Saturday, February 27, 2016


Renée Bergland’s The National Uncanny, which is about the ways in which Native Americans haunt the imagination of European Americans, reminds us that “Writing and ghost seeing are intimately connected.” Whenever we write about anything we are “Summoning the Invisible World”, as one chapter title has it—the intangible world of people and things that are not present and cannot be physically touched. This is especially true of historical writing. History itself is “thought of as ghostly.”

But I think Bergland would agree that it is one thing to be turned into a ghost by the natural course of life as generation succeeds generation, and it is quite another thing to be made into a ghost by people who do this to you so that you can be rendered insubstantial and without title to land, rights, or any other considerations. Some of the points Bergland makes with respect to American Indians: “the ghosting of Indians is a technique of removal”, “Ghosts are the things that we try to bury, but that refuse to stay buried”, and “ghosts often protest unlawful transfers of political power.”

Ghosts confront us with our fears and guilt. Ghosts remind us how difficult it is to get entirely rid of a people and imagine a future without them. They just won’t go away. So it has been with Aborigines around the world and so it has been for Jews.

Jews lost their land a long time ago (only to regain it in the 20th century), but the ghosting of Jews was never primarily about loss of land. Jews were denied a living future by freezing them in time. One of the many myths about Jews and Jewish culture—and one that was fostered by scholars more than by popular misconceptions—is that Judaism reached its height under Moses, then steadily declined until the 1st century, at which time Jesus came to reprimand Jews and, when they wouldn’t listen, took his message to gentiles, leaving Jews trapped in an unchanging, primitive religion of rituals and purity concerns.

If you think about it, this kind of ghostliness was applied to more than just Jews. This is what was done to all Aborigines. By calling a people inferior and uncivilized, western civilization was claiming that we Europeans have advanced, while indigenous peoples are stuck in a timeless primitivism, the result of which is that they can never fully participate in the life of the advanced culture. With respect to life in the western, civilized world, the so-called primitives can never be more than just ghosts.

This was applied not only to Aborigines, but to slaves and ex-slaves. Emancipation changed nothing. Racists have sought to undermine the continuing presence of African-Americans by promoting precisely this thought that this people is mired in a primitive past from which they can never escape to share in the fruits of modern life. Ghosts are part of a non-living culture. If you make a people ghostly in your imagination, it is that much easier to treat their real lives with callous disregard. Think it, make it acceptable in imagination and words, then do it, carry it out. That is the root of all genocidal policies.

This has been true of the history of Jews in the west. But there is another problem here for Jews, exacerbating the underlying dilemma which faces all Aboriginal peoples. It brings me back to what I said above about the myth of Jewish culture having been frozen in time.

For Christians, there is a huge fear that the discovery of the historical, very Jewish Jesus will be an end to their religion. But what is this fear really about? For Christians, Jesus is a living presence. The fear is that a too Jewish Jesus will be an inhabitant of a ghostly culture and will himself be turned into a ghost. It is the difference between life and death.

But Jews as ghosts is a myth, as it is a myth for every Aboriginal group. Jewish culture was never dead or dying, not in the time of Jesus or since. Jesus was not lecturing a dying culture. He was part of and an active participant in a culture that was very much still in bloom. Seeing Jesus as a Jew is to see a lively Jew. Jews in a sense defined themselves by how fiercely they could debate God on matters of justice and peace. God wanted them to keep seeking and refining the Constitution, the Torah. The living, flexible Torah was the lifeblood of Judaism and this was no less true for Jesus, Rabbi Joshua of Nazareth. The Gospels, even John, frequently call him rabbi, they contain this memory, which is no ghostly memory, and they do this precisely because there was so much liveliness in the activity of rabbis.

There is no contradiction between Jesus as a Jew and Jesus as a living presence for Christians. They actually reinforce each other. When the myth of Jews stuck in time, stuck in a primitive religion, loses its force, it will be much easier to see and accept the historical Jesus. 

I reach this conclusion with a fair degree of optimism which may be unwarranted. Ghosts, particularly the ghosts of a conquered culture, are really a very confusing business (as Bergland too recognizes). For some, they represent the success of the conquerors’ mission which was to displace and dispossess another culture and render it invisible. On the other hand, the existence of ghosts rebukes this accomplishment, especially if it depended heavily on injustice. Ghosts undermine the victory, or at least the satisfaction in it. Ghosts summon up fear and guilt. They are not welcome.

They are not welcome most of all because they question all triumph—and not just in theory. They implicitly threaten to return to life:  We survived after all. We’re not as gone, as disappeared, as you think. We can tell the truth about what happened, we can bring back banished events, we can expose lies and hubris. We bear witness.

And that really gets to the heart of it. Whatever ghosts mean to different people—whether they prove the conquerors were victorious or they rebuke the conquerors and induce guilt—what they ultimately do is they bear witness. They speak truth to power. That is our deepest fear. They bear witness to truth and lies. That’s a big thing to be legitimately afraid of. 

Jews have for the most part successfully fought the efforts to turn them into ghosts. Independent Jewish culture never disappeared. There were Christian attempts in the Middle Ages to burn the Talmud and even to edit it, but these attempts were limited and mostly a failure. The most seriously compromised Jewish source were the writings of the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus who became Christian property. That was because Jews abandoned him, which is another story. Suffice it to say that an independent Jewish culture and connection to historical sources was always alive and well, and that means a connection to Jesus’s historical context has been maintained. Neither Jewish history nor a Jewish Jesus is a ghost, despite efforts by scholars to render them ghostlike.

Of course, many scholars tend to dream they are successful, even when they are not. For them, Jewish ghostliness is the reality. So Jesus is a ghost too, and as I said, ghosts bear witness. Jesus bears witness to age-old Jewish advice. You will find it in rabbinic literature and in the Gospels: Whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Ghosts teach humility. Not all victories are final or forever. Maybe no victories are. The vanquished will live again. The disappeared cultures will return. If you believe in that Jesus, then the historical, Jewish Jesus is no one to fear. He brings only the good news of a living, thriving culture returning (it never really went away), still teaching its message of government by Constitution, firmly based on being in love with justice.

© 2106 Leon Zitzer

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?