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Scream Cycle

Forget the self-hating Jew; as everything from Internet comments to political speeches shows us, and as this week’s parasha reminds us, it’s the self-infatuated ones we need to look out for

Liel Leibovitz
June 10, 2011
(Flickr/Aldo Cavini Benedetti)
(Flickr/Aldo Cavini Benedetti)

In The Shadow of the Sun, his masterwork of reportage from Africa, the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski offered an observation by way of explaining some of the major cultural chasms separating the beleaguered continent from prosperous Europe. At the heart of Western culture, he observed, was its “bent for criticism, above all, for self-criticism—in its art of analysis and inquiry, in its endless seeking, in its restlessness. The European mind recognizes that it has limitations, accepts its imperfections, is skeptical, doubtful, questioning.” Other cultures, on the other hand, are “inclined to pride, to thinking that all that belongs to them is perfect; they are, in short, uncritical in relation to themselves. They lay the blame for all that is evil on others, on other forces (conspiracies, agents, foreign domination of one sort or another). They consider all criticism to be a malevolent attack, a sign of discrimination, of racism, etc.”

In this week’s parasha, one African rises to prove the venerable Kapuscinski wrong: As his leadership is called into question, Moses has the wherewithal to focus, as they say in Sinai, on the bigger, celestial picture.

The story begins when the leader, fed up with his stiff-necked people, kvetches to the Almighty. “Why have you treated your servant so badly?” Moses asks the Lord. “Why have I not found favor in your eyes that you place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that you say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,’ to the land you promised their forefathers? … Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. If this is the way you treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune.”

Feeling Moses’ pain, God instructs him to select 70 elders and bring them to the Tent of Meeting. There, the Creator promises, he’ll make a special appearance and charge the elders with helping Moses lead the people. The 70 are selected and carted off to the sacred spot, but just as they depart, two young dudes named Eldad and Medad have a divine moment and start prophesying.

To Joshua, Moses’ second-in-command, such a break with decorum is intolerable. A stickler for order, he runs to complain to his boss. “Moses, my master,” he cries out, “imprison them!” But Moses is unflappable. “Are you zealous for my sake?” he asks Joshua. “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!”

In the Five Books of Moses, there are, thankfully, many testaments to the man’s greatness, but none, arguably, is more profound than this brief episode. Here is Moses acknowledging his weakness, Moses asking for help, Moses realizing that sometimes what seems like a transgression or a challenge is truly a blessing.

Herein concludes the cheerful portion of this column. If, dear reader, you are not the sort that takes kindly to criticism, I would advise bidding our adieus and turning to less rankling pursuits. Because while Moses stands tall as a paragon of self-criticism, many of us, alas, do not.

I’ve nothing but anecdotal evidence to offer in support of such a cutting observation, but the anecdotes, I think, pile up and harden into a thick wall of obduracy. As someone who habitually writes about Israel, I frequently have the uproarious pleasure of reading this website’s comments section and discovering that I—scion of a great rabbi, ninth-generation Israeli, non-commissioned officer in the Israel Defense Forces, former low-ranking diplomat in Israel’s foreign service—am not only not a Jew, but someone who, if true to his hidden nature, would feel much more comfortable in the crisp, black shirt of a National Socialist stormtrooper. In conversations with Jewish communities across the nation, to which I am fortunate enough to be, from time to time, invited, I hear endless variations on the theme of criticism-is-racism: Bring up any observation that portrays the Jewish state—or those slivers of the Jewish community that support it unequivocally—in a critical light, and you’re guilty of being naïve or malicious or troubled or some impossible combination of all three. The Jewish state itself, alas, isn’t doing much better on the self-criticism front: Even in light of obvious and systematic failures, such as last year’s massive fires, Jerusalem’s captains are constantly engaged in a perpetual game of pass-the-buck.

In the late 20th century, the dominant cultural paradigm haunting Jewish communal life was that of the self-hating Jew; now, in the dawn of the 21st, the figure to watch out for is the self-infatuated Jew, incapable of introspection, resistant to censure, aggressively rejecting any bit of opprobrium as inherently and intolerably evil. It’s the self-infatuated Jew who drowns any attempt at dialogue with the din of accusations—but the Palestinians started it all! But we’re still more democratic than Syria! But the Iranians are denying the Holocaust!—and who is quick to draw the boundaries of communal belonging as passing somewhere between right and extreme right. And the rest of us, as smarter men have already observed, are left to either fight an uphill battle or walk away from the whole throbbing mess.

Amid the rancor, this week’s parasha comes as a much-needed reminder of our tradition and its attitudes toward leadership and dissent. Borrowing a favorite turn of mind from the self-infatuated hordes, I can say that self-infatuation and intolerance of criticism are fundamentally non-Jewish traits; real Jews, like Moses, admit their own shortcomings and embrace their passionate kinsmen even if the latter are defiant. Real Jews know how to tell prophesy from piffle. Real Jews reject thundering statements—in a website’s comments section or on the floor of Congress—in favor of difficult, often cantankerous, but always illuminating conversations. Like the one, dear reader, I hope we’re about to have soon.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.