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More on Misunderstanding Identity: A Response to Bernard Avishai

April 18th, 2008by Haim Watzman · 6 Comments · Culture and Ideas

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.

Haim

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