Tomer Persico Interview – Part 2: Spiritual Journey & What Kind of Judaism Do We Want.

Part II of Prof’ Alan Brill’s interview with me. And this time, it’s personal. My spiritual journey, religious views, political convictions and vision for the future.

The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:

Here is the second part of my two part interview with Tomer Persico. Part I was dedicated to his new book on Jewish meditation and Part II is on his spiritual journey and vision for a future Judaism.

persico 3

This interview is based on my having read two earlier interviews with Tomer Persico. One in Globes and a great interview in Haaretz that they translated into English. In the Haaretz interview Persico stated his desire to create a humanistic Judaism with a message for the world that is not dependent on the impoverished ethnocentric world of contemporary Orthodoxy.

The fundamental question is what kind of Judaism we want. Do we want an isolationist Judaism that entrenches itself in its own minutiae, contributing nothing to the world, or do we want a Jewish culture that has a religion but is much more than that? The situation is ridiculous. The Bible contains…

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Tomer Persico Interview – Part I : Jewish Meditation

Alan Brill interviewed me about my new book for his blog. He writes in his introductory words:

“The author brings to the topic a mastery of the literature, an exceptional ability to understand religious phenomena, a sensitivity to the psychological aspects of the study of meditation, and a deep familiarity with the literature in religious studies on varying levels of consciousness.”

Thank you Alan.

The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:

Tomer Persico knows the insides and outs of the contemporary Israeli religious scene. He is a keen observer of the various spiritual trends in both Orthodox and secular society writing about them in the media, in scholarly articles, and on his important blog. He writes a widely read blog, — occasionally he writes in English for his English language blog or his posts are translated in English by the papers, but the good stuff is in Hebrew–which presents an entrance into the many facets of contemporary Israeli spiritually.  I know some people who only read my blog and his blog. If you don’t know about his blog, then you should. Besides, observing the religious world, Persico teaches at Tel Aviv University and is a fellow at the Hartman institute. His voice is a growing influence in Israeli culture as an exemplar, in that, he is a secular Israeli who turned to…

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Donald Trump as a Postmodern God

Donald_Trump_August_19,_2015_(cropped)The phenomenon of Donald Trump, his meteoric rise in the Republican halls of fame, has many reasons. Rage against the establishment, White Man’s fears, lower class economic distress and more. But I believe we cannot fully understand the massive support for the man if we fail to notice one major dimension thereof, which constitutes the source of his unique charisma.

Let me put it this way: Trump is a postmodern god.

Of course, he is very rich and can therefore do as he wishes and supposedly doesn’t need to take anyone else’s wishes and opinions into consideration. That’s true, but the issue runs deeper. As a god, Trump must be not only omnipotent, but also distant and invulnerable. As a postmodern god, that distance and immunity must come against a backdrop of his breaking the rules, his being an ubermensch who undermines conventions. And just as important, from within that distance, the postmodern god must convey emotion, warmth.

To be sure, Trump excels at undermining conventions. He says whatever he likes, be it defamatory, racist, ridicule or dirty words that no candidate has ever dared use. Equally important, he is defiantly not conforming to the conventions of standard Republican conservatism. The fact that he is not a classic conservative (used to be a Democrat, was pro-choice, pro-government intervention in property and so on) helps him in that regard because it magnifies his otherness, and thus the perception that he’s not one of us. He’s superior.

But all this would not have been enough had it not been for Trump’s ability to project authenticity. This is achieved in a postmodern society by full equation between inside and outside, by breaking down the barrier between the subjective and the objective. Trump, as is well known, says anything that comes to his head at any given moment. He hides nothing. What you see is what you get. Not only that, but he is shameless. He has no internal space separate from the external, that could supposedly have reservations about whatever is going on outside.

Trump is a moving display of spontaneity and directness, with no judgment, planning or hesitation. Therefore, he cannot be considered “fake” or “phony” (the cardinal sins of our time). His heart is open, and even if it is ugly, it’s not its content but the gesture of revealing it that matters to his admirers. Even if he says harsh things, to their mind he hides nothing from them, he is authentic, and that is the matters.

And yet, Trump doesn’t blow his top, doesn’t lose control, doesn’t fume, doesn’t cry, and doesn’t scream. He’s cool. In other words, he’s immune. He’s warm, and yet distant. He speaks from the heart and to the heart, and yet is invulnerable. American sociologist Richard Sennett noticed back in the 1970’s that this is how public attraction to a leader is built nowadays. “Controlled spontaneity,” he claimed, arouses sympathy and admiration in us, and the feeling that the person in front of us can be believed. This is what postmodern charisma means.

People believe in a pre-modern god. They have faith in a postmodern god. This trust is bestowed not because the things the god says are logical and not because his political plans are sound. Their trust is given because he, as said above, projects reliability, that is to say, authenticity. In this regard Trump brings our tendency to prefer form to content to a peak: his credibility stems from the way he expresses himself, not from what his expressions mean.

It’s fun to watch a post-modern god. His audience doesn’t want to be his friend – obviously such a man has no real friends – his audience wants to be his audience. Since the show must go on, the audience will vote for him. The way to stop him is not to tell his audience that he is evil (“Hitler”), that is by turning him into a devil (for there is no difference in form between a devil and a god). The way to stop him is by turning him into a man. This can be accomplished by making him lose his composure, by humiliating him. The Republican party has very little time to manage this.


Published in Hebrew in Haaretz

Religious Violence and the Radical Settler Youth’s Quest for Authenticity

There was in him a vital scorn of all:
As if the worst had fall’n which could befall,
He stood a stranger in this breathing world, 
An erring spirit from another hurled …
So much he soar’d beyond, or sunk beneath
The men with whom he felt condemn’d to breathe.

These lines, from Lord Byron’s tragic poem “Lara” (1814), vividly convey the mood of the tormented Romantic genius. He stands alone on a frozen cliff, contemptuous of all he sees below: the bourgeois society with its provincial normality, the masses caught up in a daily struggle for a slightly larger slice of the pie, the whole civilized world with its games, its rules, its falsehoods. He, the genius, is alien to all that. He fell from a different world, yet is condemned to breathe the same air as the plebeians.

ByronLord Byron did not think it worthy of him to breathe city air. He was destined for radically different heights. After voluntary exile from England, wanderings across Europe and a few years of living in Italy, he decided, at the age of 35, to join the struggle of nascent Greek nationalism against the Ottoman Empire. After equipping the Greek fleet at his own expense, and despite his complete lack of military experience, he placed himself at the head of a force that was preparing to capture the fortress of Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. Only the fact that he fell ill and died from complications of influenza prevented him from suffering a heroic death on the battlefield.

Byron was exceptional simply because of his talent and his fortune. Around him, young people sought a life of daring and adventure, of gushing emotions and soul-searching. Interestingly, in the view of those Romantics, such a life was obliged to interweave rebellion and truth, as though truth that does not rebel is not valid, and rebellion that does not involve a quest for truth is not true rebellion. Byron thus embodied a general European phenomenon.

Exactly 40 years before “Lara” appeared, Goethe published “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” Goethe was only 24 when he wrote the epistolary novel that made him the voice of his generation. Werther, the tormented artist, describes in letters to his friend Wilhelm his impossible love for Charlotte, who is engaged to a different man. Ultimately, his intense, terrible love leads Werther to commit suicide, but not before he shares with his friend some insights. Young Werther finds in nature the balm for his soul, which seeks to truly live and create.

According to Werther, we must

keep to Nature alone in future. Only nature has inexhaustible riches, and only Nature creates a great artist. A good deal can be said of the advantage of rules and regulations, much the same as can be said in praise of bourgeois society. A man shaped by the rules will never produce anything tasteless or bad, just as a citizen who observes laws and decorum will never be an unbearable neighbor or an out-and-out villain; and yet on the other hand, say what you please, the rules will destroy the true feeling of Nature and its true expression! (translation by Michael Hulse).

The world of laws and rules, the world of settled folk, is perfectly reasonable and safeguards us from evil. However, its reasonableness is also its weakness. It’s average, ordinary, logical. It is incapable of soaring. And, as such, it destroys in people any real contact with nature – which is to say that it destroys the place of truth within us. It subdues our creativity and thrusts us onto a fixed, preordained track. The only course, then, is to rebel against it.

Close game with truth – and death

GoetheEveryone who listens to the voices emanating from the circles of “hilltop youth” in the West Bank will discern salient resemblances to the sentiments expressed in the quotations above. The soul-searching, the desire to get close to nature, the contempt for the society they have abandoned, the rebellion that is construed as truth and the close game with death. There’s nothing new in this and we didn’t need the murder of the Dawabsheh family in the village of Duma last July to hear it.

In an article on radical settler youth in the hills of Samaria, published in the August 2007 issue of the now-defunct settler magazine Nekuda, Shoshi Greenfield quoted Uri Alon, who worked with young people at risk, who observed that, “youth who are looking for truth without compromises, and not the compromising, tepid truth of the adults’ world.”

In early January, the religious-Zionist newspaper Makor Rishon published an anonymous testimony by someone who was active in the hilltop youth 15 years ago. “I grew up in the groves of the religious-Zionist movement, but I was scornful of it and of its key figures,” he wrote.

They seemed to me old-fashioned, with a Hanan Porat-type of naivete [a reference to the late right-wing rabbi and political leader], disconnected from the new way of life that included working the land and tending sheep, a deep connection to the earth, making do with little and displaying esprit de corps … The Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] model of an uncompromising disconnect and of creating a sealed-off autonomy amid the Israeli licentiousness fit us like a glove.

This is not a new phenomenon, and its characteristics are largely fixed: a rebellion against parents and society, a quest for truth, an unwillingness to compromise. Last December, journalist Karni Eldad published an interview in the newspaper Maariv with Eliashuv Har Shalom, 26, the resident of a remote settlement outpost. He explained,

There [were] always those who sacrificed themselves on the altar of truth, ready to pay the price, and these fellows are ready to pay the price. But the question is: Where does this place us as a society? We are not ‘wild weeds,’ we are fruit-giving trees. You raised us. Suddenly you are dissociating yourselves from us? Suddenly we are not part of you?…  What is Zionism? We don’t know what ‘Zionism’ means anymore. I understand the people who distance themselves from the term, because now it’s like being ‘next to’ or ‘just like’ the real thing. I know what Zionism used to be – draining swamps and Beit Hadassah in Hebron. But if being a Zionist is to apologize for your very existence, then there’s a question whether I am a Zionist. Today we are spitting in the face of Zionism. True Zionists would not have turned ‘nationality’ into asterisks on the ID card.

Let’s look again at the elements that recur in these last few quotations: contempt for society; rejection of compromise and interpretation of it as being disingenuous; search for truth by means of breaking away from the commonalty; closeness to nature as an ideal; and the self-perception of being authentic successors to the religious-Zionist movement and of the Zionist movement as such. Thus the roots of hilltop youth lie in European Romantic streams, and the ethos their movement expresses is merely a Jewish translation of the Romantic quest for authenticity.

From Romanticiam to Religious Zionism

Still, we need to see what sets hilltop youth apart from classic religious Zionism – which also owed a large debt to Romanticism. The Romantic movement, emerging at the end of the 18th century, was never an orderly, sharply defined phenomenon, accommodated a broad range of artists and thinkers, ideas and creative works. At the same time, it can be said simplistically that, as a reaction to the Enlightenment, which prioritized reason and viewed it as the eternal, universal and dominant element in man, Romanticism sought to elevate emotion, creativity and uniqueness to the highest rung, viewing these as essences to be investigated in the course of the journey undertaken by the individual – or the nation – to self-fulfillment.

Alongside writers like Byron and Goethe, who manifested in their lives and their works a personal, sentimental search for self, there were others who believed that the basic element of that search lay not in the individual but in the national collectivity. Such late-18th-century thinkers as Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte saw the individual as a derivative of the culture and the nation in which he originated. Only if the individual recognized his essence as a cell within the national organism could he realize himself fully, they held. Life was unity before it was multiplicity, an interconnecting flow and not static alienation. The individual is bound by every fiber to the whole, and even if he wishes to, he cannot disconnect and live his life alone. A full life is expressed in the individual’s faithfulness to – if not in his actual merging with – the collective.

kookRabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook (1865-1935) was very much influenced by Romantic thought. For him, too, reality is a tremendous spiritual unity, and for him, too, the individual’s quest for selfhood is equivalent to his quest for the truth – and both are manifested in the Torah and the God of Israel. In his writings, Kook fuses the individual track (self-fulfillment by merging with the totality of things) and the national track (self-fulfillment by merging with the nation).

However, it is the latter that has been emphasized by the rabbi’s pupils and disciples, particularly in the doctrine of his only son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982). Comprehensive research has shown how the stance that sanctifies nationhood was magnified in the writings of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, at the expense of his father’s more personal and individual-directed writings.

The religious-Zionist movement – which beginning in the 1970s adopted the concepts presented by the senior Rabbi Kook as a central meta-narrative – has expressed the broader, national orientation in its approach (which attributes supreme importance, even holiness, to the state’s institutions), by adopting the ethos of self-sacrifice and of acting for the general good, and in perceiving itself as the authentic successor to the Zionist movement. All these notions, of course, placed the emphasis on the collectivity at the expense of the individual.

Since the latter half of the 1980s, the religious-Zionist movement has also seen the rise of the phenomenon of the personal, spiritual search that seeks to give expression to creativity, uniqueness and an intimate relationship, essentially private, with the Divinity. For their textual and conceptual platform, those in the forefront of this approach – at the time, Rabbis Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) and Menachem Froman, and afterward also Ami Olami, Benny Kalmanzon and Dov Singer – drew on Hasidic materials, hence the term “neo-Hasidism” that is applied in general to a phenomenon that has since spread greatly and resisted attempts to suppress it. Today, the idea of embarking on a personal spiritual quest is very widespread in the religious-Zionist public.

The Ethics of Authenticity

The hilltop youth, including the terrorists they have spawned, embody a private case of this general phenomenon. Here, self-fulfillment within the religious-Zionist movement is no longer perceived to be conditional on one’s connection to the national collective; on the contrary, it is based on a personal quest for self-expression. In contrast to the phenomena of neo-Hasidism as a whole, these young people do not make do with embarking on a personal spiritual journey that is parallel to life within a greater society: They are looking for authenticity precisely by unequivocally withdrawing from the generality. It is, indeed, their extreme rebellion against the society at large that allows them to consider themselves to be the only ones who are truly faithful to Torah and God.

This is not a chance development. It is how the ethos of authenticity works.: embodying a modern ideal, and typifying Romanticism. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains in his book “The Malaise of Modernity,” for an action to be considered authentic, it must inherently be exceptional. If I come to a New York law office in a suit and tie and declare that I dressed that way because I felt it was an authentic expression of myself, I will get bemused looks – because what’s authentic about a suit and tie? But if I arrive barefoot, in torn jeans, or in a top hat, my colleagues will likely interpret that as an authentic reflection of my original and unique personality.

Authenticity, according to Taylor, entails creativity, originality and a rebellion against conventional norms – that’s how it’s created. However, if this is indeed so, we have to understand that authenticity is closely bound up with those rules. Only an act that in our society is thought to be original or creative can be considered authentic. Even if it poses as a personal quest for maximum originality, in its essence, it is a dialogue with the society from which it emanated. In fact, I would argue that achieving so-called authenticity will always involve not only a rebellion against certain societal norms and values, but also radicalization of other norms and values of that same society.

This is how we must understand hilltop youth. No doubt, they are rebelling against the society around them. They are scornful of their parents, reject rabbinical authority, and of course are breaking the laws of the state. In their Romantic pursuit of authenticity, they are bound to turn their back on the society from which they came.

hilltop youthWe need to look closely, however, at what these young people are rebelling against and what they are not rebelling against. Their rebellion does not take the form of volunteering in left-wing organizations such as Breaking the Silence or Peace Now. Nor do they stop being religiously observant, buy large motorcycles or revel in celebrations of sexual liberation. Because the greater society always defines for us even what is authentic, if we want to be considered as such by others, it is not possible for us to rebel against all its conventions. As noted, a central part of our rebellion will not lie in breaking the rules, but in radicalizing them.

Let us return to Lord Byron. He rebelled against his milieu by leaving his homeland, England, without intending to return. He disdained bourgeois society and its conventions. However, his greatest adventure, in which he was killed, was based on a desire to cling tightly to values that were widely accepted in his time: He fought for nationality and freedom. We find a similar pattern in Goethe’s young Werther. He withdraws from society and tries to lead a simple life, close to nature. He spurns the “laws” and the “general welfare.” However, his life ends because he is so faithful to the obligatory call of love, a familiar and accepted ideal.

The rebellion of hilltop youth is against the society from which they sprang, which they consider spineless, compromising, unauthentic and untrue. Their rebellion is against the religious-Zionist rabbis for the same reasons. However, they are not rebelling against the education they received – on the contrary, they are radicalizing the values accepted in their milieu: settlement in Judea and Samaria, strict halakhic observance and an imperious attitude toward the Palestinians.

As another representative of this group, Zvi Sukkot, wrote on his Facebook page on December 21,

Whoever burned the house in Duma did not do it because he thinks he knows more about security than the defense minister, but because he thinks that the Torah understands more than the defense minister. And there is revenge in the Torah. He see himself as representing the Torah in this world. You were the ones who gave him that education. When you opposed peace with Arabs, when you built without permits and became champion manipulators in money laundering, [when] you said that under no circumstances will women sing in the IDF, when you talked about the state and the High Court of Justice in criminal terms. And you did it all in the name of the Torah!!

Hilltop youth are rebelling against the rabbis who were their teachers, but not against their religious teachings. Rather, they are using those teachings as a spring: the further they stretch them, the more intense they become. It is precisely the radicalization of these teachings, and their fundamentalist understanding of them, that create an authentic Jewish existence for these individuals.

Every society that is committed to certain common ideals, every society that is ideological, summons up extreme, sometimes violent fringes, and the religious-Zionist community is not alone in this. What needs to be examined in regard to hilltop youth is not their extremism, but the values on which they are establishing their interpretation of Jewish authenticity. The mold into which those values are cast is Romantic, but the material from which they are forged is found in the Jewish tradition, and the impression arises that sometimes not only is it not neutralized, but that its praises are sung. In such a situation only one step separates perception of it in a controlled manner that is aware of the gap between the ideal and the reality, and its zealous interpretation, which is a prelude to violence.


Published in Haaretz

The Jewish Duty to Take In Refugees

It was hard not to feel a pang upon learning that Germany and Austria would take in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, in addition to the thousands they have already welcomed. While our prime minister says there’s no “demographic depth” that would allow even a symbolic humanitarian step, it seems others have learned the lesson from World War II – especially those who were so concerned about demographics at the time.

Netanyahu can always be expected to choose inaction over action, and his refusal to take in refugees is not surprising. What’s strange is the silence of the rabbis and leaders of the religious world. Strange, because Jewish tradition clearly speaks of sheltering and aiding refugees. It does so not only in the repeated reminders that “ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” and, therefore, the Israeli people are forever duty-bound to take care of foreigners, but also in explicit commandments.

The Torah says,

Thou shalt not deliver unto his master a bondman that is escaped from his master unto thee; he shall dwell with thee, in the midst of thee, in the place which he shall choose within one of thy gates, where it liketh him best. (Deuteronomy, 23:16-17)

It is easy to see the Torah’s emphasis on the slave’s freedom to settle wherever he chooses – "with thee", "in the midst of thee", "he shall choose", "where it liketh him". Biblical commentators link these verses to the preceding ones dealing with war, and conclude that it’s a commandment, a virtue, to take in refugees as well.

Maimonides says the commandment

contains a great utility – namely, it makes us protect and defend those who seek our protection and not deliver them over to those from whom they have fled (Guide to the Perplexed, 3, 39).

He understands the commandment regarding the slaves as the minimal duty, and it is certainly our duty to help those who aren’t slaves but are fleeing danger.

And that’s not all. The prophet Isaiah implores the Moabites to adopt this virtue of taking in refugees: “Let mine outcasts dwell with thee; as for Moab, be thou a covert to him from the face of the spoiler” (Isaiah 16:4).

Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German rabbi, explained,

When the time of Moab’s destruction came, Isaiah describes the reason for the holocaust. All the nations dwelling on Moab’s border used to cry out over the Moabites’ iniquities … there’s only one way to overcome the hardship – Moab must return to ways of mercy and when he still stands at the peak of his power and his light shines like noon, he will treat wretched refugees with compassion.

It seems that according to Isaiah the kingdom of Moab crumbled because it refused to house refugees.

So where are all those concerned for Israel’s Jewish character? Why don’t they cry out when Israel undermines Jewish tradition like this? Where are they hiding, these deeply religious people who speak so loftily of “Jewish morals” and seeking to strengthen “Jewish identity?” How come their voice isn’t heard loud and clear, crying over our mother Rachel’s sons who are denying their ancestors’ legacy?

I am not naive. It’s clear to me that, like all of us, those who see themselves as loyal to tradition choose which parts of it to observe. That’s fine; we all do that. But it’s important to raise two points.

First, they should understand that their commitment to tradition has clear boundaries – in other words, they choose how to express their Jewishness.

This recognition is important not only because it add some integrity to the world, but also because makes clear that anyone who cites halakha (Jewish religious law) to justify his objection to equal rights for Arabs, gays or women is simply using halakha, not obeying it. It’s not "halakha"; it’s him. He is a racist or a sexist, and because of that he chooses halakhic decrees that fit his views. Anti-assimilationist Bentzi Gopstein attributes to Maimonides his view that churches in Israel must be burned down, but of course we won’t hear a word from him about Maimonides’ command to take in refugees.

The second point is also associated with commitment – not to halakha, but to moral decisions. Because the interesting thing with such decisions is that they require us to make an effort.

Morality is linked to our relations with the other, and the other usually challenges us, doesn’t give us a free aromatic massage.

We should note well which halakhic choices challenge us, take us out of our comfort zone and require us to make an effort, and which choices flatter us, gratify our worldview and give us that indulging massage.

It’s easy to tell ourselves we’re a chosen people, and therefore we’re allowed to discriminate against others. We need voices calling on Jews to take responsibility, to give of themselves, to do the difficult, inconvenient thing.

Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem, 1929 Riots. Image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID matpc.15716.

Printed in Haaretz

Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions – On Michael Walzer’s New Book

The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, by Michael Walzer, Yale University Press, 192 pages, $26

“[They] saw that the cherished ideals of their race – their thrones and their families and the very Gods that they worshipped – were trampled underfoot, the holy land of their love devastated and sacked by hordes of barbarians, so inferior to them in language, religion, philosophy…” Thus wrote the Indian nationalist and fighter for independence V.D. Savarkar in 1923, but if he had written “God” instead of “Gods,” his anti-colonialist thoughts could easily be attributed to the Zionist Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, or to ideologue Israel Eldad. Like them, Savarkar was secular, and like them he too enlisted symbols and conceptual structures from religion in his struggle against the foreigners who ruled his country.

Something else the three had in common is that, although they were in the political minority during the struggle for national liberation in their countries, their ideas still resonated decades after independence was attained. Now, however, their ideas were invoked by religious leaders, who viewed their words not only as metaphorical banners that could spur unity, but as dogmatic and comprehensive frameworks for life. It is this process – the rise of the shunned and silenced religious element in nation-states that were founded as secular – that Michael Walzer addresses in his new book.

An expert in ethics and political science, and one of the leading public intellectuals of our time, Walzer examines three cases: Israel, India and Algeria. All three gained independence after fighting a colonial ruler – Britain, in the cases of Israel and India; France, in that of Algeria. All three countries made an attempt, with varying degrees of success, to introduce democracy, and all three have experienced a significant awakening of religion that is undermining that democracy. Walzer wants to understand why.

Europien Elites

His starting point is the differences in worldviews. Walzer notes that even though the three liberation movements struggled against European forces, those who waged the struggle were also European, if not in origin then in outlook. In other words, they were secular nationalists who set out to forge democratic regimes. As such they were very different from large parts, if not the overwhelming majority, of the oppressed population on behalf of whose independence they fought.

Like Moses in the house of Pharaoh, the leaders of the liberation movements grew up differently from most of those they were fighting for, and they were also educated differently. In fact, they were educated in the culture of those who subjugated their nations.

For instance, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, spent no less than eight years studying in Western institutions. India’s first minister of justice, B.R. Ambedkar, who was also instrumental in formulating his country’s constitution, held doctoral degrees from both Columbia University and the London School of Economics. For their part, Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann were European in origin and education. Frantz Fanon studied psychiatry in France, and Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president, served for many years in the French army and was even awarded its highest honor.

In contrast, the society being liberated was non-European and traditional (even to an extent in Israel). Thus, the leaders of the national-liberation movements were very different from those they were bent on liberating. Decades later, that same population – this time, as citizens of democratic nation-states – would vote for religious or traditionalist forces that would undercut the ideological descendants of the state’s founders.

The Paradox of Liberation

However, it was not only separation but also overbearing arrogance that characterized the relations between liberators and liberated. The former demanded that the latter shed their traditional ways. They believed that only a total transformation in the character of those who had been oppressed would allow them to escape their downtrodden condition.

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, talked about “the worker in the Land of Israel” as a new offshoot unconnected to the ancient tree of Diaspora Jewry. Fanon wrote about a “new Algerian” who underwent a “mutation” that made possible the struggle for national liberation. In India, the complaint about the submissive, kowtowing character of the masses was a regular refrain in the battle of the aspirants to independence, at least from the start of the 20th century.

Thus, not only were the leaders of the national independence movements a different breed – they also demanded that the masses who were to be liberated transform themselves. They perceived them as inferior and lorded it over them as a superior elite, intellectually as well as in terms of character and willpower. Zionism’s “negation of the exile,” Walzer reminds us, was more than an admonition to put an end to the Diaspora: It constituted an aggressive denial of everything the Diaspora stood for, of the whole Jewish manner of being that it cultivated and supported. The creation of the new Jew (and the new Indian, and the new Algerian) entailed putting an end to the existence of the old.

However, the old Jew, like his Indian and Algerian counterparts, was dear to the hearts of multitudes. They delighted in the fruits of liberation, but were disinclined to part with their past, their culture, their way of life. The liberators’ condescending demand that they do just that, and their pride and their silencing of the voices of the masses – these brought about disparities between the groups, but also tension and antagonism. That, Walzer writes, is the “paradox of liberation” (hence also the book’s title). The subsequent religious revival sprang from that very disparity and antagonism.

Historic irony

And here’s another paradox or, rather a historic irony: The return of tradition and religion is taking place in an untraditional way. In fact, it’s draping itself like a robe over the national body, and coming back in the form of national-religious fundamentalism. In Israel there was Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) and now its paler offspring, Habayit Hayehudi. In India there’s the RSS, a Hindu nationalist movement that wants to reconstitute the kingdom of Rama, a mythological entity in which Hinduism enjoys its zenith under the earthly dominion of the god Rama. Similarly, the nationalist Islam of the Islamic Salvation Front, which as a political party almost took power in Algeria in 1992, but was blocked by a military coup, triggering a civil war in which about 100,000 Algerians died in the 1990s.

Religion, unsilenced, has reentered our lives in recent decades, through the democratic political system, drawing a large following in its wake as it made its appeal in the name of nationhood no less than in the name of God. In the next phase, it assails other religions as well as the old elites: “‘Westernizing’ leftists, secularists, heretics, and infidels – traitors, it is said, in our midst,” Walzer writes, summing up a familiar process.

The old, diasporic Jew is replaced by the young Zionist worker. Art by Ephraim Moses Lilien, 1901

Marxists ans Post-Colonialists

Walzer devotes part of his book to refuting those viewpoints that see no paradox in religious revival springing from secular nationalism. Thus, according to the Marxist or the post-colonial approach, there is no real struggle or contradiction here, but a direct continuation of two forces that deep down feed off each other. Marxists will argue that religious beliefs and identities are the products of a false consciousness that is utilized by the hegemony of big capital to rule the masses. The national liberators don’t understand this and substitute nationalism for religion as a new smokescreen for the exploitative mechanism of the market forces.

Post-colonialists will long for a pre-colonialist past, when religious tradition was supposedly moderate and nurturing, indeterminate and dialogic. In their view, the modern expressions of religion are no more than the monstrous offspring of colonialism itself. Thus, the fighters for independence were merely continuing colonialism under a different cover and are thereby encouraging the growth of fundamentalism. In both cases, a religious resurgence is not a paradox but a logical outcome.

Walzer reminds Marxists that nowhere in the world, ever, has pluralistic universalism succeeded in supplanting national identity, and that foreign rule has been experienced in every case as national – not class – oppression. In addition, he notes, all the national liberators sought to create democracies, however flawed and imperfect, but their ambition was definitely to be accepted as legitimate members of the family of nations.

Contrary to them, the agents of religious revival challenge democracy, if they don’t actually reject it. They are not interested in universal values of human rights but in particular religious laws, whether of sharia or halakha or dharma, and they always rely on a fundamentalist interpretation of those laws. They have no wish to be part of the family of nations, but rather they counterpose themselves to it, like a charming teen with special needs. It is illogical, Walzer claims, to think that religious fanaticism springs naturally from democratic nationalism, as the two are utterly different. “Labor Zionism doesn’t produce religious zealotry; we might better say that its most authentic product is the Palestinian national liberation movement,” he writes.

The writer reminds post-colonialists that religion before modernity was not so moderate and accepting, but quite oppressive – toward adherents of other religions, for example, and toward women. On the contrary, the rise of religious fundamentalism is actually a reaction to liberalism, and above all to women’s liberation. What generated fundamentalism is not national suppression but the freedom spawned by democracy.

A Need for Dialectics

In the end, Walzer argues, the secular-liberal frameworks are too weak. They are unable to create a stable identity, sources of inspiration and, by the same token, continuity. They surrender in the face of religious revival. Walzer blames the liberators for not acting to bolster ties with the religious elements. If religion were accorded a larger place from the outset, the emergence of a religious contrarian character could be avoided. “Traditionalist worldviews can’t be negated, abolished, or banned; they have to be engaged,” he writes. What’s needed is a dialectical process in which the two poles are brought into contact and interact with each other to the point of creating a third entity. That did not happen, Walzer maintains, and we can see the results.

This, then, is his answer to the paradox of liberation: A total rejection of religion and a condescending attitude toward the religious public are the seeds that engender a fundamentalist religious revival. It is impossible to escape the past, and a tree cannot be made to grow without roots. Engaging tradition in a deep dialogue, Walzer writes with a measure of hope for Israel, “might still improve the odds – for the eventual success of Jewish national liberation.”

On Christianity and Other Religions

Although I agree completely with Walzer that an ignored past will return and make its presence felt sharply, and that it is of surpassing importance, even now, for secular society in Israel to enter into an intensive dialogue with Jewish tradition – I want to propose a different direction for thinking about religious revival, using his examples. This direction seeks to apprehend that revival in the three countries under consideration as a reaction not to detachment or to condescension, but to a foreign political and social superstructure. That is, simply, we should note that in each of the countries – Israel, India and Algeria – the religion that returns to center stage is not Christianity.

This is a significant point, because secular, democratic nationalism – of which an essential element is the separation of religion from state and the rendering of religion as a private matter for each citizen – is a phenomenon that derives from Protestantism and that is shaped by its religious model. In the cases under discussion, then, the reaction is not only one of a tradition that was forgotten, whether in a natural process or by force, and is now rising to the surface again: The reaction is that of a collectivist religion that harbors extreme ambitions for the public space, and that rises to the surface in contradistinction to a secularized, privatized political body that is structurally based along the lines of a foreign religious model.

Judaism, Islam and, to a lesser degree Hinduism, are incapable of fully digesting the process of Western secularization, which sprang from Protestantism. (Even Catholicism had a hard time accepting secularization, not recognizing it in essence until the 1960s in Vatican II.) It should be clear that any attempt to secularize the religions according to that model will generate a challenging response. Indeed, no fundamentalist resurgence occurred in Christian countries that were liberated from colonialism.

In a postscript to his book, Walzer surveys the liberation movement that transformed 13 British colonies into the United States of America, and admits, as in passing, “The idea of a secular state did not challenge the deepest convictions or feelings of (most of) the future citizens of the American republic.”

This is the core of the matter. As Walzer notes, the separation of religion from the state even gained the support of evangelical Protestants, because one’s relationship with God was perceived from the outset as a private and individual matter – not as communal, social or national. In short, the evangelicals view the state as a threat to religion; religious Zionism views it as the earthly foundation of the seat of God.

Consider, for example, Ireland, which gained its independence from Britain after a struggle. It’s always been a Catholic country, but the recent referendum approving same-sex marriage by a large majority indicates that the state is definitely not moving toward a revival of religious fundamentalism.

Similarly, the East European countries that attained freedom after years of Soviet domination are not spawning radical religiosity – whereas the movement for the liberation of Palestine is coping with a Muslim religious resurgence even before achieving its goal.

Prof. Walzer’s new book analyzes one of the fateful questions of our generation: why young democracies constitute fertile ground for the rise of extreme religion. He cites a great deal of evidence and presents the considerable resemblances in the three examples he writes about. Undoubtedly, the alienation between the liberating elite and the liberated masses played an important role in the return of tradition after its suppression. This is a spectacle we are witnessing today. However, it is not the whole story. The causes of religious revival need to be sought in religion.


Published in Haaretz

What Is Marriage? On The Debate Regarding Same-Sex Marriages

The clear victory of those supporting same-sex marriages in the referendum in Ireland last month – 62% in favor, 38% against, in a country where 80% of the population identifies as Catholic – is but another bit of proof of one of the greatest and swiftest cultural and ethical revolutions ever to take place in the Western world. Ireland joins 19 other independent countries and another 36 US states that have already confirmed the right of LGBT people to marry, and it seems that there is no way anymore to stop the fundamental change in how the West views the institution of marriage.

And indeed, we must understand that this is what we are talking about. The West is changing, or recognizing the change in the institution of marriage, so that the right to marry will also apply to those wishing to wed someone of their own sex. The connection of this issue to rights is about to be determined by the United States Supreme Court, which announced in January that it is willing to rule on several petitions submitted to it regarding the prohibition by some states in the Union on same-sex marriage.

The justices will rule on two questions: a) Does the US constitution require each state in Union to allow gay people to marry; b) May the states disallow this, but are obligated to recognize such marriages performed in other states of the Union. The rulings will be handed down this month. The first question which the judges will rule on is significant, because it attempts to determine the value basis of the whole issue, and in fact determine whether same-sex marriage is a right reserved to any and all citizens, and one which no single state of the Union may infringe upon. Thus, for instance, many supporters of same-sex marriage compare the option of such marriage with that of interracial marriage, which in the past was prohibited by many states, and since the 1967 Loving v. Virginia ruling is not only permitted, but prohibiting it is considered an unconstitutional violation of one’s civil rights.

Personally, I support same-sex marriage, but I don’t think it’s equivalent to interracial marriage. I think this is a different sort of dispute, a distinction which I will try to explain below. Most of all, I would like to answer a basic question: What, in fact, are we arguing about?

So what are we arguing about?

One can oppose same-sex marriage on many grounds: Religious prohibitions, concern for the well-being of society, simple conservatism as a guiding principle and of course – homophobia. One can also support same-sex marriage out of indifference, seeing progress as a value, adherence to the principle that anyone is entitled to marry whoever they like as a basic right, libertarianism regarding any interference of the state in one’s personal life as abhorrent or of course due to a-priori sympathy to the gay community. I won’t address all the possible combinations of these opposing positions, but only what I see as the central issue in most debates on the matter, which despite its centrality is not clearly worded. In order to do so I will use an article* * by Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George and Ryan T. Anderson published a few years ago in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (here in pdf) and later expanded into a book titled What Is Marriage?

And that is indeed the question: What is marriage? The authors open their article by presenting two different concepts of the institution of marriage.

  • Marriage according to the traditional view: “Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together. The spouses seal (consummate) and renew their union by conjugal acts—acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit. Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity. This link to the welfare of children also helps explain why marriage is important to the common good and why the state should recognize and regulate it.”
  • Marriage according to the revisionist view: “Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a un‐ ion of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable. The state should recognize and regulate marriage because it has an interest in stable romantic partnerships and in the concrete needs of spouses and any children they may choose to rear.”

The institution of marriage has undergone many incarnations throughout human history, but I believe that what is called the “traditional view” here is the one that has been with us since the Roman Empire (and to a certain extent the Jewish sages as well) and was passed on to Christianity and the entire Western world. It is heterosexual monogamy based on the desire and need to produce offspring. The couple enters into this framework based on criteria of religion, class, race and nationality, and their subjective feelings for one another have no real significance.

It is not difficult to find evidence for the fact that producing children (as working hands, but mostly as heirs) served as the foundation for the traditional institution of marriage. Thus for instance in Jewish halacha, which allows a husband to divorce a wife if she hasn’t given him children within ten years, or the laws of the Roman Empire which rewarded married couples with children, particularly those with three children or more. Marriage, as we see, was fashioned around the couple as a fertility and child-rearing unit. In fact, the authors of the article suggest that had heterosexual intercourse not been necessary to produce children (if, for instance, humans could multiply by division, like cells, or by planting their seed in the ground), the institution of marriage would never have been formed in the first place.

The revisionist position sees the union of the couple as a way to confirm, nurture and maintain their romantic feelings. A necessary condition thereof is for the couple to love each other, and without mutual love the marriage is considered worthless. The couple is supposed to choose each other on the basis of their emotions and mutual sexual attraction, and sometimes on the basis of the intuition that “this is it”.

Such marriages are not based on the desire or need to have children (although these are often considered part of such a marriage), and in any event take no heed of any criteria of religion, class, race or nationality, which have to do with the continuity of the relevant group of reference. Since they are based upon an emotional connection, when that falls apart, usually the marriage does too, whether or not the couple has children. Even lenience (and at times even encouragement) toward non-monogamous acts are to be understood, since if emotion is the basis of the relationship, it can also be the basis of deviating from it.

I hope the picture is becoming clear. One who adheres to the revisionist view on marriage does not comprehend why someone else should care whether or not members of the same sex marry each other. After all, they love each other, and how is their love any less valid than that of a heterosexual couple? Such a person will also fail to understand how confirming gay marriage threatens the institution of marriage in any way – on the contrary, for now even more people will confirm the model offering love-based relationships!

But to those adhering to the traditional view, this is not about expanding the institution of marriage, but about changing it in a very fundamental way. Instead of a coupling based on the desire to produce and educate the next generation, coupling becomes detached from the need or desire to have children, and is based on emotion. Instead of a creating a family unit we create an emotional echo chamber, and instead of the basic heterosexual dichotomy we now entertain couplings that do not meet the conditions for fertility.

So the main dispute is not one between homophobes and LGBT-friendly individuals (although there are undoubtedly many homophobes among us), but one between people who believe in two different and disparate models of marriage. That is why there is no similarity to interracial marriage. The ban on interracial marriage prevented different groups from entering the traditional definition of marriage, based on a racial division (and racist values). The lack of option in the State of Israel for inter-faith marriages also hinders the ability of couples to enter the traditional definition of marriage, this time on the basis of a religious division (and values that are sometimes racist, sometimes cultural). That is to say, this is a prohibition the object of which is to differentiate between certain populations. On the other hand, the prohibition of same-sex marriage expresses an opposition to changing the very institution of marriage from the traditional to the new. This is a prohibition based in the desire to maintain a certain cultural institution.

from Wikipedia, press picture to get to original

And what about arrangements such as “civil unions”?

The wish of various Knesset members to promote a “civil union” law, that will grant same-sex couples equal rights as heterosexual ones, but will not name their union “marriage” is based on the above distinction. We’ll maintain the cultural institution, they say, but grant the rights. This is significant progress, and a position I find to be legitimate (one, incidentally, also held by the Pope.) In fact, if we accept the arguments presented above, we can even argue that there is no need to grant equal rights, for the state may decide to which types of relationship – as opposed to population groups – it grants benefits.

Thus, for example, the state may decide whether it grants benefits to a couple consisting of an elderly mother and her caretaker daughter. The connection between them is of course deep and built of emotion and mutual commitment. Do they not deserve the same rights as a married couple? Maybe so and maybe not, but this is a decision for the political system to make. We know, for instance, that the state grants benefits to a couple consisting of a young mother and her baby daughter. Such a relationship is known as “single motherhood” and the state chooses to recognize it and offer assistance.

Thus, if we’re not talking about marriage (but about a “civil union”), the state can show consideration to the relationship of two men who love each other, but supposedly it can also choose not to show it such consideration. On the other hand, if we’re talking about marriage then the state must give these couples all the benefits due to them as married couples. Therefore the civil union law which includes equal rights is a relatively progressive one. Of course, accepting same-sex relationships as marriage will constitute recognition of marriage as based on the revisionist view, and thus a much greater change. It is precisely that question which will be decided by the ruling of the US Supreme Court. Is the union of two gay people marriage (and then the state has no right not to give a gay couple all the benefits, nor the right to refuse to register their union), or not.

Is marriage part of everyone’s basic human rights?

In December of 1948 the Assembly General of the United Nations included the right to marry in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was confirmed by the Assembly. The document, which has since served as a universal and ideal model of human rights, states in Article 16 that "Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.” (It would seem that the lack of option for citizens of different religions to marry in Israel is a violation of this right.)

Ostensibly, there is no reference here to the nature of the relationship – whether hetero or homosexual – although it is hard to believe that the authors of the declaration imagined the possibility of same-sex marriage. A sub-section of the same article speaks of the proper protection of the family as the basic unit of society. It would seem that such an approach strengthens the traditional definition of marriage, which refers to a couple union for the purpose of having children. Of course, it is also possible to change the definition of a family, and many today do indeed believe that a same-sex couple with children is a family for all intents and purposes.

In her book** about the formulation of the declaration, Mary Ann Glendon writes that this section raised quite a few disputes. At first the American delegation did not understand why it was needed in the first place. The Saudi delegation and those from other Muslim countries saw the emphasis on the equal rights of each of the couple (see the declaration) a back-door imposition of “Western values” into the matter. The article was eventually ratified as worded above, and in 1967 it was bolstered by the US Supreme Court when it ruled, in the case that prohibited bans in interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia), that “[t]he freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men”. If we agree with the SCOTUS that this is a vital element of the pursuit of happiness, we are well on the way to viewing marriage as a basic right, whether the couple is heterosexual or homosexual.

Why I support same-sex marriage

I wrote here about great changes in the model of marriage should the position be accepted that same-sex couplings are marriage. But if we think about it we will see that in fact, these changes have already happened, utterly independent of the gay community. In the past hundred years, and definitely since the mid-twentieth century, unions between heterosexual couples take place on the basis of mutual feelings and emotions. We no longer marry based on criteria such as class or religion (these have an impact of course, but not an overwhelming one), and we are appalled by the notion that our parents should match us off based on economic and sectarian interests. Basing our marital ties upon emotion also explains, as mentioned above, the dramatic rise in divorce rates. What matters is how we feel, not the possibility of having and raising children.

It follows that the traditional position on marriage has already been rejected, in effect, by most of the people in the West. This also explains the rapid change in public opinion as to gay marriage: Once the general collective homophobia was reduced (following various social changes and years of struggle, of course), it was only natural that people for whom marriage is based on the revisionist view saw no reason to bar LGBT people from joining in (one may assume that this is what happened in Ireland). It would therefore be incorrect to say that legalizing same-sex marriage would be a revolution in the meaning of marriage. In addition, it would be unfair to let only heterosexuals enjoy/suffer from the new position on marriage and bar LGBT people from it. This is the first reason I offer for supporting same-sex marriage.

In a wider view, the change in the essence of the institution of marriage is concurrent with many other social changes (such as the advent of the field of psychology, or the rise of contemporary spirituality), and in the end it is also concurrent with the rise of the human rights discourse. These changes stem from the relocation of the centers of authority, meaning and identity in Western society from the external world to the inner one, that is from religious and social institutions to our psychological lives. More and more, we define ourselves and find meaning in our lives by what happens within us, and less and less by our place in the social array, or our ethnic/religious/class identity. The very fact that one’s sexual preference is a central part of one’s identity shows how much the internal has become what defines us.

Knowing the importance of our inner world and the identity derived from it, we show other people all sorts of considerations regarding these. Thus, for instance, the right to freedom of religion and conscience is (also) based on the perception that faith and conscientious determinations are an essential part of an individual’s identity, and that he or she must be allowed to express them as freely as possible. In a similar fashion, it is important to allow those whose identity is LGBT to express it as freely as possible. The reasoning here, the second I offer for supporting same-sex marriage, is based therefore on the recognition that this is a field parallel to others (religion, conscience, expression), which we also consider deserving of special protection. LGBT people deserve the right to marry because this is a deep expression of their identity, and therefore, a basic right.

Finally, as a religious person, to me marriage is a form of consecration before God. My third reason for supporting same-sex marriage is that I want religious people who happen to be LGBT to have the possibility of consecrating thus. While one can argue that this should have nothing to do with one’s registration at the Ministry of Interior Affairs – let everyone have whatever religious rite they wish etc’ – it can conversely be argued that there is significance to formal recognition of the state for different religions. That, after all, is precisely the argument of some religious people who oppose the recognition of same-sex marriage. That is why they oppose it.

In the end, in order to decide our own position on the issue of same-sex marriage, we must answer two central questions: First, we must ask ourselves what in our view is the institution of marriage? Why does one get married? What establishes the relationship of married people? Second, we must ask ourselves whether we believe that marriage is deeply related to one’s identity and some essential meaning in one’s life. If we believe that marriage is first and foremost a union of hearts, an emotional bond of love, and/or if we believe that marriage is deeply connected to our identity and to the meaning of our lives, then it is incumbent upon us to support same-sex marriage.


* “What Is Marriage?”, Sherif Girgis, Robert George & Ryan T. Anderson, Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 245-287, Winter 2010

** A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

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