Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 29, 2023 / 17 Tevet 5784
Summary: The Tenth of Tevet on the Jewish calendar which fell last Friday, recalls a past occupation that Jews in ancient Palestine suffered; this provides an interesting opening to explore how many forms of antisemitism arise when people misunderstand the many unique characteristics of the Jewish people.
Reading Time: Seventeen minutes
A Nation that Dwells Apart: Antisemitism and The Matrix
I want to invite you to imagine the ancient walls of Jerusalem surrounded as the Babylonians lay siege to the holy city. Nebuchadnezzar built towers around the city. For approximately two-and-a-half years, the city was cut off from the outside world. No one seemed to care about the Jews. In II Kings 25:1, we read that “by the 9th day of the [4th month] the famine had become acute in the city; there was no food left for the common people.” Can you hear the cries of hunger, the starvation, the sense of hopelessness? Then the wall of the city was breached.
That was the Tenth of Tevet, which fell on December 22nd this year (2023). It should have marked the end of the Jewish people, yet even now, we commemorate what occurred 586 years before the Common Era, or 2609 years ago. Two thousand six hundred years later, we are forced to wonder how much has changed. Sometimes, history echoes more loudly than we would wish.
Let’s shift the image now to a black cat crossing in front of a doorway. Just seconds later, the same black cat appears to cross the same door. Can you see its long black tail pointing back in the direction from which it came? Deja vu.
Hardcore movie buffs may recognize the reference to a scene in The Matrix, a film that lands on anyone’s top five list of the best science fiction films of all time, yet its cultural impact extended beyond fans of that genre. The Matrix is considered the 18th best film ever made according to Imdb, the Internet Movie Database. Apart from its groundbreaking special effects, The Matrix’s holding power resides in the ways it addresses some of the most persistent religious and philosophical themes with which humanity has contended since our earliest days when small tribes gathered around the campfire to share their origin tales. Is life a dream or a nightmare? Do most people live in a daze, a sort of maze constructed by others? What does it take to wake up to the true nature of reality? What sort of sacrifices are required? The Matrix is, in other words, a movie of enduring mythic stature that has influenced countless directors as well as society as a whole. In three months, the film will be twenty-five years old.
I believe that the scene in that film of a black cat crossing a doorway can offer us a provocative way to think not only about rising antisemitism and how the world views Israel, but why that is the case, for Jews remain a glitch in the Matrix, opening a wider view to what reality truly is. Since that last statement may sound grandiose or a bit obscure, let me remind you of the basic premise of The Matrix. After twenty-five years, there will be no spoiler alert. You had your chance!
In an undisclosed future that doesn’t look so different from our own, a computer hacker, Neo, begins to realize that something isn’t quite making sense. The long and short of it is that he becomes part of a group of freedom fighters who have discovered that the world we live in is actually a completely immersive virtual reality created by AI machines to keep humans subjugated. Their job is to fight against the machine in the name of liberty. And by the way, the freedom fighters’ ship is called the Nebuchadnezzar, the same as the king who laid siege to Jerusalem all those years ago.
That computer-generated reality is called the Matrix; in an era of Oculus and other virtual reality goggles, as well as social media, news, and election cycles that have been manipulated by AI, the movie’s premise no longer seems so far-fetched. It seems eerily prescient.
Early in the movie, Neo sees a black cat cross a doorway. Moments later, the same cat appears, and, if I may paraphrase, Neo says out loud to his new friends, “That’s weird.” “What?” they ask. “Deja vu,” he says. The freedom fighters freeze. “Tell us exactly what you saw, because deja vu is actually a glitch in the Matrix. It occurs when something in the computer-generated virtual reality is changed.” A moment of deja vu, from the movie’s point of view, is a rupture in our collectively held illusions. It is an opening to see a more accurate version of reality.
Over the last two weeks, I have been advancing and exploring this notion from different perspectives; in effect, Jewish history and antisemitism have repeatedly served as deja vu moments meant to waken us from our stupor. One of the ways an instance of deja vu enters history is through the framing of antisemitism. Whichever particular motifs or charges are leveled at the Jews inevitably turn out, in hindsight, to reveal collective societal delusions, which sadly are far more common than we would like to think.1
But why is that so? Why do Jews serve this peculiar function of bursting illusions?
If we were sitting in a certain sort of Orthodox synagogue, we might explain this as our predetermined destiny. Bilam, the famous non-Jewish prophet, once stated that to be part of the Jewish nation is to be an am levadad yishkon—“lo, it is a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations.” [Num. 23:8-9]
Sometimes it definitely feels that way, especially when the UN makes non-binding resolutions that unilaterally blame Israel for every sin imaginable.
Perhaps we are a nation apart because by this point in history, antisemitism is so deeply rooted, that it has become a hydra, always sprouting new heads so that there is no real way to eliminate it? That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, even as it prepares us for further such deja vu moments.
Or perhaps, as Rabbi Sacks once commented, if we take this notion of being a nation apart seriously, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Under this understanding, which antisemites have often levied at Jews, we are responsible because we are cliquish and insular. Given how often the outside world has forced Jews into ghettos, shtetls, and worse, this is also hard to believe. The truth is that you will find Jewish pioneers in nearly every new human endeavor, even as other Jews live most of their days within a primarily Jewish context.
I want to propose a different, highly-faceted explanation for the deja vu of antisemitism rather than as only a divine decree or self-imposed burden. The reason that we Jews are besieged, just like the Tenth of Tevet commemorates, is because we are sui generis. Sui Generis is the Latin phrase for something that is its own category, unique to itself. That is how we must understand Bilam’s statement that we are an am levadad yishkon. We are unlike any other group I can think of, and this disturbs and breaks down popular models of understanding, as we will see.
Without a doubt, to be a part of Jewish history is to be peculiar to itself. We are a religion, and we are not a religion. As a percentage, more Jews are atheists than any other adherents to a religion that believes in a deity.2 We are a nation, and as long years of exile have demonstrated, we are also not a nation. We are indigenous to the Levant and the land of Israel, going back to the early days of human history, yet when we are brutally honest, we are also not indigenous. The Jews of Poland lived there a thousand years before the Holocaust, giving us a greater claim to Polish indigeneity by dint of our historical record than Palestinians can demonstrate about their own presence in the land of Israel.3 We are arguably the world’s oldest extant cosmopolitan nomadic people, even as many Arab Jews lived in tiny towns, working the same land in ancient ways for hundreds of years. Many of us have white skins, even as more Jews are people of color. In the most bizarre manner possible, Jews are settler-colonialists in Israel, even though we returned to the only land we knew and to which we have a deep and undeniable historical claim. More bizarrely, however, some percentage of the Palestinians already there who call it their home are the descendants of earlier Ottoman settler-colonialists who occupied the Jews, so that those who colonized us continue to oppress us.4 Nor do we make their lives easy.
At this critical moment, Israel is besieged by Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis of Yemen, and of course, Iran. Simultaneously, Israel has, out of necessary self-defense, laid a siege against Hamas. This highlights how Israel can have one of the world’s most powerful armies, while her existence itself remains precarious and constantly verges on a state of powerlessness. Besieged and besieger, strong and weak.5
Our culture is one of the greatest examples of universalism; whenever there is a natural disaster around the world, Israel and the Jews are often the first responders, lending a hand. Our culture is also an undying example of particularism, enduring long after other ancient peoples had disappeared. Yet have we not also assimilated and adapted to our host cultures again and again?
We Jews are sui generis not because we are different than any other people, but because we are more alike than anyone can bear. Whatever characteristic defines a certain group, ideology, belief system, or structure can be found within our experience, even as we are greater than any one definition. The word Hebrew, as in us Hebrews, means boundary crossers. We burst all boundaries, even as we preserve them.
We are the Rorschach inkblot test of history, offering up an ambiguous image upon which the rest of the world projects their unconscious thoughts, biases, motives, hatreds, and desires. Like a pool of ink, we are always moving, changing, shifting. We are exemplars of radical freedom and perpetual subjugation. I don’t know why that is, but our history indubitably proves it.
Frankly, that is unbearable to countless non-Jews and many Jews besides. Humans possess an evolutionary predisposition to save energy. They do this by finding shortcuts to physical labor, creating tools like plows, wagons, airplanes, and central heating. They also do this intellectually, creating models of the world so that we don’t have to waste energy thinking. Good guys/bad guys. Black/white. Oppressor/oppressed. Yet to encounter the Jewish people in our full reality is to recognize that commonly-held models of reality are often wrong and usually insufficient. We are the glitch in the Matrix. More precisely, antisemitism is the glitch in the Matrix, warning society that the models it uses to describe the world are either broken or are in the process of breaking and in desperate need of repair. How else can one understand those global forces who excuse Hamas’s actions on October 7th?6
Without a great deal of training, people cannot endure ambiguity. They will do anything to fix reality in a simple way that is easy to understand. Of course, ambiguity, uncertainty, and anxiety arise whenever the old understandings and structures begin to crumble, which is precisely the same moment that antisemitism in a society increases.
What then is the lesson of the Tenth of Tevet? Rising antisemitism? The war in Israel? Can I be frank? Jews are people first; we also dislike ambiguity. It is why within the current generation of younger Jews, there is a meaningful section who think that all of Israel should be given to Hamas, for wouldn’t that resolve the tensions and cognitive dissonance we are all feeling about the horrific costs of war? But don’t blame the younger generation. In a certain sense, we are all like Cypher.
Cypher was one of the freedom fighters in The Matrix, one of the people who saw through the illusion to a deeper reality. Yet ultimately, Cypher became disenchanted with the cost of that freedom, the pain of it, the ugliness that is part of reality. When he colludes with the Machine AI, he offers his help as a traitor to the human cause on one condition. He asks to be reinstated into the Matrix, but as someone wealthy and important, like an actor. Cypher flees from the distress of uncertainty. He wants to return to comfortable myths. As I have been saying recently, some segment of Jewish Americans will do this. We can have sympathetic understanding for that desire to be lulled back to sleep. After a tough day, who doesn’t want a break?
Yet most Jews won’t find Cypher’s solution satisfying. It is not in our nature. The answer to the Tenth of Tevet is to fearlessly embrace this peculiar destiny of Jewish identity, which is to be both everything that our enemies accuse us of, even while we are none of those things. It is to claim our destiny as humanity’s truth-tellers.
In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “When Jews fight for the right to be, whether as a nation in its historic home, or as a religious group in other societies, they fight not for themselves alone but for human freedom as a whole.” If that’s what it means to be a nation apart, that’s a destiny I can sign on to. Will you join me?
1For an early treatment of this, see journalist Charles McKay’s 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Malcolm Gladwell has built a lucrative career trying to do something similar in our era. While they don’t focus on Jews and antisemitism, their research does show how common it is for an entire society or time period to hallucinate.
2This awkward phrasing is meant to recognize that in non-deistic religions, such as Buddhism, most practitioners might be atheists.
3There are no primary documents indicating Palestinian presence in the land going back that far. Archaeological remnants of buildings that were clearly not Jewish merely show continuous settlement, but in no intellectually honest way can these dwellings be termed Palestinian, and so on. We begin to identify Palestinian writings starting in the early- to mid-1800s. This is not to say that there was not a Palestinian presence in the land, nor should this be viewed as a rhetorical device to lessen Palestinian land claims. Rather, in contentious matters, it is very important that we provide a factual basis for our claims; primary documents are one of the important tools historians use to determine a version of history that can be factually supported.
4It is very difficult to track origins of premodern people who did not produce a literature or an advanced bureaucracy of their own. Scholars have wrestled with this issue. Until genetic mapping studies advance, there will always be an element of conjecture here, often influenced by one’s politics. That said, this Wikipedia page demonstrates the tremendous fluctuation of populations in Palestine, both in gross numbers as well as place of origin. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographic_history_of_Palestine_(region)
5It is important to recognize that in urban warfare, a smaller defending power (Hamas in this case) often can achieve parity or an advantage in an urban war theater against an attacking power.
6The attempt to excuse Hamas’s acts of pure evil by “contextualization” is actually, in other words, a facile attempt to shore up a failed model. Some actions must be considered beyond the pale for civilization to serve any purpose. Raping, beheading, killing parents in front of children and children in front of parents—if we do not consider such acts as irredeemably cruel, then we have given tacit permission to commit evil at any time and place.
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