In Defense of a Particularistic, Irrational Judaism: Review of “John Lennon and the Jews”: A Philosophical Rampage by Ze’ev Maghen

The reader should not be confused by the book title. This is not about Lennon’s relationship with the Beatles’ Jewish manager Brian Epstein or really anything else about Lennon other than a few lyrics from a song of his that Maghen strongly disagrees with. What this recently re-published book is, is an easy to read, cleverly written, quite humorous, deeply intellectual exploration of why many of the young generation have forsaken their ancient religion and homeland and why they should rethink their decision.

One such popular reason is that on first glance the world is tearing itself apart due to sectarianism and Jews are as guilty as other groups. Judaism seems to be a religion in which the members or adherents give precedent to other members over non-members. Zionism too appears to have a similar tendency. This is clearly stated in the culmination of the Zionist movement, the declaration of Independence, in which it is stated: “Accordingly we, …. Hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state …. will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles.” This is enshrined in the Law of Return which gives preference to Jews and their families. Such favoritism rubs many liberal minded people the wrong way, yet this particularism is an undeniable component of Judaism and Zionism.

A different attitude, and a more appealing one to many of today’s young Jews, is contained within John Lenon’s song “Imagine”. In it he sings:

Imagine there’s no countries; It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace, you….

This 1971 best-selling hit song envisions a world in which there are no distinct religions or nationalities, that this would lead to world peace, and as the lyrics end with, “And the world will be as one.”

Interestingly, the world has witnessed these two seemingly opposite trends of universalism and particularism in the latter half of the 20th century. On the one hand, countries were splintering and creating new, smaller countries (think Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Sudan, and The USSR). This desire towards smaller groups of similar people in which all feel a certain kinship has led to the slicing up of these previously unnatural larger countries. The most recent example of this phenomenon is the UK BREXIT vote. On the other hand, Lennon would have been pleased to see that border posts are coming down and traveling across borders in most of western Europe has become like crossing state lines in the US. Coupled with the fading of religion, Europe would seem to be heading towards Lennon’s dream.

Is that Judaism’s dream as well? Is universalism good and is it realistic? Those are the questions that Ze’ev Maghen takes on in his cleverly written, user friendly, philosophical, convincing book “John Lennon and the Jews”.

Decades before Maghen, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook (d. 1935) wrote (Olat Re’iyah, vol 1, page 234) that a nationalistic feeling is a positive feeling. However, he explained, if it is not directed towards a higher goal, it will eventually break the boundaries of morality as it seeks to take that which is not its, without justice or any greater cause. In his prescience, Rabbi Kook was describing the unimaginable horror that misguided particularism, such as the nationalism of the Third Reich, could wreck. But a bad example does not negate the possibility of positive, properly guided particularism that Kook describes as positive.

Maghen, a professor of Arabic literature and Islamic History at Bar-Ilan University, continually returns to the image of a large family. Much as favored status for one’s family does not in any way imply a disdain for others, but rather a deeper attachment to those closer, so too on a larger scale, nationalism does not (necessarily) lead to xenophobia, and Judaism does not imply selfishness. Maghen, without quoting Kook, essentially expressed the same idea. Judaism and Zionism when properly implemented are particularistic systems that serve to bring people together in such a way that the conglomerate is greater than the sum of its parts.

This message can be found very early on in the Torah in the message of the tragic tower of Babel. All seemed to be going great for humanity. Exactly as Lennon would have liked – “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech” (Genesis 11:1). And it seems that the unity was being used for a good purpose, technological advancement. But clearly there was something about the situation that God did not approve of. There was one mass of humanity with no subdivisions, no individualism. This does not bode well for the individual person nor for humanity and hence God forced them to divide into smaller units.

Maghen tackles another common argument proffered by those looking to distance themselves from Judaism, and that is that Judaism has some legal details that can seem to be highly illogical, archaic laws. Before explaining why despite that, one should give a second (and third and fourth) look at what our ancient tradition has to offer, Maghen wants to make absolutely certain that you agree with him that there are aspects that look irrational. While that may be necessary,, in my opinion he spends too much time in this regard. Herein lies my principal criticism of the book. At times Maghen can go on for pages on end attempting to show just how absurd the minutiae of some particular law are. He does this to an extreme regarding the laws of matzah baking, such that by the end you are an expert in those laws and prepared to open your own handmade matzah factory. Of course, his intention is to then flip the argument on its head and show that despite all that, let me show you why you should stick with us. And he does a great job at that.

The important messages in this book could have been presented in a smaller volume, but then the reader would not have been able to enjoy Maghen’s unique style of humor for all 300+ pages. This book, originally self-published and recently reissued by Toby Press, is both enjoyable to read and offers arguments that should be heard and discussed by all thinking Jews.img_20161225_233827



About the Author
Ari Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar Ilan University. Also trained as a rabbi and shochet, he has a masters degree in Jewish history. He has written extensively on topics of Jewish history, culture, and traditions, in particular in his regular column (now running 20 years) in the OU magazine Jewish Action and in Mishpacha magazine.
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