vrijdag 25 oktober 2013

The Story of the Jews

“In the massive, five-part BBC series The Story of the Jews historian Simon Schama delves into the history of the Jewish people. He begins his story three thousand years ago with the emergence of some tribes in the land of Canaan, their holy book and the stormy relationship with their vengeful god. The next few weeks Schama will explain how the Jews fought - and still fight - for their country and how wars with rival nations, neighbors and domination by the Romans and other invasion forces have determined the history of the Jewish people”.

If this announcement in a Dutch newspaper is an adequate summary of Schama’s series, he would really disappoint me. To rule or to be ruled, that’s what Judaism is all about, according to this text.

Now this is not so remarkable in itself . There are plenty of cynical Darwinists who regard the struggle for power as the basic law of human existence and of the interaction of people with each other. And why would the Jewish people escape to that law?

But, with such a description, has everything been said about a people? In that case, you indeed can dismiss a people’s history as a story of violence and its god as vindictive. In my opinion, however, you then have missed many interesting aspects, at least in the case of the Jewish people. Because, what if a suchlike people questions the violence that it performs or is subjected to? What if a ‘vengeful God’ becomes a metaphor for a bloody reality that is experienced as capricious and despotic? And thus allows for staging stories that enable people to better cope with the violence they have experienced?

There is a truth that appears as gross arbitrariness and that one does not understand. But the Biblical stories make that truth a little more tangible and therefore a bit more suited to the perplexed reflective mind than the brutal violence itself. Thanks to the stories, with their arbitrariness and absurdities, one can relate to it somehow instead of being in the middle of it.

You can therefore come to love those stories and the reflection that they make possible. And, thus, even to love the God who features in the stories. Conversely that God appears to come to love us and to show us charity. Such is visible in the liturgy of the Jewish holidays with the recurring phrase “The Lord, the Lord, a God of mercy and compassion, slow to anger, generous in love and truth, showing love to thousands, forgiving sin, wrong and failure; who pardons”.

I am afraid that, without mentioning the human love of Torah stories and the divine love for man, the series will be but little interesting. Probably the key phrase of the Jewish tradition –   namely, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” – will remain totally incomprehensible.

Also see Polyphony, Committed Gossip and Kol Nidrei and other illusions