“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…..)