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.


Blogger treppenwitz said...


5:54 PM  

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