Brief Thoughts on Religion and Politics: on Humility and Arrogance

(in memory of Aaron Shmuel Tamares and Yehuda Don Yehia)

“Turn from Your blazing anger and renounce the plan to punish Your people” (Exodus 32:12).

“שׁ֚וּב מֵחֲר֣וֹן אַפֶּ֔ךָ וְהִנָּחֵ֥ם עַל־הָרָעָ֖ה לְעַמֶּֽךָ” (שמות לב:יב).

Like many of us, each morning before I enter the world of the news, I spend some time talking to my creator with the siddur (Jewish liturgy) as my guide.

Lately, I am feeling increasing disparity, or perhaps dissonance, between the language of the siddur and the voices of my people. Jewish prayer is famously divided into three major categories; praise, request, and supplication. But in some way, it is the supplication that serves, at least for me, as the true cornerstone. And supplication is founded on the acknowledgement of wrongdoing, sin, incompletion, however one wants to frame it. One could bring many examples, drawn from the Hebrew Prophets, the rabbinic imagination, or simple liturgical genius.

But it is all based on one principle: we beseech God not to punish us, not to take revenge, on a people who have lost their way. This comes through most powerfully, perhaps, in the supplication after the silent Amidah known as Tahanun. And for me this line cuts to the chase: “Turn from Your blazing anger and renounce the plan to punish Your people.” Anyone who reads this and takes it seriously must first acknowledge that, in fact, we deserve the punishment we are beseeched God not to undertake. That we are guilty, that we are complicit, that we are errant. It is a humbling liturgical posture, and to me an essential one.

And then after taking the words of Torah off my arm and head, putting them on a shelf, and pouring some coffee, I look at the morning news. And what do I see? Myriad ways we (Jews/Israel) claim that we are being framed, that we not to blame, that we are doing nothing wrong, that we are justified, and it is they, only they (fill in everything from Hamas to the ICC), who are evil. No complicity, no error, no responsibility, no sin. And I feel jolted from the world of liturgy where humility is the center to a world of arrogance, a world of excuses, a world of blame. And if you try to suggest complicity you are mistaken, you lack love of the Jews, you may even be evil. It is as if the world has become the inverse of the prophetic imagination. And often this is said in the name of Judaism.

The pogromist Jews who burned down the village of Huwara a year ago stopped in the midst of their pogrom, under the watchful eyes of the IDF, to pray the evening prayer (Ma’ariv). And how does this prayer begin? With Psalm 78:38, “But God, being merciful, forgave iniquity and would not destroy; God restrained His wrath time and again and did not give full vent to His fury.” In front of a burning village these Jews uttered these words and seemed to see no incongruity. And then they continued to burn down the village. And what do we say? A few errant souls, they are not us, they are the exception. As we kill children, destroy homes, ruin innocent lives. And we are not contrite. We even feel morally superior.

So I wonder as my first cup of coffee lingers, how does one utter words of contrition and then makes excuses why everything our people does, all the killing children, women, even desecrating cemeteries, is all justified? How can we forget our liturgical selves so quickly and claim to stand for morality and justice? How can we be in one moment so contrite, and in another so arrogant and self-righteous? In one moment full of love and in another full of hate? How can we stand before the creator as our best selves, and then confront the world as our worst selves, and not see the difference? How can we wake up the next morning, and the next morning, and still say, “Turn from Your blazing anger and renounce the plan to punish Your people,” and then turn to the world and say “we have done nothing wrong?” I do not know. But I do know one thing. The vertigo is crushing me. Every single day.

Shaul Magid is Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Visiting Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Harvard, the Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and the rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue. His latest books are The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance (New York: Ayin Press and Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical (Princeton University Press, 2021)

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