Review of Ze’ev Maghen’s “John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage” (Bottom Books 2011)

Lennon Eyeglasses
Reviewed by Andrew Pessin, Professor of Philosophy, Connecticut College:

John Lennon and the Jews (JL&J;) is an extremely original and significant book. It should be read by every Jew, no matter where he or she stands on the long spectrum between strict religious observance and determined rejection of the same. Maghen — an American-born Israeli scholar of Islamic law but also something of a Talmid chacham and general know-everything-but-not-in-an-arrogant-way sort of guy — has literally invented a new genre of writing, aptly self-titled the “philosophical rampage,” which might best be described as the literary equivalent of three parts strong coffee, two parts Red Bull, and one part nuclear fusion. You pick this thing up and it practically supernovas right in your hand. And if you can hold on you are in for a heck of a ride, whoever you are.
In its very high-energy and entertaining way that is philosophically informed throughout, JL&J; basically addresses the question of why, if you’re Jewish, you should be Jewish, i.e. make your Jewishness a flourishing part of your identity – despite the fact that stressing your affiliation with an ancient tribe seems, in this 21st century, to be not merely outdated and inconvenient but even downright irrational. Why be Jewish, after all, when there are so many other wonderful things you can be: modern, progressive, scientific, secular, multicultural, an American, a European (etc.), a Citizen of the World, or maybe just an individual devoid of all labels, period? But Maghen is rightly aware that this sort of question cannot be addressed properly without quickly ranging deeply into issues of very general philosophical interest and urgency.

Opening scene: at LAX, Maghen is approached by three Hare Krishnas selling their wares. Except that these Hare Krishnas are selling with an accent which, to his dismay, he instantly recognizes. Sure enough, Shira, Ofer, and Doron are in fact natives of Maghen’s own adopted country. “But why,” he asks them, “are you here, promoting that book, when you should be, well, home, studying your book?!”
“But we’re not choosing one book over another,” Shira objects, “or one religion or culture or ethnic group. That would create hierarchical relationships between people, erect false barriers, barriers that have been responsible for so much misery and bloodshed. To the contrary all human beings are part of a single great unity…” Thus we are presented, in a nutshell, with “universalism”: the idea that (ceteris paribus) we should think of and treat all human beings the same way, that no human beings are more deserving of our love and respect and consideration than any other.
“And you, my friend,” continues Ofer, “have an antiquated attitude. The Torah and its laws are no longer relevant today – all that hocus-pocus, archaic stories and ridiculous rules and rituals, there’s just no rhyme or reason to any of it!” This in an even smaller nutshell is “rationalism,” here best construed as the main obstacle to an intelligent, reasonable person’s choosing to make his Jewishness front and center. For Jewish beliefs and practices and rituals – and commitment to the tribe long held together by means of them – are collectively, in a word, irrational.
And finally Doron chimes in, “Get with the program! The distances between societies are diminishing, the borders evaporating. The world is moving forward, toward oneness, toward mutual tolerance and understanding, and away from the petty differences that have forever pitted us against each other. Your commitment to a tribe amounts to anachronistic self-isolation and limitation!” And thus we are presented with the problem of “inertia”: meaning, here, that it takes so much damn energy to resist the growing tides of universalism and rationalism that it’s just easiest to go with the flow and give up on the whole being Jewish thing.
Thus presented, universalism, rationalism, and inertia signify the three key challenges confronting any modern thinking person considering whether or not to be Jewish.
JL&J; is Maghen’s answer to Shira, Ofer, and Doron.
You’ll be wanting to know what John Lennon has to do with anything. And also, no doubt, the gist of Maghen’s responses to his compatriot ex-patriots.
John Lennon’s classic song Imagine pretty much states the universalist ideal explicitly: imagine no countries, no religion, nothing to live or die for, all the people living for today. Maghen most definitely (and politically incorrectly) comes to bury this ideal. Universalism is not something we do or even should desire, he argues, but rather its contrary, the ideal of “preferential love”: human beings live for love, and love by its nature means preference, which means preferring some people to other people, and all that is very very good. For if you love everybody equally then you truly love nobody: if you love your partner as much as some random person on the street then you’ll soon be without a partner. And when people love preferentially, they will, naturally, break into groups defined by overlapping networks of preferential love: family groups, clans, nations.
“But wait!” you object, and Maghen with you, in excellent Talmudic fashion: “you’re just promoting multiculturalism here, for that’s what you’ll get when different groups divide themselves in this way: lots of different societies and cultures.” Exactly, Maghen observes, but then adds: “There’s only one thing that [most] young, fiery, and so very often Jewish advocates of the modern multicultural approach almost always seem to forget: that one of the foremost examples of a coherent, distinctive culture is their own” (47). Universalism, in other words, often (and perhaps ironically) manifests itself as multiculturalism: respecting all people equally means promoting all those cultures equally. But then, Maghen responds (perhaps even more ironically), you can’t meaningfully promote the existence of a diversity of cultures without more fundamentally supporting those non-multiculturalist individuals who devote themselves primarily or exclusively to developing their own cultures. Practically speaking, the ideal of universalism, it turns out, presupposes the ideal of preferential love!
But wait! you further object. When people commit themselves to the preferential love of their clans, bad things happen: hierarchies, aggressions, conflicts. To avoid these don’t we all need to learn to love others as much as ourselves, as the universalist suggests?
Not quite, Maghen responds, invoking a famous Talmudic anecdote. The great Rabbi Akiva stated both that his favorite Biblical verse was “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus, 19:18) and that in certain situations you ought to value your own life more highly than another’s. But doesn’t doing the latter contradict the universalist ideal of the former? No, because Rabbi Akiva understands the verse qualitatively rather than quantitatively: love your neighbor not in the same amount as you love yourself but in the same manner. The fundamental preferential love we feel towards ourselves and ours, in other words, is the source of any and all the feelings we are capable of generating towards the “other”; it is only by recognizing that what they feel for theirs is on a par with what we feel for ours that we can come to have genuine (if naturally lesser) feelings for them. There is no expectation or obligation that we should project our love in equal amounts towards others; that is not merely impossible for us but also ultimately ill-advised, as it leads to efforts to create uniform, totalitarian, utopian societies most notable for their propensity to murder lots of people along their way to universalism. Rather it is when we learn merely to see others as like ourselves – with their own unequal, preferential loves — that we get all the things we truly do value most deeply: profound connections to our own families near and extended, profound appreciation and respect for other societies and cultures, and the best chance, in the long run, for peaceful coexistence.
So much for Shira’s challenge; on to Ofer’s.
If you know anything about Jewish belief and practices then you know one thing: the whole thing is just crazy. God – if He does exist – could not possibly care precisely what you do on which days, just which animals and insects you can and cannot eat, whether you shave or grow sideburns, and so on. And anyway God almost certainly does not exist, at least in the eyes of any modern rational person: all that hocus-pocus, those contradiction-ridden scriptures filled with folk tales and miracles, and especially all that allowing of horrible evils against innocent men, women, and most of all children. The last thing a non-meshugah person should or would want to do is to hitch her wagon to that convoy.
What you expect is for Maghen to engage in some apologetics here. Perhaps join the long history of smart thinkers who have searched for rationales for the various divine commandments. Or at least play the “well-God-in-His-infinite-wisdom-understands-things-we-can’t” card, which, frustrating as it is, is, in my view anyway, still legitimate. But instead Maghen does something surprising.
He agrees with Ofer.
In fact he actually strengthens Ofer’s attack. He takes you on a very amusing tour of the absolutely insane idiosyncracies of the laws governing the observance of Passover, as but a sample of what Jewish law offers in general. Perhaps the most rational thing you can find in the whole Jewish package, it seems, is the famous Talmudic passage strongly advising non-Jews against considering conversion!
And yet here Maghen is, he admits – convinced by his own passionate case for the irrationality of his commitment to his tribe, yet passionately committed to his own irrational tribe.
But perhaps, he suggests, making sense is not the most important thing.
For perhaps rationalism – a commitment to reason, to rationality, to intelligibility, as our very highest value – is not all it’s cracked up to be.
In the longest and most directly philosophical section of the book, Maghen argues that reason may not deserve our highest admiration after all – for it leads us to unsatisfactory destinations in three important domains: the self, the world, and the good. He argues, first, that it leads us to conceiving of ourselves merely as collections of mindless particles obeying deterministic physical laws. He argues, second, that it leads us to conceiving of the cosmos as a whole in pretty much the same way. And through some very philosophically provocative reflection he argues, third, that it either leads to a Protagorean moral relativism or a Platonic moral absolutism, both of which are awful: the former for precluding us from justifiably condemning all sorts of moral atrocities and the latter for committing us to arrogantly believing that we ourselves are the exclusive possessors of moral truth. What all of these destinations share is not that they are false — they may well be true – but that they are bad: they are not meaning-inducing, they are not things we are genuinely capable of believing and living by, they are not ways a healthy and flourishing human being can live in and conceive of the world.
So what’s the alternative?
Well, we can feel our freedom – or rather, outside of a few very brainy philosophers almost no one is really capable of living with the genuine belief that she or he is nothing more than a swirl of mindless particles. And we can experience the world on levels other than that of those particles, just as we can recognize that while the old TV screen we are watching is just a bunch of little intermittently illuminated dots in rows it may simultaneously constitute our favorite Seinfeld characters up to their usual antics. And we can indeed intervene against moral atrocities, not arrogantly in the name of the one absolute truth but just because this is what a decent human being does when confronted with what she feels to be atrocious.
Again, it’s not that reason’s conclusions are “false”; it’s that they simply don’t fare well against what makes for meaningful and valuable human experience. What does make for meaningful experience of course is the most fundamental human feeling of them all, that of preferential love – such as the love a free human being feels for his tribe. Commitment to your tribe may not make a whole lot of sense, then – but then so much the worse for making sense. In fact nothing that is truly valuable to us really does make sense.
This just leaves Doron’s challenge. It admittedly takes a lot of energy to keep up the good fight, to commit yourself to something not only anachronistic and irrational but which also comes along with, you know, inquisitions and pogroms and holocausts. Maghen is brief here because, after all, what can you say? This inertia is not something that can be refuted by argument. Instead it can only be countered by strong, moving writing, and that, in the end, is what JL&J; is – one long, high energy, very enthusiastic, moving piece of writing.
Now what can you say to all this?
The first question is whether you are supposed to say anything. Though JL&J; is philosophically provocative it isn’t exactly a straightforward work of “philosophy” in the sense that professional philosophers might require; indeed my attempt to summarize above almost by nature distorts it, in much the same way perhaps as “The Tao which can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” Despite its philosophically rich content this book isn’t a philosophical treatise: it’s a rampage – a wide-ranging mix of insight and anecdote as well as arguments and more. And it’s not at all obvious that one should respond to a philosophical rampage with a philosophical critique.
I mean, I could.
The professional philosopher in me definitely got riled up at times, for example at Maghen’s occasionally too-loose use of philosophers’ words like “rationalism” and “self” and even “good.” Similarly we professionals get very territorial when people mention thinkers such as David Hume, whose influential view that reason is ultimately incapable of motivating us is explicitly in play throughout Maghen’s long response to rationalism; and while Maghen actually employs Hume’s arguments more than competently, he does so without quite the subtlety and qualification that academic philosophers earn the big bucks for: for surely more could be said about what constitute reason and rationality, and distinctions could be made between levels and senses of rationality, and so on. Nor was the philosopher in me very satisfied by Maghen’s quick journey from “rationalism” to determinism, by his overly simplified contrast between Protagoras and Plato, and his incautiously cavalier conclusion that one can escape the Scylla-Charybdis between those two by invoking one’s feelings. The philosophical nitpicker in me also wanted to point out Maghen’s commitment to rationality even in what amounts to his argument against the elevated status of rationality, and so on.
But again, it’s not at all clear to me that this would be the appropriate response to the book, especially when part of Maghen’s overall very deep and intriguing point is that I ought to diminish the privileged status I afford to that nitpicking philosopher himself. There are certain merits to striving to be a brainy philosophy type, perhaps; but living a life rich in meaning and value may not, actually, be amongst them.
I’m reminded, rather, of the way some scholars suggest we engage with works such as those of the impressively obscure early Neoplatonists: read them not as literal assertions of propositions arranged in some logically ordered way but instead as more like poems, which move you not (merely) logically but also by various other rhetorical means to begin to see things in new and deeper ways. What Maghen has offered us, in the end, is something perhaps more resembling such a philosophically infused poem rather than a philosophical treatise, despite the fact that many of its sentences look quite like ordinary philosophical sentences. Providing a rigorous philosophical critique of it would be comparable to sending back a love poem that some admirer has sent you, marked up with your edits. If that poem moves you, then fantastic; but if it doesn’t, then please don’t be so gauche as to red-pen it.
And that’s just what JL&J; is: a love poem, to one’s family, to one’s clan, along with some extremely wonderful writing about how feeling that love allows you to connect with your people both horizontally, across this planet, and vertically across all past and future time, and in so doing glimpse something like what a life rich in meaning should look like. This poem also manages to be very funny and entertaining while it explores its serious and substantive issues, and may well be the absolutely perfect mix of argument and anecdote, of levity and profundity, of reason and passion. Thus no matter where you stand on the aforementioned Jewish spectrum going in you will almost definitely come out of this book more energized and engaged with your Jewishness.
So read JL&J; for the humor, the writing, the stories, and the insights, and for its philosophy; read it for the entirely new genre of writing; but definitely, definitely read it.
  1. Sam Lebens

    What a wonderful and exciting review. Thanks for this.

  2. Ken Ehrenberg

    Amazon shows two different paperback editions. Do you know if there is any difference between them?

  3. Anonymous

    Yes – This one is the one to get. There is no difference in the text but this version has a fine looking cover – and the previous one doesn't. That's all.

  4. andrew pessin

    yes i got the one labeled 'second edition' with the funky cover – a photo of john lennon dressed very much as a rabbi ! that's the one to go with …
    Andrew Pessin

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