Posted tagged ‘What is Atonement’

Marty Peretz is a Disgrace — To Civilized Company and to the Tradition He Purports to uphold.

September 23, 2010

Warning: no science, not much politics (directly) and some religion (even Bible!) below.  Enter at your own pleasure.

Even with my prior post, I am disgracefully late in weighing in on the ugly case of Marty Peretz.  I felt, as James Fallows originally did, that the appropriate response for civilized people was obvious, had been made, and needed no further comment.

Plus, I was just saddened by Peretz’s disgusting statement that prompted this latest examination of one of the worst people in American public life.  When he writes “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to other Muslims.’ This is a statement of fact, not value.”…what more is there to say?

This is, or ought to be, unforgivable speech, by which I mean not that Peretz doesn’t have the right to dispense it, but that a healthy society would condemn it so swiftly and so thoroughly that there could be no ambiguity about what we as a culture and a polity think.

All this is by now familiar to those who have chased Peretz’s malign vision through the blogs these last couple of weeks.  What strikes me now is the complete cluelessness — and worse, moral degeneracy — of Peretz’s attempts to place that vision in the context of Jewish religious practice.

Peretz has now made, by my count, two attempts to apologize.  The first was, let us say gently, less than persuasive. Not only did Peretz there reaffirm his conviction that Muslim life is, as a matter fact, of lower value than yours or mine, but as James Fallows notes, did not even seem able to take responsibility for the sins he did acknowledge. (See the remarks at the end of the linked post.)

That was pathetic.  Peretz’s second attempt was more interesting, and in the end, more infuriating, at least to me, with its cloaking of religious unction, and a fundamental misunderstanding (to put the best possible light on the matter) of the actual demands of the Jewish tradition.

Here’s what he said:

This is the eve of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Introspection is the order of the day. The Jewish tradition divides sin into two categories, sins against God and sins against man, and insists that God can forgive the former but not the latter, because only the sinned against have the power to absolve the sin. This is why the asking of forgiveness is an act of supreme importance in this season. I myself have much to ask forgiveness for, and much of this asking will be done in private, as is appropriate. But there are sins that are committed in public, and in this past year I have publicly committed the sin of wild and wounding language, especially hurtful to our Muslim brothers and sisters. I do not console myself that many other Americans at this moment are committing the same transgressions, against others. I allowed emotion to run way ahead of reason, and feelings to trample arguments. For this I am sorry.

This sounds good, sort of, better at least than Peretz’s prior attempt.

But as he instructs his readers about the demands Jewish tradition places on its heirs, he makes a cardinal error or two. (Couldn’t resist that one.)

For one:  Peretz is correct that the asking of forgiveness is an essential act in the atonement required of Jews at this season.  But doing so, of course, requires an accurate understanding of the wrong committed.  Peretz asserts that his problem was one of language, of the words chosen out of emotion rather than reason.

It was that, of course, and more:  rating lives cheap is not simply mean; it is dangerous.  An apology for such a statement, at least as I see it, can’t confine itself to the “sticks and stones…” formula of saying one should have found better words to express oneself (or even that one should have thought better thoughts before consuming one’s Bruno Magli’s).

Rather, it has to encompass that actual jeopardy in which it puts real people.

That is:  Peretz didn’t just say he thought Muslims were hateful, bad as that would be as a blanket statement. Instead he flirted with declaring open season on a billion and half human beings.

But even had he gone to what the actual meaning is of his “wild” language (nice euphemism there, doncha think?) Peretz still failed to achieve the atonement to which he so piously aspired.

Why?

Because Judaism is a religion of works, not faith.  See, e.g. Micah.  All that is required to lead a good life is to…

…do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.  (Micah 6, v.9, in the King James translation)*

That is:  act well in the world, from within in a defined moral or ethical perspective (the justice/mercy dichotomy that recurs a lot in  Jewish writings, especially those connected with the Day of Atonement).

In that context, Peretz’s “atonement” is hollow, ineffectual, because he did not include all the required acts.  He apologized; he used a formula in words. He did not, and has not yet to my knowledge, gone the next, necessary step:  making good the damage done.

Don’t take my word for it, of course.  I am not a halachic Jew (far from it) and I am no religious scholar.  But the texts here are pretty clear.

For example  here’s one summary of Jewish traditional thought on repentence:

Repentance was the indispensable condition for all the various means of atonement. Repentance must unquestionably accompany a guilt or sin-offering (Lev. v. 5; Maimonides, “Yad,” Teshubah, i. 1). Penitent confession was a requisite for expiation through capital or corporal punishment (Sanh. vi. 2; Maimonides,ib.). “The Day of Atonement absolves from sins against God, but not from sins against a fellow man unless the pardon of the offended person be secured” (Yoma viii. 9). Hence the custom of terminating on the eve of the fastday all feuds and disputes (Yoma 87a; Maimonides,ib.ii.9et seq.)

Unpacking that:  repentence, regret, acknowledgement of the sin are all necessary. They are not sufficient.  A guilt offering (in the days of sacrifice), or, ever since the seventy first year of the common era,  the pardon of the offended persons, an acknowledgement of adequate redress, is required to make the combination of thought (repentence) and deed (the acts required to secure pardon) sufficient to secure atonement.

Peretz knows this.  Hell, if he goes to Yom Kippur services he hears it at least once a year in the most solemn of Jewish settings, when the time comes to read this passage from the Book of Isaiah:

Is it such a fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?  Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.  (Isiah 58, v. 5-8, King James version.)

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not remind Peretz of just a little bit of scripture that bears directly on both his recent gaffes (remembering that a gaffe in his circles is the unintended revelation of what you really think) and on the spirit of the Day of Atonoment that he invoked. Isaiah is a rich and complicated book, and for all the furor and violence in some of the prophecy, there is a very clear view of a divinity not simply concerned with being the totem of a single people.  Therefore, it seems on point to remind Peretz of this passage:

be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance. (Isiah, 19, v. 23-25.)

Trust me.  For most of Isaiah, and most of Jewish scripture and traditional memory, Egypt and Assyria are not exactly personae gratae.  But here it is:  Egypt and Assyria and Israel, linked in the prophet’s testimony by the most intimate of bonds.

Peretz seems to have missed that part in Sunday school.

Enough.  This is, in some sense, insider baseball.  In any event, I’m not a person of faith; I’m not observant, and I’m certainly no scholar of Jewish texts and practice.  But if Peretz wishes to place his acts in the context of the tradition he and I share, then it seems to me that its worth checking the sources.

And having done so, here’s the bottom line:  Peretz’s talk of the requirements of atonement is a blind.  It is a distraction, a way to suggest that after all, he’s not such a bad guy, and that he has done what is required to repair the damage he has done.

He has not.

I wish him all success in his efforts to make things right with his divine judge.  As he notes, that’s a private conversation.

Beyond the bounds of that relationship, I hope that I commit no wrong to him or anyone when I say that this world, the one in which we all live and words are weapons, would be better served if he just shut up.**

*I use the King James version and not translations from Jewish sources because, it is such a mighty instrument.  The English language is a glorious noise, and one of its greatest sources is that rolling play of words and rhythm that is the King James Bible.  I can’t help it, but I love its sound more than that of the more accurate and more modern ones.  So there.

**And, yeah, I mean getting his paws off TNR. Pace Sully and the rest, I am not among those who think the discourse or journalism would suffer if TNR got quiet.  The reverse, rather, IMHO.

Images:  Vincent Van Gogh, “A Pair of Shoes” 1887.

Benjamin West, “Isaiah’s lips annointed with fire” before 1820.