Friday, March 08, 2002
Leon Wieseltier has another one of his rants in TNR, this one about how Daniel Pearl is not a martyr. Wieseltier is the second coming of Theodore Adorno; where Adorno said, "no poetry after Auschwitz," Wieseltier says, "no punditry after September 11th." (Except for his own, of course.) He seems to think that the terrorists, who clearly saw a ritual purpose in killing Pearl, will have won if we declare him a martyr. I suppose by this logic Hitler, who clearly saw a transcendent purpose in the murder of Jews, has won every time we say El Maleh Rachamim for the 6 million. In any event, it seems to me that Pearl meets all the classic tests of Jewish martyrdom, more so even than any of the poor children murdered last weekend, and that it is important that he be given recognition as such. It doesn't matter what kind of a Jew he was or what his politics were any more than it mattered what kind of Jews were murdered at Auschwitz. It is for his identification as a Jew, which is to say, with the collective mission that constitutes the Jewish people, that he was killed, and if that mission is good then his death is a witness to it.
Martyrdom is not a politically or religiously correct topic, particularly with our enemies blowing themselves up in crowds of innocent children and calling it martyrdom, but it is, I think, an inescapable topic. I firmly believe that the Jews were chosen to be witnesses to God's presence in history; and that because of this all those who choose to make war on God will make war upon us sooner or later (usually sooner), and some of us will individually be selected to witness God's presence with our lives. I believe that this fate is unavoidable. Zionism cannot erase it, Enlightenment cannot erase it, Socialism cannot erase it, assimilation cannot erase it, and even prayer and study and the cloister of the yeshivah world, we should all know by now, cannot erase it. We, like all people, are God's instruments, and He will use us how He will. I don't think you can erase martyrdom - that is to say, the constant potential for martyrdom; you cannot choose to be martyred - from Judaism without erasing chosenness, which is to say erasing Judaism. And I think erasing Judaism means erasing God from the world.
I don't want to be misunderstood here. To say that the Jews are the chosen people is not to say that the Jews have a greater share of the world to come, or are favored in this world, relative to others. It does not mean that God plays racial favorites (anyone, of any race, can become Jewish, and there are born Jews of every race). It does not mean that Jews cannot be good citizens of non-Jewish polities, unless such polities require, as Pharaoh and Caesar did and America does not, complete subjection to a divine ruler; Jews are in the same position as Christians in this regard, who, like Jews, answer to a higher authority than the State but recognize that the State's law is the supreme law in its proper sphere. Moreover, to say that the Jews are chosen does not mean that other nations may not have exalted purposes of their own, or that other religions are not also divine in origin. That is for these others to determine, not for me. Nothing in Judaism requires me to deny the divine nature of any other religion, provided that the other religion does not (a) deny the validity of Judaism, or (b) transgress the universal commandments binding upon all people. Nothing in Judaism requires me to deny the validity of non-Jewish prophecy, or the validity of prophecy to the non-Jews; Balaam, Jethro and Job are biblical examples of the former, and Jonah of the latter. All it means to say that the Jews are chosen is that: (a) God has a relationship with us as a people, extending through time and space, and not merely as individuals or as part of humanity; (b) that this relationship consists of a covenant of mutual obligation; and (c) that the nature of our obligation is to bear witness to God's presence in history, primarily through the observance of the commandments but more generally through our attestation to the existence of this very covenant. To be a witness to God in history means, inevitably, to accept the possibility of martyrdom, the ultimate witness, and to accept this possibility means you have to have a doctrine for it, a way of identifying martyrs and properly interpreting their witness.
Daniel Pearl, as I said, meets all the classic tests. He died proclaiming his Jewishness, and he died for that Jewishness; I believe it is the first among the reasons why he was killed. Wieseltier says, "the murder of Daniel Pearl was not a martyrdom, it was an atrocity. Is that not stirring enough?" No, it is not. The world is full of atrocity. To say that the meaning of his death is that his killers are murderers is to be trapped by a kind of spiritual positivism. How is Daniel Pearl different from a beggar murdered on a dark street in Calcutta, a death that is also an atrocity? Those who seek to understand the world will debate the difference, and the relative importance. Peter Singer would say that the beggar's death is the more significant - to all of us - because it is the more common. If we are to answer differently, we must talk about why the journalist and the beggar died, and what that why tells us about what we must do in response. Wieseltier dislikes politics as eschatology, but he thinks that the only answer to such a politics is a politics that removes God from the world entirely, and I do not see how a believer can participate in such a politics - indeed, I doubt whether such a politics is really possible, in the same way that I doubt it is possible to actually be a positivist. We are not merely fighting bandits. We are fighting believers. That they are believers in Satan rather than God does not diminish the sincerity of their belief, and I do not see why we must deny this, why we must treat their murderous conviction as a pathology rather than a decision for evil, in order to avoid participating in their world view. They have chosen for evil, and we must choose for good; and if we die for it, why is it wrong to understand this death as a holy witness? If this is not holy, what good is holiness?