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.


Blogger treppenwitz said...

"The more similar some competing group is to mine, the greater my fear that they will have deleterious influence on my group."

As in the ongoing dispute between 'The Judean People's Front' and 'The People's Front of Judea'? ;-)

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Y. Ben-David said...

What you are writing here is the most refreshing things I have come across in years. I must confess that I was one of the "religious nationalists" you refer to (although I was born in the US to a traditionalist but non-Orthodox family so I did not receive an education steeped in these values, I came to them on my own). When I first came across your writings some years ago I did not understand what you were saying, but the crisis of Gush Katif finally led me to understanding your position. I am glad you have laid it out logically, the quips you made in the past alluding to parts of this were not clear, but now it is.
There is one thing that bothers me. I have noted that Rav Natan Lopes Cardozo has also evolved a philosophy that is similar to yours in many ways, and he is quite articulate in expressing it. The problem is that both you and him seem to operate in a primarily English-speaking environment. How can we spread these ideas among Israelis in Hebrew?

9:47 PM  

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