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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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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

Trump’s Pro-Muslim Dog Whistle

Whoever crafted President Trump’s Jerusalem address was well-informed. Trump’s speech aimed to sooth hurt Palestinian feelings and to assure them that even though he is diverging from previous U.S. policy, he would care for what was most important to them.

While recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump took care to mention that the final borders of Israeli sovereignty in the city are at the moment disputed and should be determined by both parties.

However, what was most significant for Palestinian and Muslim ears was the president’s emphasis, twice, on the current status of Jerusalem’s holiest and most contested site. Trump directly called for maintaining the “status quo” at “the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif.” Moreover, addressing the future, he noted that “Jerusalem is today and must remain a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall … and where Muslims worship at al-Aqsa Mosque.”

For the Western audience, these words seem like a banal affirmation of the obvious. For the Muslim world, and especially for Palestinians, they are of immense importance.

Trump’s words imply that as far as the United States is concerned, Jews will not be able to pray on the Temple Mount. In signaling that the current arrangement on the holy mountain will continue, Trump actually used, perhaps for the first time, a pro-Muslim dog whistle.

Trump’s gesture seems aimed to minimize the chances of a violent outburst from the Palestinian population. The president’s team knows that the core interests of Palestinians are connected directly to the holy site, quite above and beyond Jerusalem as a whole. The White House knows that the threat of change to the status quo on the site — which allows Jews to visit the mountain but not to engage in any religious activity there — served as a significant motivation for the violent cycles Israel experienced in the summers of 2014 and 2015. This July, another outburst was barely evaded only after Israel removed metal detectors it had placed at the entrances to the site.

The point is this: Concerning Jerusalem (and often the Middle East in general), it’s not about politics, but about identity. The Palestinian national identity is linked fundamentally to Haram al-Sharif. Its origins are rooted in the Ayyubid period (12th to 13th centuries), when the land’s Muslim rulers encouraged Islamic migration to Jerusalem, while providing a binding ethos: The city’s Muslim populace, veteran and recent, will become its holy site’s protectors. Since then, the Arabs around the holy city have conceived of themselves as defenders of the faith’s sacred site.

Furthermore, with Israel neutralizing the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem — closing its institutions, dismissing its leaders — the Palestinian population in and around the city has become depoliticized, underscoring Palestinians’ religious identity instead and further emphasizing their connection to the great mosque. Thus, whenever the impression arises that al-Aqsa is threatened, they react. The president’s words, therefore, aim to assure them that there is no such threat.

On the Jewish side, things are a bit more complicated. For most of the Zionist movement leaders in the past, the Temple Mount carried no specific appeal. Even after Israel’s conquest of the ancient city in the 1967 war, 50 years ago, what interested Israel’s leaders and Jewish populace was the Wailing Wall, not the mountain above it. Over the past two decades, however, the situation has dramatically changed, with the Temple Mount becoming for the secular right and the religious Zionists a focal point of nationalistic feelings and identity. The shift is correlated to the looming threat, from their point of view, of political compromise in Jerusalem as part of a peace initiative, and is parallel to a growing disappointment concerning the settlement project as a secure, reliable way to execute control over the land. For many, the Temple Mount has substituted the settlements as the central project and primary symbol of Israel’s sovereignty.

Accordingly, growing numbers of Israeli Jews ascend the Temple Mount, in a clearly stated attempt to exert domination on the site. The status quo, agreed upon since 1967, forbids Jewish worship at the site. But this point has become the focus of contention, with Temple Mount activists attempting to undermine it. These attempts contributed to violent escalations in the past. Indeed, in October 2015, after a wave of Palestinian terrorism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to state clearly, “Muslims will pray on the Temple Mount, and non-Muslims will visit there.” That was the first time an Israeli prime minister had voiced a clear vocal agreement to the discriminatory conditions, as far as Jews are concerned, of the site’s status quo.

Trump’s words are the first such spoken from the president of the United States. They promise the Muslim world, and especially the Palestinians, that what is most important for them will be protected. For Israel, they represent a blow to any attempt to open the conditions of the arrangement on the Temple Mount. It seems that in exchange for a symbolic declaration concerning Israel’s capital, Trump has given the Palestinians actual achievement on al-Aqsa.

Capture

Published in the Washington Post

The Rise and Fall of Gush-Emunim, or The Last Jewish Attempt to Annul the Secularization Process.

There is one primary, general thing: the state. It is all holiness and without flaw. It is a supreme heavenly manifestation of ‘he who returns the divine presence to Zion.’ – Zvi Yehuda Kook

Holiness is to religion what blood is to the human body. It impels the religious organism. It is the soul’s desire and the heart’s reverence. It was not by chance that when religion officially became a field of academic research, at the end of the 19th century, the fathers of the field, distinguished scholars like Emil Durkheim and Rudolf Otto, sought to define “holiness.” Is it the restricted, the forbidden, or perhaps the moving and the awe-inspiring? Is it the inaccessible, the remote, or precisely the innermost and intimate? Or perhaps both the one and the other are emanations of the holy of holies? Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook honed it down to one: The holy is the political. The state is holiness. Being holy, it is perfect. Being holy and perfect, it is the divine chariot to which the horsemen of the redemption are harnessed.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda KookTo treat these ideas dismissively, or fearfully, is to miss their depth. The process undertaken by Zvi Yehuda Kook, who himself functioned as the interpreter of the thought propounded by his father, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, was not only daring but brilliant in its revolutionary character. The perception of the State of Israel – the political, bureaucratic, legal, secular corpus – as an entity that is “entirely holiness,” posed a tremendous challenge not only to the intentions and wishes of the state’s founders, and not only to the self-perception of its citizens. It was a direct assault on the very secularization of the Jewish people. Accordingly, Gush Emunim (or, Bloc of the Faithful), the operational arm of these ideas, functioned as a spearhead with which Zvi Yehuda assailed secularization itself. The failure and crumbling of Gush Emunim thus sounds the knell of defeat for the last Jewish attempt to overcome the secularization process.

This fundamental defeat did not come about without there being vast achievements along the way. In the course of its existence, Gush Emunim, which was one of the largest and most important messianic movements in Jewish history, succeeded in changing completely, perhaps for many years to come, the life of all the people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The movement revitalized the religious-Zionist community, which until then had been little more than a religiously observant annex of Labor-based Zionism. It put forward a riveting vision that integrated divine promise and human sovereignty, while the attempt to implement it engendered far-reaching political, geographical and demographic changes. Testimony to its importance can be found in the withering conceptual-social void that remained after its collapse.

Nothing better signifies the death of the Kookist vision – the driving ideological force behind Gush Emunim – than the tenure of Naftali Bennett as the head of the national-religious party. Kookism (to use the term coined by sociologist-anthropologist Gideon Aran, who has studied the movement) purported to provide an overall narrative framework that reinterprets reality and explains how it is precisely the elements that seem to directly contradict halakha, Jewish law, that actually carry the message of redemption and realize its most exalted vision.

Hanan Porat at Sebastia, after granted permision by the govronment of Israel to stay at the site, leading to the settlement of Elon Moreh, 1975

In the view of Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), known universally as Rav Kook, and in complete contrast to other ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, rabbis, secular Zionism bore in its national backpack the harbinger of the messiah. The Zionists might desecrate the Sabbath and irreverently ignore halakhic sexual codes, but according to the historical dialectic envisioned by Rav Kook, after returning from exile and establishing a Jewish state, the “sons of the insolent ones” will return to the tradition and cling anew to the biblical covenant between God and the Jewish people. At that point, the aberrant subversion of the tradition’s tenets will metamorphose into a synthesis in which the vision of the redemption will be wholly realized in the form of a state that manifests perfectly the Jewish messianic ideal. Simply put, though the Zionists think they are establishing a secular nation-state, the cunning quality of divine wisdom guides them to actualize the prophecy of the end of days.

The Birth of Religion and State

It’s important to understand that Rav Kook reinterpreted not only secular Zionists, but also secularism itself. To fully grasp the revolutionary depth of his theology, we need to look at the development of the secularization process and the inner logic it embodies. In contrast to the popular assumption, the crux of the secularization process is not the loss of faith and the abandonment of religious ritual, though they are of course significant features. What underlies secularization is a redistribution of the public space, and a differentiation between diverse dimensions of human activity.

Until the modern age, religion cast its net over a wide range of human activity (for example, education, art, policy, knowledge and morality). However, during the past few centuries, initially in Europe, these realms were expropriated from religion and placed in the hands of distinct systems – the state, scientific research and the human conscience – that specialize in applying them, each in its own way.

Moreover, religion itself was narrowed, and became a defined and confined area of our life. We can be members of a particular nationality, part of a specific social class or group, engage in one or another profession, jog or play chess as a hobby – and also be religious. Or not religious. From its status as the cornerstone of our identity, the foundation of our worldview and of our self-perception, without which we are lost and for which we will be prepared to lay down our lives, religion became a category, one issue among many in our lives. We have the option to add it as another thread in the fabric of our identity – or not. That is the deep meaning of secularization.

The distinction between the “religious” realm and the realm devoid of religious significance is not self-evident. In fact, it is nonexistent in the world of many religious traditions. Judaism and Islam, for example, do not distinguish between a space that is saliently under the control of religion, with its institutions and its principles, and other realms that are unconnected to religion. These two traditions were historically all-encompassing social frameworks that sought to embrace every aspect of life: from the form of the regime to the social classes, from agriculture to an individual’s breakfast.

It’s in Christianity that we find a clear-cut differentiation between the different spheres. Beginning with Jesus’ words to his disciples, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21), a clear distinction is put forward between the religious realm and the political realm, which is considered secular. That distinction accompanied the Western world in its development, with the tension between the religious authority (the pope) and the secular authority (the various emperors of Europe) often constituting fertile ground for struggle.

This differentiation laid the foundation for the secularization process. Beginning in the 17th century, together with the consolidation of Protestant Christianity, a confluence of developments increasingly diminish the religious sphere, with the aim of confining it to the individual’s psyche. The public sphere is defined as “secular,” that is, void of religion. Furthermore, the perception of religion as one’s personal affair develops in tandem with the perception of the social space as the public affair of the populace.

The more religion is compartmentalized into the depths of the individual’s psyche, the more the individual becomes part of a collectivity that is not religious but national. Hence the birth of the citizen – the autonomous individual who is above all a human being, who decides his religious beliefs for himself and chooses his form of government together with his fellow citizens. The nation-state, and subsequently the democratic state, spring up as part of the secularization process, and are defined parallel to and dependent on the modern definition of religion.

Hanan Porat and Rabbi Moshe Levinger at Sebastia, after granted permision by the govronment of Israel to stay at the site, leading to the settlement of Elon Moreh, 1975

For Judaism, therefore, secularization constituted a challenge not only because it brought about the Jews’ mass abandonment of the observance of the commandments, but because it utterly undermined the structure of Jewish identity. If until the 18th century, the Jews perceived themselves, and were perceived by others, as a separate ethno-religious community (like the Druze today, for example), the emancipation – the Jews’ transformation into citizens – obliged them to redefine their Judaism.

As Jewish studies professor Leora Batnitzky notes in her book “How Judaism Became a Religion” (2011), the Jews, the absolute majority of whom lived in Europe before World War II, responded to these developments in diverse and contradictory ways. Whereas modern Orthodoxy, Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism defined Judaism as a religion, Zionism perceived it as a nationality.

The religious movements held that Judaism is a ritual belief system that is limited to the individual realm, and endeavored to show that no contradiction is involved in a person’s being “a German of the Mosaic faith,” namely a German by nationality, and a Jew by religion. The Zionists, in contrast, rejected the religious-belief dimension of Judaism as an anachronistic excess to be discarded, and viewed Judaism primarily as a nationality. As such, it was up to the Jews to establish a state of their own, and it was only natural that the state the Zionist movement had in mind would be secular and democratic. In such a state, Jews, if they insisted, could be “religious,” though they would restrict their occupation with that archaic matter to their home and congregation. The public space would be based on the national disposition: It would be secular.

Undermining Secularism’s Essence

Back to religious Zionism. It began with the Mizrachi movement of Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Reines (1839-1915), but without challenging the modern division of Judaism into religion and nationality. Reines allied himself with Herzlian Zionism, with the aim of providing the Jews a safe haven in the Land of Israel. In terms of his attitude toward secularization, there is no difference in principle between Hamizrachi and modern Orthodoxy in Germany, France or the United States. Reines, we can say, simply dreamed of Israelis of the Mosaic faith.

Rav Kook’s doctrine presents an essentially different approach: He intended explicitly to overcome the disparity between religion and nationality by uniting them in messianic matrimony. Kook envisioned a “state that is in its essence ideal”: meaning, a state that exists as a divine representation, implementing God’s will on earth. There is no place for secular individuals in such a state, because the connection between upper and lower is the basis of its existence, the source of its vitality and efflorescence and, no less, of its political platform. Amid attempts (that failed) to establish Degel Yerushalayim, a religious political movement, Rabbi Kook wrote, “with a supreme show of shining, free holiness, we shall illuminate all regime-based paths.” Politics will be nourished by holiness; holiness will become political.

Rav Kook’s intention was to annul every vestige of the secularization process. He was fiercely critical of the Orthodox Jewry of his time, which he perceived as occupied with a “religious idea,” by which he meant that it viewed Judaism as mere religion. For Kook, however, Judaism was a “divine idea” that encompasses the universe in its totality and views the Jewish people as a uniform organism that functions as an expression of the supreme will. It was Judaism’s division into a religion, on the one hand, and a nationality, on the other, that he rejected outright: “It is a great error on the part of those who do not feel the immanent unity of Israel … from this derives the desire to dichotomize the national matter and the religious matter into two parts.” Judaism is “one indivisible unit,” and the state that will be established is wholly sanctified unto God. The whole earth is filled with his glory.

Rav Kook did not live to see the sovereign State of Israel, and if he had, it’s difficult to know what he would have thought of it. In its first decades of existence, Israel was blatantly national and vigorously secular. Its leaders did not regard themselves as the receptacle of the divine inspiration and did not ground its regime in “shining holiness.” Rav Kook’s doctrine was updated and adapted to the Israeli situation by his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, and his pupils. They would lead Gush Emunim after the conquest of Judea and Samaria and would implement with a mighty hand what they learned under the tutelage of their mentor.

Hanan Porat and Rabbi Moshe Levinger at Sebastia, after granted permision by the govronment of Israel to stay at the site, leading to the settlement of Elon Moreh, 1975

The Roots of Gush Emunim

The heart and core of Kookism is the desire to unite two holy entities: the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. The holiness of the land derives from the Torah and tradition. The holiness of the state is gleaned from Rav Kook’s assertion that the present configuration of Jews in Israel augurs the advent of the redemption. The messianic, as usual, serves as an alchemical transformer that turns everyday brass into redemptive gold. In practice, the State of Israel rules in the Land of Israel and imprints the will of the Jews on it. The popular will – an important Kookist principle – is an expression of God’s will. Thus, for Kookism, sovereignty, as the political expression of the popular will over the land, is of special importance. “Redemption is but sovereignty: the people’s government across the whole span of its land,” stated Zvi Yehuda. The Land of Israel, under the people of Israel, according to the will of Israel, which advances (even unconsciously) the Torah of Israel.

And, as it happened, Israeli sovereignty over the “whole span” of the land came to pass after the Six-Day War. Only then were the holiness of the state and the holiness of the land fused together perfectly. As the poet Natan Alterman put it, “This victory … effectively erased the difference between the State of Israel and the Land of Israel.” For the disciples of Zvi Yehuda, this territorial expansion was not only an expression of God’s will but the realization of his father’s political theology.

And the territorial expansion itself became a ritual for them. What occurred, in the words of Gideon Aran, was “a kabbalization of Israeli nationalism, and in its wake a ritualization of political activism, making it possible to bring Zionism to its final conclusion, and at the same time disarm it of its practicality and absolve it of its responsibility, which are the basis of its historic revolutionism.” The act of settlement becomes a ritual, and messianic belief allows settlement of the land and Israeli sovereignty over it to be seen as the force that turns the heavenly gears of the divine machine. In Aran’s incisive phrasing, it’s the metamorphosis of religious Zionism into the Zionist religion. No longer is there the religious element within Zionism; now there is the overriding religious framework, which is characterized in part by Zionism.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and Ariel Sharon laying the cornerstone of Elon Moreh, 1975 There is a controversy over the roots of Gush Emunim. Aran, who as a researcher skittered across the rocky slopes of Samaria with members of the movement, locates its gestation among the Gahelet (“ember”) group of young people (among whom were Haim Druckman, Zephaniah Drori and Zalman Melamed, all of whom became prominent rabbis). Seeking a response to Israeli secularization, they moved into the half-empty yeshiva of Rav Kook, which was then led by his son.

Avi Sagi and Dov Schwartz, arguably the most distinguished researchers of religious Zionism, believes that the Gahelet group simply rode the coattails of a grass-roots movement that had begun without them, to appropriate it. They find the birth of Gush Emunim as taking place among circles of well-off, middle-class, young Orthodox people who embarked on settling Judea and Samaria not for reasons of redemptive theology but as compensation for an inferiority complex they suffered vis-a-vis secular Zionism, and as the expression of a quite standard pioneer-Zionist ideology. They simply took advantage of their opportunity to become pioneers and “fulfillers.” It was only afterward that they referenced Rav Kook’s visions in order to explain to themselves and others how their actions could be reconciled with the general Jewish messianic program. Their action, however, enabled and encouraged the Gahelet rabbis and other Kookists to take over the movement and to turn it gradually into a messianic theological force.

Gush Emunim was established at the beginning of 1974, just a few months after the Yom Kippur War. Graduates of Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem – among them Moshe Levinger, Haim Druckman, Yoel Bin Nun and Hanan Porat – met in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, in the West Bank’s Etzion Bloc, which was captured in 1967, and drew up a vision for a national and religious movement of awakening. The scale of the vision was as impressive as it was all-inclusive. Its goal was nothing less than full redemption for the Jewish people and the whole world. It accommodated the increasing closeness of secular Jews to the world of religious precepts – the synthesis envisioned by Abraham Isaac Kook.

As for Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, it was irreversible, according to an unequivocal pronouncement by Zvi Yehuda Kook. “The State of Israel is a divine matter … Not only are there no withdrawals from kilometers of the Land of Israel, heaven forbid, but on the contrary, we will add conquests and liberations … In our divine structure, which is comprehensive and world-embracing, withdrawal has no reality and no grip,” he stated. Gush Emunim would be the earthly manifestation for this redemptive momentum. Or, in the words of the late Hanan Porat, “Gush Emunim is the yearning for God’s manifestation in the world.”

Gush Emunim proceeded to establish the settlements of Ofra and Kedumim, and tried repeatedly to establish Elon Moreh. In 1977, Menachem Begin assumed power, promising “many more Elon Morehs,” and was as good as his word. Beit El, Elkana and Kfar Adumim were established. The success necessarily generated institutionalization. In 1979, the Amana movement was created in order to organize the settlement project bureaucratically and economically. The following year, the Yesha Council was formed – an administrative body that amalgamated the heads of the local authorities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza (for which Yesha is an acronym). Thus, by the end of the 1980s, having consolidated formally and bureaucratically, Gush Emunim had taken on institutional trappings and effectively ceased to be a living ideological movement.

Secularizing the Messiah

Gush Emunim continued to fade, but it would be a mistake to view its decline as a simple matter of “bourgeoisification.” Of course, like every movement of spiritual awakening, it too passed through a youthful stage and entered life’s more formalized paths. However, its disintegration was above all the increasing unraveling of the Kookist paradigm. Though this occurred concurrent with the turn to the bourgeois of Gush Emunim, it was not because turning bourgeois signifies institutionalization, but because its deep meaning is secularization.

Elon Moreh, click for original

Kookism viewed Zionism as a national-religious totality that would fulfill the divine messianic plan. The act of land settlement became ritualized; redemptive significance was attributed to the application of Israeli sovereignty to more and more territory. But what happens when settlement is implemented not by a group of messianic activists but by a commercial company? And what results from the quest by the settlers themselves not for the act of settlement as such but for quality of life in spacious homes with red-tiled roofs?

During the 1980s, and with greater intensity in the 1990s (and precisely during the tenure of Prime Minister Rabin, who greatly improved the infrastructure in Judea and Samaria), the settlement enterprise became a lodestone for people in search of housing solutions and upgrades. The settler, even if he had an ideological past, ceased to be a pioneer and became, in practice and in substance, a consumer.

Settlers who solicit funding and infrastructure from the state view it as a service provider, not as a manifestation of the Shekhinah (the divine presence). Though not necessarily contradictory, these two approaches generate a different religious consciousness. The Kookist vision of a unity of religion and nationality is inherently idealistic and cannot readily accommodate an instrumental approach that is out to use the state and not to worship it. Activism gives way to routine, and routine institutionalizes a relationship underlain by an aspiration that aims at preservation, not breakthrough. The settler becomes accustomed to receive, not to create, and the settlement ritual is normalized. The unity between national land settlement and religious ethos is degraded; the two revert to being two separate facets of the quotidian.

Hence the return to the picture of the basic differentiation within the secularization process. The Zionist religion reverts to being religious Zionism – namely, an approach that identifies the state with national Judaism, and religion with halakhic Judaism. Routine vitiates Kookism. Without the messianic vector that demands movement deriving from constant tension, Kookism becomes one more form of exegetical theology that offers reassuring answers to queries about belief. Bourgeoisification secularizes Kookism and deconstructs it into standard religious Zionism.

Two elements accelerate this basic process of re-secularization. The first is the unwillingness of secular Jews to become religiously observant. The Movement for Greater Israel, established after the Six-Day War, showcased a highly impressive collection of secular Israelis (Haim Gouri, Natan Alterman, Aharon Amir, Moshe Shamir and others). Here, according to Gush Emunim, was proof of the advent of Rabbi Kook’s vision: Direct contact with the territories of the homeland had seemingly awakened the “Jewish element” within these secular figures, and they were on their way back to the Torah.

The collapse of this hope undermined Kookist optimism. It also shows the fundamental unfeasibility of Kookism (or of any totalitarian religious ideology). The modern world is too diverse and complex, and its inhabitants subscribe to a concept that is too individualistic and autonomous to be subsumed within a single dogmatic framework. Secularity is here to stay.

As if it were not enough that the people of Israel did not become penitents, since the 1980s, the State of Israel has repeatedly reduced its sovereignty over the territories of the Land of Israel. The withdrawal from Sinai, in the wake of the Israel-Egypt peace agreement, was the first serious blow to Kookist theology, followed by the withdrawals from the cities of the West Bank in the Oslo Accords and from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Kookist messianism, which categorically rejected any possibility of withdrawal, had to cope with recurrent contradictions in regard to the paradigm it espoused. They undermined it and ultimately caused it to crumble.

These three intertwined factors render the backtracking from Kookism to a simple national-religious conception – like that of Hamizrachi, the inceptive religious-Zionist ideology – almost inevitable. The bourgeois thrust transformed the attitude toward the state from ritualistic to realistic, and from idealistic to pragmatic. Due to the state’s secular character, it is looked on with growing reservations, even alienation. The courts become an obstruction, the country ruled at times by a “government of malice,” and not even the IDF is as holy as it was. When the state also initiates actions that flagrantly contradict Kookism, the alienation becomes blatant.

Religious Zionism in Israel has thus withdrawn to the stance of modern Orthodoxy. It has redivided reality into a secular realm and a religious realm, with the state considered a secular matter (with which it’s necessary to have dealings, and to try and draw as close as possible to the right values); while everything that takes place in its communities (in the religious education system, the youth movements and the synagogues as well) falls under the aegis of the Shekhinah. True, unlike Europe or the United States, this is the state of the Jewish people, but like them it is also a modern nation-state, and as such is based on secular logic that confines religion to a certain enclave and excludes it from rule in the fields of power and knowledge.

Using religious simbolism to inhance nationalism

Nationalism as Secularisation

But the disintegration of Gush Emunim generated additional shock waves. The tendencies that began with the collapse of the Kookist worldview intensified. In the past decade, it’s become clear that religious Zionism has reached a new phase in its relinquishment of Kookist ideals. It has entered a stage that places a strong emphasis on the distinction between religion and nationality – in other words, on the intensification of secularity. These processes are related to the greater share that accrues to the national dimension in the identity makeup of religious Zionism: that is, the ethnic element and the right-wing political posture have become far more central than they were in the past.

Beginning in the 1990s, the National Religious Party became declaredly right-wing. The party’s “historic alliance” with Mapai, forerunner of Labor, went by the boards in 1977, but its existence before that attests to the NRP’s character at the time. Its pragmatic and dovish leaders, such as Yosef Burg and Zerach Warhaftig, were replaced by declared right-wingers such as Hanan Porat, Yitzhak Levy and finally Naftali Bennett. Its current incarnation as Habayit Hayehudi has brought the process to a peak. The party’s composition shows clearly that a right-wing stance is more important than a halakhic one: The party will take in secular right-wingers but has no place for religiously observant left-wingers.

Moreover, the national-religious party is no more than the image of its voters. In a comprehensive study conducted in 2014 under the auspices of the Israel Democracy Institute, political scientist Tamar Hermann and her associates found that among the broad circles of this public, a “political-security right-wing” approach is a more stable and more permanent common trait than a uniform, binding religious way of life.

In her study of ex-Orthodox Jews in Israel, Poriya Gal Getz quotes a former religiously observant individual as saying, “Even after I stopped being religious, the feeling is that parents and community will be hurt far more if you become a leftist, because that’s perceived as sheer treason.” Treason, understandably, is a move against one’s reference group, which embodies our primary identity traits. When the reference group is determined more according to one’s political stance than by halakhic strictness, the relative share of those elements in one’s personal identity becomes clear.

Here’s what the increasing secularization of religious Zionism looks like: Its adherents view themselves in the first instance as members of the Jewish people and defenders of the State of Israel. True, they also observe the commandments, but that’s just their “religion,” something they pile onto nationality that expresses their personal relationship with God. Their basic identity is ethnic-Jewish and national-Israeli. What remains of the Kookist package, then, is the veneration of nationalism, but without the translation of nationalism into a theological language.

There still are religious Zionists, of course, who believe in the coming of redemption and in the settlements as the central project that is hastening it. However, they have been marginalized and now find themselves in a situation similar to that which preceded the Six-Day War. There are also religious Zionists whose halakhic identity remains very powerful and overrides the nationalist aspect. They are what’s known as “Hardalim” (acronym for national-Haredi), a group that coalesced parallel to the general disintegration of Kookism. These groups continue to abide by different versions of Kookism, but they constitute a minority in the religious-Zionist movement. For most religious Zionists, modern nationalism and the observance of the precepts constitute two separate foci of identity, and the former is becoming increasingly paramount.

From the ruins of Gush Emunim, then, religious Zionism emerges less halakhic and more nationalist. This is religious Zionism without messianic fervor and with a diluted Jewish identity, one that draws primarily on the national aspect and puts forward a simple, ethnocentric Jewish perception.

The late Yeshayahu Leibowitz was wrong when he predicted that disappointment in the messianic vision would lead Gush Emunim’s adherents to convert to Christianity. But he knew well that exalting nationalism to the status of a religious principle meant its deification: namely, its idolatrous positioning as the center of the religion. “The ‘religious’ arguments for the annexation of the territories,” he wrote in April 1968, are no more than “an expression of the transformation of the Jewish religion into a camouflage for Israeli nationalism” (translation from a 1992 collection of essays by Leibowitz, edited by Eliezer Goldman). Nationalism is the core, religion is the cover. Today we see vividly the grotesque result of the process.

However, it would be a mistake to think that the current stage in the tangled and tense relations between Jewish religiosity and Jewish nationality is the final one. From the moment they were separated by the birth of modernity, each of these two elements has been attracted to its twin. The desire to bring the public space under its wing is deeply embedded in the religious system that underwent secularization, all the more so in the case of all-embracing monotheistic systems such as Judaism and Islam. Holiness is to religion as blood is to the human body. Another attempt at unification, like the consolidation of God with his Shekhinah, of religion and nationality, is only a matter of time. And time, as we know, is all that needs to be leaped over in order to arrive at the End of Days.

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Published in Haaretz today.

Liberty for All

Perhaps the most wonderful mystery of human nature is also one of its most banal characteristics. It is the peculiar but considerably gladdening fact that people wish to be good. The desire to be just, to do well, to prove oneself morally worthy, is an obviously common fact, but nevertheless an immense marvel. Why indeed should it be so? But it is so, and while conceptions of “the good” vary wildly, the wish to align with these conceptions is prevalent.

Enter slavery. A commonplace phenomenon in ancient times, slavery had to be justified. Since it was clear that subjugated people were not happy about it, the social institution of slavery was in need of legitimization. People wanted to know that they were doing the right thing when buying, selling, and shackling others.

Thus we read in Theognis, the Greek poet of the 6th century BCE, that “A slave’s head is never upright, but always bent, and he has a slanting neck” (translation by Bernard Williams). Here inborn, physical difference is used to explain and justify slavery.

In the Bible (Genesis 9), we find Noah angry at his sons after they have seen him naked, and cursing, of all people, his yet-unborn grandson, Canaan: “Cursed be Canaan! the lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers!” Here an ancient curse is inserted into a holy text in an obvious ploy to explain future enslavement by the Israelites. Even the mighty Pharaoh, when conspiring to enslave the Children of Israel, had to justify himself and explain that it would only be wise to subdue the Israelites or else “they become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, join our enemies” (Exodus 1).

As generations passed, it was not only the forms of slavery that changed, but also the explanations used to justify them. In a word, both became more elaborate. Modern ethical sensitivities will not permit outright chattel slavery, but we are all aware of the existence of sweatshops, child labor, and prostitution. We use complicated ways to circumvent and explain these and other forms of exploitation around us, as well as the benefit we derive from exploitation taking place at a distance. We do wish to be good.

It is an immense tribute to the Jewish tradition that the fight against slavery in modern times has been waged under the inspiration of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Indeed, the biblical narrative of the liberation of the People of Israel has inspired freedom movements and ideologies of liberation throughout history and all over the world. As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote, “Israel’s exodus from Egypt will remain forever the spring of the entire world.”

It is indeed hard to imagine our civilization without that specific myth and the ethos all of us inherited from it. The magnitude of our cultural debt to the story of the Exodus undoubtedly explains the immense popularity of Passover among all Jews, non-religious as much as religious.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, and as such demands a reckoning. We can no longer pretend that the occupation of the Palestinian people, which began 50 years ago, is an inadvertent accident in the history of the State of Israel. Indeed, even Israel’s formal description of the occupation as “temporary” lacks genuine force of conviction.

The State of Israel has been subjugating millions of non-citizens for more than two-and-a-half times the number of years that it hasn’t. It is a bitter, vicious tragedy that the people who bequeathed humanity with the ultimate story of liberation are the last people on earth who control a population without allowing it either equal legal rights or the political independence to determine its own destiny.

We do, of course, have our reasons. Good ones. There are always explanations. We will find elaborate ways of giving the current situation legitimation. After all, we do wish to be good. But the brutal fact remains, and after all excuses and explanations, the fact remains brutal. Its perpetuation will mean that Jewish history will be forever stained by the occupation, and it will retroactively color the Jewish tradition. Passover, our celebration of liberty, will acquire an ironic, rancorous twist.

On this, the fiftieth year of the occupation, we at SISO created The Jubilee Haggadah, which conjoins the Jubilee commandment – "Sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants" – with the celebration of Passover, the festival of liberty. Thirty authors, artists and thinkers from throughout the Jewish world have joined together — in commentary, song, and moral outcry — and proposed contemporary interpretations to the Haggadah. We can no longer celebrate our liberty while deigning the liberty of others. Our freedom will not be complete, until their freedom will be complete.

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Published in Haaretz

The Jubilee Haggadah can be seen here in English, purchased through Amazon or downloaded (in the Hebrew version) here.

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.

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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.

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Published in Haaretz


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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