The Gift of Jewish Chaos
The Fractured Republic is a book by Yuval Levin, subtitled “Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.” He regrets the tendency to think in terms of national concepts rather than communal ones. In other words, we now tend to look at the whole building rather than its bricks. At the same time, while we look at national issues in terms of the larger picture, in practice we all live lives that are much more selfish than communal. And this is one reason why religion is losing its popularity and position in American society. We have enough of big government telling us what to do without needing religions to do it too.
Many Americans look back with nostalgia to a time after World War II in which schools, communities and churches provided the social nucleus, and everyone was confident in his or position within a homogeneous community. Levin’s message is that looking backwards to a mythical past is unhelpful. Social clocks change all the time, but they very rarely go backwards. Parts of American society might have been thus, but such a myth ignores the racism, the social inequalities and the exclusivities in closed communities that were even more evident then than now. It was hardly a model society. Just think of the McCarthyism that pervaded the early 1950s. Nostalgia is rarely an accurate lens.
Many Jews similarly look back to the ghetto as a kind of pastoral heaven, ignoring the antisemitism, stinking hovels, poverty and constant threat of attack. Even the number and degree of the faithful is exaggerated. The average general level of religious study and practice was far lower than today, as well as the numbers dedicated to Torah compared to those nowadays in the US and Israel. And yet, ironically, it is probably true to say that those tough conditions produced far greater minds and leaders than today. Even here in America there are many Jews who look back to the perfect Jewish world where everyone voted Democrat, and Reform and Conservative Judaism dominated the Jewish roost.
Judaism has always been concerned with community, for self-preservation and protection. It has looked to a model that combines spiritual authenticity and religious services all in one walkable zone. No human being can stand alone. Jewish communities were always based on charity, support, and the provision of social service. It is true that such cohesion was often imposed from the outside, and as soon as they could escape it, many did. But the ideological underpinning was a religious community, a kingdom of priests where study and prayer required involvement with others of different backgrounds and levels of commitment, wealth, and knowledge. It was as near to a classless society as one could get. Certainly more so than the evil, Marxist, egalitarian replacement that Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin created.
We are now privileged to live in a free world where we have choices. It is indeed a world of individuality and individualism. But this does not prevent people from choosing to live in whichever kind of society they want to. Many do indeed prefer closed, monochromatic communities for their support, religious facilities and protection. Such Jewish societies can also be oppressive and restrictive. Yet Judaism today is a strange mixture of open and closed societies. Each has its good points and its bad ones. And we are able to move in and out of different models depending on mood, opportunity, and where it is we live. In the larger communities we may visit a Chassidic rebbe or a Lithuanian yeshiva and attend a Modern Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat. We can study a page of Talmud every day, and yet, go to the movies, holiday in the Caribbean, and wear modern dress. We may conform outwardly but rebel inwardly (and sometimes openly, too). On balance, I think this is healthy. Certainly no less healthy than excessively pious communities that disregard State as well as Torah laws that they find inconvenient.
While one part may reject modernity, the other embraces it. Conversely, while one sector of Jewry objects to the idea of an Eruv, or protests the right of Orthodox women to bathe separately in municipal pools or circumcision or a Jewish state, another part of us can tell them to piss off. We are a people only in name or, as Sartre said, because other people describe us as Jews, not because we share very much; we don’t. Anyone to the right of me is a fanatic and to the left of me is an assimilationist.
Instead of mourning this variety, even confusion, I celebrate it — for it is the only way in the free world we inhabit. Whenever an exclusive ideology, no matter what it is, tries to impose itself on others, it might for a while win some traction. But it will always generate opposition, and there will always be alternatives. Just think off the history of Marxism.
No matter who tries to write a book (and many have, Jews and non-Jews alike) about what decisions we should make to heal fractured societies, they all sound preachy, pious and unrealistic — indeed, doctrinaire in their own ways. Levin’s book is just another such. He might be right about the importance of community. And creating communities and maintaining them is hard work. But what works in micro does not work in macro. They are two very different situations.
No societies, except dictatorships of mad men or the proletariat, have come up with a model that gains the approval and acceptance of 99 percent of a population. Why should it? Moses didn’t achieve it, and by implication God has not either! Which is why there are so many different groups of humans speaking in His name and utterly convinced that He speaks to them alone. We are who we are, and above all we want to be allowed to make our own decisions. When anyone tries to bully us, we react the other way. Look at Brexit for example, or heaven save us, Donald Trump. We accommodate to societies. We have personal interests and national interests. They sometimes conflict. We live in tribes, super-tribes and pseudo-tribes, as sociologist Morris said.
I value Jewish values. They are amazing despite (possibly because of) their contradictions. I am not so happy about many of the ways that Jews treat these ideas, but I respect difference. As Sir Isaiah Berlin once said, if you come across anyone who believes he is in the sole possession of the truth, run away as fast as you can. I prefer fuzzy inconsistency to boring unanimity. The Ancient Greeks liked order and certainty. We Jews like questions more than we do answers. We were born and bred in chaos.