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Everyone a peninsula

A few thoughts for the week, based on an unexpected connection between a book review in today's WSJ and an old Amos Oz essay relevant to this week's Torah portion (Pinchas):

Mr. Weitzman offers an admirably balanced and dispassionate survey and points to the conflicting impulses in the human mind between “its need to relate itself to a point of origin and its need to efface that origin.”

I once heard Natan Sharansky say that human beings have two fundamental needs: to be free, and to belong. I think he's right about this, and I also think those two needs often exist in tension. We want to be connected to a past and to a collective, and at the same time we resist being burdened by a heritage. And we certainly resist being coerced into an identity.

Enter Pinchas, the zealot. In this week's Torah portion, he acts with God's zeal by killing two people. His action earns him certain accolades, but Jewish tradition meets it with ambivalence. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers a concise survey of these sources. Notably, citing Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, Sacks suggests that Joshua – not Pinchas – was chosen to succeed Moses as leader of the Israelites because "a zealot cannot be a leader. That requires patience, forbearance and respect for due process."

Israeli writer Amos Oz shares a deep concern about zealotry, which he described in lectures in Germany in 2002 that got published in the small volume "How to Cure a Fanatic." Here's an excerpt. Fanatics lack imagination, particularly the capacity to imagine the life of the other.

It comes full circle when Oz says this:

No man is an island, said John Donne, but I humbly dare to add: No man and no woman is an island, but every one of us is a peninsula, half attached to the mainland, half facing the ocean—one half connected to family and friends and culture and tradition and country and nation and sex and language and many other things, and the other half wanting to be left alone to face the ocean.

I think we ought to be allowed to remain peninsulas. Every social and political system that turns each of us into a Donnean island and the rest of humankind into an enemy or a rival is a monster. But at the same time every social and political and ideological system that wants to turn each of us into no more than a molecule of the mainland is also a monstrosity. The condition of peninsula is the proper human condition. That’s what we are and that’s what we deserve to remain.

So, in a sense, in every house, in every family, in every human condition, in every human connection, we actually have a relationship between a number of peninsulas, and we’d better remember this before we try to shape each other and turn each other around and make the next person turn our way while he or she actually needs to face the ocean for a while. And this is true of social groups and of cultures and of civilizations and of nations.

It can be hard to live as a peninsula, a kind of in-between state. It is "easier" to go to one extreme or the other, as many movements in human history have tried to do – with catastrophic consequences. Literature, religion, the humanities – these can be tools in helping us negotiate our "peninsularity." Of course, every tool can be abused, and fanaticism, Oz warns, "is extremely catching, more contagious than any virus. You might easily contract fanaticism even as you are trying to defeat or combat it."

But enough by me; read the links.

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