Deconstructing Judaism, Pt. III

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“Seen from the outside, Israel still comports itself like an adolescent: consumed by a brittle confidence in its own uniqueness; certain that no one ‘understands’ it and everyone is ‘against’ it; full of wounded self-esteem, quick to take offense and quick to give it. Like many adolescents Israel is convinced—and makes a point of aggressively and repeatedly asserting—that it can do as it wishes, that its actions carry no consequences and that it is immortal.”  —Tony Judt, Ha’aretz (2006)

I have identified here as the sine qua non of Judaism the belief that the Jewish people are congenitally more special, intelligent, persevering and misunderstood than all other peoples, with a special destiny to be vindicated before the rest of mankind. Let’s test this thesis against some possible alternatives:

(1) The essence of Judaism is faith. It is doubtful whether anyone really believes this. Orthodox Judaism mandates faith, but it defines who is a Jew biologically, and there are many more irreligious Jews than there are religious ones. One could believe all thirteen Pillars of Faith and not be Jewish, and one could be Jewish without believing them. So we can dispense with this hypothesis.

(2) The essence of Judaism is Torah law. Certainly this is what orthodox Jews believe, but it’s really just no true scotsman, because Jewishness is many things besides just Torah observance, and you could observe no Torah laws and still be Jewish even according to the orthodox.

(3) The essence of Judaism is nationalism. Nationalism may be necessary to Jewishness, but if the essence of Jewishness is to defend itself, this begs the question of what values are being defended by Jewish nationalism. So nationalism cannot be the essence of Judaism.

(4) The essence of Judaism is an ethical system or attitude. Though there are Jewish ethics, it would be a stretch to say that Judaism’s ethical admonishments are essential, for if you can be a Jew without observing halakha, how can observing anything in Pirke Avot be considered essential to Judaism?

In fact, in the modern era, flagrant violation of both derech eretz and halakha, not only as a matter of personal foibles but as a matter of personal identity, is no bar to Jewishness affirmed by secular Jewish culture and at last not denied by religious Judaism. For example, comedienne Sarah Silverman, pornographer Al Goldstein, and New York LGBT synagogue Beit Simchat Torah would horrify the Hasmoneans, or the sages of Pirke Avot. Yet Goldstein identified strongly as Jewish, as does Silverman, and Beit Simchat Torah is literally a synagogue, with a frum rabbi. The demographically beleaguered State of Israel would grant citizenship to every one of its genetically dead-end members, with a three-year tax holiday, free healthcare, and $15K in cash assistance almost immediately upon arrival, regardless of need, simply because they meet its biological definition of “Jewish.” Should they wish to become parents with a gay partner—a hillul hashem if ever there was one—the Jewish State will go to great lengths to ensure that they can. So no—neither law (halakha) nor ethics (derech eretz) by themselves make up the essence of Judaism.

(5) The essence of Judaism is tikkun olam. While orthodox Judaism indeed views the performance of mitzvot as inherently leading toward a “healed world” (tikkun olam), this is perhaps more quantitative than qualitative. In any case, for most modern Jews, tikkun olam actually functions as a half-assed secular substitute for strict religious observance, i.e., simply “being a good person.” But that is arbitrary, and has no necessary connection to Judaism.

So we’re back where we started: the sine qua non of Judaism is the belief that the Jewish people are congenitally more special, intelligent, persevering and misunderstood than all other peoples, with a special destiny to be vindicated before the rest of mankind. This narrative core transcends virtually all religious and political differences among Jews. It isn’t just a religion, because faith in God is at best only ancillary to it. Yet it is something more than just an ethnic identity.

In the next installment, I shall say why I think this is tragic. I will then follow up with a fifth installment where I say what I think its virtues are, and why it is (or can be) something noble.

(…..Part IV here…..)

4 thoughts on “Deconstructing Judaism, Pt. III

  1. sefer ha torah says:

    All of this is just wrong, beginning with the word “belief”. Maybe “conclusion”, “observation”, “revelation”, “synthesis”… “Jewish” was founded in the community of law keeping, not “believers” in idolatry or the worship of man. It is “biological” because all of life is biology, so this is woven into the fabric of reality either way.

    Israeli immigration law is founded on the historical associative context, it’s hardly “biological” in that sense. The “ethical system or attitude” is cultural and deeply rooted outlook, backed in thousands of years identification and history. It is what it is, after all.

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    • You’re begging the question. What I’m trying to nail down here is what’s essential to yiddishkeit, not what’s essential to Torah Judaism.

      Your characterization of biology in halakha is a category error, at least as it pertains to who is a Jew. Halakha defines who is a Jew biologically: one who has a Jewish mother. This is not a definition that is “woven in with the fabric” of anything else. It’s purely biological. The Zohar gives the reason that a Jewish soul will not enter the body of a gentile woman even if the fetus is zera yisrael. This is biologically reductionist. Yes, there is the exception of giyur. But it is an exception to a biologically reductionist definition. It proves the rule.

      As far as the Law of Return, you’re just arguing semantics. “Associative context” is very broad terminology. Historical convert populations became racially Jewish over time, first in their intermarriage with Jews, then in their refraining from out-marriage for centuries. If I grew up in Sheepshead Bay and went to the bar mitzvah of every one of my high school classmates, or if my ancestors going back a thousand years were shabbos goyim in Vilnius, this would not make me eligible for Israeli citizenship. If my father and mother both were righteous among the gentiles and were murdered for it, it would not make me eligible for Israeli citizenship. If a gentile undergoes a frum conversion in Russia for a decade and then immigrates to Israel he could be found wanting by another rabbi and be required to undergo naturalization rather than receiving citizenship under hok hashvuth. So what “associative context” are you talking about?

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      • sefer ha torah says:

        https://www.britannica.com/topic/Halakhah (in paraphrase)

        𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘰𝘵𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘭𝘢𝘸𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘰𝘳𝘥𝘪𝘯𝘢𝘯𝘤𝘦𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘦𝘷𝘰𝘭𝘷𝘦𝘥 𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘣𝘪𝘣𝘭𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭 𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘵𝘰 𝘳𝘦𝘨𝘶𝘭𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘑𝘦𝘸𝘪𝘴𝘩 𝘳𝘦𝘭𝘪𝘨𝘪𝘰𝘶𝘴 𝘰𝘣𝘴𝘦𝘳𝘷𝘢𝘯𝘤𝘦, 𝘥𝘢𝘪𝘭𝘺 𝘭𝘪𝘧𝘦, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘤𝘰𝘯𝘥𝘶𝘤𝘵. 𝘋𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘵 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘧𝘪𝘳𝘴𝘵 𝘧𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘣𝘰𝘰𝘬𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘉𝘪𝘣𝘭𝘦), 𝘏𝘢𝘭𝘢𝘬𝘩𝘢𝘩 𝘱𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘦𝘳𝘷𝘦𝘴 𝘰𝘳𝘢𝘭 𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘥𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘴 𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘮𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘭𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘰𝘯 𝘔𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘵 𝘚𝘪𝘯𝘢𝘪 𝘰𝘳 𝘦𝘷𝘰𝘭𝘷𝘦𝘥 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘣𝘢𝘴𝘪𝘴.

        There is no such thing as “who is a Jew” outside of some context (like Israeli immigration law). In context of communities where lineage was important, “mother” is the obvious choice, and children of “fathers” may be unknown or distant. All of life is biological, and this aspect is woven into the fabric of communal life. You might as well ask “who is your druid” or “what village owns your rune bane”, everything grows in context.

        Otherwise it’s just disembodied unreal conflations, since we are only a few generations past the end of those times, when life was nearly medieval. WTF is a “Jewish soul”??? Obviously we get our soul from matrons, and out structure from patrons, which is definitely biological. Life is biology, and so is the Zohar or anything else.

        Nothing “makes” you Jewish enough to qualify for Israeli immigration law, it’s a civil administration process. They actually do not have a crystal ball or Hogwarts hat to descry your subjectivity, “in context” of reality masses of Jewish immigrants were brought or removed to Israel in that circumstance, without abstracting arcane measurements about “Judaism”. The only physical reality is that all legal process starts with application and claims, very little to do with “transcendence”.

        There is no room for the Jesuitical “if”, people show up and apply to other people and manage to convince each other of something which generally objective, despite the subjectivity of each and every one’s personal history.

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      • You don’t know what’s a “Jewish soul” but you know where one comes from? IDK man…. take it up with Moses de Leon. I didn’t write the Zohar.

        As for halakha, that is a system of laws, not a series of suggestions. If you’re so frum you shouldn’t need a secular encyclopedia to define it for you.

        “There is no such thing as ‘who is a Jew'” – this is patently untrue and ridiculous. You yourself indicated here that there are procedures for vetting who is a Jew because it is “objective” (your word).

        “Nothing ‘makes’ you Jewish enough to qualify for Israeli immigration law” – again, just plainly and blatantly wrong. DNA tests are being used to vet aliyah. Even without this, there are clear parameters.

        You’re having it both ways at every turn and basically just trying to argue that nothing has any meaning but the meaning you say it has – “the Jesuitical ‘If'” is all yours, pal. You’re either exceptionally obtuse or extremely disingenuous. Either way, you’re a time suck and your comments will not be appearing here any more.

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