Archive for July, 2010

Blood is in scare quotes above mainly because I’m a sociologist and a historian, and I shudder every time I read something that claims a cultural identity is in the “blood.” Of course this has echoes of Hitler and fascism generally, but our notion of genetic or biologically inherited culture, of “owning” cultures or ethnicities because of our parentage are deeply problematic, not just politically, but empirically. Culture is learned and contextual, and is basically a tool of human interaction.

I have a deep compassion and understanding for the Jewish language of ancestors and heritage. I get it. I understand why that language exists and why it circulates. But I also see so many dangers inherent in a language of inherited culture.

Yesterday I bought a used copy of Martin Buber’s collection of essays on Judaism. I was excited to read it because Buber’s I and Thou was transformative for me when I was an undergraduate. But I didn’t even make it half way through the first essay. Buber argues that there are only two things to be said of turn of the century judaism (presumably in Germany), and that is that it’s a religion and that it’s a nationality. He rejects the possibility that early 20th century German Jews were actually religious, because they don’t have a direct encounter with the divine principles, and turns to a three page long explanation of the connection of Jews to each other through their blood, and that their shared blood makes them a nation (he even goes so far to argue that nationhood requires common blood, a horrifying notion from our perspective 100 years later).

The blood language…was there something in the water in Germany? Seriously. I was pummeled by the deep historical irony of a Jew making that argument. But I was also deeply saddened. I need to read the rest of the essay to see where Buber is going with this. But as someone on the path to conversion, reading this blood language yet again (the first time I read it was the Orthodox scholar I have talked about before (see Gelerntner)) knocked me back.

Again, I get it. Completely intellectually, sociologically, historically, and culturally. But it leaves me completely speechless and baffled as to where to take that. I have a sociological/historical response, but I’m not sure how helpful it is for my personal experience of choosing Judaism as my community and spiritual path.

I have a long post on Jewish Identity that I’ve been working on for about a week, and it will tie in to this, but my idea of Jewish Identity comes from a normative position, what I think Jewish identity should or could be, and I take an adamantly anti-essentialist tack.

Any thoughts would be appreciated.


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The past couple weeks have been full at work, writing articles and grading summer term finals; but I have continued my reading and practice in my exploration of Judaism. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting some thoughts on Torah, Jewish identity, and God, thoughts I’ve had as I’ve finished reading Rabbi Green’s Radical Judaism, a collection of speeches from Heschel, and some writings on Jewish identity from Elie Wiesel.

Through this reading I’ve come to understand that I began this journey with a set of blocks or walls, from a place of negation and refusal. Whatever it is about my personality, my life experience, or my body that draws me to a religious life, it contradicts and conflicts with my intellectual and academic life and with my experience of “spiritual abuse” in organized religion. Yet I don’t want to approach this amazing experience from a place of refusal anymore, so I thought I’d write a few brief affirmations of what I actually do believe:

1) Holiness. Human beings evolved in such a way that our brains experience a series of qualia that together we might call an experience of the “sacred.” First, our brain’s ability to infer causality overlaps with our overreactive social cognition to make us feel at a deep level that there is an intention behind events in our lives. Second, our conscious awareness of our place relative in space (insignificance) and time (mortality) can create a sense of awe. And third, our brain’s default perception of itself as separate from the rest of the universe and from other humans can be overcome to dissolve the barrier and allow us to feel a sense of oneness and a dissolution of our Self. These experiences may not be universal, however; anecdotally, I have friends who say they never have these experiences at all or who look at me as if I’m on crack when I’m carried away in transcendence in a grove of giant Sequoias.

These experiences are—universal or not—deeply human, a part of what it means to be a human, part of the breadth of experience of humanness, of being embodied in this way on this planet at this point in our evolutionary history. Rather than an exterior force or power causing us to feel this way, it is simply a human experience of the world as produced by our brains. For me, this does not reduce the importance or possible meaning of the experience of the sacred, but it does reframe it in important ways.

I believe that the experience of the sacred is similar to the experience of love or the experience of beauty. We know they are created by chemicals and neural activity; but they qualia, the lived, embodied experience, is real to us, and as conscious beings, we require meaning for our experiences. The qualia push us to explain the sacred, to make it intelligible and meaningful.

Although I would not argue that religion comes purely from the need to render the experience of the “sacred” meaningful—it is as much an outgrowth of social interaction and power dynamics as anything—religion does and can fulfill that purpose. Religion at its best can shape our experience of the sacred in life-affirming, expansive, and opening ways. At its worst, it can justify the exact opposite. For good or ill, and despite my intellectual bent and my best intentions, I experience “sacredness” regularly. And so I find myself at mid-life seeking a tradition and community to shape and giving meaning to those experiences in the best way possible.

2) Community. I believe generally speaking, we humans need to belong, we need a community of like-others who see us, recognize us, and accept us. Real communities are messy and full of people we sometimes don’t like or want to associate with. A good healthy community can both channel our social needs and desires through regular interaction, social connection, and belonging; and it can show us our weaknesses and highlight our ethical responsibilities by putting us in interaction with people we wouldn’t normally associate with.

More importantly, the experience of the sacred can be shared with a community; indeed, in social psychological terms, the communal interaction itself actually produces the sense of the sacred. Further, it gives the context for making the sacred meaningful through interaction with other people.

In both positive and negative ways, religious communities share a symbolic language from which they can develop a meaningful life. This language can be more or less exclusive and can result in problematic relationships with outsiders; or it can be used to expand and promote values and interrelationships with all humans.

Regardless, I think that creating a meaningful life and understand the meaning of sacred experiences is nearly impossible to do by oneself. I believe that it requires interaction with other people and a language to have the conversation.

3) Reason, Science & Meaning. In American pragmatic tradition, John Dewey argued that all science (by which he meant human knowledge) had to be brought together in great intellectual dialogue, and that none could be ignored or left out. Various kinds of knowledge could be evaluated and rejected as necessary. Importantly, for Dewey, all discussions of ethics, morality, beauty, and meaning had to account fully for the discoveries of science, and no social or political policy decisions should be made in isolation from science either. For Dewey, this meant that if you developed an ethic that did not account for the empirical work of, say, evolutionary biology, that ethic might be flawed in some way and create problems. If you tried to devise a political policy at the level of the state without accounting for the empirical work of social science, you could likewise end up with a flawed or even dangerous policy. Etc.

For me, no meaning of the sacred, no meaningful life can be created by ignoring science and empirical study, by pretending it doesn’t exist or isn’t there or that it’s false. For reasons of intellectual integrity, I believe that religious meaning must be congruent with what we know now as a species in the rational realm.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that reason alone can provide an ethics, a standard of beauty, an explanation of the sacred. Empiricism can explain my brain chemistry and evolutionary history, but it cannot tell me what it should mean in my life and how I should live because of it.

I’m a firm believer in the humanities (the classical definition of the study of the human arts and their meaning) as the locus of humanity’s search for meaning, and I see religious life as one of the “humanities” in this sense.

So meaning, for me, can only be derived with my eyes wide open to all the knowledge I have, from disparate ways of knowing, and accounting fully for the empirical work of scientific mindset; but the role of meaning-maker belongs firmly to the humanities alone, writ large.

4) Ethics. Acknowledging the great weaknesses in Enlightenment universalism, I nonetheless believe that a universal ethic is not just “true”, but indispensable in our radically interdependent world. Since the 18th century, humans have become increasingly connected across time and space through technology, trade, militarism, media, and politics. This means that we are constantly interacting with people who are different from us.

Current thinking in evolutionary theory is that we inherited a baseline sense of social connection and social justice from our primate ancestors; unfortunately, it looks like this ethic is a group ethic, aimed at like-others and not at the species-being (a handy Marxist idea here). But the world we live in makes a tribal ethics untenable and when pushed too far dangerous and violent.

And so with the Englithenment philosophers I would affirm the inherent value of individual human beings (again, I’m ignoring the problems with this idea for the sake of the affirmation I’m making; but I am not ignorant of the problems with Enlightenment philosophy, Christian, Jewish or Secular). As a baseline for ethics in a broadly interconnected, interdependent world, I see no other way to build a workable ethic, as messy as that may be.

5) Humanistic Judaism. I began this blog a few weeks ago sort of insisting on my atheism. The god language in much of what I was reading in Judaism was very difficult for me to parse and wade through—I don’t know what I was expecting, given that Judaism is a religion, a monotheistic religion at that—because it felt like an assault on my rational position on god: There is no evidence that a god exists, and I do not believe in things for which I have no evidence (this is actually classical agnosticism (Thomas Huxley), as opposed to how agnosticism is used to do to indicate a kind of “fence-sitting” about god).

But I’ve had to accept the fact that I’ve found a new religious home. For better or worse, Judaism is working for me. I don’t understand why, and I’m frankly a bit freaked out and confused by it. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be converting to an organized, ancient, monotheistic religion, I’d’ve laughed in your face. Yet here I am. I find, however, that I haven’t lost my intellectual stance on the existence of god or the deep problems that can arise in religious communities. Rather, I’ve just decided that the religious experience, life, and community are doing something really important for me personally and that there may be a way to integrate my lack of belief in god, skepticism about community, and fear of religions in general with what I’m actually experiencing on the ground.

For me, I’ve ended at what I have started calling Humanistic Judaism. I’m not sure that insisting on the non-existence of God is really what I want to be about. And from the reading I’ve been doing in Jewish philosophy, I’d say I’m in good company. Indeed, what has been affirmed to me over and over again over the past few weeks is that the liberal, intellectual, scholarly, enlightenment forms of judaism are already deeply humanist and I find a resonance with it that transcends the god language (which I can see both as an artifact of history and as a sincere belief on the part of my co-religionists, whom I hold with care and respect) and the tribalism (which I also understand as historical artifact and, perhaps, an unavoidable part of any religious community).

So I’d rather insist on the humanness, indeed, the humaneness that I’m finding in liberal Judaism, and how it corresponds to what I do believe in: The human experience of the sacred, the human need to belong in community, my belief in the human ability to know, and my strong sense that every human being is of intrinsic value. So rather than an atheist who is exploring judaism, I’ve decided that I am a Humanist Jew.


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Of course the Enlightenment would impact the Jewish communities of Europe along with its Christian majorities, but it had never occurred to me to see Jews (and Jewishness) as the original test of Enlightenment universalism and an ongoing case study of the interaction between the ascendant individual of modernity and a minority (often abject) population. The Haskalah movement in Jewish philosophy revealed 300 years ago the problems and ruptures in Enlightenment thinking long before post-modenrist critiques of the 1960s, as a group that had been resident outsiders was suddenly, if only in theory, thrust into the universal mainstream of democratic citizenship. Although the “emancipation” of Jews in Europe progressed in starts and fits starting more or less when the French Revolution voted to make Jews full citizens of the secular French state, the idea that Jews were in some sense Europeans and Jews at the same time seems to have pushed the contradictions of the Enlightenment to its limits, both within Judaism and among non-Jews, who were confronted with the prospect of tolerating a people that had been loathed for nearly two thousand years. The emergence of the “Jewish Question” in the early 19th century—how to be both a citizen of a European (or American) nation and a Jew at the same time—foreshadows the debates about multiple identities and pluralism of cultures of the past 40 years.

My reading in this area is new and admittedly only from a very brief overview of Jewish history of the past 300 years (see Robinson Chs. 8-9), and so this post here clearly is not thorough or even knowledgeable. But I found in the reading about this history an odd sense of understanding. On one level, I had yet again the realization that post-modernism is often little more than modernism dressed up in French clothing. On a deeper level, I appreciated the ways in which this question has been confronted head-on as part of the experience of modernity within Judaism, indeed, as constitutive of a Jewish modernity.

Whereas many Enlightenment thinkers saw a world built on rational universalism, modernity in practice and in history has been a far messier human affair of the non-rational experiences of belonging, identity, affect, local practice, and difference in a delicate dance with the universalizing pressures of nation building and democratizing. (The dance between the poles of particularity and universality has only intensified since WWII as the reach and power of global social and economic power has expanded into every-day life of billions of people.) The Jewish Question—can you be a rational citizen and a Jew at the same time?—and the various and contradictory ways that Jews have attempted to answer that question since the early maskilim attempted to remake Judaism in local vernaculars (e.g., Moses Mendelssohn) and to rationalize Jewish practice offer for us a picture of what is not a tension to be relieved, but a constituent feature of modernity itself.

What the development of rational orthodoxy (a real movement, although it seems contradictory) and the Reform movement, not to mention the secular philosophy and art movements within Jewish communities starting in the mid-18th century (including a revival of Yiddish as a philosophical and literary language in eastern Europe) brought about was the disarticulation of the individual from the group, but seeing Jews as individuals with a religion rather than religious groups outside of society. Jews became individuals who could choose a religion, and ultimately starting in the 19th century, western Jews have been working to understand what it means to choose to be Jewish.

This existential choice—Jew or citizen—is a sign of Weberian demystification of everyday life. It is the new context of modernity pushing in on Judaism, forcing it to adapt to a new “emancipated” context. (Nazism can be seen as the bloody extreme of the dominant culture dealing with tolerance of difference, through a mass-produced death.) And it is both the opening of religious and ethnic groups to scrutiny and their rebirth in new forms. Unfortunately in practice over the past 200 years or so, dominant cultures (majorities) in any given democratic nation-state become an unspoken, assumed, often hidden ethnicity that comes to stand for the Universal. It is this phenomenon that all minority groups within pluralistic democracies have had to fight against, the presumed universality of the majority culture. I think what made Christian and secular Europeans so uncomfortable with Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g., The Dreyfus Affair) was precisely that the presence of difference within a culture supposedly built on the universalist-rational claims of the Enlightenment forces the hidden ethnic pseudo-Universal (i.e., the dominant culture) to see itself as one among many rather than as Human.

Judaism as a whole demonstrates both the possibilities and the losses of balancing between citizen and “other”, as Jews have become fully participating, fully enfranchised members of various democratic societies, but have simultaneously fragmented and splintered in their attempts to maintain group cohesion and distinctiveness.


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