You are not Your Brain – on Yochai Ataria’s new book

Not long ago, I awoke to a sunny morning in a B&B in Daliyat al-Karmel. It was the beginning of a family vacation, and I had forgotten my tefillin. There was no shortage of tefillin around, since I was on vacation with my wife’s extended (and religiously observant) family, and I was quickly lent a replacement pair. However, when I picked up the tefillin, I found them to be very different to my own. The straps were a different width, the boxes were a different size, and so on. I tried to lay them, but I simply could not. I did not remember exactly how. A few days later, I prayed again with my own tefillin without any problem – because with mine I remembered how.

That is, it wasn’t precisely “me” who remembered, but rather my body. I, as a self-aware consciousness, was not involved at all. My body simply moved quickly between the chapters of prayer without any intervention on my behalf. Nor did I need to “retrieve from memory” the best way to go about it, or to imagine an internal flowchart detailing the steps of the ritual. Everything was simply done – and done well.

So where is my memory? Is it in my brain? If so, why did changing the tefillin disrupt it? The fact that activating my memory required me to use my hands and also grasp a certain object suggests that recalling a memory is more than an intra-brain search.

Ataria'a bookIn his new book, Yochai Ataria makes precisely this claim. “Not by the Brain alone” (Hebrew) – the title of the book – is it that we are formed, Ataria claims. According to Ataria (a senior lecturer at Tel-Hai College and a scholar of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of science), our subjective experience cannot be reduced the movement of neurons, i.e., to a particular form of activity in the brain. We are more than our brains, and to understand our subjective lives, meaning our internal lives and self-perception, our bodies and activity in the world must be examined.

The World is not Projected Inside Us

Ataria challenges the view that has taken hold in the modern world, and which has also been adopted in the field of scientific inquiry, whereby a person is equivalent to their brain, so that if we were to understand every detail of the brain’s workings, we could also understand who and what a person is. According to Ataria, this view is rooted in error. A person’s sense of self and subjective experience are not located among the neurons within the brain, but rather in the system of interaction between a person – brain and body – and their environment.

Ataria begins with a critique of contemporary studies of the brain, and claims, together with experts whom he cites, that despite collecting an impressive array of data, research of the brain has not led to any significant theoretical breakthroughs. Impressive machines such as the fMRI can only reveal a certain increase in the blood flow to a certain area of the brain, often without allowing for any conclusions pertaining to the meaning of such occurrences. Citing the philosopher Michael Hagner, he claims that an apt analogy would be an attempt to evaluate the functioning of a computer according to the level of its power consumption as it executes various functions.

He continues by debunking the view that experiences or sensory perception are based on the brain processing data collected and inputted by the senses. The “representation” view, the little Cinema screen inside the head, the idea that the brain projects what it receives from the senses to an internal viewer who analyzes and acts on the information that reaches him or her (imagine the representation of internal life within the robot in the Terminator movies), is completely wrong and based on a dichotomous distinction between internal and external, i.e., on the assumption that our consciousness is located somewhere inside our head, and the world is located outside of it.

There is no such distinction, claims Ataria. Building on the philosophy of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, he describes consciousness as part of the world. When we assemble a puzzle, explains Ataria, we do not turn each piece around in our head, our spirit, or our mind, before placing it in its place; we try turning it with our hands in order to make it fit in the real world, until we position it correctly. Our consciousness is not in our head and does not act on representations. It is located in our hands and in the world surrounding us.

This is not the way we work

Similarly, explains Ataria,

I do not remember him [my son] abstractly, but rather in a certain way, at a certain event. I have no objective and detached representation, but always a memory from a certain point in time […] Memory is an activity that requires a basic level of physical activity. The body, I wish to make the case, is the backdrop for all our activity in the world – including the various cognitive activities.

Memory, like consciousness, is not detached from the world. It is not abstract, nor is it “representational.” It is connected with a specific time and place, to a body and to activity. It is, like our mind, grounded. The notion of a mind that is detached from the world, that represents the world to itself in a distant and dichotomous way, is theoretically misconceived and based on an illusion – an illusion that we live.

“The point of departure,” claims Ataria, “is not the thinking self but rather the acting self.” We are bodily beings in a physical world, not ethereal souls in a psychological world. As I once wrote,

We are beings that are situated within a body and can understand who we are and what the world is only by means of our body. This is the reason we use our hands when we speak, even on the phone. This is the reason we think better when we are walking. This is the reason our language is filled with metaphors of space and time whose purpose is understanding spirit and soul.

Indeed, we have no other (cognitive) way to understand the spirit and soul.

Ataria tries to support his claims by providing evidence across several chapters in which he cites interviews with people who experienced extreme situations vis-à-vis their consciousness: prisoners of war who underwent torture and isolation, and veteran vipassana meditators who experienced spiritual episodes of the Buddhist genre. Based on their testimonies, he develops a detailed, elaborate map of how human consciousness is developed by interacting with the world, emphasizing the emotional plane, rather than thoughts. (I will not provide in-depth descriptions here because the necessary background explanations are too extensive, but the discussion is fascinating.)

According to Ataria, there is no “flow of consciousness” that establishes our sense of self. There is no continuous consciousness at all, but rather flashes of mind. The internal sense of continuity, with which we are as familiar as we are with the palm of our hand, is based on the experience of our bodily encounter with the world. Without any interaction with the world (as Ataria concludes from POW and meditative experiences), our sense of self dissolves.

We are not Brains in a Vat

The notion of a “brain in a vat” – a well-known thought experiment in philosophy of mind describing a “Matrix”-like situation in which our brain is detached from the body and attached to wires that transmit information to it – is incorrect, at least if we think that such a brain would be capable of understanding itself or the world. The reality portrayed in the film, “the Matrix,” could not transpire. I explicitly asked Ataria to address this. Here is what he wrote in an informal email in response:

According to “the Matrix,” the notion of a “brain in a vat” is possible; in this way, for instance, Neo learns martial arts by “uploading” software to his brain. [However,] I do not think that our brain is a computer, nor do I think that all it does is execute functions (this, as noted, is the approach in “the Matrix” as well as in the cognitive sciences). In this sense, martial arts are not a [cognitive] function, they are a particular bodily activity that allow me to be present in a certain way in the world (I am absorbed into the world, which also contains me). This is a form of knowing how rather than knowing that. I am not saying (of course!) that the brain is not involved in learning processes, but not only the brain is involved. Moreover, I am not at all certain what people mean when they say that martial arts are a type of information.

But it does not end here. According to “the Matrix,” we understand that the brain is closed to the world, that we do not experience the world itself but rather a representation of the world (as brain researchers have told me more than once in the context of friendly conversation… “Do you really think that you see with your eyes?”). I maintain that even if there are representations, and to be more precise, even if we are capable of representing the world sometimes (I do not deny that we sometimes dream and imagine), ultimately the brain is open to the world – and I might even say that it is entirely open to the world, thus diffusing the border between the brain and the world.

Speaking of movies, what really comes across in the movie “Inside Out” is the idea that the “self” (not a sense of self, but a real Cartesian self) is located in the brain. Like some kind of central control unit. This is also the assumption underlying “The Matrix.” I do not think that there is a Cartesian self that is located in the brain. In fact, right now, while I am totally focused on this answer, I “forget myself” in favor of real-world activity.

“The Matrix,” in short, is just a movie, and there are no movies playing inside the head.

We will not Be Able to Upload Ourselves into The Cloud

These cinematic representations, in “the Matrix,” “the Terminator,” and many other science-fiction stories, suggest just how intuitive these depictions – of a brain inside a body, a “self” within a brain, an immaterial Cartesian consciousness, a homunculus (a “small man”) sitting inside our head watching events and controlling our body – have become, how accustomed we’ve grown to think of ourselves in this way, as beings that reside within the body, within the head, as a brain (or for those who believe, a soul).

The transhumanist fantasy that envisions “uploading” consciousness to a digital cloud or downloading one’s character as data that is saved on a hard disk belongs to the same mode of thought, as do all sorts of supposed points of “singularity” after which we will reside in digital space. Conversely, so do all kinds of horrifying predictions about artificial intelligence coming to life and controlling, from a station within a computerized control center, an army of robots sent to subjugate or destroy mankind.

These dreams and nightmares build on our Western point of view, but of course this is not the only way to perceive ourselves. This is one very particular way, which developed in the West as part of the Hellenistic culture, and from there was appropriated by Christianity. The sages of the Talmud, for instance, did not think that a person is a soul, but rather that he or she is primarily a body (powered, like with a battery, by a divine spirit given by God, and also taken away by Him, whereby a person, being the body, “returns his soul to the creator”). The Western-Christian mode of self-perception is taken for granted in the West, including also by Jews of course, but there is no reason to think that one cannot reach a different form of self-understanding.

What would a self-perception that sees the self as distributed across a broad interactive space, rather than something that is located within the brain, look like? I think that this is an extremely significant question. Would such a person be less egocentric? Would he or she be less self-centered – not as someone who possesses information, but as someone who lives an existential form of knowledge – in that he or she is not just a brain nor merely a body, but a body as well as everything that surrounds it? Would such a person be less anxious, at least inasmuch as anxiety stems from a limited and egocentric perception of our place within the world? Would such a person know how to traverse space more elegantly, like a dancer who moves spontaneously and naturally, rather than someone who tries to consciously control how they dance?

Even if we answer these questions in the affirmative, all of these wonderful advantages are overshadowed by the true accomplishment that a change to our self-perception entails: Ataria holds (and I think that he is right) that the notion whereby we are not merely a brain but rather a system that comprises consciousness, body and environment is also, ultimately, the truth. Meaning that altering our self-perception will allow us, supposedly, to live as we truly are. Imagine that.

Ataria’s book is impressive and fascinating. Nonetheless, I must say: it is not an easy read. It is replete with information, uses technical language, and aims somewhat higher than the average well-educated reader. Had I not possessed some background in Philosophy of Mind, it would have been even harder for me to follow and understand. At the same time, the investment is well worth it: Ataria achieves no less than a new way to understand who we are.


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The Ultra-Orthodoxy’s Inherent Preference of the Right

With members of the ultra-Orthodox parties constantly saying they’ll support Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister, one would expect the notion of them as the ones who can tip the scales would fade, yet it stubbornly persists. It’s not clear, for example, how anyone can seriously argue that all Benny Gantz’s party needs to do to win the ultra-Orthodox seal of approval is to part ways with Yair Lapid, or that Ehud Barak is someone with whom the ultra-Orthodox could tango.

These vain hopes are based on the assumption that the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, hold no firm ideological position regarding the occupied territories that would rule out a withdrawal, therefore they could countenance being part of a left-wing government aspiring to a two-state solution. Alas, what we have here is a case of drawing faulty conclusions from true facts. Yes, rabbis Elazar Shach and Ovadia Yosef ruled that it is permissible to return land and evacuate settlements in return for peace, but this doesn’t mean they had any special affection for the Israeli left. Quite the opposite.

On the one hand, Shach, the great rabbi who shaped the worldview of Haredi society today, ruled that “according to Jewish law, there is nothing that would prevent ceding part of the Land of Israel for the sake of peace”, and indeed was so dovish that he opposed the Golan annexation law and the Basic Law that declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel (1980).

On the other hand, he also often expressed his unequivocal unhappiness with the left. In 1990 he said that among the left are “despisers of the Torah and despisers of mitzvoth,” and that Likud is the party of “those of simple faith.” In 1992 he said: “No one should connect with the leftists, who are totally treif” because “the leftists openly say that they don’t believe, that they deny everything,” while on the right “there are individuals who violate tradition but in public show respect to religion.”

This sort of gross generalization actually contains a speck of truth. The late Rabbi Shach is gazing down on the right and left throughout the generations. He knows that the left around the world arose out of the spirit of the Enlightenment and its anti-religious and anti-traditional tendencies. The right is the more conservative and more religious side. Regardless of the parties’ positions on security issues, the left’s attitude toward tradition is complicated at best, while on the right it’s much more straightforward.

As Rabbi Shach wrote, “There have always been many transgressors of the commandments”, however, “this was done in a private way, not as a method” – that is, neither the left nor the right observes the prohibition against mixing milk and meat, but for parts of the left, it’s a matter of ideology. There’s a difference between one who does so to satisfy his appetite and one who does so to make others angry.

Thus, the Haredi parties are Likud’s “natural partners” not because of their attitude toward the Land of Israel, but because of a shared fondness for tradition (and also, these days, a tendency toward anti-liberalism). It’s not a dispute between hawks and doves, but between conservatives and progressives. The Haredi leaders may be capable of being as dovish as new Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, but they will forever view the left as the flag bearer of secularism. Once it’s understood that this is the starting point for the Haredi world’s approach to politics, it’s clear that the Haredi parties’ first choice will always be the right. This is the basic situation, and no amount of flattery and groveling will change that.

At the same time, attacks from the center-left on the Haredim won’t hurt or “ruin” anything, because if the Haredi parties ever end up in a left-wing government, it will only be for lack of any other choice. When important interests lie in the balance, all hostility and insults are forgotten. We saw how even Bezalel Smotrich, when he wanted badly enough to be transportation minister, was able to tolerate Jews working on railway repairs on Shabbat.

The left-wing parties could do themselves a favor by recognizing this reality. Lapid has left behind the chapter in his political career in which he groveled to the Haredim, having seen that it had no effect on their positions. This certainly isn’t a call for incitement against the ultra-Orthodox, and it would certainly be best for the left not to promote an anti-religious stance and thereby fulfill the Haredim’s fears.

However, the government’s relations with the Haredi community must be restored to proper proportion. With Netanyahu, the Haredim had a blank check, and it was cashed at the taxpayers’ expense on the economic front, at the expense of relations with American Jewry on the diplomatic front, and on the social front at the expense of women who were discriminated against in academia, the army and the public space in general. The time has come to return to the principles of liberal democracy.

Published in the Haaretz op-ed page.

Daniel Boyarin on Judaism and “Judaism”

If you ask a member of the Hopi tribe, “What is your Hopism?” you won’t get an answer. You can also ask a Romany (Gypsy), “What, actually, is Romanism?” And then meet a Druze and ask, “Excuse me, what is Druzism?” In each case you will have to suffice with the perplexed look of your interlocutor, as though there’s something very basic that you don’t seem to understand. That something has to do with the form and type of the entities about which you’re seeking clarification. Simply put, they are not ideological or religious constructs, but ethnic groups possessing a particular social-cultural heritage.

It’s hard for us to discern this, because our worldview – deriving from the modern Western approach – makes every effort to deny their existence. We are accustomed to subsume every large human group under two primary categories: nation and religion. The two categories are connected at their point of birth: The modern era introduced the nation-state, a political entity in which a particular people acquires self-determination; and religion, which is separate from the state, and with which people are free to form relations privately. Religion, in the sense of being a conception, a totality of the beliefs that an individual chooses to adopt, was born together with the nation-state, and completed from the private angle what the state provided from the public – which is to say, it conferred affiliation and meaning. But the one has nothing to do with the other. As Jesus proposed, unto Caesar is rendered that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.

Like the Hopi or the Druze, it’s also difficult to associate the Jews with one of the two alternatives. They are not only a nation and not only a religion, nor are they simply a nation that practices a religion. In recent years a number of books have been reexamining the modern (that is, Western-Protestant) perception of Judaism. Leora Batnitzky wrote a brilliant introduction to modern Judaism, titled “How Judaism Became a Religion”; in his book “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition,” David Nirenberg discussed the construction of Judaism out of the Christian need for an eternal antagonist; Yaacov Yadgar dwelt on the Jewish anomaly that is expressed in Israeli nationalism in his book “Sovereign Jews: Israel, Zionism, and Judaism”; and last year saw the publication of Daniel Boyarin’s “Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion” (Rutgers University Press), to which the following comments are addressed.

It is almost superfluous to introduce Boyarin, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the greatest living scholars of the Talmud. For the past 30 years he has been a central signpost of contemporary directions in Jewish studies. From the outset of his career he interwove philology with techniques of literary criticism in order to understand the Talmudic text, and beyond that in order to introduce the Talmud into contemporary academic literary discourse. Boyarin possesses the ability of looking at the seminal texts from the scholarly angle and from the traditional angle alike, and with a combination of an astute analytical capability and a sly tendency toward provocation, almost every book he’s published has left a concrete imprint on the research in the field.

If one can distinguish a recurring motif in his work, it is the tension and cross-fertilization between rabbinic Judaism and Christianity (with a probing glance at the Hellenistic world as well), both in the Second Temple period and today. He has devoted considerable attention to the point at which these two traditions were born, in the same place and at the same time, amid brotherly rivalry beneath which lay a common biblical origin. In the course of examining the relations between the conjoined traditions, Boyarin devotes requisite space also to an examination of their approaches to gender and sexuality, weaving critical elements from feminist discourse into the fray. The critical gaze at the tension between Judaism and Christianity enables Boyarin repeatedly to dismantle frameworks of modern categorization, such as, in our case, “Judaism” and “religion.”

His latest book thus joins a series of studies that call into question the popular-naive conception of Judaism. Starkly put, Boyarin asserts that until a few hundred years ago, there was no such thing as “Judaism,” in the sense of an abstract category of thought and thus of life. Indeed, the term is not found in the Torah, Prophets or Writings, the Mishna or Talmud, the works of the early medieval Geonim, of Rabbi Judah Halevi or of Maimonides. None of them knew of the existence of such a thing as “Judaism.” The term’s first appearances date from the 12th century (for example, in the “Midrash Sekhel Tov,” by Rabbi Menachem Ben Shlomo), and even then it denotes not a particular culture or a particular religion but a condition – that is, the condition of being a Jewish person.

In his book, Boyarin traces the origin of the term, naturally not confining himself to Hebrew but also investigating the Greek loudaismos, Yiddishkayt in Yiddish, Judentum in German and “Judaism” in English. The author arrives at the conclusion that “Judaism” is not a Jewish term. Jews talk about the people of Israel, about Hebrews, about the Israelites and the Sons of the Covenant and several other collective attributes, but not about any sort of faith-based or theological structure. This notion of religion originates in Christianity, which began as a voluntary framework (after all, one wasn’t born Christian in the first century) and emphasizes correct faith.

Concurrently, the Jewish sages underscored affiliation with the ethnic collectivity and the observance of laws and customs. It was only beginning in the 16th century that the term trickled slowly into use as denoting religious belief – as something that occurs in the individual’s heart. Not coincidentally, all this arrived together with the Reformation, which split the Church and necessitated a reorganization of theological and meta-theological concepts in Europe.

Until the 19th century, Boyarin notes, it is impossible to find “Judaism” as the subject of a sentence. There is no “Judaism” that believes in one thing or another, there is no “the essence of Judaism.” Those attributes emerged only when modern Jewish avenues were compelled to define themselves: namely, when traditional Jewish society in Europe underwent dramatic processes of modernization and when Reform and Orthodox Judaism evolved. The two denominations sought to determine the basic principles of “Judaism,” each for its own reasons.

The Jewish tradition, then, increasingly resembled the Christian tradition, for it set out to integrate itself into the (modern Western) Christian world. For Christianity, this was of course very convenient. Boyarin makes clear how, already from the first centuries of the Common Era, Christianity constructed Judaism as the fundamental “Other,” vis-a-vis which it defined itself. In other words, there is no “Judaism” other than in a Christian context. There are of course Jews, the halakha (traditional Jewish law) exists, and so forth, but there is no abstract and general term other than through the Christian eye and against the backdrop of Christendom.

With the advent of the Emancipation, “Judaism” became the “religion” of the Jews, a development that helped them exceedingly to integrate into the emerging nation-states – thus, for example, a person could be a “German of the Mosaic faith.” The Jews became equal citizens in Western Europe. That process, Boyarin writes, “destroyed Yiddishkayt as a form of life.”

Which is true: The Jews’ traditional way of life was eradicated. In places where emancipation did not occur, Jews continued to maintain “traditionalism” – so it’s not surprising that Jews who immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries had a completely different attitude toward their Jewish identity than their European brethren. The Judaism of the traditionalists, beginning in the late 18th century and today as well, is not “religion” or “nationalism,” but a comprehensive ethnocultural identity.

Of course, Boyarin understands that there is no way back. Even though he is critical of the modern configuration of Judaism, he, like all of us, derives no little benefit from it. Himself an observant Jew, Boyarin is known as a firm critic of Zionism who perceives the Diasporic Jewish existence as a more authentic and worthier form of Jewish life. His vision involves the establishment of Jewish communities in the Diaspora that would take part in a joint national project with other groups and foment communal Jewish life. But this is achievable today only within a liberal democratic framework, namely the Christian-Protestant model that renders Judaism solely as a religion.

Boyarin in his office

Liberal Jews?

In an effort to understand Boyarin better, I met with him for a conversation. I asked him about the Christian – specifically, the Pauline – idea that presupposes that we are all first and foremost individuals, and about the fact that this is not only a potent and highly attractive notion but is also, ultimately, a highly advantageous one. After all, liberalism, which is based on this idea, created a beneficent world in which we, as Jews, can also live a secure, thriving life.

Boyarin said that he is definitely not a liberal. “We, the Jews, maintain that a human being is not monadic: Humans do not exist on their own and are not autonomous to decide personally what they are and who they are,” he explained. At the same time, he noted, “The depiction of Jewishness as a non-chosen condition into which one is born does not theoretically inhibit recognition of equality by the state.”

Nonetheless, I asked, isn’t the idea that all people are equal and have inalienable rights based on the Christian perception of the individual as being endowed with universal reason and free choice, which are situated in a nonmaterial soul? In other words, our conception of human equality is rooted in an inner essence that is considered more meaningful than any external feature (such as skin color, ethnic origin or different sexual organs). It’s only on the presupposition of an inner persona, hidden and autonomous, that we legitimize ethical ideas and institutions, such as the social contract, human rights, feminism and transsexual journeys. I have my own reservations about the modern occupation with inwardness, I told Boyarin, but we are bound to recognize that it has engendered much that we cherish.

“I don’t think I share those views about inner essences,” he said. “Is shared physicality not sufficient for solidarity? We resemble others, we mate with them, even when we don’t pretend we don’t, and we use language like them. They are us.”

Well, I replied, we know that historically, shared physicality was insufficient. We do not look exactly alike, and therefore we can treat others as being inferior to us – or, in rare cases, like the Incas’ encounter with Francisco Pizarro and his bearded white men, as superior to us.

Boyarin replied that he “still thinks that the homogenization of human beings through their supposed soul has done far more harm than good.”

But it seems to me that there is an unresolved point here. The modern, Western-Protestant world demands that Judaism change, as it demands of hundreds of other cultures to change. Given enough time, “Hopism” and “Druzism” will also come into existence. There’s something imperialist about this universalism, Boyarin is right about that, but even so, there’s a reward that comes with making the transition. We get human rights, civil rights and equality under the law, even at the moral and pragmatic level. In personal-psychological terms, the reward is still greater: We possess individuality and a sense of autonomy that are inconceivable in traditional societies. How many of us are willing to live a life that “does not exist on [its] own… not autonomous to decide personally what they are and who they are,” as Boyarin put it.

Regardless of how valid it may be, the liberal temptation captures our heart no less than it transforms our Judaism. Without doubt, the homogenization that Boyarin talks about exists, and there’s also a flattening of depths that once existed and are no longer, and there’s also social fragmentation. Our Judaism is not what it was, and what was will not return. But are we capable of giving up our Western individualism, even if we wish to? And is that in fact what we wish?

Published in Haaretz

The Absurdity and Malignancy of a Jewish Theocracy

“Israel will not be a halakhic state,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised Monday, and for a change he was right. Israel will not be governed by Jewish religious law, and in fact no government has ever been ruled in accordance with halakha. In the time of King David, not only was there no halakha as yet, but the Book of Deuteronomy had yet to be written.

By the time halakha came about, with the completion of the Mishna in the second century, there was no longer an independent kingdom of Israel. And in the intervening period, the Hasmonean Kingdom absorbed Hellenistic concepts (Aristobulus and Hyrcanus are not Hebrew names), and persecuted and executed Jewish sages.

So when he speaks about Israel “returning to operate as it did in King David’s time,” MK Bezalel Smotrich is denying history. No wonder: Historical ignorance is a prerequisite for any fundamentalist vision.

As with other examples of theocratic ambition, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic State organization and the “Hindu nation” promoted by religious nationalists in India, the attempt to imagine a modern government based on religious law always necessitates the invention of a fictitious past and significant self-persuasion.

With just a few tweaks and minor adjustments, the story goes, we could then copy and paste ideas and institutions from the distant past into our world. This never works, and not just because such efforts are based on mythology to begin with. It doesn’t work because it completely ignores the radical changes that have taken place in the human condition.

Not that there haven’t been rabbis who have tried to sketch a vision of a modern halakhic state. In the 20th century, Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli addressed this. Rabbi Naftali Bar-Ilan devoted four volumes to “Regime and State in Israel According to the Torah.” Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg wrote “Hilkhot Medina,” on halakhic issues in the modern state. Justice Menachem Elon wrote extensively on “Hebrew law” and, leaping forward, just last year Rabbi Ido Rechnitz published a book called “Medina KeHalakha: A Jewish Approach to the Challenges of Independence.” Still, no one has ever been able to come up with a framework that anyone but a handful of fanatics would consider realistic.

That’s not a coincidence. The problem with halakha as it is today is not that its laws are bizarre or anachronistic. Yes, the punishment for theft is a fine amounting to twice the value of the stolen item, a ludicrous penalty that would permit people of means to steal to their hearts’ delight. Yes, halakha prohibits women from testifying or serving as judges — an insult to the intelligence of any rational human being. Such details can presumably be modified and updated.

The real problem is the fundamental understanding of humanity in halakha. According to halakha, human beings must obey divine law and cannot legitimately choose to do otherwise.

Simply put, halakha minimizes the significance of individual autonomy. The compulsion to observe the commandments is part of halakha, and it is also no coincidence that halakha permits both slavery and pedophilia. When there is no unequivocal recognition of the individual as an autonomous subject, then enslavement becomes acceptable, and when choice and consent are not a necessary condition for sexual relations, it’s no wonder that it is permissible to have sex with someone who cannot choose (and, on the other hand, consensual sex between people of the same sex is prohibited).

For its time, the Hebrew law was an advanced, enlightened system, and Jewish tradition brought into the world many principles that ultimately contributed greatly to modern humanism and liberalism. Yet today there is a fundamental tension between halakha and modern conceptions of humanity and liberty.

As a personal and communal commitment, a halakhic lifestyle can be deep and meaningful, but one cannot talk about a state operating in accordance with halakha without also talking about religious coercion. In fact, Waldenberg was an avowed supporter of theocracy, and Rechnitz’s book also clearly demonstrates that there can be no freedom of religion in a halakhic state.

Actually, one needn’t go so as far as picturing some future halakhic dystopia in order to understand that Smotrich’s proposal is not a good bet. It’s enough to look at what’s already happening in the Israeli systems that are in the hands of the Orthodox establishment.

The laws of marriage and divorce, over which the Chief Rabbinate holds a legal monopoly, have become a mechanism for coercion and injustice. Nonreligious couples are compelled to marry not in keeping with their beliefs, women are discriminated against under the marriage canopy as well as in the divorce laws and the rabbinical courts abuse many who come before them. Even without the blatant corruption and nepotism that is so rampant in the rabbinate, it would still be despised by the public – simply because the modern conscience rebels against coercion and discrimination.

Smotrich, whose “decision plan,” published two years ago, called for the Palestinians to either agree to live as subjects or to choose between emigration and death, has proved before that democratic principles are of no interest to him. It’s no surprise to find him leading the theocratic charge. Hardalim, or ultra-Orthodox Zionists, account for just 2 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, but intoxicated with the political power given to them by Netanyahu, they mistakenly believe the time has also come for their fundamentalist ideas. Placing them in the centers of decision-making will clearly lead to religious coercion and a shrinking of civil liberty.

“There is also room for democracy in Torah law,” Smotrich hastened to reassure everyone, following the uproar over his comments touting the imminent return of the Kingdom of the House of David. But this is not correct. There is room for Torah law in democracy, but not the reverse. The relationship is always one-way, because one conception is fundamentally tolerant and insists on individual rights and freedom of religion, while the other does not. Should Smotrich and company obtain the kind of power they desire, we will all be made quite aware of this.

CapturePublished in Haaretz

How the New Israeli Judaism Was Born

From the newspaper articleWhen the image of Srulik, the iconic cartoon character that symbolized Israel, appears on the cover of a book, we know we’d better sit down. It’s a momentous event. Something in us, in our very essence, in our sheer Israeliness, isn’t what it used to be. The sabra image created by Kariel Gardosh (known as “Dosh”) has long since been transformed from the symbol of the young state into the symbol of parting from the young state – a concise representation of everything we no longer are. Usually it turns out we’re no longer young, beautiful, secular and just.

Every society undergoes change, but in Israel the transformations seem especially rapid and, in a particularly reflective culture – the Jewish self-awareness that Woody Allen made a caricature of – there will clearly be a need for an constant introspection. The freneticism accompanying these changes is also understandable: Not enough time has passed since the shtetl for us to feel that we’re comfortable in modernity. Even when what has been repressed isn’t really threatening to burst onto the surface, just the fear that it will can stir anxiety. Accordingly, self-examination and accountability are called for at all times.

Two Hebrew-language studies from the previous decade come to mind in this connection. Their very titles attest to the end of an era: “The End of Ashkenazi Hegemony” (2001) by Baruch Kimmerling and “Farewell to Srulik” (2004) by Oz Almog. Authored by sociologists, these two books marked the transition from denial to awareness, possibly even mourning. Things aren’t what they were, we’re told, and not necessarily for the better.

In his encyclopedic work, Almog summed up the transformations, as he saw them, in the realms of the media, law, women’s status, the family and psychology. The plethora of quotations he generously (at times tediously) offered the reader were intended to illustrate how the Israeli elite (“the veteran Jewish stratum, secular, educated, established”) parted ways from Srulik, who as usual embodies the Israel that is no more.

However, Almog’s explanation for the parting is flawed. In his view, along with the inertia that saps the energy of every revolution, it was the media which reshaped the Israeli consciousness. Supposedly, the media’s control of the agenda caused the Israeli elite to forsake the shared Zionist vision for “globalist consumerism.” Almog concludes by expressing his concern that no new ideological framework will coalesce, and Israelis will gradually be divested of their Jewish identity. Fifteen years on, it’s easy to see that the exact opposite has occurred.

Kimmerling undoubtedly probed deeper than Almog. He eulogized the “Ahusalim” – his acronym for the secular, socialist, nationalist Ashkenazim who founded the country and tried, based on a collectivist “statist” agenda and the social “melting pot” they forcefully forged, to shape the state in their image. The Ahusalim failed, and since the 1970s gradually disappeared from their positions of control and influence.

Kimmerling ascribed most of the responsibility for what he called “the decline of Israeliness” to the Gush Emunim settler movement – something of an Ahusali approach in itself. The messianic spearhead of the religious-Zionist movement supposedly brought to the surface the religious and ethnocentric elements implicit in secular Zionism and hurled them in every direction (though mainly toward Judea and Samaria). The universal humanism in the hearts of the Ahusalim and the civic-republican ethos of the young state were too feeble to resist. Both faded.

But Kimmerling reversed things. It wasn’t Gush Emunim that ruptured the hegemony of the Ahusalim; it was their rupture that allowed the self-confident bullying of Gush Emunim. First, the weakening of the ruling leftist Mapai party in the trauma of the Yom Kippur War – the crisis of faith that seized secular Israelies at the sight of the demigods from the Six-Day War, floundering and humiliated. Second, and more significantly, it was the erosion of socialist collectivism in favor of liberal individualism, that rewrote the Israeli ethos. Both made it possible for Religious Zionism, that admired, almost to the point of worship, not only secular generals but also the state’s leaders, to take the reins and the law into thier hands. . Likud’s rise to power in 1977 completed the process and did much more than religious Zionism to inject what Kimmerling calls “Jewish-ethnocentric categories” into the Israeli identity.

What then brought about the end of Ahusali hegemony? Why did we part from Srulik? Two recently published books reexamine the metamorphoses undergone by Israeli society…

Follow this link to read the rest of the article at the Haaretz site

Jerusalem Mayoral Race Opens Cracks in Haredi ‘Black Wall’

A new mayor took his seat in Jerusalem this week, and the split in the once-impenetrable “black wall” of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) unity in the holy city suggests he will have to navigate carefully among competing factions.

As the votes came in on election night last month, it seemed that young, secular activist Ofer Berkovitch might achieve the nearly impossible and become Jerusalem’s next mayor, only to succumb by the end to Moshe Lion. Lion, a religiously observant accountant who moved to Jerusalem from the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim before his previous bid for mayor five years ago, is seen by many as little more than a puppet in the hands of national politicians. The fact that there was tension at all was a surprise.

In a city in which the Arab population does not vote, in which 35% of Jewish voters are ultra-Orthodox, and in which only 20% are secular, Berkovitch’s loss by a mere 3,765 votes out of more than 200,000 cast, was clear testament to the split within the city’s haredi camp. The split itself testifies to broader developments.

Significant transformations are unfolding in ultra-Orthodox society and identity. Not that there was ever unity among haredim. The “Lithuanian,” hassidic, and Sephardi streams are the contemporary heirs to the piously anti-modern forms of Judaism that crystalized in the 19th century. They have had more than their share of infighting in recent years. The current crisis, however, presents an unprecedented reality on two counts.

The first is the cavernous vacuum of leadership.

Over the last five years, the Sephardi and Lithuanian communities both lost their respective “greats.” Death is as certain as taxes, but what’s extraordinary about these departures is that the leaders were not replaced. There were attempts in both cases to declare new great rabbis, but they failed to mobilize public support and remained titular figures. The second point augments the first. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are becoming more open to the country’s general culture than ever. Embracing such values as autonomy, equality, economic betterment, nationalism, and feminism, they are letting go of their traditional, anti-modern positions. As resistance to modernity plays such a substantial role in haredi identity, this means that their identity is changing dramatically.

Haredim are becoming more Israeli. Becoming more Israeli, however, means becoming less ultra-Orthodox. As a fundamentalist, holistic identity, the haredi self cannot allow itself to be divided between competing narratives of value and meaning. Indeed, compartmentalizing our professional, ethnic and religious elements is a principal characteristic of a modern secular persona.

Most haredim are hanging on to their traditional identity, but a growing number aren’t, and this split is along generational lines. The further this proceeds, the greater effect it will have on Israeli society and politics. The reasons the ultra-Orthodox wield political power beyond their 10% of the population is that have acted in unison, and cut across political fault lines, neither identifying with the Left nor the Right, and thus have been able to enter into coalitions with both.

The election in Jerusalem was only the most significant sign that the long-term coordination among haredim has shattered. With the ultra-Orthodox becoming more involved in general culture, they are also becoming more identified with specific parts of it. If they identify clearly as right wing, which is generally the case, the chances they would cooperate in coalition with the left wing is diminished. Such developments will have significant consequences.

The Israeli right wing will have greater political power, but the ultra-Orthodox themselves will have less. This will go further in unraveling the borders between their communities and the general public built with government funds and legal privileges.

That in turn will accelerate the process. We will witness increasing secularization within haredi communities. They will become more democratic and egalitarian, but there will also be attempts to color the Israeli public sphere as more traditional.

The ultra-Orthodox identity crisis heralds a fundamental change in Israeli society and politics. During the municipal elections in Jerusalem, it came close to a surprising tilt of the scales. Lion may be the first to feel the impact of the haredi split. But the role that split will play in Israel’s next general elections could prove consequential.

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The Quasi-Left, Anti-Humanist New Right in Israel and America

Western political thought shifted sharply in the last decade. Many in the right-wing adopted stances, values, and concepts that belonged in the past to the Left. This shift has multiple dimensions and expressions. It includes, among others, the acceptance, either gladly or out of a bitter capitulation, of the legitimacy of homosexuality and equal rights for the LGBTQ community. It includes all but deserting the “war on drugs” and even adopting the claim to legalization of cannabis. It further includes the strengthening of certain trends that had already begun, such as abandoning organized religion and incorporating liberal feminism.

Despite these developments, which have in common an intensifying focus on the rights and freedoms of the individual, there also developed a more complex right-wing movement. This movement both accompanies the mainstream right and subverts it. It is a movement that embraces the strong individualism that the right now exhibits, but undermines the humanism that traditionally comes with it. Such is the new, radical right that in part is called “alt-right.” This movement, which claimed notoriety after Donald Trump’s election, began its life on the web long before its practical expressions were seen, and Trump became its celebrated champion. This right wing has also adopted a leftist ethos, though it engages in it in a different, partial, and destructive way.

[…]

[The rest of this article is at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-leftist-anti-humanist-new-right-in-israel-and-america/ ]


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

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