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Cornel West: On Chesed, Hamlet, and the Jewish Prophet Amos

Cornel West: On Chesed, Hamlet, and the Jewish Prophet Amos

You may remember the uproar Cornel West, the Zelig-like black scholar, caused last year when he viciously attacked Obama on the liberal website Truthdig. The big news was that West—a prominent voice in American public life, but especially within the black community—had turned against the man he spent much of the 2008 campaigning for. But there was a lesser-noticed quote in that interview that raised many Jewish eyebrows. Embedded in his criticism that Obama wasn’t quite black enough, he said that Obama seemed “most comfortable with upper-¬middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart.”

The anti-semitic label got thrown around quite a bit then. But a lengthy, damning profile of West in New York magazine this week reveals that he’s no anti-Semite; in fact, he may just be the most Jewish-friendly Christian thinker yet. “When West talks about love, he often invokes the Hebrew word chesed,,” writes the journalist, Lisa Miller, “which in the Jewish tradition means ¬‘loving-kindness.’ ‘Hamlet suffers from the incapacity to love,’ West said at BAM [at a recent talk there]. ‘There’s not a lot of chesed there. He’s not connected to that at all.’”

In fact, the piece brims with Jewish references. The article is mostly concerned with why West would break so sharply with Obama, and on that front it doesn’t turn up anything new. (Since the Truthdig piece came out last May, it’s been widely reported that West felt slighted that Obama didn’t even thank him for stumping for him in the campaign—some 65 appearances West made for Obama; no small thing. West is convinced, probably accurately, that Obama’s political handlers didn’t want him associating anymore with a polarizing figure like West.) But it does reveal how much Jewish wisdom weighs on West.

In any event, the real reason he’s become such an Obama-hater, West tells Miller, is that he thinks Obama has forgotten about the poor, and that he’s become a Wall Street crony. But practically speaking, Milller asks, isn’t he better than any Republican alternative; would Romney be much different?

“What, [West] asked me, leaning across his desk and jabbing his long fingers downward, if the Jews had asked Amos to tone it down a notch?” Miller writes: “‘Well, Amos,’ West imagines the residents of the Kingdom of Judah, circa 750 B.C., saying in a sort of whiny white-person voice, ‘Don’t talk about justice within the Jewish context, because that’s going to make Jewish people look bad.’ Amos [would] say, ‘What?’ West thundered. ‘Kiss my Jewish behind. My calling is to say, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”

The echoes of Martin Luther King and Heschel ring loudly here. As is often been noted, it was the social activist and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who alighted King to that translation of Amos during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. But it’s a revealing instance here of how the Jewish Bible—and West’s oft-remarked notion that he speaks from within “prophetic tradition”—continues to inform West.

There are personal ties West has had with actual Jews recently, too, and not just their tradition. Though Miller writes that “West talks a lot about love, but he doesn’t have many close friends,” she goes on about his relation with the California rabbi and writer Michael ¬Lerner. “The founder of Tikkun magazine, [Lerner] worked with West on a book in 1995,” she writes. But Lerner told Rolling Stone that “‘Cornel is a very lonely person. For a long time, I thought I was his best friend … But he had probably about 1,000 best friends. He was best friends with everybody. That made him more isolated.’”

Of course, it could be that Lerner was nursing his own wounds. But Miller reports convincingly that West is in fact a very isolated person—he’s been divorced three times, has children with most of them, and even recently fathered a girl in 2000, with a Kurdish journalist he met while at Harvard. Miller is most critical of West’s hypocrisy when it comes to marriage and the merits of raising strong families—which he constantly extols. But even though he appears to be a doting father, he’s husband skills are seriously lacking.

Miller also points out another hypocrisy in West—he’s a vicious critic of bigotry, yet has trouble distancing himself from certain kinds of bigots. Take Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam. “West says he abhors racism and nationalism, yet in a public spat that made headlines in 1999, he refused to concur with Michael Lerner that Louis Farrakhan’s anti-¬Semitic views made him ‘a racist dog,’ preferring instead to call him ‘a xenophobic spokesperson when it comes to dealing with Jewish humanity.’”

Personally, I think West’s language here is more accurate, and honest, than Lerner’s—calling Farrakhan “a racist dog” probably sets back the dialogue between blacks and Jews even more than Farrakhan’s own repellent comments. And yet West’s rhetorical hedging in this case actually reveals that he may just be—contra his critics—the most Jewish friendly black radical since, well…since who?

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