On Political Allegiances: Parashat VaYikra – Leviticus 1.1 to 6.7

I do not Know when I personally gave up on the Aristotelian political category system for clarifying different political regimes. We had been taught to identify democracies versus tyrannies, democracies versus aristocracies, democracies versus dictatorships, democracies versus monarchies, democracies versus oligarchies. It was only when I was in university after I read Hannah Arendt that I learned to divide dictatorships into authoritarian versus totalitarian systems, the former controlling just your external political behaviour while the latter permeated your very being and occupied your heart and soul, your brain and your gut. For the issue was not only the number of rulers at the top and the status they were given but the way they exercised power.

I do not think it could have been in high school. For there we had been indoctrinated into believing that there were only three ways of categorizing political entities – colonies that were ruled from elsewhere, nation-states that ruled themselves and empires that embraced both colonies and nation-states of which the largest by far in the world at the time was the British Empire. Every classroom – or so I may have misremembered it – had a big map in which a major part of the world was painted red. States and colonies, we were all parts of one single and supreme glorious empire. But other than singing God Save the King and later transitioning to God Save the Queen when poor King George the Sixth died and a very young princess took the throne, the empire seemed to have little impact on my life and seemed to have failed in seizing control of my affections.

We were taught to be proud of our membership in the British Empire. We sang, “Britannia Rule the Waves” with gusto in the classroom, but given the subversives that we were, in the schoolyard, and when in high school, in the basement lunchroom, we sang a version of the national anthem at the time that made fun of the king – even when George was no longer alive. Or we sang Pete Seeger folk songs for our representative in parliament was J.B. Salsberg, a communist. Or some of our classmates were ardent Zionists – Ricky Rapoport (Friesem) stood out – and we learned how the British Empire had first promised Jews a homeland and then had stood in the way of the self-determination of the Jewish people in Palestine.

Our allegiances were all over the map literally. In my row in high school, there was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, a Bundist, a Socialist, two students who belonged to families who were members of the Conservative and Liberal Parties respectively. The whole political spectrum lay before us as we argued over loyalties, or, in my case, looked cynically on all the various ideological debates and insisted they were a distraction from the main objective which was to earn money and escape poverty.

Why was I not caught up more by the pleas for charitable donations to the new struggling Jewish nation in former Palestine? It was de rigueur for all of us – whatever our political or non-political associations, to be given Blue Boxes at the various heders or Jewish schools we attended after public school and Sundays. We carried them around door to door to ask for pennies to be dropped in to support the United Jewish Appeal and, in particular, a struggling Israel. We did our duties. But for the vast majority of us at the time, Israel did not command our hearts even as we solicited voluntary donations to help the nascent state. We did not recognize that this fund-raising that had been introduced in Exodus to support the building of the Tabernacle was a very early stage of a method of indoctrination and developing loyalties.

Sometimes, to enhance our pride, we would be shown films of pioneers working on the soil and growing oranges. At other times, we were subjected to superego trips as the films depicted the struggling emaciated Jews released from concentration camps living in tents in the desert. Such films evoked both shame and pity rather than pride and I do not believe helped in shaping our loyalties in the long run, except to the Jewish people in general rather than the Zionist pioneers.

But that was their function – to capture our imaginations and imprison our loyalties for a lifetime of service and dedication. Of course, we had been prepared for this education in loyalty in a way that had a much deeper appeal than the anthems and songs we had been taught in public school about the British empire. But both efforts worked on manipulating our feelings. And turned us into unconscious political schizophrenics. Why else would we name our basketball club in the Jewish Y “Albion.” We were both envious aristocrats and Jewish plebs.

I was ten-years old when Israel became an independent state. I had not yet started playing hooky from Jewish school to sell Daily Star newspapers on the corner as my own form of a Blue Box campaign to help my mother raise myself and my two brothers. Why did I, unlike my brother who was fifteen months older, refuse to have a Bar Mitzvah, even though I had worn tsistit over my undershirt? Admittedly, I tucked the strings underneath my pants rather than showing them off hanging over a belt? I had started rebelling at eleven and became a full-blooded apostate by the time I was twelve. I had stopped attending heder after school Monday to Thursday and on Sunday mornings. My mother had to know it and looked the other way, for I was earning money.

Greed and need had displaced aany political emotions. My loyalty to a larger group than my immediate family was put into a shell, or, if it had existed then, a deep freeze. My mind was dedicated to reading Black Diamond fiction – the designators of the nineteenth century tales of daring-do and adventure that provided the main reading material for my imagination and my brain. And I do not know what happened to my heart at the time, but it was kept bottled-up and out of harm’s way lest any system of higher loyalty distract me from my main purpose in life – achieving high marks at school to leave the lumpenproletariat.

What had happened to the pride and compassion of the Zionist appeals? I admired them at a distance – Ricky Rapoport was a heroine for me – but I vowed that I would never marry such a self-sacrificing cause and serve a larger political goal. And what about the Orthodox Jewish religion that had been instilled in me since I was very young? It used rulers cracked over my head and ritualistic education – even in reading and chanting – so that it remained on the surface, something which remained empty as far as any appeal to my heart but also even in the ritualistic practices that no longer had any meaning. Though it took until I was fifteen or sixteen to eat my first piece of sweet and sour pork spare ribs at a Chinese restaurant, by twelve I had already cast aside those rituals. Instead of inspiring fear in me, they stirred up my rage and my rebellion.

By thirteen, I was a politically emotional orphan. Then, whence came my norms? From the training of my intellect in high school. From the directing of my greed to satisfy my deep needs after school through the various economic enterprises in which I engaged, my pride did not emerge in singing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, and certainly not in singing God Save the Queen or even The Maple Leaf Forever. I was most proud of the house we bought my mother by the time I was sixteen.  It is hard to believe it today, but we had accumulated enough savings – especially since we rarely spent any money – to put a down payment on a house.

I had pride – but not in a polity. I did very well at school and was a top student. I earned lots of money on the side from various enterprises, from selling newspapers to scalping tickets, from running a syndicate selling ribbons at football games to winning contests for new subscribers to The Toronto Star. I was a hustler like Mordechai Richler’s Duddy Kravitz. If my religious loyalties had become much more impoverished than our family circumstances, if my political loyalties had been displaced by cynicism and opportunism so that I lacked any emotional attachments to a polity, I still had feelings and passions. But they were directed elsewhere.

In university, that changed. Louis Menand in a very recent New Yorker article (“Change Your Life: How student radicals shaped the sixties,” 22 March 2021) described the history of the new left in the United States as the emergence of a different form of shared community neither tied to a state nor involved in the advancement of self-centred goals. I had abandoned medical school. I had helped organize and develop student co-op housing and became president of the University of Toronto chapter of the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament which I and a friend had started.

I had found a political non-state centered home, or what I thought had been a political home. But as Menand showed in the United States, the sense of belonging was transitory. Instead of being rooted in ideology and a workable political program based on an analysis of the distribution of power in society, it was really a series of memberships in different organizations adept at superego practices. I sacrificed my ego-focused identification of serving personal need or greed for romantic utopian visions that kept me outside the embrace of any polity. I, like members of the Free Speech Movement, the anti-racist movement and the anti-war movement in the United States, had found a series of transit places to hang my proverbial hat or rest my head, but never to command any deep loyalties. My distrust went too deep.

I had read C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite. I had learned that, “Ordinary men often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern,” I would escape both being governed and the responsibilities of governing by being the conscience of my generation, haunting the polity with alternate idealistic scenarios that were akin to serial romantic affairs. That is how I personally would escape the strictures of a mass society and the ordinariness, duplicative and duplicitous life of the organization man.  Democracy did not live within a polity but on the streets.

However, not on the streets alongside union workers on strike for higher wages. For they had been coopted by a corrupt system. Institutional loyalties were dangerous. Institutional loyalties were anathema. Yet we would create our own university, an anti-university university run by the students and dedicated to learning for its own sake, not realizing at the time that the vision of Rochdale College was simply a throwback to the amateur university of the eighteenth century that acculturated the political elite of society. We would educate the anti-elite at a time just when our university, the University of Toronto, was transiting from a school inculcating professionalism as a Sanctuary of Method to a school married to society and its goals of social service and self-reformation.

In the meanwhile, my fellow travelers from high school had in large part taken a different route. Their feelings had not been liberated from an organized polity and the institutions of civil society, nor from their Jewish affiliations. While community activists, in contrast to our band of rebellious new leftist activists, were busy calling for support for the development of Israel or eventually for the freedom of their co-religionists in the USSR, my compassion increasingly became universal and was directed at the whole of the Third World, but without any institutional underpinning. The mechanisms for sustainability were never there. The attachments were real but fleeting.

And they were steeped in the politics of resentment, resentment of the economic elites who took the route of watered-down (as I then saw it) Judaism to remain both part of the Jewish establishment while joining the political establishment. They had simply sold out. They embraced humanitarianism married to progressive ideals, but within strong institutional attachments that I avoided and evaded as forms of imprisonment for an authentic existential self. However, every few years, I had to re-invent myself. For I had no institutional loyalties to sustain me. But I turned a weakness into a virtue.

During my lifetime, I became a refugee from anti-institutionalism. I came to recognize the importance of institutions for sustaining and reinforcing emotional loyalties and acting as an emotional reservoir in times of drought to help individuals overcome hurdles.tt took me decades, but gradually, very gradually, I embraced Zionism. And then Judaism, the reverse order of most Jews of my generation.

It took until 1967 for my fear for the demise of the fledging state of Israel to manifest itself, and then that took six years to mature and marry pride in its accomplishments which I then tried – late in the game – to inculcate in my children.

So what of Leviticus and the glory given to ritual and sacrifice and purification? I have always held, and still believe, that ritual is a method of capturing and taming rebellion – in two very opposite senses. Through ritual, those who used to hold power are displaced. At the same time, the displaced are given formal roles where they are impotent in initiating action but revered for the role they once played. That is what has been done with the British monarchy in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The ancient Israelites tamed the throbbing new Hebrew nation-state by submitting the members to a theocracy rather than either tribal passions or military zeal. The power of the sword would be tamed by belief and ritualistic practice.

Just as collecting pennies for Blue Boxes where most of the funds went to Israel, and collecting voluntary donations of gold, silver and copper helped inculcate loyalty to the emerging ritualistic practices, the latter had to be consolidated to stomp out the history and future prospects of periodic rebellions against authority. The issue was not simply purifying ourselves of sin – of envy, of resentment, of disdain, of cynicism – but the more basic sin of any action that detracted from institutionalized power. The worst of these is inaction.

Judaism is about giving witness. Judaism is about offering testimony to what one believes. Rabbi Yotz Geenberg offers the case of the witness who observes a sin – such as a murder – and refuses to come forward.

I want to call special attention to one of the cases that requires a hattat. A person witnesses a crime and hears a public exhortation asking witnesses to step forward and report what happened. The person saw the crime, but, despite the exhortation, still decides not to step forward as a witness. That person is guilty, and required to bring a hattat offering to clear himself of his guilt. We are not dealing here with any sinful act. We are dealing with a non-act, a decision to be a bystander and not get involved, even though the person knows the culprit. The guilt stems from not having acted to balance this crime with justice (or prevent future crimes) by witnessing, but choosing not to act. Still, this person is not impure and committed no act of sin. What, then, is this person being purified from? “The Pollution of Non-Acts”)

This was precisely the type of case of bystanders who could and should have acted to prevent or mitigate the Rwandan genocide that I and Astri Suhrke had focused on in our studies of the Rwandan genocide. These acts of impurity are not acts of commission but of omission. They are sins of non-acts. It is not enough to get members to act in certain ways, to emotionally enwrap them in a community. The community can only be sustained if people continue to commit themselves to it beyond the practice of a voluntary donation. Otherwise, rebellion will once again rear its threatening head.

Yitz Greenberg cites Jacob Milgrom:

Milgrom shows that if one looks at the sins that require a hattat,5 as well as on which altar the sacrifice was brought and where the blood of the sacrifice is spilled, the following pattern emerges. When an individual involuntarily, e.g. unintentionally, commits a sin, s/he generates a moral pollution in the culture of the community. The symbolic language of the sacrifices says that the toxic effect ‘attacks’ the outer court of the mishkan and its altar. If the whole community or its leadership commit an unintentional sin, then the act is a more weighty creator of pollution. As it were, the toxicity penetrates further and ‘attacks’ the altar of incense in the inner sanctuary. Finally, if intentional and unrepented sins are committed, the toxic fallout spreads farther and deeper. The spiritual pollution ‘attacks’ the ark in the Holy of Holies, in the very innermost sanctum of the tabernacle.

Greenberg credits Milgrom with opening his eyes “to the central themes of the book of Leviticus—that there is a struggle between life and death in the world and humans are asked to throw the weight of their actions on to the side of life. This in turn influenced me deeply as I developed my forthcoming book on Judaism as the religion of life in which God invites humans to partner in the work of filling the world with life and repairing it to sustain life at the highest level.”

Sustaining and expanding on life and resisting decay and self-destruction is, of necessity, a collective enterprise, nowhere more apparent than when a pandemic strikes humanity. That means everyone – and I mean everyone – must be enlisted in the enterprise of serving life and resisting death and the anarchism of the New Left that shifted to the New Right in the late nineties with the worship of libertarianism. Those political positions have to be countered by enlisting our emotions in a larger purpose, and to do so in an institutional format that is sustaining. Leviticus provides a protype for channelling and controlling “frenzy”.      .

Toxicity. Communitarian emotional pollution. The normalization of destructive dissonance. These are collective impurities that no polity can tolerate when they take on the dimensions of a plague. A society can crack down. A society can create new forms of emotional institutional marriages that force need and greed to serve the purposes of the heart (compassion) and the mind (manipulation). Israel in Leviticus had to, as Greenberg recognized, turn itself into a culture of sin and death to resist and overcome both.

That is why theocracies emerge that were not in the list of polities to which I had been exposed as a young student. When the life of the community as a whole is threatened, when there is collective contamination at a level that leaves herd immunity behind in favour of the generalized corruption of a Sodom and Gomorrah, the strict reduction of collective sacrifice for the purpose of the survival of the community becomes an irresistible option.

In the end, it will mean that the theocrats of power will have their day and the rule of ritual and purification will displace the rule of law. Priests displace both jurists and politicians as our emotions are put through a sieve of purification. This is seen as the only option to ensure individuals opt into the collective enterprise of a polity rather than opting out as the New Left did in the sixties and the New Right did in the late nineties and in the twenty-first century.

As Greenberg summarizes the alternative prospect, “life needs to be constantly affirmed and renewed. Failure in either the ethical (such as by-standing in the face of sin) or ritual realms (such as acceptance of death impurity’s presence without reasserting life) generates an atmosphere where the ability to resist sin or death is debilitated. Without repentance and serious action to stop this process of sin/death entrenching itself, the moral and spiritual oxygen will be sucked out of the community. The final result is that the Divine Presence will depart from such a society.”

But then what is the difference between this effort to overcome anomie than the doctrines of fascists and, in the Jewish context, the beliefs of the neo-Kahanists? For, in the end, what is at stake is solidarity, once upon a time the solidarity of the Communist movement (“Solidarity Forever”) but now the very loose solidarity of the true believers in fictions and lies, but beliefs that bring the emotion of community into otherwise sterile lives.

That analysis of the fascist alternative is a tale for another day.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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