More on Misunderstanding Identity: A Response to Bernard Avishai

Dear Bernard,

I’m delighted that you found my previous post worth a response. If a little summary judgment (isn’t that what blogging is all about?) can promote a lively exchange of ideas, then I think it’s for the best. If we weren’t doing this at our keyboards, when would we have found time for this conversation?

I’ll look forward to reading your book and having my misconceptions corrected—although I’m not convinced by your response that I have misunderstood where you stand.

I’m posting this on Erev Pesach; I’ve burned my hametz and will soon be setting out with my family to celebrate the Seder with close friends in Zikhron Ya’akov. So let me here focus briefly on your view of religion. I’ll address the nature of national identity in a future post.

Tellingly, you adduce William James and Emerson on man’s relationship to the divine. Both these American philosophers, as you note, viewed religion principally as an inner experience. Such a view of religion is peculiarly suited to the liberal American tradition, which holds that belief should be a private matter. A person’s relationship with God is his or her own business, and not the state’s.

I’m not arguing against this view as a political strategy, but most religious people would, I think, find it inadequate as an account of their experience and their needs. For them, religion not only comes from within but also from without, as a matter of revelation, tradition, myth, and sacred texts. The religion of James and Emerson has no room for ritual, for the performance of precepts (other than general moral ones), and relatively little for collective experience. Their religion did not need a church, mosque, or synagogue; it did not need stories of creation, redemption, and liberation; it did not need the performance of precepts. In a large measure, they viewed such elements, which bring individual believers together for prayer, disputation, and collective memory, as impediments to the inner spiritual state they viewed as the essence of man’s relationship to the divine.

The American relegation of religion to the private sphere grew out of specific historical circumstances. It produces an assimilating society that can absorb nearly anyone who accepts this principle.

My grandparents accepted it, were accepted into American society, and managed to work their way up into moderate prosperity, safety, and happiness. For them it was a great bargain, compared to what they had experienced under the czars and the commissars. But they gave up a lot, too; assimilating into America meant gradually sloughing off their Jewish heritage. They remained committed, identifying, and partially practicing Jews, as did their children and grandchildren. But their Jewish culture, the connection to Jewish history, tradition, practice, language, and texts, grew more and more attenuated in each generation. It wasn’t until I began relearning these things, first in high school and then after settling in Israel, that I realized how much we had given up in order to become American.

It’s wonderful that the world has a United States of America and a liberal American tradition, but not every place need be the United States and not every fair-minded, moral person need be an American-style liberal. In fact, if the whole world accepts the American solution, the world will lose a great deal. One of the things it will lose is the heritage of faiths that stress collective experience.

The Exodus, which we will both sit down to commemorate tomorrow night through the reading of an ancient text and the performance of ancient rituals, was a public, not an inner spiritual event—as the Seder makes its yearly rehearsal to this day.

This, let me assert once more, does not give religions a right to force others to believe or worship. I’m a fierce critic of the Orthodox Jewish establishment in Israel and of hyper-nationalist, xenophobic interpretations of our heritage (and of others). I believe that a seriously religious person in any faith ought to question, doubt, and struggle and that such engagement is a necessary condition for creating the humility and creativity that ethical life in the modern world requires.

But the proper answer to that is to seek to create a Judaism (and a Christianity, and Islam, and all the rest) that is open, accepting, and humanistic, but also faithful to and conversant in its heritage. If I understand you correctly, this is very different from your vision of Judaism and for your vision of how Jewish history and tradition would  operate in your Hebrew state.

I wish you and your family a joyful and thoughtful Seder and look forward to continuing this discussion.


6 thoughts on “More on Misunderstanding Identity: A Response to Bernard Avishai”

  1. If Judaism is too big, in a sense, to be privatized than why does it have to respect the consciences, the private thoughts, of others? If it does respect such privacy than doesn’t it inevitably limit itself to the conceits of liberalism?

  2. Dear Haim,

    Thank you for your eloquent clarification, and I’ll be happy to keep this going. I must be brief now, since our home is now filling with guests (who used to be called only children) for the holiday.

    Let me say, first, that I think you do not do James or Emerson justice: of course faith finds resonance in solidarity, texts, music, the stuff of congregation, a sense of historical tradition. For Jews, this is particularly rich, which is why I love Ahad Haam and Amichai so much: both show such a mastery of all of this (as you put it) “heritage.”

    But, second, you get me (and things) wrong when you say: “If I understand you correctly, this is very different from your vision of Judaism and for your vision of how Jewish history and tradition would operate in your Hebrew state.” The problem, clearly, is with that fuzzy word “operate.”

    The Judaism you describe is very appealing, and might be realized in the Israel I would want. The point is that this (and any other version) of Judaism should be realized voluntarily. There is nothing in what I am proposing to impede Jews from being anything they want. On the contrary. What I would not allow is for one group to use the state to impose its version on the whole, which is what we have now.

    Israelis are not the first people to struggle with this problem, for God’s sake. A state is not a human being. It is an enabler of human beings, including its role as teacher of the national language, which (in its inherent inclusiveness) enables commonwealth. Nor does a nation have the personality of individuals. Our individual identities are always more poignant, eclectic and perverse that some national ideal, whether this ideal is the kibbutznik or the wearer of knitted skullcaps.

    Finally, my religious imagination is private. Isn’t yours? If not, how come you didn’t just continue in the line of your grandparents? By the way, I think I can quote a hundred Jewish sources suggesting why any public ritual or law that is not practiced in consequence of what James means by faith will be bankrupt, but that’s another story.

    For the record, I write the following in “The Hebrew Republic”:

    “A Jewish state, after all, does not have ‘an identity’ like that of a Jewish person. A state is also not a family, or a club, or a congregation. It is a commonwealth, a social contract, in which individuals who are subject to equal rules of citizenship, work out their lives—if they wish, in voluntary association with people, families, clubs, and congregations. Nor is the call for a Hebrew republic a desire to replace the Jewish people with a people called Hebrews. On the contrary, I am just Zionist enough to believe that the Hebrew language is the best possible medium in which Jewish individuals, congregations, etc., can try out what practical definitions of Jew they please. You do not have to be a Catholic descended from Frankish clans to be a Frenchman or enjoy the rights and cultural blessings of France. But if you were a Catholic descended from the Franks, and wanted to explore Frenchness, where else but in the French republic would you rather live? What a Hebrew republic does preclude is the monopoly orthodox rabbinic hierarchies have arrogated to themselves to define Jews and Jewish values. In a Hebrew republic, rabbis will have to compete for minds and hearts with, say, poets.”

    My best (and Sidra’s) to you and yours.

    Warmly, Bernie

  3. I’m another American who thinks Israel’d be better off with a secularized state. Let me give you yet another line of reasoning on this.

    Tell me, which modern democratic state is the most religous and has the healthiest range of religions? Well, right here, because no practice has special treatment and priests must appeal to the people, not the government) (haven’t you been grumbling about state Judaism rules?). There is wide belief that this can be traced back to our Bill of Rights telling the state to stay out of religion.

    Tellingly, you adduce William James and Emerson on man’s relationship to the divine. Both these American philosophers, as you note, viewed religion principally as an inner experience.

    The American Founders mostly saw it differently, actually. Deism was overrepresented in the Founders, but lovers of public ceremony were on the same page. They’d seen, in their lifetimes, the spiritlessness and unresponsiveness to worshippers of the Anglican Church. Freedom of religion was as popular among the highly religious as among the Deists. Aren’t some Orthodox Jews slowly capturing state religious power (are they even popular there?), and moving toward being as contrary to useful religion as European state religons were.

    Does it even reflect Diaspora Jewish values to have favored state religion like in Judea of old? I think we’ve grown great as a people and religion BECA– USE grim necessity made worshippers have to think for themselves. There must be as many positions on religion now as there are Jews. Not so many people cared about what Judeans thought before the Persian and Roman conquests. In Judea, independent thought was discouraged, which is why all the intellectual heavy lifting of the time was done near Greece, where there was a strong Thought cult.

  4. Bernard Avishai’s “secularized, globalized Hebrew State” is simply a recreation of the old Crusader state and would be condemned to the same fate.

    Avishai has two fears : (1) That Israel can’t survive in the long term without “peace agreements” and (2) that the current “elites” (i.e. the old secular Ashkenazic Establishment) will eventually lose power to the “right-wing” religious and non-Ashkenazic elements who are much healthier in a demographic sense, but are frightening to him in a cultural sense. Thus, his solution is this so-called “Hebrew Republic”. He feels that by downgrading the “Jewish” nature of the state, it will somehow be less “offensive” to both Israel and non-Israeli Arabs and that by joing the Israeli Arab camp to the secular Jewish/Israeli Left, the threat of the Left losing power democratically can be prevented.
    The only problem is that by making Israel less “Jewish”, he is also making it less authentic. In reality, the Arab/Muslim lifestyle is much closer to that of the Orthodox/religious community than it is to Avishai’s secular “elites”. Judaism is not a missionary religion and a truly “Jewish state” is not interested in recruiting Arab/Muslims to its ranks or spreading its influence through the Middle East.. Traditional Judaism, like Islam teaches respect for elders, the importance of famliy, modest dress for women, keeping work and material possessions in perspective and not making “consumerism” the dominant values in one’s life. Avishai’s Hebrew Republic is not only culturally threating to traditional Arab/Muslim values, which are in ascendancy throught the Middle East, but it is also economically imperialistic through the “globalization” which Avishai so energetically espouses. The Arabs view such a state as a direct threat to their interests in an economic sense, fearing it would come to dominate their backward economies, and they fear that they would come to be swept away in a tidal wave of western consumerist culture which they view (with some justification) as degenerate. Avishai’s friend Ehud Olmert promised to make Israel a “fun” place to live…well, the people in Sederot are not having fun at the moment so he is going to have to give them some other motivation than “having fun” in order to tough it out there. Otherwise, why shouldn’t they just run away? Why should they send their sons to the army? In order to have “fun”? They can have more fun (and pay lower taxes) by leaving the country, as indeed Olmert’s sons have done, taking their father’s (and Avishai’s) philosophy to heart. The ultimate end of the Hebrew Republic would be the same as that other artificial state created here 900 years ago, the Crusader Kingdom, which had no historical roots in the counry, unlike the unbroken 4000-year-old connection the Jewish people have with it.

    ( I should point out that Avishai does have some legitimate criticism of the relationship between official state religious bodies and the government in addition to various anachronisms in the state apparatus, but I reject the basic thrust of his philosophy of the so-called “Hebrew Republic”)

  5. Yael Tamir’s commentary on Israel’s Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty is worth reading in this context. It appears in vol. 1 (Authority) of Walzer et al eds., The Jewish Political Tradition, pp. 518-523. Final paragraph: “Israel can be a Jewish and democratic state if its citizens aspire that it be one, and if Judaism and democracy concur on a wide enough range of practices to allow such a state to function. At present, both conditions are fulfilled. As for the future, Israel will be able to retain its Jewish identity only if it maintains a Jewish majority and is able to inspire among its Jewish citizens democratic modes of behavior.” I think it will. I also think it’s worth asking in what directions Israel’s neighbors are likely to go. Let’s put it this way: if those neighboring countries have democratic deficits, that’s not likely to be because Israel, not yet being the sort of Hebrew Republic Avishai would like it to be, hasn’t been a sufficiently inspiring example: it’s been miles ahead of Arab regimes even so far as the rights and freedoms and economic well-being even of many _Arabs_ goes. In light of that, and in light of national self-determination being exercised in so many Arab nation-states, there’s something weird about, e.g., Avishai’s grudging acceptance of symbol’s of Jewish national self-determination like the flag. Weird not in the “insufficiently patriotic” sense, but in the “goodness, is it really so pressing to repeal the Law of Return when next door you have countries like Syria, for goodness sake?” sense.

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