Posts Tagged 'Charles Taylor'

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Werther, we must

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

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

Close game with truth – and death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Romanticiam to Religious Zionism

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ethics of Authenticity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Published in Haaretz

Gandhi, Sartre, the Depths of Violence

Between the years 1893 and 1914, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (later known as the Mahatma, or “Great Soul”), was living in South Africa, and it is then he formed his personality and his political and spiritual path, becoming a social and spiritual leader. Gandhi’s book, Satyagraha In South Africa, recently published in Hebrew (Babel Press, tr. Matan Kaminer) was written about the struggles he led as a local labor leader of the Indian migrant worker community there. It was through these activities that Gandhi consolidated his non-violent struggle principles, which he called Satyagraha. Decades later he would use this path in the fight for Indian independence from British rule. In South Africa he uses Satyagraha to force the British imperialist machine to acquiesce to the demands of the local Indian laborers for fair treatment.

Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore

Satyagraha means “Holding on to truth”, and is a principle rooted in ancient Indian culture, and to which Gandhi gave a modern rendering. The idea is that the truth – which here is not just the facts as they are, but the proper deed, action according to one’s karma, preordained role and ego-less work – has a power of its own, and those who hold on to it steadfastly, even at the cost of personal suffering, are assured of victory. In fact, the suffering which the holder-on-to-truth is willing to accept is an integral part of this path: By internalizing pain and sorrow the individual gathers inner power which is translated into effective force with which to change the world. This is a force that derives not only from the righteousness of the individual’s moral position and not only from his or her ability to bring their interlocutor to recognize this righteousness. In the end it is also a super-natural power employed upon the world by one who is at once within it and outside of it, concurrently in the conditional field and the absolute field, charged with the fire of justice and endowed with the lever of absolute truth.

According to Gandhi:

Satyagraha is soul-force pure and simple, and whenever and to whatever extent there is room for the use of arms or physical force or brute force, there and to that extent is there so much less possibility for soul-force. […] not only has hatred no place in satyagraha, but it is a positive breach of its ruling principle. […] In passive resistance there is always present an idea of harassing the other party and there is a simultaneous readiness to undergo any hardships entailed upon us by such activity; while in satyagraha there is not the remotest idea of injuring the opponent. Satyagraha postulates the conquest of the adversary by suffering in one’s own person.

Gandhi led the Indian laborers in South Africa on various campaigns and time after time managed to force the British rulers to capitulate to his demands – without, as mentioned above, resorting to any violence whatsoever. Gandhi’s critics would claim that his method is only successful against an opponent capable of appreciating courage, nobility and fairness, an opponent like British colonialism and unlike one founded upon totalitarian ideology or fundamentalist religion. This is probably true, although one should keep in mind that Gandhi was perfectly willing to die for the truth he held, and to him this would not have proved that he had lost the struggle, but rather that he had upheld the truth to his death – a priceless achievement according to him.

Sartre with Che Guevara

In the preface to Franz Fanon’s book The Wretched Of The Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre brings a completely different approach to the struggle against oppression. Sartre states that the duty of the oppressed is but one: “to thrust out colonialism by every means in their power.” According to Sartre the irrepressible violence of the oppressed is “neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man re-creating himself.” For Sartre:

…no gentleness can efface the marks of violence; only violence itself can destroy them. The native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through force of arms. When his rage boils over, he rediscovers his lost innocence and he comes to know himself in that he himself creates his self. Far removed from his war, we consider it as a triumph of barbarism; but of its own volition it achieves, slowly but surely, the emancipation of the rebel, for bit by bit it destroys in him and around him the colonial gloom […] The rebel’s weapon is the proof of his humanity. For in the first days of the revolt you must kill: to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man, and a free man.

Like the pod of a thorny thistle about to burst, this text holds within it the seeds for several fertile post-colonial vectors currently eating away at the moral and ethical spine of various Western intellectual circles. Sartre not only shows tolerance for anti-colonial violence, but puts it on a pedestal, seeing its deployment as the personal realization of the occupied person, his final release. Sartre’s existentialism-is-humanism gives a license to kill anyone by any means, provided that the killer be in the midst of a struggle for political liberation. According to Sartre, en route to achieving political freedom the violent person will also achieve his or her own personal liberation, for he or she is fulfilling their duty and obligation toward themselves, indeed recreating themselves.

It is important to see that while Gandhi’s path is different, opposite in fact from that of Sartre, it aims at the same outcomes. Not only does Gandhi, like Sartre, wish to remove the yoke of the oppressor from the neck of the oppressed – that goes without saying – but like Sartre, Gandhi also sees the consolidation and liberation of the oppressed individual the essence of his struggle. The struggling individual, with his duties towards himself as well as towards the surrounding society, are at the heart of the liberation journeys depicted by these two thinkers, and they both forge an ethical framework within which the individual is supposed to act in order to realize his goal – which is to say, his self-realization.

In addition, note that for both violence is the axis around which one must align throughout his or her journey. For Gandhi violence is the weapon of the weak, the oppressor, and the ability of the oppressed to make him employ it unopposed, the ability of the oppressed to persevere in non-violence and the willingness of the oppressed to endure the oppressor’s brutality, are supposed to bring about a transformation on both sides: The oppressor will realize the immorality of his actions, whereas the oppressed, through his holding on to the truth, will enhance his moral image and gather power (political, and as mentioned above, super-natural as well). For Sartre it is incumbent upon the oppressed, in response to the oppressor’s violence, to retaliate in violence and destroy him. For Sartre, as well, a transformation occurs on both sides: “There remain a dead man, and a free man.”

The different directions to which the two thinkers point the violence – Gandhi inwardly, Sartre towards the other – are replications in miniature of divergent cultural directions in East and West (speaking in a schematic and simplified manner). Major schools of Eastern religions provide their adherents with a path of spiritual progression based on looking inward to the soul. The individual is required to direct his actions – or his refraining for various actions – towards a transformation that is mostly internal. On the other hand, the Western religions turn away from man, to a divinity that is inherently different from him. Here the individual is required to direct his actions towards the “complete Other”, the source of truth and good as far as he is concerned, to refrain from that which this supreme source forbids and to try to get closer to it, or become more like it, inasmuch as he can. While India and China will give us different kinds of “spiritual paths”, Rome and Israel will give birth to different ways to stand before heaven, to pray.

These two paths translate into a relationship with the violent element in life. While the West will use violence as part of the dialogue with the divinity – sacrifices, crusades, jihad – the East will teach itself to internalize violence, use it upon itself in various forms of asceticism and self-denial. As said, this division is highly schematic, and there are more than two ways to address violence in both hemispheres. But I think this division is well illustrated in the cases before us, of Sartre and Gandhi. Sartre turns outward to deal with the problem he encounters. Gandhi turns inward. Sartre is in a dialogue – that turns into a monologue. Gandhi is in a monologue, which is intended to produce a dialogue.

Gandhi’s and Sartre’s thinking, with the central place they accord to violence in the individual’s spiritual/existential journey, raises the centrality of violence in man’s search for meaning. We must note how different this idea is from our typical approach to violence as modern people. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor points out how far mankind has come since the days when violence (along with sex) was a central means of religious ritual. Killing and intercourse were means to achieve intimacy with the divine. Through the offering of sacrifice and through sacred orgies the basic urges served as steps to the Gods.

A great change took place with the rise of religions which distanced the spiritual or sacred realm from the world and from nature. Upanishadic Hinduism, Buddhism, Rabbinical Judaism and then Christianity and Islam all turned the desire for violence into a negative thing, and violence itself into a necessary evil at best. Violence ceased to be a way to worship the divine, and sometimes turned in and of itself into a taboo, something forbidden (at least in theory).

After the Protestant revolution the West underwent another phase, in which violence became something despicable, a sin. In fact, in the modern perception we have become accustomed to writing off violence as nothing more than a malfunction, something that happens when proper order is upset – a nuisance. But if we recall the roots of the human attitude to violence, perhaps we can better understand what excites so many young people about violence, from brawls over football to enlisting in wars they have nothing to do with.

In his book Humanity, philosopher Jonathan Glover brings testimonies of soldiers (mostly Russian and American) who describe taking part in war as nothing short of ecstatic. Beyond the intensive activity and the blood-ties forged between the fighting men, the encounter with death – and with killing – placed the individual face to face with the yawning chasms of his soul. He quotes a Vietnam veteran who testifies that war

is for men at some terrible level the closest thing to what childbirth is for women: the initiation into the power of life and death. It is like lifting off a corner of the universe and looking at what’s underneath.

One may wonder whether, in the course of our diligently cultivated bourgeois respectability we haven’t lost something, some direct contact with the underbelly of things, some deep intuitions regarding the forces that drive humans. We may have forgotten that they are not only the aspiration for freedom and goodness, but a yearning for the absolute, for life and death. Of course, these very sentiments were sounded from fascist throats in the early 20th century. They also mocked bourgeois refinement and glorified violence. I have no intention of joining them. I wish only to offer another vantage point on the desire for violence – and most certainly not to approve it.

Both Gandhi and Sartre, I think, treat violence with the respect it deserves, as a deep element around which various forces are arrayed in the human soul, as an essence in reality through our relationship with which we learn about ourselves – and about the truth. It seems to me that without denying many other reasons (religious, cultural, social, economic), only through such an understanding can we properly evaluate outbreaks of mass violence, be they in the West during the world wars, or these very days, in the Iraq of the ‘Islamic State’.


Published in Hebrew on Makor Rishon newspaper.

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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