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1984 is Now

Losers and Why 1984 is Here

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Photograph from Alamy
Photograph from Alamy

In August Adam Gopnik published an article in the New Yorker of the August 28, 2023, issue, with the headline “The Biggest Losers”. It was a review of “Why the Bible Began” by Jacob L Wright. It is an excellent review to be expected of a journalist of repute, perhaps best known for his “A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism.”

There is little new in Wright’s analysis of the history of the Bible which essentially follows accepted critical theory. Except in his thesis that the Bible triumphed and survived because it is a book about losers. And in one way it is. The Bible is the only document of that era in which the defeats and failures are recorded whereas every other contemporary people only recorded their victories.

Consider the long litany of internal conflict with the families, tribes, kingdoms, exiles and on to this very day. We were a “stiff-necked people” then. And we surely are today. Just consider the utter failure of the Charedi community in the USA to support the march to Washington to show how we are willing to demonstrate for our rights and our protection which, as in Israel protects them as much as the rest of the Jewish people. And it was not as if anyone was asking them to serve in the army as they jolly well ought to.

“The Bible’s triumph, in Wright’s view, can be put simply as Losers Rule. Defeat usually compelled other ancient peoples, as it does us, to invent rationalizations for what happened. In the face of regular defeat, however, the Jewish scribes had to ask whether defeat wasn’t God’s will in the first place, and so opened mankind unto a new contemplative possibility: that spiritual success and failure were not to be judged on worldly terms. Nice guys, or, anyway, pious guys, finish last and should be proud of their position.”

The southern Kingdom of Judah and the northern Kingdom of Israel, which might have been agreeable sister kingdoms, were, in the centuries around 900-700 B.C.E., warring adversaries. The Jewish tradition of celebrating non-dynastic figures of moral or charismatic force, a practice mostly unknown, in the rest of the ancient world explains the endemic divisions and losses. This division and tension that led to the loss of the Second Temple and Jerusalem was then followed by the disaster of Bar Cochba’s rebellion some sixty years later. We survived time and time again. Perhaps there are advantages to being losers.

Wright suggests this. That Jewish stories have a special virtue for having been forged in the smithy of suffering. “One cannot help but wonder: if neighboring peoples had not only admitted defeat but also made it central to a new collective identity, as the biblical scribes did, would they too have produced corpora of literature that continued to be transmitted for generations?”

This time we have not lost and yet in the eyes of the world we are losers again. Despite all that we have contributed to the world both religiously and secularly. And yet, ironically, this, as Gopnik also suggests, is why we survive. Meanwhile, as I look around most of the world is heading blindly towards disaster unaware of the danger jihadi ideology presents somehow convincing itself that Israel is the problem.

With the anti-Israel invective that has taken to the streets around the world, I am reminded of George Orwell’s 1984. He was warning against political dictatorships. But this applies just as much to the tyranny of ideas. He describes a world where facts are not facts, and language is controlled and subverted as dictators both Fascist and Marxist control communication and indoctrinate the populace. Current woke opinions and the pressure they have imposed recall Big Brother Watching You. The Thought Police of academia and much of local government ensure that they silence opposition, open debate, and use force to quell dissent. The only language one is allowed to use is Newspeak! Or Duckspeak which is to quack like a duck. There is even Facecrime which is when facial expressions give away different opinions.

The dystopia that both British writers Aldous Huxley in Brave New World and George Orwell in 1984 warned us against, are upon us although it is not too late to fight back even if it will take another generation to level the playing field. As former New York Mayor Bloomberg wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

To return to Adam Gopnik. In A Thousand Small Sanities, he points out that religions in the past have tried coercion. Their coercive powers were removed in Western, enlightened societies. It now looks as if some are trying to assert coerciveness again, both as religions and as woke political ideologies. As a religious person I hate coercion. I pray they both do not succeed in stifling free, civilized debate instead of grandstanding.

The world around us is changing. As Jews living in the diaspora, we have probably never had an era of such benevolence where anti-Semitism was unfashionable even if Israel has had to bear constant violence and war. Perhaps this current crisis teaches us that being a loser in the eyes of the world, is precisely what we need to survive. So be it. So long as we defend ourselves, and cultivate our allies but also realize that more and more we will need a safe haven in Israel.

Jeremy, November 23, 2023


Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.


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