|A Theological Debate by Eduard Frankfort source|
Leon Wieseltier has recently been in the news as an alleged sexual harasser.
Below is an account of hearing him, and others, speak at the Nextbook Conference, "What's He Doing Here? Jesus in Jewish Culture." held at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan on April 29, 2007.
I wrote this as a letter to a friend.
I was eager to attend because of Jewish informants' astounding reactions to me when I did my dissertation research on Polish-Jewish relations. I interviewed a lot of Jewish people. I was trying to discover their stereotypes of Poles and Jews. As part of those interviews, their feelings about Jesus came out. I did not elicit this; none of my questions referred to Jesus. I did not expect this.
In one mind-blowing encounter, I asked a twenty-something Jewish girl one question (I think it was the purposely vague, "I'm asking my informants if they have any preconceptions of what constitutes Jewish identity"), and she talked for three hours, non-stop, in a monologue that was fascinating and made me laugh and cry and would, with minimal editing, make a fantastic novella. Her topic: her envy of, and attraction to, things Christian. She fell in love with a Christian boy, and accompanied him to church, and loved church and Christianity (and yet voiced no desire to convert) and it was driving her parents crazy. This one-woman-show was all the more fascinating because she wasn't an obviously intellectual, poetic or deep person. She spoke in kitchen-sink vocabulary, noun-verb-noun sentences about all the big issues -- love, death, God, family, loyalty, identity, prejudice -- as she worked them out through the narrative of her upcoming wedding. Whether a rabbi or a priest would officiate, whether the reception would be kosher, what toasts would be offered: all these decisions carried the same weight as the decisions of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Other informants expressed rage. A rabbi told a thorny, squirmy tale of an attempt at conversion made on her by someone using "Jews for Jesus" documents. A smiling man told of growing up in Canada singing Christmas carols, along with his other Jewish classmates. A man who was the son of a Holocaust survivor who beat him to the point where he had to be removed from the home said that he envied Catholic kids because they had the beneficent image of Mary, the Madonna, to pray to, while he grew up in a world with no loving images.
My response to these accounts is not triumphalistic. I don't try to convert people. My lack of a desire to convert others, one might conclude, is based in post Vatican Two political correctness. That's not the case. My lack of a desire to convert others is rooted in an Eastern European peasant worldview.
When I was very young, my mother and her friend Dave would sit around the kitchen table and talk for hours. I learned that he worshipped on Saturday, while we worshipped on Sunday. I could see that my mother was very comfortable -- no, happy -- with Dave. I never saw her interact with my father with the warmth, spontaneity, and enthusiasm the way she shared with Dave: talking, laughing, relaxing, telling the kind of "in-jokes" and stories that rendered them, in some sense, a couple. They reenacted the Old Country together. My mother never made any attempt to change Dave's religion. Too, like a lot of Eastern European peasant women, my mother worked in Jewish households. As a live-in domestic servant, she raised a couple of Jewish kids. At home with us, she occasionally spoke Yiddish, and cooked Jewish foods. We, reliably, had matzo every Passover, and matzah brie. Jews were like any other element of the landscape that you don't think of changing…
I really liked the panel by Stephen Greenblatt, Robert Pinsky, and Ed Hirsch, but the rest of the day felt like leftovers, to me. I felt that both presenters and audience members were falling back on easy, unexamined postures: Jews are victims; Anti-Semitism is a bad thing; Christians are arrogant and self-deluded; Jews are the lone correctives in Christians' hegemonic self-delusion. Jesus was barely mentioned. Jesus' appeal was barely mentioned.
Did we spend a beautiful late April Sunday indoors just to hear platitudes? Yes, anti-Semitism is a bad thing, but does anyone anyone takes seriously really think otherwise? And, Christian hegemony? Have these folks read Michelle Goldberg or listened to the Howard Stern show?
Demographics: my guestimate: most conference attendees were women over fifty-five. Slightly less than half seemed male; one could almost count those under fifty-five on both hands. Why wasn't this topic appealing to younger people, or more appealing to men? I don't know, but I wonder if those demographics, if correct, had any impact on the intellectual / spiritual risk-taking going on. Very few people seemed Christian (seemed Christian -- self identified as Christian, or wore Christian symbols, or were wearing lederhosen and/or dirndls, or responded appropriately when offered the secret Christian handshake.) Most seemed Jewish. (Self identified as Jewish, wore Jewish symbols, spontaneously burst into show-stopping numbers from "Fiddler on the Roof.") I wonder if the lack of non-Jews had an impact on the risk-taking going on.
I would have liked a conference where there were impassioned hallway debates, rather than just endless, comfortable, head nodding. But, then, I've been trained in martial arts.
One more global comment. As has happened before when I've been in largely Jewish settings, I overheard some astoundingly ugly statements about Christians. At one talk, a woman behind me was going on and on about how STUPID and INSENSITIVE and SELF-ABSORBED and DESTRUCTIVE Christians are. I finally had to turn around and, as subtly as I could, get a peek at the source of this uncut hostility. As it happens, the woman saying these things was large, ungainly, with a long nose, several facial warts, and lots of make-up. I had the thought I've had before. If I were someone like Claude Lanzmann or Marian Marzynski, I would, at such a moment, whip out my camera, and start filming. I would use lighting and editing to highlight the worst in this woman, without ever offering any context that would aid in understanding of her hostility, or would aid to viewer to regard her with compassion or note shared humanity. And I realized, yet again, how different the mind of a Claude Lanzmann or Marian Marzynski is from anyone who has any ethics, or who wants to work for healing, rather than more pain.
The first talk I attended was "A Passion for Waiting: Messianism and the Jews," given by Leon Wieseltier and James Carroll. I looked at them up on the stage, mere feet from me, and . . . What can I say. The fundamental lies Carroll tells about Poland in Constantine's Sword; Wieseltier's refusal to so much as converse with Polish people. Wieseltier's dismissal of Adam Michnik, one of my heroes, a man whose shoes Wieseltier is not fit to untie. I sat and stared at them and . . . I wished that, sometimes, the world worked according to the rules of working class people. I wished I could go up on that stage, and say to them, Carroll first, "Let's step outside, and settle this mano-a-mano."
Wieseltier and Carroll were gasbags. I wondered if narcissism, not the love of money, is not the foundation of all evil. Anything either one ever said about Poland he said, not to say something about Poland, but to advance himself one step further toward fame, and, even, just mere attention.
Leon Wieseltier's main point, as far as I can make out: Jews and Christians are different. Jews are better. Christians are an apocalyptic people, uncomfortable with the world, ready to blow it up. Jews are mellow and at peace with the world as it is. This is all made clear when one compares the Jewish approach to Messianism, and the Christian. Jews don't want to remake the world. The Messiah is not a big feature of Judaism. Christians are bummed out because after Jesus' life nothing changed (sic, and !!!), and so they have to want to blow up the world to prove that something changed after Jesus' life. Jews don't want the Messiah to come. To prove these point, Wieseltier read an exchange between debaters in Medieval Spain.
Wieseltier also said that Jesus was not Jewish. Jesus was an ex-Jew, Wieseltier insisted. I suppose he could have gone farther, and insisted that he had DNA evidence to prove that Jesus was Swedish . . .
Needless to say, as he spoke, one example after another flooded my brain, from the story of Noah, very firmly fixed in Jewish scripture, in which God erases the world because he is so uncomfortable with it, to Moses, to verses from Jewish scripture like "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain," and "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them," not to mention the disgust with the world expressed in a verse like, "Babylon, may the Lord bless everyone who beats your children against the rocks!" Then there are the East European Jewish compensatory folktales in which Jews report that after the Messiah comes Polish princesses will be scrubbing Jewish floors, to the Baal Shem Tov meeting the messiah, to Sabbatai Zvi, to the full-page ads in the New York Times suggesting that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson is the messiah . . . In other words, there is ample evidence that Wieseltier is incorrect, and that Messianism and a desire to remake the world has a long and rich history in Jewish culture.
Also, Wieseltier's point that Jews qua Jews resist redemption wasn't convincing. Augustine famously said, "not yet," in a prayer to God. Constantine didn't want to be baptized till he was on his deathbed. We all resist God. If we didn't, we wouldn't be here. In short, Wieseltier was wrong. Jews and Christians aren't different. Jews and Christians are more importantly alike than different. I tried to say that at the end of his talk, but the well-groomed young lady with the nametag and the microphone would not let me have it.
Wieseltier's association of Christianity with apocalyptic thought is every bit a function of American popular culture, and the Tim LaHaye / Jerry Jenkins Left Behind series of novels (in which the anti-Christ is an Eastern Europe named Carpathia -- gotta love it) and not a reflection of Christianity. For example, Catholics don't interpret the Apocalypse as something that is about to happen, but a coded message about what has already happened. "666" is not the mark of a coming anti-Christ, but code for Nero. The analog to Wieseltier's approach would be to comment on Judaism by analyzing Madonna's relationship to Kabbalah.
I don't think that James Carroll had a main idea. I can report that he was wearing very shiny, very expensive looking, burgundy-colored leather shoes, just like the pope wears. Well, I guess if they won't let him be pope, he can skewer popes in print.
Carroll sat back in his chair. He conceded every point Wieseltier made, almost before W. made it. Carroll apologized, he effaced himself, he said Christianity had been bad, bad, bad. And, yet, he seemed in firm control of the conversation, and almost triumphalistic in his assumed humility. Wieseltier seemed to be racing to catch up. I can't account for this. At first I assumed that Carroll must be taller, but when they both stood, that didn't seem to be the case.
I have to wonder if post-Holocaust political correctness on the part of Christians is not the cause of Carroll's apparent dominance? In a world where the strong must constantly apologize, does constantly apologizing make one appear strong? And does the cocksureness displayed by Wieseltier make one appear to be on the defensive? Dunno.
Carroll told a Martin Buber anecdote. The messiah appeared. Jews and Christians, in order to find support for their own positions, asked him if he had ever been here before. The messiah, to be diplomatic, replied, "I don't remember." Carroll then said that Jews and Christians should concentrate on what they have in common, like a concern for social justice. Maybe that's what made Carroll seem in control? His reaching out a hand to Wieseltier and offering comradeship, and his refusal to play one-up-man-ship? The one time Carroll took a firm stance in opposition was when a woman in the audience said, paraphrase, "You are exceptional. The rest of those Christians are a bunch of anti-Semitic loons; therefore, what you are saying does not count." Carroll was firm. He said, paraphrase, "No, I am not exceptional, I am representational. Mainstream Christians have rejected anti-Semitism and reach out to Jews in comradeship." I admired this. I admired Carroll's taking a stand, and taking a stand that lessened his own stature. He could have presented himself as a wunderkind among benighted Christians.
Next I attended Jonathan Wilson's talk, "Jesus' Pale Face, the Haunting of Marc Chagall." Wilson was very charming, but, after his talk, I had a "where's the beef?" reaction. Chagall painted a lot of crucifixion scenes; when asked why it was important to be in Palestine, Chagall responded, "To walk in the steps of Jesus," but Chagall remained Jewish. Okay. No news there. I wonder if there wasn't some deep and heavy subtext we were avoiding?
Finally, I attended "Why I Think About Jesus," a panel discussion by Stephen Greenblatt, the most successful English professor in the world, Robert Pinsky, and Edward Hirsch, a poet who is current president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
I met Pinsky, briefly, when I was a graduate student at Berkeley. I don't remember the event. I don't remember what either one of us said. I didn't realize, at the time, how famous or important he was. He was nice to me in a genuine way that I have never forgotten. When I've seen him on TV in the intervening years, I have whispered a silent prayer that God would bless him in all his endeavors.
Given that Stephen Greenblatt is America's most successful English professor, I expected him to have horns and a tail, and be surrounded by sulfurous fumes. Because English professors, and academics in general, are such lowlifes, if he was the most successful one, he'd have to be the lowest of the low.
In fact, though, this panel was great. Each member was smart, and interesting, and ethical, and admirable, and even understandable. No jargon, no elitism, no posturing. Genuinely earnest efforts to communicate important ideas. I was thrilled. It was one of those rare, gratifying moments when people live up to their own press and you have hope for the future of humanity.
I tried to take notes during this talk, as I had during the previous talks. I didn't take any notes, I was just so interested in what was being said :-). So, I have no notes. :-( Everything I wrote below is "As I remember it."
Greenblatt spoke first. He talked about the ubiquity of anti-Semitic and/or Christian imagery in Western civilization. He mentioned TS Eliot's poem "Gerontion" and showed slides of abstract art that appeared divorced from Christianity at first but contained Christian references. Greenblatt also talked about how Protestants and Catholics have gone at each other's throats with murderous fury. He said that Protestants and Catholics are entirely capable of seeing, and treating, each other as "The Other" in a most profound way. He implied, if I understood him correctly, that Protestants' and Catholics' othering of each other has echoes today in people's othering of Islam -- or maybe Muslims' othering of non-Muslims?
I felt a huge appreciation for Greenblatt's statements about tensions between Protestants and Catholics. Here's why: There are people who insist, wrongly, that anti-Semitism is rooted in Christian theology. The US is one of the most Christian nations that has ever existed, and yet Jews are, significantly, safe here. If Christian theology were the root of anti-Semitism, that would not be the case. The difference is that Jews don't occupy the Middleman Minority position here that they occupied so paradigmatically in Poland. I never forget that Polish peasants, who could and did commit atrocities against Jews, were also quite happy to commit atrocities against upper class Polish Catholics. As Stanislaw Wyspianski's upper class character says in The Wedding: "They sawed my grandfather in half. But we have forgotten all of that." Those who see anti-Semitism as rooted in Christian theology insist that the Holocaust could not have happened without two thousand years of Christian theology preparing the groundwork. This is a very flattering interpretation of humanity. In fact we can kill with much less preparation. The fastest genocide in history took place in Rwanda, using primitive weapons like machetes. Interahamwe hatemongers were able to whip Hutus into a murderous rage against Tutsis and non-genocidal Hutus with just a few months, not two thousand years, of radio broadcasts.
Greenblatt's comments struck me as an ethical and courageous attempt to talk about hate as hate, not as "hate against me/mine." And he was trying to do this in a post 9-11 world where hate recruits new, ignorant troops everyday. I admired his efforts.
Robert Pinsky spoke next and I really wish I had had a tape recording going during his talk. He correctly pointed out, paraphrase, "We are talking about anti-Semitism, not Jesus." So Pinsky talked about Jesus. He read a poem about a, as he put it, "Stephen King" Jesus, one who performs spiteful miracles that screw people over. I felt that this stacked the deck. If the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were a Stephen King Jesus, we wouldn't have been sitting in that room. It is because the Jesus of the Gospels is such a new and compelling figure, someone who does things that are both stunningly new and stunningly right, a man who lives by the dictates that decide good poetry, that we care.
But then Pinsky talked about Dante, and I loved what he said, and I wish I had a transcription. He said, as I remember it, that Dante said that hell and evil are absence. That's why hell is cold. It is the absence of light, of warmth, of God. Pinsky said, again, as I remember it, that more harm is done to people by what they do to themselves than by what others do to them. As an example, he cited Dante stewing over his own misfortunes. I think Pinsky said that he got this insight from the Talmud, but that it meshes with Dante's Christian worldview (?). He said that the greatest sin is despair. He said that these spiritual truths found in the Divine Comedy are true to Dante because they are Christian, but they are true to him, to Pinsky, because they are true. Again, all as I remember it.
See, to me, the reverse is also true. "These Christian teachings are valuable because they are universally, spiritually true" is true in reverse: "These teachings are Christian because they are universally true." Which is one reason I am a Christian.
Ed Hirsch did a very good job of moderating this panel. I loved his facial expression. While Leon Wieseltier's facial expression was smug and unmovable, Hirsch looked as if he were trying to figure things out, and to live up to the gravity of the questions at hand, not as if he had the final answer. He looked as if he might hear something he wasn't expecting, might be moved, might change his mind. Lovely.
During the question and answer session, the man sitting directly behind me, who had been bad mouthing Christians and Poles before the panel commenced, spoke. He said, paraphrase, "You all seem so self-confident and calm. I've never met Jews like you. The world is full of violent anti-Semites. How can you be so calm in the face of the ubiquity of Christianity in Western civilization? This isn't POLAND!!!"
There it was. That word. That one word. That word that can make me cry; that word that is like a curse. Poland.
"This isn't POLAND!!! You don't know what it's like to live your life under constant threat! I once was critical of a Christian text in school, and I was given a C minus!"
This man did not have a microphone as he spoke. People in the back asked that the question be repeated. Stephen Greenblatt, I think, repeated it, thus, "The speaker received a C minus in school and is bitter." He wasn't being mean; this was said in a jocular way.
The man behind me was fuming. "How can you be so glib! You don't know what the horrible POLES are doing! There is a church in Sandomierz that contains a mural that depicts Jews in a blood libel! I have tried to have the mural removed, and the bishop sent me a rude letter! This is very close to Kielce, where Jews were murdered after a blood libel!"
Another man in the back of the room spoke. He said, as I remember it, that he had read TS Eliot, and other authors, including Celine and Ezra Pound, and he refused to read them any more! That they were a bunch of anti-Semitic creeps and he'd show them by refusing to read their works! After this man spoke, there was a burst of angry, defiant, applause. I cringed. I cringed after the applause of the people approving of not reading ideologically impure poetry in a way that I hadn't cringed after the mention of the sins of the Polaks.
I was in awe of, and fascinated by, the reaction of the men -- the poets -- onstage. I felt as if they were in my position. As if they were being made ashamed not because, like me, they were Polish Catholics; obviously, they were not, but they had something in common with me. They had a dirty little secret. I am a Polish Catholic; that's my dirty little secret.
Their dirty little secret is that they had read, and enjoyed, poetry written by goyim, and that, according to the suffering man behind me who had accused them of being too self-confident, they had not suffered enough. I say that they felt like me, as if they were in my position, because they had the looks on their faces that I've seen Poles assume in such environments. Dignified, refusing to back down, unapologetic, and yet aware of the volatility of the situation at hand. As if they had entire essays' worth of words backed up in their brains, poised just behind their eyes, but that they would not unleash them, because to be so defensive would not be seemly in such a setting.
I don't remember Stephen Greenblatt's exact words, but he said something, as I remember it, about the importance of not giving in to censorship. He spoke with authority, in "take no prisoners" mode. At that point, another clique of defiant applause broke out, this burst of applause in defiance of the previous burst of applause that approved of censorship, and I joined in this new burst of applause.
I wanted to stand up and shout at that man, "Buddy, look at me. I am a woman. A woman, get it? If I stopped imbibing ideologically tainted art, the only thing I could read would be Andrea Dworkin. And what a dreary world that would be." I also wanted to say, "People who identify themselves as ideologically pure, and establishing ideologically pure art, have a dismal track record. Further, the ideologically pure, by advancing the Ralph Nader candidacy in 2000, gave us the Bush administration. 'Nuff said."
And, after that statement by Stephen Greenblatt, the gentlemen onstage -- because they were truly gentlemen in this -- declined to comment further. I clapped wildly. They weren't going to rise to the bait, they weren't going to be made ashamed of liking poetry. I felt that I was joining in their victory vicariously as a Polish Catholic. Why? Because poetry is beautiful, and tainted by this world, and these poets refused not to love it, or even apologize for it. Because Polishness is beautiful, and tainted by this world, and this Polak refuses not to love it, or even apologize for it.
After the panel concluded, I rose, turned around, faced the man who had received the C minus, stuck out my hand, and said, "Hi. My name is Danusha Goska and I am a Polish Catholic. I am sorry for the bad things that happened to you, and I am sorry about that mural. Here is my email address [I handed him a piece of paper with my email address.] Please contact me telling me how I can help in its removal. Also, I can put you in contact with people working on Polish-Jewish relations. Please contact me for that, as well."
I could have said, but did not, "You know, those people who maintain that mural in Sandomierz are bastards, and there is no excuse for them, and I hope we can defeat them permanently. But just this morning, two men -- Leon Wieseltier and James Carroll -- who lie about, and monger hatred for, Poles and Poland, took this very stage. And they are showered with plaudits, money, and respect. Won't it be a beautiful day when you join me in defeating them?"
And I could have said, "I know about atrocities like the mural you mention. But you and I both know that Poland has always been a place of philo-Semitism as well as anti-Semitism, a place where Jews have their best allies. Why not mention to this crowd, so ready to be outraged by your words, that you are not alone in your efforts, that there is a thriving Polish-Jewish dialogue going on?"
Didn't say that.
It's been a week. He's not contacted me.
I asked the man's name. "Jakov," he said, no last name. And he gave me no way to contact him.
After the panel was over, fans went onstage to chat with the panel members. I heard someone say, "We were killed in the name of Jesus!" or words to that affect. I wanted so badly to talk about that, to talk about the science and paganism behind Nazism. Nazism was not Christian; if it were, they couldn't have mass murdered Christians like Poles and Gypsies. I wanted to talk about convents who, in the name of Christ, protected Jews. And so much more. But there was no space for that, and I'm an old woman, who has tasted too much frustration. After telling the panelists how very good I thought they were, I, once again, gave up, and began my solitary walk home.
As I was walking back on Fifth Avenue toward Port Authority, I heard a voice call out, "I am catching up to you!" it was Jakov. He's short, and thin-skinned, and blue-eyed. He didn't get those blue eyes in the Levant; he is related to me, however distantly. As we walked, he talked about how horribly Polish people have treated him. I wanted to say, (but, again, did not), "Jakov, please. The Scientific Method demands that you do a controlled study. Don't just tell me how horribly Poles treat Jews. Talk to me about how horribly Poles treat Poles, and how horribly Poles treat their own bodies. We are talking about a people who drink liter bottles of vodka in one sitting, who smoke like chimneys, who can't unite to achieve any concrete goal. There are wounds there, Jakov. These people are wounded, as are you, if you'd notice it, and the cure is not to keep a running score of how much you've been hurt. The cure is, actually, for all of us to follow the teachings of the Jewish guy about whom we just attended a conference."
If I hear from Jakov, I'll let you know.