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John Lennon and the Jews

"It's not cool to be Jewish, or Negro, or Italian. It's just cool to be alive, to be around." So said Aretha Franklin. I know, because my father used to have the soul diva's wisdom hanging on the wall of his study at home. He also used to walk around in a t-shirt with "Miscegenate" emblazoned across the chest. Walking the walk, he sent this child of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to an elite Episcopalian prep school. I love my father dearly and respect him immensely, so at the age of twenty-four I dropped everything, moved to Israel, put a kippah on my head, and enrolled in a Haredi yeshiva.

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Imagine  Ze'ev Maghen, Azure. “My sister or brother, spiritual daughter or son of Sarah and Abraham, you are blessed with the opportunity to connect with and benefit from a sprawling, boundless, spatial and temporal network, suffused with the deepest secrets of the ages, humming with the love of countless generations, a love that was always channeled directly and unhesitatingly at you.” (PDF, 1999)

Rebellion? In part. But the rebellion didn't stop there. Turned off by a romantic view of Jewish identity that was, at its worst, articulated in vulgar, tribal terms, and tired out from investigating the brilliantly-crafted but virtual realities of the talmudic sages, I spent my third year in yeshiva sitting in my apartment, studying the rational humanism of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, driven by the philosophical hunger of Plato's Republic. Not surprisingly, I later fell in love with Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed

Of course, love was what it was all about from the start, like the love for the country and people of Israel that I inexplicably felt when I first landed at Ben-Gurion Airport at the age of nineteen.  Completely clueless about anything Jewish, I spent Shabbat walking the streets of Tel Aviv with a friendly soldier, charmed by the familial warmth shown to me by complete strangers.

So it was with a strange but delightful sense of recognition that I read Ze'ev Maghen's high-octane, laugh-out-loud funny, and occasionally caustic "philosophical rampage," John Lennon and the Jews. The book is an extended defense of passionate love for the Jewish people, written by an American immigrant long settled in Israel, a highly-respected professor of Arabic literature and Islamic history who also happens to be the 1983 International Frisbee Golf Champion (Junior Division) and a former member of the IDF's tank corps.  Maghen's target audience is the population of tepid, English-speaking Jews whose love for their people has been displaced by the dictates of universalism and rationalism—a cohort whose instincts I know intimately.

John Lennon and the Jews opens with Maghen's chance meeting, real or imagined, at Los Angeles International Airport with Shira, Ofer, and Doron: "three Hebrew Hare Krishnas," dressed in regulation saffron robes. Maghen can't stomach that these young Israelis have abandoned Hebraism for Hinduism. Whipping out a Bible, he proclaims "This is your book!!!" But the three, dreaming of a world without nations, borders, or hierarchy—in short, the world evoked in Lennon's famous thought exercise "Imagine" ("Imagine there's no countries . . .  nothing to kill or die for . . . ")—aren't impressed. Shira presents a universalist challenge to Jewish particularism; Ofer goes on the rationalist attack; and Doron basically tells Maghen to chill out. 

Reflecting on this encounter at LAX, Maghen contends that Lennon's "beautiful ballad is in reality a death-march, a requiem mass for the human race." His book is an extended defense of this position, presented in three parts, each a response to the arguments laid out by Shira, Ofer, and Doron, respectively.

Against Shira's universalist ideal of loving all people equally, Maghen argues that "No one gets turned on by 'universal' love . . . 'universal love' isn't love at all, because love means preference" (emphasis his). Maghen locates the origin of the universalist fallacy in the New Testament.  Shouldn't a man respect his father, or a daughter love her mother?  No, Jesus proclaims: "I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law." (Matthew 10:34–35)  Since God loves all human beings equally, so should we—even at the price of disrupting our natural bonds of affection. 

Against this vision of an expansive, non-discriminating God, Maghen reminds his readers that the God of the Hebrew Bible most definitely plays favorites—because that's the way real love works.

The second and largest part of the book presents Maghen's challenge to Ofer's rationalism. His main claim here is that Western civilization, including the portion occupied by the naturally passionate Jews, has been brainwashed over the course of the past 2,000 years to privilege the head over the heart. The roots of this problem lie in Athens, not Second-Temple Jerusalem. Accordingly, Maghen engages in lengthy polemics against the sages of Greece, all with the aim of "making the world a less rational and more romantic place."

As against Doron's counsel of apathy, finally, Maghen concludes by issuing a passionate call to swim against the tides of misguided universalism, wayward rationalism, and willed inertia and take up the mission of Judaism, "the greatest love story of all time," and thereby "to recover the guts and the confidence, the romance and the idealism, the wildness and the midrashic hutzpah that alone enable human beings to create."

John Lennon and the Jews is intentionally provocative and compulsively readable: two massive virtues in themselves. It is also problematic. Take its argument against universalism. Maghen argues that bestowing "your bounty and sympathy upon all your fellow human beings" is, at bottom, an un-Jewish thing to do. Yet one of the greatest lovers of the Jewish people in modern history, Abraham Isaac Kook, repeatedly and extensively argued the opposite. Since "God is good to all and His mercies are on all His works," the surest sign that one has been touched by divinity, according to Kook, is when you, too, are filled with a desire to love all human beings—or more: all animals, all trees, the cosmos! True, Kook's view presents its own difficulties; more importantly, Kook never relinquishes the role of Jewish particularism in his universalistic conception. But it remains the case that Ze'ev Maghen brushes off as non-Jewish what for Kook is one of the deepest experiences a Jew can hope to have.

Or take Maghen's attack on rationalism in the name of romanticism. Maghen rightly chastises Jewish apologists of various stripes, but his own presentation of Judaism is nothing if not apologetic. Crucially, there's nary a word in his book about the messianic settlers in the West Bank, a highly problematic group of romantic Jew-lovers, who, in my view, could use a good dose of Maimonidean rationalism. I say this out of love, and as a resident of a West Bank settlement.

Most troubling of all, Maghen's blithe assertion that all we need do is "recover" a lost confidence, romance, and idealism—as if human nature is incurably good and that, at bottom, all human beings really want to do is love—runs against biblical teaching and human experience alike. This sunny sentiment, Rousseau-by-way-of-the Beatles, compels Maghen to argue that hatred played a marginal role in the Holocaust since, properly understood, Nazism was really an outcome of absolutism and rationalism.

But John Lennon and the Jews shouldn't be judged by such grating and grandiose claims. The book is better grasped as an intimate letter written from one Jew to his brethren, hoping to free their minds and warm their hearts, and it reminds us that, 3,000 years after God and the Jewish people first exchanged vows on Mount Sinai, Judaism remains a stunningly beautiful, vibrant, deep, and often bracing experience with the capacity to drive sensitive and erudite souls like Ze'ev Maghen crazy with love.

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Jacob Silver on August 5, 2011 at 8:25 am (Reply)
Good review, and it does point out that love, properly defined, is a particular for a particular person or (small) group of persons. And the writer lives in a West Bank settlement. And here the very antithesis of love has too often expressed itself. It has been genetically demonstrated that Palestinian farmers with long ancestry on the land are the descendents of Hebrew (Aramaic) speaking farmers of the last Judaic Kingdom in the land of Israel. They are, therefore, the distant cousins of all Jews. Yet, a number of settlement Jews have expressed hatred and have done harmful things to these cousins. If Jews cannot have respect, if not love, for their very distant cousins, then one must question how Jewish these settlers are.
Julian Tepper on August 5, 2011 at 10:16 am (Reply)
The first time I went to Israel to visit my oldest two children, as the plane landed I could feel my heart pounding on the inside of my chest and a few minutes later, as I stepped onto the land, I began to cry, not loudly, but uncontrollably.

I could guess, I suppose, but, truth be told, I cannot say with any sense of confidence why this occurred.

I think Aryeh's column about Maghen's John Lennon and the Jews (which, now, of course, I must read) has brought me a bit closer to an understanding.

Again, Aryeh, thank you, this time for turning out as you did.

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM/Bethesda, MD
Cynic on August 5, 2011 at 11:17 am (Reply)
Jacob Silver's comment notes:
"If Jews cannot have respect, if not love, for their very distant cousins, then one must question how Jewish these settlers are."

So then those British Jews of Safardi descent in their animosity to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants to Britain from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 19th century should also have their Jewishness questioned?
Those "Palestinian long distant cousins" with a culture for discriminating against Jews over 1400 years, approximately, should be loved by Jews today?
And those current American Jewish cousins whose incitement and actions against Israeli Jews, what does it say about them?
Brian Moloney on August 5, 2011 at 6:04 pm (Reply)
I'm inspired by Aryeh's review and even more determined now to get my hands on a copy of this book. I'm also touched by Julian's moving comment here in this section. Thank you for sharing what you both have.
Jacob Silver on August 7, 2011 at 4:48 pm (Reply)
In response to Cynic, I said 'respect,' and given the fact that they are currently Muslims, one must be defensive and cannot expect much of a response. But Jews disrespecting Jews is definitely a basis for questioning the moral standing of those. Animosity and disrespect is not a basis for a policy of mutual existence.
Joel Glazier on August 7, 2011 at 10:27 pm (Reply)
I have read this book....and glad I did. While the title caught my attention, as I often read books with any Beatle connection (non fiction are preferred), I can't say I can read any great percentage of books with Jewish things in the title. I am glad I got through this book. Very informative and makes me wonder with such a flow of consciousness (and provocative religious statements), does Dr. Maghen's writing style come through in his university lectures?
That would be a trip to experience.. If you got the time and you are of the boomer generation of younger, the book is a good read.
Cynic on August 8, 2011 at 9:19 am (Reply)
With all due respect, and facing reality that those former genetic cousins have adopted a culture of hatred and violence against Jews how on earth can one expect Jews to respect the people adhering to said culture?
What is there to respect in a culture that trashes the very sociology of justice and freedom of thought that Jews brought to this world, even if through a religious concept that mandated the 10 Commandments, which provided society with a social stability to endure these past millennia now being trashed by the Progressive religion?
DF on August 8, 2011 at 11:13 am (Reply)
I don't know if it was wise to use "John Lennon" in the book title. Similar to "Woodstock", "Richard Nixon" or " Bob Dylan", there are certain names that are permanently associated with a certain age and a certain political viewpoint. Because I don't share either trait, and because we are already over-saturated with books and movies from people who do, I would not even give this book a second glance.
Jacob Silver on August 8, 2011 at 2:52 pm (Reply)
I don't believe that all Muslims, and particularly all those in Samaria and Judea have a culture of hatred and violence. Of course I exclude agents of organizations, including Hamas, which are dedicated to the destruction of Israel. But most of the farmers are simply working their inherited land and doing what their ancestors have done. Most of the violence they have been engaged in has been violence visited upon them by some settlers.

And the 10 Commandments you are referring to are from Exodus 20, also known as the Cecil B. DeMill commandments. The real, Jewish, Ten Commandments, which Moses was delivering when he encountered the golden calf, and he destroyed the tablets. He then had to return to the mountain to get them re-dictated. These are found in Exodus 34.
Yoav Amshalem on August 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm (Reply)
I'm sorry, is this an article about a book, or about the justice of Jews living in Judea/Samaria/the West Bank? From the comments, I can't tell. I like JID because it's (usually) possible to have a conversation about a Jewish topic without the whole thing devolving into competing rants about/against Israel. Can we try to keep it that way?
Ra'anan on August 15, 2011 at 4:53 pm (Reply)
Jacob Silver, have Jews in the Biblical heartland of Judea & Samaria ever cut up an Arab family as the Arab neighbours of the Jewish settlement Yitzhar did to 5 family members of the Fogel family? Maybe google Fogel family & look at the pictures. If that's not enough, then google pictures of "Ramallah lynch" & see an Arab w/a BIG SMILE showing his bloody hands in the air. BTW, that's JEWISH blood on his hands. You know, Jacob, if you were a Fogel at that house that night OR one of the 3 soldiers who accidentally wandered into Ramallah that day, those peaceful Arabs would have cut YOUR body pieces up. I live in Jerusalem & whenever we go to Hadassah Hospital, I see a LOT OF ARABS waiting to be treated by JEWISH doctors. Can you show me ANY ARAB hospital in the WORLD where JEWS are waiting to be treated??? As far as John Lennon, I remember reading that he once got drunk & cursed Jews, sobered up & apologize. That "Baby You're a Rich Man," was originally "Baby Your a Rich Jew," a reference to their manager Brian Epstein who took them so far (later produce Phil Spector & his wall of sound were nice on Abbey Road, but to know him is NOT to love him). What's the advantage of romanticism over rationalism??? Lenny BRUCE said that, believe it or not, ORTHODOX Jews are cool, like Dick Tracy was cool. Isn't being a "light unto the nations" loving them? Love doesn't mean preference, it means seeing the good in others & building on that & everyone needs something different so of course it's not equal in that sense.
Tim Upham on July 2, 2012 at 10:27 am (Reply)
Religion should not be the reason for hate, it should be the reason for peace and coexistence. Looking into the Siddur, it will say "You will love your fellow man, as though you will love yourself." Christianity evolves around the quotations of Jesus Christ, and in Matthew 12:31 it is said "Love thy neighbor as thyself." A hadith of the Prophet Mohammed says "You will not find faith, until you love your brother as much as you love yourself." Muslim clerics interpret brother as all of humanity. So it falls upon all of us, on how we want to use it, for something destructive, or something constructive.

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