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Friday, October 18, 2013

When bad people ask good questions

This poetry slam video has been making the Facebook rounds among my Jewish friends. In it, a young man named Ethan Metzger defends his Judaism against the charge that his faith is the result of brainwashing.

Before anything else, let me just say that I have nothing but respect for this young man. His idealism does him credit, as does his creativity. It takes guts to get up and speak about your core beliefs in front of strangers, and he is articulate in his defense of his moral vision.

But here’s the thing: The Judaism he defends is all about respect, tolerance, integrity, love, faith and character -- all elements of Judaism, but all low-hanging fruit. These are the humanistic ideals widely shared by people around the world, of many different faiths and of no faith at all. In fact, if you bleeped the references to Judaism and edited out the yarmulke from this video, the religion or moral system in question wouldn’t even be identifiable.

The Judaism of Ethan’s piece is the stripped-down, modernized version that has easy, universal appeal. It’s a version that focuses on values and general principles, not on laws, traditions, rituals and practices. It’s all about “ben adam l’chavero,” the aspects of Judaism that deal with human relationships to each other, not “ben adam la’makom,” the aspects that deal with the human relationship to god. The whole “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” thing is pretty copacetic all around, while the whole “I am the lord your god” thing -- and for that matter, a “jealous and vengeful god” -- is a much harder sell.

It would naturally offend any young person of faith to be accused of having been brainwashed. But would Ethan’s response be so effective if he brought other aspects of Judaism into it -- aspects that are more problematic and also more particularly Jewish (which is not to say that they are more essential to Judaism -- just that they are more identifiably Jewish)? I’m talking about beliefs like biblical creation, divine revelation at Sinai and the parting of the Red Sea; milk and meat must not be eaten together; Sabbath is a day of rest that precludes lighting a fire but does not preclude walking 20 miles; god demands animal sacrifice; menstruating women are impure and must be set apart for seven days; god requires fewer mitzvot of women because of their domestic obligations; god told his people to utterly destroy every man, woman and child of a particular nation; the Jews are god’s chosen people.

For that matter, does Ethan believe all these things himself -- and if not, why not?

It’s’ not my intention to argue the validity or invalidity of belief in these things, but to point out that they do not lend themselves to quick-and-easy, gut-level acceptance by a mass audience. I’m pointing out that Ethan’s defense of his Jewish education is facile. In a world where most people at least pay lip service to such values as kindness and integrity, Ethan’s audience is of course going to get a feel-good rush in response to his passionate defense of feel-good Judaism. But Judaism is much more than those things, or at least, that is what a traditional Jewish education teaches.

As Jews, we have to grapple with the whole picture, not just the easy parts. In a world where science contradicts Torah; where women are free to move well outside traditional boundaries; where assimilation is not just possible, but likely; where we are free to walk paths of our own choosing; where most Jews at least question, if not outright reject, some aspects of their tradition; the question of what we believe and why we believe it is much bigger and thornier than Ethan acknowledges in his piece.

Just because the person asking whether you’ve been brainwashed is a jerk and a bully doesn’t mean the question isn’t valid. But I feel pretty certain Ethan Metzger, along with many other good, smart Jewish kids like him, will continue to confront the difficult questions. As they get older and gain perspective, the answers may not seem so simple -- which is as it should be.

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