Artwork by Daniel Kabakoff
CHANUKAH 5780: SO WHERE’S THE FIGHTING AT THIS YEAR?
A number of years ago, while still in chutz l’Aretz, I wrote the following “Small Chanukah Prayer”:
Kindler of the Chanukah light,
Show us what we have to fight
In this time and in this place.
Help us fight it with good grace
So that we do not destroy
The root of peace, the spring of joy.
Strength and patience give tonight,
Keeper of the Chanukah light.
This poem came to mind as I finished one draft of a response to Rivka Levy’s “My Late Father-in-Law Was a Freemason,” which (I can’t think of any other expression at the moment) freaked me out somewhat. There is a red button in my mind marked “Conspiracy Theory,” and my first reaction was an anxiety about Sasson Magazine becoming, or becoming perceived as, a platform for such. So I started to write about why I don’t buy some of the things in that article, particularly the idea that the Masons, the Knights of Malta, and all the various Orders of This and That are “who and what is behind so many of the senseless wars, drug abuse, and human misery prevalent in today’s world.” I felt prompted to explain what I think we are really up against, because only if we figure this out can we know where to take a stand. In the end this became a rather complex dialogue with Rivka’s piece, which I offer as part of “that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth may be found,” as reads a plaque on the grounds of my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin (Well, not completely fearless).
Originally, I titled my response “Hey, My Great-Grandfather was a Freemason.” For among the artifacts which my mother a”h inherited was a Masonic apron which had belonged to her grandfather, Alfred Lallemand, Grand Master of the New York State Masonic Lodge according to family memory, which also records that he translated Longfellow’s Evangeline into French, helped his fellow-immigrants, and put out a newspaper that was excellent but closed down because he could never get it out on time (His wife supplemented the family income by mending lace). It’s hard for me to see him as a sinister figure, partaking in dark rites and pulling strings to control the destiny of the world. Same goes for George Washington, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and a number of other Masons I know of who seem to have thought they were bringing light into the world. Historically, I’ve always understood that Freemasonry came into prominence in the Enlightenment era. Many people were fed up with Christianity because of the wars and persecutions it had bred, and the Freemasons had this idea of a universal human brotherhood to which all (all males, that is) would be admitted regardless of creed. An example of this is Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, whose play Nathan the Wise contributed to the illusions of European Jewry, as I explain in an essay posted elsewhere. It was an unfortunate contribution; but even good intentions that pave the road to Gehinnom are not quite the same as devil worship.
Aside from these associations, what was it about Rivka Levy’s piece that bothered me? Well, it just so “happens” that as I was struggling with this question Arutz Sheva’s homepage is displaying an op-ed by Rafael Castro, entitled “The Ethics of the Devil,” and beginning: “Islamists and Christian fundamentalists tend to demonize opponents in a way that is alien to the attitude of most observant Jews.” Castro distinguishes between “the combative ethics dear to most Muslims and many Christians and the constructive ethics embraced by Jews.”
A combative view of ethics calls upon us to fight evil wherever it is found. A constructive view of ethics calls upon us to fight for goodness whenever possible. Thus, the person devoted to combative ethics will fight poverty, injustice and oppression, whereas the person devoted to constructive ethics will fight for wealth-redistribution (or wealth-creation), justice and freedom. This is not an academic distinction, but a crucial difference based on our essential understanding of ethics as primarily a fight against evil or a struggle for goodness.
Thus, in Jewish tradition the Satan plays a very limited role, whereas Muslims and many Christians seem to be obsessed with such an entity. I have a hunch that a lot of the “facts” people dig up about organizations supposedly run by the Dark Powers are the product of fantasy born of a similar focus on evil. It is this that gives such a dubious feel to what is often characterized as “conspiracy theories.”
We as Jews have particular reason to beware of this kind of thinking. After all, the “Freemasons” of dark fantasy bear a family resemblance to the Elders of Zion, who according to a tract still popular in certain quarters run the world for their nefarious purposes. I dare say there is somewhere a website “documenting” the nefarious practices of the Elders of Zion.
Just after writing the foregoing paragraph, I came across a statement, in the Wiki article on Freemasonry, that the “Protocol of the Elders of Zion” asserts that Freemasonry is run by Jews! You get the point. When I come across statements like “while the original Knights Templar were clearly devil-worshipping sodomites with black magic rites and customs straight out of ancient Egypt, including worshipping the mummified heads of dead people, just as Laban used to,” — well, to me it’s anything but clear. The Templars, like all the Crusaders, were horrible, every Jew at least knows that (even if, as Rivka notes, our Ministry of Tourism finds it convenient to forget). But in order to work yourself up to perpetrate atrocities you don’t have to worship the devil. All you need to do is persuade yourself, rachmana litslan, that G-d wants you to get rid of certain people because according to your doctrine they are His enemies. The auto da fe — the burning of Jews at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition — was carried out to the singing of Psalms (in Latin). This may or may not be less horrible than devil worship, but in any case it is less mysterious.
All this reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend some years ago, who told me that the Druze must worship evil because they have secret rites. I answered to the effect that it is a mistake to make a mystery of evil. There is evil in the world, but it is no deep, dark secret. The Ishmaelites make no secret of their beliefs but look what horrible things are done in the name of those beliefs today (whereas the record of Druze behavior is not particularly bad as far as I’ve heard).
There is also nothing mysterious about global techno-capitalism, which all of us encounter intimately, every day, and which is undermining the structure of society and of human being itself. We aren’t party to all the deals that are made, but we know that basically the actors are driven quite simply by the desire for profit. They have no magic formulas –just mathematical ones.
Even if there are, somewhere, some people who think they have a plan for the world (like the fabled New World Order)–no human planning is behind the spread of a nihilistic culture that is endangering civilization no less than Islamic terrorism. It seems to be the aggregate result of a few billion tiny selfishness’s. Including our own. What else is marketing but an appeal to selfishness? And the fact the marketplace is now not just one square in the center of town but everywhere–that we are exposed to marketing at all hours of the night and day–is taking its toll. Who has not gone to a meeting called for some lofty purpose, only to be exposed to videos in which people sound as if they are selling aftershave? Everything, but everything, has to be marketed. This is not the outcome of a sinister plot. It is the drift of things (some call it the “flow”), which we haven’t yet gotten up the will to resist.
Perhaps “conspiracy theories” spring up partly because it is hard to get our minds around the fact that the process that is attacking our humanity, our tselem elokim, is essentially mindless, even though it involves such tremendous ingenuity. What I mean is that I don’t believe anyone actually set out to reduce human attention span and memory, to degrade language, to prostitute every human emotion, to subvert thoughtfulness. No, they just set out to sell things. But if you want to sell someone something, you’re not going to try to make them wise or sensitive, especially if what you are selling is a mass-produced product. From this simple imperative a whole science of manipulation has developed.
This process does in the end create a certain kind of malice, because if what you are doing just in order to make a living happens to be destroying our humanity, then you develop a hatred for anything that reminds you too keenly of your own tselem elokim — and of the G-d who implanted it in you. And then things can get started that perhaps deserve the name of conspiracy. In the newspaper Olam Katan for Shabbat Toldot, Rabbi Reuven Fierman writes that the European Union is currently streaming, through academic institutions in Israel, a lot of propaganda that undermines Jewish values. But Rabbi Fierman does not mention any dark rituals, and there probably aren’t any. It’s all in the name of “pluralism”, “diversity”, and the like–people telling themselves they’re doing good while in fact they are destroying the good. As Jeremiah said long ago, the heart is extremely deceitful.
I return to Rafael Castro’s distinction between fighting against evil and fighting for good.
It isn’t that simple, of course. To fight for good, you also have to be aware of what is attacking it. And this may be where conspiracy theories are harmful; they represent an incorrect analysis of the problem. By focusing on some supposed distant center of malice, they draw attention away from the frontier at which each of us is placed between the pressures of a mindless culture and the duties of the heart.
But the main challenge is to keep focused on the good–that is, on the tselem elokim, on the human capacity for memory, attention, meaningful speech, sincerity and thoughtfulness. When we care about these things we resist everything that hurts them, including any thought or impulse or disinclination (like “I don’t get much out of Shabbat observance anymore” or, l’havdil, “I don’t feel like reading poetry these days”) that we can recognize as originating in external pressures. Moreover, we support one another in our most thoughtful expressions, we cultivate any seedling of thoughtfulness that strives to take root in the cindery soil of present-day culture.
I’ve hoped that Sasson Magazine could be such a seedling; and as stated at the outset, Rivka Levy’s article worried me a bit that Sasson could become, or be perceived as, a platform for “conspiracy theory” type thinking. In writing this response, I have discovered in myself a certain kinship with conspiracy theorists. Like them I do believe we are under attack, very seriously, and need to fight back. Maybe it’s just a matter of nuance and focus. But nuance and focus are important; that is what serious writing is about.
So, to come back to the title question — “Where’s the Fighting at This Year”–I guess it’s in a lot of places. But one tiny front surely is right here–on the website of Sasson Magazine, which, as its “About” page states, is a forum for “creative orthodox Jews” who are committed to halacha and also to “tolerating the other, the different, the quirky, and the deep and about seeing the Creator’s hand behind every beautiful nuance of life.” We represent one corner of the fortress.
So please read, comment, write for us — are you there?
The above plea is where I want to come out. But in honesty and in fairness to Rivka, I need to add that in the course of this writing I looked around the Internet myself and learned that a) no less than 14 US Presidents (the last being Ford) have been known to be Masons and b) their rites do include some esoteric stuff which would probably fall under the rubric of avodah zarah. So yes, even discounting somewhat the dark fantasies of outsiders, Freemasonry has indeed been powerful and is indeed something to keep away from.
Moreover, the business about the left foot in Rivka’s article is certainly suggestive. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Come to think of it, the process Rivka went through in writing her article — from her husband’s left Achilles’ tendon to the Masons’ left foot — isn’t dissimilar to the process I went through in the opening section of “Among Thorns,” following a trail of “signs” to what became the subject of the poem. Hm.
In discussing an earlier draft of this piece, Alizah Teitelbaum pointed out to me that Rivka herself has moved on from her position in “My Late Father-in-Law Was a Mason,” in a blogpost entitled “The Paradigm Shift.”
So, the bottom line is: Share your process! Be’ezrat haShem, we’ll come out together in a good place.