Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Interview with Michael Carin!

Many thanks to Michael Carin for his participation in the blog this week! I have enjoyed our correspondence very much. Below are my questions and Michael's responses. I have also attached a You Tube video of an interview Michael did about the Future Jew. 

1.                 What inspired you to write The Future Jew?

As a writer, and as a Jew born just six years after the Holocaust ended, how could I not write about that earthquake in the history of my people? I started reading Holocaust memoirs at an early age. The result was that at Passover seders, during the telling of our primordial myth, I found myself thinking about the much more recent reality of Auschwitz. Even an adolescent mind can grasp the extent of the disconnect. We were celebrating a three thousand year-old liberation of our people by the Almighty, a liberation for which we have no evidence, while ignoring an extermination of six million of our people that had taken place only decades earlier – an extermination that the Almighty, if he exists, had conspicuously refused to prevent. The contradiction highlighted the hypocrisy of religious faith for me. That was my first motivation for writing the book. 

The second: Holocaust denial had become an integral part of the justification for the eradication of Israel.  Israel-haters don’t have to rely only on the lie: “The Jews stole our land.”  They can get help from the Holocaust deniers, who say, “Israel was built on a gigantic deception.” Accordingly, the book took on a dual mission: (i) to demonstrate to Jews that in wake of the Shoah intellectual integrity requires them to replace their Bronze Age idea of monotheism with a modern and uniquely Jewish take on monohumanism, and (ii) to persuade Jews that by making this wrenching, extraordinary, historic gesture they can affirm, demonstrate, and help perpetuate memory of the Holocaust, which in turn can help prevent such atrocities in the future.

2.                 What kind of research did the book involve?

I had already read scores of Holocaust memoirs and histories, which is what primed me for the book. During the writing itself, I read still more memoirs and histories. There are no more powerfully truthful lines in my book than these: “. . . when we journey into Holocaust remembrance and stay there for an extended time, we cannot come out the same persons we went in. We are more likely to come out and ask, in angry incredulity, V ken es zine?” The research was effectively a five-year journey of answering that question,  How can it be?

3.                 Can you tell us about your personal relationship with Judaism growing up (i.e. were your raised religious/secular etc.)?

I had a typical Canadian middle-class Jewish upbringing; my three brothers and I all had bar-mitzvahs; we went to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; my mom made the world’s best hamantaschen; and we held seders even when the Canadiens were winning the Stanley Cup. We were not religious, but we were unmistakably, unambiguously Jewish.

4.                 What is your relationship with Judaism today?

I consider myself a member of a very special tribe. I’m proud to be part of the tribe which was the first to specifically indict slavery as a crime against humanity. I do not refer here to the Exodus story, for which not a single scrap of archeological evidence exists, but to increasing recognition of the role of the Habiru in shaping Jewish destiny. We Jews are most likely descendants of the Habiru. 

Who were the Habiru? They were, in biblical times, slaves who became fugitives. They established their own community in ancient Palestine and based their culture on a primal motivation: the desire to live as free people. Most of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Jewish history can be traced back to that moral and political origination. There’s little doubt that the myth of Exodus was built on the truth of the Habiru.  I urge you to read Robert Wolfe’s book, From Habiru to Hebrews, which tells us, in contrast to the fables in the Torah, where we Jews came from and how we developed our fundamental views of how to live a civilized life.

 I should add that this book sits on my shelf next to Sherwin Wine’s Judaism Beyond God, which is the seminal work of the Secular Humanistic Jewish movement, a guide to history in the form of a narrative, and a superb prescription for human reflection and Jewish action which I’m sure will always act as the keystone of our literature.  I relate to Judaism through the ideas expressed in these two pivotal books.

5.                 How is “The Future Jew” distinct from the “Secular Humanist Jew”?

The future Jew is a secular humanist, so there is no distinction, only a differing emphasis. The future Jew in The Future Jew happens to consider  Holocaust remembrance as central to Jewish identity going forward. Many secular Jews are uncomfortable with the emphasis on the Holocaust, but my future Jew says: It must be emphasized to be remembered, and it must be remembered to motivate positive action. Besides, it would take a sustained, superhuman effort of will to remove the cloud of the Holocaust from the Jewish sky. It is permanently there, it is indisputably real, and it is overwhelmingly meaningful. So let’s use it to rain down lessons on the earth. My fundamental point in the book is this: Remembering the Holocaust will help teach Jews how to act for humanity – how to act as the Habiru of modernity.

6.                 What would you change about the book were you to write it today (i.e. following the success of the so-called “New Atheist movement”) vs. ten years ago?

I wouldn’t change anything except the title, because the title limits the audience. Had the title been aimed overtly at all people instead of (seemingly) exclusively at Jews, it might have played more of a role in what you call ‘the New Atheist movement’, considering its publication in 2001 predated Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins et al.

7.                 The book’s tone is quite angry. Do you still feel the same way towards theistic Judaism? Why?

I frankly don’t understand why people complain to me about the book’s angry tone. Why shouldn’t it have an angry tone? For thousands of years, while we Jews suffered persecution after persecution, the intellectual leaders of our tribe bought into and embellished and promoted a fantasy about an almighty supernatural protector. For the last seventy years, since the Holocaust hammered six million additional nails into the coffin of that fantasy, the same leaders have exhibited a willful blindness to evidence as obvious as the noses on their faces. I’m angry at the willful blindness! 

And there’s another reason to be angry. Return to what I said about swimming out into the ocean of blood of Holocaust history.  How does one return to shore anything but angry? And how does one remain calm when some theistic Jews, the Taliban of our tribe, claim that the six million died to atone for misdeeds, that they were all reincarnated souls of sinners? (That would be the spiritual leader of Israel's orthodox Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.) How do you remain equanimous when one of the most honoured rabbis in the history of the Jewish people explains the Holocaust as God’s way of amputating a diseased limb? (That would be the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Shneersohn, contributing vile nonsense to our discourse; see Yehudah Bauer’s book, Rethinking the Holocaust.) Other theistic rationalizations are only marginally less medieval – and marginally less obscene. Surely these are valid reasons to be angry, n’est-ce pas?

8.                 What aspects of theistic Judaism do you feel are valuable for “The Future Jew” to retain?

None! Many aspects of Judaism inform the culture of the future Jew, but when you preface Judaism with ‘theistic’ you are pointing to its superstitious and irrational dimensions which, with time, will go, should go, must go if we are ever to graduate fully from the intellectual infancy of humanity.

9.     Prior to the Holocaust, Jewish history is littered with attempts at eradication of Jews. Why do you emphasize the Holocaust specifically as a turning point?

Because it was so profoundly conceived and gigantically executed. Because it was all-encompassing and potentially definitive in the sense of total extermination of the Jewish people. You can (if you’re a believer) ignore predations that happened in remote history. You can (if you’re a believer) discount massacres that did not wipe out whole communities. You can (if you’re a believer) close your eyes to centuries of scapegoating and persecution while holding on to your faith that it’s all a test, a gauntlet, a preparation for reward – all an intricate working out of God’s plan which we cannot possibly understand since he is VAST and we are less than mere puny dots. But I submit that you cannot, even if you’re a believer, continue to believe that an almighty protector exists after you have seen a modern state bring to bear all its power in order to murder, en masse, Jewish infants and grandmothers – and while aiming with concentrated will at nothing less than the eradication, everywhere in the world, of all Jewish infants and grandmothers. Accordingly, the Holocaust should act as a turning point for faithful Jews; the Holocaust demonstrates the futility and emptiness of their faith; in the name of six million innocents it demands, it ordains, that they renounce their faith.

10. Your chapter “Holocaust Haggadah” suggests that Jews hold a Holocaust seder. Do you think this should become a new ritual?

I think holding a Holocaust seder on a regular basis would be critical for moving forward the agenda of Jewish humanists. Holding a Holocaust seder in place of a Passover seder would represent a major reformation of Jewish custom.  (Try selling the idea to theistic Jews, and you’ll find out just how major a reformation it would be!) And that’s precisely the point. The world, of course, is not going to come into our homes to hear what we’re saying when we tell the Holocaust story. But if we let the world know that we have transformed a fundamental component of our culture (with the express intent of reminding both ourselves and everybody else that the Holocaust happened, and that it happened because Reason is yet to fully supplant Superstition in the world) then we will have effectively announced something that will cause people to sit up, take notice, and be very curious indeed. (Sort as if Christians had decided to retire the cross as their symbol; the world would be curious!) In short, I’m suggesting the Holocaust seder idea to Jewish humanists as a means of advancing their motive and cause, and as a means of differentiating themselves from the other streams of Judaism.

11. Have you participated in a Holocaust seder?

Yes, shortly after the book was published, a secular Jewish woman in Montreal called and offered to hold a Holocaust seder in her home. We had twenty-two participants. We sat on a bare floor in ragged clothes and we read the Holocaust Haggadah from beginning to end (it took about two hours). Among us was a survivor (we allowed her a chair!), and several members of the Unitarian Church. We followed quite a few of the directions laid down in the Holocaust Haggadah (the room was lit only by stubs of candles; no one wore make-up or jewelry; we drank only water; the host’s daughter had put some of the vile Nazi slogans on large banners; I arrived with a flag of Denmark!). Everyone present participated by reading a portion aloud. The reading took about two hours. I have to say: it was one of the most fulfilling events of my life. And, yes, at the end, we devoured icy bread.

Michael Carin

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