Tag Archives: Religion

And Who Shall I Say Is Calling?

boneclocksOne of David Mitchell’s literary preoccupations is interconnectedness, the way that, as the theory goes, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might change the course of history (or at least the weather).  Or, say, the way that a trapped and depressed FAA contract worker might set a fire that cancels your surprise trip to Chicago to see your dad who’s recovering from a hip replacement (still not over it!).  Mitchell makes connections, so when I’m reading him I see connections.  As I was reading The Bone Clocks, his new novel, in which one of the peripheral characters rides a Norton motorcycle, I happened to see a guy wearing a Norton T-shirt at the diner near my house as I ate brunch with my family.  As I re-read the review of the book in the New York Times Book Review, I noticed that the review underneath it (yes, I still get a hard copy of the paper) referred to events that took place in January 1967, the year my husband was born.  And the world shrinks a little bit, everything stitched together a little tighter.

Perhaps that’s why I was tempted to see so many of the themes of the season in this book, even though there’s nothing remotely Jewish about it (and organized religion generally comes in for a beating – more on that later).  Reading during Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of the yamim noraim, the ten days between the New Year and Yom Kippur, the day of repentance, I felt like the novel had something to say about so many of the central themes of the holidays: memory, death, rebirth, mortality, choice and free will, and second chances.  These are Mitchell’s touchstones, the big questions he goes back to again and again in all of his novels, but The Bone Clocks brings them together both abstractly – in the form of recurring characters and names, places and events, both within the world of this novel and across his oeuvre – and concretely, as a largish subplot (more later on why it seems like the main plot but isn’t) focuses on a group of immortal souls and their fight against those who would induce immortality by artificial and predatory means.

There is a magical kind of rebirth and resurrection in this novel, but as always the actual magic is just a foil for a consideration of the kind of everyday wonder of life, in this case through the perhaps paradoxical lens of mortality and death.  There are characters in this novel who are willing to fight to the death to live forever, unchanged physically, emotionally, or morally by time and experience, but the most powerful forces in the novel are not supernatural.  Rather, they are the things we experience, and undervalue, every day: love, memory, friendship, community, family.  Even for those who are not immortal, an aging character reflects at the end of the novel, “We live on, as long as there are people to live on in.”  All of us are constantly reborn and resurrected in the memories (and DNA) of others, without recourse to magic.

Perhaps because it follows one character, more or less, from youth to old age, The Bone Clocks, more than other Mitchell novels, is able to concentrate on the way that death gives meaning to life.  The immortals in this book have to find other ways to make meaning that mortal humans have access to by default.  Leonard Cohen has a song, called “Who By Fire” after the words of a prayer central to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, that lists the many possible ways we might meet our end (or prosper) in the coming year.  In it, he intones repeatedly, “And who shall I say is calling?”  He doesn’t answer the question; we all know who’s calling: death.  On Yom Kippur we rehearse for death by abstaining from life-sustaining activities and wearing our shrouds.  Why?  Because remembering that we are going to die is the only way to make sure that we are really living now.  As the late, great rabbi Alan Lew wrote, “we are not supposed to wait for a hanging, or for the doctors to pronounce that awesome word of judgment ‘malignant,’ because by then it might be too late.  We are supposed to ask these questions all the time, and at least once a year, at least on this solemn day.  What is my life really about? What is the truth of my life?”  The down side of immortality is that there is no urgency to this question, and this question is what gives life its meaning.

The more I read him, the more I think that Mitchell’s novels are religious texts for atheists.  At the very least, they offer a suggestion of supernatural order to those who doubt the efficacy and human benefit of traditional forms of organized religion.  There’s usually some kind of higher power controlling things from behind the scenes, whether it’s a band of immortal souls or a renegade artificial intelligence.  There’s usually a plan at work that is slightly mysterious, often misunderstood, and outside of regular human control or even awareness.  Of course, in a body of work so invested in exploring the uses and boundaries of literature itself, this higher intelligence is an obvious metaphor for the writer himself, invisible but apparent in every line, omnipotent and omniscient but conscious of the need to preserve the illusion of choice and free will.  In that sense the semi-divine powers in Mitchell’s work are an ironic commentary not only on the seductions and limitations of religious belief, but also on the ways that fiction – just a thin web of beautiful untruths – can move us, change us, bring us to our knees with nothing more than words.

Ultimately, the story is the magic.  Despite the supernatural elements, they prove to be only a small, insignificant moment in the larger story of life on earth, and the life of the main character, Holly Sykes.  For a significant portion of the narrative, it seems that the plot centers on an epic battle between good and evil, and Holly and many of the people she knows and loves are caught up in this war in one way or another.  Finally, she ends up playing a big role in its resolution, and it seems that good has prevailed.  But the war that seems to be the main plot ends before the last section of the book, and that’s when we realize that this focus on one battle has been a feint, a purposeful distraction from the real evil, which is human and familiar.  It turns out that the most malevolent forces in the book, and in our universe, are not the self-proclaimed bad guys but all of us, with our petty greed and ignorant complacency, our consumerism and consumption, our disregard for the big picture in favor of distraction, our dislike of discomfort.

Mitchell1This brings me back again to the season of teshuvah, or repentance, whose literal meaning is “return.”  On Yom Kippur we are to return to those things that make us most uncomfortable: our misdeeds, our errors, our greed and hatred and jealousy.  In The Bone Clocks, these are the things that destroy the world, and our souls, on a far greater scale than any immortality-seeking “soul carnivore.”  This is the moment – of the year, and of history – to discomfit ourselves, to force the encounter with those unpleasant facts of our own humanity in order to make ourselves, and our world, whole again.  We must be healed in order to heal, we must look through the darkness to see the light.  As the poet Gerald Stern writes in “Lucky Life,”

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.

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Remaking Israel

ImageIn many ways, the state of Israel is a relatively unique postcolonial experiment. Brought into being as a philosophical and ideologically utopian solution to the “Jewish problem” of nineteenth-century Europe; granted sovereignty by the United Nations as an emergency solution to the problem of what to do with all the Jews displaced by the Second World War and the Holocaust; and ultimately forged in the crucible of war with both a dispossessed indigenous populace and surrounding Arab states; the state of Israel has been largely stable, mostly democratic, and economically prosperous in a region defined by instability, authoritarianism, and low standards of living. However, as Gershom Gorenberg’s 2011 book The Unmaking of Israel points out, the conditions that have made Israel generally exceptional are increasingly threatened by the undemocratic nature of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the settlement enterprise in the occupied territories, and the dangerous entanglement of religion with both state and military.

ImageGorenberg, an Israeli journalist who has written frequently on Israeli domestic politics and the occupation for The Jerusalem Post, The American Prospect, and on his own blog, southjerusalem.com, is well known for his left-wing political stance both inside Israel and in the United States. And in many ways he is the ideal messenger for the bleak picture of Israeli democracy he paints in The Unmaking of Israel: an American-born Israeli, Gorenberg intimately understands the diaspora relationship to Israel and the history of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel; as a religious Jew, he also speaks with authority on questions of religion, and particularly the corruptions of Judaism created by religious entanglement with the state.

As someone who has spent a lot of time in Israel (I lived there for a year and have visited many times), is fluent in Hebrew, and does some work in the field of Israel Studies, I sometimes feel that I’ve heard all the arguments, on both sides, a million times. The positions are entrenched, and the primary actors never seem to budge much from their fixed stances. One of the brilliant things about this book is that it shakes up these traditional arguments and positions, presenting a novel and compelling perspective. Full disclosure: I am generally sympathetic to Gorenberg’s political positions and have been a fan of his work and his blog for a long time; a few years ago I helped bring him to speak at a synagogue of which I was a member. Many people might dismiss my positive feelings about this book as a product of my sympathies with Gorenberg’s views generally. But I think that would be doing this book a great disservice, because it reframes the question of “peace” as a domestic question about the character of Israel itself and the future of Israeli democracy, a shift in perspective that confronts the grave dangers Israel faces not from outside threats, but from within.

These threats, generally speaking, are divided into three broad categories that are, in turn, enmeshed with each other: the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, the settlement enterprise, and state and military entanglement with and support of religion. There are, of course, many cross-categorized sub-issues here: unofficial and off-the-books state support of illegal settlements in the occupied territories, the political radicalization of ultra-religious settler groups, state support for a growing Orthodox officer class in the military that is more loyal to its rabbinic leadership than its army commanders, a growing population of ultra-Orthodox youth and adults who have little or no secular education and live off of handouts paid for by the tax dollars of the rest of the population, and many more. Gorenberg expertly and concisely explicates the complex historical circumstances and political decisions that led to the current state of affairs.

Although The Unmaking of Israel is a meticulously researched, historically grounded argument, one of its strengths is the presence of Gorenberg’s voice of outrage. He is outraged about both the corruption of Israeli democracy and the corruption of Judaism, and writes eloquently and passionately about the way the occupation has given rise to specious arguments about the rule of law and about religion. For example, Gorenberg writes about a book written in 2009 by two rabbis from a politically radicalized Orthodox yeshiva (religious academy) in the West Bank that justified the killing of “enemy” civilians by the military, even children, in direct contravention to the Israel Defense Forces’ own rules of engagement. Gorenberg concludes, “Without mentioning the Israel Defense Forces, the book is a broadside against the army’s rules on avoiding harm to enemy civilians….this is a full volume justifying war crimes, desecrating the faith in whose name it is supposedly written.” This is only one of numerous examples detailing the complicated web of interactions between settlements and settlers, radicalized rabbis and religious leaders, the state, and the military that point to what Gorenberg calls the “split in Israel’s personality” between an ostensibly secular, democratic state and a supporter of both occupation and religion.

Gorenberg’s account is strengthened by the deep historical context he gives to this split personality, which he claims, plausibly, stems from the pre-state ideological commitment of Zionism to settle the land of Israel. Before the establishment of the state, various arms of the Zionist movement sought to create Jewish settlements in various parts of Ottoman and, later, mandate Palestine in order to lay claim to land that might eventually be declared a Jewish state. Gorenberg places the misguided settlement enterprise in the context of the drive for settlement, contending that the Israeli leadership never truly made the transition from thinking like national movement to thinking like a state actor, and therefore continued with the nationalist drive for settlement of the land even in contravention of its own laws (not to mention international laws) against settlement in the occupied territories. Although this makes the settlement enterprise understandable within the context of Jewish, and particularly territorial Zionist, history, it only makes both the settlements themselves and the very ideology that produced them seem more inseparable than ever from the mechanisms of the state.

Unlike many commentators and historians who have written about Israel and the occupation, in The Unmaking of Israel Gorenberg offers a clear prescription for what ails the country. The last chapter, titled “The Reestablishment of Israel,” consists of a series of programmatic solutions, many of them eminently fair and practical, designed to set Israel back on course toward democracy and the rule of law. Generally speaking, these fall into three categories that roughly correspond to his major criticisms of the current state of affairs: “For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes. First, it must end the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Second, it must divorce state and synagogue – freeing the state from clericalism, and religion from the state. Third and most basically, it must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.” Sounds beautiful, right? But as I read the specific steps Gorenberg outlines in order to move toward these goals, I became increasingly despondent. While they are all within the realm of possibility, especially since the last Israeli election, at this moment they seem more like a shimmering mirage on the desert horizon. Nonetheless, this thirsty traveler will continue to walk toward them, hoping that when I arrive they will turn out to be real after all.

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