Monday, December 27, 2010

We have seen that Judaism can best be thought of as a process in which a community carries forward and develops a moral code and a narrative. The moral code itself involves expressions of national and ethnic solidarity, so that it is impossible to separate moral and ethnic commitments. Since membership in the community is itself determined by identification with the code and narrative, there is an inherent circularity to the process that makes it susceptible to disequilibria.

In fact, from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th century, emancipation of the Jews and general secularization in parts of Europe combined with persecution of the Jews led to precisely the kind of disequilibrium I discussed in earlier posts. We find the bonds of tradition weakening for some, while for others tradition becomes more and more stringent and detailed. The restriction of outlets for Jewish creativity in political and economic spheres led to hyper-intellectualization of reality. At the apex of this process, Rav Chaim Brisker could find broad abstract structures in a haphazard mass of evolving traditions and the Sfas Emes could reduce the entire concrete world to an arbitrary and somewhat intrusive instantiation of the symbolic world. The need for the faithful to signal loyalty to ever narrower splinter group led to increasing emphasis on precisely those aspects of tradition that were obscure and unnatural and the lack of opportunity for constructive sacrifice led to socially costly signaling. As migration and emancipation in some places led to increasing encounters with others, the need for the faithful to affirm an articulated narrative became that much greater and the specificity of the narrative grew as well. Affirming belief in the genius of the sages, the powers of the righteous and the inevitable downfall of the wicked became a litmus test of loyalty in parallel with mass defection from traditional faith. Each was a reaction to the other and together they constituted a spiral driving further and further from equilibrium.

It is easy to understand how the founding of a Jewish state could address these problems. A state would provide constructive outlets for creativity. Jewish traditions could be applied to whole areas of activity that had been off limits for centuries. The ingathering of exiles would focus attention on the common, more foundational, elements of Jewish tradition, rather than on the random details manifest in the particular codes of each sub-sub-community. Jews could signal loyalty to the community and to tradition by making socially constructive sacrifices on behalf of the general welfare. And the main elements of the narrative, the rewarding of the Jews’ loyalty to tradition by their return to former glories, would be affirmed before the eyes of the whole world.

(To avoid giving the appearance of neglecting the obvious I should add that a Jewish state also held the crucial promise of increasing the security and prosperity of the Jews. But I regard this as subsumed in the above. Moreover, if the sole desiderata were security and prosperity and not the preservation of the process, assimilation might have been a better solution.)

Now there are two ways of understanding how the founding of a state could address the problems enumerated above. In the first understanding, the role of the state is simply to create conditions that catalyze a return of Judaism towards equilibrium. It is sufficient that the state provides Jews with liberty, with an environment that reflects the values of a preponderantly Jewish population and with opportunities to express Jewish tradition creatively in many areas of life. The healing process will then take place within the Jewish community itself, a community that retains an identity distinct from the state itself. This is my preferred understanding and one of my main objectives here is to flesh out its details.

Most of those who pressed for founding a Jewish state had, however, a very different vision of the relationship between the prospective Jewish state and the Jews as a community (or more precisely as a collection of nested sub-communities). The idea was that the state would replace Jewish communities. The state, not the community, would become the locus of Jewish identity; the laws of the state would replace the norms of the community; the state would become the central character in the Jewish narrative; citizenship in the state would play the role of membership in the community.

Conflating the concept of Jewish peoplehood with Jewish statehood encounters a number of obvious obstacles. Membership in each is determined in completely different ways. Citizenship in a state is determined primarily by geographic considerations, while membership in a moral community is determined primarily by voluntary identification with the social norms and narrative of the community. But you need to bear in mind that the original idea of founding a Jewish state was tied up with certain romantic notions of nationalism that were popular at the time in German philosophical circles. Nations (what I prefer to call communities) were believed to embody some essential Idea or Spirit which could also be embodied by a State. It isn’t important to actually understand what that means (when philosophers resort to capitalizing even in non-German, that's almost certain to be a hopeless task); it was simply a sleight of hand designed to paper over the obvious unbridgeable difference between peoplehood and statehood.

In fact, attempts to bridge this difference in the Jewish context actually came in two flavors. One flavor was favored by those who had given up on Judaism as a religion but retained feelings of ethnic identification. For them, conflating peoplehood with statehood was a means of narrowing the definition of peoplehood to the civil terms that could be accommodated by statehood. A different flavor was favored by those who wished to revive and strengthen Jewish religious life. For them, conflating peoplehood with statehood was a means of narrowing the definition of statehood to the ethnic-religious terms that could be accommodated by peoplehood. As I’ll discuss in future posts, both flavors of this approach were doomed from the start.

The key point for us now is that despite its apparent demise, this approach has bequeathed us certain statist ideas that have significantly impeded the state’s ability to catalyze Jewish communities’ return to equilibrium. In the next several posts, I’ll discuss the different roles a state can play and how these can redound to the benefit or detriment of communities.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

your language 'return to equilibrium' is strangely, suspiciously, kookist.
are you implying that a social/legal system developed over millenia can be shoehorned into a jewish state where we are jump-started to achieve 'equilibrium?' what does this mean, exactly?


11:15 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Furthest thing from my mind. I'm going in a completely different direction.

10:21 AM  
Anonymous Bob Miller said...

"Judaism can best be thought of as a process in which a community carries forward and develops a moral code and a narrative."

It's impossible to understand this process in Judaism without reference to the Divine input that has guided us through millennia and continues now. Community decision-making that tries to partially or totally exclude our Torah with its Mesorah has led to many of the evils we see today.

Our tradition is not a man-made artifact that we can mold or remold at will.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

That's the narrative exactly.

6:11 PM  

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