Monthly Archives: January 2019

Jan 24

24 January 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Few people have been more misunderstood than the much-maligned philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. For many, the name of Nietzsche conjures up images of jackbooted fascists, and to some he is considered to be the intellectual underpinning of Nazism, with his ideas of will, nihilistic tendencies, and the oft-quoted notion of the übermenschen. Yet indeed, nothing could be further from the truth.

Throughout his life, Nietzsche fought viciously against any sentiment of Pan-Germanism, resurgent romantic nationalism, and indeed against pre-Nazi streams in German thought, including an explicit condemnation of anti-Semitism. Nietzsche’s disgust at the anti-Semitism of many of his peers led to the permanent break in his long personal friendship with the composer Richard Wagner and his almost complete estrangement from his sister, who, together with her husband, was an active agitator for the ideologies which would later be crystallised in Hitler’s vision.

In fact, it was Nietzsche’s sister who attempted to promote the idea that his philosophy provided the intellectual justification for Nazism. After his death, she published his works with deliberate misquotations, censored passages, and with the addition and juxtaposition of sections which completely misconstrued the meaning. Nietzsche died at 55, though his intellectual work ended just after he turned 44, when, on the occasion of his birthday, he penned the following line in an autobiographical sketch of himself: “Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.”

Indeed, he has been mistaken for someone else– several times over. In particular I have been thinking a lot about Nietzsche because of the tragedy of remembrance. It is only recently, and even then, only in the narrow confines of academic philosophy, that an open reappraisal of who Nietzsche was has really resounded. To most, he still is tainted by a facile and non-factual association with Fascism.

How easily do we misunderstand things around us! We misunderstand each other, we misunderstand our history, and more often than not, we misunderstand ourselves. Yet rather than continually question our own perceptions, we tend to double-down on them, assuming their truth beyond all doubt. The examples are endless of our tendency to see something, take it as fact, and then take drastic action as a result.

This past week, in a far more mundane realm than Nietzschean philosophy, the internet engaged in yet another great collective rush to judgement. An three-way altercation between a group of young men from a Kentucky high school, a Native American protestor, and a group of Black Hebrew Israelites spewing hate-speech led to a confusing clip which quickly went viral.

Lots of media outlets did what they do best– picked up a story that appeared to evoke emotions, paint good and bad with a broad brush, and then in classic 2019-fashion, share, share, share. Within 48 hours, half of America knew where Covington Catholic was and who Nathan Phillips was. Yet, as it later turned out, no one really knew what actually happened that day outside the Lincoln Memorial. It turns out that it was a lot more complicated.

I have no interest in excusing anyone’s bad behaviour, but it has been fascinating to watch the media firestorm as it swallows itself and turns itself inside out, from the safe distance of the UK. What pundits hoped would be an easy-sell story about MAGA hat-wearing school boys taunting a Native American veteran turned out to be not so simple at all. The truth is still hard to suss out exactly, but a quick glance at the evidence makes it clear that the dangerous dichotomy set out by the press isn’t it.

It took Nietzsche 50 years for his books to become bestsellers, and another 50 years for scholars to realise they had gotten them completely wrong. In 2019, the radical swings in misperception happen in minutes and hours, in 140 characters and in Facebook adverts short enough to stop watching before the commercial starts. It seems that now, more than ever, we need to approach the information we are being told with a tremendous degree of skepticism. Consider multiple sides, consider who benefits and who is hurt by a particular narrative, consider whether there might be more evidence– whatever you do, be always willing to reconsider the misunderstanding and misperceptions that we make, and are encouraged to make, all the time.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jan 17

17 January 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

One of the (many) things I love about Judaism is its infinite potential to reinterpret texts. In some ways, this aspect of our ancient tradition is incredibly modern; like postmodern philosophers, our Sages were happy to read texts out of context, in their own right, and often ignorant of the authorship or background to the material. For them, the Torah was something beyond simply a book, and thus should be approached accordingly.

This flexibility may seem to many to be purposefully unfaithful to the text, and indeed, some of the intellectual gymnastics in which we indulge can be frustrating to say the least– but at the end of the day, it is precisely this dynamic approach to difficult stories, characters, and phrases which has enabled Judaism to continue to be a vivid and lively faith across millennia of instability and persecution.

One of my favourite examples of this phenomenon relates to this weeks parashah, Beshallach. The centrepiece of Beshallach is Shirat haYam (The Song of the Sea), a passage which we sing daily in the morning service, and which we quote numerous times elsewhere (including in the daily evening service, the Shabbat service, etc.) Shirat haYam is, according to scholars, one of the oldest texts of the Torah, written in an archaic sort of Hebrew that is difficult to translate. In addition, it is physically written differently– being only one of two sections in the Torah scroll which scribes layout in a particular format (in this case, like a brick-work).

Among the many praises and verses of Shirat haYam, there is one that many readers and commentators alike find difficult, Exodus 15:3, “Adonai is a man of war- Adonai is his name.” For a religion which continually attempts to affirm that God is beyond all physical reality, and certainly beyond physical appearance, the characterisation of God as a warrior is troubling, to say the least. It would appear there is no other way to read this verse; quite plainly it seems to say that God is a warrior– or does it?

Rabbi Yitschak Abu-Hatseira was a 16th century Moroccan sage who wrote a brilliant commentary on the siddur. When he reaches this verse, he introduces a totally other way to read it. The word for ‘man’ can also mean ‘husband,’ just as ‘wife’ and ‘woman’ are the same word. Thus, he creatively re-reads the verse as ‘God is the husband of War.’ He explains that the divine presence of God on Earth, called the Shekhinah and conceived of as feminine, was actually the one to conduct the war against Pharaoh. Not only was it Her who used the divine armies to defeat Pharaoh and split the sea, but it was Her who leads all war.

While a feminine divinity responsible for war may not solve the problem of apparent polytheistic tendencies, it does demonstrate to us how flexible the Torah can be. That verse can mean two very different things (and likely more than those two): 1) God is a warrior, 2) God is a husband to War. Perhaps most critically for our anachronistic postmodernism, we never need to settle on which is correct. We have no council, no authority, no pope and no Sage who has the right to decide which reading is the ‘right’ one. Instead, our tradition invites us to creatively re-read the text over and over and over again, each time finding new meaning in it.

For me, as we read Shirat haYam, the reminder of how broad our understanding can reach while still relating to the text in front of us, is an apt message for Beshallach. We all walked through that sea together, reached the other side, and after much tribulation, received the Torah which is in our hands today. Yet when we look back, each of us can see something different in it, each of able to find a new reading, a new interpretation– and through that, continue to renew the Torah itself.

Shabbat Shalom