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John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage (REVIEW)

October 21, 2012 3:15 am 14 comments

John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage, by Ze'ev Maghen.

John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage,  by Ze’ev Maghen (, 2011).

Gershom Scholem, the Leviathan of Jewish mysticism and influential professor at Hebrew University from 1933-65,  once mischievously remarked that a country’s talent goes where it is needed, and in Israel it was needed far more urgently in the military than in the universities. Since then the itch to epater les Juifs (outrage the Jews) and curry favor with their enemies has  inspired several books by Israeli professors that prompt the question: “For this we needed Jewish universities?”.  In 2007 Ariel Toaff, professor of history at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, published in Italian Pasque di Sangue (Easters of Blood) which claimed that Jews in medieval Italy used gentile blood for ritual purposes. In 2008 Shlomo Sand of Tel-Aviv University published in Hebrew  an anti-Zionist polemic called (in its English translation of 2009) The Invention of the Jewish People,  which argues that there was no such thing as “the Jewish People” at all until the wily Jewish nationalists “constructed” it in the nineteenth century.

Ze’ev Maghen’s book, at first glance, might seem to fall into this sordid  genre.  On p. 144, for example, we find, in huge bold capital letters, the claim that  THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS JUDAISM,  a claim supported by the prodigiously learned author with reference to the word’s absence from Torah,  Prophets, Talmud, Midrash, Kabbalah, indeed all Judeo-classical literature, and crucial to his argument against the relevance of faith to being Jewish.  But in fact Maghen, also a professor (of Arabic literature and Islamic history) at Bar-Ilan,  not only  confutes  Scholem’s remark about where talent goes in Israel but provides an antidote to Sand’s  poison.  He is a soldier in Israel’s tank corps who artfully weaves his military experience into the fabric of his argument;  and his book celebrates both the historicity and the vibrancy of the The Jewish People:  “We have been a nation since the Bible, and our sense of nationhood has grown stronger with every era.”  It is also, unlike Sand’s book,  scholarly (in an unruly,  Cossack in a sukkeh style) even though the latter has 568 footnotes, and Maghen’s none.

The book opens with Maghen’s account of an accidental meeting at L.A. International Airport with three Israeli (or yored) Hare Krishnas named Shira, Ofer, and Doron, all decked out in saffron robes. They are the offspring  of  Israel’s post-Zionist, post-Jewish, and therefore (as Maghen views the matter) post-human  intelligentsia; and just as the “universalizing” Jews of  Europe rejected their Jewish identity for a German or Polish or Hungarian one, this trio has become “universal” by rejecting the Hebrew Bible (which Maghen offers them)  for a psychedelic version of the Hindu Upanishads or the Bhagavad-Gita, all the while deploring the nationalist “irrationality” of Jewish religious practices.

This trio recalls to Maghen’s mind his own (Philadelphia) youthful devotion to the dreamy lyrics of John Lennon: “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…”  The rest of the book comprises Maghen’s repudiation of the universalism and rationalism of the Israeli Hare Krishnas and the borderless, homogenized world of Lennon’s overheated  imagination:  “I don’t want John’s vision to be fulfilled speedily and in our days. I don’t want it to be fulfilled…ever. [His] ballad is in reality a death-march” and not least because of its pacifism: “Says John: ‘Nothing to kill or die for…’  Says  me:  in that case, nothing much to live for either.”

Now Maghen might have argued for a Jewish universalism which says that anybody can become Jewish but not everybody is required to do so. Instead he rejects  altogether the  universalist (and Christian) ideal of loving all people equally, and makes a powerful pitch for diversity—though not  the fraudulent “multicultural” kind which requires people to look different but think alike, and produces Jews who revere all cultures but their own.

He celebrates Jewish respect for the unfairness and arbitrariness of preferential love. This is evident not only in God’s  (discriminatory) choosing the Jewish people but in Biblical narratives like the Joseph story, which culminates in  Judah’s  speech  (Gen. 44)  accepting and forgiving  his father Jacob’s favoritism towards the spoiled brat  who would ascend to power in Egypt. By contrast, Christianity—the world’s “largest Equal Opportunity Employer” where love is concerned– can quickly turn Love Inflation into Love Devaluation when matters of faith and belief take over.  Thus Jesus (in Matthew): “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.” And  (in Luke): “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children and sisters…he cannot be my disciple.”

The Jews, by contrast, are “one vast extended family,” members of a clan, not a faith. They neither have nor need a raison d’etre. That is why Maghen (in a passage encapsulating  his doctrine and temperament) observes that “‘Jews for Jesus’ is not, technically speaking, a contradiction in terms—a fact which should in no way discourage you from physically assaulting these devious sons-of-bitches if they ever get within a kilometer of your kids!”

Maghen acknowledges  that one large problem arising from defining Jews as a  family or “Irrational Solidarity Group” rather than a community of faith or belief is that of conversion. Can one “convert” (again, out of “preferential love”) into a new family? And how many gentiles are enthralled by the prospect not of adopting the Jewish people’s founding document and constitution called Torah but of becoming relatives of Noam Chomsky,  Norman Finkelstein,  and  Mordechai Vanunu?  For all his eloquence, Maghen never quite satisfies the demand of his acknowledged inspiration, Hillel Halkin:  “A religion that can speak only to its own adherents diminishes them as well.”

Although he rebuts “the challenge of universalism,” Maghen at first grants “the challenge of rationalism” leveled by the Jewish Hare Krishna: “Judaism makes absolutely no sense for this day and age.” Indeed, Maghen’s extraordinary gifts as a comic writer are never more  on display than in his Voltairean mockery of, among many other Jewish practices, kashrut, the eruv, shemittah, shaatnez, circumcision, and  (most hilariously) the “existentialist threat” of bread at Passover. But mockery is not rejection because life is not logic. Man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal.  This might have been said without recounting the history of Western philosophy,  but Maghen is a talented writer who lacks the gift of knowing  when to stop; and the inordinate length of his  argument for Romance over Rationality nearly derails the book.

It is not entirely the obtuseness of publishers that explains why John Lennon and the Jews is a self-published book.  Maghen’s spelling and diction are often atrocious.  For example, he compulsively misuses the word “methodology,” usually a favorite of virgin minds seduced by the temptation of three extra syllables into saying something different from what they intend  (“method”). This is a pity, because Maghen’s is not a virgin mind, but a mature one that has taken full account of the constant burden of peril, spiritual as well as physical, with which the Jewish people currently lives.

Edward Alexander’s most recent book is The State of the Jews:  A Critical Appraisal   (Transaction Publishers).


  • Dr. S A Visotsky

    The title makes it sound like an article about John Lennon, which it clearly is not. One obscure reference is not worthy of the title.

    The most important part of the article, is Maghen’s mentioning, “the “universalizing” Jews of Europe rejected their Jewish identity for a German or Polish or Hungarian one, this trio has become “universal” by rejecting the Hebrew Bible (which Maghen offers them) for a psychedelic version of the Hindu Upanishads or the Bhagavad-Gita, all the while deploring the nationalist “irrationality” of Jewish religious practices.

    It actually goes much deeper than that. Here in Germany, 80% of the Jews have no idea they are Jewish. Grandparents, out of fear, have “converted” over the years, for fear of more pogroms in Europe, and complete generations have no idea who they really are, and the same answer is given to baby boomers, “everything was lost in the war”, full stop. Lied to by their parents, too ashamed to stand up for who they are. It is actually quite easy for them to hide as Germany REFUSES to acknowledge that being Jewish is an ethnicity, Judaism is ONLY a religion. You may be able to convert to a religion, but you cannot convert to an ethnicity, nu?

    Can an African person decide tomorrow to become Asian? Of course not.

    Germany’s problem is the can only see the religion, and dismiss the thought of another ethnic group living among them. No lessons learned after the war.


    • When does someone who converts TO Judaism become ‘ethnic?’

    • One of the misconceptions about “German” Jews today is that many came in from the East post Holocaust (before Holocaust brand was created) and held and hold different values than Jews who lived in Germany and assimilated transgenerationally under the Bimarck consolidation,modernized family names. Ditto with the K und K Jews in Austria, Hungary down into the Balkans.

      This all goes deep into roots of Zionism, the Beitar-Mapai food fight, Jabotinsky vs Arlosoroff, and even Tsarist Chekisti Felix “who me speak Yiddish” Dzerzhinski.Ït took around 50 years for the New York Times to tag Herman Goering’s right hand man Feldmarschal Erhard Milch with enough Jewish grandparents to get a ticket to the shower room. He was protected. Fritz Haber the Jewish scientist entrepreneur who was key in BASF converted to Roman church. Wanna see who the German and Austrian Jews who fought against American Jews during World War I were, go to the Bergfriedhof in the Rohrback district in the hills of of Heidelberg. Lots of graves with six pointed stars. Some desecrated. The situation you comment on is a consequence of tschihe Holocaust. What was happening before, maybe the Warburgs, Montefiores, Rothchilds, but not the Freuds, can tell you something about.

    • harry freedman

      I agree, extremely misleading title and the author is likely to recieve a letter from Yoko for his troubles


  • Frankly, this book sounds like something entirely different. I think I’ll take it for a spin.

  • Recently Yoko gave a “peace” prize in honor of Rachel Corrie. Something to think about. The prize is called the onolennon prize for peace

  • I hung out with Lennon. He did not like Zionist Jews but he liked me because I was a Maoist at the time. Yoko married a Jew – Sam Havertoy. He was a bisexual degenerate.

  • Wow, I thought it was a good review, very sharp and penetrating. Don’t know how anyone could honestly characterize as did Mr. Ehrmann. Truly, Ehrmann erred.

    • I am Ehrmann, I do not think I erred. I think that Rabbi Goldstein’s book “Gonzo Judaism” was much more on message than this tome. I do not hold it against you for criticizing me.

  • Lennon’s IMAGINE. I think Lennon might be laughing at how his beautiful song was torn apart, as in let’s look at all aspects of a song of yearning for PEACE and shred it.

    It came to him in a dream. Maybe we should respect dreams that are about peaceful coexistence, and yes, of course, if we don’t have imbalance we can’t seek balance, and if it’s all the same, it’s also too boring for words. Why would we want to become Tennyson’s Lotus Eaters?

    On the other hand, right now, there is plenty to obsess about, and change, involving inhumanity around the world. So why not take this World Peace notion in little steps, and not bash Lennon, but rather those who bash each other. I think he’d be the first to celebrate diversity if he were here. But he’s probably having a really good time on the other side of the rainbow, listening and reading these kinds of polemics involving one small song, that does invigorate many and bring us to tears.

    • There must be something to the energy that comes with an entitled name, that one is given by their parents at nativity.

      I’m not saying it is something apparently so in every case, as it is with the present commentary of Ruth Housman.

      But being of Hebraic ancestry, the name ‘Ruth’ is one held specifically precious historically amongst many, from the same sense in which the present commentary specific to the ‘Ruth herein, manifestly espouses, which reflects the very nature of the cognitive ‘peace’ that is specific to the ‘Ruth’ everyone knows, appertaining to the specific historical character referenced herein.

      And for this, I must humbly and most graciously bow in respect for this present namesake ‘Ruth’ for keeping the spirit of peace alive for every ‘Ruth,’ true to the historical spirit of ‘Ruth,’ as we all reasonably move toward using the Science of Right Reason, which allows each to co-exist in the nature of Good Will, in the interest of Universal Peace with All Walks of Life, evincing similarly situated characteristics, to which the Law’s of Nature and Nature’s Science of Reason entitle each.

      Most graciously ‘In Honor We Trust’

  • This review of a book, apparently John Lennon, is as bad, obtuse and shape shifting as Jew-denier Prix Goncourt winner Jonathan Littell’s book using a Nazi officer to channel the concept that Israel commits acts as bad as Holocaust. If talking about Lennon, seems off subject to max out pilpul, midrash and all the other good stuff. Why not throw in the Bavli-Jerushelmi conflict for good measure.

    Lennon’s views on the Jews have a lot in real life to do with his Jewish manager during the early days Brian Epstein, and there are a lot of nasty rumors about the two. Epstein lived the fast lane and died under somewhat mysterious circumstances.

    At any rate, Lennon did make some somewhat poignant, somewhat obleik references to Jews in the music business in a famous 1970 or 71 interview with Rolling Stone editor Jann S. Wenner, which were duly noted by certain minions. And Lennon haunted by this and other demons, found it difficult to record anything for several years. Others like Michael Jackson made similar remarks, but he had backup from certain quarters… Go figure. But stay on subject

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