Monday, August 23, 2010

Truth versus Marketing

While online I tend to come off as harsh at times, it's likely because in person I'm usually very accommodating. The truth of the matter is that I realized a long time ago that the truth is usually fairly relative, and that humans are fallible enough that most people tend to not have all the answers. Hence the need for collaboration, compromise, and yes, dialogue.

My brother Deacon Yid is not like this. He believes in, and practices, what A.J. Jacobs once described as "radical honesty". In most circumstances (unless he can get something out of you), Deacon will say exactly what he thinks, to whomever he pleases. Most people, including me, tend to interpret this as being rude, mean, or sometimes just plain uncompassionate. But to Deacon, he's telling it like it is. He once told me that he felt sorry for me because I let people walk all over me. As far as he was concerned, asking him to hold his tongue or walk away from an argument (or perceived slight or insult) was like asking him to lie, to compromise his ethics.

I bring this up today because it really helps explain Tzvi Fishman.

Tzvi is stuck. On the one hand he has a cause-- encouraging aliyah to Israel. On the other hand, he's an ideologue. Like Deacon, he's also a binary thinker. Either you're telling the truth or telling a lie, either you're an authentic Jew or you're not. If the truth hurts, so be it.

But let me explain something. For every Jew you may convince with columns like this, you easily turn off five.

Can anyone imagine a Puerto Rican kid not speaking Spanish? Or a Japanese kid not speaking Japanese? Of course not. This is the natural, healthy, common-sense order of life.
But when it comes to the Jews, something gets very screwed up. You would think that, like in the above examples, every Jewish kid should know how to speak Hebrew. Just the way Spanish is the language of Puerto Ricans, and Japanese is the language of the Japanese, Hebrew is the language of the Jews.
Nothing could be simpler, right?
That’s the way it is in Israel. That’s the way it should be. Jewish children grow up speaking Hebrew. They also may know Yiddish, or English, or French, but they all speak Hebrew fluently.
But in the Diaspora, things get screwed. In the Diaspora, there are millions of Jews who don’t know Hebrew at all! Instead of speaking their own language, they speak an assortment of foreign tongues that are totally alien to their souls and their brains.
This alone should make everyone realize how damaging, mind warping, and insidious Diaspora life is for a Jew.
Tzvi is right that language is deeply rooted to community and identity. But he essentializes language to the point that you'd think it was the primary element. In Diaspora cultures particularly, where people become dispersed over a wide area and need to adapt to wherever they end up, this is simply not true. Jews have been struggling over Hebrew as far back as the days of the Talmud. But to Tzvi, this diversity of language is shameful, because it indicates a break with continuity, an aberration in a nation's "normal history." Rather than positively promote learning Hebrew as a way to engage with the holy books of Judaism, connect with the richness of Jewish tradition, or cultivate relations with other Jews around the world, Tzvi instead focuses on the negative approach: Jews should speak Hebrew. In Israel they do. Elsewhere, they don't, because the Diaspora is evil. The Diaspora "warps" Jewish minds by making them speak foreign languages "alien to their souls."
Sure, the wise and saintly Yosef, and members of the Sanhedrin, knew 70 languages. No problem with that. But Hebrew should come first.
So if you don’t know Hebrew yet, start learning. It’s your language. It’s who you are. It may say on your passport that you are a Canadian, or Frenchman, of Englishman, or American, but that’s only a piece a paper. You are really a Jew. So start speaking Hebrew and be who you really are. Why live a life imitating others when you can be yourself?

Here Tzvi relies on rhetorical devices that are clearly subjective. He dismisses a national identity as "only a piece of paper", saying that speaking Hebrew turns you into "who you really are." What tremendous power! Never mind that for generations, while most Jews knew Hebrew, it was not spoken as their first language (particularly women, who tended not to have as much educational options). Good to know that all those famous Jewish figures, rabbis, etc were doing it wrong all those years.

Tzvi is not a salesman. He is an ideologue. To him, he's telling it like it is, and the only alternative is to lie. But what that means in practical terms is that rather than inspiring, he criticizes. The only motivation is to avoid guilt and shame. And most people will not respond to messages like that. Several years ago, I read a book exploring different aspects of the American Jewish experience. One woman in her 40s, explaining why she was so ambivalent about Jewish practice, said that to her, "Judaism was an old man saying no."
No one likes being told what to do, or harshly criticized. And many Jews tend to be rebellious by nature. The Zionist pioneers rejected the status quo of their day, as did the Zionist rabbis. Tzvi, too, rejected the status quo of his own day.

But these days, Israel is its own status quo in the global Jewish community. And while some Jews will choose to immigrate by rebelling against their elders who tell them "no", it is highly unlikely that any fence-sitters will decide to go to Israel based on Tzvi Fishman dumping on their Jewishness.

Nefesh B'Nefesh
has done some amazing things. But, for the most part, it is probably in spite of guilt-trippers like Fishman, not thanks to them. To a binary thinker, any moderation is a surrender. But it's sad to think that Tzvi doesn't realize that every time he writes his column, he's likely working against his goals, not for them.

1 comment:

CA said...

"That’s the way it is in Israel. That’s the way it should be. Jewish children grow up speaking Hebrew. They also may know Yiddish, or English, or French, but they all speak Hebrew fluently.

. . .

This alone should make everyone realize how damaging, mind warping, and insidious Diaspora life is for a Jew."

You bet. Look at those Rabbinic sages in Babylonia, who wrote the Talmud in Aramaic.

Not to mention the printer in Renaissance Italy who mucked u the Hebrew language by inventing "Rashi" script. Heck, Rashi himself lived in France, the cheese-eating, wine-making surrender monkey. Not to mention the Ba'al Shem Tov, the Gaon of Vilna, etct. etc. That Diaspora sure warps us!