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A meditation on keeping enemies alive through negation
We’re in the second half of Hanukkah now, but the letter above put me in mind of Purim, and specifically of that holiday’s connection with the anathema imposed on Amalek.
For those unfamiliar with the name: Amalek is the name of a desert tribe described in the Pentateuch as attacking the Israelites from the rear. On the Sabbath morning before Purim, the traditional reading includes a section in which the Israelites are commanded never to forget what Amalek did to them, and to blot out their name forever. The section is read on Purim because Haman, the villain in the Purim story, is a descendant of Agag, the king of the Amalekites, who was (briefly) spared by King Saul, in defiance of the command to wipe out the Amalekite nation entirely.
In any event: the command is a funny one: to remember to blot out memory. It’s a bit like the instruction to not think of an elephant, isn’t it? And, in fact, according to the rabbis the command to physically wipe out Amalek is obsolete, because since the Babylonian captivity and the intermingling of peoples, there is no distinct nation of Amalek to be wiped out (a neat way of escaping a horrifying command to commit genocide). The command to blot out their memory remains in force, though—but at this point the only people who actually remember Amalek are those who are reading the book that contains that commandment. In other words: Amalek’s memory is being kept alive only by those attentive to the commandment to cause them to be forgotten.
This is not a new irony. There’s a Hindu story I love about an atheist who, to fortify his conviction, repeated as a mantra, every day and all day long: there is no God. Thus he persisted until he died—and was immediately united with Brahman. Why? because, by his mantra of negation, the atheist had kept God constantly in mind.
How did this dynamic play out with respect to Spinoza? R. Serfaty, in his letter, is being faithful to the 17th century decree excommunication levied against Baruch Spinoza for heresy. So far as I can tell, that decree did nothing to blot out the memory of Spinoza’s writings or reduce their appeal to those who chose to read them. The very fact that Yitzhak Melamed, an observant Jewish scholar, has, as the letter says, devoted his life to Spinoza’s thought is a testament to the inefficacy of the ban. Indeed, since one of the first things one learns about Spinoza is that he was excommunicated, that fact is now part of his fame. Rather, what the excommunication did was draw a line around the community and declare that inside this line, Spinoza and his works may not be read. It defined the community, in other words, as anti-Spinozist. But thereby, it made the figure of Spinoza, his actions and his thought, integral to the definition of the community, albeit by negation, because you can’t define yourself against something without some notion (however limited or distorted) of what that something is. They not only didn’t wipe Spinoza out; they didn’t even really keep him out, because they must always remember to forget him.
I also think this paradox has relevance to how we think about Hanukkah and its attendant ironies. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Jerusalem temple after the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire. That revolt began as a civil war between the dominant faction of Hellenistic Jews and the more traditionalist Maccabees who opposed the dominant faction’s adaptations to the Hellenistic worldview and cultural practices. The Seleucids intervened to pacify the restive province, and defiled the temple by performing sacrifices to Zeus, which turned the Maccabees’ revolt into a struggle for national liberation. When they won, they rededicated the temple, and (miraculously) the oil used to relight the eternal flame, which was only enough for one day, lasted for eight days—long enough for more oil to be processed so that the light did not to go out again. (The miracle is likely a rabbinic addition to the story—again, a neat way of escaping from an undesirable outcome, in this case what would otherwise be a story centered on nationalism and military exploits rather than on God.)
But what did the Maccabees achieve by their revolt? Did they wipe out Hellenistic Judaism? No. It continued to thrive, with a major center in Alexandria and representation all over the Hellenistic world. They cleansed and rededicated the Jerusalem temple, but Greek thought continued to circulate, leaving its mark on nascent rabbinic Judaism and, much more obviously, on Christianity, which went on to become one of the most powerful religious cultures in the history of the world (and exert its own influence—directly and by negation—on medieval and modern Judaism). What they did was define themselves as anti-Hellenistic. That now became a coherent dispensation, a way of thinking and relating to the world around them, which did not die off, but which kept a distorted form of Hellenism alive inside of it by negation.
(Meanwhile, in a contemporary ironic twist, Hanukkah—the emblem of Jewish distinctiveness and rejection of foreign influence—has become the holiday that most directly integrates us into the American melting pot, blurring into Thanksgiving and Christmas as part of a “holiday season.” Moreover, it has been transformed from a story about triumphant fundamentalism to a story about religious freedom, something the Maccabees would have found intolerable. Just when you thought Hellenism was out, Liberalism pulls you back in.)
It’s easy to identify modern instances of the same paradox in action. Antisemitism has killed millions of living Jews, but it has kept a notion—false and distorted, but a notion and a name nonetheless—of Jewishness alive in the hearts of its adherents, even in countries that have virtually no living Jews. Anticommunism famously led some of its fiercest adherents, like the John Birchers, to imitate their notion of what communism was: a shadowy, conspiratorial force that corrupted republican government.
And then there’s the contemporary movement for antiracism.
Racism has been a profoundly pernicious force in human history, and in American history specifically. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking at race-based slavery as America’s original sin, and the “race-based” part of that phrase is essential. I’m not making any moral comparison between antiracist activists and antisemites. I’m not even comparing them to anticommunists, even though I hold the communist movement responsible for tens of millions of deaths, and for the near-obliteration of entire cultures. I’m certainly not comparing them to anti-Hellenists. I’m merely saying two things.
First, the belief that you can, by excommunication, vanquish an idea is an illusion. We are drawn to ideas because of their utility, including their practical but also their emotional utility. That’s why evil ideas can persist even in the hearts of people who by cleaving to them come to suffer in material ways. At most, what you can achieve by excommunication is to draw a line: inside here that idea, that person, that book is not welcome. Outside, for all you know, they may achieve only greater currency thanks to your anathematization—it all depends on how useful they prove to be. Meanwhile, by drawing a line, you have—inherently—made division of the world. That may sometimes be necessary, but I think it’s a consequence that should give serious pause to any movement that considers itself progressive.
But my second point is the more important one. Defining oneself, one’s disposition, in terms of an opposition, a negation, is inherently to keep that thing being negated alive inside oneself. You might keep it alive by turning it into a bogeyman, one that grows ever more powerful in your heart the harder you fight it. Or you might keep it alive by imitation, trying to access the enemy’s chthonic power, and thereby becoming the very thing you are fighting against. You might even do both at once. But one way or another, by consciously trying to blot it out, you have kept it alive. I think that insight applies to antiracism just as much as it applies to any of the other “antis” here.
I’m not making a brief for “non-racism,” whether defined as colorblindness or neutral rules or whatever. In fact, I’m not making a brief for any particular way of being in a world of racial and cultural diversity, and a history of race-based oppression. What I am saying is: define yourself, your disposition and your movement, positively. If you have a vision of how people in a racially diverse society should live together, live that vision, name that vision as itself, and not as a negation of something else. Don’t define yourself by your enemies. That way, at a minimum, you’ll know who you are without reference to them, and thereby not keep them alive inside of you. And in the best case, you’ll do something much more: you’ll be living something that could not only defeat those who you oppose, but attract them over.
As R. Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam of Klausenberg said: When you come to a place of darkness, you don't chase out the darkness with a broom. You light a candle.