Thursday, November 29, 2018


The following is my letter to the editor of New York Times Book Review, for November 18.  I was responding to a review of five recent books on the search for Jewish identity:

I like the fact that Gal Beckerman included her own search for Jewish meaning in her review of 5 books on the current state of Judaism (Nov. 18), but there is something odd about using the Pittsburgh shooting to frame the discussion. I think she knows that, as she says there is “something sad about identity flaring just in these moments of defensiveness and grief.” In any search for identity, sometimes what is omitted can be telling. The one thing Jews do not like to discuss at all is Christian antisemitism and their fear of Christians. For one thing, they are afraid that such talk will only make antisemitism worse. I have heard many people speak about Pittsburgh and no one brings up Christian racism against Jews, in particular what is its source. I had a similar experience many years ago, at a large gathering of Jews discussing antisemitism, and not once did anyone bring up Christianity, much less how it affects Jewish identity.

Beckerman poses Amos Oz’s question: “Does our past belong to us, or we to it?” There is one part of our past that we have entirely given up to Christianity, and that is first century Jewish culture. The popular understanding (both among Christians and Jews) of this part of Jewish history is that Jewish leaders were corrupt, totally in service to the Romans (Josephus gives the lie to this, but religious Jews avoid Josephus like poison), and thus were easily hoodwinked into persecuting Jesus (the Gospels do not support this as much as people think). Most Christians think ancient Jewish culture was too ethnic, too tribal, too ritualistic, too legalistic, too obsessed with purity. Jewish scholars have done a poor job combating this. They rightly deny all these things, and Christians will nod their heads and say they understand, but among themselves, when they tell the story of Jesus, Christians are convinced that Jesus opposed a Judaism that was too tribal, too legalistic, and all the rest. That popular story holds sway and the result is that most Jews are ashamed of their ancient past, not to mention that the persistent belief that some Jews helped to kill Jesus adds to the shame.

Jews do not like talking about any of this, out of fear that any discoveries about how Jewish Jesus was will only make Christians feel threatened and make them more racist towards Jews. So Christians continue to own ancient Jewish history and Jews go on believing that their ancestors were the equivalent of jungle bunnies. I am not saying that a truer understanding of how great ancient Jewish culture was is the cure-all for what ails Judaism today, but to quote an old Jewish joke, it wouldn’t hurt.

That's the end of the letter, which I realize won't get printed.  Fears are the hardest thing to talk about, especially the ones that get suppressed.  We just hope they will go away without our talking about them. They won't, and that's the dilemma.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

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