Thursday, January 11, 2007

This post was published a few years ago, but I think it makes the perfect follow up to "The Greatest Story on Earth"

In Defense of Insanity

We demonize irrationality and insanity; “irrational exuberance” makes the stock market crash, and temporary insanity caused the poor Menendez boys (in the opinion of their defense attorney)to kill their parents. But frankly, I think insanity gets a bad rap.

Insanity helps cut through all the politically correct “naareshkiet” that is part and parcel of any society. A 19th century Rabbi once asked why in every small shtetl there was an odd and neurotic person who was the town’s “meshugenah”. What purpose, he wondered, could God have in creating the “town meshugenah”? The answer, he said, was that there are times when an injustice is perpetrated, but because it involves respected and important personages, everybody is too tactful and discreet to say anything. At that point, the town meshugenah, completely lacking in social graces, will be the only one to speak honestly about the scandal. It is for this moment of inspired insanity that God created the town meshugenah. Rationality is a wonderful thing most of the time; but sometimes insanity is our holy obligation.

I would respectfully submit that the Jews are meant to be the “town meshugenah” of world history. We have constantly challenged the assumptions of the world around us; like the Midrashic portrait of our ancestor Abraham, we have smashed many idols (and in the process, earned the enmity of their worshippers) . In Egypt, where owning a slave was as natural as owning a pet, Moses demands the freedom of slaves. In contrast to Sodom and Gomorrah, where xenophobia reigned, the Torah obligates us to love strangers. In the war torn Middle East, Isaiah preaches peace. In medieval Europe, a society that prized brutality and strength, the Jews prized learning and education. For generations, we have looked at world very differently than everyone else, and paid dearly for being the town meshugenah. But over the years, we have transformed the world with our insanity. As the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoi once wrote “the Jew ..... is the ..... spring and fountain out of which the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions.”

Indeed, insanity is the only explanation of Jewish survival. Was it sane for a group of downtrodden exiles to persist in their religion despite persecution and discrimination? Was it rational for a people who endured endless expulsions and pogroms to dream of a return to their homeland? Of course it was insanity; but luckily, we had many Jewish meshugenahs to guide the way.

We endured because of insane people like Jeremiah, who purchases a field in Jerusalem just as the Babylonians are about to destroy the city. He is a buyer during a horrible bear market, because he knows that God will ultimately redeem the Jews. Theodore Herzl dreams of a Jewish State in “maybe in five years, certainly in fifty” when the prospect of one was as likely as a colony of Martians descending on earth. Unsung heroes like Yaakov Birnbaum and Glenn Richter, founders of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), ignored the naysayers and cynics, and singlehandedly establish a movement that freed hundreds of thousands Jews from the former Soviet Union. Jewish History is one long story of insanity.

But I’m not writing this article so that we can pat ourselves on the back because of our previous accomplishments. I’m writing this because insanity is our daily obligation.

A few weeks ago, I was walking with my seven year old son (who was wearing a Batman T-shirt) in downtown Montreal. As we walked, we passed a long-haired young man in his twenties. Noting my son’s T-shirt the young man said to him “you like Batman...I’ve got something for you”; and he opened his backpack, and inside was an entire collection of buttons, attached to velvet backing. He found a Batman button, gave it to my son, and just walked away. Ever the New Yorker, I thought to myself, “boy, this guy is crazy”; you just don’t walk up to total strangers and give things away. But then I realized that this young man’s craziness was a blessing. His generous, unexpected gesture had put a great big smile on a little boy’s face. It was precisely for this type of inspired insanity that the Jewish people came into being.

There are many opportunities for us to practice inspired insanity on a daily basis. Prayer and Torah study are often considered to be, well, “too intense” or “too demanding” (read; “too insane”) for people to do on a daily basis; but this "insanity" is the very backbone of Judaism. Ordinary people don’t tell their spouses, parents and children how special they are on a daily basis; it’s the loving lunatics who add those few special words. The average person answers a charity solicitation with a reasonable sum; only a select few give crazy contributions. To be a holy meshugenah, you need to care like crazy, love like crazy and give like crazy. And of course, if you happen to see a little kid wearing a Batman T-shirt, and you happen to have a Batman button in your pocket, give him the button, because that’s what a holy meshugenah does.

1 comment:

Uri Cohen said...

Excellent. Thanks!