Lance Armstrong and Naftali Bennett Have the Key to Success: Being 'American'

If we were all just a tad less British, perhaps we’d be able to articulate what makes us proud to be Jewish.

Dr. Samuel Lebens
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Dr. Samuel Lebens

Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong, the disgraced cyclist, in which he reportedly confesses to years of cheating through performance-enhancing drugs, is due to be aired Thursday. In his confession, Armstrong is embracing a time honoured American tradition: getting all emotional in public.

Of course, Armstrong is only going to air his emotions to millions of viewers, as Michael Wolff notes, in order to escape from public disgrace, and so he has put his hope in the friendly face and sofa of Oprah Winfrey: “This is confession as rehabilitation. The headline will be that he's admitted his crime”, writes Michael Wolf in The Guardian. One can’t help but think of Bill Clinton’s early, teary-eyed confession of “marital wrongdoing," long before Lewinsky, which helped him on his way to the White House.

But it’s not just in the form of self-interested televised confessions that Americans share their private emotions in public - often on Oprah Winfrey’s couch. Just think of Tom Cruise’s bizarre display of affection for his second wife, jumping up and down on Ms Winfrey’s finely upholstered furniture. Americans love public displays of emotion. As a thoroughly English Englishman, public displays of emotion are difficult for me to stomach. Where an Englishman might say to a woman he’s been married to for a few years, “do you know, I quite enjoy spending time with you?” an American will employ a sky-writer to emblazon the clouds with a declaration of undying love. In fact, Americans seem to say, “I love you” to pretty much anyone. They’re as free with the phrase “I love you” as I am with, “sorry/excuse me.” Though Britain is trying to become more American, we could never have come up with the Jerry Springer Show.

I’ve decided, following these elections in Israel, that the Jewish world could do with becoming a little more American (though we should avoid going to extremes).

In a fantastically insightful and introspective article, Ari Shavit analysed what the ultra-right-wing Naftali Bennett has that we, on the left of Israel’s political divide, lack. Part of what Bennett has, that our leaders on the left seem to lack, is an energetic drive; an overwhelming sense of purpose and destiny. He is not embarrassed about his values; he wears his ideals on his sleeve. He talks about giving our democratic state a “Jewish coloration.” His lack of shame in talking about his passions in public is American in character. The left, on the other hand, is too British.

We find it easy to concentrate on what we find distasteful about the right: “They’re so racist; they’re so backwards; they’re going to ruin our relationship with the West and turn us into a pariah state.” We are also able to articulate the pragmatic policies that we think would make life in Israel more bearable: we’ll negotiate with the Palestinians; we’ll redress the economic inequalities that engulf us. But, when it comes to expressing our Zionist passion - our passion for creating and shaping a distinctively Jewish public life - we become a little bit bashful, a little bit British. We don’t talk about those things in public. They’re too personal. When we try to talk about it, it comes out sounding wrong. Wrongly, nationalism isn’t seen to sit comfortably with progressive politics, so, it’s easier to stay quiet about those issues. And, as Daniel Gordis rightfully laments, the center-left has failed to set out with any degree of passion what their Jewish vision for Israel’s future is; what is it that makes them passionate about the project that our founding father’s framed as a Jewish Democracy in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people?

And this problem of being too British doesn’t just infect the Israeli left. It infects the Jewish world. I have a number of (unofficial) students at my rabbinical school. I’m not a member of staff there, rather, a rabbinical student who has some contact with the 18 year olds from the Diaspora who are here for a year or two before University. Very often, the students that get to be closest to me seek me out to some extent because of my PhD in philosophy. They’re interested in talking about the intellectual side of religious life – the why’s and the rationale for faith and observance in the modern world. They’re clever and it’s not so hard to excite them intellectually. But I’m too British. I think I succeed, to some degree, in explaining my complicated and somewhat cerebral theology to them. But I know I fail to communicate the emotion that really sits at the heart of my religiosity. I fail to communicate the majesty and the romance; the religious experience that ties me indelibly to my faith. As soon as I try to talk about it, I feel as if I’m baring my soul on the Oprah Winfrey show. I feel cheap.

There have been times where I’ve succeeded in my attempt to become more American. In fact, I make a point of trying to bare my soul and explain my passion for Judaism to the audiences I speak to at Limmud conferences. Somehow, I find it easier there than I do with my regular students. Sometimes, I even get carried away. I feel as if I’ve said too much; bared my soul in front of strangers. The secret is to strike the balance between good taste and effective communication. If we don’t find a way of communicating our passions, will we succeed in our attempt to inspire the next generation?

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.

Cyclist Lance Armstrong is interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in Austin, Texas, Jan. 14, 2012.Credit: Reuters

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