The Old Questions Return
I began this year’s letters with reflections on public space—in the ElAl plane on the way to Israel. It is this subject that has occupied me as I’ve continued to read some absorbing articles in Azure—which I discovered thanks to Leon Morris, and in Jewish Ideas Daily, a FREE online daily journal which I highly recommend and which also came to me via Rabbi Leon. Thank you Rabbi Leon Morris.
As you may recall, I was very disturbed by the Haredi overtaking what I consider public space on our flight to Israel. As it turned out, this was not a temporary concern: It led to a lot of “deep thought” about the nature of public space. I am not unaware that, to the Orthodox of any religion, the necessity of saying one’s prayers or performing other rituals, supercedes any claim of public-ness. I understand, as well, that as a post-modern nation, Israel is particularly sensitive to minority cultural demands. And then, of course, I understand my own annoyance (small word for it) with what feels to me like an invasion of what I expect to be an ethnically and religiously neutral space.
Articles in Jewish Ideas Daily and Azure were very provocative, as almost anything is when you are internally wrestling with a disturbing question. I was troubled by several questions and I didn’t realize how they all were conjoined conceptually. Here’s what I’ve worked out so far. I hope readers will respond with critiques and help me see the connections and distinctions better than I have to this point.
How Did Israel Get This Way?
Everyone knows the Haredi are spreading out. Their numbers are expanding faster than anyone else’s in Israel; even the Pals aren’t reproducing as quickly. They are also a mighty force–considering their numbers–in the Parliament. As many in Parliament would point out, it doesn’t need to be this way. Netanyahu needs the Orthodox to keep a coalition together only if he disregards others—say Kadima—with whom he might align instead.
We are, I think, all familiar with the recent outrages that growing Orthodox power has led to: A distinguished female surgeon being prevented from stepping up to receive her prestigious award from a professional organization because Orthodox people in the audience had to be spared the atrocity of having to look at a woman; a brutal physical attack on a woman posting posters for an event in Beit Shemesh; an attack on a woman soldier who refused to go to the back of a bus; and, of course, the notorious attack on an eight year-old girl whose long dress and long sleeves were not deemed modest enough by some loony Haredi men.
We are also aware that the government provides free housing, roads, transportation, and private schools to an entire population that refuses to work and pay their fair share of taxes, and that refuses to do military service which is, theoretically, required of all Israeli citizens. (Thank Ha Shem the Supreme Court , headed by a woman, has ruled that the military exemption for Torah studiers is unconstitutional; it will be interesting to see how the Haredi get around this, but they will, I assure you.) How can this continue, especially under troubled economic conditions when tax dollars are scarce? And how did it all happen to begin with?
Sherwin Pomerantz, my source in Jerusalem , tells me that most Israelis were just not paying attention. The Haredi were in separate communities, not forefront in any secular Jew’s mind.
Well, of course, this was Israel’s first mistake: How do you form a new country with government supported segregation of minorities? How does a new democracy expect to mature when it subsidizes separate housing for a major part of its population and subsidizes—to the point of full support—separate schools for students who read only Torah and never learn the core subjects that make up a liberal education? What justifies, the maintenance and support of two totally separate populations in a single, tiny, struggling state? (And we are not even discussing the Palestinian Israeli citizens who are also excused from military service and receive substantial welfare benefits because their women refuse to work. They, too, school many of their children in schools that do not produce citizens who can function in a liberal democracy.) How did this happen? Sherwin says the Israelis were asleep at the wheel, that they were not conscious of what was happening until things got really out of hand.
No. Not in such a tiny, politically charged, country. You don’t fail to see things. You perhaps refuse to recognize these things. Why?
My own theory is guilt. Israel’s secular Jews (the majority), I believe, looked the other way when the Haredi were building their steam. Netanyahu, himself secular, surely saw what was happening and looked the other way.
My view is that secular Jews in Israel understand that the claim of Israel to be a “Jewish State” is in doubt if there are no real, practicing Jews here. The Haredi are their alibi. The Haredi are the proxy Jews, the ones who stand in for everyone else, supporting the claim that this is really a nation of Jews. With a population made up of Ethiopians, Sephardim from the Maghreb, Asians, Indians, Anglos (in great numbers), as well as a huge population of mashed up Russian emigres, it is difficult to make a case that bloodline is what constitutes Israel as a Jewish State. So, let us just say that this is the place that welcomes and supports fundamentalist Orthodox Jews as nowhere else in the world does. This is their homeland; that is “what Israel is for.” That is what will justify its special status in the world! That is the argument, I think, that explains why the Orthodox, even when they get violent, are not arrested for behavior that would put anyone else in jail. They are the holy men, the priests of Israel. They get a pass that you or I would not.
Israel can be very happy with this state of affairs. It cuts the old troubling baby in half in Solomonesque fashion. Is Israel a nation among nations, or is it a theocracy? Well, giving the Haredi a pass allows Israel to say that it is two mints in one: It is a secular democracy—for the most part, but it allows to flourish within itself a theocracy, a nation within a nation of people governed not by the laws that apply to all citizens qua citizens , but a nation ruled solely by a religious text, by God. So Israel is both. Now the most difficult question confronting it goes away.
NOT SO FAST!
The Post-Modern View of Public Space
A recent article in one of the Jewish weeklies extolled the loveliness of spaces in Israel—in Jerusalem and elsewhere—where public space is being overgrown by “markers of cultural minorities.” (You can tell right off, by the language employed to discuss the subject, that this is a post-modern analysis, drenched in political correctness. But let us not tarry.) On every corner, along every street, the writer gleefully relates, we can see people fencing off parts of the public thoroughfare to make it their own, setting up markers of their particular (another politically-charged word) cultural preferences. What a lovely patchwork quilt, what a lovely rainbow of cultures, what a lovely post-modern world! Hooray for tolerance! Hooray for the minority right to be heard, to express, to lay claim! No longer shall the minority be the victim of the majority as in the old days and ways of democracy.
Yes, this hodgepodge way of cutting up public spaces into ethnically diverse patches or sectors is kind of pretty if you like visual chaos. And I have to agree that “planning” of public space in the West has gone too far in imposing sterile meaninglessness on too many of us. The “modernist” city is, as the post-modern complainers, say, a neuterer; the “master discourse” strips away all flavor.
But post-modern critics go on to argue that this neutral space– what the “masters” consider neutral–is nothing more than a highly-charged, politically-flavored space that reflects the values of the capitalist, techno-centered, rationalist, secular, ruling classes. There can be no truly “neutral” space; everything embeds some values or other. And because of the way power works, the master narrative is always what gets embedded. We are all so overwhelmed with the master atmospherics, that we don’t even notice how these values pervade our lives and determine our choices, choices that are no way as free as we imagine.
A space that is conditioned by a master narrative, the post-modern critique goes, deprives cultural minorities of their rights to express themselves in a space of their own. The clean, rationalist geometries of modernity are not really value-neutral, they import the aggressively competitive values of a Western, male-dominated, hi-tech culture. (I am always amused at how glibly p-m critics characterize Western culture as “male-dominated” when Arab and Asian cultures keep women enslaved and illiterate, while American universities graduate more women than men. But let us not tarry.)
The post-modern argument is, then, that planned public space oppresses minorities by taking all public space for the majority. The writer I’ve referred to rejoiced that, in Israel, she is seeing signs everywhere of minority cultures fencing in pieces of that space and making it their own, taking it for themselves simply by imposing their cultural markers on it, sometimes segregating it from other space with actual fences such as stone ledges, shrubbery, curbs, etc. Is this really something to rejoice over?
If the trend continues, Israeli cities could end up not as colorful patchworks, but as clusters of fenced-in communities, pressed tightly against one another, each regarding the others with contempt and distrust, each proclaiming itself as distinct from others, and so, each proclaiming the other as, well, other. How does this serve the ends of a new nation?
Yet, by subsidizing separate, segregated communities for separate religious sects—by helping to keep them separate—Israel is discarding its original founding ideal of a “gathering in” of Jews from everywhere, a nation of all the diasporized peoples, melded into one Jewish state. The bowing and kowtowing to particularism, other-ness, and all the other mighty gods of the post-modern ethic, is building a nation divided against itself, a possibility that has always threatened the Jews who tend, by nature, to be disputatious and more individualistic than is good for nation-building.
One question is: Does the maintenance of a “neutral” public space actually deprive minorities of their rights? Does the imposition of a master discourse oppress in the way new critics say it does, or does it actually foster the building of an Israeli identity, crafting it from diverse ethnicities that have now been “gathered in?” Is the development of an Israeli “master discourse” something Israel should shy away from or embrace?
My answer to this question is that a neutral public space dos not tread on any rights whatever so long as there is respect for private space as well. Public squares that reflect no one’s values—or the master values, if you prefer—are not oppressive so long as the society that maintains them also allows for private spaces–gardens, religious institutions, private schools and community centers, in which the values and ethnic markers of particular inhabitants can be given full play.
In America, I can hang a huge portrait of Hitler on my living room wall if I so choose. No one can make me take it down, no matter how offensive the surrounding community may find it. It is in my private space. But when a colleague of mine, years ago, hung such a portrait in the shared office of the philosophy department where I had my desk, I complained to the university president and the offending object was promptly removed. Shared space is public and must remain acceptable to all; private space is for whatever you will. The point to note is that both are possible in a single country. No one gets trod upon by the maintenance of public space so long as private space is fully within the control of private individuals and protected by the community as such.
Israel has a vital interest in maintaining its public space. As a country that is still struggling to find its identity in the world, the public sphere is where its identity is both shaped and announced to others. The public space is where the notion of the “other” as opposed to the Israeli, becomes defined.
Israel began on the right– very powerfully right–foot by constructing for itself an Israeli language. It rejected the separate, certain-to-be divisive multiplicity of languages its emigrants would bring with them. It “imposed,” if you will, a new, difficult language with what was, to many, a new alphabet, on everyone seeking citizenship in the new land. It assiduously set about educating all its new citizens in this new language. That was a great start toward forming a new culture that was distinctively Israeli. The state arm charged with preserving Modern Hebrew as the official state language continues to be vigilant in safeguarding the use of Hebrew in all public institutions. (See Ha-aretz, February 29, 2012)
Over time, Israel has managed to define an Israeli cuisine—still a work in progress, but progressing rapidly—an Israeli style of painting and sculpture (see the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art,) an Israeli cinema. It has inspired more than 70 Israeli folk dances that are performed weekly at sites all over the country by ordinary citizens utilizing public spaces. It has a powerful sense of itself as a hi-tech, medically advanced, smart new culture in a competitive world.
Public space as an arena for expression of these new cultural norms is an absolute necessity to advancing Israel’s emerging identity. This is why Israel, more than more established nations, must preserve and widen its culturally public spaces, not allow them to be hijacked by particularist minorities. In a modern democracy, you would think, that should be more than obvious: It should be a conceptual slam-dunk.
The problem is that Israel is not, like America, a country coming of age in a “modern” world. Before Israel could find its mature footing, we found ourselves in the era of post-modernism, an era that doesn’t regard democracy as the fairest way to proceed because the majority will always end up, in their view, “oppressing” the minority. The post-modern critique rejects democracy in favor of something they regard as more just: A heterogeneity that gives equal voice to all, regardless of number or power. Assimilation—the aim of Israel’s founders is, according to this view, an immoral goal. Israel should not aim to make composite Israelis of its people; rather, it should aim to remain a hodgepodge of distinct, often opposing, cultures.
The cultural problem for Israel is then, as post-modernism views it, neither the fundamentalist Orthodox nor the Palestinians, both cultural “others.” The problem for Israel is– modernity itself! In this post-modern world, the universalist ideals that lay at the core of modern thought are repulsively regressive. The idea that we can all live as one, (See Ze’ev Maghen’s “John Lennon and the Jews”,) is itself an offensive notion. We have to live apart from one another, with fences constituted by cultural markers, each of us proudly proclaiming difference.
The ideal, of course, is that we will all learn to love the differences that divide us. Good luck! Without some common ground—nurtured in common spaces—tolerance stands no chance. Human nature simply isn’t that forgiving. (E.g., I will never learn to enjoy having Orthodox Jews take over an ElAl plane to create of it their private prayer space; and I will never forgive those same people for treating a World Heritage Site, the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, as their private synagogue.)
But how does a new, integrated, nation emerge in a world directed by the post-modern vision? In America, there was so much land that newly arriving groups found space for themselves among like-minded others and put a lot of no-man’s-land between themselves and others. Over generations they melded: Children traveled to other regions and settled among the “others;” educational and employment opportunities compelled people to leave their first homes, the dustbowl forced people to pick up and move and mingle with others. People intermarried…and John Lennon’s world started to take shape.
This took time, of course, but never was there a national policy standing in opposition to the melding of cultures! A distinct American culture emerged because, far from standing in the way of this, American public policy promoted open societies within its larger society. Laws were put in place prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment. Israel might argue that it, too, prohibits discrimination, but what Israel practices as official public policy is segregated housing for the Orthodox, for Palestinians, for secularist Jews. It makes no attempt to compel secular and Orthodox to live and work together. The argument given in support of this is that, unlike the situation in America, this is one to which both parties consent: The secular do not want to live among the Orhtodox any more than the Orthodox want to live among them. This approach to the discussion masks the deeper, more obstinate, problem. The deep problem, as I’ve said, is… modernity itself. Zionism, which dreamed the Israeli nation, was a thoroughly modern idea.
Modernity and Jewish Identity
Modernity, based as it is on the ideal of universalism–the rationalist principle that all humans are equal in a fundamental way and thus share a common set of inalienable rights—implicitly demands a concept of the self as private. The inner self is where free will is sourced; it is the self which, despite empirical appearances to the contrary, is equal in respect and power to every other self.
The individual whose rights are held in common with all others lives among those others in a public space, but he retains a private space, a conscience, in which he thinks as he wishes to think, imagines what he wishes to imagine, believes what he chooses to believe. This sense of the inward, private, individual is as much a part of the modernist, universalist ideal as anything else.
Possibly, the sense of privacy of self is the defining characteristic of the modern. In the history of art, for example, a turn toward the expression of inner feelings and perceptions—the subjective turn—characterizes the modern moment. Similarly, Descartes’ reliance on introspection as a reliable source of philosophic truth is, again, the starting point of modern philosophic method, another “subjective turn.”
And in religion, Martin Luther’s notion of private conscience is what defined modern religion. A turn away from public ritual and overt action to emphasize faith and conscience, is the mark of the Reformation, a concept of man’s relation to God that arose at the very time man, in all his other spiritual modes, was turning inward.
Each person, Luther held, is responsible for the state of his own private soul. Apart from his community, apart from his church, apart from his nation, each person had his personal relationship with his conscience and with his God. Inward man stands alone. His salvation is something he must sort out with God–his own God–God as he, himself, finds Him to be. There is no church that can mediate this salvation. There is no community which, above any other, can make salvation possible. And this is the paradign of all modern understanding of religion: Man is responsible for himself and so must find his way on his own. Faith is an inner, private matter.
And here is the key to the problem of Israel: Faith, as it is understood in a modern world, is something we can take care of in the privacy of our own private spaces. Churches can co-exist among churches that preach entirely different cosmolgies. People of different faiths can walk the same streets, share school buildings and teachers. With the notion of the private, the secular becomes possible as the neutral ground where universal values prevail.
The notion of the private creates the modern schism that makes it possible to separate the public, shared, values of the public entity, the state, from the privately held values of the individual. Thus, the individual lives in two worlds: his own private one and one he shares with others. He is thus subject to two sets of laws: The moral law (see, e.g. Kant) and the public civic law. One, a law of conscience, the other a law of overt behavior toward others.
Now, why is all this a problem for Israel? For those who still adhere to Zionist thinking, it’s not a problem at all. To the Zionist, Judaism is a religion like Protestantism. It involves a belief system, a theology, a set of shared rituals—all of which can be kept in the private sphere, all of which can be held as a matter of private, individual conscience. The founders of Israel, Zionists, were modern-day men who assumed that the values of the Enlightenment—what post-modern thinkers call “universalist” values—would prevail and form the basis of the new Jewish state. They never imagined that old-line, pre-modern Orthodoxy would enjoy a ressurgence
Jewish Identity As Pre-Modern
I have been waging what amounts to a private philosophical war with someone who I should know knows better than I, with Leora Batnitzky, professor of Jewish Studies at Princeton. Batnitzky argues—and not everyone agrees, I can assure you—that Judaism was not a religion until Moses Mendelsohn re-conceived it as such in order to line it up happily alongside, say, European Protestantism.
I have been saying this is utterly ridiculous. Surely, I said, the entire Torah is nothing but the story of Man’s Struggle With God. And if God is in the picture, then you have a religion, no? And so the Torah is a religious text and the Jews have been a religion since the Law was first handed down. How could Judaism be anything but? Harrumph!
I was wrong. I stand corrected. Batnitzky may very well be right—and probably is—when she says that the term “Judaism” is of very recent vintage. The Jews and Judaism are two different things. Even more important, they are two different categories. The Jews were/are a people, a nation. Judaism is an attempt to make of that a religion. Why do I say this, at last?
Regardless of the historical facts relating to Mendelsohn, et al, Batnitzy’s analysis is significant for sorting out the problem of modernity as it applies to Israel and Jewish identity. When God handed down the Ten Commandments, the argument goes, He created a nation. He chose these people as His; they and their descendants, of course, had no choice in the matter. So, according to Orthodoxy, if you sprang from the loins of a woman linked in a matriarchal chain to one of those original recipients of the law, you are a Jew. Can’t help but be. More significantly, from a moral point of view, you have no say in whether you must obey the laws of Torah or not. God made that decision for you.
This is, of course, very primitive and that is why I have objected so strenuously to it. As more modern people—there’s that word again—we’d like to say we have free will, that we can choose for ourselves what laws we will obey. As modern folks we sense we have inner selves and we’d like to think that our private inner space is where, say, our faith or lack of faith is stored. As modern people, we see very little of value in laws that are imposed from without, in laws that do not take account of our intrinsic value as rational, respect-worthy beings whose respectability hinges precisely on the free will that this primitive view denies us. But that is not Torah!
Batnitzky points out, rightly, that the Torah is not a religious document so much as it is a political one. It is a set of laws whereby a nation is constituted. The constituting act is God’s covenant with a particular group of people. What results is a covenanted community. That is something we tend to lose sight of (unless like Sandy Balsam and me you were in a political theory class taught by Professor Roelofs at N.Y.U. in the sixties.)
A covenanted community is one way of defining each individual’s relationship to his community and its law. It describes a particular way of binding the individual actor to the law governing his actions.
Consider: In Plato’s Republic, the law is determined by “he who knows.” The Philosopher King is the ruler and giver of law because he knows better than anyone else what is best for the social entity as a whole and, thus, for everyone in it. Why must I obey the law? Because it is, by definition, what I would choose for myself if only I were wise enough to know what is best for me. What Roelofs called the “constituted community” is a nation under law, which law constitutes the nation by expressing, in Rousseau-ian terms, the General Will. The great good luck of having a Philosopher King around is that he, by definition, can intuit the General Will, what all of us would choose if we only had the intellect to intuit what it is. The constituted community is founded on a myth, the myth of the Philosopher King who, as a practical matter, is an impossibility. The constituted community is, then, an ideal.
A second way of binding people to a set of laws, and thus making them into a nation, is by way of contract. The “contractual community” is based on the view that I must obey the law because I have agreed to do so. You and I and everyone around here has met around the campfire and agreed that some law is better than none at all. Lacking a Philosopher King, the argument goes, we put someone in charge and we all agree to obey his laws. Why? Because otherwise we will live lawlessly. Our lives will be “nasty, brutish and short.” So, we get ourselves a tyrant who brings us peace. For this we agree to his/her rule. The so-called social contract was not, of course, something any of us actually signed on to. It is, like the Philosopher King, a myth. It is the binding myth of this type of society, its explanation for why its people must obey the law.
Contrast both of these ways of conceiving the social bond with the way the individual is bound to the law in a covenanted community. In the Torah, we discover another myth, if you will, the myth of God speaking to Moses on Sinai. The state, in this case, is created in the moment of God’s choosing His people. The giving of the law is what creates the community; the law and the community are, in fact, one and the same. The giving of Torah is what makes Jews a people.
In the case of the covenanted community, the only answer to the question, “Why should I obey the law?” is that God told me I must. This is a huge difference from the other two types of community in that what binds an individual to the law lies wholly outside himself. It is not private; it does not include a self; it does not begin to imagine the possibility of a private individual self! For this reason, I will call it primitive as opposed to the constituted and the contractual communities, both of which suppose a schism between the public citizen self and the private individual self. It is possible in each of those other two types of community for the private interests of an individual to run counter to what is required by civil law. Obedience to the law as demanded by civil peace, requires that the individual set aside his private interests for something he values more: the public good. The covenanted community, as an idea, imagines no such internal schism as a possibility.
Consider: I obey the law set down by the Philosopher King because it is what I—a person with private appetites that may not want to obey the law—would chose to do if I knew what was in my own best interest. Note how central to all this I—the private self—am. I’m induced to obey the law because it is what I know is best for me.
I obey the law of the contractually established tyrant for similar reasons: I prefer peace to a state of each against each, the state of nature that I must live in if I don’t agree to the social contract. Therefore, I obey the law because as a rational creature I realize that, once the total situation is assessed, it’s good, or, at least, better, for me than any alternative.
But in a covenanted community, I obey the law because God commands me to. I am not a rational creature here, I have no personal individual dignity that is being respected or looked after by the law I’m required to obey. I do not get to make the rational calculations I make in the other two types of community. I do not get to assess what’s really in my own best—private—interests. I have no free will in the sense that the Enlightenment conceived it. The law is what makes me what I am, a Jew. Without it, I am nobody.
Now it’s the nobody that is highly significant here. Without the covenanted community created in the giving of the law, I am nobody. The law, be it noted, is not directed at my inner—read that “private”—thoughts. It is not about faith in the internal, conscience-driven way of thinking about it. The law directs behavior. Outward, empirically observable behavior, the kind of thing your neighbors know about and are affected by. In the other types of community, based as they are on a separation between the inner and outer selves, without the community that gives the law, I am still a private self, an inward somebody, a person with conscience, a person with natural rights that demand respect of an community that wants my allegiance.
What does this have to do with the question of Israeli identity in the contemporary world community?
Batnitzky’s response is that to the Jew—the primitive Jew–all life is public life. There is no distinction between public and private; there is no schism in the self and so no conflict between the demands of the community and the private interest of individuals. Well, of course not, because there are no individuals. None that matter. What matters is how we behave in the community. What you think or believe is not at issue. It’s what you do that matters.
Therefore—are you ready?—being Jewish is by definition a public act. All space is, therefore, public space. One does not leave the public square and go into a place where values are different, more individual, than they are out in the open. One’s private life is public, one’s public life is thoroughly integrated with the community, its norms, its laws, its protocols. Jews, Batnitzky would say, exist only within a Jewish community.
Jews require other Jews around them. Not to head off feelings of isolation nd loneliness, but simply per se, the Jew requires a community. After the destruction of the Temple, Jews dispersed, but always in tightly-sealed communities. Perhaps this is what engendered distrust and ultimately hatred in Enlightenment, Protestant, secularist communities.
Jewish intellectuals in Europe welcomed the Enlightenment, believing that its doctrines of natural human rights and universal dignity would relieve or even vanquish anti-Semitism. But their fellow Jews—particularly in Eastern Europe—refused to acknowledge Enlightenment values. They understood their Jewishness not as an inward-directed religion like Protestantism, not what Mendelsohn and others cooked up as Judaism. They understood themselves, Batnitzky would say, as a nation, not a religion in the Protestant sense.
Another way to put this–and one that seems less offensive to today’s Jews than saying that Jewishness is not a religion–is to say that Jewishness lacked the sort of interiority that Luther—and then everyone else—deemed the defining hallmark of religion or religious belief. Indeed, Jewish-ness notoriously lacks a belief system, a credo such as distinguishes the Catholic faith, and a defined faith doctrine and cosmology such as marks Protestantism. Batnitzky seems to have this right when she interprets the Torah as a set of laws that constitute a nation, created a “people,” and did not, until the Enlightenment, consider itself a religion. For, how could it when “religion” as it would come to be understood, did not yet exist? The rabbis, we can now see, pored over Torah as judges pore over the law in modern courts, to determine the meanings of precedent decisions. They did not concoct rationalist doctrine or dogma as Catholics like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas aimed to do.
This is a matter over which much ink will be spilt. The take-away which I think helps to make sense of much that has been troubling me—and you, if you’ve been following this—is that Jews cannot be Jews in the Torah sense outside of a Jewish community. Without the interiority, or personal individual self at the center of faith, Jewishness does not stray from the Jewish people. You cannot live as a hermit and practice your Jewishness.
Yes, yes, I know. Jews who were ascetics did just that; there were all sorts of exceptions and weird sects from which you can prove just about anything. But in the broader picture, Jews clung to their community because it was the source of personal identity. Today, the Orthodox still do exactly that and, Batnitzky would argue, for exactly the same reasons.
The Problem of Israel’s Public Space Today
Where does that take us on the issue of public versus private space, and urban planning in contmeporary Israel? The Orthodox Jew cannot live in a “neutral” public space because he does not distinguish between his public and his private persona. The public is the personal; the personal is the public. The community and the individual are one; they define one another reciprocally. Neutral public space is every bit as hostile as, say, Muslim public space to an Orthodox Jew.
But, what of the rest of us? How ever do we manage to walk about unoffended in public space? Well, we are modern, like it or not. We have learned to perform that personal schism, that internal separation of inner and outer self that modernity taught us and demanded of us. We take ourselves about with a sense of interiority, a private set of thoughts and beliefs that we share with others or do not share, depending on what we choose to do. When we step outside our private space, our homes, say, we close the door behind us. No one needs to know what’s hanging on my living room wall. Or what’s on my mind. Jews who became conversos could do so because of their modernity; they could keep their deep beliefs apart from their overt actions and words. This sort of schism, this splitting of the soul, is not a possibility for Orthodox practitioners. Orthodox life is, in this sense, totalitarian.
Rationalist, universalist, Zionist Jews—those in America, for example—wonder what the problem is with Israel: Why don’t they just make everyone live and work together? Isn’t that what a liberal democracy does? Isn’t that how the contract works? I tolerate and respect you, and you tolerate and respect me. Our government guarantees us freedoms of religion and worship, of belief and speech, and so on. That means that in my private space, I can do and say as I please. Only when I encounter you am I restricted in what I can do. And I still can believe what I like, so long as I don’t act on it in ways harmful to you. Why can’t Israel do the same and get on with it?
Can Israel do as America does and still be a Jewish state?
The answer, shockingly to some, is no. Not if we mean what Batnitzky means by “Jewish.” A Jewish state is not contractually or constitutionally based, it is a covenanted community. It is –big important difference—not rights based. It is obedience based. You obey the law not because other people’s rights are thereby protected; you obey the law because you must.
A covenanted community is, necessarily, theocracy, a nation under God’s law. It is a tightly-knit community brought together under the myth of chosen-ness. A practicing Jew, in Batnitzky’s sense, cannot live in an open society. The Jew needs more than tolerance of his Jewishness, he needs God’s law ruling the single unified totality of his life.
Judaism-The Modern Invention
Now, let’s see what happens when we change the conversation to Judaism, a concept only recently minted in the Enlightenment. Judaism is a religion, so the reasoning goes. It is interior-based, a matter of faith, a set of beliefs one carries inside himself and for which he takes moral responsibility. Judaism’s faith is not the result of one having been chosen by God or imposed by anything outside oneself. It is what one chooses for oneself, the result of a rational decision, a moral choice. Whoa! Unsurprisingly, it is a lot like Protestantism, that most modern of world religions.
If Judaism is a religion one chooses, then it is, like Protestantism, one among many possible faiths. In an open society, everyone is free to practice his faith, to have his beliefs, to keep his own conscience as he sees fit. We are a bunch of people, then, each of us existentially alone, finding our own ways through the cosmos, taking God as we conceive of Him. A tolerant, constitutional society, unlike the convenanted community of the Torah, protects all faiths, all the faithful, and those of little or no faith at all. It protects the individual rights of all!
Why, you may wonder, should this be a problem for a state which, like Israel, is not only modern, but post-modern? Why can’t the Israeli constitution which, after all, is modeled on both the American and English constitutions, guarantee a right to freedom of worship and freedom of speech and just be done with it?
As Evelyn Gordon and Hadassah Levy argue in an editorial defense of their article in Azure, Summer, 2011, that would make Israel just like New York City!
Well, and what’s wrong with that? New York is a place where Jews are free to practice their religion. There is a strong Jewish community—in fact, many different and often warring communities—where all the cultural markers of Jewish life are out there in public spaces, taking up and flavoring a world happily shared with others. What’s objectionable about Israel being as comfortable for Jews as New York City is?
What Gordon and Levy find unacceptable in the New York City model is that this would not justify a Jewish state! A Jewish State, they argue, is more than a place that is tolerant and accepting of Jews, more than a place where Jews share with all others, the inalienable rights of humankind universally. A Jewish State, they say, has Jewish-flavored public space. That is, there is no place in a Jewish State for the sort of neutral public space that arises out of modernist, universalist-rationalist social thought. If Jews want to live in a place that honors them, respects and protects them and their human rights, they can live in New York.
But if the existence of Israel is something special, it must be something no other place is or can be: It must be a Jewish State, not simply a place that respects and protects the practice of Judaism, the religion.
According to this thinking, then, Israel is only justified as a theocracy!!!
Now this is why I was in such intellectual pain for the past three years. I was trying to sort out questions of Jewish identity, Israeli identity, the justification for Israel, and the distinction between Jewishness and Judaism. I was looking for the belief system of an Enlightenment religion, one that can be held as a mere part of a person’s identity, not one’s total self, a part that can be taken out on holidays or Sabbaths and then put away when one enters the public, secular sphere.
But all along, I thought the notion of the “secular Jew” was an absurdity. I was right. I just didn’t want to go where this kind of thinking was leading. I didn’t want to conclude that Israel’s existence is only logically justified as a theocracy. But there it is. I’ve ironed things out with the help of many scholars whose work I’ve been pondering for the past three years, and there it is: Either Israel is there de facto, a brute existence, not necessarily morally justified, or it is justified as a theocracy. No wonder Netanyahu is having such a tough time treading the fine line: Both sides are fraught with horrors.
For myself, I have perhaps too much of an interior; in fact, I tend to live inside myself far too much. And, given my natural distrust of other humans, I’m not likely ever to define myself with reference to any sort of community. I am in search of Judaism, not Jew-dom.
Now, can someone please tell me what the belief system is for that?
THE NEED FOR JUSTIFICATION, AGAIN
Sandy asks, once again, why I feel I must justify the existence of the State of Israel. Haven’t we been through all this too many times before.
And besides, Sandy says, Does anyone feel the need to justify the existence of France? Of China?
Okay, there are many answers to this question which is, no surprise, really many questions.
Sandy’s answer to the question is that Israel is the absolutely necessary refuge for a minority the world has seen fit to persecute for millennia. The Jews have, nonetheless, not only survived but contributed positively to the world’s culture and advancement way out of proportion to their numbers. Hence, the world owes this to the Jews. First, as a debt of gratitude, and apology for past horrors. And second to prevent the extermination of Jews in the future.
The answer given by those who are not Jews and not particularly sympathetic—but who must be answered anyway if this is to remain a logical confrontation—is that there are many other persecuted minority ethnic groups for whom the world has not seen fit to provide a separate nation. The Roma, to name one. Why the Jews?
Sandy’s answer to that, if I read him correctly, is the superior contribution and accomplishment of the Jews. That, of course, is an exceptionalist argument with all the politically incorrect reverberations that follow such arguments. Who is to say what “superior” means? Aren’t all humans qua humans equally worthy? Isn’t this just another Western European bit of repressionist, colonialist nonsense?
But there is another part of the question and that is, even if the Jews deserve a nation of their own, land of their own—why THIS particular piece of land, located as it is among their enemies who are, in this particular era, the most aggrieved and bellicose people in the world today, the Muslims?
One answer is to point to the Torah as the source of world law, which, of course, it isn’t. The fact that the Torah quotes God as giving this very land to the Jews to be their own, has no force, either legal or moral, on the rest of the world, only on the Jews who , therefore, keep on insisting on it as both historical fact and moral reason.
But really, why this piece of land? As my old pal, Barry Farber, never stopped pointing out, F.D.R. considered giving the Jews Alaska. Don’t laugh. It has gold, oil, fish, furs—lot so much work to pull a lot of treasure from the land. And many Jews—from the Pale of Russia, for example—were already used to the cold. Farber offered Wyoming as a suggestion. In fact, the British, who eventually “gave” the Jews Palestine, considered first giving them Uganda, also a far richer land than what they eventually donated.
It was European Jews, working hard behind the scenes for decades, who get the Balfour Declaration signed which eventually resulted in Partition in 1948. Well of course, they WOULD want Palestine, but does that mean it was right—i.e. justified—to “give it to them?
Let us start by remembering that other countries, nations like France and China, evolved historically. Through no end of wars and conquests and bartering brides for land, these nations developed over time with the winner taking all he could lay his hands on. Israel was created by fiat. Fiat, an artificial man-made creation. Such artificial creation needs justification. That is the answer in short.
Everyone knows the British did not own Palestine; they were not even in possession of it if you want to lean on that legalistic distinction. They held it under an international mandate. It was, so to speak, in their custody to take care of until things unrelated to Palestine could be settled. So it simply wans’t theirs to give.
If someone barges into your house and takes control of it while you are helpless to throw them out, and then you “give” the house to your children to live in as their birthright, is it now theirs? NO! This is not my analogy, this is the analogy that stands on the other side of the Israeli’s position and it certainly calls, if for nothing else, then for a JUSTIFICATION for why Israel is on this particular piece of land.
NOW, we reach the most difficult question of all: Even if we concede that the Jews must have a land of their own, and even if we concede that that land must be what was promised in the Torah, we have to now ask who are the Jews to whom this land belongs?
Please note: I am not arguing and would never argue, that Israel is should be held to a higher standard of moral behavior because it is the land of “Jews.” What I think complicates the question almost fatally is the refusal of anyone in Israel to attempt to say what a Jew is. It is then, of course, impossible to say what a Jewish State is.
The present struggle among secular Jews, religious Zionists and Haredi makes it impossible to ignore how deeply this question roils Israel. It is a war, now, and it promises to continue indefinitely into the future. The absence of a Constitution in Israel might be, in part, to blame, and yet, the reason there is no Constitution is precisely this problem, so there’s a circle.
The issue among these factions is the one I treated of in the essay I posted on my blog: Is Israel officially he home of Judaism, a modern day religion, inward and capable of flourishing in a secular nation? Or is Israel the nation founded by the Torah and subject only to the law of the Torah, hence a theocracy of Orthodox Jews who refuse secularism and the tolerance and democratic principles it entails?
Whereas Jews in America used to be concerned that Palestinians would soon outnumber Jews in Israel and force Israel to decide between democracy and extinction, there is now far more concern in Israel, at least, about the threat from the militant and rapidly reproducing Haredi.
This fact makes it more urgent han ever for Israel to define itself and to know for its own sake what it is about, i.e. what JUSTIFIES the existence of Israel. For, as has been pointed out both by others and by me in the essay, if Israel is just another New York City, it has very little claim on the world of nations. Yet, if it chooses to be a theocracy, it will lose a serious claim as well. The most-modern idea of a cluster of co-existing cultures is probably the most promising future for Israel, probably the only one possible.