Authenticity as aesthetic (or: what is coherence and integrity?)

In the Forward, Jay Michaelson says that "the myth of authenticity has got to go." In the liberal circles that he and I travel in, this claim isn't all that surprising or challenging. I believe he's mostly talking to those of us whose subconscious, when asked to provide the image of an archetypal Jew, summons up a fundamentalist of our time or a prehistorical figure - anything but one of our own hyphenated, conflicted kind. But the hyphenations and conflicts, say Michaelson, are part and parcel - perhaps even the most admirable element - of Judaism. Most of what we value is transient, and always in flux.

What should we pursuing if not this myth? Michaelson gives several rephrasings of what I presume is meant to be the same idea: whatever religious, literary, or cultural form "speaks to the depths of what it is to be human," "get[s] to what matters" or is "resonant." Finally, though, he comes down to the core of his alternative definition: "a personalized notion of authenticity measured by integrity and individual coherence." I don't know what that means, but let's say for the sake of argument I pretend to. I can think of two problems with this.

First, coherence is a cousin of consistency, the hobgoblin everyone loves to hate. There's a reason for that: we all know complete bastards who are thoroughgoing and consistent in their personal behavior. What resonates with them, unfortunately, is nothing the rest of us would touch with a 10-foot pole. I suppose this is why "integrity" makes an appearance, but that's a slippery fish itself, and Michaelson owes us a more rigorous definition.

The second problem is that Judaism, for all its flux and change, is not predominantly a collection of individual non-interactors, each (with integrity and individual coherence, naturally) pursuing their own direction: a Brownian-motion people. Things get popular and define, in large measure, the majority of the Jewish community. So American Jews like "bagels and not jahnoon" because there are more Ashkenazic Jews than other varieties. Similarly, "Joseph Caro’s legalistic Shulchan Aruch" beat out his radical, mystical “Maggid Mesharim” because the former became popular and frequently referred to while not the latter. It's not complicated: people seek community. As sociologists (most notably Arnold Eisen) have pointed out, the majority of American Jews light Chanukah candles and make some sort of Passover Seder even if they don't know or care about the halachic or historical underpinnings of the holiday.

The problem, in short, is that whatever Michaelson's aesthetic (for that's what it is - and I mean that as a believer in the importance of aesthetics), there will still be practices and assumptions regarding Judaism which the majority of a certain community of Jews adopt. Unless "internal Jews" like him find a way to convince the rest of us what exactly he means by that coherence and integrity, we will be left out of his aesthetic. I don't know whether that would be more to his or our detriment.

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