I believe it was that great social scientist George Carlin who said there are two kinds of drivers in the world. Assholes and maniacs. An asshole is anyone driving slower than you; maniacs are those crazies who drive faster. Well, that’s the way I feel about a lot of things.
Politics, for instance.
In my opinion, the far right – the people who even today would vote for Sarah Palin for president – fall into the asshole category. And those people in Florida who voted for Ralph Nader, knowing he didn’t have a chance, please step up and congratulate yourselves; you put George Bush in the White House. Those are maniacs. (I once heard James Carville tell an audience at Adelphi University that he wouldn’t urinate in Nader’s mouth if his throat were on fire. But that’s for another blog post.)
Examples abound across our political spectrum. People who consistently take inconsistent stances, they can be both maniacs and assholes. You decide which is which:
Case I. The radical right who insist they are libertarian, demanding freedom to “get government out of our lives” – except when it comes to women’s issues. Trans-vaginal ultrasound OK; Planned Parenthood medical exams, hell no. I once interviewed a person picketing for the right to life and I asked him if he also opposed the death penalty. His reasoned reply: “Huh?!” He just couldn’t see the two were just opposite sides of the same coin.
Case II. Profiling. Police stopping someone just for “driving while black” – is ineffective, immoral and stupid. It wastes time and resources. But there are some times when profiling works.
We know some types are more likely to be airborne terrorists. The Israelis have been successful (so far) in profiling and identifying potential dangers. Consider Richard Reed, the inept terrorist who tried to bring down an American Airlines flight by setting off a bomb in his shoe. Six months before, Reed flew El Al from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv on a kind of dry run. Israeli security and their sophisticated profiling spotted him. They let him board anyway so they could track his movements and though he didn’t know it, his seatmate was an Israeli air marshal. He couldn’t have gotten up to use the restroom.
So eliminate all profiling? No. But we have to use our heads. Assholes and maniacs on both sides.
Another example of inconsistency (hypocrisy?) on the left of the political spectrum: The widespread liberal anti-Israeli sentiment. Which side would you expect Liberals to take?
Side A: The country with equal rights for women (a woman even served as Prime Minister), virtually unlimited free speech and a free press, a parliamentary government representing an enormous range of opinion, an official state religion but full freedom of religion for all, a judicial system where even a president and a prime minister have been sentenced to jail, a Supreme Court whose rulings can intervene in military operations, no capital punishment except for major war crimes (and only one person has ever been sentenced to death), LGBT rights.
Side B: The opposite.
Another sphere with maniacs and assholes: Religion
No one religion has a corner on the market here, but I’m Jewish so I’ll leave the distinctions between Baptists and Unitarians or Shiites and Sunnis to someone closer to that scene. I’m talking about the differences between The Jewish Orthodox, the Ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, New Age and Humanist.
Take theology. The Orthodox and especially the Ultra-Orthodox are Judaism’s most fervent fundamentalists. The fundamental precept they believe is that Moses came down from Sinai with THE LAW. It is inviolate because it came directly from God to His chosen people. Moving along the continuum, Conservative Jews take a less definitive view, with some believing the Torah is a human document written in response to recognition of the Divine. And farther to the left the view of God is less definite, Jews’ chosenness disappears, going all the way to Humanistic Judaism where God Himself disappears.
And this is how theology translates into practice and observance.
The Orthodox call themselves “Torah Jews,” but they don’t practice the religion of the Torah, but rather a rabbinic interpretation, shaped over centuries to make sense of the teachings for their own time.
A couple of examples:
The Torah specifically demands that loans must be forgiven after the seventh year. But that meant people would stop lending as the seven-year period was drawing to a close. After all, who would make a loan when it would have to be forgiven in a week or two or even 52 more? Hillel came up with the answer in the last century before the Common Era: Make the loan through the Court, which is not bound, as humans are, to forgive the loan. This Prozbul, as it was called, solved the problem. And it showed the way to creatively adapt the Torah to the day.
Also, some laws are no longer enforced simply because times change. Like the case of the trial of the wife thought to be unfaithful. The Torah says she is subjected to a rite of “bitter waters” in which she is forced to drink water infused with dust and the ashes of a parchment containing a series of curses. The Talmud says that practice was stopped because adultery had become so common among both men and women.
The process of adapting laws to fit the world didn’t end. At the end of the second century of the Common Era, the Mishnah set out the law. Then over the next few centuries the sages produced the Gemara, which together with the Mishnah form the Talmud. But the laws continued to need interpretation and in the 12th century Maimonides set about to establish the law once and for all, calling his “Mishneh Torah,” literally a repetition of the Torah. Then again in the 16th century Joseph Caro assembled a compendium of laws from the leading commentators and wrote a “definitive” law code. Which was promptly expanded on. And so on.
My objection to those on my right, the Orthodox, is that they are willfully ignorant. And that means – to me – they are intellectually dishonest. They know changes have been made, but refuse to acknowledge the changes were made by human beings responding to their own times. So they say “no” to things like full participation of women in the prayer service. A woman can have a PhD in Talmud or Bible, but she has to pray on the other side of the wall. The village idiot can make a Minyan; a woman can’t.
But how do I deal with those to the left of me, Reform Jews who say Halacha is not binding? I can’t believe that laws don’t matter, that they have no force, that they are strictly voluntary. No, I believe tradition counts. You can’t toss two thousand years of Jewish life out the window because you want a lobster dripping in butter.
One point my friends at Chabad make, and which I recognize is a strong argument, is: If you want Judaism to survive, look to the ones who keep the tradition going at full strength. Don’t dilute it by doing the minimum, then expect it to be there two, three, four generations down the road.
My response is if Judaism is to survive in the real world, it has to live in the real world, not 16th century Poland, which was very different from 12th century Spain – and why Maimonides would probably be flummoxed by today’s haredim.
But what I’m facing here, what I’m really talking about, whether in politics, religion or really any aspect of life, is making choices. Clearly one person’s maniac is…well you get the picture. And does seeing the world suspended between the two poles make me opinionated, narrow-minded, too sure of myself? Perhaps it does.
But when you come right down to it, isn’t that how people think? We are taught to revere the Golden Mean. Aristotle, Confucius, Buddha all saw the position midway between extremes as the ideal. The point is where you are on the continuum – and how you relate to those on both sides of you. Most people believe they are smack dab in the middle, surrounded by maniacs and assholes. The challenge is to recognize that the world is far more complicated. You can think they are maniacs and assholes, but you have to live with them. That’s the hard part; co-existing with the people whose opinions you find appalling.
But it’s the only way.