Monday, February 3, 2014

Medieval PSA: Chosen People 2.0

I hope it's obvious that I don't actually believe what I wrote below that medievalists should disengage. It was a depressing sentence to write in the same week that I had my undergraduates read "Writing Without Footnotes," talked with them about why medievalists should read Salman Rushdie, and asked them what they thought their responsibilities were to the wider world.

That discussion, long-planned as part of the introduction to my seminar this semester, happened to come on the heels of a post I wrote about the modern world going — well, not quite viral, but certainly getting far more page views than anything I'd ever written. In a way it was a little disappointing since I didn't think it was a hugely interesting post at all. (In fact, I'd still recommend this post and this one if you'd like to read something more interesting on the relationship between the medieval and modern worlds.) But it also gave me the idea to write a series of short posts, maybe weekly or bi-weekly, that contextualized modern phenomena in their roots in the Middle Ages or, Ecclesiastes/Pete Seeger-style, as things that have happened before and will happen again. Public service announcements from the Middle Ages. Even if this isn't a hugely visible forum, it's part of my responsibility as a medievalist to engage with the wider world.

The first version of the first of the regular medieval PSAs was up for all of about ninety seconds before someone on Twitter called it a troll-post. My response, taking it down, was as much about the comment and about not having the stamina or desire for Twitter fireworks  as it was about the comment hitting a raw nerve. Obviously, I don't think the post was trollish, but at the same time, it wasn't tightly written and it was a little overambitious and fell short because, frankly, as much as I want to write about things that are relevant to more than the six people I talk to on a regular basis, my first priority still has to be finishing my book manuscript. I took the full ninety seconds it is permissible to spend freaking out about being criticized meanly in print and freaked out; and then I got on with my evening.

But I decided that I wanted to try it again. I've tightened and shortened the post. I've cut down on the flippancy. I've reduced the scope. It's still a public service announcement. Academics aren't really the intended audience, though I hope some will find some value in it. Academics of the sort who don't think that medievalists should read or teach or write about Rushdie will get nothing out of this and will spare themselves and me a lot of grief if they just stop reading here. In trying something new there are always bound to be missteps. I hope you'll bear with me as I find my footing with this. And besides, next week I'm going to write about comic books. I think it'll be okay in the end.


Amy Chua, she of Tiger Mom fame, and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, Yale professors both, are about to release a book about what they characterize as the disproportionate success in America of eight "cultural groups": their own groups, Chinese Americans and Jews, naturally, as well as Cuban exiles, Nigerians, Lebanese-, Indian-, and Iranian-Americans, and Mormons. Their PR machine is kicking into high gear in advance of the release, and managed to land them both space on the New York Times op-ed page and a profile in the paper's magazine yesterday.

The profile makes Amy Chua come across as a hugely unreliable narrator. A serial courter of controversy, she tells her interlocutor: “I don’t want to be controversial. I just want to be liked.” Yet at the same time, she comes across especially unaware later in the piece when she marvels that people just didn't realize that she is a completely unreliable narrator. She seems blind to the exact nature of her own unreliability while marshaling it to deflect criticism.

The run of the journal Eugenics Quarterly on the shelves in Bobst.
Photo not my own. Borrowed from the Facebook page of a friend.

This unreliable narrator and her partner insist that her argument is not a racial one: "The good news is that it's not some magic gene generating these groups' disproportionate success. Instead their success is... open to anyone." The messiness of their categories says otherwise. In an especially telling moment, she contrasts the parenting techniques of Jews and Mormons favorably to those of white parents. The parameters of the meta-group of successful groups ignore the fact that a category like "Indians" is subject to very recent borders drawn in the collapse of the British Empire. Chua and Rubenfeld seem not to know that Lebanon, Iran, and India have historically had large Jewish populations. How are they defining race, religion and culture? A far sharper reader of medieval texts than I wrote that "if a master of the art of writing commits such blunders as would shame an intelligent high school boy, it is reasonable to assume that they are intentional" and that they invite the reader to seek an esoteric sense between the lines as they are written. Between these lines there is oversight and flattening out of distinctions and the undertones of 1920s racialist theory that necessarily permeate any discussion of why certain minority groups might be distinct from the group. In between the lines, this argument is almost obscenely biological.

A miniature from the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Passover liturgy from medieval Spain.
Stay tuned for next weeks' PSA, which will feature this image more prominently.

One passage in Chua and Rubenfeld's op-ed piece jumps out especially: "At their first Passover Seders, most Jewish children hear that Jews are the 'chosen' people; later they may be taught that Jews are a moral people, a people of law and intellect, a people of survivors." They're not the first ones to try to construct religion — or even more specifically, the idea of Jewish "chosenness" — as a racial category. A wide variety of medieval thinkers argued that the basis for religious identification was rooted in doctrinal correctness and the resulting correct behavior. And then there was Judah Halevi: talented poet, shrewd(ish) operator, and medieval Amy Chua.

Toward the end of his life, Judah Halevi wrote a text that is at least nominally a defense of the Jewish faith in the form of a series of dialogues that a mythical Khazar king plagued by the idea that his religious practice is insufficient conducts with a priest, an imam and a philosopher. After the king does not find any of their world views to be suitable or coherent, he deigns to invite a Jewish interlocutor to the discussion. He goes from assuming that the wretchedness of Jews in history was due to their lowly nature and insufficient faith to signing on wholesale and converting along with his subjects. Despite the major intervention of conversion to Judaism in this text, Halevi's concept of chosenness is inherently biological, passed down through blood lines. His vision of Judaism is explicitly historicizing, but that history is predicated upon a biological imperative.

Historians and political theorists from Josephus to Disraeli have written about a unitary "Hebrew race." Modern recourse to DNA sequencing muddies the waters without providing any clear way forward. The relationship between race and religion is complex even within specific cultural contexts. Andalusi Jews influenced by Greco-Arabic philosophy and writing about Judaism within the space of the same century (the long twelfth) did not agree on what constituted being Jewish and what the relationship was between race and religion. Chua and Rubenfeld predicate their argument upon a mistake that should embarrass a high school student without the promise of any esoteric revelation; but it's not a mistake without historical precedent.

This isn't very deep as far as conclusions go, but it seems that one of the take-aways is that  it's simply difficult to belief that a book that attempts to span a variety of cultures and cultural categories and subsume them, race, religion and all, into a single group of super-achievers is going to have very much to say that will be of use at all.


This has just been a quick public service announcement. There's a lot I would have liked to do in a longer piece, particularly taking up the challenge of teasing apart Halevi in the light of Strauss' critical methodology and offering a more detailed and sensitive reading of the Kuzari. Truly, I am aware of the shortcomings of this post and wish I could make it better, but unfortunately this isn't the space or the time of the semester for that kind of thought experiment or intellectual work. If you'd like to read more, start by contrasting the portrayals of Judah Halevi in two relatively recent biographies: here, and here.

1 comment:

  1. Holy moly your students are lucky to have you as a teacher. Please keep up the thoughtful, engaging medieval PSAs!