Monday, November 15, 2010

If you’re anything like most people I know, you probably live in at least two different worlds. One of them is your religious community and the other is the company or institution where you work. And you probably relate to these in very different ways. Your religious is community is more central to your identity; it is one in which you are more emotionally invested and for which you are willing to make greater sacrifices. Your business relationships are essentially instrumental; they are characterized by self-interests that happen to intersect with those of others. When those interests don’t overlap, you’re unlikely to sacrifice your own for those of the company.

The distinction between these two types of groups lies at the foundation of 19th century sociology. Since the early sociologists who first developed these ideas, Ferdinand Tonnies and Emil (Dovid ben HaRav Moshe) Durkheim, wrote in German, the two types are commonly referred to as Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, respectively. The communities I discussed in previous posts that are defined by a process characterized by an evolving code, narrative and aggregation mechanisms correspond to Gemeinschaft. To avoid pretentiousness, and also because the sound of German creeps me out, I’ll just use the terms communities and corporations.

Among the questions that most concerned Tonnies and Durkheim were what caused the shift in modern European societies from a prevalence of community relationships to a prevalence of corporate relationships and what were the consequences of this shift. As for the causes, the shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy resulted in urbanization and in division of labor, which necessitated some degree of business relationships among people from different communities. This readily explains the rise of corporate relationships. But the demise of communities requires a bit more explanation.

As we’ve seen, communities are defined by processes that sometimes spin out of good equilibria. For the case of Jewish communities, we’ve looked at these disequilibria from three different perspectives, but our treatment thus far has been theoretical. Let’s now see how, as a matter of historical fact, Jewish communities did in fact spin out of equilibrium.

When communities were ideologically and geographically tight-knit and opportunities for assimilation limited, the degree of trust among community members was high. A reasonable amount of signaling was thus adequate to maintain that trust. The weight that members assigned each other in attempting to anticipate consensus was thus fairly uniformly distributed, so that the moral consensus reflected the balance between universal morality and community-based morality that characterized the moral instincts of community members. The narrative settled in some sweet pot that balanced plausibility and compellingness according to the sensibilities of the community. (Ignore the fact that my little idyll describes a community that may never have existed.)

Even subtle social changes could be sufficient to upset this delicate equilibrium. When opportunities for integration into industrial economies arose but were accompanied by pressure to conform to non-Jewish social norms, social trust within the Jewish community dropped, even if initially the drop was slight. The need for costly signals rose and the incentive to stay in the community was thus diminished. The urge to emphasize universal morality at the expense of community-based morality increased and brought with it a corresponding emphasis on community-based morality among others. This increased distrust further and led to skewed assignment of weights in aggregation; among the cognoscenti, gedoilim became oracular and the instincts of the masses became irrelevant. This increased alienation among the masses, whose moral instincts were not given expression. In parallel, the narrative, having become the subject of debate, needed to be made explicit and once explicit appeared increasingly implausible (who could take seriously the inevitability of redemption in the face of increasing persecution and assimilation?) or increasingly diluted and uncompelling. Each step in this social disintegration led to diminished trust and so increased formalization and extremeness, which in turn accelerated disintegration.

The upshot of this story is that when communities disintegrate, many people are left without any community. Their relationships are exclusively of the corporate type. I’ll call such people unaffiliateds. What would life be like for you as an unaffiliated? If you don’t belong to a community, you cannot comprehend community-based morality. All morality would be reduced to not doing any harm to anyone else. You would not comprehend the meaning of respect for the traditions and authorities of a specific community the way members of that community do, or even the way members of other communities do. At best, you might wish to avoid giving offense to others whose traditions you find benign, even if pointless. You would not experience taboos on certain foods or sexual practices the way members of a community would; you’d experience them only as preferences for alternatives, devoid of any moral component. The specific taboos of any given community would strike you as arbitrary. As Edward Skidelsky puts it, gluttony and debauchery might strike you as unaesthetic or vulgar, but so long as someone engaging in them was doing no harm to anyone else, you’d regard such a person as acting “within his rights”. The only virtue that you wouldn't be embarrassed to discuss would be the virtue of justice, because you’d imagine justice to be somehow universal. (You’d be wrong, but never mind.) The compromises members of a community fashion between special loyalty to other members of their community and respect for the universal rights of all people would always strike you as insufficiently egalitarian.

The narrative of any community would strike you as utterly delusional because you’d mistake it for a set of claims about the world instead of the outward expression of the experience of being a member of a certain kind of community.

You’d be something like a person raised without language who communicates by pointing and grunting, while insisting that people who shared a language were odd and even clannish.

This is not a pretty picture and I apologize for framing it in second-person. Durkheim described such a state as anomie and regarded it as a kind of pathology that arose as Gemeinschaft gave way to Gesellschaft (to use his terminology). Following Durkheim, Jonatha Haidt points out that “the historical and cross-cultural prevalence of Gemeinschaft suggests that this form of association is in some sense the human default – it is the form of social structure in which human evolution took place, and the context in which intuitive ethics became a part of the human mind.” In fact, if the anomic character I described above sounds even vaguely familiar, it’s only because we live in a modern Western society. No such character ever existed in pre-modern times and, as Haidt points out, no such character exists outside a very narrow segment of modern Western society.

Actually, I’m going to argue that the caricature into whose shoes I put you doesn’t really exist anywhere, at least not for long. The language instinct is so strong that groups of people without language will develop a language. If you drop a bunch of people with no common language on a tropical island, they will develop a simplified language, usually called pidgin, with very primitive grammatical rules. Children raised on that pidgin will develop it into a full-blown language, usually called creole, with sophisticated grammar. (According to the linguist Derek Bickerton, this actually happened on Hawaiian sugar plantations in the early 20th century.)

The moral instinct is no less strong. Unaffiliateds develop a creole morality, which I will describe in the next few posts. It might look familiar.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

your really a chuchem , to write about halacha without quoting major poskim all the time is really an art

3:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

aren't these some of the arguments that Meni Mautner uses in his criqtique of Aron Barak.
but I'm not sure that his solution of recognizing many different "gemeinschafts" that form the State of Israel is one that works.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

This is slightly related to Mautner's argument. I have deliberately not discussed questions about state and culture yet because the whole second half of this series will be devoted to that.

12:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When the comment portion of the blog stops being serviced by the blogmaster, and is back up, check out the scandalous comments against Yiddishkeit being made by a kofer on

11:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


How many people went to both Chofetz Chaim (the West Side one) and to YU? Not too many.

12:35 AM  
Anonymous Y. Ben-David said...

I was wondering if you could also post this series of articles in reverse order in another location so that we can easily print them out and save them in the correct order?

7:14 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home