Simple Rhetorical Truths

mascettiBy Yaacov Mascetti*

I’m writing these lines after a very difficult and intense few days here in Israel. On the whole it’s been a rough summer. While Obama and Kerry signed the treaty with Iran, and while Netanyahu ignited his same old Berlusconi-like campaign to pump up the consciences of the Israeli citizens, taking about the world being “a much more dangerous place from today on,” my personal friends, both real and virtual on Facebook and Twitter, have gone into a rabbit-hole of anachronistic elaborations, comparing Obama to Chamberlain and Hamenei to Hitler. Pictures have been edited and rhetorical posts have been put on the social media, making an impression on many. So since we are in the mood for anachronistic associations between the distant past and our very sickening present, this piece wishes to propose my own, very angry association. And I’m going to go Biblical on you guys this time, because that’s the language we as Jews, religious or not, speak. This is our heritage right?

Rhetoric is easy, rhetoric is penetrating, rhetoric manipulates the minds of the ignorant, and rhetoric will give you power if you know how to use it. Personally, I am sick of simple rhetoric – live, and not only here in the Middle East, is unbearably complex, and complexity is where we find the strength for humility and encounter. Complexity is where we get lost, where we lose our voice, that nice and loud voice yelling against the other, and we find the terrifying silence of confusion freezing our consciousness. In pedagogical contexts I try to create this moment artificially with literary texts (yea yea, those useless literary pieces of art which no one is interested in studying any longer, because we all have to be useful and have a good profession), and as my own teacher taught me, I try to pull up short students and show them the spot where there is no comfort, no ease, no certainty. No, I’m actually talking about a universal complexity, what Umberto Eco calls the “infinite whirl of possible things” which reveals the inconceivable immediacy of Divine presence. Paradoxical right? You find when you lose, you hear when you hear not, you see when all’s dark, and you love when there is no one to Love. But how can I even dream of selling this to a public that appreciates things like “Yesterday it was Chamberlain with Hitler, today… Obama with Iran?” It’s simple. It’s punchy. Effective and concise. Well, I’m not concise and I am not going to accept that simple rhetoric.

Oh well, maybe I should make an effort… Since we all like simplicity, why not compromise? So here we go: Israel is decadent. It’s torn apart by sectarianism, hatred, extremism, ignorance, more ignorance, and violence of all sorts from verbal varieties to physical ones. And most of all, there are so many forms of paganism in Israel today that it’s quite a miracle that the Land has not vomited us out yet. Right, because we are operating on an anachronistic level remember? We’re now not in the 21st century any more, but in Biblical times, and God is telling Moses what to impart to Joshua as the latter prepares to lead the people of Israel into the promised Land.

(Deut. 4) 15 Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves—for ye saw no manner of form on the day that the LORD spoke unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire— 16 lest ye deal corruptly, and make you a graven image, even the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the heaven 18 the likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth 19 and lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven, thou be drawn away and worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God hath allotted unto all the peoples under the whole heaven. 20 But you hath the LORD taken and brought forth out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be unto Him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day.21 Now the LORD was angered with me for your sakes, and swore that I should not go over the Jordan, and that I should not go in unto that good land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance; 22 but I must die in this land, I must not go over the Jordan; but ye are to go over, and possess that good land. 23 Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which He made with you, and make you a graven image, even the likeness of any thing which the LORD thy God hath forbidden thee. 24 For the LORD thy God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.

Going into the Land implies abandoning all tendencies to adore natural powers as Divine – objects, phenomena, things that breathe not, see not, are passive objects which must not be considered as Divine. And that, one might want to interpret here, includes the Land itself.

(Deut 4) 25 When thou shalt beget children, and children’s children, and ye shall have been long in the land, and shall deal corruptly, and make a graven image, even the form of any thing, and shall do that which is evil in the sight of the LORD thy God, to provoke Him;26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over the Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed. 27 And the LORD shall scatter you among the peoples, and ye shall be left few in number among the nations, whither the LORD shall lead you away. 28 And there ye shall serve gods, the work of men’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. 29 But from thence ye will seek the LORD thy God; and thou shalt find Him, if thou search after Him with all thy heart and with all thy soul. 30 In thy distress, when all these things are come upon thee, in the end of days, thou wilt return to the LORD thy God, and hearken unto His voice; 31 for the LORD thy God is a merciful God; He will not fail thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which He swore unto them.

Moses is pretty clear and leaves very little space to open interpretation here – when you, my dear Israelites, will have become comfortable in the Land, you will start performing in ways that are corrupt and will adore even the form of any thing, God will take the Land from you and scatter all of your comfortable consciences around the world, and you will be forced to live in exile amongst peoples who actually adore those “things” and it will be then that you will hearken unto God’s message again. And no, my dear friends, it’s not as simple as you think – the Land does not simply vomit its inhabitants when these behave in immoral ways (i.e. homosexuality, secular lifestyles, free sexual habits, etc.), but also because of the lack of social justice, the blindness of the powerful vis-a-vis the suffering of the people, because of how the powerful trample over the weak. Being religious is not sufficient – God requires from us to build a just society that will take care of the weak and the poor, will tolerate the different, will see in pluralism a virtue and not a threat.

So: simple rhetorical truths? You have them right here: the destructive sectarianism that is tearing apart my country, the corruption of political leadership and rabbinical institutions, the violence towards those who are the undeniable “others” and the violence within our own “tribe,” these are the things that will destroy Israel. Israel is Israel’s worst enemy, and we are doing the work impeccably. I’m not worried of Iran, or cannot see Obama as a new Chamberlain – but I can see that my country is decadent, and that if we don’t work seriously and address these phenomena right now, the gangrene of violence and xenophobia will devour the entire body politic, yet once more.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.