Excuse our dust: More construction of Jewish culture (IV)

Another round of comments on the Jewish tradition as applicable to the present day. The next - and last - post in this series will be Alan Brill's comments.

Dear Benyomin,

Thanks for your answer. But as a historian, you have, I believe, overlooked one of my points: of course both the Germans and German Jews like Hirsch thought that Culture meant Schiller and Religion meant Maimonides. All I'm suggesting is that we are not limited by their categories. Hirsch had more in common with Rambam than with Schiller in the sense that both kept mitzvot and learned Torah, while at the same time he had more in common with Schiller than with the Rambam in that he spoke, wrote, and lived in German. Which connection is more important, more authentic - it's not relevant. He had a great number of connections and influences, as we all do, and I propose we emphasize the multiconnectedness itself.

So I don't understand exactly what you mean when you say that our tradition is weak in democratic thought in comparison to the European humanists. Our tradition also begat Moses Hess, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and Peretz himself. And because our tradition also gave birth to Spinoza, the Humanists are in debt to us as much as we are to them.

One more thing: since you mention Kant, I'm right to answer that he believed that Judaism isn't a religion because Jews lack a metaphysical system, and that he wrote that blacks are intellectually incapable of formulating abstract thoughts. This doesn't mean that I'm proposing to "oppress" the Enlightenment (as some of figures of the Enlightenment wanted to keep down the Jews, never mind the inheritors of Kant's thought in Germany itself) and say "good night, world." I'm just saying that mentioning what Jews - and Africans - made out of the Enlightenment, how we made a Haskalah out of the Aufklarung, is a way to repair the errors of the Enlightenment itself . . .

I'm sure that you are as disappointed as I am when non-Jews talk about their interest in Jewish culture as far as Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx, but fall asleep when you start talking to them about Peretz, Avraham ben Hananiah Yagel, or Rashi. And I'm even more sure that you get as upset as I do when a frum person says that yidishkeit only has to do with the Gra, the Besht, and Hirsch, thereby dismissing Kafka, Scholem, and Mendele. I think it's our responsibility, as researchers and just plain Jews, to bring Rashi together with Kafka, Benjamin together with Mendele, and so on . . .

See you later,


Dear Marc,

Regarding your broader objections to my first note: on the one hand I accept them, but on the other I have to retain my skepticism. That is, if you have the confidence in yourself and in the power of [Jewish] "particularity" to make Spinoza or Marx (and why not Jesus Christ, who had a lot more interest in Judaism than those two did!) "ours," in spite of how weak their own connection with any sort of historically concrete Judaism actually was, then more power to you. But I ask myself, in a sociopolitical sense, if the people who have influence today (if only it were you and not them!), however "liberal" they might be, would be able to include Marx + Spinoza in the framework of the "tradition" which according to them should serve as a resource for modern Jewish politics or ethics. Considering the situation in Israel -- and this is finally the main thing if we are talking about the political/all-encompassing uses of tradition -- I would wonder what the very idea of a Jewish political tradition has done for the State. Unfortunately, it has been harmful more than anything: no constitution, no full civil rights in certain areas of life, and its influence will be even worse in the quite near future if Mafdal or Shas or the settlers take control (because these groups say clearly and openly on the basis of their not-at-all ignorant constructions of tradition that democracy itself is not of importance. And it's something of an irony that you cite Leibowitz, isn't it? Because he himself clearly stated that the State must be secular, based on Kant, if I'm not mistaken.

Said differently: it might be that creative and progressive people like you would be able to make our tradition into firm ground on which to build a democratic system. But first of all, why do we need to make these somersaults of "recombination" when we could just derive the system from modern political thought? Secondly, and more important, there's a danger in the idea that we must have a Jewish tradition to construct our politics, precisely because we have so many undemocratic and unprogressive elements in our tradition (as in all religious traditions), and one could easily construct just the opposite, an ugly, authoritarian-theocratic system according to the same principle of "our own sources." You wouldn't want that, and Brill wouldn't either, probably, and Ben-Gurion didn't either, thank God -- I don't want to suggest that fault lies only with the "religious" because it also definitely lies with the very secular nationalists (like me, actually) who play even to this very day with ideas about "authentic" national traditions -- but the great rabbis and rebbeim and leaders who really have the power of influence, what have they done and what will they still do?

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