Marching up J Street, Passing Marty Peretz in a Shtreimel

Much as I’ve come to disagree with Marty Peretz, I admit that I hesitate viscerally before criticizing him. Marty opened the pages of the New Republic to me in the 1990s. So attacking him feels like an act of ingratitude, if not a minor violation of oedipal inhibitions toward a one-time mentor. In his own blog, though, Marty appears to have thrown off all inhibitions. He’s turned obscene in print, figuratively and literally, as in his new screed against J Street. Even stranger, he’s exhibiting a definite ultra-Orthodox tendency in defense of his bellicose version of Zionism.

Peretz attacks Jewish liberals who appropriate Abraham Joshua Heschel’s theology and the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam. “Now, JStreet will soon be into the business of quoting Heschel,” he writes. He knows because Ezra Klein has quoted Heschel at The American Prospect in explaining why he supports J Street. In other words, an organization is “guilty” of using every argument that a pundit or other backer uses in support of it.

Marty is sure that Ezra has both Heschel and tikkun olam wrong. Since Judaism forbids using the services of those who speak with the dead, I can’t tell you what Heschel would say if we got him on the line. But I have spent a fair amount of time studying Heschel – indeed, being given his book “The Prophets” when I was 15 is probably what started me on the way to becoming Orthodox. In the chapter called “Justice,” he wrote (emphasis in the original):

Why should religion, the essence of which is worship of God, put such a stress on justice for man? Does not the preoccupation with morality tend to divest religion of immediate devotion to God?… Did not the prophets overrate the worth of justice?

Perhaps the answer lies here: righteousness is not just a value; it is God’s part of human life, God’s stake in human history.

Each person who reads Heschel finds his own Heschel, just as each person who reads the Bible or the Haggadah finds his own Bible and Haggadah. For me that sentence is the distilled essence of Heschel. Because he lived by this credo, he marched at Selma and protested against the war in Vietnam, though it meant challenging the rulers of the country that gave him refuge. After Selma he said, “Our legs were praying.” My late friend Gerald Cromer once explained in a Rosh Hashanah sermon, in his strangely bashful and persuasive way, that Heschel was in fact commenting on the verse in Psalms (35:10): “All my bones shall say, ‘Lord, who is like You, who delivers the poor from him that is too strong for him, and the poor and needy from him that robs him?'” To serve God, we must imitate him with all our bones. I can’t tell what Heschel would be doing were he alive today, but I believe that out of love for Israel, he would be working for peace here.

Marty’s criticism of Ezra’s use of tikkun olam is even stranger. Marty claims that the phrase first occurs in the Mishnah Torah where “it really means tweaking, at best, adjustment.” It actually first occurs in the Mishnah, written a millennium or so before Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah. In the Mishnah it refers to laws enacted for the social good. In the High Holy Days prayers, used as a verb, it refers to perfecting the world under God’s Kingship. The kabbalistic teacher Isaac Luria reinterpreted it to mean that every time one performed a mitzvah, one “transformed the world,” repairing its primordial brokenness and bringing redemption closer. British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, commenting on why “transforming the world” didn’t have a more public, political sense before modernity, explains:

The answer is that for two thousand years what chance did we have? For two thousand years we were dispersed, scattered, exiled, we were powerless, we were what Max Weber called the pariah people…

Now, however, we have the gift and responsibility of power, and must “transform the world” in a new way.

Yes, the phrase has shifted meaning. Changing circumstances change what we learn from our Judaism. Marty demands that we freeze the meaning of the phrase, and of our Judaism, somewhere in the past. To a certain date, innovation is allowed; afterwards it isn’t. This is very similar to saying that Jews can learn from Poles to wear the shtreimel but not from Americans to wear jeans. It is a curious defense of Zionism because Zionism transformed the meaning of traditional phrases wholesale in order to return us to the realm of political power and responsibility. The proper use of that power is not only to defend ourselves, but to understand that justice is “God’s stake in history.”

Enough theology. Here’s some more info on J Street

  • The organization’s own video:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8TN5Rs_5sk&hl=en]

  • Spencer Ackerman in the Washington Independent, alluding to the crucial test for J Street’s success: Small donors doing the same magic they’ve done for MoveOn and the Obama campaign:

Ben-Ami sees J Street as an extension of the new liberal mood of decentralized, bottom-up political action — a development in which the Jewish community, in his view, has lagged behind. “There is a change, really, in the way political conditions [exist] in this country,” he said. “From the million donors to Obama, to MoveOn, to the Dean campaign, there’s been a radical sift in American politics in the way power is accumulated and distributed. And that’s a wave of change that has yet to hit the Jewish community.” Ben-Ami envisions a move away from “a small number of large donors essentially holding the community hostage” to its right-wing political views and instead moving toward “an online, netroots feel to endorsements and activism.”

  • J-Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami in the Forward:

By the dozens, Israeli dignitaries solemnly warn: the window is closing on a two-state solution, and Israel’s prospects for a second, safer 60 years grow are growing ever dimmer…

Yet American politics moves in a parallel, disconnected universe when it comes to the Middle East. Here, being “pro-Israel” requires only mouthing scripted talking points about staunch support for Israel, the special American-Israeli relationship and the shared bond in the war on terrorism.

Laura Rozen at MoJo Blog details how strong the backing is from prominent Israelis who have spent their careers serving this country:

The new group has… gathered letters of support from twenty some former Israeli security and diplomatic officials, including the former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Maj. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the former Israeli Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amos Lapidot, former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami, two former director generals of the Israeli foreign ministry David Kimche and Alon Liel, former Knesset speaker Avram Burg, and Dalia Rabin, daughter of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and a former member of the Israeli Knesset and deputy defense minister.

Hello, Marty! Alon Liel and Amnon Shahak don’t hate Israel. They’ve given much more to the country than you (or I) every will. They are marching up J Street, leaving you beside the road, wondering just what is happening. If Heschel were here, I think he’d be marching too, his legs praying.

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4 thoughts on “Marching up J Street, Passing Marty Peretz in a Shtreimel”

  1. Amen to that, brother!

    Marty Peretz would absolutely detest the name of my blog saying it was an effete misuse of Jewish tradition for partisan political ends. But he’d be wrong. Those of us who embrace the term are doing so in ways that are in consonance with the best traditions of Judaism. Has Marty forgotten our thundering Prophets? Wouldn’t Amos be marching with Heschel if he were with us? And Isaiah too? Would that we could see Martin, Abraham, Amos and Isaiah marching for justice not only here in this country but in the Middle East as well. I can see it in my minds eye. Marty has lost the ability to feel rochnomis unfortunately. How sad for him. His Judaism is one of narrow constraints. Ours is broad and deep.

  2. Gershom,

    If J Street allows itself to be co-opted by those of us who make a practice of using hyperbole to routinely denigrate Israel, I don’t think it’s going to command the widespread support among American Jews that, in principle, it ought to garner.

    The best thing the organization could do on its own behalf is to distance itself from the acid rhetoric of self-styled prophets who predict Israel’s imminent demise, liken it to Nazi Germany, or subject it to a standard of moral judgment from which other nations, including its erstwhile adversaries, are exempt.

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