Friday, July 22, 2011

The 4,000-year-old hat

My email to John Brockman

Mr. Brockman:

You see the absurdity in the term "Christian atheist" of course. But in the term "Jewish atheist" you see no absurdity. You just see your heritage informed by science. You may not even see any absurdity in the concept of a secular synagogue. Jews who no longer believe in G-d, continuing to go through the motions? Keeping to the 613 mitzvot, give or take a few? Like using the Sabbath mode on their oven? The reason for that, ultimately, is simple: They haven't set Judaism aside because they don't want to become common like everyone else. To an objective observer it's very clear that that is the motivation. Can you detect it in yourself? Don't veer off into an accusation of anti-semitism. Focus on the question itself. Examine your reluctance to change any action or reaction that is specifically associated with your Jewish heritage. Your reluctance to x is based on what? It's harmful? It's inefficient? Of course not. It would make you seem common.

My reason for writing this to a complete stranger is because you and the other thinkers involved with the Edge Foundation are so influential. And you cannot reach the furthest boundaries of human knowledge and understanding if you continue to wear that 4,000-year-old hat. You've cut off the brim, yes, but that just makes the hat look ridiculous. You need to take it all the way off. And it's puzzling to observe, from a distance, that your innovative, iconoclastic thinking cannot reach that point. Exempli gratia, is the modern nation of Israel an occupation of Palestinian land? Do you believe that modern Israel has no claim to the land 19 centuries after the Bar Kokhba revolt marked the dissolution of the nation of Israel? That hat influences your thinking. If a people can make a claim to land 19 centuries after the land ceased to be an independent nation of those people, then modern Iranians of Babylonian descent could make the same claim regarding Babylonia in modern Iraq, since Babylonia was taken over in the Arab conquest only 13 centuries ago, after having been under Persian control for the previous 12 centuries. Would the UN condone a military invasion of Iraq motivated by Iranians' desire to reclaim their beloved city of Babylon?

As I understand it, the foundation and justification for the modern state of Israel are the covenants G-d made with Abraham, Moses and others giving the land to the people of Israel in perpetuity. With Jews who believe that G-d directed Moses to write the Torah and chronicle the covenants, it's understandable that they feel the land will always belong to the people of Israel. But Jewish atheists go along with that? People who believe that there was no G-d to make a covenant with Moses or Abraham have to acknowledge that the land of Israel must have been given to the Israelites in perpetuity by the Israelites themselves. Nineteen centuries ago Israel had a valid claim to the land, yes, and Rome was quite wrong in so brutally denying Israel its independence. But after 19 centuries of rule by peoples other than the people of Israel, the land having been given to the Israelites in perpetuity by the Israelites themselves is a very tenuous claim. As much as Palestinians have lost the moral high ground with the atrocities they've committed, their claim to the land is obvious: seven centuries of continuous governing of the land following the defeat of the Crusaders at the Battle of La Forbie in 1244.
But it’s not his issue. It’s ultimately between the Israelis and the Palestinians. People have been trying for more than half a century to resolve the conflict and haven’t been able to because the parties don’t want the conflict resolved. Conflict is a raison d’etre. Without it, life is dull. Ergo, as long as no Muslim nation fires rockets on Los Angeles because of its large Jewish population, Marc isn’t involved in the conflict. It’s not his issue; graduating with high honors is his issue. Three hundred years from now, Israelis and Palestinians will still be fighting over who owns the land. Five hundred years from now. Whatever. It’s not his issue. As long as they don’t blow him up, or the people he cares about, it’s not his concern. They benefit, somehow, from the perpetuation of the conflict. They actually don’t want to win the conflict; a victory or an accord would be followed by an awkward silence. The conflict gives them a script and a to-do list.
The previous paragraph is from a novel I wrote about a fictional archaeological dig in Jerusalem. A novel you would decline to represent, not because of the writing or because it's fiction or for any other aspect but because of the ramifications of the book's premise: It's possible that the priests and scribes under King Josiah of Judah in the 7th century bce synthesized a new scroll, an early version of Deuteronomy, from the oral traditions of different regions but presented it to the people as if it had just been found in the Temple, after having been lost long ago, and held within it the words of Moses. The novel resulted from my wondering "What if the rough draft of that scroll surfaced?" If what you already believe regarding the Torah—that priests and scribes, not G-d through Moses, composed Devarim—somehow became clear to the public with the discovery of a rough draft preserved on clay tablets, the dynamics of the conflict over the possession of the land could change. Israel would no longer be able to claim that Moses informed the people that G-d had given the land to them in perpetuity if G-d needed to start with a rough draft before committing the text to parchment six centuries after Moses was believed to have lived. Even though the discovery of the rough draft on clay tablets in the story is an invention, it points to what has been there all along, the episode in II Kings concerning the finding of the scroll of the law in the Temple and the King initiating reforms based on it. Other things being equal, if the publication of this novel could, just very hypothetically, result in the Palestinians gaining the advantage in the conflict over the possession of the land, how would you react? Would you feel that you needed to prevent that from happening?

Lest you think the book is a diatribe: Of the four central characters, two are very sympathetic portrayals of Jews, one an American, one an Israeli. The other two are also sympathetic, a Jordanian Muslim from London and an American atheist. I didn't portray any evangelicals sympathetically, although I kept them low-key.

I'm not interested in the argument that the novel wouldn't sell. Controversy sells books. Making the claim that the Torah grew out of a deception in 622 bce would be controversial. I'm not even convinced that the writing in the novel is terrible. My favorite novelists are John Updike and Umberto Eco. I've never read a novel by Stephen King or Dan Brown.

Thanks very much.