Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
No one understood the phenomenon of culture war better than George Orwell. He recognized the former Soviet Union as something far more insidious than merely an Evil Empire. He saw it as the carrier of a slowly advancing contagion of cultural astigmatism which, unstopped, would infect all humankind with the madness of moral blindness.
Arguably the most important novel of the twentieth century, Orwell's classic 1984 depicts how an all-powerful state controlled media has eroded the most basic distinctions between good and evil. Under the authority of Big Brother, the Ministry of Truth rewrites history not only from day to day but from hour to hour. Nothing remains constant, nothing can be believed, nothing has meaning, nothing is worth fighting for. Confusion leads to apathy; apathy leads to compliance; compliance leads to tyranny. This is the world Orwell foresaw if the seductive and fanciful ideals of Soviet-style socialism were allowed to play out to their natural conclusion.
And what would Orwell say about what our society has become? Political correctness forbids us from speaking uncomfortable truths. Moral equivalence prohibits us from praising good or condemning evil. Effortlessly, our latter-day prophets spin every issue in conformance with preconceived ideologies, unwilling to contemplate the logic of any position that challenges their political axioms.
CONTROLLING THE PAST
In 1995, the Smithsonian was forced to scrap an exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first atomic bomb detonation over Hiroshima, Japan. In their desire to indict America for introducing nuclear proliferation to the world, the architects of the exhibit neglected to present the historical context in which the decision to drop the bomb was made, a decision that ended a war of Japanese aggression and saved over a million lives on both sides.
Nor is historical revisionism a weapon limited to the arsenal of the ideological left. In 2003, right-wing columnist Ann Coulter published her book Treason, in which she attempted to resurrect the execrable communist hunter Joseph McCarthy as a hero and patriot. This was too much even for conservative columnist David Horowitz, one of Ms. Coulter's clients, who chastised her for discrediting conservatives and conservatism.
And let's not forget the endless string of malignant fictions promulgated as fact by the Palestinian media in an attempt to convince the world that Arab culture, rather than Jewish culture, has historical claim to the Land of Israel.
These are just some of the most spectacular examples of recent times, but countless lesser cases slip by with little notice. I was myself embroiled in a recent flap after another community rabbi published the following in our local Jewish newspaper:
With great deference, respect and affection, Moses welcomes his father-in-law and invests himself fully in being present to Jethro, inquiring about his journey and his welfare. But what of [Moses' wife] Tzipporah? And what of [his sons] Gershom and Eliezer? No tears; no embracing; no blessings. The silence is deafening - and heartrending. Moses is totally unmoved, emotionless, detached. He does not even acknowledge the presence of his own family. It is as if they are invisible - nonentities.
I responded with my own article, explaining my colleague's failure to understand that the Torah is not an almanac or a chronicle from which we can demand every detail for the satisfaction of our idle curiosity. The Torah is a blueprint for legal and moral conduct that provides only the information essential to its own purpose. We aren't told what Moses was wearing, but we don't assume he was naked.
Did Moses greet his wife and children as well? In all likelihood he did, even if the Torah chose not to report it rather than distract us from the immediate subject of Jethro, the righteous gentile whose awe for the Jewish people and their divine mission compelled him to throw in his lot with them.
CONTROLLING THE PRESENT
But there is a much more significant, disturbingly Orwellian issue here. The eagerness to concoct out of thin air such wholesale denigration of Judaism's most revered figure reveals a frighteningly deep wellspring of moral ambivalence. What does it say of our cultural integrity when we casually transform our heroes into villains? How can we expect to chart a successful course into the future when we so readily corrupt the lessons of our past?
This does not mean that we should idealize either our leaders or our past. Indeed, the Torah itself tells us that Moses was not without imperfection, that he erred in his assumptions about his brother, in his reluctance to shoulder the mantle of leadership, and in his impatience with the recalcitrant Jewish people. But this does not grant us free license to attack Moses without source or substance. Any rabbi who can find no way of teaching moral lessons than through the gratuitous slander of Judaism's most noble leader has truly lost his way.
Even more ironic was the reaction of the broader community, as I was verbally tarred-and-feathered for the sharpness of my rebuttal. The president of our local Jewish Federation circulated a letter in which he wrote:
Personally, I was quite distressed by aspects of Rabbi Goldson's commentary. I found his references to [the rabbi] demeaning, cynical and unnecessary. I believe we can and should express our deeply held and strong opinions and beliefs with respect and civility.
In an open letter, I asked the president why he was not equally distressed by the profound disrespect heaped by my colleague upon the founding leader of the Jewish nation. Why did you not find it appropriate, Mr. President, to denounce the character assassination of Moses, but felt obliged to condemn me for calling out the rabbi who so deeply offended the Torah observant community with his irresponsible distortion of Jewish tradition? How do you justify demanding respect for one who has spoken so contemptuously against the heritage you yourself represent?
I have yet to receive an explanation.
CONTROLLING THE FUTURE
The insightful words of George Santayana have become well known to all: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But did Santayana anticipate the day when zealots from every corner would manipulate the records of history in order to gain credibility for their respective positions? And when we cease to become defenders of the historical record in our frantic desire to preserve political correctness, can the fulfillment of Orwell's prophecy be far away?
If we have ultimately lost our respect for the past and for historical integrity, then it is no longer Santayana who will have written the epitaph of civil society, it is Friedrich Hegel:
What experience and history teach us is this - that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.
Let us hope that it is not too late for us to learn.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis, MO, where he also writes and lectures. He is author of Dawn to Destiny: Exploring Jewish History and its Hidden Wisdom, an overview of Jewish philosophy and history from Creation through the compilation of the Talmud, now available from Judaica Press. Visit him at http://torahideals.wordpress.com .
© 2010, Rabbi Yonason Goldson