Sunday, February 27, 2011

As had happened many times before in Jewish history, many European Jews in the late 19th century found themselves in a quandary. They no longer identified fully with the code and narrative of Judaism, some because the communities they belonged to were too provincial and others because the communities they belonged to were too acculturated. But, they felt themselves part of the Jewish nation and, in the spirit of the time, they had national aspirations that they sought to realize through the establishment of a Jewish state. For others, who did initially identify with Judaism as a moral system, nationalist yearnings drew them away from certain traditionalist attitudes. A nationalist awakening entailed overcoming traditions of quietism and passive forbearance. Inevitably, it replaced the authority of elders and sages with that of the young and vital who could tame the Land that they wished to redeem. They sought a new kind of power, political and physical, different than that which Jews had cultivated for almost two millennia. Nothing short of a rebellion would do.

It wasn't only the code that had to change. The narrative had to change as well. Indeed, the young nationalists carried with them many elements of the classic Jewish narrative. They "recalled" a glorious Jewish past and they viewed the return to the Land to which they aspired in millennial terms. But the past glories which they wished to revive were defined in political terms, not moral terms. As a result, a critical link in the narrative was missing: the past glories and the anticipated future ones were not mediated by a continuous tradition, as they were in the traditionalist narrative. In the nationalist narrative, nothing short of revolutionary means could overcome thousands of years of history that were, by this account, essentially wasted.

Some, following the ex-chassidic writer Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, saw Judaism as it had evolved in Europe as irredeemably desiccated. Ma tzarim oholecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael, Berdichevsky railed. How narrow are your tents Jacob, your dwellings Israel. Others, following the ex-chassidic writer Ahad HaAm (Asher Ginsberg), held that the nationalist movement needed to maintain cultural continuity with contemporary Judaism, but needed to strip that culture of its specifically religious elements.

The obvious question is whether a form of Judaism truncated to serve the, wholly or partially, revolutionary specifications of non-religious nationalism is sustainable in the long term. The best way to form an optimistic view on the matter is to read a writer like Berdichevsky. His masterful Hebrew, his command of rabbinic sources and ability to use them to undercut their own intended message testify to the astonishing creativity unleashed by the nationalist revolution. Unfortunately, while the creativity is genuine, the effect is like being whacked over the head by an optical illusion. This creativity is not a product of the culture created by the revolution but rather it is a product of the culture replaced by the revolution. To live in a world of tradition with few outlets for creativity is to be like a rubber band twisted tighter and tighter; to abandon that world is to convert all that potential energy into kinetic energy. The kinetic energy is dazzling, but it's non-transferable. Those who come after the revolution haven't stored enough potential energy to be very interesting.

In any event, the generation that came of age in 1948 found its identity not in a truncated Judaism but rather in the newly-established state. The moral system to which they gave their sole allegiance was that of the laws of the state; the community membership they valued was citizenship. Citizenship in Israel is no trifling matter; it has always entailed significant commitment and sacrifice. But to simply be a citizen of Israel is not enough; citizenship is orthogonal to membership in a Jewish moral community, or in fact in any moral community. Recall that moral systems evolve and moral communities retain their homogeneity through shifting membership; those who don't identify with the code and narrative as understood by a given community, cease to have influence within the community. That is the nature of voluntary communities. Citizenship doesn't work that way. It imposes rights and obligations (approximately) equally on all those within its geographic scope, so that membership lacks the necessary elasticity to sustain homogeneity.

The unhappy result is that secular nationalism undermines itself in short order. Ultimately an identity rooted in nothing more than citizenship is like having no affiliation with any sustainable moral system, so that many of those who identify as Israelis but not as Jews eventually assume the characteristics of the unaffiliateds we discussed earlier. In particular, as we have seen earlier, the logic of unaffiliatedness – in particular, the quest for equality at ever greater scale – leads to internationalism. Thus, nationalism leads to statism and statism leads to internationalism.

In communities of unaffiliateds in Europe or on American campuses, one of the signaling methods members use to identify themselves as loyal is the espousal of what I like to call "silly politics". In such communities, the normal obligations of growing up – earning a living, defending the territory, raising children – are deferred indefinitely. To signal that one doesn't intend to defect, one can declare oneself to be not merely temporarily shirking such duties but implacably opposed to them in principle: by advocating unlimited entitlements, by opposing all military activities of one's own country as unprovoked aggression and by insisting on the equal legitimacy of every romantic permutation. The point is not for the espoused view to make sense; the point is for it to be public enough and silly enough to work as a bridge-burning signal.

Every aspect of silly politics makes its way to Israel's unaffiliateds. But while opposing military activities in Europe or the United States is a luxury Europeans and American students can afford, mainly because the rest of America has their backs, silly politics is a luxury Israelis cannot afford. It isn't the few flaming anarchists that are the problem. The problem is the mainstream politicians and other machers who are too dim and/or lacking in character to resist sliding into a European mindset in which savages are forgiven everything and the virtuous are forgiven nothing.

The soft anti-nationalism of the gormless is the legacy of anti-religious nationalism. It was a nationalism that asked for too much. It didn't seek to catalyze change in religion, it sought to replace religion. Its proponents were very possibly right in assessing that, under the conditions of the times, there was no alternative. But, tragically, undercutting religion also undercut the basis for a sustainable moral system that could command ongoing loyalty. Note, though, that this is not the end of the story. Unlike in galus, the inheritors of the secular nationalist legacy have not assimilated and have adequate tools to seek a broader and more sustainable basis for identity. There is a loud and influential minority that is doubling down on a bad bet and getting more than its fair share of attention. But it's the silent majority that is doing some interesting things who are the real story and we'll get to it.

In case you're thinking that this post is just a partisan potshot, I'll get to religious nationalism and religious anti-nationalism in my next two posts and they will make this one seem sympathetic by comparison.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Until now I’ve been discussing states and communities in a somewhat general way. From this post on, I’ll focus specifically on Israel.

One of the main questions I set out to answer when I embarked on this series is how exactly the existence of a Jewish state advances the interests of the Jewish people. Most of the various tangents I’ve indulged were intended to make possible a coherent answer to that question. Let’s review a bit.

I defined Judaism as a moral system in which a community maintains and develops a code and a narrative and rules for deciding membership. For the system to survive, the code must correspond sufficiently to members’ moral instincts to encourage continued commitment to the received code as well as the application of those instincts to the code’s continued development. Similar constraints exist along the dimensions of narrative and membership. When the system works well, we say that it is in equilibrium. When I refer to the interests of the Jewish people, I mean the maintenance or restoration of equilibrium of the Jewish moral system. (Yes, not getting killed is also an interest of Jews, but – absent a specific interest in Jewish continuity – it need not be a collective interest of the Jews.) We have seen that the system is out of equilibrium when sub-communities drive the code in opposite directions, some emphasizing the universal and others emphasizing the community-specific. Similarly, sub-communities drive the narrative to opposite extremes, some thickening it to increase intensity, others watering it down to increase plausibility. Finally, signaling wars in which members of sub-communities do increasingly wasteful things to signal loyalty drive sub-communities further and further apart and make membership in any of them increasingly costly.

If we think about what catalyzes these bad dynamics, we might begin to appreciate how a state might set us on the opposite course. The key factor undermining equilibrium is the inability to live by the community’s moral code in an instinctive manner. In terms of the analogy between morality and language drawn earlier, we might say that the problem is that the moral code is spoken self-consciously like a second language rather than instinctively and fluently like a first language. While we can instinctively chart a middle course between universality and particularism, reflection on the matter can leave us confused and tentative so that small social pressures can push us towards one extreme or the other. The interaction of many slightly off-center community members can lead to the emergence of distinct sub-communities drawing further and further apart. Such self-consciousness has the same bad effect on the narrative. As I pointed out earlier, the narrative functions best when it is experienced directly and instinctively, not when it is consciously articulated. In the latter case, we are drawn off-center on the substantiveness-plausibility continuum and similar bad dynamics ensue. Finally, when affiliation with the community is self-conscious rather than instinctive, members’ mutual recognition is not immediate and they are forced to resort to escalating signaling games to convince each of their loyalty.

The connection between statehood and naturalness is not hard to see. A moral system both creates and responds to a moral environment. When a good part of that environment is immune to the effects of the moral system, members of the moral community are forced into self-consciousness. Jews in galut were dependent on others and vulnerable to ill-will by others. The public square in which they participated was largely shaped by the moral sensibilities (and depredations) of others. Even in ostensibly congenial countries, Jews who wished to get ahead were under pressure to acculturate and assimilate. (On this, don’t miss Barry Rubin’s terrific, and under-appreciated, book.) Finally, whole areas of life, from agriculture to defense, were often off-limits to Jews or at least, owing to circumstance, not of natural interest to them. All these conditions were such that Jews were forever running up against the limitations – if not the outright weirdness – of their own moral system. It made adherence to that system a consciously chosen and consciously idiosyncratic commitment, rather than a natural and fluent way of life.

The promise of a Jewish state is that self-sufficiency, the ability to create a public square based on Jewish sensibility, the lack of pressure to conform to others’ expectations and the opportunity – in fact, the necessity – to participate in all aspects of economy and governance would lead to a more natural and instinctive participation in the Jewish moral system. The key point to note is that it is neither possible nor necessary for the State to instantly establish equilibrium out of disequilibrium. The point is only to reorient the dynamics sufficiently that the Jews would be moving towards equilibrium, however slowly and fitfully.

You might be thinking that no such progress is evident. Let me explain why it looks that way and why that impression is misleading. There have traditionally been in Israel three main views of the impact that the existence of a Jewish state could and would have on the Jewish people as a moral community. None of them coincided with the commonsense view I sketched in the previous paragraph. It’s as if only three sons showed up at the seder. First, there are those who believed that the Jewish State would supersede the Jewish community. They had little use for religion and did not seek to revive the Jewish moral system so much as to bury it. Second, there are those who believed that the State would become the new embodiment of the Jewish community. They did seek to revive the Jewish moral system but naively thought that statism was the way to do so. Finally, there are those who believed that the State would either contribute nothing to reviving Judaism or would have a negative effect. They did not understand that the Jewish moral system suffered from a problem that needed to be solved.

In my next post, I’ll consider each of these views in some detail. I’ll show that each of them suffers from a fatal internal contradiction. The apparent decay that we witness every day in the religion and state battleground is simply the slow but inevitable death of each of these immature views. And while we are distracted by the drama of their death throes, the first signs of a slow crawl towards equilibrium are emerging.


I’ll be traveling for the next couple of weeks, so the next post will be delayed.