Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dispatch from Beckistan

Oh, Glenn. You're just so adorable. Like a toddler who throws a fit upon being asked to come to the table for dinner, you can't take legitimate criticism without flipping out. I think you need to sit in time-out for a little bit, and then you need a hug.

Some rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum got mad at Beck - legitimately - for using anti-Semitic tropes in his criticism of George Soros. In response, Beck did this:
“When you talk about rabbis, understand that most -- most people who are not Jewish don't understand that there are the Orthodox rabbis, and then there are the reformed rabbis. Reformed rabbis are generally political in nature. It's almost like Islam, radicalized Islam in a way, to where it is just -- radicalized Islam is less about religion than it is about politics. When you look at the reform Judaism, it is more about politics.”

He then added: "It's not about terror or anything else, it's about politics, and so it becomes more about politics than it does about faith. Orthodox rabbis -- that is about faith. There's not a single Orthodox rabbi on this list. This is all reformed rabbis that were -- that made this list.”
Let's put aside the fact that he's wrong about there not being Orthodox rabbis on that list - rabbis from all four major branches of Judaism signed that letter. He just compared Jews who are unhappy about the way he addresses Judaism on his show to radical Muslims who like to blow shit up. I don't care why you make that comparison, that's just insane.

But let's even put that aside for a minute and look at the substance of his claim: that Reform Judaism - the largest branch of Judaism in America - is a political movement and not a religious one. The claim is absurd on its face, but so is the idea that political beliefs can't emanate from religious ones. Connecticut-based rabbi Rachel Gurevitz explains this:
What Judaism and Islam both have in common as faith traditions is that their codes of law and practices were never confined to ritual practice and belief. Both were conceived of, in their origins, as entire social systems. Jewish law from the earliest centuries speak of the obligations of a community providing a particular minimum of teacher/student ratio in the classroom. It speaks of the obligation of a communal pot to ensure that doctors are paid for their medical services even when an individual cannot themselves afford the medical care they need to keep them alive. It speaks of ethical business practices, ethical ways of collecting charitable funds, and how to figure out ways of distributing those funds when the community's need is greater than the contents of the fund.

While, as American Jews, we live in a country where there is a constitutional separation of church and State, Judaism as a faith tradition was not originally conceived with such a separation as part of the cultural context in which it operated. This means that when Jews talk about practicing Judaism, they might be talking about their Sabbath observance or their Passover Seder, but they might just as equally be talking about their social activism on behalf of the needy.
What's interesting, though, is that Christianity is often discussed in those very same terms, so much so that there's an eHow page on how to live the Christian lifestyle. There is no religion in the world that does not carry an ethical system with it, and those ethics always influence one's political system. Beck, who routinely uses Christian language and theology to illustrate his political views on his show, ought to know that better than anyone. So why don't Judaism and Islam look like "religions" to him?

The less charitable answer is that he just doesn't like Jews and Muslims (the latter of these, of course, is demonstrably true). But there's an alternative reason, and it's best illustrated by a story. When my father was converting to Judaism, he told the rabbi that, while he loved the Jewish traditions and system of ethics, he didn't really think that he believed in God.

"Well," the rabbi said, "do you believe in Jesus?"

"No," my father replied.

"You'll be fine," said the rabbi.

To a Jew, faith is secondary. When we talk about what it means to be Jewish, we talk about doing Jewish things, not believing Jewish things. Certainly for me, I'd probably go a good ten minutes listing things about Judaism before I got to faith in God - and I might not even list that. But in Christianity, faith is one of the most central - if not the most central - defining characteristic of the religion. So if you, like Beck, are used to the idea that having religion means having faith, Judaism and Islam, with their emphasis on ethical systems and traditions and accompanying lack of emphasis on faith, can be confusing. So when Beck says that Judaism doesn't look like a religion to him, it's because he has failed to expand his conceptualization of religion beyond Christianity.