Saturday, April 09, 2005

You Say You Want A Revolution

The March 31 entry provoked a dialog that is far from over. I will summarize it here, but the full posts remain available, too.

Reed Chopper wrote, “It's easy to write Gamliel II off as a tyranical jerk . . . The true picture imho is more complex. . . . He just wanted to hold it together. If he hadn't, we wouldn't be here discussing what a jerk he was. When he was deposed, and Eleazar b. Azariah was elected, Gamliel showed up at the study hall to hear R' Eleazar's lectures.”

Mike responded, “In my view, what really held it together and got us here was that they had a procedure to depose tyrannical jerks and substitute people who could evolve and grow with the times.”

To which Reed Chopper replied, “We're not talking about some guy who wants things to continue forever the way they have been and opposes changes and reforms. So ‘holding it together’ has a different meaning here, and the analogy is not apt.”

This is rich stuff. Yes, the rabbis were reinventing Judaism, so they certainly can’t be called “conservative” in that context, but these rabbis were also building a fence around the Torah at the same time that other groups (including the Jews who eventually became known as Christians) were building new gates to it. Gamliel may have showed up at the study hall to hear R’Elazar’s lectures, but he wasn’t about to go study with Saul of Tarsus! Students of Talmud should be encouraged to read the “competition” and discuss it with the same fierce energy that the rabbis debated among themselves. The problem with an insular reading is it leads to the phenomenon described by Daniel Boyarin re Zionism as an “attempt to reduce real threats to Jews and Jewishness by concretizing in the present what has been a utopian symbol for the future.” He goes on, “Diasporized identities seem threatened ones, and one of the responses to such threats is separatism, an attempt at a social structure that re-aggregates the disaggregated, re-integrates the non-integral, by closing off the borders, by indeed attempting to prevent mixing, whether biological or cultural.” His conclusion leaves one foot in the tradition and one foot poised over the abyss: “I do not, and could not, given my hermeneutic theories, argue that it is a wrong reading or that there is a right reading that can be countered to it. I do argue, however, that it is not the only reading.”

In that spirit, it is possible to value both the vision and insularity of Gamliel; to appreciate his fearless contribution to reinvent the purpose of the Torah and also to criticize his insistence that the reinvention be frozen in his moment. As Mike never tires of reminding me, many revolutionaries have been reactionary once they assumed power.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Mike said...

Reed Chopper confuses two different issues, and in the process misunderstands my objection to Gamliel. One issue is a man's policy preferences. The other is leadership approach (style is too weak a word). If his approach to leadership is to put down all opposition as strongly as he can, a man can be a liberal or conservative, or even a radical or reactionary and still be a "totalitarian jerk".

A perfect example is Pope John Paul. On many issues he not only was quite liberal, but actively worked for change. A key example was his approach to the gap between rich and poor. Christ may have said "the poor will always be with you", but John Paul clearly a) didn't believe it had to be, and b) worked very hard to close the gap. But!! his leadership style was to put down all opposition, and consolidate his power, at every opportunity. I think it clear that at heart he was a totalitarian,- that is one who does not WANT to pay attention to the opinion of others. It is neither a secret in, nor a blessing to, the Catholic Church, that essentially every cardinal he appointed publicly expressed agreement with John Paul's policy views (and that as a result, as Thomas Cahill claimed in the same article I quoted earlier, - they are all either sycophants or incompetents or both.) I think Cahill's position may be a little too harsh, especially the use of the word all, but it is one I think is born out by the facts. It is for this reason, not just, or even primarily, John Paul's policies (which in some respects, especially cocerning women, were themselves immensely destructive) that the future of his Church is so bleak.

To return to Gamliel. Given that there is no doubt that he thought it perfectly proper to humiliate a man others felt qualified to serve in his place, for me he was, by definition, a totalitarian jerk. To a considerable degree the rabbis apparently agreed with me, since it was his leadership approach, not his policies, that led the rabbis to force a change in leadership.

As to whether he was open to change. The problem is one of "not invented here". My experience with such people is that while they may even champion a number of desirable changes (but so of course did Fidel Castro) they are unlikely to be open to changes they didn't see themselves as having invented? i know of no evidence that Gamliel was any different in this regard.

I turn now to an allied problem. If one accepts the dogma that Rabbinic Judaism "knows" God's mind, and that Jews are God's Chosen People, then it doesn't matter how many Jews there were or are. If one, however, believes that the rabbis reinvented Judaism, then the rabbis are just one contender for the claim to be the proper shapers of the new post-Temple Judaism, and I think the issue is not whether Judaism (and Jews) survived, but how well the rabbis did in the competition for souls. From this perspective the record seems to me clear. As propagators of a new faith, the rabbis were an abject failure. Estimates of the Jewish proportion of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ run up to 10%. By four centuries later, rabbinic Judaism was a tiny minority, and Christian Jews were coming to 15 centuries of power in a good part of the known world. One has to be Orthodox indeed to see that as a triumph of the rabbis.

6:05 PM  
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