Friday, April 18, 2008

Identity, Judaism and Geekism

One penalty/benefit of writing a blog on Israel and the Middle East is the sheer volume of material challenging one's preconceptions and assumptions to the point of serious intellectual (and sometimes emotional) indigestion. The other challenge is to select from the torrent that which may interest and stimulate the reader.

A brief personal diversion is necessary to introduce the topic of today's blog on Identity, Judaism and Geekism. I come from a strongly assimilated Jewish background, heavily influenced by Anglo-liberal (in the progressive Fabian and literary sense) secular philosophy. It was not a bad beginning though far removed from the traditional Jewish ethos, but certainly not entirely incompatible with it, and even more distant from any form of Jewish ritual, practice and community. These tendencies were further strengthened by a lifetime in science with its emphasis on hard empirical fact, rigorous logic and transnational collaboration.

In the light of these formative and persisting influences, the belief structure and the practices of religion in general, including the Jewish religion, seemed to me absurd - even distasteful at times.

Given this background surely I would be an automatic disciple of someone like Dawkins who sees religion as so much superstitious garbage from a bygone era; the toxic detritus of primitive minds which in the light of science and progressive social ideas should be permanently sealed in concrete mental silos? After all, many "enlightened" and scientifically sophisticated people feel this way as do a host of lesser geeks.

I am moved to these observations by exposure to two quite distinct minds over the past 24 hours or so.
The first is an article by a Jarred Cinman entitled "Let’s talk about the Jews" on ThoughtLeader (no less), the Mail and Guardian online blog. It is a text of quite unbelievable naivete, of which the author is wholly unconscious. I suppose it could be termed the "unbearable obtuseness of geekism". I use the phrase because we are led to understand in the blurb accompanying Cinman's article, that he is a successful IT practitioner and businessman. Some examples give the flavour:

Virtually throughout the article he uses the term "the Jews" based, one imagines, on his experience of the Jews of his limited business and suburban acquaintance together with a bundle of unexamined anti-semitic stereotypes he has absorbed like blotting paper. It does not occur to Cinman that "the Jews" encompass Isaiah Berlin, Marx, Einstein, Rabbi Kook, Spinoza and Maimonides to mention just a few.

Other pearls of insight include such observations as 'The Jews, in what I have always found a supreme act of arrogance, state that a Jew is born with a “Jewish soul”... "Let it be said that the underlying religious beliefs are no more inspiring or coherent than those of any other religion and, in many cases, sound more like the writings of JRR Tolkien than ancient spiritual practitioners."..."Leaving God aside, there are all kinds of bonkers stuff going on within the Jewish belief system."..."Likewise, there is the shady concept of “Amalek”, the shady archetypal enemy of the Jews, who (some argue) are embodied by present-day Arabs. They are told they must take from them a ring of power, and throw it into a volcano … well, not really, but it does get pretty weird."

In between this adolescent tripe are anti-semitic tropes borrowed wholesale from your average yobbo on the football terraces. Again examples are the only way of conveying the full flavour of Cinman's "thought" processes: ..."the Jews have made a big mark. Hostile to outsiders, lavish in giving advantages to its (sic) own kind and filled with a persecution complex"... "There is still a God, the renowned Yahweh (sometimes called Jehovah), whose acts and attitudes in the Old Testament are a case study in brutality, xenophobia and cruelty. He routinely has entire nations slain, swallows up people into the Earth, drowns, burns, turns into salt and so forth."

In these quotes I have hardly skimmed the surface: Cinman is a case study in crass prejudice and arrogance strutting its stuff on a public stage. So why spend any time on him? Surely there are anti-religious commentators capable of informed argument couched in adult, even eloquent, prose more deserving of our attention.

Of course, but partly it is worth noting because this mindless drivel appears under the
imprimatur of the Mail and Guardian blessed by the designation, ThoughtLeader. That the world of blogs, especially those with strongly partisan agendas, are a cesspool of prejudice and ignorance is not news. But this is not usually accompanied with the seal of approval from a newspaper which pretends to intellectual and political respectability. If it is claimed that the Mail and Guardian is in the business of presenting different viewpoints with which it may seriously disagree, surely it can do much better than Cinman?

But maybe it can't. Or, maybe, Cinman simply reflects the prejudices of a significant section of the M & G editorial staff.

But let's get past Cinman (and the M & G) and deal with something worth talking about. Here is a rather long extract from a blog coming out of a Progressive Orthodox standpoint which I urge readers to have a look at. This extract is by Haim Watzman: "Both these American philosophers (William James and Emerson), 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."

When contrasting Cinman and Watzman (besides the obvious difference in quality), Watzman recognises two things: firstly, that religion cannot be divorced from the larger society of which it is a part and will inevitably reflect the impact of its social environment and, secondly, that religion is always in a state of evolution - whether slow or rapid, whether abrupt or smooth. The one indeed follows from the other.

I have just finished reading Chinua Achebe's classic "Things Fall Apart" which describes the life of a Nigerian village just before the advent of white colonialism (with its Christian missionaries) and the impact of the latter on the traditional religious life of the village. His writings brilliantly illustrate (without flinching from the ugly bits) the intimate, mutually sustaining (ecological) relationship between a superstitious religious belief system and the daily life of the village, and its inhabitants; an existence in which history moved at a snail's pace until the arrival of the white man. In some ways Achebe's book closely resembles Isaac Bashevis Singer's beautiful collection of Jewish/rabbinical stories entitled "In my Father's Court".

Modern Judaism, as do all religions, illustrates the impact of accelerated history driven by technology and increasing (but precarious) mastery over the natural world. It has branched out and will continue to do so in response to the fragmented, diverse, sceptical and abrasive ethos of the modern age. At the extremes, one line of Judaism has retreated into a denial of modernity and has attempted to recreate a "purified" and idealised version of of the religion and, on the other, many Jews have totally rejected the divine in any form in favour of various wholly secular doctrines - or no doctrine at all. In between are various other solutions which retain some of the traditional collective forms with the best of Judaism's ethical, poetic and spiritual elements.

What many secular fundamentalists miss, is that religion can become a vehicle for poetry, art and ethical thought. The divine, in one sense, is a metaphor for human strivings towards
meaning and transcendence of our animal nature. When linked to tradition, ritual and history, it becomes a collective enterprise providing a sense of belonging and guideposts to ethical behaviour.

Of course, it can be argued, religion can become an excuse for the worst of human instincts: intolerance, aggression, irrationality and greed. What is more religious doctrine can be used not simply to justify such behaviour but to encourage it. Whether religion is worse in this respect than secular creeds like Marxism and its offshoots, or even less coherent secular doctrines, is uncertain. I personally suspect that religion, through appeals to a group-specific divinity, is less susceptible to "disproof" and can more readily become a source of exclusive identity and a motivation to extreme political conflict than secular doctrines.

I'm also not sure that any doctrine which holds up unattainable standards of human behaviour is, ultimately, not more damaging than more tolerant creeds. For those like myself, inclined towards scepticism and science, serious adherence to religious doctrine with its emphasis on faith (at root an exercise in irrationality) poses serious intellctual and emotional obstacles.

So, in the last analysis, I find rather attractive the freedom to select out those elements of Judaism which provide a sense of historical continuity, identity and human transcendence while avoiding the spectre of irrational belief and infatuation with the minutiae of ritual and practice. I suppose one cannot have one's cake and eat it, but this is as close as one can get to (Isaiah Berlin's ?) philosophy of liberal humanism. I incline heavily towards non-observance in practice while encouraging it in theory.

For those who find these ideas inadequate (as I do), please use the comment facility at the end of this post to enlighten me and other readers.

Mike Berger

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