Posts Tagged 'capitalism'

Neo-Hasidism & Neo-Kabbalah in Israeli Contemporary Spirituality: The Rise of the Utilitarian Self

2014-07-24_14453922An academic article of mine was published yesterday in the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (ed. James R. Lewis), titled Neo-Hasidism & Neo-Kabbalah in Israeli Contemporary Spirituality: The Rise of the Utilitarian Self. To quote the first paragraph, I try "to explore the rise of what can be called ‘the utilitarian self’ in the contemporary spirituality arena in Israel. This social reality, which has its origins in the religious field of late nineteen century America, is in Judaic social circles quite a recent development, and has begun to play a significant part of Israeli contemporary spirituality only since the 1990’s. I would like to suggest that the proliferation of certain Neo-Kabbalah and Neo-Hasidic movements since the 1990’s is indicative of its rise. By examining these we can better understand the utilitarian self, which lies at their background and presents the cultural conditions for their popularity."

I use the works of current Orthodox Neo-Hasidic popularizes of the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Rabbis Israel Isaac Besancon and Erez Moshe Doron, to understand how the adjustments and modifications they had made to Rabbi Nachman’s Hitbodedut practice reflect the growing prominence of the utilitarian self as a religious reality. I then continue with the non-Orthodox Neo-Kabbalistic movements – Rabbi Philip Berg of the Kabbalah Centre and Rabbi Michael Laitman of Bnei Baruch – which fashion an up-to-date version of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s socialist Kabbalah, and also display such an interpretation of the spiritual path.

The article ends with an attempt to place the above analysis within a theoretical framework that seeks to understand the roots and development of the utilitarian self. I see it as a particular hybrid of the Romantic spirit and Enlightenment rationalism, joined together by the auspiciousness of capitalist instrumental reason. It represents the current fascination with finding ways – indeed "methods" or "techniques" – which will allow one to actualize and exercise her or his “hidden” or “unrealized” capabilities in order to undergo an inner transformation and maximize the external conditions of her or his life.

The article is part of a special issue of the journal dedicated to Israeli contemporary spirituality, edited by Shai Feraro. You can fine the entire issue here. My article can be downloaded here. I am not allowed to hand out the article itself, but its final vertion and full text are here in pdf, here in scribd and here in my academia.edu account.

Why I Support the Demand to Recognize Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People

Only on this trip, my ninth to Bangalore, did I suddenly notice the terrible ugliness of this city. I don’t mean the filth that ails any Indian city worthy of its name, but the shapelessness and lack of planning out of which this city has grown. And it has grown tremendously in recent years. After all, Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of India, its IT capital, and the choice of many companies, both domestic and Western, to base their headquarters. These attract a variety of associated service providers, hence the huge leap in its population. This growth turned it into a type of a huge patched-together transition zone. Furthermore, Bangalore doesn’t have the planned city center that Delhi, Kolkata, Madras or Mumbai do, and around which the city expands. There seem to be nothing but expansions. It’s like a contraption that’s constantly growing up and out; a village on steroids.

That was two months ago, when I was in India for an academic conference I had been invited to. I sat at a Bangalorean café with A., an old friend who works at Greenpeace India, sadly nodding my head as she told me about the horrors which she had been exposed to in her work. She talked mainly about the predatory nature of enormous mining companies that are well-versed in finding ways (legal or otherwise) to force villagers and various tribal groups off their lands the moment they find precious minerals in them. The utilitarian logic of the market pushes businesses to demolish more and more of India’s natural culture and heritage in order to maximize the bottom line; and what shall illiterate villagers do in face of the most efficient machine in the world? In India, the situation is taken to the extreme because of income and education gaps, as well as the Indians’ desire to beat China in the race to become the next superpower. To achieve this end, no sacrifice is too great.

“Either India will be rationalized or industrialized out of all recognition and she will be no longer India or else she will be the leader in a new world-phase, aid by her example and cultural infiltration the new tendencies of the West, and spiritualize the human race.” This was written by Sri Aurobindo, one of the greatest spiritual and political leaders of India in the twentieth century and beyond. Nowadays, it seems India has opted for the former choice. India is losing its Indian-ness, and replacing its cultural heritage with a hyper-capitalist race towards wealth and consumerism. A. and her friends who belong to the newly risen middle class live out an Indian knock-off of the Western affluent society. English is their mother tongue and they have no connection to the traditional Indian culture. That is also why they have no external criterion against which to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of Western culture.

I bring my evidence from overseas not in order to confuse the issue, but rather to present the global dimension of the problem which we, too, are facing: the erosion of domestic culture by market forces, which are experts in convincing us that we are merely autonomous productive-consumerist molecules with no need whatsoever for a community or a system of values other than utilitarianism. I do so to present another aspect which I think makes it important for us, like the people of India, to live in a country that fosters a particular culture.

The Nation-State of the Jewish People

That is one of the reasons why I support Netanyahu’s demand of the Palestinians to recognize the state of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. I think the notion that Israel is a Jewish nation state does not contradict the principles of liberal democracy and does not necessitate the denial of human and civil rights from minorities living in the country (although extra care must be taken in the implementation of this notion, of course). A Jewish state would allow the Jewish people self-determination as well as the full opportunity to develop its culture. In my opinion, not only are the Jewish people entitled to this, but it is in their best interest, and is of importance as a contribution to human culture as a whole.

Naturally, there are different considerations here that must be taken into account other than the social advantages. My baseline assumption is that peoples have a right to self-determination and cultural autonomy. These are not exactly equivalent to founding an independent state, but it is the most common and probably most efficient way to guarantee these rights. Specifically as far as Jews in the Land of Israel are concerned, it seems that without a state of their own it will be difficult for them to live as a thriving cultural community (or live at all). Just like the Palestinians have a right to a state of their own, so do the Jews. In these states, as said above, those people shall fashion their own identity and culture.

Now, it’s not that simple, of course. Judaism, as we know, is not only a nationality, but also a religion. Some claim it is only a religion, and therefore its people don’t have the right to political independence. In my opinion, they are ignoring the simple facts, which are that most Jews, surely most Jews in the Land of Israel, see their Jewishness as having a clear ethnic component – even a national character – which is sometimes a lot stronger than the religious one. Denying most Jews’ self-perception is equivalent to the denial of most Palestinians’ self-perceptions by those who claim that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” Both are trying to impose their opinions onto reality, and are acting in an undemocratic manner, mistreating the aspirations of large groups of people.

On the other hand, the religious dimensions of Judaism are certainly clear (meaning, it is also a religion), and I don’t think that religions (as opposed to peoples) have a right to political independence. The case of Judaism is therefore unusual. Still, it is not unique. It seems to me that we wouldn’t protest if India (or Tibet, or Armenia), as a country with which a specific religious community affiliates itself, were to preserve the religious character of its primary nation within the civil framework of its independent state (official language, anthem, flag, holidays and days of rest, content of study in schools etc.) while, of course, preserving the rights of the religious minorities living in it (Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Jews etc.), and granting them cultural autonomy.

Obviously there is no intention here to establish a theocracy (God forbid), but rather to give voice in the public sphere to the religion and culture of an absolute majority of residents within a specific piece of land. In fact, the Dalai-Lama’s demand to China is exactly that: to grant his country at the very least cultural autonomy (if not independence), so that it can preserve the Buddhist characteristic of Tibet and the Tibetan-Buddhist religion and culture as a whole. Does he not deserve it?

In short, I see no flaw in the establishment of a Jewish nation state in the Land of Israel so long as the individual and community rights of the minorities in it are preserved. (They will, admittedly, have to tolerate living as a national cultural minority, and no doubt some of their interests will be compromised.) The opponents will insist that nation states must not have a particular religious character, even if it happens that this religion forms the culture and identity of the said nation. Meaning, in the name of separation of religion and state, nationalities that happen to have a defining religion (like the Tibetan, Indian, Armenian or Jewish nations) are expected to give up their culture and establish a state devoid of a particular cultural identity. Not only is this notion totally unrealistic, but in my view, as stated, also undesirable, since different cultures and different religions preserve society, enrich the world and contribute to humanity. A world without a Buddhist-Tibetan state would be a poorer one.

Finally, it seems to me that opposing the idea of the Jewish state mostly comes not out of a desire to defend the rights of different minorities, but the wish to secularize the public sphere, strip it of any religious characteristic, and maybe even turn the State of Israel into a European democracy devoid of any ethnic-religious-cultural uniqueness. This is a legitimate stance, whose advantages and disadvantages are open to discussion, and yet it should be presented as such. It is unfair to disguise this stance under the concern, valid as it may be, for protecting the rights of minorities. It is also unfair to support the rights of Indians or Tibetans to preserve their culture-religion and oppose the rights of Jews to do so.

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Originally published in my Hebrew Blog, Translated by Eyal Sherf and Dror Kamir – http://sherftranslations.com

Finally, Some Jewish Self-help Books

Parasha ve’isha: Limud Nashi Leparashat Ha’shavua, Yemima Mizrachi. Yedioth Ahronoth Books, 143 pp., NIS 118

Neviot: He’arot, Etzot vetovanot Hameshivot et Harua’h Al Pi Mishnato shel Harav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, edited and elucidated by Yuval Freund. Yedioth Ahronoth Books, 150 pp., NIS 98

Tzohar Le’asakim: Parashat Hashavua b’re’I Iski, Nihuli umanhiguti, edited by Itamar Mor. Danny Books, 408 pp., NIS 118

At the beginning of the 20th century a new and original genre became widespread in the United States: “Self-Help” books. These books offered readers a colorful array of useful advice, and outlined paths to scoring achievements in a particular field that was generally mentioned in the title. The most famous of these books was Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which has sold more than 15 million copies to date and gave rise to many successful imitations.

Quite a few of these titles, which star on bestseller lists to this day, deal with financial advice, but there is no need to turn to these to understand that the capitalist, utilitarian logic is the spirit blowing through the genre as a whole. Life is presented in Self-Help books as a development project, with the reader as its facilitator and operational contractor. He must attack his life vigorously, mine its resources and get as much net profit out of it as possible. If need be, he can and should lay off useless departments such as moderation, sensitivity and common sense. “Democracy introduces an industrial spirit into literature,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed back in the mid-19th century, and de Tocqueville is right, as usual.

Most Self-Help books relied on the assumption (whose roots are to be found in the Romantic movement) that man possesses inner resources he must discover and exteriorize. Therefore the advice they offered usually revolved around the ways and methods to dredge up those hidden treasures. A human being is called upon to find within himself courage, determination or creativity, which he or she had no idea existed, but which the book explained that even if these had gone undetected until now, the hidden stores are nothing less than their deepest, innermost self.

The notion that redemption begins from within built its home on the basis of the modern individualism and ideal of independence and economic initiative characteristic of American culture. Together with the spirit of invention and technological innovation, Self-Help books gave their readers a feeling that not only in the economic sphere, but in each and every area of life is to be found “a method” that will make it possible to manipulate the data, and ultimately maximize profits.

Inevitably, self-help books began to be written in the religious-spiritual realm as well. This domain is not limited to systematic instructions for the most effective ways to communicate with the upper worlds, but often involved advice that is based on religious and traditional sources, but is actually meant to assist us in secular areas. As an example of this we can cite more than 50(!) different titles in English alone that proclaim they teach “the Tao of” (parenting, gardening, sexuality, cooking, business). These books profess to glean insights from the ancient Chinese tradition to improve the quality of our Western lives in the present.

Everything, as you know, makes its way to us belatedly, but the good news is that not only hath Israel not been forsaken by his God, but he has been bequeathed a fortune. In recent years it appears that Israeli Judaism has finally joined the trend, and self-help books based on the wisdom of Jewish tradition crowd bookstore shelves. Yedioth Ahronoth Books is the clear leader in this market segment, a fact that corresponds to its overall, and praise-worthy, efforts to enrich the Jewish bookcase with many and diverse offerings. Two years ago this publisher came out with a book (in Hebrew) bearing a subtitle that leaves no room for doubt as to the book’s role in the genre in question: “Once a Week: Insights and Self-Empowerment from the Portion of the Week,” by Aharoni Berenstein. The ways to draw insights and self-empowerment from the weekly Torah portion have only grown more numerous since then.

The Stress of Women’s Liberation

Yemima Mizrachi's bookThe new book by Rebbetzin Yemima Mizrachi, :“Parasha ve’isha: Limud Nashi Leparashat Ha’shavua” (“Portion and Woman: Feminine Study of the Portion of the Week”) is a fine example of this. Mizrachi is one of the most prominent of the popular spiritual women leaders in the field of Judaism in Israel. She is a lawyer and rabbinical pleader by training, and today she gives lessons on Jewish tradition and the weekly Torah portion all over the country. Thousands of women subscribe to her mailing list, and the gatherings she holds always draw a big crowd. As may be learned from her new book, the weekly portions serve her as a pliant and productive base on which to offer advice and insights that contribute to the empowerment of her disciples.

This is Mizrachi’s first book on the weekly Torah portion, and it is limited to the first two books of the Pentateuch – Genesis and Exodus. The motto may be distilled from the introduction: “Everyone is a treasure of wisdom, but it must not remain hoarded. In order for the wisdom to be affected and to affect connecting feminine study is required.” Our inner wisdom can be uncovered, then, with the help of the weekly portion, and Mizrachi does this with great wit and creativity. But the study required here, as stated, is feminine. According to Mizrachi this refers to study “that emerges from the chambers of the heart and hearth, different from the hum of studying that rises from the benches of the yeshivas. Women simply study differently.”

What does this feminine study look like in practice? According to Mizrachi’s book it entails using the Biblical narratives to understand how one ought to await a match, manage relationships and raise children. The portion “Hayei Sarah,” for example, deals with problems of couples’ relationships, “Toldot” – with parenting, “Miketz” teaches us that being chubby is perfectly fine, and “Vayigash” elucidates the importance of crying. In general, feelings and managing them are the main topic one can learn from the weekly portions, and eliciting them from the Biblical text known for its stinginess when it comes to sentimental expression is no mean feat.

Mizrachi delivers her commentary with great talent, and it is not hard to understand why she is so popular. On several occasions in her book she emphasizes women’s superiority over men, and yet at the same time never for a moment challenges the traditional division into gender roles. A Woman’s business is in the home, and the home is the business of women. When “women’s liberation” is mentioned, we learn that this process is responsible for our stress and fears. But this too is for the best. “What is the role of fear? First of all, to reveal to you how much strength you have. You are awesome!”

Rav Kook’s Wisdom du jour

Yuval Freund’s edition of Rav KookThe very same bit of advice may be learned from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook: “Many times the cataclysmic situations teach man about himself (….) The acquisition of new traits in the difficult periods causes a great and sophisticated increase afterward.” That is Yuval Freund’s interpretation of an excerpt from “Orot Hakodesh,” in which Rav Kook explains that, “from the depths of the abyss you must draw forth precious pearls. Then you will rise and renew your abilities, in strength and tranquility.”

The title of the book “Neviot: He’arot, Etzot vetovanot Hameshivot et Harua’h Al Pi Mishnato shel Harav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook,” makes it clear that here too is a self-help book that culls its life wisdom from the field of religion. This time not the weekly Torah portion but Rav Kook has been chosen to restore our spirit. Freund’s explications look out upon the rabbi’s words on the facing page, whereas the words of Rav Kook are arranged in short lines and centered, like poetry. Here too the guiding principle is mining the treasures hidden in the depths of the soul: “In man (…) there are great and enormous spiritual powers of an entirely different order, which he must appreciate and respect,” Freund writes.

Rav Kook is easy to translate into romantic selfhood, for he himself was greatly influenced by the Romantic movement. However, for decades the message that was delivered from his letters was purely national and messianic. The reason for the transition to the language of sentiment in this case is not merely the awakening of this genre – religious Self-Help books – but also the growing competition between Rav Kook and Rabbi Nachman for the hearts of youngsters in knitted-skullcaps. The emotional language and psychological insights of the tzadik from Breslov are winning over many souls in religious Zionist circles, and the latter have decided to fight back. Envy among scribes generates wisdom – in this case it’s more like street smarts

Rav Kook is a giant thinker and outstanding poet, and his words presented in this book are inspiring. Praise is due to the compiler, Yuval Freund, who was not afraid to bring also excerpts that might jeopardize the readers’ automatic allegiance to the Halakha, or Jewish law. Rav Kook calls, among other things, for deviating from the familiar structures and listening to our inner voice. The tension between the inner voice and obedience to the heteronomic Halakha should be obvious, and for anyone interested in unquestioning loyalty to tradition a certain risk is inherent in bringing such things from the mouth of such an authority. Advice on coping with this inner conflict, incidentally, is not included in the book.

The Spirit of Capitalism in the Weekly Torah Portion

Tzohar Le’asakimWe return to the weekly Torah portion with another title that represents a similar spirit: “Tzohar Le’asakim: Parashat Hashavua b’re’I Iski, Nihuli umanhiguti.” This book is a collection of short articles by some of the rabbis from the Tzohar organization, including its stars: Rabbis Yuval Cherlow, David Stav and Shai Piron (currently the Israeli Minister of Education). It should be mentioned that women are not absent from this volume and have penned several of the articles in it. As the book’s title suggests, in this case the weekly Torah portion serves as a source of insights into the business world.

The book is essentially an anthology of articles that were sent over the past decade to a list of Israeli businesspeople. The mailing list in question is the brainchild of Eran Rolls, a businessman who describes himself as someone with “a transparent skullcap” or “a religiously observant secular person,” and is himself one of the varied fruits of the Jewish renaissance in the country. Rolls initiated a weekly mailing of the portion of the week to his distribution list, which kept growing as the years went by.

The advice is nothing you could not guess in advance. Initiative, persistence, creativity, determination, taking advantage of opportunities, and originality – the weekly Torah portion teaches us all of these to assist our success in business. To the Tzohar rabbis’ credit, they seek to advance not only the personal success of their readers, but also the employment conditions of those employed by them. Many articles emphasize the moral dimension of the business world, and demand that the reader turn his attention also to the ethical implications of his actions.

The Utility of Sentiment

The examples cited above indicate a gradually expanding trend of Jewish Self-Help books, or in other words: the assimilation of Jewish tradition into the main trends in the global book market. Moreover, the books mentioned here are not only representatives of Self-Help books, but also expressions of a broad cultural movement that presents increased preoccupation with our emotional life, and an emphasis on a utilitarian worldview. It is a crossbreeding of the romantic inclination to find uniqueness, authenticity and meaning within us with the instrumental logic of the capitalist market. This match leads to a rich supply of “methods” and “systems” with whose help we will put into practice the hidden lights in our inner selves.

That isn’t necessarily bad, of course, and perhaps there really are within us hidden dimensions and unseen potential powers. But we should pay attention to this process, in which both tradition and the Jewish bookcase become raw material in the hands of the market, and translate themselves into the patterns of that same familiar utilitarian logic. Interestingly, fundamentalist religion, in Afghanistan or Mea She’arim, is one of the few foci today of stubborn resistance to capitalist globalization. It resists a lot of other things too, but it is possible that precisely by posing a determined alternative, which expresses a different worldview and a different logic, it invites us to learn something very important about ourselves; something no less important than how to wait patiently for a decent match or how to close the next deal.

Published in the literary supplement of Haaretz.

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

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