But still. I really have wanted to be Jewish for a long time, and almost converted a few years back when my best friend Amy [raised by an Arkansas Baptist] converted. We talk about it a lot and I will be attending her bat mitzvah on December 30th, so this subject has been on my mind a lot lately. There is not enough time to enumerate all the reasons here why I have wanted to convert; suffice to say, it has something to do with how I view Judaism as a deeply ethical religion that focuses more on the “here and now” of daily life than does Christianity, which I see as too focused on rewards [or punishments] in a supposed afterlife [it’s the whole “works” versus “grace” thing, and I’m on the side of “works”]. When I finally realized that I couldn’t belong to any religion at all because I mainly can’t stomach the horrors done in the name of religion [and because, deep down, I don’t really believe God exists and I think any idea or representation of God is mainly a wildly hopeful fiction], and also because I think religious orientation is deeply culturally constructed [hence, if I’m anything, I’m Irish Catholic and trying to be a Jew would be like forcing myself into an historically inauthentic identity], I gave up on the idea of conversion. And anyway, conversion from what, exactly? Since I’ve never really practiced any religion with any degree of sincerity, converting *to* something would be a deeply inauthentic act. Or so I think. But like Woody Allen’s rabbi Ben [played by Sam Waterston] in Crimes and Misdemeanors, I want to believe, “with all my heart, that the universe has a moral structure.” In any case, I mainly sublimate my religious feelings by reading Simone Weil [especially her short writing collected in Gravity and Grace and her only long work, L’Enracinement], Emmanuel Levinas, and Zygmunt Bauman [especially Postmodern Ethics], and watching Kieslowski films [especially his Decalogue and Trois Coleurs trilogy]. For the consideration of fate and chance, I throw in Paul Auster and leave it at that.
But why should any of this matter here on In The Middle? Well, perhaps because religion, in general, is so deeply historical—it relies upon the imprimatur of history to lend it a certain sacred realness and “truth.” It has need of stories—narratives—and the more “ancient,” the better. Indeed, it relies on the idea that virtue, or morality, is not possible without its codified encouragements and threats, all grounded in historical precedents. It partakes in primeval forms of mysticism and magic. In some traditions—especially the Christian one—it offers a chance to cheat time, and therefore history itself. It “grounds” itself in sites that become artifactual pathways to foundationally sacred moments in past time. It offers images of an “original” communalism, but also of various “original” heroic acts of self-sacrifice, without which love is not thought possible [or eternally guaranteed]. Indeed, the “old” stories of religion provide somewhat of an antidote to the insight of sociobiology that, as David P. Barash put it in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, “selfishness resides in our very genes.” Or, as Freud put it, in Civilization and Its Discontents, the “ideal” commandment of the New Testament, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” “is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man.” Further, Freud wrote,
. . . men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.
Ouch. But, while loving one’s neighbor may be the ideal commandment of the New Testament, the supreme commandment of the Old Testament [and of the Torah, or Pentateuch], would seem to be, “obey God,” and further, “obey God without question, without hesitation, without even thinking about it.” Such is the lesson Abraham demonstrates when he agrees to murder his son at God’s behest, and also because when God initially calls him, his answer in Hebrew translates as, “Here I am,” as opposed to Cain’s response to God’s question regarding his brother’s whereabouts, which is to both say “I don’t know” and to ask, belligerently, “am I my brother’s keeper?” [or, more literally: “am I supposed to keep track of where my brother goes?”]. The stories of both Cain and Abraham, foundational in many respects for Jews and Christians alike, are highly important in the Western tradition and yet, I would argue, they offer counterintuitive lessons. Throughout the Middle Ages, the figure of Cain was especially important as the historical progenitor of “monstrous” races [or, at the least, of pathological persons], and much medieval theological writing—both Christian and Rabbinic—sought to explain the various ways in which Cain was somehow spiritually [and therefore, also humanistically] deformed even before he killed Abel [he is viewed in some Rabbinic accounts, for example, as the child of Eve and Satan, or as having been born from the “impure” side of Eve’s body, with Abel being born from the “pure” side, etc.]. Grendel in Beowulf, as we all well know, is supposedly a descendant of Cain’s. A much overlooked and incredibly comprehensive treatment of this subject is Oliver F. Emerson’s “Legends of Cain, Especially in Old and Middle English,” PMLA 21.4 : 831-929.
But the point I mainly want to make here is that, as mightily as some may have striven to demonize Cain, his story, I would argue, is one that we can readily understand, even as we may harshly judge his actions. In other words, he had a very human motive for killing his brother: jealousy. God favors Abel’s offering over Cain’s, thereby making Cain feel belittled and unwanted. Fratricide, of course, is seen as one of the highest types of murder, even today, but the original story displays, not a monstrous man, but a very human one—albeit, ill-equipped to deal with what he views at the world’s injustice to him. Abraham, on the other hand, held up by many theologians, and even philosophers such as Levinas, as an ideal example of a perfect servant of God’s [or, of the ethical relationship “to the Other,” more generally], appears almost inhuman to us. No matter how many times we are told otherwise, his unstinting obedience, even to the point of being willing to murder his own son, strikes us as unfeeling, even barbarous [a great and much underappreciated film that touches upon this subject, which is based on a true story, is The Believer, starring Ryan Gosling as Daniel Balint, a Jew who hid his identity in order to become a neo-Nazi and when discovered, committed suicide]. What kind of a god, we want to ask, would create humans just so he could ask them to annihilate each other in his name? Of course, God isn’t really asking that—it’s just another one of his “head games,” but why should such blind obedience to a “first principle,” let’s say, always trump one’s individual desires? Why is freedom given, only to be used as a kind of cognitive technology for always choosing God over everything else? Wouldn’t that result in a kind of historical passivity in which, frankly, human history could not even happen, or could only go in one direction?
It is precisely because human beings love the world, and those closest to them in that world, too much, and will often choose that world over God, that there is, indeed, what I would call real history—one that has no particular direction, but is tied instead to the various passions of its actors [with these passions ranging from love to hate, joy to bottomless grief]. This has something to do, too, I believe, with what Freud identified as the libido, or “love-force,” of which sexuality is only one manifestation. As Jonathan Lear explains it,
. . . a person is erotically bound to the world. That is a condition of there being a world for him: that is a condition of his sanity. . . . love is not [in this scenario] just a feeling or a discharge of energy, but an emotional orientation to the world. That orientation demands that the world present itself to us as worthy of our love. That is what it is for the world to be lovable. . . . The world must now be conceived as, at least potentially, providing an occasion for [individuation] . . . . [Love and Its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freudian Psychoanalysis (New York, 1990), pp. 153-54]
At the same time, certain cataclysmic historical events, including wars, have occurred because certain people in particular places have believed, fervently, that God demanded something of them that apparently requires destruction of cities, murder, and even suicide. In other words, there will always be those who buy wholly in to a version of a sacred history in which this world is a kind of fighting ground between differently “chosen” groups, and in which love of one’s self or of particular other selves, or the concern for one’s individuation in this world, will always matter less than the supposed “bringing about” [or, revelation] of a queerly utopic and utterly inhuman future [although in the heat of the various acts of bringing this future about, we are still dealing with Freud’s love-/life-force, which can pull us in various directions, toward mob mentalities and onward with those mobs toward death]. And it is because of this state of affairs that I, finally, “lose” my religion, and side with one of my students in my British literature survey course this past semester, who, when writing about Book 9 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, indicated that, even though he understands that Adam chose wrongly when deciding to face death with Eve rather than obey God, that Adam would not really be human if he had chosen otherwise. “On this rock floating in space called Earth,” he wrote, “it is human to want to be with others, and not to want to be alone, even with God in Paradise.” Amen.