JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Subscribe to Our Emails
Receive weekly newsletters, reading lists, event announcements, promotions, and BR news.
September 1, 2016
Sep 1, 2016
5 Min read time
Our dispute with Michael Walzer is not a dispute between impatient militants and a moderate sellout. It is also not a dispute about religion. We agree that religious revivalism is bad and must be defeated, that politics should be divorced from religion, and that ideals of freedom, equality, and dignity are the best foundations for a good society. Our dispute concerns how to confront intense religious nationalism in light of these ideals.
Walzer makes two main points in his reply. First, he presents Reform Judaism in America as a counterexample to our skepticism about the potential of critical engagement with religious tradition. Second, he dismisses our claims about the unintended consequences of critical engagement. Such consequences are often the outcome of well-intentioned but misguided extrapolations from the American experience to societies with very different political cultures, particularly when it comes to political religion. Let us address these issues in turn.
• • •
In Walzer’s book, a historical analysis of national liberation in Israel, Algeria, and India, underpins the prescription of “critical engagement,” the kind of engagement whose absence is allegedly responsible for the failure of secularism and ultimately for the rise of religious nationalism in these states. In his reply Walzer concedes that the historical account is more complex. His blueprint now—virtually unmentioned in the book—is not the road not taken by early Zionists, but rather Reform Judaism in the United States. We should certainly take note of the success of the Reform movement in America, but equally of its failure to take root in Israel. What enabled the flourishing of Reform Judaism in America is a unique combination of Protestantism and deism in the public space, backed by a separation of church and state. Both are conspicuously absent in Israel—and in other places where religious revivalism is on the rise. Walzer is the first to appreciate the significance of social context for ideological possibilities. What constitutes a live option for societies in which religion has been thoroughly privatized may not be so viable where religion is political to the hilt.
Inferring from its success in America that Reform Judaism is a feasible alternative to religious nationalism in Israel is getting things backwards. Reform Judaism was not the means for the liberalization of American Jewry but rather a beneficiary of this process. In Israel, where “the undecided and wavering many” are tempted by illiberal and anti-liberal sentiments, Reform Judaism, unsurprisingly, remains marginal.
A sanitized version of religious tradition designed to be more attractive than full-blown secularism is bound to fail spiritually.
This dependence on liberal sensibilities makes Reform Judaism a natural ally of Israeli liberals. We only wish that the Reform movement would react with resolve to the scorn, contempt, and disdain with which the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox in Israel regard it. This abuse has never been as pronounced as it is under the current government. Yet many in the Reform leadership try hard to ingratiate themselves to the Orthodox establishment and its Right-Wing political allies instead of siding unwaveringly with their natural allies.
• • •
What about critical engagement? In his reply Walzer concedes that “critical engagement with the religious tradition has not succeeded, so far, in defeating the religious zealots.” In the face of this failure he counsels patience. But if patience is the advisable reaction to the failure of critical engagement, why is it not the proper response to the limited success of secularism? Walzer’s despair with secularism can also be countered by saying: try, try again.
When it comes to Islamism Walzer is not as patient. “We should begin with the ideological war,” he writes. “We should clearly name the zealots our enemies and commit ourselves to an intellectual campaign against them—that is, a campaign in defense of liberty, democracy, equality, and pluralism.” But quoting scripture instead of Voltaire will not fool the zealots, or “the undecided and wavering many.”
There is a deep cleavage between orthodoxy and modernity, between traditionalism and liberalism. Engaging the tradition with the aim of recruiting the traditionalist masses inevitably leads to the denial of this cleavage. But denying or masking this acute moral divide breeds kitsch. “Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit,” wrote the great connoisseur of kitsch, Milan Kundera. When the aim is to recruit the masses, the chauvinist, misogynist, racist, superstitious, and ignorant elements of Jewish tradition are often denied. Orthodoxy is not kitsch because it does not deny the nasty parts of the tradition. Its failure is not recognizing their nastiness. Genuine critical engagement must admit that the racist Meir Kahane had as much to stand on as the humanist Martin Buber. But this comes at the cost. A sanitized version of the tradition designed to “be more attractive to these people than full-blown secularism” is bound to fail spiritually just as socialist realism in art failed aesthetically. What appeals to the people Walzer has in mind are precisely the elements of religious revivalism that must be rejected. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” Yeats wrote. The power of revivalism derives from its passionate intensity. Confronting it requires conviction, not tactical Yiddishkeit.
Looking again at the American case, Walzer claims that we have misjudged the direction of traffic, and that the “low road of compromised secularism” leads to secularism rather than to revivalism. But every state has its own traffic laws. In Israel the traffic has been one-directional. It is always the orthodox “missionaries” instructing the ignorant seculars. The numerous attempts to reengage the tradition have repositioned the religious corpus as a source of authority for many secular Israelis, but did not advance liberalism or democracy among traditionalists one bit. Instead of engaging “the undecided and wavering many,” it undermined the very legitimacy of secular Hebrew culture, of universal ideals and liberal values, leaving only those speaking on behalf of Jewish tradition as legitimate voices in the public domain. When the secular Labor movement was strong, the Religious Zionist movement had a relatively moderate, tolerant leadership. As the Labor movement weakened it was replaced by young enthusiasts who could not square the moderation of their parents with their own religious fervor, and Religious Zionism became the hub of revivalism.
Let us be clear. We are not advocating unbending secularism or blanket rejection of religion, nor are we denying the value of engagement with tradition. We are only insisting that it be genuinely and overtly critical, that its proponents actively combat the revivalists and condemn the nasty elements of tradition on which they rely—rather than ignore them, interpret them away, or pretend they are not an authentic part of the tradition. Thus conducted, critical engagement may not be able to win elections but it may help to resurrect a proud secular Hebrew culture.
Such resurrection is a precondition for winning elections.
...we need your help. While reading "Confronting Religious Revivalism" by Avishai Margalit & Assaf Sharon, you might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. We've also gone one step further and become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your support to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.