Confronting Religious Revivalism
September 6, 2016
Sep 6, 2016
21 Min read time
Liberal democracy requires that we banish religion from politics.
An IDF solider prays at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Photo: Corey Jackson
Over the last few decades many Western nations have become less religious, but countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East—even the United States itself, in fervor if not in numbers—have seen the rise of a religious revivalism that is dramatically reshaping politics. Societies in which religion appeared to have been overcome as a political force only half a century ago are witnessing what political philosopher Michael Walzer calls a “return of the negated.” Of course, as Freud says of the repressed, the negated does not return unaltered. Today’s religious revival is not a resurrection of the traditionalist opposition to secular nationalism but a new form of hyper-nationalism underwritten by religious eschatology.
Traditionalist revivalism tends to evoke three types of responses. One is fascination. Michel Foucault’s embarrassing embrace of Iran’s Islamic revolution is a prime example. Another, typical of revolutionary Marxists and scientistic atheists, is militant rejection of religion as such. A third is more nuanced, advocating neither reckless romanticism nor blanket rejection but critical engagement.
Walzer advances a powerful case for the third position, which has been gaining popularity among leading intellectuals. His latest book, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, studies the rise of religious revivalism as a political force in Israel, Algeria, and India, three countries created by movements of national liberation that were “committed . . . to an explicitly secular project.” Yet in the states these movements created, “a politics rooted in what we can loosely call fundamentalist religion is today very powerful.”
What explains this unexpected trajectory, according to Walzer, is a tension inherent to national liberation. Liberation requires not just removing the yoke of foreign oppression but also transforming the consciousness of the liberated—“a struggle against, rather than an ‘exaltation’ of, the existing nation.” Consequently,
the old ways must be repudiated and overcome—totally. But the old ways are cherished by many of the men and women whose ways they are. That is the paradox of liberation.
But many among the liberated cling to traditions, rituals, symbols, and habits as wellsprings of meaning and identity. After the revolution subsides and its exhilarating heroism is replaced by the inglorious business of ordinary politics, the cherished old ways resurface, fuelled by resentment of the modernizing elites. In all three of his case studies, Walzer concludes that the secular nationalist revolution failed because “the culture of liberation was apparently too thin,” and it was too thin because it cut itself off from the tradition. Had the founders of these modern nations adopted a less hostile attitude toward tradition and “aimed at a critical engagement with the old culture rather than a total attack upon it . . . the story might have turned out differently.”
Walzer’s recipe for combating religious revivalism is critical engagement. “Alongside the ongoing work of negation,” he writes, “the tradition has to be acknowledged and its different parts ingathered” so they can “become the subject of ongoing argument and negotiation.” This is primarily an intellectual endeavor, focused on textual and cultural interpretation. As Walzer has written elsewhere, “The texts of our tradition are important, not holy. Every generation must read them again, and must debate them, to choose some and reject others,” with the aim of developing democratic, egalitarian versions of traditional texts and customs. Some years ago Kwame Anthony Appiah advanced a similar plea with respect to Africa, arguing that “ideological decolonization is bound to fail if it neglects either endogenous ‘tradition’ or exogenous ‘Western’ ideas, and that many African (and African American) intellectuals have failed to find a negotiated middle way.” Others advance such an approach with respect to Hinduism and to Islam.
Although Walzer’s analysis of the complexities of national liberation is characteristically insightful, his diagnosis of its effects and his prescription for confronting it are wrong. Of his three case studies, Zionism is clearly the one in which he is most invested and about which he is best informed. The same is true of us. A closer look at the religious counterrevolution in Israel reveals the errors in his account and the shortcomings of the approach he advocates.
• • •
In 1997 a reporter’s microphone captured first-term Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whispering into the ear of an aging Orthodox mystic, “The left[ists] have forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” Walzer’s narrative, which characterizes Zionism as “negation alone” that “isn’t a creative force” and whose “cultural air is thin,” risks inadvertently echoing this right-wing propaganda.
But the problem is not merely political; it is also historical and philosophical. Negation can mean critical rejection, total or uncritical rejection, or indifferent disregard. Critical rejection is a kind of engagement, but the accusation of blanket rejection or disregard is difficult to sustain. Most early Zionists were neither alien to Jewish tradition nor entirely hostile to it. Many of them had religious upbringings and were immersed in Jewish texts and traditions. They were anti-clerical (against “the rule of the rabbis”) but not anti-religious. More than secular, Zionism was anti-assimilationist, a reaction to the assimilationist tendencies of Jewish Enlightenment and then Jewish socialism. Zionism did aim to create a new Hebrew culture, but for many Zionist leaders this was to be a process of cultural evolution, not an atheist revolution. Walzer’s description of prominent Zionists as “Jews who had assimilated into the world of their oppressors and who viewed their own people with a foreign eye” is misleading.
If early Zionists erred in their approach to religion, it was not in militant rejection.
The Zionist version of critical engagement is represented in Walzer’s narrative by Asher Ginzberg and H. N. Bialik. Theirs, he says, was the “road not taken . . . the better path.” Yet Ginzberg, better known by his nom de plume Ahad Ha’am (meaning “one of the people”), was one of the most influential intellectuals of early Zionism, and Bialik, his disciple, was considered the uncontested “national poet.” Their approach was not neglected or ignored; it failed. Specifically, it failed to produce an attractive alternative that would curb religious revivalism. This failure bares important lessons about enlightened engagement with religion.
In 1889 Ginzberg gathered a group of Zionist intellectuals and organizers in Odessa and formed a secret society called B’nei Moshe (children of Moses). Aiming to cultivate an intellectual and cultural avant garde for the Jewish national awakening, the society was composed of religious and secular Jews. To maintain unity B’nei Moshe tactfully sidestepped religious issues. Ginzberg advocated cooperation between religious and secular Zionists, believing that the spiritual renewal must be organic, an evolution of the Jewish tradition, not a revolution against it. “Our question will find a complete answer only when a spring of new life to mend the hearts will erupt from an internal source, from Judaism itself,” he wrote. He strongly criticized maskilim (enlightenment secularists) for trying to “impose loathing” toward the religious tradition.
When the society had to determine the curriculum for the school it founded in Jaffa, religion could no longer be evaded. Orthodox leaders in Palestine and in Eastern Europe attacked B’nei Moshe for teaching heresy, threatening to divide the society. Hoping to foster reconciliation, Ginzberg wrote a series of articles pleading for mutual toleration and assuring the Orthodox that he “harbours no intent to reform the religion.” Yet his conciliatory articles were received as declarations of war, and his religious partners in B’nei Moshe turned their backs on him. What Ginzberg, like Walzer, saw as compromise, the Orthodox regarded as surrender of their core convictions.
This was not an isolated incident. Theodore Herzl, founder and leader of the Zionist movement, exemplifies for Walzer a pattern, among liberators, of “alienation from the people they mean to liberate.” But Herzl, the assimilated man-of-the-world who was actually alienated from the tradition, in fact placed a premium on Jewish unity and sought to harness the energy and discipline of religion for the goals of the movement. He urged the movement to avoid “the cultural question,” which in Zionist jargon meant religion, and in Walzer’s terminology, critical engagement. His conciliatory approach prompted criticism from other Zionists for pandering to the rabbis. Chaim Weizmann, a follower of Ginzberg who later became Israel’s first president, was one of the critics. Weizmann, who was born and bred Orthodox, appreciated the folly of the Zionist leader’s approach. At the fourth Zionist Congress in 1900, he said “We do not interfere in religious matters, but that is not enough for [the rabbis]. They always want to extend their reach.” Indeed, Herzl’s appeasements earned him the admiration of some rabbis but not the cooperation of the Orthodox leadership or the recruitment of their masses he had hoped for. Three years later Weizmann wrote to Herzl warning against “Western Zionists, whose understanding of cultural Zionism is lacking, and who see this Zionism as embodied in the frozen formulas of the Orthodox, and consequently not only ingratiate themselves to Orthodox Judaism, but adopted the mindset of [religious Zionism].”
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a leading reviver of the Hebrew language, was another “radical negator.” At the age of fifteen he renounced his Hasidic upbringing under the spell of enlightenment. But in the 1880s, when he joined Zionist circles, he attacked “the maskilim of Berlin” for prosecuting a war on religion to the detriment of national unity. When he came to Jerusalem, Ben-Yehuda decided “not only that our house will be kosher, but that I will observe all the practices of Judaism . . . because it seemed to me then that by such concessions on the part of the ‘maskilim’ we will achieve the unity and discipline necessary in the battle for national revival.” For a long while, the outspoken atheist observed religious law, prayed daily (“even in private”), wore traditional garb, and grew a beard, until, finally, he “realized it was all in vain.”
If there are “no compromised versions of negation, no liberalized versions of religion,” as Walzer puts it, this is not for lack of “critical engagement with the postbiblical Jewish tradition.” Zionist factions were heavily engaged with the tradition, adopting and adapting many of its symbols, practices, festivals, and ceremonies to their modern nationalist program. Berl Katznelson, the influential ideologue and educator of Labor Zionism, instructed that “a creative rejuvenating generation does not toss the inheritance of generations to the trash. It examines and inspects, expands and draws closer. Sometimes it grasps existing tradition and adds to it.”
This is just what Walzer prescribes: “Giving up negation doesn’t mean acceptance; it means . . . intellectual and political engagement.” Many early Zionists did just that, developing and promoting their nationalist ideals in terms of and in conflict with traditional Judaism. Even thinkers such as Micha Josef Berdyczewski, who in Walzer’s account exemplifies radical negation, were thoroughly engaged with the tradition. It is hard to find a single work of his that does not exemplify Walzer’s description of critical engagement as “a partial demolition and a renovation of the rest—a renovation, that is, of values and norms.”
The claim that “the recognition of tradition as a ‘natural context’ for political engagement is missing in early Zionism” thus does not reflect the historical reality. Zionist ideologues engaged precisely in the kind of “open battle” with religion that Walzer calls for. They criticized and often rejected core tenets of the religious system of belief and way of life and offered reinterpretations and revisions of Judaism. This earned them scorn and contempt, but not a seat at the traditionalist table. The religious Orthodoxy was all for engagement with the tradition on its terms, but was, and still is, ferociously hostile to critical engagement. One need look no further than the intense hostility directed toward Reform Jewish women trying to practice near the Wailing Wall to see the reaction critical engagement with Jewish rituals continues to provoke.
The question is why enlightened engagement with religion failed and keeps failing.
If early Zionists erred in their approach to religion, it was not in militant rejection. Their real mistake was in believing “that decline was the destiny of all religions,” as Walzer puts it. Ginzberg’s conciliatory attitude was premised on his conviction that cultural evolution was as inevitable as biological evolution. He believed, as did many social thinkers in the late nineteenth century, that religion was destined to dissipate, that ritual was bound to be subsumed by Enlightenment. This confidence, which spurred many concessions to the religious sector, proved ill-founded.
The attempt to redeem modern values and ideas by excavating the tradition continues to shape Israeli culture. Reengagement with the postbiblical Jewish tradition has been a dominant cultural trend in Israel over the last twenty years, the very period during which the religious counterrevolution has been most triumphant. Dozens of non-religious institutions have been founded for the study of Judaism and traditional texts. Secular versions of religious rituals, from holiday ceremonies to prayer, have become ever more popular. The question is not why the secular nationalist revolution failed, but why enlightened engagement with religion—critical engagement—failed and keeps failing.
• • •
While we reject Walzer’s claim that secular nationalists failed because they went too far in their rejection of religion, we do not endorse the opposite claim, that they did not go far enough. As historian Perry Anderson puts it, nationalist reactionaries merely “articulate openly what had always been latent in the national movement.” This line of thought has gained currency among some intellectuals on the left. In the Israeli context, it has been the battle cry of Post-Zionists, for whom Jewish nationalism is but a modern incarnation of ancient prejudices and bigotry. But the many phases, factions, and philosophies of Zionism cannot be lumped together as isotopes of a single element; to identify the essence of Zionism with Jewish supremacism, as expressed by the settler movement, is to muddy the water and then declare it deep.
This is not to say that the founders of Israel, Algeria, and India did not commit wrongs, the gravest of which concerned not their own people but the populations they displaced. Yet the rise of religious nationalism is not primarily a consequence of these wrongdoings. Another set of wrongs, which informs Walzer’s account, has to do with the mass immigration that followed the creation of the State of Israel. Many immigrants, especially those from non-European countries, were traditional. Their reception by the Zionist establishment was far from perfect and included displays of condescension and sometimes hostility toward the traditional way of life, but this too should be understood in context.
At the time of its founding, Israel had a population of about 650,000 Jews. In only four years, this community absorbed three quarters of a million immigrants, a formidable challenge for any state, let alone a small, young, and poor one. There was also a cultural disconnect, for Zionism was a European movement. Its encounter with non-European Jews from majority-Muslim countries involved tragic misapprehensions, animosity, and on occasion abuse. But this was primarily a cultural clash, not a religious dispute. Differences in almost every aspect of life, from family structure to culinary traditions, gave rise to familiar social and cultural tensions between a conservative immigrant population from Islamic countries and the established resident community of predominately European descent. Whatever grievances and bitter resentment took hold among immigrants coming from Islamic countries for the way they were treated, it would be wrong to pin it on lack of critical engagement with the religious traditions of the newcomers. To the extent that newcomers’ cultural traditions were disregarded, it was for the sake of forming a new Hebrew culture. But this is a familiar story about immigration, not a story about religion.
Early Zionists realized that the rejection of the traditional mindset and social order was indispensable for national rejuvenation. They criticized religious authority, the backwardness of traditional Jewish life, and the passivity engendered by religious eschatology. In this they were undeniably correct. The reason they failed to find a negotiated middle ground with traditionalists is not that they were radical or uncompromising, although some of them were, but that the elements of the traditional way of life they rejected were and are non-negotiable for the Orthodox. What the Orthodox clerics most cared about was not respect for the past or toleration of religious practice, but preserving the structure of public authority, the values defining social ethics, and the metaphysics underlying religious eschatology.
• • •
Today’s critical engagement with religious revivalism is based on a related misunderstanding of traditionalism. As Walzer observes, in Israel, India, and Algeria, critical engagement is primarily the work of academics. This is no coincidence. Academics like to interpret texts, but most traditionalists seek something else in religion, often the very opposite of the intellectual thrill of rational argument and textual interpretation. What draws people to religion is frequently not its cultural thickness or historical depth, but its promise of transcendent meaning, absolute value, definite authority, and exceptional identity. These are attractive features that appeal especially to young people, often disgruntled, marginalized, and alienated, who join cults and radical political movements. What they seek is intensity, integrity, and totality.
The attraction of religious politics thus has far more to do with sensibility than with sense. It is the realm of emotions, identity, and lifestyle rather than doctrines and abstract ideas. Seeking religious and political authenticity, young revivalists rebel first and foremost against what they regard as their parents’ vapid moderation. Ironically, such sentiments are precisely what drew many young Jews to the Zionist movement in its heyday. The problem for Zionism was that this appeal—as a meaningful, exhilarating totality—could only last as long as its goal had not been reached. With the creation of the state, the revolutionary fervor inevitably subsided, giving way to the mundane business of governance, which has little hope of satisfying intense political sensibilities.
To those who seek the particularist, thick, metaphysical sense of being and belonging that religion provides, watered-down, liberal variants of religion are bound to reek of inauthenticity. As Max Weber put it in 1917:
The inward interest of a truly religious “musical” man can never be served by veiling to him and to others the fundamental fact that he is destined to live in a godless and prophetless time by giving him the ersatz of the armchair prophecy. The integrity of his religious organ, it seems to me, must rebel against this.
What “set the militants against their own people’s parochialism,” as Walzer writes, is their adoption of “the values of the European Enlightenment.” Dressing these values in traditional garb will not disguise their clash with the animating fundamentals of the tradition. The universalist liberalism with which critical engagement seeks to infuse the tradition is alien to the traditionalist, exclusivist sensibilities of the people it aims to address. As Ginzberg wrote to his brother in law, an Orthodox rabbi in Odessa, “there is a latent contradiction, deep within the soul” between “the faith” and Zionism.
The challenge is to transform traditionalist sensibilities. But critical engagement, founded on “argument and negotiation” over the tradition, can hardly be the means for doing so because it largely assumes this transformation in the first place. Reasoned, open debate assumes individual autonomy, which is grating to traditionalist sensibilities. For the Orthodox, “critical” is synonymous with “heretical.” For the traditionalist, liberal reinterpretation is a fabrication, a plastic pastiche of venerated tradition. The picking-and-choosing approach of critical engagement is precisely at odds with traditionalism’s promises of enchantment and transcendent validity.
Again, Weber’s observation is pertinent:
Never as yet has a new prophecy emerged . . . by way of the need of some modern intellectuals to furnish their souls with, so to speak, guaranteed genuine antiques. In doing so, they happen to remember that religion has belonged among such antiques, and of all things religion is what they do not possess. . . . It is, however, no humbug but rather something very sincere and genuine if some of the youth groups who during recent years have quietly grown together give their human community the interpretation of a religious, cosmic, or mystical relation.
Weber described modernity as involving the disenchantment of nature, but no less significant is the disenchantment of politics. Political religion is the re-enchantment of politics. It offers the warmth of tight-knit exclusive groups, the exhilaration of immersion in a transcendent cause, and the reassurance of a comprehensive scheme of nature, sense of history, and foundation of value.
The challenge is to transform traditionalist sensibilities. But engagement assumes the transformation has already taken place.
This is where the prescription of critical engagement goes dangerously wrong. It is true that, as Amartya Sen has stressed, “the championing of pluralism, diversity, and basic liberties can be found in the history of many societies.” Humanistic, egalitarian, and democratic themes can be found in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and other traditions. But this is very different from saying that these traditions are themselves humanistic, liberal, or democratic. For every verse in the Jewish canon about tikkun olam (“mending the world,” often discussed today in the context of social justice), there is a “the best of the gentiles—kill him!” For every seemingly pluralistic or democratic comment, there are blatantly exclusivist, if not racist, dicta. In their attempt to infuse tradition with the values associated with the former phrase, liberal traditionalists might find themselves inflaming the latter.
It is no accident, as Walzer notes, that liberal interpretations of religion are usually bred in the Diaspora. According to 2013 findings from the Pew Research Center, only 10 percent of American Jews identify as Orthodox. Meanwhile 53 percent identify as Reform or Conservative, and 30 percent subscribe to no denomination. But in Israel non-Orthodox Judaism is marginal. The synagogue that secular Israelis don’t attend is Orthodox. The traditionalist option with which Israelis have to engage is the anti-liberal, exclusivist, at times supremacist, Orthodox option. In Israel, where a culture war over the essence of Jewish nationalism rages between liberal democrats and religious revivalists, there is no philosophical or political space for a middle ground. Is the source of moral and political authority divine or terrestrial? Is the state an instrument for promoting the welfare of its citizens or a vehicle for bringing about eschatological schemes? Is political status in the State of Israel to be determined by citizenship or by religious affiliation? These issues don’t leave much room for compromise.
This is not to say that no one is trying to forge a middle ground. As the religious right advances, such attempts become ever more common. But more often than not, these efforts to “connect with the people,” instead of becoming a barrier to religious revivalism, in fact fuel it. The seemingly innocent demand for critical engagement ultimately reinforces the traditionalist claim to superior status, for in this game of interpreting the tradition, Orthodoxy will always seem more authentic. In effect, the imperative to engage religious doctrine evicts secular liberals from the political debate. Thus the call for critical engagement unwittingly affirms the accusation that something is missing in secular Judaism, that the cart of modern Hebrew culture is empty relative to the cart of Rabbinic Judaism, as the ultra-Orthodox leader Yeshaya Karelitz famously said to Ben-Gurion. Unless it actively and explicitly repudiates elements of the tradition, critical engagement is but an enabler of religious revivalism. If it does repudiate them, it will be regarded as alien, condescending negation.
Non-Orthodox institutions, created to foster open, critical engagement with Judaism, have often become gateways to traditionalism and nationalism. In public life the idea that engaging tradition is the way to connect with traditional folk leaves behind any trace of criticism and becomes uninhibited surrender. The publicized participation of Lihi Lapid in an esoteric, semi-mystical ritual is a case in point. Lapid is the wife of Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party and probably the politician who was most strongly identified as anti-religious in the country. She explained her participation in the ritual, which even many observant Jews would find outdated, by saying that “it is a spiritual ceremony” and a form of female liberation. This is not innocuous new age hippie gibberish or mere political pandering. In the present political context, it is grist for the revivalist mill. Golda Meir and Menachem Begin, both non-Orthodox prime ministers, one from Labor, the other from Likud, peddled in Jewish kitsch only to unwittingly accelerate the rise of religious nationalism. Without transformation of public sensibility and the banishment of religion from politics, positive engagement with religion is less likely to produce liberal religion than to accelerate reactionism.
We are not claiming that religious traditions have to be eliminated or that they should not be critically engaged. For liberal societies that have undergone political secularization, critical engagement can be productive. In societies driven by traditionalist yearnings for enchanted politics, however, the two senses of negation—criticism and disregard—give rise to a dilemma. If negation tries to hide its goal of revising the tradition, it risks inflaming religious reaction. If it is straightforward about its revisionist goal, it loses its traditionalist appeal. Thus it cannot serve as a means of recruiting traditionalists to the liberal cause. When employed as an instrument of recruitment, engagement with tradition tends to shed—or at least conceal—its critical aspects in order to appeal to traditionalists put off by those aspects. Still, its humanistic, modern features leave it pale and unsatisfying for traditionalists. Instead of being a bridge from traditional religion into modern humanism it becomes a channel to traditionalism, nationalism, and conservatism.
The idea that secular liberal Jews in Israel can connect with the people, either by adopting an engaged critical attitude to the religion or by embracing some form of kitsch Judaism, is fanciful. What social democrats in Israel desperately need is critical engagement with their own beliefs and attitudes. All heretics quote scripture, the saying goes, and so do we. But we use it for internal consumption, not to gain political allies. Critical engagement with the tradition might be worthwhile in its own right, but it won’t reach across the aisle. In order for the tradition to be constructively engaged, the religious counterrevolution has to be defeated. This will not be achieved if the champions of liberal democracy end up reinforcing it.
Help fund the next generation of Black journalists, editors, and publishers.
Boston Review’s Black Voices in the Public Sphere Fellowship is designed to address the profound lack of diversity in the media by providing aspiring Black media professionals with training, mentorship, networking opportunities, and career development workshops. The program is being funded with the generous support of Derek Schrier, chair of Boston Review’s board of advisors, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but we still have $50,000 left to raise to fully fund the fellowship for the next two years. To help reach that goal, if you make a tax-deductible donation to our fellowship fund through August 31 it will be matched 1:1, up to $25,000—so please act now to double your impact. To learn more about the program and our 2021-2022 fellows, click here.
September 06, 2016
21 Min read time