In Lucem Gentium: Anecdotal Reflections on Growing Up and Out of the Jewish Ghetto, Part IV

IV. The Universal City

If the modern state of Israel were indeed established to provide a refuge for Jews stumbling among the God-forsaken ruins of the Holocaust, it has been a colossal and unmitigated failure. Today, Jews throughout the Diaspora – from Montgomery, Alabama to Berlin – are appreciably safer and less exposed to anti-Semitism than the residents of Haifa or Tel Aviv. European Christian anti-Semitism has either completely deliquesced or become so wholly discredited that those who continue to profess it subject themselves to universal opprobrium if not criminal prosecution or deportation by the state. In the post-War democratic West, an anti-Semite is the equivalent of the perpetrator of murder or sacrilege who, in Greek antiquity, was ritually ostracized lest his miasmal presence pollute the land and destroy the polis. And anyone who questions the precise historical details of the Holocaust is called a “denier”, a term to whose irony the mighty hunters of anti-Semitism are blithely oblivious, inasmuch as it was originally used by the Inquisitors against heretics, especially Jews, who “denied” the divinity of Christ.

But the creation of the state of Israel has managed to incubate a wholly new and more lethal strain of soi-disant “anti-Semitism” – one that straps itself into suicide vests. It has done so, moreover, within a Semitic Arab population that at the turn of the century lived peacefully and often amicably with its Jewish neighbours, and a larger Islamic culture that has historically offered sanctuary to Jews flying from Christians accusing them of having murdered their Lord. Surely the fact that Islam has, in such a short time, exploded into a psychotic frenzy of Jew-hatred demands to be recognized as historically remarkable. Not even the most fanatical Nazis were willing to martyr themselves for the cause of Aryan purity.

In reality, of course, Arab hatred of the Jews has little to do with “anti-Semitism” per se, and certainly nothing to do with the traditional European Christian kind. Arab hostility is perfectly comprehensible in the context of the unique historical circumstances of the founding, expansion, and ongoing policies of the modern state of Israel. It makes about as much sense to call the anger of Palestinian Arabs over their dispossession and colonial subjection – whether real or merely perceived, it matters not – “anti-Semitism” as it is to call the Soviet-era anger of occupied and Russified Hungarians “anti-Slavism”. Naturally, it serves the interests of the apologists for Israel and her policies to conscript her Arab opponents into the ancient and continuous ranks of anti-Semites, whereby their historical grievances seem as vicious and irrational as the racist calumnies of the Nazis, and, more generally, the looming threat of an outbreak of another episode of the Holocaust becomes more real and imminent than ever. Above all, it serves to portray Jews as hapless and passive victims of a cosmic malevolence for which they have had no responsibility and with which they have had nothing to do. Having been dropped by God like manna from heaven into a moral desert, Israeli Jews are, yet again, history’s innocent bystanders, God’s eternally suffering servant and sacrificial lamb.

The Prison of History

It is time, perhaps, for Jews to recognize that the history they simultaneously abhor and revere is, in the formulation of Jean Daniel, a prison, and that to seek redress in history for injuries suffered in history is only to forge new bars. Every genuine religion has regarded history as a prison, insofar as the vanities and resentments, the triumphs and humiliations, deposed in a people’s historical memory are the links in the chain that bind the soul to the ephemera of the temporal world. All the major religions and philosophical sects of antiquity with which I am familiar—the mysteries of Osiris in Egypt, of Marduk and Adonis in Babylon and Syria, of Attis in Asia Minor, of Mithras in Persia, the Orphic, Eleusinian, Pythagorean, Platonist, Stoic, and Gnostic cults in Greece, and, above all, Christianity—have preached a soteriological doctrine that enjoins upon its adherents at least a partial withdrawal from the historico-temporal world, a relativization of its overwhelming reality and value, a liberation from its brute necessity, a transcendence of the meaningless flux of time: an escape from or “abolition” of history, as Eliade has described it.

But Judaism is a religion of and for history, not in spite of it; indeed, when Jews affirm that Yahweh is the “God of history”, they confer upon the historical order the highest possible value. Their yearning is to be redeemed by and through history, rather than from it. And with neither a hope nor a desire for a hope of deliverance from this prison, historical injuries and resentments burrow deeply into the Jewish soul.

It is, of course, manifestly impossible that history, as the fallen arena of human action, could be redemptive, except in the sense that time, when of sufficient duration, can heal old wounds and confer upon the observer the wisdom of perspective. But with their counsel to “Never Forget”, Jews strenuously reject such wisdom. In any case, equanimity and perspective come from one’s transcendence of history, hardly one’s absorption into it.

Most of the other empirical human disciplines have at least a rational or metaphysical afflatus that informs the insensate materiality of the objects they study, and may well beckon their initiates along a highway that eventually leads to the Mind of God. But history is the most intractably opaque and unintelligible of all branches of human knowledge. Historical events are governed by no objective, constant, and universal laws that we yet know of. (The closest approach to the discovery of such a law was made by the ancients, who taught that history unfolds in response to the spastic lurches of Fortune’s Wheel, a “constant” defined by capricious and inscrutable inconstancy.) Modern historians don’t even pretend to inquire into the existence of such laws. And when we speak of history’s purposes or final ends, or history’s patterns or archetypes, we are speaking the language of poetry and myth—the language, that is, of the Gentiles.

I have already referred to Aristotle’s judgment that myth is “more philosophical” than history. For Aristotle, the novelty, uniqueness, and unrepeatability of historical events condemned them to that inferior ontological order of “appearance” or “non-being” which consisted in everything mutable, visible, transient, and particular. But Aristotle was also surely alluding to the ethnic and socio-political particularism to which historical events (and the separatist history of the Jews especially) so monotonously give witness.

By contrast to all of the theologies that germinated in the spiritually fecund soil of Greek and Near Eastern antiquity (Christianity amongst them), Judaism alone has dignified the historical sphere as man’s true and rightful home. Having looked there for justice and happiness, as they do now to the modern state of Israel, it is surely no wonder that the Jews have found, in the words of Augustine, only a “perverse and bitter sweetness”.

Augustine’s seminal distinction between the vice of cupiditas – the illicit love of the historical world for its own sake –, and the virtue of caritas – the use of the world for the sake of the apprehension and love of the invisibilia Dei –, seems to apply to, and was probably rendered in mind of, the Jews. As he explains in the De Doctrina Christiana:

To enjoy something is to cling to it with love for its own sake. To use something, however, is to employ it in obtaining that which you love, provided that it is worthy of love. For an illicit use should be called rather a waste or an abuse. Suppose we were wanderers who could not live in blessedness except at home, miserable in our wandering and desiring to end it and to return to our native country. We would need vehicles for land and sea which could be used to help us to reach our homeland, which is to be enjoyed. But if the amenities of the journey and the motion of the vehicles itself delight us, and we were led to enjoy those things which we should use, we should not wish to end our journey quickly, and, entangled in a perverse and bitter sweetness, we should be alienated from our country, whose sweetness would make us blessed. Thus in this mortal life, wandering from God, if we wish to return to our native country where we can be blessed we should use this world and not enjoy it, so that the “invisible things” of God “being understood by the things that are made” [Rom. 1:20; 11:36] may be seen, that is, so that by means of corporal and temporal things we may comprehend the eternal and spiritual. (I. iv)

I am aware that these are outmoded philosophical sentiments, wholly alien not only to Jews but to most modern Christians and atheists alike, for whom reality and truth mean empirical-historical reality and truth above all. But no intelligent discussion of Jewish historical suffering can proceed as if it has come out of an intellectual vacuum. That even well-educated Jews can refer reverently to that narrow strip of land that constitutes the territorial state of Israel as their “homeland”–without a twinge of irony or the faintest awareness of the ancient philosophical attitude that Augustine here re-presents–, demonstrates how contentedly ensconced they are in their historical prison.

I have no intention of attempting to reprise the long history of that philosophical attitude here, except in the briefest of terms and only insofar as it maneuvers into perspective ancient and modern Jewish velleities to sanctify the meager particularities of history, nation, and land. Clearly, the unbroken tradition of Greek philosophical and religious universalism (from Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Heraclitus, through Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, to Apuleius, Plutarch, Maximus of Tyre, Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus, and Macrobius) was paganism’s most precious bequest to Christianity, as it functioned, on the level of the collective psyche, to compensate the narrow historicism and sectarianism of the ancient Hebrews. On this theme, I have already mentioned Jesus’ repudiation of the ethnic particularism of the Jews—their parochial law; their messianic expectation of a national and political kingdom of Israel–, and his proclamation, on the contrary, of a non-sectarian Law written on the heart of man; an unlocalized Kingdom Within; and a Universal Church inclusive of the faithful of all the nations.

The Cosmopolis

For Paul and the early Fathers, the universality of the Christian message was so radical and fundamental a datum that to speak of the Church, as we now speak of it, as a locus of worship or even an earthly institution, would have seemed a malicious insult to them. On the contrary, the Church (the New Israel) could be bounded by no finite limits of either historical time or geographical space. It consisted only in an everlasting, diffuse, and incorporeal community of souls, a more or less eternal spiritual Diaspora, whose relation to this or that particular people or earthly-historical city was regarded as merely contingent (having resulted from nothing more than an accident of birth), and whose principal allegiance was to the Celestial Jerusalem, the Universal City of God in which all human souls originally dwelled, and to which they by nature belong. Under the New Law, as Paul proclaimed it, every new Israelite was a fellow-citizen of the heavenly City, “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free.” (Col. 3: 11)

As I have argued elsewhere, the Christian vision of the Civitas Dei derived more or less directly from the ancient Stoic vision of the Cosmopolis, which the god-like sage of antiquity recognized as his spiritual fatherland and true home. Seneca’s eloquent summary of the doctrine should serve to place Augustine’s dependence upon it beyond doubt:

…there are two commonwealths–the one, a vast and truly common state, which embraces alike gods and men, in which we look neither to this corner of earth nor to that, but measure the bounds of our citizenship by the path of the sun; the other, the one to which we have been assigned by the accident of birth. This will be the commonwealth of the Athenians or of the Carthaginians or of any other city that belongs, not to all, but to some particular race of men. Some yield service to both commonwealths at the same time–to the greater and to the lesser–some only to the lesser, some only to the greater…

…The laws [that Zeno and Chrysippus] framed were not for one state only, but for the whole human race…

…Our school [i.e., the Stoics] refuses to allow the wise man to attach himself to any sort of state…(Moral Essays: On Leisure)

Within this universal Cosmopolis, all men are free and equal citizens by natural right and by virtue of their common filiation from the eternal Logos, regardless of those accidental differences of social or economic stratum, or national or ethnic ancestry, that divide them from their brothers, and pit man against man, here below. As a son of the universal Logos and King, every man of reason and virtue is by rank a prince. In Boethius’ Christian-Stoic formulation, “The whole race of men on this earth springs from one stock. There is one Father of all things….Thus, all men come from noble origin. Why, then, boast of your ancestors? If you consider your beginning, no one is base unless he deserts his birthright…” (Consolatio III, meter 6)

This is so gloriously humanistic and egalitarian an ideal that one suspects that only the mention of God has prevented modern Marxists, pacifists, and Beatles’-era “imaginers” from appropriating it. Which they did, of course, except that they obtusely “imagined” that it could be translated to, and realized in, the fallen City of Man. But even in this bowdlerized and diminished form, the vision of the Universal City has now been utterly rejected by the primitive multicultural ethos and identity politics of post-modernism. If it has survived anywhere, albeit barely, it is only in Christian tradition, where it has served for two millennia as the world’s single credible moral and intellectual check on those tribalistic and jingoistic instincts that are equally native to the human animal, at least in its accidental habitat within the historical world.

Whether or not “Zionism is racism” (in the crude and unhelpful sloganeering of Israel’s Arab enemies), it should at least be obvious that Semitism and anti-Semitism—racial solidarity and racial hatred—are two sides of the same debased coin. Pride illustrates the point just as convincingly as prejudice. When Jews (or members of any other group) take “pride” in the history of accomplishments of their countrymen, they are proud of accomplishments of which they have no right to be, having had absolutely nothing to do with them. The collective has merely appropriated the achievements of one of its “members” and redistributed them to the membership at large. Such “pride” comes from the theft of an individual’s personality. Whether one identifies oneself with the group out of solidarity and pride, or one is so identified by others out of racial prejudice and contempt, the effect is the same: one’s human individuality is obliterated.

As Simone Weil has remarked, God is capable of incarnating in a man, a stone, or a loaf of bread, but not a people. Defining oneself as a member of the group drives out God just as surely as it drives under the individual personality. For Weil, even the social milieu in which the adherents of institutional religions ordinarily commune is inhospitable to the Divine. The group exerts such a powerful gravitational force that not even God’s love for the soul can wrest it free of its comforting embrace.

How is it, then, that the Jews have failed to see that ethnic nationalism and ancestral pride have confined them to the narrowest cell in the historical prison? How has the fundamental truth so escaped the attention of Jewish philosophers and theologians, that man in his essence is neither an Athenian nor a Roman nor an Israelite, but a subject of God and a citizen of the world; and that it is upon his detachment from those petty provincial allegiances that his peace, happiness, and salvation depend? Everything that binds a man to his particular nation or tribe fosters what is primitive, inessential, and unnatural within him, and diminishes the innate divinity that makes him most completely and individually a human person.