Friday, July 28, 2006

" a Light to englighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people, Israel."

Some of the comments in The Brothers Karamazov post below raise the issue of Dostoevskii's antisemitism. It comes out when Ivan asks Alesha about a hideous folk-rumour (known as 'the blood libel') that Jews kill Christian children each Easter. He asks him, does this happen, and A. responds "I don't know." It is a painful and strange reality, this hatred of of the Jews that has plagued Europe for centuries. For thoughtful Christians, it is doubly strange, considering we worship the Jewish Messiah. Of course, a tincture of this great sin has been subsumed into various forms of nationalism that also tend to absorb religion. I.e., Russia, for instance, integrated some form of "Orthodoxy" into its national identity, but along with it was taken a crippling dose of xenophobia, which manifests itself in this abominable antisemitism. Seriously! How does this happen? If cultures can be "baptized," and theoretically transfigured, how do we/they act as incubators, at the same time, for this kind of hubris?

On the other hand, those American evangelicals (I'm thinking of televangelists like John Hagee) who have honed a sort of Israel-olatry, have lost the plot as well. They could use some help from Bishop Tom Wright to understand more clearly the key text: Romans 9-11. In reality, all of the old ethnic markers of covenant identity have been reoriented in Christ. It is about baptism, "circumcision of the heart" and not just of the flesh. In discerning the people of God, then, the question is no longer "are you a Jew or a Gentile?" And it isn't really about being Russian, Serb, Bulgarian, Aleut, or Canadian either. The question is "do you have faith in Jesus Christ?"

Christianity, at its best, remembers and loves the beauty of its Jewish roots, and realizes that in their light we see the Light of Christ. A good example: did you know that the Maccabean martyrs are liturgically remembered by the Orthodox church?

Neither did I.

Here is one of the verses for their feastday:

Tone 1 (O most-praised martyrs))

Persecution did not shake the roof of the Law,
firmly upheld by seven pillars.
For they bravely endured the senseless fury of their tormentor,
giving their bodies to the executioners.//
These noble young men and brothers were the faithful guardians of the
oracles of Moses.

v. (2) Praise the Lord, all nations! Praise Him, all peoples!


Blogger Milhouse said...

Hi Matt,

I happlily stumbled on your blog. I'm very glad to see that you are keeping well. Congratulations on your marriage.

I find your post interesting.

A couple of years ago I was reading an article in First Things, a piece about the politics in the U.S., and the author (James Nuechterlein, maybe) talked about a profound realization he had while having a conversation with young people regarding the current political climate. For all the years of his political engagement, intellectually and practically, the orientation of Left and Right related to the greatest political upheaval of the 20th C., namely The Great Depression. The economic politics of post 30's America were understood, dominantly, by comparison to the New Deal; the author's was a New Deal era. Not so for his students. And so he realized that the impact of the Depression had diminished through the intervening generations such that its waves were no longer felt enough to form an impression.

My point?

The Holocaust has had a profound impact on thought, culture, and religion. We remain within its waves, and, 60+ years later, they are still tremendous. And it seems to me that for us, who yet abide in its impact, it can be difficult to accept a barrier of history holding back the waves.

In effect, I suppose, I am suggesting that your incredulity is anachronistic. In a world after the holocaust, it is not acceptable to see anti-semitism as acceptable. But that is largely because we have seen the unspeakable horror that can follow anti-semitic hatred when wed to unchecked power and unchecked conscience.

Am I seriously off-mark if I suggest that prejudicial anti-semitism was not as great a sin for Dostoevskii's generation as it is for ours? (keep in mind the limits by which we can judge Dostoevskii's anti-semitism; his was in no way violent).

That being said, I think that the same effect, the effect of our living in the wake of the holocaust, causes the reader to be less generous with Dostoevskii than is warranted.

Within the context of Alyosha's character, and the probing Ivan, I don't feel that Alyosha's reply, "I don't know" is uncharacteristic or a display of artistic compromise. We may want Alyosha, who we identify with Christ, to say, boldly, "NO, it is not true." But again, I think this is because of our anachronistic imposition of the guilt of Nazi anti-semitism on any preceding, and relatively less culpable, folk anti-semitism.

At NUC scholar Frank Ike gave a lecture on the origins of anti-semitism. And he rightly finds the sources of it in the wording of the Gospels. It is my suspicion that, should the parousia be delayed for a few more centuries, after the wake of the Holocaust subsides and is eventually unfelt, Christian anti-semitism will revive, to some extent, and will probably remain relatively benign.

Hopefully I'm wrong.

I don't believe a nation can be baptized; though it may be partially transfigured. But, what is a partial transfiguration? At any rate, I am baptized and yet exhibit behaviour and traits incubative of evil. Yet I persist, built up in the sacraments of the Lord, to attain unto beatification, or, if you prefer, theosis.

It is worth noting, however, that anti-semitism before the revolution, and before Nazi Germany, produced nothing near the violence and darkness produced by Christian anti-semitism. Each was an expression, as Milton Himmelfarb described them, of anti-Christian anti-semitism.

We know that anti-Christian anti-semitism couldn't have been without Christian anti-semitism. But, we cannot justly judge Christian anti-semites for the sins of their wayward sons.

Kindly say hello to David and Heiko for me.


Eric Milner

11:24 PM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

Thanks, Eric, for your comments. Great to hear from you. I'll write back some response later... it's late.

1:27 AM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

oh, and I'll definitely pass on your greetings to our friends...

1:30 AM  
Blogger cyrilla said...

While I agree that we judge anti-semitsm based on our more recent experiences through the holocaust, it is nonetheless unacceptable for Christians since we believe and acknowledge that all were created equally. By harbouring anti-semitic views (or against any demographic for that matter) we blaspheme and reject God as well as cut ourselves off from our roots.
That this view would persist is partially understandable for a modern/post-modern Christianity which has cut itself off from its own Christian history. It is therefore even more appalling for an Orthodox tradition which maintains history and tradition from the early church which has lots of Jewish overtones and commemorates saints from before the time of Christ.

That being said, anti-semitism was historically rampant in Russia at that time (as previously noted) so regardless of D.'s own views, it is not surprizing that this attitude would appear in one or more of his characters. I suppose the main issue here remains: Why Alyosha? How does this fit into his own character. Maybe another read through will help analyze the question... or maybe this is one question that is not meant to be adequately answered.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Simply Victoria said...

in light of our present culture, it's a bit of a difficult subject to navigate, no? one is always fearful (in a mccarthian way) of being branded racist.

lots to think about and digest here.

1:47 PM  
Blogger matthew christopher davidson said...

Hey Matthew,

I've linked this post on my blog.

6:07 AM  
Blogger matthew christopher davidson said...

I think it was in My Name is Asher Lev that I read about a Jewish man whose head was split open by a Russian peasant's ax on Pascha night. An interesting contrast, I suppose, to Ivan's question.

I suppose that cultures can be baptized in a similar way that infants have often been baptized, so as to produce a religious "anticonsciousness", where the vestments of the faith become simply the vocabulary of the common people, with which they cuss each other out, so to speak. It's not that the grape vine is bearing figs. It's that the grape vine has grown up around the fig tree.

NT Wright is excellent on Romans 9-11. I enjoy his commentary very much. (Speaking of which, I now have a copy of the Orthodox New Testament at my disposal, and I'm going to start reading the translation of and footnotes to Romans and compare them to Wright's commentary.)

I agree with Eric's first point, which is that antisemitism, like racism, has certainly been more culturally embedded than it is today; the Holocaust brought it out into the light for scrutiny, and we all saw it as horrid.

But just as there have been 'benevolent racisms' exemplified in, say, the writings of Rudyard Kipling, we can just as easily say that there have been benevolent antisemitisms. We have to remember that while patterns of thinking can be embedded in culture, within each culture there is the usual spectrum of persons, running from saints to psychopaths, and not all racists are hateful violent people, and people tend to be too caught up in their personal concerns to ever act out such convictions in the village square, although they might be content to watch someone else do so.

We have to remember, too, that there is a difference between being anti-Judaism and being anti-Jewish. And this is why I disagree that the roots of antisemitism are in the gospels. This is akin to arguing that the roots of machine gun warfare are to be found in lead. Antisemitism is not the necessary conclusion one must come to from reading the gospels. It is more like what would happen if a crowd of schoolchildren who didn't like me watched from a distance while my loving earthly father spanked me. My father's action could easily be seen as according with the sentiments of the crowd ("You see? He doesn't like him either!"), but the crowd has no understanding of the love that exists between father and child. Likewise, those who read the gospels and draw antisemitism from the text do not understand the relationship of the apostolic community (made up largely of Jews) to the surrounding Jewish community.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Browler said...

I disagree with Milhouse. Yeah, of course to judge anti-Semites in the light of the Shoah is anachronistic.
But it is also anachronistic to assume that the danger of anti-Semitism wasn't obvious to people before 1942. In Dostoevskii's day, to take the example at hand, pogroms and rampant -- nay, systematic -- victimization of Jews was widespread. Dostoevskii was aware of it, too. That's what is so painful about the correspondence he had with Jewish readers (one in particular, whose name escapes me).

I even more profoundly disagree that there is no artistic compromise made in the depiction of Alesha, in the notorious blood libel passage. Alesha is no anti-Semite; Dostoevskii was.

And to mention his own lack of violece is a red herring.

Matt -- to address your post, which is a good one...


... isn't the key passage in (Slavonic) Orthodoxy Ilarion's Sermon on Law and Grace? Many Russian Orthodox certainly think it is (and, as I argue in my thesis, it was very important to Dostoevskii). And within that sermon, alas, is much proof in much pudding.

BTW -- and I believe this is truly a red herring, but what the hell -- should we really confuse Dostoevskii for an Orthodox? I'll give you unorthodox Orthodox, but lets not forget that the Church wasn't too keen on his novels, and nor were many contemporaries, such as Leont'ev, who dismissed his "rosy Christianity". Dostoevskii, for his part, hated priests, rarely went to mass, etc, etc.

The efforts to coopt him to the Orthodox agenda now in Russia seems, to my eye, nothing short of narrow nationalism. I include many Russian scholars in that category, too.

In any case, Alesha's crime is far greater than any Dostoevskii-in-history committed.

5:11 PM  
Blogger nehamashira said...

Thankyou for posting this. As one who believes fervently (and Jewishly) that "the eyes of the Lord run to and fro over the face of the earth seeking those whose hearts are turned toward Him", I found your essay very encouraging. In their highest expressions, both Judaism and Christianity speak the language of the heart- instructing us to "love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and substance....and love your neighbour as yourself". Both emphasize that "he who comes to God must believe that He IS, and that He is a rewarder of those who deligently seek Him". And both await the arrival of a Jewish Messiah who speaks Hebrew. As Teddy Kolleck, former Mayor of Jerusalem said "when the messiah comes..we will have to say to him respectfully 'have you been here before'". Christianity is the daughter of Judaism..and as we know, sometimes daughters don't like to be reminded that they resemble their mothers...and mothers tend to criticize daughters- afraid to allow them to grow up lest they grow apart. I look forward to the day when daughter and mother can once again rejoice in the ties that bind them while respecting the uniqueness of their relationship to King of Heaven.

1:39 AM  

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