1. The Jewish problem with firstness
Norman Podhoretz recently devoted a book to wondering Why Are Jews Liberals? (Doubleday, 2009), yet there is really no mystery about it. Jews epitomize the white guilt of the Western liberal because more than any other “whites” they bear the indelible mark of firstness. If “people of color” are thought of as stigmatically marked, while those of European origin (especially if male) may be considered “unmarked,” then the Jews, the marked among the unmarked, have the worst of both worlds. As has happened many times in world history, and as is happening in spades in Israel’s contrast with its Middle Eastern neighbors, the more the Jews attempt to live up to their “chosen” status, the more they are hated. It is no wonder that many Jews wish Israel would just go away.
Yet to be a Jew is to bear the burden of election, historical if not theological. Whether God created man or man created God, as far as “Western civilization” is concerned, the Jews did it first. There is no noble stance toward the burden of firstness; one cannot bravely bear it as the chevalier of firstness, the good soldier of firstness. That is why aristocratic thinkers like Nietzsche share the antisemite’s contempt for the Jew even if they disdain to join the antisemitic mob. One can be a “good Jew” only in the Orthodox sense of obeying the law. One obeys the law out of loyalty to one’s people, to show that one shares the burden—but that is not itself the burden.
The Jew’s historical election demands tolerance from others, the deferral of resentment. As with most “prejudices,” one cannot be neutral; one is either antisemitic or philosemitic, or more likely, one oscillates between the two, but the neutral point is passed through rather than occupied. After all, even if one is “without prejudice,” how can one accept that another is the chosen of God? Or that he belongs to the people who invented God? The atheist has a harder time than the believer accepting this priority.
Christianity gives us a way of avoiding firstness, by letting the burden fall on the shoulders of Jesus, “before Adam” the first sacred victim, whom we then imitate. But to become a Christian is to vanish as a Jew. We could all become Christians, and the problem of Jewish firstness would be “solved,” historical memory would replace the lived experience of the role that others love and hate. But the cries of “death to Israel, death to America” show that the burden of firstness is a human, not a Jewish problem. The Jews are still needed because they embody this problem in its historically originary form.
2. Bronx Romanticism
There is romanticism in the Bronx, and there is Bronx Romanticism. The former, like all forms of romanticism, is a transitional state; the young romantic prepares himself for market society, creating a marketable self by setting himself against what he imagines to be the prior dictates of the market. The everyday romanticism of my generation, belated and modest, prepared one for a doctorate in medicine, engineering, physics… followed by a professional career. By contrast, the Bronx Romantic remains one throughout life, discounting “professional success”—which pays the rent—for the sake of a unique historical role, eschewing the minor forms of greatness for which others compete in favor of a variety so grand that one has no competitors and therefore cannot lose, although one’s victory will inevitably go unrecognized.
Bronx Romanticism is the quintessential Jewish experience. It embodies the highest form of faithfulness to our paradoxical inadequacy to chosenness—a form whose inimitability justifies the dependence of communal Jewish faith on unquestioning adherence to the rules of the Shulchan Aruch. The downside of this higher faithfulness is its invisibility. We might console ourselves that God is watching, but the whole point of GA, the unique creation of the Bronx Romantic, is to make such formulations superfluous.
GA is a Jewish creation with no particular attraction for Jews. Its appeal is to disaffected intellectuals lacking a victimary status that would otherwise unite them. Jews, as a general rule, are anything but disaffected from the intelligentsia. The leftism of secular Western Jews is a communal phenomenon, defining a Jewish “solidarity” that trumps that with Israel.
GA recognizes the historical significance of Jewish firstness without treating it as a form of superiority. Its reply to “I am that I am” is the single sign of the originary event. The Mosaic revelation is an elaboration of the originary revelation that allows us to understand its most salient characteristic, the ontological separation between the transcendent and the immanent universes.
3. Jubilatory atheism vs minimal anthropology
Meanwhile, rivers of ink flow to deny the reality of this distinction, as though the very words they congeal into were conceivable without it.
I recently reread as much as I could stand of Richard Dawkins’ “best-selling” The God Delusion (Bantam / Houghton Mifflin, 2006), wading through the infantile jubilation with which the author stakes out the atheist position as the locus of a higher truth. Dawkins never explains how out of the swamp of barbarous irrationalities that is human history has miraculously evolved the oasis of Darwinian good sense in which he finds himself. For Dawkins, apes are OK, Darwin is OK, and everything in between is best forgotten. In the words of “eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson,” quoted on page 1 of The Selfish Gene (Oxford, 1976), “What is man? . . . [A]ll attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and . . . we will be better off if we ignore them completely.”
The style of Dawkins’ polemic is deliberately provocative (“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction”; “I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent”); it drips with contempt for “less educated” believers. But if one strips away the rhetoric and considers only the argument, there is nothing more than the banally obvious claim that the worldly existence of supernatural beings is unprovable and that Ockham’s razor makes them superfluous.
One might begin by asking what it means to speak of the “existence” of “supernatural” entities, which by definition cannot “exist” in our world in the normal sense of the term. As for the anthropologically crucial question of why people throughout history have bothered with such nonsense, Dawkins toys with Darwinian group selection but eventually suggests that religions are “memeplexes” of successful memes, ideas about God such as “You will survive your own death” or “Heretics, blasphemers and apostates should be killed.” In other words, to explain the existence of religion, we simply take a caricatural set of its elementary propositions and call them “memes.” One has only to compare the parsimony which the originary hypothesis explains the origin of language and religion to Dawkins’ hodgepodge of ad hoc, a posteriori speculations to realize the inadequacy of the mechanisms of Darwinian evolution and “memetic” replication to construct an explanatory model of the exchange of signs that is the basis of human culture.
Dawkins is uncompromising in his desire to banish the God-concept from the realm of acceptable thought. He ferociously denounces those, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould, who seek to carve out a “magisterium” for religion not subject to the strictures of the laboratory. To this end, Dawkins even takes the radical step of treating the divinity as the object of a “scientific hypothesis,” one he proceeds to “refute” in the most heavy-handed terms.
Let us agree that Intelligent Design and Creationism are pseudo-scientific aberrations; science has no use for a “God hypothesis.” Outside the laboratory, however, our relationship to religion is irreducible to a set of falsifiable propositions. One cannot of course refute the atheist’s extension of laboratory epistemology to what we may call in religion-neutral terms our lived anthropology; one can only suggest that whether one’s social relations are mediated by atheism or by religious belief tells us little about the originary basis of these relations. The shared aspect of belief is a more fundamental human phenomenon than its propositional content. Before one can even formulate such content, one needs a mode of communal communication. That semiotic communication arose among us centered on a god-concept is scarcely refutable as a historical fact. It is this fact, not the question of “the existence of God,” that is of fundamental anthropological interest.
There is a hint of martyrology in Dawkins’ recurrent tales of the persecution of atheists, including examples of courage in defending atheism against the hostility of persons whose lower evolutionary status is reflected in their bad grammar. No doubt demonstrating against religion can arouse hostility, but outside of closed religious communities, simply living without religion is perfectly feasible, and in the university settings where Dawkins makes his professional living, overwhelmingly the norm. Dawkins is one of many academic leftists who operate in institutions wholly dominated by their peers while congratulating themselves for their courage in denouncing the “religious right”—what presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett recently called “speaking truth to power.”
More interesting than the content of Dawkins’ anti-God polemic is how it “contributes to the debate,” such as one featured in the September 12-13, 2009 edition of the Wall Street Journal between Dawkins and a representative believer. These debates draw a crowd to witness the paradoxical clash of two positions that are intellectually incompatible yet coexist quite comfortably. Whereas the atheist can easily refute any attempt to “demonstrate the existence” of God, the aim of the religious side is rather to demonstrate the human usefulness of a discourse that presupposes the subsistence of sacred beings in a transcendent realm. Since the criteria of this demonstration are not the parsimonious ones of the laboratory, the debate is understandably a dialogue de sourds. But this failure to find common ground pleases the public, whose alternative positions, often held both together in a muddle, are not challenged by either side.
The defenders of religious belief murmur knowingly, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” and Dawkins hollers back, “let me see them, then!” Both sides are clearly enjoying themselves too much to become interested in trying to reach a common understanding via a new way of thinking. The originary hypothesis poses a challenge whether one is an atheist or a believer. Most people balk at entertaining the idea that the human emerged in a single event. Atheists find it “too religious”; religious people turn to their own, less parsimonious hypotheses.
The Bronx Romantic remains confident nonetheless in the minimality of the originary hypothesis that makes it compatible with the highest degree of potential agreement. The atheist would not need to sacrifice his vision of man without God nor the believer that of man with God were they to make the effort to conceive the minimal configuration within which one of the two might have created the other.
4. Le pari bronxien
The Bronx Romantic appeared when the Jews were (already, still) in the Bronx. He could not have existed much earlier; he can exist no longer. Jews have made it in large numbers and left the place of transition to new aspirants.
To be a Jew in the Bronx of the 1950s was to be aware of the great probability and absolute necessity of rising in income and social status. I belonged to this sociological niche, and I have “done better” than my parents. But the Bronx Romantic, bearer of infinite frustrated ambition, can never do better enough. Professional success is always a compromise, at least short of a Nobel Prize. And even Nobel Prizes are bestowed by a community, on a yearly basis; they reward members of an establishment.
GA belongs to no establishment: it is a radical revolution in thought, redefining the human subject of philosophy and religion, of anthropology itself. Because the Jews invented/discovered the One God in a polytheistic world, the Jew’s highest task is to draw the most radical implications of this discovery, whose knowable consequences, whatever may be conceived to exist in the “supernatural” realm, are anthropological. Originary thinking is the authentic expression of Jewish firstness. It is easy to be first when one knows that others will follow; true firstness is a leap into the void, fingo quia absurdum.
The originary hypothesis is a long-term bet on absolute glory that cannot possibly succeed in the normal sense of the term. In 500 years, will people study GA? Almost certainly not, but the probability need only be greater than zero. Through this Pascalian wager the Bronx Romantic realizes his paradoxical credo that because nothing he says or does is of the least consequence, he therefore has the power to think the greatest thought in history. My few dozen readers will understand the beauty of this paradox.