Posts Tagged 'atheism'

Post-Humanism, Post-Theism – Religion and Ethics in the Trans-Human Project

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

It is the beginning of the sixties, the first sixties ever, and St. Paul is disclosing his own personal transcendence, which he understands as redemption from Original Sin. He is no longer himself, but another lives in him – or is it through him? His very self is transformed and altered – it is no longer “he” who lives. Something very dramatic has happened to his spirit or his soul. As for his bodily life, the life he lives “in the flesh,” it is also changed: It is now lived “by the faith of the Son of God,” sustained, perhaps even animated, by a higher power.

2014-06-07_192818There is nothing new, then, in humanity’s attempts to transcend itself. Quite the contrary: Religion and post-humanism have been intertwined, sometimes even synonymous, since what has been called “the Axial Age” – in other words, the era, around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., when religion and philosophy became self-reflective, universally inclusive and emphasized self-cultivation through ethical rites and processes. Indeed, the Moksha of Upanishadic Hinduism and Jainism, the Nirvana of Buddhism, the Ataraxia of the ancient Greek philosophical schools, and the redemptive “putting on” of Christ for early Christians – these are nothing if not post-humanist and trans-humanist visions thorough which the individual transcends and transmutes his or her self.

The Ecstacy of St. Paul, Nicolas Poussin, Oil on Canvas 1643

Truth be told, for almost 2,000 years, the West has turned its back on post-humanist projects, and busied itself with the proper construction of man. Partly due to its Judaic heritage, partly inspired by the Hellenistic traditions (especially the Aristotelian and Platonic), the Christianized Roman Empire sought to establish its association with Truth not through rejection of man, but by placing him (and sometimes her) in a proper dialogical relationship with God, or The One.

Being the ultimate Other, the transcendent divine of Jewish, Christian and Muslim monotheism held within itself the Truth , and required any who wished to partake of it to look to “Him” for answers. This yearning “upward,” toward the transcendent, ceased in the first centuries of the Common Era to be actualized through mystical ascent and apotheosis for all but a very select elite, and for most believers meant instituting an inter-subjective and dialogical connection with the great Other, often through sacred texts and rituals.

Through a process that Hegel would later refer to as the master-slave dialectic, this double-ended relationship intensifies and empowers not only the master – in our case, the transcendent God – but also the slave – in our case, the religious human. The Western perception of the human being was configured as an autonomous individual in large part through its understanding of itself as a dialogical partner engaged in an intentional relationship with the divine Other.

Humanism thus owes many of its roots to the religious traditions of transcendent monotheism. It is against and toward the transcendent divine that Renaissance man, and later the Protestant reformers, laid down the first tracks of the humanist project, a project that even at its highest ideological point, arguably at the end of the 18th century with the American and French revolutions, relied on God for the origination and continual securing of (what was beginning to be called by then) human rights.

It is not hard to understand, then, why the decline and final fall of the transcendent, monotheistic God has presented the humanist vision with a fundamental challenge. The destruction of the transcendent idea, brought about by the consolidated processes of the rise of the naturalistic perception of the universe, the de-mystification of life caused by the scientific revolution and the augmentation of inner-worldly and subjective sources of morality and authority (such as rational-analytic thinking, or inner – “spontaneous” and “natural” – feelings and passions) made the idea of a transcendent God either unnecessary or unthinkable, and brought about wide-ranging unbelief, on the one hand, and a different kind of religion, on the other.

It is to that last kind of religion that I will turn now, as I would like to propose that it is the basis for both the modern spiritual search, as displayed in the contemporary spirituality milieu (sometimes referred to as “the New Age”), and to the different groups engaged in a trans-human soteriological quest, based on technological achievements and scientific, or quasi-scientific, assumptions.

Singularity and monotheism 

Now, when referring to the religious characteristics of the technological quest for the improvement and transcendence of man, I am not just addressing the obvious points of resemblance between ideas such as Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” and monotheistic Messianism. As can be understood by the title of Kurzweil’s 2005 book “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” there is not even an attempt to camouflage the clearly Messianic patterns of discourse.

I am also not speaking about groups such as the Raëlists, the Immortalists, the technopagans or the Luciferians, all of which have distinct religious themes and characteristics, and display clear and even conscious use of religious symbols and ideals.

I am referring rather to the structure of this religious quest, its form more than its content. For it is the form of religion that has fundamentally changed over the last few centuries in the West, leading to a process of secularization that is much more post-theism than a-theism. By post-theism, I mean a religion that is not centered around the grand old monotheistic transcendent king, but one that is concerned with what Foucault would call “the care of the self.” It is a religion that manifests itself less as a communal faith, based on collective rituals and rules of social conduct, and more as a personal spiritual quest, or in a word: an ethic.

It is not, then, only a matter of free choice and the private fashioning of the faith. The turn from traditional organized religion toward an individual voluntary one is also the turn from traditional ritual and law toward the individual’s concern with his or her own spiritual perfectibility. It is this change that we must note well, for it is this which ties the contemporary spiritual scene to the post- and trans-human projects at this time.

Now, to understand this religious metamorphosis, we must appreciate the dramatic consequences of the loss of the transcendental monotheistic god. Note that the assumption of a transcendental source of authority and truth is closely associated with a binary view of reality that presents clear dichotomies between presumed opposites such as this world and the next, nature and man, matter and spirit, body and soul, and man and woman. Moreover, in order to appropriately obey our God, we must fully embrace only one part of each binary couple, and seek divine truth by rejecting the latter and yearning, as it were, up and away from our earthly existence.

The elimination of the transcendent God has made this-worldly reality the focus of our religious life. It is in our present condition that we seek truth and redemption, through the phenomenal world as we see it, be it nature, our body, our mind or our feelings. A system of ethics, which regularly includes moral tenets and meditation practices, is supposed to bring us, by adherence to it, to full realization of religious redemption (whether spiritual liberation, emotional balance, or unification with nature).

In a way, this is a return to the transformative type of religiosity displayed by St. Paul, as mentioned above, and by Hellenistic Epicureanism and Stoicism, Upanishadic Hinduism and some strands of Buddhism. It is also the type of spiritual life we can sometimes find in the mystical traditions of the West, such as Sufism, Kabbalah, neo-Platonism and Hermeticism. What makes the current state of affairs in the West revolutionary in this respect is the magnitude and prevalence of this religious logic. From being the esoteric approach of a distinct elite, it has become the obvious and evident religiosity of the masses. Indeed, it is the dialogical “covenant” made with a transcendent God that has become a rarity in contemporary Western culture (though more in Europe than in the U.S. and Israel, of course).

I see trans-humanism, being the view that humans can and should (be permitted to) use technology to transform the human organism, as a specific creed within this major religious current. As with many New Age spiritual paths, it aimes to improve the individual condition in order to achieve superhuman goals, such as extended memory, bionic strength, full immunity to disease and even immortality. It thus offers a way towards private redemption, the difference from most of contemporary spirituality being that instead of a practical rule of ethics, it uses advanced technology for that purpose.

But the effort to improve and transcend the human condition is mutual. As Patrick Hopkins writes in an article entitled “Transcending the Animal: How Transhumanism and Religion Are and Are Not Alike”:

I see transhumanism as a reaction to the perceived oppressive and disappointing limitations of given human nature. Like religion – but unlike accepting or coping secular humanism – transhumanists want strongly to transcend the animal and actively work toward doing so. Unlike merely hoping that transcendence can occur, transhumanists aggressively pursue the physical practices, the technologies, that could make transcendence a reality.

What I would add to Hopkins’ account is that this specific type of religion, in which active effort is made to transcend the human “animal” in this very life, was, as stated earlier, quite rare in the West during the last two millennia, and has only since the second half of the 20th century become a wide-ranging, mass phenomenon. I wish to note that trans-humanism is located as a specific stream within this mass phenomenon.

The strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor

And yet, there is a fundamental difference between the varied trans-humanist projects and the various spiritual paths, and it is this difference that eventually directs these enterprises toward quite opposite routes. We must remember that for almost all the religious mystical paths, transcending the human body was closely tied with transcending the human self. As St. Paul proclaims in the opening quote: “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

For Epicureanism, Ataraxia was achieved by understanding that the self is no more than a conflation of material particles, and not an ethereal soul. For strands of Hinduism, Moksha was realized when the individual understood that the Atman was in fact not the personal self, but identical with the one universal Brahman. For Buddhism, the goal was to realize that there is no separate self at all, and for different Hasidic courts, the self was the Godhead itself. Indeed, one could define the mystical quest (and I heard this brilliant definition from Moshe Halbertal) as the very process of gradual or abrupt de-selfization and de-individuation. These patterns of purpose and intention are still maintained within contemporary spirituality circles today.

In contrast to this, the trans-humanist project seeks to maintain the very same human self that exists at the outset of its path. That self may be improved upon, made stronger or smarter, may even be immortalized, but it will not be essentially changed, and definitely not annulled. I see this as a principal distinction between these two projects of “care of the self,” and as a strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor.

The reason I see this as a fundamental mistake on the part of the trans-humanists (judging from their point of view, at least so long as they want to forward human freedom), is because the self that is imagined to be improved upon and immortalized is no more than a particular human cultural construct, specifically being the rational analytical self of the Enlightenment, itself a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul. This view of the human self was presented explicitly first by Rene Descartes, and fully developed in the works of Emanuel Kant. Taking this self to be the true or real human self is erroneous, and disastrous for any work built on that assumption.

To give a quick example of this assumption I would like to take two recent movies: “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze, and Wally Pfister’s “Transcendence.” In both these films, a human or human-like intelligence is “uploaded” or created to or in a computer. This intelligence acts as a sentient being, or in simple words – a self. On the other hand, this trans-human self has no physical body, and “moves” through cyberspace at will.

I propose this view of matters, shared by many post- and trans-humanists, is totally false, and is built, as said, on the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul. As with the Judeo-Christian soul, it does not take into account the unbreakable bond between our mind and our body. I am not arguing that only brain tissue – and not silicon chips – can produce consciousness. I’m not a substance chauvinist and certainly believe that, as the saying goes, “it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.”

What I am saying is that our consciousness is dependent on our body to understand itself as well as to function. I cannot go into this in proper length, and will just stress that we are embodied creatures and only through the body can we make sense of ourselves and our world. That is why we use our hands while talking, even on the phone. That is why we think better while walking. That is why our languages are filled with metaphors of space and time in order to comprehend mind and spirit. Indeed, even words like “superhuman” and “trans-human” are spatial metaphors, and “post-human” a temporal one.

In the film “Her,” the protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix, makes love to his artificial intelligent partner, and she actually has an orgasm – without a body. I think the very fundamental ways in which our body affects our feelings, emotions and consciousness and in which these are dependent on it are mistakenly ignored in this post-human fantasy.

To understand how much we are indebted to the Judeo-Christian soul when we imagine an out-of-body consciousness, I would like to suggest we try to imagine a cow’s consciousness being uploaded to a supercomputer. At first glance, it must be considered easier to upload a cow’s consciousness to a computer than that of a human, a cow’s consciousness being that much simpler. But we are unsuccessful in imagining a cow’s “self” living a virtual life within cyberspace. I believe we are unsuccessful in this because we grant special status to the human mind, and that because our view of it is, as said, the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul.

When the female protagonist in “Transcendence” (played by Rebecca Hall) talks about her partner (Johnny Depp) and claims that “his mind is a pattern of electrical signals … we can upload his consciousness,” she is simply using pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to secularize the idea of a separate soul, able to disconnect from the body. When her partner accomplishes said uploading and claims “my mind has been set free,” he is plainly delivering the trans-human secularized version of the “hallelujah” shouted by the religious individual reborn in Christ.

The view of the self in much of trans-humanism, is, then, no other than a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul, thrust through the prism of the Enlightenment and “technologized,” as it were, to update it for the 21st century. It is a particular view of the human self, time and culturally bound, and quite oblivious – as its archetype, the soul, was – to the fundamental and unbreakable tie between the mind and the body.

Following this philosophical blunder – another. This view of the human self is static within the trans-human project, meaning it is not to be changed or transformed, even while the human body is changed or transformed “around” it. This is fundamentally different, as stated earlier, from the dynamic view of the self in different spiritual traditions, a self going through metamorphosis.

Here we come to another principal difference within these two currents of the contemporary endeavor for the transcendence of man. As C.S. Lewis put it as early as 1944 in his The Abolition of Man:

For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

Or, we would say today, technology. And it is those wishes of man, subduing reality, that also disclose the ethical bankruptcy of trans-humanism, for when those wishes are fulfilled they will set human life in one determinate direction. Thus, changing reality instead of ourselves, we will perpetuate the dictatorship of our self as it is today, reducing choices and options for alternative lifestyles and setting the standard for any human existence to come.

As C.S. Lewis says, these future men will be “weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands, we have pre-ordained how they are to use them.” Without changing our selves, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

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The article was presented as a lecture last month in a conference titled Oh Man Oh Machine: The Politics & Aesthetics of Posthumanism, Tel Aviv University. It was published yesterday in Haaretz.

The Ban on Circumcision and How Europe is Denying its Past

Earlier this month the Council of Europe (an international human rights organisation consisting of EU 47 countries whose decisions are of declarative force only) published an announcement regarding “children’s right to physical integrity”. In the announcement the Council came out against various form of intentional bodily harm to children, such as piercing, tattoos, plastic surgery, sex reassignment surgeries in inter-sexed children (something that deserves an article in itself), female genital mutilation (aka “female circumcision”), and male circumcision.

Of course, the last item on the list gave the signal for typical Jewish hysteria. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, declared (Heb) that this is a “new antisemitism”; the Israeli Minister of the Interior, Gideon Saar, also thinks (Heb) it’s “antisemitism”; Dr. Eli Schussheim, Head of the Circumcision committee at the Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Health, cried out (Heb) that it is “a plot to spiritually annihilate the Jewish People,” while Foireign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor ruled (Heb) that this is “Horrid ignorance, at best, or libel and religious hatred at worst”. Great job.

The debate concerning circumcision is rich with meaning and constitutes a rare intersection of diverse world-views and value-maps. This is why I find it fascinating not only due to its pragmatical angle (will the Jews of Europe be able to circumcise their sons or not, etc,), but because it teaches us about far-reaching social, ethnic and ideological processes underway in Western society. I have written before (Heb) about the post-humanist aspect of banning circumcision. Now I’d like to touch upon its political and ideological aspects.

To start, a few clarifications: Does circumcision inflict permanent damage to the male sexual organ? I believe so. The spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, incidentally, says otherwise, and that there is “no scientific criteria” according to which damage can be proved. I don’t understand him. It is clear to me that removal of the foreskin changes the way the male has sex, and not for the better. On the other hand, is the damage significant? I believe not. I happen to be a circumcised male myself and can attest that everything, thank god, works perfectly fine. So: Does this negligible damage justify banning it? I believe not.

But the damage is not the story. The damage caused to the baby (or the man he will be) is not at the heart of the decision by the European Council. Proof of this can be found in the fact that all those people seeking to ban infant circumcision will stand, vehemently even, on the right of any adult to circumcise himself (or acquire a sex change operation, or plastic surgery, etc,). So the cutting of the genitalia and the damage to the body are not, in themselves, the problem. What is? The problem is that the circumcision is done without the consent and free choice of the baby.

And this is definitely a problem. On the other hand, circumcision is done without the consent of the baby just as many things are done without his or her consent: He or she receives certain food and no other, lives in a certain place and no other, learns a certain language but not another, is sent to a certain kindergarten and school and no other, where he receives a certain education and no other. In addition, parents raise their children to believe in the existence of God / his only begotten crucified son / his special chosen people / the holy virgin / dialectical materialism / the hidden hand / an endless, meaningless universe.

All of the above, done without the consent of the baby and child, shape his life more significantly than the foreskin present or missing from his penis. Even if one believes that the removal of the foreskin causes not slight but severe damage to the sex organ (and this really is unsupported by science), the damage of a bad education is greater. Education is irreversible, just as learning a language, or having a childhood in general. What our parents gave us will accompany us for the rest of our days. Therefore, there is no sense in legally banning circumcision, unless we intend to also ban raising children according to beliefs we don’t like.

Circumsision in ancient Egypt

Human Dignity

But let’s leave all that aside. Let’s say we have shown that focusing on circumcision and ignoring education, beliefs and so on is somewhat inconsistent, perhaps even dishonestly so. I wouldn’t want to defend circumcision just by showing its opponents to be hypocritical. I would like to positively explain why it is important to allow those interested to maintain the ceremony, through an ethical argument stemming from the matter itself. In order to do so I would like to more closely examine the matter of free choice. In other words, why is it a problem that the baby cannot choose to be circumcised? Why are consent and free choice so important to us? A worthy question, is it not?

So. why does free choice attain an almost sanctified position in our eyes, to the point where liberals and libertarians will insist on the rights of perfect strangers to do drugs or sell themselves as prostitutes as long as they truly chose to do so? I think it is so important to us because free choice, our autonomy, our use of will, our freedom to decide one way or the other – all these are essential things that define us, that ground our identity and our dignity, our self regard.

In other words, one of the sources of our own identity nowadays is our free will, and this is why it is considered almost sacred. So much so that we are willing to give up values we care about, and feel unpleasant, just so others can express their free will (up to a point, of course).

Now, here’s something interesting: for many people, even today, religious beliefs, religious traditions and the right to chose them and act upon them are also among the things that define them, their identity and their self-regard. One’s religious faith is among the essential parts of his or her inner life. Therefore, he or she greatly desires to be allowed to live by it and express it. This is also why he or she will sometimes be willing to die for it.

This is not new, but what is new is that in our era liberal democracy recognizes the importance of faith (or lack thereof) to the individual, and therefore insists on religious freedom within its boundaries, letting everyone express their belief – or disbelief – allowing no religious or ideological coercion. Because our religious – or agnostic, or atheistic – persuasions are such an important part of what defines us, what constitutes our identity and dignity, religious freedom is so important to us, and is protected by liberal democracy.

Back to circumcision. When we approach the matter, it wouldn’t be right to weigh freedom of choice against unjustified bodily harm. In such a case obviously we would uphold choice and forbid the bodily harm, even if negligible. But we need, for a moment, to enter the mind of the upholders of tradition. If we take their faith seriously, and we must, we see that there are highly important values on both sides: on the one hand, freedom of choice, denied to the baby; on the other, religious and communal identity, given to him by parents allowed to do so. This is part of the package his parents wish to bequeath unto him, to bring him up by. This is part of the elements of their identity, their self-respect. It’s an essential part of themselves, no less than their free choice. So if we see it thus, both sides of the debate carry values it is important to all of us to preserve.

And now we must decide – which of the two tips the scale? Had the harm to baby been severe, or the social/ethical context been oppressive and degrading (degrading and oppressing what? The very same human dignity we’re trying to defend; the very same human dignity for which we also defend freedom of expression!), then I would think that banning it is justified, even at the cost of denying the parents their freedom of religion.

Is this the case? I think not. I don’t think infant circumcision is problem-free. Definitely not. But I think one can say that in the end the harm done is limited, and the context non-oppressive, and therefore I don’t think that freedom of choice justifies banning the action, which represents such an important element in the lives of those believing in its religious significance. Why? Because it assaults their dignity and the essential values of their lives no less, and I believe far more, than un-chosen circumcision harms the baby’s self-regard.

One more small thing: there’s no point in yelling that there is no god. We will not decide for others what to believe. We will in fact accord them the freedom to believe as they choose, and keep whatever tradition they see fit (within certain boundaries, of course, not to be discussed here). And we require that in the name of their faith or tradition our own freedom of choice would not be limited, nor harm done to our beliefs or the values at the basis of our world-views and self respect.

Isaacs Circumcision as depicted in the Regensburg Pentateuch, Germany 1300

Europe

So what’s up with these Europeans? First of all, I do not believe antisemitism is involved here (the enthusiasm with which it is thrown into every discussion is pathetic). The motive is something else entirely: What we have here is high moral sensitivity (which can be observed in the spread of vegetarianism and veganism – note that the opponents of circumcision also express a worthwhile moral principle and motivation), along with an anti-clerical, anti-theistic tendency, prevalent in current-day Europe, mixed with some confusion.

The spirit of the French revolution is returning, wishing to cleanse the land of religious manifestations. It focuses on acts and attire because that is much easier than banning beliefs. The Council of Europe also spoke about piercing and so on, but we should monitor whether the places that are advancing actual legislation to ban circumcision are also moving to bar parents from piercing their children’s ears or allow them to have tattoos. If not, this is a sign that what the legislator is annoyed at is not the damage to the body, but the impetus to the damage, in our case religious belief. This is, therefore, an attempt to harm the religious freedom of Europeans.

But wait, aren’t there things we’ll ban even though banning them would harm religious freedom? Of course there are. For instance, female genital mutilation. And why? Because by and large it entails much (much) greater damage to the genitalia, and even more importantly, because the context (as I mentioned before) is utterly different: in the case of male circumcision, it is about acceptance of the boy to the community, an enhancement to his dignity and to his social importance. Female circumcision is part of an array of means to suppress woman and control her body; it reduces her dignity and her social standing.

One of the articles on the matter in Hebrew noted that “many of the delegates supported amending the motion so that it won’t include a mention of the parents’ religious rights.” I believe this is the story. The attempt to erase the recognition of citizens’ religious rights. And I find this astonishing. It’s astonishing because by doing so Europe denies its roots. Not its religious roots, but its democratic ones, since the formation of European democracy was based among other things on recognition of the essential place held by religious beliefs in the individual’s life and with the intent of enabling individuals of differing religious beliefs to live together. Religious pluralism – stemming from deep recognition of the value of religion – was one of the building stones of European democracy (although less so than the American version, and not at all in revolutionary France). Therefore these testimonys (and one can add the French “Burqa Law” here) of denying this heritage mark an interesting process.

Jesus's circumsision, Master of Tucher Altarpiece, 15th century

Please note: All of the above is critique of a proposed law banning circumcision. I have nothing against people trying to persuade others not to perform the procedure, and therefore of course nothing against people, Jews included, who do not wish to perform it. I am speaking here only of the right of those who do want, out of traditional-religious considerations, to perform it.

Calderon’s Speech and the Meaning of Secularization

The two weeks that have passed since Knesset Member Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) gave her maiden speech from the Knesset dais may just be sufficient time to assess its cultural impact – which is indeed significant. The speech, which was viewed on Youtube alone by nearly two hundred thousand people, famously included a Talmudic story which Calderon used to interpret current events, and also praise for the discipline of studying the Talmud, which Calderon claims has changed her life. Reactions to the Talmudic speech tended to two extremes: Some were most receptive to the inclusion of religious and traditional elements, and some were repulsed. Those repulsed also came in two flavors – ultra-orthodox speakers from the right, who viewed Calderon’s actions as an expropriation and a secularization of that which should remain sanctified, and secular-atheists from the left, who saw the speech as an expropriation of the secular legislature for the sake of a religious sermon.

In this sense, Calderon’s speech is an excellent case study in the boundaries of religious discourse in the Israeli public sphere. Having been delivered from the Knesset dais it is perforce representative. Like a Shiatsu artist applying precise touch to the pressure points of the body politic, the result of this touch are groans and growls, and each limb has its own distress. Thus while Ofri Ilani of the well known blog “Land of the Emorite” finds (Heb) proof in the speech that “Yesh Atid” is a party of evangelists, and Uri Misgav sees it as yet another manifestation of the secular public’s “routine bowing of the knee” before Religious Zionism, the editorial board of ultra-orthodox website “Kikar Hashabat” fears that it represents “a new enlightenment” and “an existential threat” to the Haredi public, and Rabbi Eliyahu Zeyni is most accurate in seeing Calderon’s speech as a secularization of the Talmud, and as a move intended to put an end to the hegemony of the “strident” orthodoxy.

Ruth Calderon on the Knesset dies

In order to explain why the religious sensitivity of the observant speakers correctly identified that which the short secular fuse on the free side failed to recognize, we must discuss the essence of secularization. It is well known that one of the central characteristics of the modern age is the secularization process, part of which is the separation of Church and State. Secularization means the transfer of power and authority from religious sources to secular ones. We all live in a world in which the monopoly on knowledge, political authority and even moral authority are no longer in the hands of religious entities. Authority over these important fields of the human condition have been shifted to science, to the nation-state, and to the individual conscience, among others.

This process was conceived during the Protestant Reformation, and it reached its Bar Mitzvah, so to speak, with the enlightenment, at the end of the 18th century. In the 19th century, while the process was in its cock-sure adolescence, some European intellectuals erred in thinking that what they were experiencing was part of a linear, deterministic process, at the end of which all of humanity will divest itself – privately as well as publicly – of the burden of religious faith. This was to bring about the certain end of religion, and the death and burial of God without so much as a Kadish. Thus was born the confusing conflation of secularization and atheism, that is to say the belief that stripping religion of public power necessarily means obliterating it as a private human element.

Today, as secularization stands before us as a ripe adult, we can easily see that this formulation is not correct. In the 1970’s it was already obvious that the rumors of the death of religion were somewhat premature. The secularization process is indeed underway at a brisk pace, but secularization does not in fact mean atheization, and religion is not obliterated. Instead, as a flexible and sophisticated organism, it adjusts to the new conditions. Proper understanding of the process of secularization was reinforced in the early 21st century, when terror acts by fundamentalist Muslim groups on the one hand emphasized that modern society is not at liberty to dismiss religion, and concurrently important and disparate western thinkers (Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas) began to question the wisdom of ignoring traditional culture troves while attempting to create a healthy society.

To return to Calderon’s speech, it seems that some of the secular watchers on the wall are still interpreting traditional-religious words as “religion” in its all-encompassing and authoritarian sense. On the other hand, it is obvious to the religious-traditional side that “religion” (in its old sense) is a matter of authority, obedience and commitment. Therefore they understood full-well that Calderon’s free use of those words is not intended to force them on the Knesset and make it “religious” but, quite to the contrary, to remove those words from their religious context and render them into a tool in the hands of the secular Knesset.

Who’s authority?

The error of Calderon’s detractor is therefore ironic: Her speech serves, first and foremost, those who wish to separate Church and State. That is to say, in the Israeli case, between Jewish Orthodoxy and the State of Israel. It stems from a failure to distinguish religious words from religious discourse. The words Calderon used were indeed religious, but the discourse in which she spoke was secular. Calderon translated the Talmud into a civic-political language. She did not come in the name of Halakha, but in her own name and that of her own values, while maintaining the authority over the text’s meaning. Thus she not only secularized the Talmud, but also retook a cultural treasure that for too long has lain in the rhetorical arsenal of one side only. This did also not go unnoticed by her religious detractors. This also worries them quite a bit.

Once again, it is important to note: Secularization of the Talmud does not mean that there is no religious link between Calderon and the text. There may very well be (Calderon described her own family in that speech as “religious”, using the non-Hebrew word to imply a spiritual intensity). Secularization, as I have mentioned above, means withdrawing authority over the religious text (as well as the religious sentiment, religious history, religious aspirations and so on) from a hierarchical religious establishment to the life and free choice of the individual. One can, once again, wonder why such a shift is not warmly welcomed by members of the secular left.

Civilization Without Culture

And perhaps it is not that perplexing. Is it possible that what bothers the detractors of Calderon’s speech is that they do actually deeply understand the thrust of her act, meaning that they understand that Calderon signifies a renewed interest among a rather large part of the public in what is known as “The Jewish Book-Case”? Is it possible that they believe that Israeli culture must be built solely from humanist-liberal building blocks devoid of all long-time cultural heritage (a heritage which has contributed greatly to the emergence of humanism and liberalism)?

It is odd, for in the circles of those condemning Calderon’s use of religion we can find men and women who are (justly) horrified by the actions of China in Tibet, to wit, the destruction of Tibetan culture and its supplanting with the unique communo-capitalist amalgam of the current Chinese regime. That seems to them to be a disaster, yet they view erasing all Jewish culture and exchanging it for a liberal (and economically neo-liberal) public sphere devoid of any cultural or religious characteristics as a wise move. These are the same people who will (rightly) click their tongues upon visiting India and witnessing the hyper-globalization underway across the sub-continent, trampling its uniqueness along the way and turning t into another “free market”, whose pantheon is inhabited solely by shopping and profits. This they view as cultural devastation, but turning Israel into another McDonald’s franchise seems to them like a goal worth fighting for. These are the people who will (rightly) mourn the loss of the primitive Australian Aboriginal culture, the disintegration of the Native American nations, the wiping out of hunter-gatherer cultures in the Amazon. They will stridently insist on the right of each of these to maintain a distinct cultural identity and the preservation of their spiritual and intellectual treasures. But at the creation of a Jewish identity and preservation of this culture – which is, after all, quite ancient – they will evince distaste.

This is not only a strange case of discrimination, but also a blindness to the human and so simple need for a “home-grown” identity and culture (yes, the same need felt by the Aborigines – have not others the right to feel that way?). And this need is not only psychological, but also, mostly, social and communal. For without a traditional source of values we shall soon be left only with the instrumental utilitarianism of the free market. Without an ethical array that gives the things around us value, soon they will be left only with the price-tag. Yes, we have humanism and liberalism, and we are lucky to have them; truly; But unfortunately I don’t think that these alone provide a juicy enough ideological framework and a sufficiently coalesced identity to enable the existence of a thriving society in our times. Have you checked recently what happened to the dream of a secular-rational-liberal-universal society? Well, let me put it this way: There’s an app for that.

I have no patience for religious one-upmanship, and the notion that Judaism is some unique religion, higher or more true than other religions is despicable in my view. On the other hand, the notion that we should (or can) cast aside cultural treasures built over millennia is in my eyes no less despicable. Jewish tradition holds much wisdom, as well as much idiocy. Both its wisdom and its idiocy are voices I would like to hear, examine and make a decision regarding them. As long as there is no coercion, the enrichment of public discourse can only be a blessing.

The separation of Church and State must be fought for resolutely, and the struggle is beginning to bear fruit, but this struggle does not end with the erasure of any and all religious expressions from the public sphere. Should it end thus, the public sphere would remain poor and vapid, useful only as a portal to another branch of a global coffee chain, its kitchen staffed by labor migrants and its door guarded by a temp worker making minimum wage. Tradition’s voice must be another voice heard, another voice we can choose to follow. This is precisely why it would be disastrous for this voice to remain heard only from the mouths of rabbis, and doubly so from rabbis such as Ovadiah Yosef, Dov Lior or Shmuel Eliyahu. In her speech, Calderon has contributed to the creation of a new traditional-modern voice, a secular-feminine counterweight to those who until recently held the monopoly on the Talmud. Calderon has made a fine contribution to the breaking of the old molds, and surely did not imagine that she of all people would be pressured so quickly back into them.

First published on Avi Chai site, 27.2.13. Translated by Rechavia Berman


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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