Posts Tagged ‘Judaism


Erich Fromm on the Shabbat & Messianic Time

From Fromm’s ‘To Have or To Be?’ (1976):

‘The Shabbat is the most important of the biblical concepts, and of later Judaism. It is the only strictly religious command in the Ten Commandments: its fulfilment is insisted upon by the otherwise antiritualistic prophets; it was a most strictly observed commandment throughout 2,000 years of Diaspora life, wherein its observation often was hard and difficult. It can hardly be doubted that the Shabbat was the fountain of life for the Jews, who, scattered, powerless, and often despised and persecuted, renewed their pride and dignity when like kings they celebrated the Shabbat. Is the Shabbat nothing but a day of rest in the mundane sense of freeing people, at least on one day, from the burden of work? To be sure it is that, and this function gives it the dignity of one of the great innovations in human evolution.

Yet if this were all that it was, the Shabbat would hardly have played the central role I have just described. In order to understand this role we must penetrate to the core of the Shabbat institution. It is not rest per se, in the sense of not making an effort, physically or mentally. It is rest in the sense of the re-establishment of complete harmony between human beings and between them and nature. Nothing must be destroyed and nothing be built: the Shabbat is a day of truce in the human battle with the world. Even tearing up a blade of grass is looked upon as a breach of this harmony, as is lighting a match… On the Shabbat one lives as if one has nothing, pursuing no aim except being, that is, expressing one’s essential powers: praying, studying, eating, drinking, singing, making love. The Shabbat is a day of joy because on that day one is fully oneself.

This is the reason the Talmud calls a Shabbat the anticipation of the Messianic Time, and the Messianic Time the unending Shabbat : the day on which property and money as well as mourning and sadness are tabu; a day on which time is defeated and pure being rules. The historical predecessor, the Babylonian Shapatu, was a day of sadness and fear. The modern Sunday is a day of fun, consumption, and running away from oneself. One might ask if it is not time to re-establish the Shabbat as  a universal day of harmony and peace, as the human day that anticipates the human future.

The vision of the Messianic Time is the other specifically Jewish contribution to world culture, and one essentially identical with that of the Shabbat. This vision, like the Shabbat, was the life-sustaining hope of the Jews, never given up in spite of the severe disappointments that came with the false messiahs, from Bar Kochba in the second century to our days. Like the Shabbat it was a vision of a historical period in which possession will have become meaningless, fear and war will have ended, and the expression of our essential powers will have become the aim of living’.


Marx and Spirit

‘Spiritual matters are not disembodied, otherworldly affairs. It is the prosperous bourgeois who tends to see spiritual questions as a realm loftily remote from everyday life, since he needs a hiding place from his own crass materialism. It comes as no surprise that material girls like Madonna should be so fascinated by Kabbala. For Marx, by contrast, ‘‘spirit’’ is a question of art, friendship, fun, compassion, laughter, sexual love, rebellion, creativity, sensuous delight, righteous anger and abundance of life… Happiness for Marx, as for Aristotle, was a practical activity, not a state of mind. For the Judaic tradition of which he was an unbelieving offspring, the ‘‘spiritual’’ is a question of feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrants and protecting the poor from the violence of the rich. It is not the opposite of mundane, everyday existence. It is a particular way of living it’.

‘He was, of course, an atheist; but one does not need to be religious to be spiritual, and some of the great themes of Judaism — justice, emancipation, the reign of peace and plenty, the day of reckoning, history as a narrative of liberation, the redemption not just of the individual but of a whole dispossessed people— inform his work in suitably secularised form. He also inherited the Jewish hostility to idols, fetishes and enslaving illusions.

As far as religion goes, it is worth pointing out that there have been Jewish Marxists, Islamic Marxists, and Christian Marxists who champion so-called liberation theology. All of them are materialists in Marx’s sense of the word. In fact, Eleanor Marx, Marx’s daughter, reports that Marx once told her mother that if she wanted ‘‘satisfaction of her metaphysical needs’’ she should find them in the Jewish prophets rather than in the Secular Society she sometimes attended. Marxist materialism is not a set of statements about the cosmos, such as ‘‘Everything is made out of atoms’’ or ‘‘There is no God.’’ It is a theory of how historical animals function’

‘The spiritual is indeed about the otherworldly. But it is not the otherworldly as the parsons conceive of it. It is the other world which socialists hope to build in the future, in place of one which is clearly past its sell-by date. Anyone who isn’t otherworldly in this sense has obviously not taken a good hard look around them.’

(Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, Yale University Press, 2011)


Zizek – relating to our neighbours

‘The Jewish commandment which prohibits images of God is the obverse of the statement that relating to one’s neighbour is the only terrain of religious practice, of where the divine dimension is present in our lives – the prohibtion ‘no images of God’ does not point towards a Gnostic experience of the divine beyond our reality, a divine which is beyond any image; on the contrary, it designates a kind of ethical hic Rhodus, hic salta: you want to be religious? OK, prove it,  here, in ‘works of love’, in the way you relate to your neighbours’ (Slavoj Zizek, Iraq: the borrowed kettle, Verso, 2005).

Zizek is only partly right here – the Kabbalist notion of ‘Ein-sof’ refers precisely to the ‘divine beyond our reality, a divine which is beyond any image’. But it is also true that even the most esoteric of Jewish mystics have generally been concerned with the life of the community rather than with  mere self-development.

That is partly the explanation for the somewhat perplexing link between some currents of Jewish mysticism and ultra-orthodox interpretations of the Law.  How people behave with their friends and neighbours – down to the minutest details of dietary regulations –  is seen as being critical to the possibility of redemption, and the advent of the Messiah.

From my perspective, the subordination of 21st century human relations to the regulations of ancient times is not only alienating but reinforces ancient prejudices and oppressions. But at the same time there is, as Zizek observes, an acknowledgement that ‘relating to one’s neighbour’ is the key ‘terrain of religious practice’ (if not the only one), and therefore an ethic of caring for others and the value of human species life.

This is something that is lost in much ‘new age’ mysticism, where the focus is often much more of the search for individual self-enlightenment than on the needs of others, let alone on how we can collectively create the conditions where basic human needs for food, clean water, shelter, health care etc. are met for all.