Saturday, March 18, 2006

This week’s Parsha was “Ki Tisa,” which means, “And you will elevate,” but this post is not about the Parsha, but rather about its Haftarah. In the Haftarah, the Prophet Eliyahu rallies against the Israelite King Achav (Ahab) who has resorted to mingling idolatry into the Israelite kingdom and society, partially, it seems, to appease his wife Jezebel, a practitioner of Ba’al-worship. There was one part that I found most interesting, when Eliyahu, who had a following of some one hundred men, challenged the worshippers of Ba’al to see if their god could ignite an altar. The way he set it up was to set up a wooden altar and for both him and them to sacrifice a bull on it. After that, they each covered the altar in water until it filled up the ditch surrounding it, and then to pray for it to be struck by fire and lit ablaze. As the worshippers of Ba’al performed this, and there was no response, Eliyahu criticized them rather humorously, asking if perhaps their god was away, or if he was relieving himself. The reason behind this taunt is that the worshippers of Ba’al believed that relieving themselves to him pleased him, and his criticism was based on that. Eventually, after dancing and praying to their god and getting no response, they began to cut themselves, and at this point, still getting no response, Eliyhau prayed to G-d, Who then struck down his soaking wooden altar and lit it ablaze. At was at this point that the worshippers of Ba’al of Pe’or realized that G-d was the true G-d and began to follow Him.

Instead of speaking about the theological implications of this Parsha, which fascinate me, I will tie this into the known Jewish intellectual, Noam Chomsky. I once read an article by Noam Chomsky where he compares himself to Eliyahu, not necessarily to aggrandize himself, but to show that, just like Eliyahu was railing against a wicked idolatrous Israelite (Jewish) king, he (Noam) rails against wicked idolatrous governments (since in those days, kingdoms were the form of government). This is basically a response to the label that some Jews give Chomsky of being anti-Israel; clearly his retort is to say that he, like Eliyahu, is actually pro-Israel, although in some wacky hard-to-understand anti-Israel’s existence type of way. He bases his argument on the verse in the Haftarah (I Kings), “And it was when Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is that you, the troubler of Israel?’ He said [to him], ‘Not I have troubled Israel, rather you and your father’s house [have], by your forsaking the commandments of Hashem; and you have gone after the Baalim!” (I Kings 18:17-19) Chomsky likens himself to Eliyahu, and most likely, Israel and America (and other Western powers) to King Achav and his prostitution of the covenant with G-d. However, his charge against these powers is of the political secular form, violating an anarchical sacredness for a democratic capitalistic idolatry; clearly he misses the point of the events that took place in Israel at that point in time.

The similarity between Eliyahu and Noam Chomsky is that both are Jews with something to say about their government and therefore their people, but both are saying extremely different things and living in extremely different scenarios than each other. Eliyahu was living in sovereign Israel at a time when its king was striking alliances with polytheistic nations and integrating idolatrous worship of all types into the Jewish worship of G-d, the fabric of Israelite society. This itself was a vicious assault on the Jewish establishment’s internal order and all that they valued, an invasion, which led to further invasions and to even further destruction, which culminated in the take-over and exile of Jews from their homes, an exile which has only been physically ended with the recent establishment of the State of Israel, and even then, only for about half of world Jewry, and is a secular democratic sovereign Jewish state. We see clearly now the relationship between idolatry and destruction that the Prophets all spoke about; it is so simply correlated that we can measure it empirically, and if statistics was a developed field in those days, Time Magazine would have published a study showing the correlation between religious and cultural assimilationist patterns of Jews into polytheistic cultures and the ebbing way of their own societal fabric, and eventually, their sovereignty. We therefore clearly understand what Eliyahu stood for when we read that he called for the ending of this idolatrous corruption and flirtation (which he names “prostitution”) with the nations and their deities – he was calling for a return to the proper and just value system of the Jews and their covenant with G-d, which placed Him above all. But Chomsky, with his arrogant and self-aggrandizing anarchical arguments, seeks to superimpose the succinct and powerful message of the noble Eliyahu onto his own intellectually manipulative (and flawed) ethos, and therefore to “inherit” his spirit, to depict himself like Eliyahu.

According to Uri Zohar, a famous Israeli actor and television show host turned Orthodox Jew, "The revolutionary, for example, rebels against the facts, structures, and practices of his particular society and no other(emphasis included). The revolutionary theoretician, of course, tries, as it were, to dress up the structures of his own societies past and present in the clothing of his own society. He hopes hereby to give the struggle of the moment some kind of universal, trans-generational, or, at the very least, international appearance. His theories are, however, as much a reaction to the narrow circumstances of his own historical setting as are the actual revolutionary activities which he seeks to justify or encourage. The revolution and the prisons that it will build when (and if) it wins are designed and modelled by the prison bars of the regime against which it is fighting."

It is interesting to say that here, he is speaking both analogically and literally; the mental prison bars, i.e., meaning that there will be a place in society set aside for the new criminals, i.e., dissentors, will be placed in the prisons that were built for those who were the criminals in the old system. The new system despises with fire the old system, but not enough to build new prisons; the existing one's will suffice even though their usage was to imprison innocent people.

In reality, he sharply negates what the Prophet was conveying; Eliyahu loved Israel (like G-d) and called for an internal and complete restoration of justice and the service of G-d, which were inseparably interwoven, and Chosmky similarly calls for the ending of corruption as well, but he places in the center of his attacks a struggling Jewish sovereign state and accuses it of violating international sanctions (a word that shares a root with “sanctity”), therefore placing their law on a pedestal above not necessarily Jewish law, but above Jewish sensibilities, desires, and values. This is why he is sensed by most Jews as being a “self-hating Jew.” Noam Chomsky is clearly closer to being an Achav figure than an Eliyahu figure, nay, he basically epitomizes King Achav, attacking Israel, troubling it greatly, and calling for its destruction. Furthermore, in the same way that Achav exalted the gods and goddesses of the neighboring polytheistic nations, Chomsky speaks out in stark defense of the Palestinian movement, and more generally, rails against American policy and defends Arab sensibilities; has he forgotten his own people, does he care more about his enemies than his own family, does he speak in their defense in the name of G-d and the Torah, closing his eyes to what it really is? He is like Achav, and it is a blessing from G-d that he is not a king, but just a tattered and troubled Jewish professor of linguistics at MIT in Boston.

Slightly Related

If you study polytheistic religious systems from around the world, and covering a range of thousands of years, you will see that one thing that a majority of them had in common was the practice of human sacrifice in service to a god or a goddess. It was such a common ritual in polytheistic societies to sacrifice human being in religious ceremonies, either their own people or prisoners of war from other nations, that human sacrifices can be understood as being an intimate element of polytheistic religious systems. This was seen as an act appeasing their god or goddess, which they believed had to be done for a variety of reasons, depending on the nature of the particular deity to which they were sacrificing.

A few days ago, I watched a play for a class, which played on an ancient Aztec myth of their moon goddess, Coyolxauhqi. At the end of the play, one of the actresses made a comparison between the rationale behind human sacrifices and suicide bombing; I was shocked to hear such a comment made in what was generally a quite liberal audience – I have a feeling, although it is irrelevant, that had this statement been made before suicide missions were carried out on American soil and by one Muslim to another (in Iraq), when it was only Palestinians killing Jews, such a statement would have insulted the sensibilities of many liberal thinkers. Since the threat of suicide terrorism has become more of a general and global threat, it has become more acceptable to criticize it publicly.

Let us examine this supposed correlation and see if it holds any water; do the human sacrifices of old and the suicide bombings of today share any common spiritual/theological/emotional bonds?

When referring to the people that were willfully taking part in being a human sacrifice, and comparing it to suicide bombers, we see a common strand; both share an exuberant embrace of death, an emotional and spiritual high which compresses and basically eliminates the fear of death, making the cause one that they are able to die for. The most tragic mistake people make is that the embrace of death is fueled by sadness, frustration, or desperation; a classic misunderstanding probably based on a Western correlation with the man who goes on a shooting spree in his office due to intolerable feelings of loss of control and failure. The motive and situation in each of these scenarios, the eighteen year-old Palestinian suicide bomber of Ramallah and the middle-aged white American in suburban Washington, are alarmingly incomparable – one is ideologically motivated, eager, and maybe even joyous, while the other is depressed, emotionally distant, and is haunted by feelings of failure.

This almost completely eclipses the presence of an ideology in Judaism that also allows for a Jew to end his life for a cause. There is such a thing, but the difference, however, is categorical. According to Jewish law, a Jew must choose his/her death under three circumstances; martyrdom is only allowed when a Jew is faced with violating the commandment prohibiting idolatry, sexual transgression, or murder. He is, in no way, allowed to seek out his own death otherwise, even to kill an enemy, for this would require him to seek out a situation where he is forced to violate a commandment. However, as we see, he is required to take his own life in this situation, not the life of another, nor of several others.

What Jewish martyrdom shares in common with Muslim martyrdom is that both involve the command to die. The difference is that one views one’s own death as a final resort, in short, giving that life to G-d, and the other views death as a way to remove an oppressor, giving his and their life to G-d. Both conceptualize this act of choosing death as a “sanctification of G-d’s name” or “an act of witnessing G-d’s greatness.” Jewish martyrdom says that one must die before ending the life of another, and Muslim martyrdom says that one must die while ending the life of another. The definition of the word “murder” is open to interpretation, and in the Muslim understanding of martyrdom, it is killing, not murder, to end the life of an oppressor; “killing” is a neutral word meaning "to end one's life," the word used for an essentially legal ending of another’s life, “murder” is the word used for the illegal ending of one’s life, and this is the understanding in most religious systems. A martyr is not a murderer, he is a sanctified killer. For those that abhor political assassinations, how much more so should they abhor a political assassin who assassinates civilians by using himself as the weapon?

The liberal is sickened by Israel's political assasins in the Mossad, but are infatuated by the Palestinian's murders in Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade. Here is where the two meet; in Jewish thought, the victims of the bombing are the martyrs, in Muslim thought, the suicide bomber is the martyr, and the Jews who perished were souless pieces of a machine that had to be shattered in order to bring the entire thing down. Perhaps it is because the Palestinians terrorists deserve to die and that the Jewish civilians do not that fans the flames of the part of the human psyche that is enthralled with violent death, the part that is intimately attached to spirituality and that tingling sensation felt in the head. Again, like in the human sacrifices of the polytheists, the magic was not in the preservation of life, but in the loss, and the more violent the method was that took that life, the louder the apes shouted. Have you ever seen a group of baboons' reaction to the communal killing of a prey, or the sounds made by wolves after they've slaughtered theirs? It can only be described as sheer murderous elation. This is why it is hard to "convince" people that suicide bombing is wrong, because it is not their logical faculties that are being affected by this ritualistic behavior, but their emotional areas, which then connects, in a strange way, to their spiritual functions. That is why the Palestinian suicide bomber can kill himself and murder a group of innocent people for G-d, because it speaks to his spiritual side.

*On an interesting side note, when Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj, there is a point in the trip where they throw rocks at a geometrically-shaped statue intended to symbolize Satan, or Iblis. Connect this to the idealized Palestinian child that throws rocks at the Israeli forces, which his society so fittingly calls "the Little Satan." Is there a connection in his mind to the religious practice of throwing rocks at a symbol of Satan, and does it make sense that the Jews are Satan? Whether or not he has visited Mecca himself and taken part in it, it is likely that he has learned of this religious ritual at some point, either at school or through osmosis.

Yet, there is a visible difference between human sacrifice and suicide bombing. The one giving his life up as a human sacrifice to a deity, even though he embraced his death (which, like suicide bombing, probably came with a degree of anxiety, which contributed to the exuberance), he was the only one whose life was being taken. Conversely, in suicide bombing, the one who chooses his own death also chooses the deaths of anyone who happens to be in his proximity. Suicide bombing, and I never thought I would say this, makes human sacrifice seem relatively benign, because even though it is a despicable act, he is ending only his own life. The priests of Molech would sacrifice their sons to that deity by setting them ablaze, while alive, in service of this god. To make an analogy, suicide bombing (with the express intent to kill others) would be like setting your son ablaze and then sending him to walk into a wooden building; the fire on his skin would set the wood on fire, and then everybody in the building would also be burned to death. He then, in the service of his god, kills himself and others – this would actually be more of an abomination than the human sacrifices, which G-d banned with Abraham. When the religious believer in G-d did not believe that it could get any categorically worst than a willful violent human sacrifice to a non-existent deity – we have a willful ultra-violent human sacrifice to an existent deity – G-d Himself. Furthermore, only the one who sacrifices himself is willing, all those who he kills are entirely unwilling and unaware that such a “religious sacrifice” is coming. On top of this, it is the Muslim, who (claims) to believe in the “same G-d” as the Jews, kills Jews in G-d’s Name! And when it could not get any more bizarre, the descendant’s of Abraham’s second son murder the descendants of Abraham’s first son, after G-d banned human sacrifice with their common Patriarch. Obviously, one of the groups has strayed from the true path; G-d and Abraham, not to mention Muhammad, would be outraged with their actions.

In the “Akeidah” account, the binding of Isaac, the Torah tells us that an angel of G-d told Abraham not to kill Isaac just as he lifted the knife to go through with it. The Q’uran tells the story different, clearly placing an emphasis on the ability of Abraham to go through with it. The Muslim commentator explains that the Jews told the story wrong, that had Abraham only lifted his hand in preparation to sacrifice Isaac, he might have backed down in the last second. This is why the Muslim oral tradition explains that Abraham actually went through with slicing his son’s throat, but that at the last moment an angel (probably the same one) placed a thin metal sheet at his throat, which was sliced in place of it. This is intended to remove any doubt from the reader’s mind that Abraham was fully committed to the command of his G-d, which apparently is lacking in the “Jewish version.” Therefore, sheer and total commitment to Q’uranic Law is made the central message gleaned from this story. Furthermore, in the Q’uran’s version, Abraham is sacrificing Ishmael, not Isaac, and the location is the Q’aba in Mecca, not the future sight of the Temple in Jerusalem. Can we imagine the psychological effect this has on the followers of Islam? Total dedication to the point of death – it does a lot in explaining the Q’uranic rationale behind suicide bombing. The answer is not found in the myriad oral law of Islam, but in the founding story, the point of origin of the ancestor of the Muslim religion.

We see one of the most famous elements of polytheism rising to the surface in the monotheistic Islam, the “final religion.” Noam Chomsky, a Jew, a son of Isaac, is one of the most outspoken defenders of the Palestinian movement, the self-proclaimed sons of Ishmael. It is here that the ill-of-spirit sons of Isaac defend the ill-of-conscience sons of Ishmael, and the opposite never happens.