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Lennonism vs. Judaism
by Ze’ev Maghen
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Above left: "Imagine" memorial to John Lennon in Central Park, NYC. Above right:
Mosaic from the Shalom Al Yisrael (Peace Upon Israel) synagogue in Jericho, c.7th century.

I was at L.A. International airport on a balmy Friday morning, absent-mindedly surveying the vigorous maneuverings of a small but dedicated cadre of neophyte Hare Krishna energetically hawking illustrated copies of Vedic texts, when a young female voice inquired politely: “Excuse me, sirrr, but—ehh—maybe you vould like to take a loook at zis boook?”

I knew that accent. Putting my suitcase down, I turned around slowly. She was petite and pretty in her saffron sari and multitudinous bangles. We stared at each other for a few seconds—and just before she launched into her practiced pitch, I queried quietly: “Meh ayfo at?” (Where are you from?)

“Merrramat a-Sharrron,” she answered, gurgling her “r” and eliding the “h” sound as people from Ramat HaSharon (a suburb of Tel-Aviv) are wont to do. Excited by this rare opportunity to spread the Good Word in her native tongue, and undeterred by the suffering expression seared like a cattle brand over my face, she introduced herself as Shira and began regaling me with the benefits of Krishna consciousness.

Meanwhile, the other two members of the Maha squad—Ofer (“Shalom!”) and Doron (“Ma Nishma !”)—drifted over. And, wouldn’t you know, the whole gang was from Ramat HaSharon.

We reminisced about the army like good Israelis do, talked about who served where, who spent more time “in the mud,” and who hated it most. Shira, it turned out, was a first lieutenant, outranking all of us; I snapped to attention and she laughed. Doron was a medic like myself; we joked about how the first thing we look at on a woman are her veins.

So we were shootin’ the breeze, the three Hebrew Hare Krishnas and I, casually discoursing in the language of the biblical prophets and kings, and finally, well—I just lost it.

“What the hell are you doing here?!” I blurted out. “You are Jews! You are Israelis, for God’s sake! What the hell are you doing wearing these clothes, chanting those words, and selling that book?!” Reaching back over my shoulder into my knapsack—the way Robin Hood would extract an arrow from his quiver—I whipped out the Five Books of Moses [thwack!]. “That’s not your book,” I cried, pointing to the decorative, abridged Bhagavad Gita Ofer clutched to his breast as if it were a newborn. “This ”—and I resoundingly slapped the raggedy, worn-and-torn volume in my hands— This is your book!!!”

They all stared at me sadly, with genuine pity, the way one might look at an animal caught in a trap or at someone who’d just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. “No, no. You don’t understand,” Shira purred, her tone managing to be simultaneously soothing and patronizing. “This isn’t a contest! We’re not choosing one book over another; or one religion over another; or one particular culture, nation, ethnic or social group over another. That would mean creating hierarchical relationship between human beings! That would erect false barriers between people—the barriers responsible for misery and bloodshed throughout history, that prevent human beings from reaching their true potential and destiny, from achieving inner peace—and world peace!”

“Don’t you see,” Ofer interjected, “that the Torah and its laws are no longer relevant to people’s lives today? All that hocus-pocus, archaic stories, ridiculous rules, time-wasting rituals, and impractical practices!” (This, from a guy shorn down to his cranium, with paint on his face, wrapped in linens, and dancing to a mantra beat all day long in an airport.)

“There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it!” he forged on. “How can such obsolete, irrational poppycock appeal to an intellectual person like you? Judaism doesn’t cut it in a thinking person’s world. Sorry.”

“But…what about your loyalty to…your people?” I remonstrated feebly. “You know: the Jewish People?

That pissed him off. “Oh—now I get it: You are a Fascist. You’re preaching exclusivism, discrimination, apartheid, chauvinism, elitism….”

Shira placed a hand on my shoulder, spoke to me softly. “Don’t you see? All that His Divine Grace Swami Prah is saying comes down to this: We must strive with every bit of our inner strength to love all people equally. In the last analysis, isn’t this also the central message of that book you’re carrying?”

I stood there, engulfed in frustration. What could I possibly answer “on one foot” that would even begin to make a dent? Heaving a long sigh of resignation, I said, “When was the last time you read this book? That’s not what this book says.”

At that point my ride showed up and there was a genuinely poignant parting scene—during which, among other unexpected events, Doron pressed my hand in his and slipped me a surreptitious, “Shabbat Shalom Akhi!” (Good Sabbath, my brother!). The tantric trio then waltzed off in search of easier prey.

Should I ever meet the three semi-brainwashed Brahmins again, I now know what I would say to them.

When John Lennon died on December 8, 1980, I was an absolute wreck. I’d grown up on my mom’s old Beatles albums, and by the time I’d reached adolescence, my personal classification system went, in ascending order: Billy Joel—John Lennon—God. So after that fruitcake emptied his revolver into the consummate musician’s chest, I wore black to junior high school for a month, waved a candle ’til my arm practically fell off, and sang, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance” so many times that it really was all I was saying.

I tell you this in order to establish my credentials as a fanatically loyal Lennon lover—because now I’m going to kill him all over again.

John was at his best as a team player, but no question, his preeminent pièce de resistance, the composition that will for all time be associated with his name, is “Imagine.” The man was a genius, and “Imagine” was his masterpiece. The words make you weak in the knees:

Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky

Imagine all the people

Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will live as one…

John’s words are so right, we agree with them instinctively, viscerally. They strike deep, primal chords. The message is simple, yet profoundly compelling, stirring a nebulous but heartfelt longing…for something better, something perfect, something beautiful.

And yet, I don’t want John’s vision to be fulfilled speedily and in our days. I don’t want it to be fulfilled… ever.

The ideal world sought by John Lennon—and Shira, and Ofer, and Doron—is in reality about as far from beautiful and wonderful as one can get.

Why do you wake up in the morning? What motivates you? What is the one thing you need more than anything, that you just couldn’t and wouldn’t want to live without?

“Your health?” No, health is important—a prerequisite which allows us to pursue our real desires in life—but we don’t live for our health.

“Success?” Not quite. How do you define “success”? What is its most indispensable component?

“Fulfillment?” No, that’s equally amorphous.

I’m talking about the single most important human motivation. The answer is so simple, and obvious, it’s on the tip of your tongue.

All right, here’s a Beatles clue: All you need is….

That’s right, LOVE.

If this is a cliché, then it is the most powerful cliché ever known to humankind. We live for love. Love of parents, love of children, love of husband, love of wife, love of sisters, love of brothers, love of girlfriend, love of boyfriend, love of family, love of friends. A vast percentage of our lifetime is geared toward achieving, maintaining, and increasing this one incomparably precious treasure.

We may strive to attain other objectives and experiences—imaginative scholarship, artistic creation, scientific discovery, physical prowess, hedonistic pleasures—but tell me: Wouldn’t you give up any of these before you’d give up love? Without love (to enlist the Dooby Brothers), where would you be now?

Asked to choose their all-time favorite verse in the Bible, both Jesus and Rabbi Akiba (who lived almost 100 years apart) picked the same one: Leviticus 19:18, “Ve ahavta le ray’akha kamokha, Love your neighbor as yourself.”

An anecdote in the Talmud (Baba Metziah, 62a) describes the following situation: You and a friend have journeyed far into the hot desert, many miles from a water source. As you admire various lizard species and rock formations, he realizes he has forgotten his canteen.

You quickly assess your options. Your canteen holds only enough water for one of you to make it back to civilization alive. You could split the water—and both perish. You could hand your flask altruistically to your fellow traveler—and die a hideous death. Or, you could keep the canteen for yourself. What should you do?

The Talmud records two legal rulings on this matter. One emanates from a man named Ben-Petura, who is never mentioned elsewhere in rabbinic literature, and some have associated with Jesus. Ben-Petura advises: Share the water—and die together—because you are no better than your friend.

Rabbi Akiba, however, rules differently: Take the flask.

Now, this difference of opinion may seem surprising, because both Jesus and Akiba chose “Love your neighbor as yourself” as their all-time favorite biblical verse. Ben-Petura understands the Levitical injunction to mean loving all human beings equally, without preference—which is consistent with the Christian view that there are no separate national entities (“There is neither Jew nor Greek…for ye are all one in Christ Jesus,” Galatians 3:28); no tribal affiliations; and not even special ties of blood kinship (“Anyone who loves his father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me,” Matt. 10:37.) Indeed, Christian love is neither eros nor amour, but what the Church Fathers liked to call agape: unselfish devotion and ardor dispensed in equal measure to all. Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet of universal love.

Picture the following scene: Getting down on one knee, you say sweetly, “My darling, I love you sooooooo much, as much as I love…that other woman walking down the street over there. And that one, too, riding her bicycle past the newspaper stand. I love you exactly as much as I love all my previous girlfriends, as much as I love everybody else on this planet.—Oh God ! What’s that searing, indescribable pain in my groin? Hey, where are you going, my daaaaaarliiiiiing?!

Anyone who claims or aspires to love everybody the same simply has no idea what love means! Love that means anything distinguishes and prefers. In short, “universal love” isn’t love at all.

In line with Jewish thought, Rabbi Akiba unabashedly recognizes and unreservedly encourages the kind of love that confers specialness. This is the type of love that blossoms forth from the ubiquitous Hebrew root, which is most accurately rendered into English as “to declare special,” or “to set apart as unique.” (Thus Leviticus 11:44—“Ye shall be kedoshim, for I [the Lord] am kadosh” —is explicated by the rabbis: “Just as I am set apart [parush], be ye set apart”).

In Judaism the institution of marriage is called kiddushin because the couple sets one another apart from the rest of humanity, for they (ideally) love each other more than they love anybody else. When Jews bless wine on a Friday night, it is called kiddush, because we are setting apart the Sabbath day, saying: “I love this day more than any other day of the week.”

Preferential love is not a Jewish invention. It’s the way all humans work deep down inside. And it’s the only kind of love we want back from the people we love.

That is why the perpetually smiling, touchy-feely swami types who profess to be all about love are in reality all about stealing this absolutely essential human emotion away from you (and they’ve already lost it themselves). It is no coincidence that the first, most indispensable step taken in order to successfully “deprogram” a Hare Krishna (or other cult member) is to rekindle his/her particular love for a particular someone.

Because of preferential love, human beings will always form special groups to which they feel a special sense of belonging. They will always love in the manner of concentric circles, the nearer rings loved more than the farther ones. Loving in this way is the bread-and-butter of authentic human happiness.

The only way to stop people from loving preferentially and start them in loving universally is to take a page from the book of Mo Tzu, the famous ancient Chinese champion of anti-particularism, who proclaimed: “People must be awed into universal love through punishments and fines.” Indeed, many generations later, Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot terrorized their people with proclamations of oneness. That’s the only way to ensure that human beings do not divide up into distinct socio-cultural and political communities—mandate that they dress, eat, sleep, talk, sing, dance, work, play and think the same —and kill them if they diverge.

There’s your “One World,” John, with all divisions and barriers erased. There’s where you’ll find the Hare Krishnas’ magnificent Utopia, where “all hearts are as one heart, all minds are as one mind.”

And that is just the beginning of what I would say to Shira, Ofer, and Doron….

—Adapted from John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage by Ze’ev Maghen (Bottom Books, NY)

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    Union for Reform Judaism.