Thursday, September 1, 2016

Loser! Reay

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Does success validate a philosophy,faith, or way of life?

Does failure discredit it?

If the answer to both questions is yes, what kind of success qualifies as proof?

If the measure of success is prosperity and power, then my answer to the first set of questions is no!

The opening verse of the Torah reading this week invites us to look at the choice before us between the blessing and the curse (1). The blessing will be granted to us only if we are good. I have a vague memory from the time when I still lived in the US, of reading an article in the Christian Science Monitor that essentially argued that Australia, the UK and the US were prosperous because they were virtuous and pleasing to God.

This approach is also reflected in discussions of the warning against worshipping the idols of the defeated Canaanites. This warning is puzzling to one of the great commentators (Alshich), who thinks it ridiculous that any Israelite could be drawn to the gods of a defeated people. The resolution of this perplexing scenario is that the people might be drawn to the idea that the falsity of the gods was not the reason for the defeat of the Canaanites, but rather the failure to worship them correctly(2). There are echoes here of the madness of (essentially) doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Absent from the discussion is any doubt about the validity of success as the measure of value or authenticity.

The difficulty with this kind of approach was clear to Jewish thinkers trying to defend Judaism at a time when the Jews were persecuted and downtrodden. In the narrative of the Kuzari, the Jewish scholar tells the king. "You condemn us on account of poverty and misfortune. But surely the great men of these nations prided themselves on just these things. For do not the Christians glorify in him who said: He who smites thy right cheek let him smite the left one? He and his disciples achieved wonderful things after hundreds of years of suffering and scorn and this is their glory. The same applied to Mohamed and his disciples. It is of these individuals that they boast and on which they pride themselves and not on haughty kings of mighty empires and wonderful chariots" (3).

In the reading this week we are also taught to ignore a "prophet" even if s/he succeeds in pulling off a miracle, if the message they are sending is wrong. Not every winner is worthy of our respect, in fact some winners rightly attract the contempt of their communities. Not every loser is evil or wrong. Let us not flatter flawed successful men lest we reinforce their hubris. Let us not denigrate decent and sincere people on "struggle street" - they deserve our respect.  Perhaps the "losers" are actually winners, if we change our scoring to celebrate the virtues of integrity, altruism and love.

1) Deuteronomy 11:26
2) Alshich on Deuteronomy 12:30-31
3) Rabbi Judah Halevi in Kuzari cited in Nechama Leibowitz, New Studies in the Torah Devarim, p.133

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