I wrote this in a post to a member of TFSG, Ionatan:
"And another thing: neither kashrut, nor shabbos, nor all the other "traditional holiday stuff" is an integral part of Jewish tradition. For my part, even though I am as good a Jew as they are, I have no sympathy for those things. Therefore I (like many others) represent an adequate counterexample that refutes idle speculations about the nature of Jewish tradition and its connection to Judaism. No, all this religious sediment is not an intrinsic part of the Jewish world, let alone the Western world. On the contrary, it is merely the world chosen by Mis-Nagid and other "skeptics." Make no mistake, there are other possible cultural alternatives, many ofwhich, as far as I am concerned, are far more appealing."
I just have to ask then, in what way do you consider yourself Jewish? You reject Judaism, you reject tradition, what is left but a nominal Jewish namesake, a vague interest in Jewish culture and history, (how do you feel about Israel?), and really you seem to prefer Jewishness being lost into a globally converged superculture.
Quote: "I have absolutely no desire to associate with this cultural isomorphism. On the contrary, I am completely devoted to the one and only cultural convergence that is happening before our very eyes..."
Maybe you are proud of this Jewish identity you hold, I don't know, but do you want to pass this on to your children? Do you even care if they are proud Jews? Basically, is Jewish identity something you hold of value or would you not care if tomorrow it was lost into the rising tides of history?
Ionatan responded (slightly modified):
Have you ever pondered the fact that the ancestors of the French were the Gauls? That’s right, the ones with the rooster. Alas, this is an undisputed fact. Obviously, the present-day French are no Gauls. It is equally obvious that the French have absorbed their Gaelic legacy and carry it inside, along with other legacies – in a digested form, to be sure. What is more, no one is more Gaelic today than the French are. Nevertheless, anyone who made an earnest attempt to cultivate Gaelic traditions today would look ridiculous. In essence, he would be a true invalid, for his cultural self-identity is morbidly mired in the prehistoric past, in long vanished realities. All that is really, genuinely Gaelic is long gone – their tribal system, their cultures, their sacrifices, their belligerence towards neighbors. A sound cultural (as opposed to scholarly and academic) perception of the Gaelic is only possible through the French. Today, scholars are the only ones interested in the Gaelic realities. Post-Gaelic realities are a live component of French culture.
The question we must both answer sounds, when rendered into its French equivalent, like this:
What do we wish to be? French or Gaul? Do we consider Frenchness to be a betrayal of the Gaelic, or its natural evolution? Or, putting it in even simpler terms: do we realize that with time, culture transforms its carrier?
We are taking part in a very tough historical game – a Jewish one, of course. Thus let us, from the very outset, ask the main Jewish Cultural Question:
A propos Jewishness, when we decide to be Jewish, how do we go about it? The same way that the French are French, the English are English, and the Norwegians are Norwegian? Or, having gotten stuck in the past, do we want to be Jews the same way the French may want to be Gauls, the English Anglian or Saxon, and the Norwegians Norman? In other words, do we consider Jewishness to be a national culture, one among many – or are we Jews a unique people, one of a kind, having nothing functional in common with today’s nations?
For the hundredth time, let us call a spade a spade: to this day, the Jews are not a developed nation; theirs is a tribal culture, naturally with all the laughable and lamentable consequences that follow. Since we are all aware of this fact, the only issue is that of choice – a fully conscious choice.
According to the traditionalists, including many of the FS, our choice is simple: either to remain loyal to the tribal lifestyle, or to perish, losing everything Jewish.
In my opinion, this is a mistaken view. The true choice is that between the tribal lifestyle that is outside of history, fixated on tribal symbols and stigmas – and a daring venture into the flow of history. This is precisely the choice we ultimately have to make.
The traditionalists usually fail to realize that the danger of losing everything – the past, the history, the culture, the collective memory – is lurking for us on both paths, and it is actually the former, tribal path that is far more dangerous than the latter. The chances of preserving a reasonable measure of tribal culture while functionally mingling with developed nations that have overcome their tribal tendencies are nil. Essentially, the only realistic way to preserve this culture is to put it into evolutionary historical circulation.
You, Orthoprax, accuse me of rejecting Judaism and Jewish tradition. Even more interestingly, you believe that this rejection leaves me with “a vague interest in Jewish culture and history”. As if it cannot be anything other than “vague”!
Your argument can only make some sense if we assume that Jewish ethno-genesis is fundamentally different from all others, that historical and cultural-historical laws do not apply to us. Yet if this is what you really believe, then what kind of a skeptic are you?
In my opinion, almost everyone who comes from a genuinely traditional family is basically an invalid who is compelled, when freed into the skeptical realm, to slowly and painfully recreate the normal cultural norms of behavior. This is very, very hard. The tribal tattoo never comes off entirely. Nevertheless, I urge to consider at least the purely intellectual aspect of the matter. Let us leave aside the childhood emotions, sympathies and recollections. The only real question is simple and has already been asked: we must decide whether we are ordinary people or not.
I, for my part, consider the Jews to be an ordinary collective with an extraordinary history. It is an ordinary collective in the sense that it is subject to the same laws that apply to everyone else. Our extraordinary history, while it certainly poses distinct objectives before us, does not place us outside the framework of the ordinary historical game. Thus, the presence of extraordinary phenotypic traits does not usually mean the presence of an extraordinary genotype. In short, we are ordinary people stuck fast at the tribal stage of their social and cultural evolution, who must quickly create a fully-fledged national culture. If we don’t, we will vanish. For nearly two thousand years, the Jewish tribe managed to survive in the midst of other tribes or semi-tribes. In the last couple of centuries, the rules of the games have changed – and the results speak for themselves.
This thought brings us to your question about Israel. In all honesty, I do not understand why you would have wanted to raise this issue. I could have raised it myself, and would have done so in due time. For you, it only spells trouble.
The fact of the matter is that, unlike yourself, I actually live in Israel. This is a matter of deliberate choice, since I was born elsewhere and could have settled anywhere else. Essentially, I decided to take part in the real Jewish ethno-genesis, in the normalization process of Jewish existence. Or, what amounts to the same thing, I opted to participate in the formation of the Jewish, or rather (since Jewish is by definition religious or traditional) the post-Jewish, Israeli nation – essentially, a rescue mission to save that same Jewish culture that the traditionalists are unwittingly destroying.
The Gaelic customs, tendencies and norms were doomed from the outset. In fact, any cultural flesh is doomed. Its days are numbered. The only thing that can be salvaged is its memory, transplanted in new, evolved customs, tendencies and norms. That is why a culture must have a consistent collective carrier. In the Jewish instance, it is crystal clear: such a carrier can be engendered (alas, this is far from certain, since not every ethno-genesis proves a success) only by Israel, with all its virtues and shortcomings.
In my opinion, Israel had a chance – albeit only in the event that Israel manages to rid itself the same traditionalism that you advocate in America.
You pride yourself on your knowledge of biblical Hebrew. While, I, you see, took it upon itself to make Hebrew my (as well as my children’s) living language – with all the infinite, multifaceted consequences that this entails. Among other things, I have learned to think in Hebrew. I hold anti-traditionalist conversations with my children, as strange as it sounds, in Hebrew. I have enabled them to go through religious schools (with one exception – my youngest daughter refused to attend one, and I decided that it was her God given right), not the least because I wanted them to hear the traditionalist arguments first-hand. I even passed the state rabbinical examinations (not all of them – I found it tedious, for instance, to learn and be tested for avelut), even though I hadn’t the slightest intention of working in this area (declining several jobs offers from abroad about fifteen years ago). I have been through a rather interesting period of military service, and my children too have been in the army, including the Israeli version of special forces. Two of them, by the way, are presently taking part in the evacuation of the Gaza Strip. This has a direct bearing on our topic.
Yet there is more at stake here than language, war, or the knowledge of Jewish literature. Israel is grinding its Jewish legacy, exactly as Hegel would have it, giving birth to its contemporary living culture through rejecting the old, a rejection that constitutes the true assimilation.
Even though I have no intention of observing Shabbat, I quite agree with to the idea of having a day of rest, one that is markedly different from the rest of the week, as well as to the suggestion to have this day fall on Saturday rather than Sunday. I am sympathetic to the Israeli obsession with local geography, while my own interest in archeology borders on nothing short of a mania. I am fascinated to watch members of different communities, who basically have very little in common, gradually finding a common language. Most importantly, I am hopefully watching the process of forming the Israeli nation, which may just succeed in transforming us form Gauls into Frenchmen.
At the same time, I try to be consistent. Since we are an ordinary, normal people, having no chosen status but merely a complicated past, a people without God but with a history, then we have no other choice but to observe the rules of civilized democratic society. That is why I support, firmly and without reservation, every kind of peace initiative, including the Geneva one; stand behind the principle of full equality for all minorities, above all for the Arabs, of course; and advocate the most dangerous and unpopular endeavor in the world – the quest to turn Israel into a state for all its citizens. Indeed, can a modern democratic state be anything else? In fact, it is only in such a state that we have a chance to successfully complete our ethno-genesis, to rid ourselves of the “Gaelic” tradition, and to finally unfold from a tribal chrysalis into a national butterfly.
You, the Jews living in the democratic and comfortable America, unfortunately do not have such a chance. Thus even American skeptics can only hide their heads, like the proverbial ostrich, in the humus of tradition. What, then, can we expect of all the others?
Then to which I responded:
The French of today are the descendants of Gauls, yes, but they are no longer Gauls at all. They've lost their previous identity and replaced it with another. Yes, I can envision success in the creation of an Israeli identity but with the loss of a Jewish one. But as a Jew, who feels and thinks like a Jew and unlike an Israeli, that plan doesn't really appeal to me.
It is a duck and run plan of cutting a few soft spots of our rich heritage which are retainable in such a national culture while losing the meat of the Jewish experience. It also turns any casual immigrant to the State of Israel into a "Jew" as much as I am. No, in fact perhaps more than I am being as I am not an Israeli citizen. The whole idea devalues being a Jew.
I once saw a short play in summer camp. I don't remember the name of it but it depicted the last Jew on earth. Here he was sitting, wrapped in a talit and fumbling with his tefillin but crying because he didn't know how to wear it and had no one to ask. The scene brought tears to my eyes and thinking about it now has done it again.
Is my loyalty to tradition meaningless because it is fundamentally an emotional reaction? Why? I could say that your Israeli nationalism is also emotional. As I see it, the Jewish people will no longer be Jewish if they remove all the vestiges of what being Jewish has meant for thousands of years. Your neo-culture is more like a pseudo-culture in my eyes. It may be real and perhaps even viable, but it is weak and disappointing.
Is the loss of tradition as inevitable as you make it seem? I sure hope not. We have the power to reinvigorate tradition, reform it and make it anew, but still keep its value. The tribe is not an inferior placeholder for the true Jewish culture, but is the fundamental unit of our Jewish heritage.
Being Jewish should not be a background factoid like other nations have it. Being Jewish is not about "being" but about "doing." Maybe my values are all out of whack from your perspective, but being Jewish involves participation in a Jewish community and Jewish culture. And that Israeli identity you propose to replace it is not enough.