Thursday, August 27, 2020

Between Scylla and Charybdis

         I have had the honor and privilege of living over twenty-eight years in Eretz Yisrael. It is my home, both spiritual and physical. I desire no other. Indeed, by moving here decades ago, I feel that I have redeemed and fulfilled the dreams of my great-great grandparent who, when so many Jews migrated westward in the wake of the pogroms of 1881, siezed the opportunity to return home to Eretz Yisrael (15 years before the First Zionist Congress). 
         I also have the privilege of being a fourth generation American. My forebears emigrated to the United States from Belarus, Lithuania, and Eretz Yisrael (the latter forced out by the Turks). Thanks to them, and despite significant challenges, I was able to grow up a proud American and to receive an education (both general and Jewish) which is, certainly today, unequaled. I have a deep debt of gratitude to the United States of American. Despite its flaws, the memory of the country in which I was born and raised remains for me the best hope for Mankind.
         Still, casting my lot with my fellow Jews in building our ancestral, God given homeland, has consequences; as do all principled decisions. One of these is that, on principle, I do not vote in American elections (even though I report annually to the IRS and pay taxes to the American government). Neither do I, on principle, endorse candidates for elective office in the United States. To do so would be, in my opinion, unethical since I would not bear the full measure of the consequences of that vote (just as I expect American Jews not to interfere in the democratic process in Israel, as they do not bear the full measure of the consequences of their actions).
      At the same time, the world in which we live is ever smaller and ever more inter-connected. The waves generated by the cultural wars, in Europe and especially in the United States, crash loudly on the shores of Israel. The ontological, ethical and axiological questions that they raise impact us all. In particular, the challenges that contemporary culture pose to Judaism and Jewish Survival ((and, more importantly, the hidden assumptions or 'sub-text's) must be confronted, irrespective of where they find the most tangible expression. Finally, in their more extreme manifestations, both contemporary liberalism and contemporary conservatism contain within themselves hostility (and too often, explicit hatred of Jews and/or Judaism). On the Right, this has frequently emerged as bald, unadulterated Jew-hatred of the type that history has known since ancient times. On the Left, Jew hatred manifests itself more deftly, more subtly, through an Orwellian (mis)use of language. It is, however, no less insidious and no less dangerous.  
    Owing to the fact that my intellectual and spiritual loyalty is above all to the Torah as Traditionally conceived, and to the survival of the Jewish People as the bearers of the Torah, I do share ideas and make observations about the American scene when they relate to these issues. Sometimes, these concern things that are said or done in a political context. However, I try my best to make sure that the subject matter and the observations hie to issues, and do not support any particular political party or issue. 
    I will admit that my musings and critiques may (more often than not) single out developments on the so-called politico-cultural Left. There are a number of reasons for this. First, as I mentioned, right wing Jew-hatred is 'out there and obvious.' It should, of course, be excoriated (not just 'called-out') and fought with every fiber that we possess. Second, while there is horrible Jew hatred on the Right, the spiritual challenge posed to Judaism and Jewish survival, by even moderate elements of contemporary Liberal culture (which is, in actuality, very different than classical Liberalism), is less obvious, and more corrosive. The aggressive advocacy of atheism, doctrines of radical individual autonomy, denial of the existence of Truth and Moral Norms that bind us a priori, the assault on the traditional Family, the excoriation of national identity and more in the name of fetchingly packaged 'Enlightenment' and 'Progress,' indeed the dissolution of Tolerance itself (the same Tolerance that allowed Jewish entry into European society two and a half centuries ago)--- all of these and more are part of the challenge posed by the culturally dominant currents emanating from the Western cultural elites, and those in the United States, in particular. Owing to their less obvious qualities, it requires more effort to highlight the threat that these pose to Traditional Judaism and Jewish self-definition. Hence, my posts tend to concentrate on this threat, not because I underestimate the danger of brute, Jew hatred. I do not (especially, as I have personally confronted it, in all its deadly ugliness, both in the United States and in Israel.)
    The result of this is that there is much in the Conservative cultural agenda with which I identify, and which I find very useful in waging the war of ideas and in advancing what I believe are the core values, the grundnormen, of Orthodox Judaism. However, I wish to make it very clear that I am neither a 'card carrying' Conservative or Liberal (and yes, on many issues, I am very responsive to the Liberal agenda (e.g. the legitimate advancement and strengthening of women's Torah literacy and leadership within Orthodox Tradition and in accordance the inner dynamic of that Tradition). My epistemological model is both simple and complex. At the bottom, I posit the organic integrity, yea essentialist character of Judaism. Judaism is not detached from historical change or cut off from intellectual/cultural challenges or stimuli. However, except under extraordinary force majeure, it does not simply submit to the outside. It interacts and responds thereto, according to its own rules, rhythms, dynamic and clear boundaries. As the late historian H.A.R. Gibb once said of Islam, Judaism only absorbs outside influences when it has a previously developed internal need to do so. Even then, it only does so in line with its own, internal lines of development. To 'reinterpret,' 'align,' or 'adapt' Orthodoxy so that it becomes epistemologically dependent or conditional upon an external value system (conservative, liberal, or otherwise) is to eviscerate the Torah and, for the believing Jew, nothing short of blasphemous.[1]
     Now, I hope that it is clear that my engagement in these matters is on the level of ideas, not of individuals (except, insofar, as I cite individuals who express ideas or positions). In Hebrew, we describe this type of approach as being לגופו של עניין, ולא לגופו של אדם (ad ideam, non ad personam). In recent years, however, for reasons that are irrelevant here such discussions have become increasingly difficult. In fact, in the terrarium of social media, they are nigh on impossible. Everything has become personalized, and politicized. More to that, if individuals who have moral or other failings also support a specific idea, it willy-nilly becomes de-legitimized as do all those who advocate that idea. In short, all arguments become ad personam and are never ad ideam. This situation, the existence of which I am hardly the first to note, is extremely dangerous for society generally. For Jewish cohesiveness, especially Orthodox Jewish cohesiveness, it may well prove lethal.
        In different ways, large sectors of American Orthodoxy have violated the prime directive that I described above. They have, often uncritically, accepted external systems of cultural and ethical values and forced them upon the Torah. Right wing Orthodoxy, in its fight against the corrosion of contemporary Liberalism, has embraced the American Right that include a frightening degree of moral obtuseness and ethical insensitivity and expectation from its leaders. Indeed, they all too often forgive their erstwhile allies, blinded as they are by fear and loathing of the forces they oppose. In addition, it is insufficiently sensitive to the Jew Hatred that lurks in the ranks of its erstwhile allies.
       Self-styled Modern and Liberal Orthodoxy has an unhealthy tendency to embrace and internalize those self-same outlook, values and world-views that are an anathema to God's Torah and a life of surrender to His Will. In its more egregious manifestations, this expresses itself in the distortion of the Torah, rejection of Jewish national (not nationalist) identity, and the granting of legitimacy to the unacceptable phenomenon of Orthopraxis or 'Social Orthodoxy.' In addition, the uncritical embrace of contemporary liberalism and its exponents, blinds far too many Liberal Orthodox Jews to the spiritual dangers posed by their erstwhile heroes. In addition, the absorption of post-national, inter-sectional theory threatens to attenuate the ties of this community to Israel. This doesn't endanger them physically, of course. It does endanger the lives of six and a half million Israeli Jews.
       We are, then, foundering between Scylla and Charybdis. Personally, in trying to advance the cause of my own primary allegiances, the extremes on both sides twixt whom I try to navigate make me feel as if I'm being blown out of the waters of the Straits of Messina. The Orthodox community, on the other hand, by not navigating between the extremes is in danger of being devoured by Scylla or swallowed up by Charybdis.[2]
       It matters not which is which.
       The result is the same. 
[1] It might be credibly asked how I can subscribe to this belief and be an objective historian. I have addressed this issue throughout this blog, which you are invited to look over.
[2] Similar things can be said of Israeli society. However, it requires a separate discussion.