Progressive Judaism: Still Religion

“The older I get, the more down I get on religion,” my father told me when I asked him if he is excited about being Jewish. I asked him why and he said, “More harm has been done in the name of organized religion than anything else.”

Growing up in a very Jewish family I never expected to hear this from my father, who himself was raised in an orthodox family. My family was very serious about its Judaism. My brothers and I were required to attend five years of Hebrew school (three times a week for two hours) in addition to regular public school. When we complained and asked why we were subjected to so much boring religion our parents told us we had to learn about our heritage and position in the world as survivors in the face of anti-Semitic hatred and brutality—it was in our blood. They told me I could choose whether or not to continue going to Hebrew School after being Bar Mitzvahed (the Jewish ceremony at age thirteen, in which a boy becomes a man, or some queer variant of an “adult”).

I kicked the habit pretty quickly as I discovered pot culture and radical politics. I began to look back upon Hebrew School as a form of intolerant indoctrination, whose goal was to socialize hordes of true believers to accept the one God who picked us to be The Chosen People, hell-bent on self-determination and intent on getting tough with anyone who fucked with our nationalistic aspirations. I grew further disenchanted with religion and identifying with Judaism. I developed affinities with friends in anarchist communities which rejected religion, hierarchy and domination by deities and mortals. It seems simple and this could be the end of the story, but…

A couple of decades after my Bar Mitzvah I noticed that a lot of the radical communities I encountered spurned religion but made exceptions, especially for Judaism. Peer pressure is alive and well: In numerous cases friends have assumed that I would want to participate in their alternative Jewish religious practices because of my heritage. I appreciate people finding fellowship and solidarity in the practice of familiar rites and ceremonies (indeed, many Jewish celebrations I encounter celebrate culture—particularly food—but not god or religion). Still, contemporary, alternative Judaism tends to downplay the role of the Almighty Patriarch in favor of feminist interpretations. For example, Esther is a heroine whose cunning saved the Jews from annihilation in ancient Persia. But how grounded in the actual historical, theological reality of Judaism are those post-modern interpretations after all?

In most anti-authoritarian theories and practices people stress the importance of not compromising when encountering domination. Yet Judaism is the original monotheistic religion, complete with the image of a power-hungry Lord, who establishes His dominance through a holy war against non-believers. The prophet Elijah was a very powerful dude who faced off against 450 pagans in a biblical sporting event on Mount Carmel and won (Kings 18). He won the competition and ordered all of the pagans killed. After that, the people of Israel accepted the God of Abraham as the Almighty Hot Shit. Elijah is more than a historical footnote. Jews still celebrate the prophet. During the Passover holiday we pour a glass of Manischewitz wine for him and open the door to welcome his return, which will mark a new era of peace on earth and happiness under the Jewish God. The moral of the story is that good people will be happier when a mass murderer comes to our homes to get drunk on super-sweet wine, because our place as the chosen people was foretold in The Old Testament.

I somehow didn’t learn about Elijah’s genocidal history in Hebrew School (but was re-educated by my friend Nettles Schweizer, an Israeli dissident living in the US). In Hebrew School they taught us that Jews had survived centuries of oppression largely through the will of God and an emphasis on education. Great tales were told of Jews educating themselves in secret when faced with the possibility of persecution if caught. The Rabbis insisted that they did not have all the answers and we would learn best if we kept open minds, asked questions, understood opposing opinions and spoke up even if we thought our views were unpopular. However, I noticed that the opposite was often true and some questions and opinions were more discouraged than others.

Judaism tends to be not as doctrinaire and harsh as other organized religions. Still, as I got older I learned that retaliation for not towing the party line could be stiff and swift. While in high school I attended a workshop held by the powerful lobbying organization the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). They stressed ways to manipulate public opinion and influence politicians, and how to discourage criticism of Israel. As a student at the University of Michigan I watched in sadness as Jews pressured the University to pull funding that had been promised for a lecture by Noam Chomsky because he dared to question Israel’s policies. In the 1950’s prominent writer Hannah Arendt had been excommunicated from the Jewish community for her radical notions.

Likewise, in my own family, I recall long discussions at holiday gatherings about political subjects such as the Intifada. One time, my dad turned to me and commented that I was being awfully quiet. I said that I didn’t want to get involved in a debate, but family members urged me to speak up, insisting that all views are welcome. Then, when I started to share anarchist notions of a no-state solution I was drowned out by many voices telling me how unrealistic the ideas were. So much for openness.

Progressive Jews tend to look back on the biblical era as unrelated to our present conditions. For them the only time the past does relate to our lives is when it perpetuates the idea of the oppressed, righteous Jew surviving against great adversity through determination and the help of the Lord. What kind of God has chosen us to be on his side? Surely a just one who acts in mysterious ways, we are told. But the Old Testament documents a God who is violent and vengeful, at times a sadist who prolongs the agony of his enemies while favoring his chosen people. The book of Exodus, for example, tells the tale of the plagues delivered upon the Egyptians by God in His efforts to pressure the Pharaoh to free the Jewish slaves. After suffering seven plagues the Pharaoh capitulated, but “the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh” and continued inflicting plagues. (The lessons could lead some righteous modern-day President to drop nuclear bombs on defeated enemies.)

In recent years I have enjoyed exploring such themes on stage, and friends and I have written numerous satirical pieces about religion. In one I play Rachel Bagelbaum, a hyperactive fundraising Zionist who goes door to door on Passover to raise money for the state of Israel (insisting that $3 billion a year in aid from the US government is simply not enough). She is a pushy woman who does not easily take no for an answer. She invoked laughter, but also dismay. One audience member asked me to change the character, insisting that I portrayed a stereotype from the past and that we Jews should not air our dirty laundry, lest it reinforce anti-Jewish feelings. This is one of the many responses used to discourage Jewish detractors.

It is certainly true that Jews have good reason to be weary of potential anti-Jewishness. Even some radicals make ignorant statements tying Jews to money and power, and see a Zionist plot behind anything Jewish. For instance, I have heard a scary number of variations stating that all Jews are wealthy, which is simply untrue. Jews rightfully fear the thin veil of hatred prominent amongst those who deny the Holocaust. However, these examples should not lead to self-censorship regarding public discussion of critical issues.

Many radical Jews search for feminist meaning in the religion. This includes emphasizing celebrations of female biblical heroes, or stressing how cool it is that Jewishness is passed on through matrilineal lines. I wonder: what does it mean to base a heritage and politic on blood lines, to create a club accessible to people primarily through biological determinism? Historically blood runs through family feuds, tribal rivalries and nationalistic wars up to the present day efforts to build walls dividing peoples (I am hoping that Pink Floyd takes the opportunity to go to Israel/Palestine and perform The Wall there). When I think about the feminist reclaiming of Judaism, I can’t help but remember the last time I went to a synagogue (for my mother’s Bat Mitzvah in 1987) when the English translation of the service explained that a man should be slapped on the wrist if he covets thy neighbor, and a woman shall have her hand chopped off for the same offense.

Organized religion successfully uses the fear of authority (God) to manipulate populations. The Jewish brand of crowd manipulation of neuroses is that of guilt for your sins and digressions. That is one of the functions of the holiday called Yom Kippur, where you can spend the whole day fasting in temple atoning for the previous year’s sins and then get together with family and friends to break the fast and stuff your body with food.

In Hebrew School they showed us documentary footage of Nazi concentration camps and insisted we “never again” let something like the holocaust happen (the historical record is much more horrifying than the Hollywood representations—no matter how genuine and realistic—which have proven to be such commercial successes). I interpreted this lesson to oppose domination of humans by any authority. When I changed my name to MaxZine I purposefully kept my obvious Jewish last name of Weinstein to counter the trend of so many Jews in this country who changed their name to be closeted about their identity. I encountered anti-Jewishness from a young age and still hear incorrect stereotypes about Jews.

I asked a friend how she felt about being a Jew and she answered, “I’m glad to be a Jew. Jews are oppressed people and I’m glad to be less of the oppressor”. In short, she said this historical legacy is something she has consciously chosen to not turn her back on and use the liberatory lessons to elucidate anti-authoritarian viewpoints. However, I have trouble seeing where religious practice fits into the picture, no matter how they are recast to make them more palatable. Is it a yearning for genuine community that brings Jews together? Why not instead get together and enjoy fabulous food and use the time to dream the demise of religious authority?

I asked my mother if she is excited to be a Jew. She said that she is not sure what it means to be Jewish and that “everyone defines it differently.” She then mentioned the notion of “survival in the face of the whole world being together against us.” I admire the determination to survive. I understand the desire to build community in the modern world which features television-induced alienation and isolation. I just hope that there are more possibilities than the militarized religious nation-state option.