The Echoes of Tragedy
Address to Nexus Institute Amsterdam
The Nexus Institute brings together the world’s foremost intellectuals, artists and politicians, and has them think and talk about the questions that really matter. Rabbi Sacks gave the following speech at the Nexus Institute headquarters in Amsterdam.
Is there any limit to the echoes of tragedy?
When we listen to an opera or watch a play, the events on stage belong to one order of reality while we are part of another. This gives us, however much we identify with the characters and their fate, the safety of detachment. We are like Zeus observing the affairs of humankind from the top of Mount Olympus. It is no accident that both tragedy and comedy, drama itself, were born in ancient Greece where the gods were less enmeshed in human history than, say, God is in the Hebrew Bible where He himself is both the director of the play and its leading character. The distance between art and life, so central to ancient Greece, is inconceivable to the Hebrew mind, which is why the Bible contains no tragedy or comedy. It lives in a different kind of world.
It is this ability to stand outside that gives rise to some of the supreme expressions of the human spirit. It happens in one form of religious experience: the word ecstasy, as a mystical state, means “standing outside.” Art in general, not just drama, involves this paradoxical ability to identify with yet be detached from the world represented by the work itself. According to Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, it lies at the heart of the moral sense, whose viewpoint is that of what he called “the impartial spectator.”
Yet we can imagine another kind of drama – it occurs, for example, in some of the plays of Tom Stoppard – in which there is an audience onstage as part of the play, and we become the audience of the audience. And we can conceive of yet another in which some of the actors play actors, others the audience, and yet others the audience of the audience, and so on ad infinitum. So an audience can be watching one tragedy, while unknowingly they themselves are part of another. Detachment from one drama may coexist with involvement in another.
Hence there is a kind of metaphysical lack of closure that subverts the very idea of drama itself. For it turns out that we, who can watch and identify with tragedy in the safety of our seats, knowing that the pains and wounds of those onstage do not threaten us, are in fact not safe at all. For we, the audience, may ourselves be actors in another drama whose plot and ending we cannot know.
What makes art, art is that it has a frame. There is closure, “the sense of an ending.” We rise from our seats at the end of the performance and the drama is over. What makes life, life is that it has no closure, no last words, no, “they all lived happily, or unhappily ever after” for there is no limit to the number of times a tragedy can be re-enacted at different times, with different characters. In art, every tragedy has an end. Is the same true in life? That is the question Halévy’s great opera La Juive poses to us, here, now, in Amsterdam in 2009.
Clearly something happened to Halévy when he received and read Eugene Scribe’s libretto. Until then he had been a gifted and talented composer. Afterward, he was to have a successful career in the world of music. But the text of La Juive seems to have ignited a passion that led to a work of genius, perhaps the only one of that order among the almost forty operas Halévy wrote. What was it in the story that spoke to Halévy?
Halévy was Jewish, and as the opera’s name implies, it is about the Jewish situation, not in Halévy’s time but in Constance in 1414, as the Church was wrestling with its own internal schisms. What is curious is that, though three of its central characters act the part of Jews, only one of them, Eleazar, is in fact Jewish. Rachel, the tragic heroine, sacrifices her life to save the life of a man who has deceived her twice, by pretending to be Jewish and by failing to disclose that he is married. Rachel suffers from the fate of being a Jew, but at the end of the opera, in the great concluding coup de theatre, is disclosed at the very moment of her death not to be Jewish at all. She is the daughter of the Catholic cardinal who, not knowing who she is, sentences her to death.
The second character Leopold, whom we meet at the beginning of the opera pretending to be a Jewish artist called Samuel, has his life saved by the grace of the two women he has betrayed, his wife Princess Eudoxia and Rachel herself. Their nobility of character stands in sharp opposition to his moral weakness and duplicity. Indeed the moral stature of the two women, so unlike in religion and social class, contrasts starkly with the flawed character of all the key male figures.
The unmasking of Leopold, and the disclosure of the true identity of Rachel, allows us, in the twenty-first century audience, to feel a certain sense of liberation. For have we not moved far beyond the premodern idea of identity as a fate determined by the circumstances of our birth, making us characters in a drama not of our choosing? We know that existence precedes essence, and that the meta-narratives by which people once made sense of their lives no longer hold us captive. We can only wonder at the world of La Juive in which people have to pretend to be someone else in order to be what they are.
Anthony Appiah, Amartya Sen and others have argued that we are all, or should be, cosmopolitans now. Like my Russian grandmother’s recipe for chicken soup, we’re “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” We’ve moved, in Zygmund Bauman’s telling phrase, from pilgrim to tourist. Irony, says Richard Rorty, has become our primary language. We live, argues Alasdair Macintyre, among the fragments and debris of past, now broken, moral orders. In our world, Leopold and Rachel would just get on with it, with due discretion perhaps, but certainly without having to put on masks to conceal their identity, or suffer death to atone for guilt.
Leopold and Rachel are not Jews. Rachel does not know this, but Halévy, the composer, does. This allows them to emerge as individuals. One may be virtuous and self-sacrificing, the other may be deceitful and self-indulgent, but they are recognisably human characters. They do not live under a metaphysical curse.
A human character, however, Eleazar the Jew is not. We first hear of him as the “heretic . . . Eleazar the Jew, who is rolling in money, they say,” and as if to prove the point he is working, illegally, on a public holiday. We expect, thereafter, to meet a character with some redeeming virtues, to counter the negative stereotype, but they are hard to find, certainly in the early acts. He is embittered, vengeful, and avaricious. We learn why. Years earlier his sons were burned at the stake. Yet when the Cardinal Brogni protects him from the anger of the crowd and offers reconciliation, Eleazar’s reply is “Never.” “I keep vengeance in my heart,” he tells us.
“No forgiveness, that is my rule.”
He is fearless, perfectly willing to die, half inviting the mob, by now angry again, to do what they propose, throw him into the lake to drown. But he has been scarred, brutalised by hate. Even in the privacy of his home, celebrating the Jewish festival of Passover in Act II, he continues to curse blasphemers and even speaks of God as an angry father.
Matters get even worse when the ceremony is interrupted by the visit of Princess Eudoxie who has come to buy a jewel for her betrothed Leopold. Immediately Eleazar fawns: “O heavens, what an honour for me.” He names an exorbitant price, delighted to take advantage of her higher feelings – love, he says in an aside, is good for business – and can hardly control his gloating triumph at being able to relieve the princess of a huge sum of money: “Into my hands, crowns, ducats, sequins, florins, crowns, ducats will come back into my hands. What a pleasure to outwit these Christians.” Through most of the opera Eleazar is made eloquent only by money, hate and revenge. It would be hard to think of a more negative portrayal of a Jew in a work of art produced by a Jew.
There is no moment in La Juive to correspond to the speech of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
We feel, hearing Shakespeare’s words, as if on the brink of the first sympathetic portrayal of a Jew in Western literature since Abelard’s Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian, written in the early 12th century. Then Shakespeare adds the phrase, “And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?” and we realise that the time is not yet.
Eleazar, then, is a man who will not betray his religion but will seemingly betray almost everything else, even to the point of keeping Rachel’s identity hidden from herself and from her father, Cardinal de Brogni, whom he merely torments. Not until the end do we see the first cracks of humanity appear, as he contemplates Rachel’s death and offers her the chance to convert and live. Yet ultimately he allows her to die when he could have saved her life merely by telling Brogni who she is.
The question I found myself asking time and again is: what allowed Halévy, himself a Jew and not a self-hating one, to live with a portrait of the sole Jewish character in an opera about Jews, that is clearly anti-Semitic. How did he come to be so energised by the drama itself to write music that lifted him to greatness?
With this question we begin a historical journey into successive dimensions of tragedy.
Halévy was born in 1799, ten years after the French Revolution and the National Assembly’s Declaration that “All men are born, and remain, free and equal in rights.” Jews had never heard such words before and they seemed to some to be signalling no less than the arrival of the long awaited Messianic age.
Halévy’s grandfather, Jacob Halfon, had been a Rabbi in Wurzburg. His father, Elie Halfon Levy, inspired by the Revolution, moved to Paris where he became a cantor in one of the leading synagogues. He was a believer in the Haskalah, the Jewish equivalent of the Enlightenment. Halévy’s father was in other words a recognisable type, the nineteenth century liberal Jew who sees no contradiction between the universal values of post-revolutionary France and the particularities of Jewish identity. In that spirit he sent his son, Jacques Fromental Halévy, to a French rather than a Jewish school. From there he went to the Conservatoire, where he studied under Cherubini, and at his third attempt, at the age of twenty, he won the Prix de Rome.
So the young Halévy was part of the first generation to be born into the radically new dispensation whereby Jews enjoyed equal rights as citizens without having to convert to another faith, the first time this had happened in the history of the Diaspora. He lives in a blessed moment of sunshine, overshadowed by neither clouds nor fear.
He is Jewish but carries it lightly. He has none of the tortured consciousness that was to become almost emblematic of intellectual Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The contrast between Halévy and Eleazar could not be greater. For Eleazar Jewishness is a non-negotiable, inexorable destiny for which he is prepared to die. For Halévy it is a relatively minor biographical detail with which he is happy, since it makes few demands on him, to live.
Strangely, given his background, Halévy brings to La Juive not a syllable of Jewish tradition. The words Eleazar says on Passover night bear no relation to the Haggadah, the text Jews actually recite that night. He seems unaware that Eleazar, the unshakable Jew, would be forbidden to do business on the holy night of the festival, which is what he does by selling a jewel to Princess Eudoxie.
What then are we to make of a successful composer, at home with his Jewish identity, which he wears lightly but not uncomfortably, who orchestrates so unsympathetic a caricature of the one genuinely Jewish figure in the opera, and who makes elementary mistakes about the practice of Judaism, so elementary that they seem deliberate?
Before I suggest an answer, let us stay for a moment with the festival of Passover. On the morning before the night of the festival there is a ceremony Jews observe. It is called biur chametz, “burning the leaven” none of which may remain on the festival itself. It’s a symbolic act of letting go before departure; saying farewell to slavery before the journey to freedom.
That, it seems to me, is what Halévy brings to his portrayal of Eleazar and the entire drama ofLa Juive. He is exorcising the Jewish past. Yes, perhaps the medieval Jew had a certain nobility, but it is a negative, even destructive, nobility born solely of suffering. Eleazar is a man imprisoned in the very identity he refuses to relinquish.
Halévy, who ends the opera in the flames that consume Eleazar and Rachel, is, I suggest, engaged in biur chametz, setting fire to, thereby relinquishing the past. That was then, this is now, the opera says. Such sentiments belong to the Middle Ages, not to the sophisticated tolerances of a Parisian opera house in 1835. Halévy, in post-revolutionary France, has arrived at the Promised Land. He need eat the unleavened bread of affliction no more.
The Jew had moved from slavery to freedom. In fact, the Jew was no longer a Jew. The word Halévy’s generation preferred was Israélite. The word “Jew” implies a reified identity, an existential condition, a fate. You are a Jew first and last, and all else is secondary. “Israélite” implied a private religious belief. You were a Frenchman or woman of the Jewish persuasion, and you didn’t talk about it in public.
That, after all, is the transcending irony of the opera’s title. It is called not Le Juif but La Juive. It refers not to Eleazar but to Rachel. But in the opera’s penultimate words we discover thatLa Juive is in fact La Chretienne as if to hammer home the point that tragedies happen when we let divisive identities get in the way of our shared humanity. By showing the past to be a world no one in his or her right mind would seek to recapture, Halévy could exorcise the past while celebrating the courage and tolerance of his beloved France.
That surely was the satisfying conclusion Parisian audiences must have felt at the end of the 562 performances the opera received. As well as enjoying the sumptuousness of the spectacle, they were also reminded of the destructive savagery of an age in which people were put to death for their most sacred beliefs. The opera itself was a kind of Pass-over from oppression to an age of liberty.
However it is at just this point that we reach a second level of tragedy, one that Halévy could not have envisaged since it involves an episode long after his death. At the end of act IV, Eleazar is on the brink of revealing Rachel’s true identity to save her from death, but just then, offstage, there is a shout from the crowd:
Au Bucher, au bucher, les Juifs!
Les Juifs, qu’ils perissent!
To the stake, to the stake with the Jews!
Let the Jews perish!
That is the moment that kills hope and makes tragedy inevitable. Eleazar, remembering how his sons were killed by the mob, says:
You are after our blood, you Christians, and I was going to give you my Rachel; no, no, never.
An entire history of suffering finds expression in those angry, defiant words, despite the fact that they are a complete non sequitur, since Rachel is neither Jewish nor Eleazar’s daughter.
The tragedy of which I speak occurred sixty years after La Juive was first performed, and in a sense, the opera and Halévy himself are part of the drama. This time the spectator was another Jew, like Halévy from a comfortable, acculturated Jewish family, a man of the arts, and the scene took place in Paris. It was there in 1895 that he heard almost exactly the same cry from the crowd, this time not on a stage but in the street, “A mort, a mort les Juifs!” “Death to the Jews.”
In a single moment of blinding insight, this other figure understood that all the optimism that lay behind the world of which Halévy was a part was unfounded; all hope of a different future betrayed. Notwithstanding the enlightenment, the revolution and their promise of a Europe finally cured of its demons, in fact, just as in 1414, Europe was not safe for Jews. The occasion was the verdict in another trial, that of Alfred Dreyfus. The man was Theodor Herzl.
He saw that though in their own eyes the Jews of France were Israélites, to many Frenchmen they were still Jews, still ‘other’, still not accepted. Herzl grasped the situation immediately and intuitively. The problem was the nation state itself, which, especially in France under the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, viewed with disfavour any intermediary associations that might compete with the state for the loyalty of its citizens. And what was Judaism if not such an intermediary association? Herzl, with quick-fire logic, concluded that if the nation state was the problem, then let the nation state be the solution. Let Jews have a nation state of their own. Thus was born the Herzlian concept of political Zionism.
The first Zionist Congress was held in 1897, in Basel, Switzerland, not far from Constance in which La Juive is set. Herzl made a famous note in his diary. “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in 5 years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.” Fifty years later, on 29 November 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Six months later the State of Israel was proclaimed. Meanwhile there had taken place an event, the Shoa, that far exceeded Herzl’s worst nightmare on that day in 1895 when he heard the words, A mort les Juifs.
Herzl believed that the establishment of a Jewish state in his people’s ancestral home would end antisemitism once and for all. Jews would be able to look back on 19th century Europe with the same sense of relief that Halévy could look back on 15th century Europe, having put the past firmly behind them, never to return. What we now know in 2009, the year in which, in Britain and France, antisemitic incidents reached their highest level since record-keeping began, was that this too would turn out to be yet another dimension of tragedy, in which not just Eleazar and Halévy but Herzl himself would be characters in the drama.
My concern is not with antisemitism as such, but with the way tragedy echoes across the centuries, making history a form of intertextuality. The new antisemitism is not the old, not that of the 1930s or 1890s. Today it is focused largely on the state of Israel itself. In other words, the very thing Herzl believed would end antisemitism turned out to be the object of a new strain of antisemitism. Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist, defined the irony: “In the 1930s they shouted: Jews to Palestine. Now they shout Jews out of Palestine. They don’t want us to be there; they don’t want us to be here; they don’t want us to be.”
So deep has this gone that at least two contemporary French Jewish intellectuals, Shmuel Trigano and Alain Finkielkraut, have publicly expressed their doubts as to whether there is a future for Jews in France at all. So we have, as we watch La Juive now, a drama within a drama within a drama, as in 2009 we view Herzl in 1895, viewing Halévy in 1835, viewing Eleazar in 1414. We see the same plot, the same basic structure, the same tragic clash of identities, as a series of Chinese boxes or Russian Matryoshka dolls, nested one within the other, so that as we open one we find ourselves faced with another until we wonder: will this ever end?
It’s just at this moment that I want to freeze the action and step back, as if this were an interval in the opera.
So far I’ve been making two points: the first, that life can imitate art and become part of its intertextuality; the second, that life, unlike art, has no closure. It can repeat itself endlessly, re-enacting tragedy time and again in different ages, with different actors, who may think they’re the audience but in fact they’re onstage and part of another drama.
But now I want to move on, conscious that I’m about to develop some controversial ideas, each one of which can be challenged, but which I have to do in an abridged version, the way La Juive is usually played these days – because we don’t do long the way they did in Paris in 1835.
I said that tragedy was born in ancient Greece. What is extraordinary, given the history of the Jewish people in antiquity and ever since, is that there is no Hebrew word for tragedy. Here is a people who lived through one tragedy after another and didn’t have a word for it. When you want to say it in Hebrew you say tragediah. Hebrew had to borrow the word. I suspect the same is true in Islam, because Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinean writer, once wrote a story called Averroes’ Search, in which he imagines the great Islamic thinker translating Aristotle’s Rhetoric and being defeated by the word tragedy which, however hard he tried, he simply couldn’t understand.
There is another strange fact which may explain the first. What I discovered when my books were being translated into Hebrew, is that this ancient language, four thousand years old, has no word for person, and this created enormous difficulties for my translators. Hebrew hasish, which means ‘a man’, adam which roughly means ‘Homo sapiens’, enosh which means ‘a mortal’, and ben adam, which means ‘son of man’, but no word that corresponds to ‘person’. How extraordinary that the religion that first taught that each one of us is in the image of God, and that every life is like a universe, a belief shared with Islam, should have no word for person. Why?
The answer lies in the history of the word person itself. It comes from the Latin persona which means a mask, specifically a mask worn by a character on a stage. In other words it refers to a role played within a theatrical drama.
It’s a metaphor that belongs to cultures that can say, with Shakespeare:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
Or more powerfully, in Macbeth:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
Cultures that do not see the world as a stage, do not see people as persons, that is, as actors in a play. That is why they lack the concept of tragedy. Because the essence of tragedy is that it has a prescripted ending. You know from the beginning that it’s all going to end in tears. Tragedy belongs to a world in which there is such a thing as inexorable fate, what the Greeks called moira or ananke.
That is a mindset wholly alien to the Hebrew Bible. In Judaism there is no prescripted ending, no inexorable fate, because we are not merely actors; we are co-authors of the script. We don’t know in advance what the next scene will be, because it depends on us, and we can choose. An opera can be tragic, but life itself cannot, if you believe that there is human freedom, that we can change, that we can act differently from the way we did last time, and that therefore as agents, not merely actors, we face a constitutively unknowable future, unknowable because it depends on us. That is why in Judaism there is no word for tragedy, because the story hasn’t ended yet, and life is life, not art.
And now I want to introduce another Jewish character, not Eleazar or Halévy or Herzl but one who lived here in Amsterdam, Baruch or Benedict Spinoza. Spinoza along with John Locke was one of the architects of liberalism. And without going into all the intricacies of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, I want to cut a long story short and say that in essence, for Spinoza, to have a liberal society you need to put an end to religious differences. Specifically he thought that Jews should cease to be Jews. We must see, he says, that the idea of a personal God is implausible: God is nothing other than the universe seen sub specie aeternitatis. It follows that God isn’t the kind of being that can speak. Therefore the Bible is a human composition, etc. etc. The price of liberalism is the end of religious particularity.
But Spinoza is himself part of the drama of La Juive, with its story of hatred between Jew and Christian. The reason is that Spinoza was a descendant of marranos, Jews who under duress had converted to Christianity in Spain or Portugal but remained Jews in secret. Marranos were doubly alienated, distrusted by Christians because they were suspected of still practicing their Jewish faith, and by Jews because they had abandoned their people and gone over, as it were, to the other side. Marranos carried within their head both sides of the drama of La Juive. It’s easy to see why any descendant of marranos should see as a consummation devoutly to be wished, the end of all particular identities. Let me be neither Christian nor Jew but simply a human being.
And that is indeed one strand of political liberalism, that liberalism implies a certain degree of secularisation. Which is fine, assuming, as did almost every self-respecting intellectual in the modern age, that religion was about to die anyway. But religion didn’t die. As the editor and Washington correspondent of The Economist, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, put it in the title of their recently published book, God is back. We are undergoing, in the title of another book to which I contributed, The desecularisation of the world. If so, we can’t rely on Spinoza’s approach, and we need to find another way.
Is there an alternative? I’ve long been fascinated by a passage in John Plamenatz’s Man and Society in which he raises the question as to why liberty of conscience, the peculiarly modern form of freedom, was born when and where it was, in seventeenth century Europe. This is what he says:
I am struck by the fact that, if we consider how liberty of conscience came to be valued in the West, we notice that it was first asserted and cherished in an age of strong beliefs. It was first asserted among the peoples who adhered, as the Greeks and Romans did not, to dogmatic religions, among peoples who had been taught for centuries that nothing was more important than to have the right beliefs, and who had recently become divided in their beliefs beyond hope of ever again reaching agreement . . . Liberty of conscience was born, not of indifference, not of scepticism, not of mere open-mindedness, but of faith.
How so? How in an age of fanaticism and religious war, did this new concept emerge? Plamenatz’s answer is simple and profound. It is, he says, one short step from the belief that “Faith is supremely important, therefore everyone should have the one true faith,” to “Faith is supremely important, therefore everyone must be allowed to live by the faith that seems true to him.” That second proposition, out of which liberty of conscience was born, comes not from a Spinozist secularisation but from the very heart of faith itself. Because my faith matters ultimately to me I can understand that your faith matters ultimately to you.
But how likely is actually to happen? Isn’t the opposite more likely? Put Jews, Christians and Muslims closely together, and the result may be: We have the truth, you are in error. We are the saved, you are the damned. We are the children of light, you are the children of darkness. We are the children of God, you are Satan, the antichrist, the infidel. And with that we are back in the world of La Juive.
My answer to that is a radical one, namely, that we must stop seeing tolerance, respectful coexistence and civic peace as a political problem, and see it instead as a religious problem at the very heart of the Abrahamic monotheisms. We must put aside our preconceptions and ask what the Bible itself has to say about such matters.
This is my interpretation, but I believe it to be a defensible one.
First, our humanity precedes any specific religious expression of our humanity. We are told in the bible that every human being per se is in the image and likeness of God, before any mention is made of how to worship God.
Second: moral and religious truth is covenantal. It is not written on the face of nature. It is not discoverable by science. It is not to be found in a world of platonic forms. It belongs to mutually binding agreements between God and human beings, the agreements the Bible calls covenants.
Third: the Hebrew Bible does not propose one covenant but two, one with all humanity in Genesis 9; another with Abraham and his children in Genesis 17, whose terms are spelled out in the days of Moses in Exodus 19-20. So even before I am a Jew, I am part of a covenant shared by all humanity, whose key principle, in Genesis 9:6, is the sanctity of human life and the prohibition of murder.
Fourth: it therefore follows that the most important moral command in the Bible is not “Love your neighbour as yourself” but “Love the stranger because you were once a stranger.” It’s easy to love a neighbour, hard to love the stranger, the one whose faith is not like yours. But that is what the human covenant asks of me.
Fifth: God appears to us in the face of a stranger. That is the burden of the book of Jonah in which the prophet, sent to deliver a message to Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians in Nineveh, tries to run away. They weren’t his people. But God says, in effect: They aren’t your people but they are still My people.
Sixth: God created the universe to make space for humanity. In return, God asks us to make space for one another.
What if we fail to agree with these propositions? Then we will find ourselves back in a world in which people hate in the name of the God of love, wage war in the name of the God of peace, practice cruelty in the name of the God of compassion, and kill in the name of the God of life.
That is not religion but sacrilege.
Let me now add my last Jewish figure in this drama of La Juive. I came to know Isaiah Berlin toward the end of his life. He was a secular Jew. He once said to me,
“Whatever you do, don’t talk to me about religion. When it comes to God, I’m tone deaf.”
He then asked me how, as a philosopher, I could believe? I replied: “If it helps, think of me as a lapsed heretic!” “Quite understand dear boy,” he replied, “Quite understand.”
There was one passage I wanted to discuss with him. It appears at the end of his great essay,Two Concepts of Liberty. He quotes Schumpeter, “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.” To which I, like Michael Sandel, wanted to ask, if one’s convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly? I don’t believe liberal democracy can be defended against absolutist faiths on the basis of moral relativism.
I never got the chance. I phoned his house toward the end of 1997 to fix the appointment. Lady Aline answered the phone: “Chief Rabbi, we’ve just been talking about you.” “How so?” I asked. “Isaiah wants you to officiate at his funeral.” I told her to stop Isaiah thinking such morbid thoughts, but he knew. Four days later he died, and I officiated at his funeral. Isaiah may not have been a believing Jew but he was a loyal one.
I believe that in a de-secularising, re-religionising age, we cannot defend liberal democracy in the terms defined in their different ways by Spinoza or Berlin. We must defend it, or rather those of us who have religious commitments must defend it, on the basis of absolute principles: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the human individual, and the principle central to the universal covenant, namely reciprocity. I may not buy my freedom at the cost of yours. I cannot ask you to respect my faith if I am unprepared to respect yours. To repeat: sustaining freedom, the freedom of all of us together, can no longer be seen as a political problem only, but also as a religious one.
I am not arguing that all members of a liberal democracy should be religious, but the opposite, that all members of religions should respect liberal democracy. Why so? Because it has achieved what no religion on its own has ever achieved: an environment in which people of deeply clashing faiths can live peaceably together. Liberal democracy asks us to do what the Bible itself implies: to respect our shared humanity prior to and as a precondition of our particular commitments of faith.
That is what failed to happen to the key figures in La Juive. There never was a moment when Brogni, the cardinal, and Eleazar the Jew confronted one another not as Christian and Jew but as fathers who had lost their children, who could weep together and find communion in their vulnerability and grief. That is what happened in the Middle East when Jews and Palestinians who had lost children in the current conflict came together as bereaved parents to urge both sides to end the bloodshed and the tears.
All religions must pass through the dark night of the soul, when they look at the animosity and prejudice they have carried, the violence, brutality and bloodshed they have caused, and ask themselves: Is this what God wants? Is this what it means to be created in God’s image, or is it to the contrary, attempting to shape God into our image? Did Eleazar call God an angry father because God is an angry father, or because Eleazar himself was?
I have spoken out of the Jewish experience of Europe, of which La Juive is one small but singular chapter. I have spoken of the pain. But there is another side to the coin. Jews contributed to Europe. They gave it some of their greatest thinkers: in physics Einstein, in psychiatry Freud, in sociology Durkheim, in anthropology Levy-Strauss, in literature Proust and Kafka, in philosophy Bergson and Isaiah Berlin himself, and in music, Mahler and Schoenberg, as well of course as Halévy. At the same time, in the world of the spirit they gave rise to saints and scholars, poets and philosophers, moralists and mystics. Though sorely tried, on the whole they kept their faith. They still do.
Jews had one blessing, though they experienced it first as a curse. In Babylon, in the days of Jeremiah and the destruction of the First Temple, they learned what it was to live as a minority in a society whose religion was at odds with theirs. Jeremiah wrote them a letter; it’s in chapter 29 of the book that bears his name. He said “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to God on its behalf, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” That is the principle by which Jews in the Diaspora have lived ever since. They never sought to impose their faith on others. All they sought was the freedom to be true to their faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith. They practiced integration without assimilation. They became what Halévy himself became:
Contributors to the human covenant while staying loyal to their own.
The real religious divide today is not between Jews, Christians and Muslims, but between those in each of the faiths who see religion as a form of the will to power, and those who see it as the will to life, all life. I define fundamentalism as the attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world, and it owes more to imperialism than to humility in the face of our God-created diversity.
I want to end by going back to one brief but deeply significant moment in Act II of La Juive, the moment that makes Rachel realise that the man she knows as Samuel, in fact Leopold, is not a Jew. It takes place at the Passover meal, when Eleazar passes him a piece of matzah, unleavened bread, and he discretely, though not discretely enough, throws it away.
Two things are strange about this moment. Why, in terms of the logic of the narrative, would Leopold the Christian throw away a piece of food offered to him by a Jew? Secondly, why does Halévy, whose father and grandfather were highly educated Jews, give an explanation of the unleavened bread that is totally false? He says it has to do with the ritual uncleanliness of leaven. Of course it is nothing of the kind, for were it so Jews would be forbidden to eat leavened bread the whole year round, not just on this festival of remembering the exodus from slavery to freedom.
This is so egregious an error, one that a five year old Jewish child wouldn’t make, that one may wonder whether it was not deliberate somehow.
I suspect the answers are these. Leopold throws the unleavened bread away because of the Blood Libel, the medieval antisemitic myth – alive and well in 1414 – that Jews kill gentile children to use their blood to make the unleavened bread of Passover, a myth unbelievably still peddled in updated forms in parts of the Middle East today.
Halévy has Eleazar give the obviously wrong explanation of the unleavened bread to signal to Jews in the audience that Eleazar is not a real Jew at all. He is the Jew of the Christian imagination who thinks in terms of ritual purity and who considers all gentiles impure. He relies on his co-religionists to read the clue, and know: this is not who we are.
What is the unleavened bread, the matzah, in fact? The Bible calls it ‘the bread of affliction’, the bread people eat when they are slaves. The Hebrew word matzah also means ‘strife, conflict, contention’. When there is a matzah, a clash of civilisations, then someone somewhere ends up eating matzah, the bread of affliction. The real Passover service, not the one in the opera, begins with words Halévy would have known from his earliest childhood: “This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat.” When we are willing to share our bread and our afflictions, we have already begun the journey to freedom.
Let me conclude with this thought. There are two ways of experiencing La Juive. One is to hear it as a Greek narrative of tragedy. The other is to listen to it as a Jewish narrative of hope. What is the difference? The first sees the opera and says: ‘That’s how things are.’ The second sees it and says: ‘That’s how things must never be again.’ No more nested tragedies. No more hate in the name of the God of love. I like to think that Halévy the Jew wrote an opera whose name is La Juive, in the hope that Europe might one day read its history the Jewish way.