You know that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where Arthur has a run-in with Dennis, a politically astute peasant? I love that bit. Especially the part where Arthur is trying to explain the legitimacy of his kingship. We’ve all been brought up with the story, and we want to share in the enchantment so we kind of nod along as he describes the appearance of the Lady in the Lake, his eyes full of wonder at the memory. Sure. Magical call to rule. Works for us.
Dennis is having none of it. “If I went around saying I was an emperor because some watery bint lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away.”
It’s not that he’s calling Arthur’s story a lie, it’s just that it has nothing to do with him. If Arthur’s mystical vision sends him wandering around the countryside on a quest, that’s between him and the Lady. But once it involves others, there had better be a reason that makes sense to everyone. Otherwise, as Dennis says, “Come and see the violence inherent in the system.” And as much as we hate to give up the enchantment, we’ve got to agree that he has a point; a pretty clear one at that.
It’s not that clear in real life, certainly when it’s our stories at stake.
Those of us who’ll be in synagogue this week will read about Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah. This story, along with others before and after it, provides a kind of mythic compass or loadstone, aligning the Jewish imagination towards the magnetic North of sacred geography. We need our sacred stories to give us a sense of direction. So that’s cool.
But it’s not so cool when we try to use those stories the way Arthur invokes the gift of Excalabur. My teacher in these and many other things, Gershom Gorenberg, has shown what many have suspected: the entire settlement enterprise in the Territories is illegal. Not only that, but the Israeli Government has known it as long as it’s been doing it.
Imagine if we used that knowledge to frame the discussion. “Ok, here’s some land we’ve settled on that belongs to someone else. Should we build some more on it? Here are some settlements that break Israeli and international law. Should we expand them? Invest in the infrastructure.” But we don’t use that knowledge; we assert a mythic “right” to the land, which while it may be True and Certain and Holy, has the same legitimizing force as Excalabur. Is it any wonder that people look at us the way Dennis looked at Arthur?
Of course, when Arthur leaves, Dennis’ friend observes that he must, indeed, have been a king – he hadn’t got shit all over him. We should only be as lucky.