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Review of 'Imagine: John Lennon and the Jews'

Appreciating the literary talents and drawing from the wisdom of distinguished Jewish thinkers is no difficult task. Elie Wiesel, for instance, is known for possessing a rhetorical grace that communicates a genuine moral consciousness. Abba Eban’s adversaries would reluctantly yield to his persuasive dialectics. Herman Wouk demonstrates with devious ease the gifted ability to conjure gripping tales that keep the reader sleep ridden until their conclusions are reached. Lastly, writers whose works reflect the scrutiny of Benny Morris are regarded with the sort of high esteem that can only be drawn from the depths of tedium and rigorous research.

Though the qualities of these writers, cataloged above, are an authentic source from which anyone can draw pride and inspiration, prolific thinkers have since been unable contribute something new. In his recently published book Imagine: John Lennon and the Jews, Ze’ev Maghen, with the soul of a true visionary, infuses his writing with that missing element: he yells at you. He has no fear when it comes to writing as if he is on a soapbox and, what’s more intriguing, you can’t help but incline your ear.

Supplementing one’s writing with chutzpah is a distinctly Jewish characteristic that often fails to elicit an endearing reaction from anyone who is on the receiving end—until now. This is because Maghen knows full well how he can exploit two complementary elements: (1) a polemic that has long been overdue and (2) a willing audience in desperate need of it. Maghen possesses a truly remarkable ability to challenge your presuppositions, to cry out, to give your emotions and rationality a good shove, and to have you convinced that you are his trusted, close friend throughout.

How Maghen can assume the incompatible roles of a confidante, a chastising father, a gentle guide, an intellectual bully, and an impressionable peer is so enigmatic its delightful. The book’s subtitle, “A Philosophical Rampage,” does not do justice to the value of Maghen’s thought process and falls short of accurately conveying the critical and immediate relevance of his propositions. Through priceless personal narratives, a demonstration of intimate familiarity with secular culture, and an extensive knowledge of both secular and religious texts, Maghen offers paradigm-shifting thoughts about engendering meaningfulness from one’s ethnic history and how to cultivate pride and courage so that a Jew may stride into an unsettled future. He is a romantic without pretense who fearlessly and ruthlessly attacks a despairing disposition of indifference and the poisonous practice of shallow, immediate gratification that threatens to pervade modernity.

Such topics may sound cheesy, but another impressive skill of Maghen’s is how he can so elegantly avoid the cheese. It is a small wonder then, how far-reaching an impact his book is having on an ever expanding number of Jewish readers, particularly within university campuses. Reading a work that unabashedly blends impressive intellectual discourse with the emotional highs and lows of personal investment is a rare quality that college students thirst for.

The content of the book revolves around an undertaking to coherently present a powerful idea that is often shunned by secular pseudo-intellectuals striving to keep up with the current academic fashion. That idea: “love is a better motivation than Truth” which is Maghen’s thesis “in seven words” (p. 268). If Maghen fails to convince you with his prose that love should be the central motivator in our lives, he succeeds by tooth and nail in getting across an appreciation for the complexity of such a notion. Those who are well grounded in the analytical school of thought will grapple with much of the material Maghen presents. For instance, Maghen argues that developing an affinity for one’s historical roots and ethnic identity is more valuable than the objective pursuit of reason. Using reason in an attempt to downplay reason is playfully inconsistent, but it is an irony of which Maghen is well aware.

Before he reaches his main argument, Maghen sets himself to the task of explaining why he is a Jew. After this, anyone who doesn’t put the book down will either smile with affection for his outlook or will reluctantly read on in jealousy. Maghen jolts you into appreciating the idiosyncrasies of Jewish religious practice; he beautifully illustrates the significance and cultural relevance of Jewish history and Jewish literature; and he presents an exhilarating, open invitation to establish a deep connection with Zionism. It is only after all of this, that Maghen writes “and now, without further ado, we shall put on our thinking caps and attempt to prove rationalism will be the death of us” (p. 190).

It’s a shame that a book like this is so unique. Maghen’s message, though addressed particularly to Jews, is one that traverses all ethnic and cultural boundaries. Maghen thinks that we must wage a campaign against universalism with preferential love and particularism. Spiting him is easy. To invoke Emmanuel Kant’s principal of universality, we might say with a great degree of confidence that the world would be a moreworthwhile place if his ethos was the definitive one. Maghen leads a resistance to an age where a cynical, smothering secularism is perceived as a moral alternative to religion and where apathy and agnostic ambivalence imprison our identities.