Wednesday, March 30, 2011

We have seen that anti-religious nationalists, religious ant-nationalists and religious nationalists have all had their favored myths crash against the reality of the state of Israel. I don't lament this collective disillusionment but rather regard it as grounds for optimism. This is because this disillusionment acts principally as a centripetal force: those forced to abandon moribund ideologies shift mostly towards, rather than away from, each other.

The descendants of anti-religious nationalists are, in large numbers, seeking ways to re-affiliate with Judaism. Religious anti-nationalists are seeking ways to integrate themselves into the state. Religious nationalists are seeking ways to maintain their commitments to both religion and the state without either commitment distorting the other.

Of course, as members of each camp abandon its orthodoxies in the direction of the center, the remaining diehards are driven further away from the center. The diehard descendants of anti-religious nationalists follow the logic of unaffiliatedness to its logical conclusion and are now increasingly internationalist in orientation, despite the manifest dangers of such an ideology for Israel's survival. Diehard religious anti-nationalists are more aggressively hostile to Israel's politics and culture. Diehard religious nationalists are more earnestly devoted to evermore bizarre manifestations of mamlachti ideology. But the eye-catching nature of these phenomena should not divert our attention from the more significant phenomenon to which they are merely responses: a (very) slow migration towards a proper appreciation of the extent and limit of Israel's possible contribution to Jewish identity.

To understand why I think this slight shift to common ground is so important, let's recall the notion of equilibrium in a moral system. Moral systems evolve through the interaction of members' moral instincts with an existing code, which itself reflects (possibly imperfectly) some prior consensus of members' moral instincts. Because of its cyclical nature, this process can either spiral towards some favorable equilibrium or it can spin out of control. Even slightly increasing differences between sub-groups within the system can trigger a bad spiral. As ideological differences between them grow more acute, such sub-groups engage in signaling wars that drive them even further apart. Each develops its own distinct code that is so skewed along critical dimensions (for example, particularity/universalism) that the moral instincts of those committed to such a code simply fail to function. Similarly, even slight decreases in variance can trigger a virtuous cycle in which increasing trust among groups leads to broader consensus and increasing willingness to rely on moral instincts. The consensus that slowly emerges from such reliance on moral instincts (as constrained by prior consensus) then itself serves as a more congenial basis for the exercise of moral instincts.

By forcing collective action, the state of Israel has catalyzed a process of convergence. (Yes, the growing rifts among the diehards are more conspicuous, but think less about what you see in the press and more about what you see in your own everyday interactions.)

Let me be a bit more specific about the kind of common ground we can expect to see specifically with regard to halacha. What I think I see developing in Israel (and I have no statistics to back me up, only my own lying eyes) is a tendency towards "normalcy" in halacha. In galus, many aspects of real life – defense, agriculture, art, music, literature, etc. – were not separable from a general culture which Jews wished to resist. Hence, halacha served to some extent to separate Jews from such real life concerns and, in some cases, to create a virtual world into which Jews could escape. Halacha was most effective at achieving that objective – and, no less important, at signaling loyalty to that objective – precisely when it was most "weird". Under those circumstances, attempts to smooth the rough edges of halacha, to make it more "normal", were correctly perceived as steps towards acculturation and, ultimately, assimilation.

The desire for "normalcy" in halacha that I see in Israel are of a different type altogether. It encompasses attempts to develop an authentic Jewish aesthetic that grows organically from Jewish tradition and is not derivative or imitative. It includes revival of neglected commandments, such as techeiles, in a manner that restores not only the technical aspects of the mitzvah but also its underlying historical purpose and symbolism. It includes a desire to restore Shabbos as a communal, not merely individual, day of rest that captures its original communal purposes. It includes a desire to revive agricultural commandments tied to the Land of Israel in a manner that makes them meaningful. Perhaps most significantly, it includes a desire for Jewish sensibilities to transcend the boundaries of a particular sub-group called "dati-im" and to inform Israeli culture more generally. (Please don't confuse this with its polar opposite, state enforcement of religion.)

I emphasize that all the above are merely inchoate desires, certainly not achievements. To the extent that they are even reasonably well-defined, some are poorly conceived and most remain far from being realized. What is important about them is simply that they are authentic desires being expressed by increasing numbers of people across the traditional social divisions in Israel. In fact, while the achievements thus far are very modest, it is not hard to diagnose where success is most marked and where it least marked. In areas where change can easily grow organically from the bottom-up – art, music, dress, etc. – interesting developments are most evident. Where communal coordination is required – communal Shabbos, for example – achievements are more modest but still measurable. Where national coordination is necessary – meaningful shemitta or a rational conversion policy, for example – there is no evident movement at all. This is as it should be. For changes to be meaningful and lasting, they must evolve organically from below – that is, via the slow development of some consensus rooted in the instinctive sensibilities of those committed to Judaism as an organic moral system. The more high-level the necessary mechanism of coordination, the longer it takes for those sensibilities to percolate up. Sometimes, well-intentioned thinkers imagine that halachic solutions that can be imposed by the state or its rabbinic representatives could be most quickly, easily and effectively implemented, but in fact the truth is precisely the reverse.

Does the fact that there is some commonality of interest regarding the future of halacha necessarily imply that we are at the beginning of a virtuous cycle directed towards some favorable equilibrium? That will depend on a number of things.

First, like any moral or legal system, halacha has codification mechanisms – books, poskim, institutions and askanim – that serve as a check on drift or degradation that sometimes characterizes the moral sensibilities of the masses. Sometimes, especially in times of persecution and widespread ignorance or malfeasance, such mechanisms are essential, even if only as eis laasos lashem hefeiru torosecha. A virtuous cycle occurs only when both the masses and the codifiers properly calibrate the degree to which the emerging Oral Law needs to be written or otherwise frozen.

Second, diminishing gaps between groups can increase fear, and hence signaling mechanisms, precisely because the greater closeness can evoke legitimate fears of bastardization. The more similar some competing group is to mine, the greater my fear that they will have deleterious influence on my group. When does greater similarity increase trust and when does it increase fear? Briefly (way too briefly), the answer is that few people feel threatened by others who take liberties with halacha, so long as those others are prepared to concede that they are indeed taking liberties. It is not leniency or even deviance that is threatening, so much as the insistence that every deviance be couched in some grandiose theory that justifies it. Better hypocrisy than tedious self-justification. Indeed, if hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue, tolerance is the homage truth pays to hypocrisy. Similarly, we are prepared to tolerate those who love chumros, so long as they are prepared to acknowledge that they are indeed engaging in chumros.

Will we one day be able to agree on what halacha is, even if it is not exactly what we do?


My next post will be about what the state can do – and, more importantly, avoid doing – in order to catalyze the developments discussed in this post. It will be the last post in this series.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Quick catch-up: I've been arguing that a Jewish state can serve as a catalyst for Jewish renewal, but that all of the dominant ideologies in Israel miss this point. We have seen that secular nationalists thought that the state could replace the Jewish community with a civil community and that religious anti-nationalist imagined that a Jewish state would have no effect – or negative effect – on Judaism. Now let's consider the case of religious nationalists.

Religious nationalists had to contend above all with a proposition regarding which secular nationalists and religious anti-nationalists were in full agreement: that religion and nationalism were incompatible. In particular, as we have seen, the founding of a viable modern state would necessarily entail fundamental changes in the traditional Jewish ethos. Jews would need to assume more positive attitudes towards political authority and towards military culture and the scope of halakhah would need to expand to incorporate (at least some) national affairs.

Early religious nationalists, such as Rav Yaakov Reines took a pragmatic approach to the opportunities and dangers: they considered the trade-offs and decided that, given the Jews' precarious political situation, the package was worthwhile. For most religious Jews who embraced the nationalist movement, however, the millennial significance of a return to Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael was too momentous an event to frame in terms of pragmatic trade-offs. To them, it seemed more appropriate to reinterpret the challenges presented by secular nationalism as essential components of a Grand Plan.

Thus, the new definition of national power was embraced. The necessary tools of state-building – agriculture, military, industrial – were not simply necessary burdens but sacred endeavors worthy of the kind of veneration earlier reserved for matters of the spirit. Army uniforms were the new priestly garments. Furthermore, political subversiveness was replaced by its polar opposite, mamlachtiut: the doctrine that whatever apparent flaws the products of this redemptive process – the state and its institutions – might suffer from, they and their proximate agents should be regarded as endowed with a divine imprimatur. Finally, the state was designated as the appropriate authority for deciding and regulating religious matters. The state would appoint rabbanim, enforce religious legislation and fund religious services. Voluntary religious community organizations would be upgraded to state institutions. Secular officials, by virtue of being agents of the state and hence the bearers of profound religious longings of which they might be unaware, could be trusted to manage religious affairs.

In this view, the anticipated Jewish state would not replace religion, as secular nationalists anticipated, but rather would upgrade and subsume it. This optimistic view envisioned a mythical state different than the one anticipated by the bulk of Israel's founders and, indeed, different than the one that actually exists. The actual state of Israel is a civil democracy in which political rights are grounded in citizenship, which is influenced by, but not determined by, ethnicity or religious commitment and in which laws are influenced by, but not determined by, Jewish tradition. To imagine that it could have been otherwise, that it is otherwise or that it will be otherwise in the foreseeable future is to live in a fantasy world.

The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the yawning gap between the mythical state envisioned by religious nationalists – the one that is yesod kisei hashem ba-olam – and the actual civil state – many of the institutions of which are structurally anti-religious – prevents religious nationalists from comprehending political events and, hence, from reacting to them in a rational manner. In the mythical state, the millennial narrative unfolds slowly but inevitably, guided along by the government and its representatives. As God's chosen agents on earth, the Labor party commanded both the loyalty and the fawning admiration of religious nationalists from before the founding of the state until God elected the Likud in 1977. The courts, the army, the rabbanut and other state agencies were all playing their roles in the entirely deterministic unfolding of redemption and as such they too commanded the loyalty of religious nationalists. To criticize them was to rebel against God's representatives on earth.

Among the silly policies this mindset encourages are two that we considered earlier. The first is nanny state socialism. In the religious nationalist view, Jewish Government is good, so Big Jewish Government is even better. If the state was meant to assume all the roles of pre-state communities, then, in particular, it ought to gather under its benevolent wing all communal righteousness. Never mind that welfare and assorted social benefits mostly serve as a mechanism for massive subsidization of Arabs by Jews, encourage the dissolution of families and discourage actual charity. Actual consequences in the actual state are of less importance to religious nationalists than that the state, as a symbol, be seen to be righteous.

Similarly, in this view, one of the state's main purposes is to subsidize, and hence regulate, religion. In the actual state, as opposed to the mythic one, state subsidization of religion results in market distortions that produce unmotivated state-appointed rabbanim. And regulation invites state agencies, especially courts, that are indifferent – if not hostile – to religion, to weigh in on religious matters. Religious nationalists often seem completely blind to the damage such intervention causes. In fact, when the rabbanut ruled against the views of many religious nationalists regarding conversions and shemittah, religious nationalists themselves turned to the secular courts to force the rabbanut to recant.

The divergence of religious nationalists' mythical state and the actual state of Israel has become so great that the myth is becoming unsustainable. The Labor party and the Supreme Court long ago adopted the agenda of the unaffiliateds, the rabbanut has been infiltrated by anti-nationalists and even the army played a leading role in the "disengagement". In short, the main actors in this drama seem to have lost the script. What is one to do? The die-hard mamlachtim quibble among themselves about which inconvenient events are mere plot twists, which are produced by rogue actors and who are the rogue actors. It is a sad spectacle.

But quietly, young religious nationalists are rejecting the worst ideological excesses of religious nationalism.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

As we saw in my previous post, the secular Jewish nationalist movement of the late 19th century was revolutionary by its very nature. It sought to replace a Jewish identity rooted in religion with one rooted initially in ethnicity and ultimately in citizenship. While there were many who failed to appreciate the depth of this inherent conflict, there were others, especially among the rabbinic leadership, who did – and rejected the nationalist movement for precisely that reason.

The growing visibility and popularity of secular nationalism could not leave traditional Judaism indifferent. Even if, as we have seen, secular nationalists rejected crucial elements of the traditional narrative, the fact was that the very return to Eretz Yisrael on a mass level did seem to be a manifestation of at least one crucial facet of the traditional narrative. But, ideological religious opponents of secular nationalism chose to attack exactly at the point of maximal resistance. Secular nationalism was rejected not only for undercutting the continuity of Jewish tradition, but also – indeed primarily – for undercutting the very aspect of the traditional narrative that it appeared to be upholding, namely, that of redemption from the diaspora and the return to Eretz Yisrael. The argument, easily grounded in traditional sources, was that attempts to force premature redemption would interfere with the authentic ultimate redemption and lead to nothing but catastrophe.

Ideology notwithstanding, the history of the 20th century was such that the return of Jews – secular nationalists, religious anti-nationalists and others of various stripes – to Eretz Yisrael became an incontrovertible fact. Under these circumstances, religious objections to secular nationalism took on a more concrete and specific character. There were three aspects of traditional Judaism as it had been practiced in the diaspora that were under direct threat in a state run by Jews.

First, in galuti Judaism, the life of the spirit had been paramount. Jews had redefined power in terms of cultural autonomy, the power to live their lives according to their own traditions and to pass on their cultural and intellectual legacy to their children. The power to move armies was not among their aspirations. Working the land or soldiering were regarded as unfortunate burdens and not acts of personal redemption. Second, the diaspora version of Judaism was wary of any political authority, if not downright subversive. This was both a matter of principle and a matter of bitter political experience. Third, halakhah in the diaspora had adapted itself to a lack of political, economic and judicial autonomy. It functioned reasonably well at the level of individuals or communities, but it had not been tested at the level of the state – and certainly not at the level of a modern state conceived in secular terms.

For better or worse, all three of these crucial aspects of traditional Judaism were now being directly challenged. The response of traditionalist ant-nationalists, who wished to preserve the old model of Judaism despite the manifest change in circumstances, was to try to maintain maximal autonomy from the state. Either for lack of choice or for lack of imagination, they attempted to achieve this by subscribing to the myth that living in a state in Eretz Yisrael run by secular Jews was no different than living in a state in Europe run by goyim. But just as the central myth of secular nationalism – that a community based on citizenship alone is sustainable as a moral community – ultimately crashed against reality, so too the central myth of what I'll call "religious separatism" crashed against reality. As a result, religious separatists have failed completely at achieving their central goal, namely, autonomy. Seldom has a community been so dependent on a state for survival as religious separatists are on the state of Israel.

Let's see how this happened.

The two main mechanisms of social integration in Israel are state education and universal conscription. Thus, separatists established autonomous schools and negotiated means of avoiding conscription. The lack of education and army experience had the secondary effect of rendering separatists less employable than others who had been better integrated into society. This technical limitation was, however, largely surmountable: there are plenty of jobs for which the less-than-perfectly integrated Israeli is perfectly competent. Many separatists chose, however, to postpone working in favor of learning in kollel for a few years as a principled preference, not necessarily as a way of making a virtue of necessity.

So far so good. What happened next is that avoidance of general education, conscription and employment took on a secondary function, namely , that of signaling loyalty to the separatist community. As I previously discussed at some length, all communities – not only separatists – have a variety of signaling mechanisms through which members can signal their loyalty. These signals are effective if the signals are costly to the sender and only worthwhile if the sender intends to remain in the community for the long haul. In separatist communities, the most effective type of signal is bridge-burning: one acts in such a manner that one's options for achieving success outside the community are greatly diminished. Think nose-rings and tattoos. Or, for that matter, think not getting a general education, not serving in the army in a country with universal conscription and not getting a job.

The effectiveness of such signals depends crucially on their costliness to the sender. If not serving in the army is simply a low-cost convenience, then draft evasion, in and of itself, will not be adequate to persuade other community members of my long-term commitment. I might just be lazy or cowardly. Similarly sitting in kollel for a year or two after marriage is an effective signal only if it entails genuine financial hardship. Given that, what happens when the state decides to provide stipends to kollelim? As Eli Berman points out in a very perceptive paper, by ameliorating the financial hardship of learning in kollel, such subsidies undercut the effectiveness of learning in kollel as a signal. The result is that those who might have learned for a few years now must remain considerably longer to achieve the same signaling effect.

Like escalating mishloach manos competitions, it costs everybody more just to keep up and neither the participants nor the subsidizers are happy about it. And the oddest consequence of all is that the competition to prove separatist bona fides leads to total dependence of the separatists on state subsidies. Moreover, it pulls the rug out from under the very myth the separatists wish to preserve. Unless the Polish government was surreptitiously funneling money to the Gerrer beis midrash, Israeli state support for Torah learning – begrudging or otherwise – makes plain what should be obvious for a million other reasons: for Jews, Israel is not like any other state and we ignore that fact at our peril.