Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Those who have been reading the Jewish Advocate know that there's been quite a spat over my article on tikkun olam. This might provide a good background on what led me to my point of view on the subject. Enjoy.

On the Jewish Impasse by Benjamin Kerstein

Setting off a firestorm carries with it certain responsibilities. When I set out to critique the misuse of the concept of tikkun olam, I did not expect that two weeks worth of Op-Ed pages would be filled with responses, almost all contemptuous in tone and almost all violently condemning what I had written in terms of outrage and scorn. Needless to say, it was my assumption at the outset that no one would particularly care what I had written, let alone consider it worthy of response. I did not expect to have projected upon me the sundry ideological prejudices of my critics, nor did I expect to become a vehicle for identity politics. A great many, I think, simply misunderstood my argument, some seeing in it a call for social irresponsibility and others an exhortation to a pure religiosity. Perhaps the argument might be furthered by an explanation of the line of thinking that led me to write the article in the first place.

It now seems to have become accepted wisdom that American Judaism is in a bad way. No one much disputes this, nor does anyone have a concrete, agreed upon set of explanations or proposed solutions. It appears to be assumed that the decline in Jewish observance, the rise in intermarriage, and the inexorable decay in population indicators are irreversible forces of history best attributed to the sundry prejudices of various factions. Liberal minded rationalists blame the parochial and illiberal ethos of traditional Judaism, the Orthodox blame the loss of ritual observance, secularists seem not to particularly care, Zionists consider it proof that Judaism cannot survive indefinitely in non-Jewish societies, and onward and onward but not, seemingly, upward. A recent and controversial book by Douglas Rushkoff has raised a mini-firestorm by claiming that the problem is one of essential definition, and Judaism ought to be redefined as an indefinable nothingness from which can spring a multitude of forms.

All of this, of course, depends very much on how one defines Judaism itself. Is it a religion, an ethnic identity, a set of ethical laws, a series of cultural preferences, an identification with and affection for Israel, a weakness for Yiddishkeit, the simple fact of having Jewish parents..? The definitions range as far as denominations. On one extreme stand Jewish existentialists like Rushkoff, who call for an imperialist, Nitzchean Judaism defined purely by assertion; on the other the monist Orthodox, for whom the Jew is one who observes, and for whom the majority of his brethren are little better than misguided Epicureans.

For myself, I disagree with all of them. Judaism is not a religion, an ethnicity, or a nation; it is a civilization: vast, ancient, and possessed of an infinite and daunting complexity. But, like all civilizations, it has both variations and borders. It has limits beyond which we are in alien territory. Jewish identity can only be defined by knowledge, by the systemic and honest exploration of the territory within. I advocate neither a retreat to the barricades of ritualism nor the Rushkoffian demolition of borders which is not only in practical terms impossible but in spiritual terms undesirable.

Furthermore, we must face the fact that we are at an impasse in Jewish history. The centuries old dividing lines of the Jewish civilization are now moot and irrelevant. The geographical division of Ashkenazi and Sephardi has been shattered, the former by slaughter and the latter by expulsion and dispossession. The poles of the Jewish world have shifted to the dichotomy of America and Israel, the former atomized and splintered, the latter stratified and interlocked, if only by the threat of external assault. The imperative now is neither to tear down nor build up but to reconfigure. In America, where, unlike Israel, the demands of assimilation are in constant conflict with the existential need all minorities feel to assert their particularity, something is not working. American Judaism is not reconfiguring to face a new era, it is stultifying, suffocating, inert, and, at least in statistical terms, declining.

I will, for the moment, ignore the Orthodox world, out of no other motive than that most American Jews are not Orthodox and because, for the most part, Orthodoxy seems not to be declining, in fact quite the opposite. This is both symptomatic and indicative. Symptomatic of the fact that some need remains unfulfilled by traditional liberal Judaism; and indicative of one of the polarities of American Jewry; the rejection of total assimilation, the decision to keep at least a part – and perhaps the larger part – of one’s self separate and aloof from the greater society, and to risk the inevitable suspicion and contempt that follows.

The majority of America’s Jews, however, i.e. the ranks of liberal Judaism: Reform and Conservative (vague and imperfect designations I admit), are engaged fully in American life and the American identity they embrace is one which they do not perceive as being in conflict with their Jewish faith, neither, however, do they consider it indispensable. For the most part, they regard Judaism as a choice which must be justified. At the grand bazaar of cultures and faiths that is modern American life; Judaism must sell itself as a superior product in order to retain the adherence of its members and to achieve the obedience of their progeny.

This consumerist (a word I use for wont of a better one) approach to religion has forced liberal Judaism in this country into a desperate search for relevancy. American Judaism must, above all, be practical. It must have real world implications and provide a basis for real world actions. Without this, it is believed, no one will take time out from their busy schedule to bother with a religion which is, after all, demanding, complex, and difficult.

Which brings us to tikkun olam. None of the many people who have written to excoriate my article have, as far as I can see, disputed the fact that tikkun olam is a religious concept, springing from Talmudic law and finding the apotheosis of its influence in the Kabbalistic tradition, where it takes on an all-encompassing Messianic/apocalyptic hue. Where they took issue with me was over the question of relevancy. The near frantic need of my critics to assert a real-world relevance to tikkun olam is a fascinating sign of where we are. Tikkun must be justified. It cannot be taken simply on its own terms. It cannot carry us with it into the dusty attic of our former possessions, stacked up neatly and stowed away like so many antiquated relics of a forgotten childhood. For the misappropriation of tikkun olam is nothing less than a tragedy, in its Kabbalistic perfection it is nearly Gnostic in its despair at a world whose corruption can only be explained by attributing its creation to evil forces. It ought to lead us into the shadowy depths of our civilization, into the worlds of mystics and rabbis, into the universes which they conjured up out of the most adverse of circumstances. It should direct us across that incorporeal mosaic which alone can constitute a living Judaism. But it does not. Instead it is amputated, corporealized, made pathetically, pitifully real, so that it might be significant enough to give it a second thought. What has been done to tikkun olam is a microcosm of what has been done to all of American Judaism, it is myth reduced to morality tale, civilization shrunk to the size of denomination, identity whittled step by step into an object of befuddled curiosity. A vision of a world shattered at its creation and thus deformed and evil; and what it must have meant to men struggling desperately to explain how a perfect God could have created an imperfect world, has much to teach us in our troubled age, both as Jews and as human beings. It speaks to our terrors at a world gone suddenly unbalanced and insane. But we are not listening. We talk instead about working in a soup kitchen for a day or seeking to reconcile Jews and Arabs, about building a better world which will never come. We speak words which once conveyed infinite depths as though they were a mere political slogan, an exhortation to good works. And then we wonder.

We close our ears to answers and wonder why we have so many questions. We reduce Judaism to materialism, to just another sect of American liberal Protestantism – sans messiah of course – and then are shocked at the disaffection and consumerism of Jewish youth. We demand that religion embrace the real world, and then lament our lack of spiritual values. We extol Judaism’s ethical legalism and then wonder why our faith does not have the spiritual depth of other great creeds. We do not seek and we wonder why we do not find.

I have no doubt that many will disagree with me. They will say that I speak only for myself, that I cannot, from my vantage point, claim to comment on the state of Judaism in America today. They may be right, but I don’t think so. I believe we have a crisis on our hands, and that crisis is, above all, the extinguishing of the interior Jewish life. To pray is not enough. To do good works is not enough. To seek solace in Orthodoxy is not enough. To identify is not enough. To support Israel is not enough. Only to know is enough. And at the moment, we do not know. We are like an old miser who has forgotten where he buried his fortune. To survive, and to flourish, we must reawaken that collective memory killed by the pressures of living in harmony with an individualist and materialist culture. But, above all, we must learn a lesson from our Orthodox brethren, who at least are willing to go to the mountain rather than demand the mountain come to them. As I have said, Judaism is a civilization. It is something. It is definable, and thus limited, demarcated, bordered. We must accept that we cannot twist Judaism into forms that will satisfy our particularly 21st century prejudices, politics and ideologies. We must come to know our civilization, and thus ourselves, on its terms, and not on ours.

July, 2003


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