Culture, Religion

(Re) Reading Radicalism

Shaul Magid has an interesting discussion of Art Green’s new book Radical Judaism together with the reviews of the book, asking the question: “What does it all mean?” Here’s the punch-line:

These three reviews illustrate three levels of anxiety Jews feel about their theological future. The anxiety is not really about Green’s proposal as much as the realization that something must be done to create a theologically-relevant Judaism and no one really knows what to do. Mirsky’s questions about “survival” and the ever-present threat of the dissolution of the particular are well-placed and Green and others need to address them seriously. Wolpe’s anxiety about syncretism and the un-Jewishness of contemporary Radical Judaism is an instantiation of what I have called the paranoia of assimilation. If Judaism cannot learn to live with this syncretism, that is, with the normalization of un-Jewishness in its Judaism, it may be doomed. In America, Jews have learned to live comfortably with non-Jews in productive and mutually respectful ways. The next step may be learning to make the borders of Judaism more permeable. Landes seems to be threatened by everything that stands outside his own imaginative “Judaism.”

But you should read the whole thing here then come back and comment.

30 thoughts on “(Re) Reading Radicalism

  1. This is a silly anxiety. Catholicism has had a virtually unchanged theology for nearly 1,000 years since Thomas Aquinas. Priests in Catholic seminaries are still taught Thomist thought. Notwithstanding all of the schisms, reformations, and so forth since then, it’s hard to argue this has been an existential threat to Catholicism.
    I liked Green’s book, but I think there are more pressing things standing between today’s Jews and an intellectual comfort with their religion.

  2. Who is this book meant for? Should we read this book, or should we study some Talmud instead? Would the world been worse off had the author done the later?

  3. Don’t be so dismissive. Its a great book, and very important. I’m pretty sure that Art Green has studied a fair amount of Talmud in his life…….

  4. That’s not my intention. I’m confused why it’s necessary to have a conversation about being Jewish (i.e. “doing” Jewish), instead of just… well, “doing” Jewish. At least this is my take on it, but let’s broaden this out a bit.
    I really don’t know very many people – Jews, that is – who can be guilt-induced into not-assimilating, or not intermarrying, or what have you, and that’s all the conversation about assimilation is meant to induce – fear and guilt. It just doesn’t work. Jews who have chosen to engage in Jewish life do so because they want to do so, not because they attended a workshop on combating assimilation. The fact is that very few people are willing to make fundamental changes in their lives to live up to the ideas they advocate.
    How can I, as a simple Jew without any institutional stake, take seriously the Federation’s anti-assimilation programming, when most of the board members of local federations don’t keep Shabbos, or Kashrus, and aren’t willing to take the smallest steps themselves towards more meaningfully expressing the faith and culture of our people. If they believe in it so intensely, why don’t THEY lead the way? Instead they sow fear and guilt and ride that pony all the way to the bank.
    It’s like going to a dentist with crooked teeth.

  5. BZ, after you can’t study any longer, then read my comment, for entertainment value. Bdonkey, point taken, although I have yet to see the gemara argue for including more un-Jewishness in our Jewishness.

  6. Victor, if you’ve ever eaten a latke or spoken Yiddish or read the Rambam or called yourself Zionist, then you’ve included un-Jewish influences in your Judaism. The history of Jewish culture is a story of assimilating foods, language, theology and national ideas (respectively) from other nations into us. There is nothing that is “purely” Jewish.
    And about taking federation programming seriously, I suggest that we not take it seriously. But if adherence to Orthodoxy is the mark of trustworthiness, then Israel’s largely secular democracy must be galling.

  7. Victor,
    When the Talmud was written, the rabbis didn’t have to contend with fucking awesome non-Jewish things like Tron.

  8. ML, I haven’t read the book. I took the discussion on a tangent. What I meant is that the anti-assimilation programming being offered by the Federation system is premised on guilt, fear and donations.
    KFJ, I’m not sure if you’re making a case for Israel becoming more “Orthodox”, which I don’t support, or tempting me to be galled by it’s secularist democracy, which I’m not. Israel is another Jewish world entirely, with its own assimilation issues.
    I don’t view food, dress, language and the other superficialities of foreign cultures as having left an impact on our people. To some, this trivia is their world. Look how some Arabs defend hummus from entrepreneurial Israeli hands. To them, we’re stealing their culture, pillaging their treasures. How weak must a culture be that it has to hoard its food or fear collapse. It’s not admirable, it’s not beautiful; let’s just state point blank what it is, and that’s pathetic.
    To a Jew, so long as it’s kosher what we eat is meaningless, the lingua franca of our age is meaningless, the leading movements in thought are meaningless – just etchings in time, to be carved through with other etchings, and others, and each one thinking they’re special, and certainly not like the clever barbarians that came before them.
    Can you imagine, investing your entire identity in roasting lamb this way and not that way, or stitching your cloth this way and not that way, or structuring a society this way and not that way? To some, it’s their entire world, their dress, their food, their politics, and to us it’s all meaningless and nothingness.
    So long as our lamb has been shechted and words of truth are on our lips, the rest is just fuel to be consumed; oil to feed the flame and keep us going for another generation with our eyes on the prize, without diminution of spirit, without compromising our obligations, with the only purity of any value whatsoever – the purity of faith.
    So, I ask why go to a doctor with crooked teeth, and another Jew, in true Talmudic fashion will answer, who said teeth shouldn’t be crooked. Fine. So, in Gemara there is a majority opinion, and in life there is an evolutionary opinion. I’ll go to the dentist with straight teeth. They’ll go to the dentist with crooked teeth, and in twenty years we’ll see who is reduced to jello and cream of wheat.
    As far as I’m concerned, the verdict is in. Thank G-d my parents didn’t have the money to send me to more than two years of Jewish Day School. And the parents who dutifully did “everything right” and paid for the Jewish Day School education and are now attending JCC classes “How to Cope when your Child Marries a Non-Jew”, while being guilt-tripped by the Federation into giving more donations to “fight assimilation”, which will allow even more Jewish children to be funneled into the very same spiritual killing fields… It’s impossible for me not to take it all seriously.
    Bdonkey… You have no shame, bringing Tron into this. Your scorched earth tactics have shattered the codes of blogger conduct. I surrender.

  9. Anyone who presents evidence that Judaism has been a syncretic religion in the past is ignored. Anyone who suggests that it should continue to be is shouted down.
    The obvious fact that the majority of the community has invested the Jewish future in dead ideologies (themselves not Jewish in origin), Nationalism, Ethnicity and/or Orthodoxy should be troubling to those who are paying attention. The narratives of Jewish history which predominate in American Judaism seek to obscure anything that might suggest a Judaism which existed outside the intellectual parameters of any of those three.

  10. I feel Victor has been around this blog long enough to get our advocacy on behalf of syncretic Judaism. I’m not inclined to re-explain it from basics every time we bring it up again.

  11. shmuel, there are some who will say that “Nationalism, Ethnicity and/or Orthodoxy” are themselves extensions of a syncretic Judaism. Wasn’t that once a secular Zionist argument? You seem pretty opposed to this notion. It might even be said that you’re ignoring and shouting down those who suggest such concepts.
    Anyway, I don’t see how it can be honestly portrayed that I am insisting that there have been no changes, much less shouting anyone down for suggesting this. You may have noticed that we don’t have Temple service today, at least for a little while longer. Is anyone contesting this fact? What I’ve said is that there has been enormous change, but not in the essence of our faith, and the changes that have been made effected a deeper understanding and involvement in our divine service, and were instituted systematically by those entrusted (by people) and empowered (by law) to make those changes.
    We didn’t start out serving G-d and end up worshiping Zorg, Lord of Soap. Some think we should worship Zorg. I refuse.

  12. KFJ Speak for yourself, please. The blog as a whole doesn’t necessarily advocate syncretic Judaism, although some people who write for it do.
    Although to be fair, what you are advocating here (things like music, foods etc) aren’t what’s normally meant by syncretic, and those things I am not opposed to (as opposed to syncretism in theology, such as people who think that it is possible to believe in say, a triune God and be a Jew. That’s syncretism, and I’m opposed to it). To suppose that adopting a food style – say if you live in India and start to cook with lots of curries- is syncretism is focusing on the wrong things. Victor happens to be right about that. The main thing there is that the food doens’t contain mixtures of meat and milk, or forbidden meats, or meat that isn’t slaughtered in a kosher way – as long as those things are met, it’s only -extremely- trivially syncretism, and *that* can be positive, because it assumes that one interacts and learns from one’s neighbors, while still remaining true to the essentials of Judaism.

  13. BTW, I believe there are several Jews who should consider worshipping Zorg, Lord of soap, if only for hygienic reasons. Perhaps I am a syncretist after all.

  14. “What I’ve said is that there has been enormous change, but not in the essence of our faith”
    Victor, please return to the discussion after you’ve completed the Tanach.

  15. ML, please return to the discussion after you’ve completed both Talmuds and can recite them by heart, with commentary. Don’t make me bring out Zorg again.
    I’ve completed a good portion of the Mishnei Torah, which Rambam says is equivalent to the practical aspects of learning the entire Tanakh and both Talmuds together. Change in the essence of our faith, from Sinai to the present… I haven’t seen it. Unless you’re referring to the times when people tried to change our faith and either got slapped down and repented or died gruesome deaths, or were exiled never to be seen again, but that’s more a support for my point than yours.
    Or, perhaps you want to replay the chollent wars of the 2nd Temple period, in which case I’ll point out that… well, it’s over, the Oral Torah won.

  16. Really? Dismissed? But what does Hear mean? what does Israel mean? What does YHVH mean? What does God mean? What does one mean? All of these things have changed drastically in Jewish history. In fact, this key phrase, about the unity of God is central to Green’s book.
    As for syncratism, it doesn’t matter whether you advocate for it or not, or whether you want to restrict it to the “non-religious” realm, it is a factual reality of all culture (including those things we call religious). Once everything is syncretic, then nothing is, because there are no pure essences to combine.
    In order to take the positions that KRG and Victor are advocating, you need to posit an essence of Judaism (which they both have done). The problem is, that culture is actually all hybrid all the time (check our Homi Bhabha on this question). There is no pure cultural form that we can use as a yardstick to measure the relative purity of other forms.
    Anytime someone claims to have found an essence, they are just freezing one historical element and claiming that it is pervasive and transhistorical. None of those claims will ever stand up to scrutiny, sorry. Take, for instance, a current debate over whether it even makes historical sense to say there is such a thing as Judaism (as opposed to Judeans and fidelity to Judean culture) until the middle ages.

  17. If you want to understand what those words mean, you need to study the texts that expound on them, at inexhaustible length.
    Everything you describe is why “culture” is meaningless to the Jew, as I wrote above. It all changes – language, food, prevailing ideas – all these are ever in flux, and all equally meaningless to the mission and essence of a Jew and our faith in G-d.
    To some it’s important to portray the essence of our faith as ever changing, perhaps because they wish it to be so. However, neither their wish, nor their leaning on broad assumptions about “all cultures” proves the validity of their ideas, even if it attracts consensus from the beguiled.
    To be a Jew means to believe that there exists a G-d of our understanding, who is active in our lives, and that we are His people, the children of Israel, bound by covenant with Him, and He with us, forever.
    I will go further and say that even if our understanding of “hear” and “G-d” have changed over time, a point you have not proven, then they have not changed, but grown, not in exclusion of what passed before, but in inclusion of the understanding gained, in a matter appropriate for a nation whose sole duty in this world is to know the Infinite and bring it into the finite.
    You may continue this dogmatic approach, but who is it serving? Is your faith more fulfilling, to think our people as indistinct from their environs?

  18. There have been debates about the nature of the God of Israel. Doesn’t anyone remember the Maimonidean Controversy?

  19. Are you saying rambam was a heretic? It’s certainly a claim others have made, but at this remove it doesn’t seem to be well accepted. I understand why you might want to hold onto an essentialist Jewish theology, but that is just not borne out historically.

  20. Is that how you read that, that I’m calling Rambam a heretic? That’s so weird. My point was that Korah raised fundamental questions about G-d and our service to Him. He was actually quite the progressive agent of equality of his age. I just wonder why every discussion about conflict in Jewish law and tradition has to start with Rambam. Let’s start with Korah for once.

  21. That paper you linked to, CoA, was really interesting, but I’m not sure it means what you think it means.
    Also: is it really news in academia that Western categories fit badly onto non-Western modes of life/thought?

  22. What do you think I think it means?
    It is only once piece of the mountain of evidence that points to the fact that there is no essential Judaism. The idea of Judaism itself seriously post-dates the rabbinic period. Without the concept of Judaism at all, there can be no essence that definitionally marks that Judaism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.