People’s Republic of China soon becomes an instrument of oppression to its people, especially after the rise of the cult of Mao, culminating in the massive disruptions of the Cultural Revolution.

This is a motif in Chinese history.  Popular uprisings, often under the auspices of a religious or culture movement, are the main threat to existing regimes.   This tends to breed a kind of inherent conservatism in Chinese culture.  Those in power are fearful of mass movements, and mass movements, in turn, create a chaos that is suppressed by the ruling elite.  Then there is a period of stasis, followed by yet another uprising.   

This documentary shows that this pattern is ingrained in Chinese history.  It makes one wonder what will come next.  If Chinese history is any example, regular people will suffer whatever happens.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cara Hoffman on Men & Violence

Cara Hoffman’s utterances in her blog about violence fail to see distinctions among men.  She uses catch all, blanketing language which gives a picture of a unitary entity called a men, the male of the human species.

There is a simple and facile biological determinism to her thinking.  The Y chromosome makes men prone to violence.  No other factors, social, mental, historical, are as important to her as the fact that men are men, and their drives are not manageable by the current structures of society.  Regardless of the fact that only a small fraction of men commit violent crimes, somehow men, by the very nature of being born as men, deserve Hoffman’s stigma as potential murderers. 

We can make the old transference comparison:  If such simple, shallow statements about Jews or Blacks or Indians were made, it would be correct to label such statements as racist.  But men must digest Cara Hoffman’s artless and assertive words that all men, by nature of their biology, are potential abusers, murderers, rapists.  In her writings, men are locked into a ridged biological determinism unless they are saved by beneficial interventions.

But there is no monolithic block called “men."  Hoffman is the purveyor of a view that is one sided and artless.  The word “men” encompasses a wide range of people with different backgrounds, views, behaviors.  Violence does not have to accompany all men, any more than blue eyes.  Certainly, mostly men perform violent crime, but not all men.  Not even most men. And this is the critical point.  Generalizations break apart on the hard rock of this fact.  Most men never commit any crime, and most experts believe that mass murder is more closely correlated with mental illness than gender.

Unfortunately, Hoffman has a cumbersome inability to use her intellect to see beyond appearances.  She takes very little ideas and stretches them to seem portentous.  Her prosaic thinking is gussied up to look like deep thoughts.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Short Changed Luzzatto

Yirmeyahu Bindman attempts in his Rabbi Moshe Chaim LuzzattoHis Life and His Works, to chronicle  this great religious scholar and master of the Kabbalah.    

Luzzatto lived in an era of monumental change (born 1707, and died 1746), during the rise of the modern nation state, democratic movements, the destruction of the stranglehold of religion upon the life of Western Europeans, and the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Unfortunately, Bindman’s book is poorly arranged.  The reader does not get a sense of the arch of Luzzato’s life, nor the layout of his works.   

Certainly, there is some interesting material here.  Bindman does a good job at showing the petty in fighting that got Luzzatto kicked out of Padua, Italy, into an exile of sorts in Amsterdam.

But the book lacks punch, and Luzzatto, this important figure in the history of JJudaism, gets short changed.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Miami (more than twenty years ago)

Joan Didion’s Miami is a hard hitting look at the political, social, and economic scene of the title city.  Written mostly about incidents and events which took place in the 1980s, it is difficult to tell how much of this book is still relevant.  Regardless, Didion takes on a complex topic,  handling the heady mixture of people and groups of exilic Cubans in Miami.

Care should be taken when reading this book.  Because Didion uses a narrative voice very close to the people and organizations she is examining, it often appears that she is making derogatory or even racist remarks.  But she is merely taking the tone of the person, giving their voice some play in the narrative.  She keeps, more or less, her journalistic distance.

All in all, this is a dense book that is not for everyone.  Unless you are a die-hard Didion fan, or have a vested interest in the scene in Miami (over twenty years ago) its concerns may be too remote.