Friday, September 11, 2009

Ki Tavo (Zohar - Essay)

25th Yahrzeit Shiur

Individual, Community and the Dis-Ease of Our Era--The Jews and Modernity: A Reconsideration

In loving memory of my father, Avigdor (William) Chipman, b. HaRav Simhah Eliyahu., who departed this world twenty-five years ago, on 10 Elul 5744 (September 6 1984). May his memory be a source of blessing.

The following essay is an expansion of a proposal submitted for the Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation, of the Hornstein Program at Brandeis University. The idea of the competition was to stimulate people from all parts of the Jewish world to submit ideas for a significant book which would “change the way Jews think abut themselves and their Judaism.” My own proposal was among the twenty semi-finalists, and was posted in the competition’s web site; its writing encouraged me formulate certain central themes in my thinking, which I hope to ultimately develop in the form of a full-length book.

Nay Saying

Traditionally, Jews have seen themselves as “nay-sayers.” A well-known midrash speaks of Avraham ha-Ivri, “Abraham the Hebrew,” as “standing on one side and the entire world on the other side.” That is, Abraham’s core message was iconoclastic, challenging the most basic assumptions of the culture of his time.

On the other hand, Jews have been a highly adaptable group, which has often enthusiastically embraced new ideas. Nowhere has this been more the case then with the challenges posed by modernity. From the beginnings of the Age of Emancipation in Western Europe and the Hebrew Enlightenment in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, and more intensely from the turn of the twentieth century, many Jews embraced the values of reason, science, and democracy, coupled with the possibilities offered by liberal society for integration as individuals and the seemingly unlimited opportunities for success presented by a society based largely upon merit. The mass immigration to the United States and other free societies during the early 1900’s was seen by many as a dream come true: America was seen as the land of unlimited opportunity, and many Jewish immigrants to America and their offspring embraced its promise with great enthusiasm—and quite a few enjoyed unprecedented economic and professional success. The United States became the model for a new kind of Jewish existence: a free Diaspora, in which Jews felt thoroughly accepted, within a free, democratic, liberal society. The notion of Jewish existence outside the Land of Israel as Galut, “Exile,” was replaced by that of “Diaspora”—of a Jewish community or collective which did not suffer the limitations and dangers which had, to greater or lesser extent, characterized Jewish existence virtually everywhere else in the people’s long history. And if, during the earlier years of the twentieth century, there was still considerable anti-Semitism—the use of the numerus clausus at prestigious colleges and universities, the closing of certain elite clubs to Jews, as well as more overt manifestations, such as those of Father Coughlin and of the aviator Charles Lindbergh, which occasionally even crossed over to violence, by the latter half of that century most American Jews felt fully at home in America. (My late parents’ stories about anti-Semitism, covert and overt, sounded to me as if taken from another world; I personally experienced no more than half-a-dozen very minor anti-Semitic incidents over the course of twenty-eight years living in the United States.) In many respects, American became an alternative model for modern Jewish existence to that propounded by Zionism: a free, modern presence as an accepted, prosperous, highly educated minority, without political sovereignty, but as an influential part of the body politic. Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization, mentioned in the call for the Bronfman competition, may be read in retrospect as a paradigmatic manifesto for this new kind of Jewish existence in the modern world.

But—and this is the crux of my thesis—the time has come for Jews to become nay-sayers to certain key conceptions of modernity. Over the course of time, modernism has been revealed as a two-edged sword. First of all, from the specifically Jewish perspective: while offering infinite possibilities to the individual Jew, it presented great challenges to the ongoing existence of a rich and full Jewish community life. This was so, whether as a result of explicitly assimilationist demands, such as those made by Napoleon to the rump “Sanhedrin” he convened in France; more subtly, in societal pressures to adapt Judaism to the models acceptable in Christian society (as in Y. L. Gordon’s slogan, היה יהודי באהליך ואדם בצאתיך, “Be a Jew in your tent and a man in your going about”); or even, as in the United States during recent generations, through sociological processes conducive to assimilation, inter-marriage, and widespread Jewish ignorance and apathy. (We will turn to the revival of a more intense Jewish identity, including a large, well-educated, prosperous, and even triumphalist Orthodoxy, in due course.) Thus, American Jewry today finds itself in a situation in which many of its best minds are largely occupied with maintaining communal survival and continuity.

But beyond the specific problems of Jewry in the modern world, modernity presents serious dilemmas to humankind as a whole, which at this juncture in history confronts enormous and unprecedented challenges. I have described these challenges elsewhere (HY IX: Noah (Supplement) = Noah [Mitzvot]), where I proposed a midrash on the opening chapters of Genesis, in which I described three inherent faults or shortcomings in the human condition, which at the present historical juncture have reached crisis proportions: ecology and environment, including the much-discussed threat of global warming (in biblical terms: the exaggeration of וכבשוה, “you shall have domain over the land,” coupled with the hubris and unlimited desire for God-like knowledge and dominion implied in the eating of the Tree of Knowledge and in the Tower of Babel); the possibility of cataclysmic war, including the ongoing danger of nuclear holocaust that threatens to destroy or at least set back civilization as we know it (the origins of violence of man against his brother in the story of Kain and Abel); and the increasingly problematic nature of human community and sexual life, beginning with the family, which has historically served as the microcosm or smallest building block of society (biblically: the expulsion from Eden and the replacement of the idyllic harmony between man and woman by power relations and the bitter-sweet aspect of family relations signified by the curse of Adam and Eve).

The existential threats to the very survival of humanity posed by the first two challenges—modern warfare and ecological imbalance—are so obvious, and have been so widely discussed and generally accepted by decent people worldwide (if not necessarily in effectual ways), that they hardly require elaboration. In the present essay, I wish to discuss the third area, which is perhaps that most keenly felt by the ordinary person in his/her everyday life—the radical changes in the nature and meaning of community, family and sexuality over the past half century or so (i.e., during the course of the adult life of this author), and the resultant alienation of the individual. I believe that the core or essence of these changes may be summarized in terms of an almost exclusive emphasis on the individual, and the gradual decline and death of organic community in contemporary society and culture.

Manifestations of Individualism

There are many manifestations of this in our culture.

Work: At one time, work was seen as a practical means of earning a living in order to provide the goods necessary to have a comfortable family life, which included adequate leisure time to enjoy the goods one has with ones family. Today, for many, work has become the be-all and end-all, the only measure of “success” in life; one who does not live up to this concept is thought of as a “loser”—a particularly harsh, even cruel slang expression that has become au courant over the past twenty or so years, reflecting this perception. Many professions, such as law, finance, and business, demand workdays of twelve and even fourteen hours per day. Those working in these prestigious lines may earn well, but hardly have time to “live.” Thus, already twenty or more years ago, I heard young Orthodox men saying it was difficult to get married, because the upwardly mobile young religious women in the Upper West Side of Manhattan were too busy to date or to devote quality time to developing a relationship. (For those not already committed to observing Shabbat, the idea of ceasing all work for one entire day every a week seems outlandish, almost impossible. Last summer I talked about Shabbat to a group of non-Jewish hotel professionals visiting a branch hotel at the Dead Sea, who commented that, in the age of Email and Skype and lap-top computers one takes everywhere, one is expected to be available “24/7,” and to participate in on-line meetings of various sorts, and at all times and places.) All this goes with a highly individualistic conception of work and the economy, as in Margaret Thatcher’s saying that, “There is no society, only individuals.”

During the course of thinking about this problem, I began to take an interest in the “Communalist” movement in the United States. In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam speaks of the loss of “social capital” in America—that voluntary leisure time associations, whether for “good deeds” or simply for social fellowship, such as playing sports together (of which bowling leagues are a prime example—hence the title) have declined drastically in America in recent decades.

Therapeutic Ethos. Another book on this theme, Habits of the Heart, presents a thorough-going critique of present-day culture from the perspective of the dominant ethos of society. The authors speak of the roots of American culture in two strands—the Biblical (Protestant religious) strand and the Republican strand—of an earlier age in America which, while extolling the individual, were rich in both ethical and communal values. He speaks of these as being replaced by a Therapeutic Ethic, rooted in psychiatry. This approach places the emphasis on the individual and his needs, feelings, wishes, and subjectivity. An important by-product of this ethos is that there are no objective moral standards; if the individual is the center, and his own values are self-confirming, there is no principled epistemological basis for an objective set of ethical standards. Instead, all issues tend to be evaluated in terms of how they will affect the patient. A typical example: the decision to divorce will be considered, not in terms of family, the possible harm to children, etc., as violating some objective standard, but more in terms of the person feeling badly about them. (A similar critique could be written about Israel, substituting the Zionist-pioneering ethos of the pre-state and the years of the State for the role of the Republican ethos in America; while Judaism (read: Biblical ethos) is still very much a part of the ethos for many people, it is itself controversial, one of the major fault lines of society: religion/traditional vs. secular/cosmopolitan).

Post-Modernity. All this is closely related with what has come to be called the Post-Modern sensibility. A central axiom of post-modernity is the rejection of the belief in an empirical truth that has characterized the scientific, and rationalist thinking in general, of modernity. In its place there is a relativity of all judgment; the axiom that there is no objective truth (certainly not in humanistic disciplines such as history), but only “narratives” and the subjectivity of the observer. Moreover, just as there are no objective moral standards, there are no objective standards for aesthetic judgments. Indeed, this entire movement began with the rejection of the classical liberal arts canon in literature curricula in the United States (“dead white males”) in favor of a pluralistic, multi-cultural approach—in itself a refreshing move in many ways—but it quickly got out of hand as the twin horsemen of post-modernism and political correctness became a new orthodoxy.

The New Spirituality. I would argue that even the much vaunted revival of spirituality in today’s cultural climate—a fact which a religionist such as myself should, offhand, only welcome—bears a disturbing taint of unrestrained individualism. Certainly, much of the “New Age” spirituality is first cousin to the ubiquitous “self help” and “pop-psychology” literature. Its aim seems less to guide people in their quest for knowledge of God and/or ethical-character perfection (the twin goals of Habad and Pshyscha: see my two-part essay at HY IX: Shavuot and HY X: Shabbat Kallah), and more about helping individuals to deal with the emotional, psychological and even physiological quandaries engendered by the stresses of modern (or is it “post-modern”) life: how to find love, happiness, self-acceptance, calm, etc. All these are positive goals in themselves, and one can certainly sympathize with the distress that created the need for them, but where in all this is The Master of the Universe, the Infinite Creator? And where is the objective, eternal source of Law?

An example of this in the Jewish world is to be found in the thought of Zalman Schachter-Shelomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and a figure who, even at an advanced age, is at the cutting edge of new thinking in the Jewish religious world (a sketch about him is planned for the near future). In his book Paradigm Switch, he presents a capsule historiography of Jewish religion based upon the three dimensions of the Kabbalistic world-map, first found in Sefer Yetzirah—olam, shanah, nefesh (“world–year–soul”–i.e., space, time, and personality). After the Destruction of the Second Temple, the paradigm switched from worship focused upon a holy place—i.e., the Temple in Jerusalem—to holy time and the central role played in the emerging halakhah of the Sages by Shabbat and other festival days the Jewish calendar. Similarly, Zalman asserts, today the focus of holiness has turned to the enlightened consciousness of the individual.

The new communications technologies have also greatly accelerated the alienation, atomization and isolation of individuals, that was already a salient feature of the “classical” period of modernity (note the numerous books on alienation and the dilemmas of the individual in mass society already in mid-twentieth century). Today, the internet creates the opportunity for “virtual,” world-wide communities of people sharing common interests—but these are “communities” without authentic, face-to-face encounter among people, and as such leave the deeper human needs for community fellowship unfulfilled.

Individual Rights. Another disturbing trend is the tendency for discussions of moral and ethical issues to focus largely on issues of individual rights, including many of the conventions of “political correctness”—again, a tendency which mitigates against communal feeling. An example: a debate was held some years ago in Israel’s Knesset about adopting a “Good Samaritan” Law, one which would obligate someone who comes upon a situation of threat to life (e.g., an automobile crash, someone drowning) to offer help, albeit not to risk his own life. Strangely, it was the liberal MKs who raised objections: not only to the name of the law (the Biblical verse “you shall not stand over your brother’s blood”) but to the very concept of society imposing an ethical obligation of any sort on the individuals. I was shocked to find that a figure such as Yossi Beilin, whom I had views as a kind of icon of humanistic values, or Dedi Zucker, objected to this law. Without noticing it, the meaning of being “Left” has undergone a 180-degree turn-about over the past generation: from concrete issues of economic class conflict and the attempt to create a more egalitarian society, to one in which politics of identity, and groups which had hitherto not been seen as having shared common interests, have emerged as “classes.”

Family and Sexuality. I have written extensively in these pages about the dramatic changes in attitudes towards sexuality and gender in contemporary society. These changes include: the ubiquity of divorce in advanced Western countries; the widespread acceptance of homosexuality as a natural alternative life-style; the almost universal occurrence of what used to be called premarital sex among students and young adults and, increasingly, even among teenagers (all this, outside of pockets of strongly committed religionists); and the feminist revolution. It is not my aim here to criticize any of these phenomena as such: from a certain point of view, they represent a hitherto unprecedented expansion and extension of human freedom and choice, a dramatic opening up of new life options to the individual. (Indeed, I would be a hypocrite were I not to confess that at certain points in my life I have made use of several of these options.) But two salient points must be remembered: that these changes are all rooted in an ideology based upon an individualistic approach to sexuality, one that starts from the individual and his needs rather than, say, the Biblical-Rabbinic idea that marriage is the natural state of man (“It is not good for man to be alone”). Second, and far more important: the effect of these changes, quite possibly unintentionally, is to minimize the centrality, if not the very necessity, of the traditional family.

This issue dovetails in certain ways with the globalization or “neo-liberalism” of the economy—that is, the development of a highly competitive economy that makes ever increasing demands on the individual in the workplace, leaving less leisure time for family life to members of both genders. Feminism, while a positive thing in itself, has in recent years developed in a direction that places exaggerated importance on the workplace; professional and economic standing have become the central yardsticks for measuring a person’s worth. A major strand in feminism is concerned with women’s becoming accepted in the higher echelons of the corporate ladder—the issue of the “glass ceiling.” All this requires a major restructuring the family, in which men and women take equal roles in child-raising and other tasks: but too often the underlying message conveyed is that family is of secondary importance to material possessions and “success.” (Or, on the other social extreme, at times one feels that an important strand in feminism involves making a virtue of necessity—viz. the increasing number of ”single-parent” families—i.e., divorced working mothers—who need to somehow cope. At times, the feminist discourse sounds like the “battle of the sexes” or “The Boys vs. The Girls,” as in grade school. One hears horror stories about the shortcomings of modern males, their inability to commit to relationships, the exploitative attitude towards sexuality (which is fostered by the new sexual mores and availability of casual sex with educated, respectable, middle-class women, and the norms disseminated by the media), etc. But, having observed all this gradually developing throughout my own adult life, it seems to me that the true problem is systemic, not the fault of one sex or the other—and goes way beyond issues of sexual or family mores, to the certain near-axioms and attitudes of society.

The overall result of this is that children receive much less intensive, loving input from their parents. A year and a half ago (HY IX: Metzora), I quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, who contrasted the types of problems encountered by teachers in the schools today, as contrasted with fifty years ago. There has been a shocking increase in violence, and other forms of behaviors (drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, suicide, etc.) that indicate a serious crisis in the modern family and its failure to raise healthy children with positive values. He blames this on the decline of family life and the new sexual mores that foster it.

Contrast to Early Modernity

At this point, I can imagine many readers raising the objection: have you forgotten the emphasis upon collective thinking among the various ideological movements that dominated the earlier twentieth century—nationalism, Soviet Communism, fascism and Nazism, and in a different way also Zionism—that placed almost exclusive emphasis upon the group, subjugating the individual to it in often cruel ways? Surely, today’s individualism is a healthy and understandable reaction to these movements? Likewise, post-modernism has come about through disappointments in a world created by the rule of rationality. It was this that fostered the emphasis in contemporary culture on the emotions and the post-modern belief that there are no absolute truths, and the consequent legitimacy of all values.

Turning to our own country: in Israel, again understandably – writers, poets, and thinkers, and ordinary people, of recent decades, reject the collectivist strain in Zionism. Or, perhaps more precisely, this is one of the deep fissures in society: the “Right”— West Bank settlers, Haredim, Sephardic traditionalist, Dati’im, and a smattering of “old-time Zionists,” speak the language of collectivism. But more and more the Westernized, secularly educated part of society thinks in terms of the individual and his own fulfillment. The ethos of self-sacrifice is largely dead (see the attitude to soldiers, the huge outpour of sentimentality around the Gilad Shalit business, etc.). This is also expressed in greater mobility. In Israel, emigration (what used to be called yerida, which is today seen as a politically incorrect and offensive term), leaving the country, is widely accepted. There is a kind of “post-Zionism” based, not only upon a critique of Israel’s policies viz. the Palestinians—which is a major question in its own right that I cannot go into here—but also upon a kind of individualism, in which the individual does not feel an automatic obligation to society.

But, in truth, the contrast between the earlier period of collective ideologies and today’s individualism is less real than one might think at first glance. In fact, sociologists and social thinkers and psychologists began talking about “alienation” already in the early 20th century and even the late 19th. Arguably, mass totalitarian movements such as Fascism and Communism utilized feelings of anomie and alienation created by modern industrialized, urban culture and provided masses of people the feeling of meaning and identity by being swept up in something larger than themselves—but did not build genuine community, which supports families and individuals in an organic, integral way.

My response to all this is the following: 1) We must understand that history moves very quickly, and that “weather changes” can happen within much less than a lifetime. The dangers of totalitarianism, of collective, mass thinking that occupied such a central place for many of us in our youth, has been replaced by its polar opposite: rampant, excessive individualism; 2) This new trend brings with it its own dangers, which I have tried to outline above—dangers no less destructive of humane, ethical values; 3) The solution is not in returning to the old styles of collectivism but in creating a new synthesis and a new way of looking at things, in the same way as the failure of Communism does not mean the “End of History” as some brilliant but foolish people like Fukayama seemed to think, but is only one more stage in the ongoing story of humankind. State socialism and the laissez-faire capitalism of giant, global corporations have both failed to create a decent world. I am not an economist (nor do I particularly trust those who are, who tend to be trained from graduate school on to be the mouthpieces of a very specific ideology), but common sense would suggest that finding some, new, middle path is the desired answer.

The conclusion I draw, both for the Jewish community and for the broader human community, is that the focus on individualism has gone to a dangerous extreme, and the time has come for a serious reevaluation of these issues; to return to a conscious identification of community as a central and indispensable concept and value; to undertake a serious critique of the concept of individualism in modern society, including a search for ways to consciously reject those aspects which mitigate against sound human values; and an attempt to create a new, more balanced approach to some of these issues.

I am well aware that all this may sound rather quixotic. On one level, the destruction of community as understood in the past is the result of anonymous, unconscious, world–historical forces. On the other, conscious level, it involves calling upon the Jewish community to declare war against the conventional truths and values of the society in which it lives: specifically, of the liberal intellectual-academic society of the big cities in which it is made its home. But if, as I believe (and as I obviously cannot argue in a brief prospectus of this nature), these issues are crucial for the future of humankind and an ethical moral culture, these matters are of the greatest importance.

I hope that it is clear by this point that I am not an advocate of “Neo-Conservatism,” the restoration of patriarchy and male chauvinism, persecution of gays, etc. The issue is rather to find a new path, a middle road, between the extremes that seem to be represented in discussion of these issues and, in the words of the call of the competition, to propose an alternative way “for Jews to think about themselves and their community.”

* * * * *

This essay is incomplete. I have presented many ideas in highly abbreviated, even telegraphic form and, in writing in a non-academic format, have indulged in the luxury of not documenting my assertions. I have articulated my critique of what I see as the dangerously individualistic orientation of current culture, but the second half of this essay remains to be written. This will consist of three chapter headings: 1) a conceptual analysis of both individualism and communitarianism and what they mean; 2) a typology of community, gleaned from Jewish sources; 3) the most difficult and challenging part, one in which I will admit that I am weakest—a programmatic solution to bringing about the necessary changes. If God gives me strength and health, and a little bit of the leisure needed to read and think further about these issues, I hope to write Part II of this essay sometime this autumn or early winter—and, after that, perhaps expand it into book form.

As for my father, to whose memory this essay is dedicated: though by nature a very quiet and withdrawn man, he was deeply dedicated to the improvement of society, and was active in the movements of an earlier age. May this essay be a fitting tribute to him and his life concerns.


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