A Response to Margalit and Sharon
Sep 6, 2016
6 Min read time
Pluralizing the religion would be a step toward secularizing the state.
Reading this strong and engaging argument, I remembered a moment in the late 1960s when I was approached by a young militant. He told me that he had participated in three anti-war demonstrations, and the war in Vietnam hadn’t ended. Now, he thought, the time had come for revolution; he was going to join Progressive Labor. I described to him the fundamental maxim of political life, especially of life on the left: try, try again.
I agree with Margalit and Sharon that critical engagement with the religious tradition has not succeeded, so far, in defeating the religious zealots. But tough secular politics of the sort they advocate also hasn’t succeeded. The old maxim holds for all of us: keep trying. I am in favor of many parallel efforts. Let Margalit and Sharon take the high road of principled secularism, and I will take the low road of compromised secularism, and we will see who gets to the “disenchanted” state first. I hope that we succeed together.
I agree, as well, that the goal has to be the utter defeat of the religious counterrevolution. I don’t think that my book argues for anything less than that. And of course my arguments won’t make any headway with the Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox rabbis: neither will the arguments of Margalit and Sharon. To the Orthodox, I am as much a heretic as they are.
The Orthodox claim to be the only authentic Jews. It is time to disagree. Pluralizing the religion would be an important step toward secularizing the state.
But the engagement I advocate isn’t meant to convert the rabbis. It is addressed, like any sensible political engagement, to all the others, the undecided and wavering many—those who aren’t already zealots or hardline secularists. My goal (in the Israeli case) is simply to help create a Jewish national culture that will be more attractive to these people than full-blown secularism. I hope someone is doing similar work among Israeli-Palestinians—aimed at the large majority who are not Islamists and, at the same time, not secularists.
Margalit and Sharon argue that the critical engagement I defend isn’t a plausible political or intellectual strategy. Not only has it been tried and hasn’t worked, they say; it can’t work. Here is our key disagreement, and it is a characteristic disagreement between American and Israeli Jews. One might think that the Israelis have the better grasp of Zionist history and politics, but sometimes an outside perspective can be useful.
In Israel today, as Margalit and Sharon say, there is very little middle ground between Orthodox (and ultra-Orthodox) religion on the one hand and secular liberalism on the other. The synagogue that the two of them don’t attend is an Orthodox synagogue; “not attending” any other wouldn’t be worthwhile. But, curiously, they share with the Orthodox the same dim view of anything in between the synagogue they don’t attend and the political meetings they do attend; it is all just “kitsch Judaism.” They quote Weber’s description of “the ersatz of . . . armchair prophecy,” which any religion with “integrity” will reject. Weber approves of this rejection, and, following him, Margalit and Sharon give it too much respect.
What’s more important for them, however, is that this kind of kitsch isn’t an alternative to the religious revival. It “enables” the revival; it “fuels” it. “Non-Orthodox institutions, created to foster open, critical engagement with Judaism,” they write, “have become gateways to traditionalism and nationalism.” No examples are given—though perhaps there are some that they could provide—but the extent of Orthodox venom directed at many of these “non-Orthodox institutions” suggests that they are not seen as “gateways” by the people who should know best.
America provides a very different picture. Here, as Margalit and Sharon say, the middle ground is thickly occupied. The chief occupier is Reform Judaism, which is the product of critical engagement with the Orthodox tradition and also of a lot of the picking and choosing that they mock. Is this inauthentic, kitsch Judaism? I suspect that’s what it looks like to Margalit and Sharon. For myself, I’ve always thought that Reform Judaism is too austere; it could use a little kitsch. In any case, it has proven itself a viable alternative to Orthodoxy: there are now fourth- and fifth-generation Reform Jews.
But I have a more critical point to make from this American perspective. Reform Jews are among the strongest supporters of the secular state. They have stood side by side with Jewish atheists in opposing every effort at the re-enchantment of American politics. The chief allies of both these groups are liberal Protestants, whose religion, to evangelical Christians and radical secularists alike, probably looks inauthentic and kitschy. But I haven’t heard any sociologist of American religion suggest that Reform Judaism is a gateway to Orthodox zealotry, or that liberal Protestantism breeds evangelicalism. No doubt people cross both ways, but not many. In fact, the religious Right firmly believes that both Reform Judaism and liberal Protestantism lead only to secularism. This should give Margalit and Sharon pause. Maybe they have misjudged the direction of the traffic.
A similar argument could be made from European history. Many of the secular states in Europe arose out of conflicts between rival Protestantisms, and the Catholic accommodation with the secular state was mediated by Christian Democrats (in the immediate aftermath of World War II), whose religious commitment must have seemed “ersatz” to more traditional Catholics. Again and again, secularist militants have needed allies. They have found them among liberal (and inauthentic?) Christians and Jews, and they find them today among liberal Muslims who are denounced (and worse) by the Islamists. So why are Margalit and Sharon determined to fight alone?
Israel is different, they will say. Yes, it is, but it isn’t necessarily different or different forever. The Orthodox claim to be the only authentic (religious) Jews—and secular Israelis mostly agree with them. It is time to disagree; it is time to deny the Orthodox their monopoly on Judaism. As it was in Europe and America, pluralizing the religion would be an important step toward secularizing the state.
But my version of critical engagement isn’t aimed only, or chiefly, at fostering varieties of Judaism. I also hope that engagement with the religious tradition will produce a more attractive, a thicker, secular Jewish culture—not religious at all. I imagine secularism being strengthened through a kind of naturalization. Will secularists, engaged with the tradition, be overcome by religious emotion and turned into zealots? I don’t see the risk.
Finally, I haven’t commented on the historical argument Margalit and Sharon make, since that would require a lot of space and might amount to little more than an exchange of quotations. I don’t want to argue about definitions; I concede that there was a kind of critical engagement with the tradition by the early Zionists. They certainly were not indifferent. But their engagement consisted too much of rejection, “loathing,” and what Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginzberg) called “defiant apostasy.” As I say in the book, something like this kind of criticism was necessary in the past and is still necessary today. The engagement that I tried to defend, however, included a larger recognition of value in the tradition and in the experience of exilic Jewry. Ahad Ha’am may have wanted that, but his own engagement doesn’t illustrate it; he didn’t go much beyond an appreciation of “prophetic morality.” Certainly, there were more extensive efforts, as Margalit and Sharon say—for example, the nationalist appropriations of religious holidays. But these haven’t been very imaginative appropriations. They insist that this sort of thing hasn’t worked; I agree. Try, try again.
September 06, 2016
6 Min read time