Thursday, February 24, 2005
Forgot 2 other Jewish books as part of the kick:
Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel by Daniel Elazar, and The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick. Both were disappointments.
I had really high hopes for Elazar's book because I happen to agree with the general idea that connects popular sovereignty (the core idea that undergirds political democracy) with ideological nationalism (which may be but certainly does not have to be coextensive with ethnic nationalism), and that connects nationalism with the biblical conception of Israel as a distinct people. Hence empires and other transnational constructs (like Austria-Hungary or the contemporary European Union) can be liberal but they can't be truly democratic because they have no sovereign people. Anyhow, I buy this idea, so I was interested in reading a book that delved more deeply into the biblical roots of modern liberal democracy. Elazar's book was a disappointment because its argument could have been pithily expressed in a short article; because it doesn't adequately distinguish the "covenantal" tradition that he identifies from the other streams that water our democracy (the Greco-Roman and the Germanic streams, which are rather as important if you asked me); and because of a generally boosterish tone that I don't approve of in a work of scholarship. I got the feeling, reading the book, that Elazar was in the process of building an ideology rather than making a disinterested argument, and that made the book less appealing. If I can make an analogy, I found it unconvincing in much the same way that I find arguments about the Roman Catholic origins of moden democracy unconvincing. In both cases, there is some truth to the argument, but there is a lot of truth left out of the argument, and that missing truth is left out because the writer is *committed* in the old leftist sense, which I don't, ultimately, approve of.
Ozick was disappointing for simpler reasons: I thought the book was boring. The most celebrated episode in Puttermesser's life is when she creates a golem (an early-modern Jewish version of Frankenstein's monster) to help her out with her personal and professional life. For no reason I can ascertain, the golem is created without her (it's a girl golem) creator's conscious awareness of what she is doing, and once created she fulfills a not-very-surprising-or-interesting fantasy (she cleans up New York by making everyone civilized) and then destroys everything she created by becoming sexually voracious. Whatever this whole sequence meant to Ozick, it didn't mean much to me. Finally, the worst sin of the book: an utter and total lack of a sense of humor. That's a failing in any writer; it's a mortal sin in a Jewish one.