Whistling in the Wind (Crisis of Liberal Judaism)

The crisis of liberal Judaism is bound up with the crisis of liberalism, about which there are many moving parts with long, deepening historical legs. That is to say, the crisis of liberal Judaism and liberal religion cannot be analyzed in isolation from larger social, cultural, economic, and political dynamics. And if there’s a lot of anomie and social disintegration out there, I’d see much of the cause on conservative ideas and policies, not liberal ones, even though liberalism tends to get stuck with too much of the blame. It is said that liberals value autonomy over everything, when it is conservatives who have, in fact, privatized everything, from the economy up through the culture as a whole. In other words, a  big part of the crisis of liberalism is conservativism.

The extra-Jewish and intra-Jewish dynamics relating to the crisis of liberal Judaism would include:

–The failure of the liberal establishment in the 1960s and 1970s to contain the damage wrought by the war in Vietnam, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Unable to project its core values or to protect its members, the liberal establishment earned the contempt of the youth generation. (This would probably include as well the Jewish liberal establishment, whose leaders began to lose their hold on a younger generation).

–The radicalization of the New Left, plus the success of Civil Rights legislation provoked the furious rightwing reaction that kept Republicans in practically undisputed control of the White House up until the Clinton and Obama administrations. The composition of the Supreme Court is part of this Republican hegemony.

–30 years of Reaganomics, the withering of the public sphere and public sphere institutions, the withering of the civic sphere and civic sphere institutions, and the privatization of culture and cultural values, all accelerated by the technological innovation, especially in a now unfettered financial sector. (See here the increasing power of private money in the creation of new [conservative] Jewish culture).

–Intensified rhetorics and politics of fear and loathing in the general American public after 9/11, and the intensification of same among Jews in relation to the 2nd Palestinian Intifadah, the shelling of southern Israeli towns after the Israeli withdrawl of settlements from Gaza, the rise of Hamas, and fears surrounding Islam in the wake of the Arab Spring. The election of the most reactionary government in the history of Israel under Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Barak and the final cementing of the occupation in the West Bank threaten Israeli and Jewish culture with an indelible rightwing stamp.

–The general collapse of liberal, mainstream Protestantism and the rise of the Christian right alongside the rise of radical political Islam threaten Christianity and religion with an indelible rightwing stamp.

–The failure of the liberal Jewish establishment to lock in its constituency, to speak to a larger public, to educate its young, to interest a larger public in its discourse and practice, to identify or exploit contemporary spiritual currents, and to utilize, or even understand, the power of new media and new technologies, and to create new networks. Insofar as Liberal Judaism retains a vibrant center, it’s a center that remains self-enclosed, self-selecting, self-satisfied little enclaves largely out of step with broader social and cultural dynamics, which they seem not to comprehend. One sees a lot of this in the Upper Westside of Manhattan. Whistling in the wind, liberal Judaism has been constantly outclassed by the orthodox and their neoconservative fellow travelers, organizationally and ideologically.

But the good news for liberal Judaism is that conservative Jewish thought and culture has little to offer the larger Jewish public in terms of models except Meah Shearim and Kiryas Joel, and a Republican Party enthralled to Tea Party nutters. It’s unattractive, the palpable anxiety dominating conservative and neoconservative discourse –about  America, values, Judaism, and Israel. The American Jewish public remains stubbornly liberal, for reasons that are unique to the Jewish community, its history, values, and political interest in strong, centralized forms of liberal governmentality that look out for the larger social good. “Liberal Judaism” should be of good cheer, embrace unaplogetically the value of autonomy, and critically embrace and engage the culture at large, and get its act together. I think it’s a “bad” thing when intellectuals schrei about autonomy and relativism, modernity, and modernism. As a great liberal once said, “There’s nothing to fear except fear itself.” About liberal Judaism, one might as well hold one’s breath, because I’m not sure regarding the other options .

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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7 Responses to Whistling in the Wind (Crisis of Liberal Judaism)

  1. Nina S. Kretzmer says:

    Hope you’re doing well, Zach. I just read two articles related to this. Rabbi Michael Wasserman in Scottsdale has written impressively on the failure of liberal Judaism (focusing only on autonomy leaves you with only that value), the increasing polarization between liberal and conservative, and the creation of the new center. See Conservative Judaism’s Spring 2012 edition, article “The New Middle Ground”, and “The Far Side of Freedom”, located here: http://thenewshul.org/our-rabbis/

    • zjb says:

      Thanks for the link, Nina! I’m just not so sure. Sometheimes focusing only on failure leaves you only with failure. I’m just not as down on human autonomy or what the cognitive scientists might call the illusion of freedom, and I’m always very wary about people who spend a lot of time and schrei about modernity, individualism, relativism, and the absence of “meaning.” Heschel could get away with that in the 1950s, and sometimes you see cultural Marxists do it too. You get a lot of this kind of bunk about modernity and modernism from people coming out of the Hartman Institute and Tikvah Fund. But it’s gotten a little old, even cute, because it makes a caricature, a lachrymose one at that, of our lives today. My own take on modernism is more robust than this one. I think most people have figured out how to live without too many stable absolutes, and with a little bit of relativism and skepticism, and still lead moral, meaningful lives, concerned about the larger social good. I still think Buber and Borowitz get it pretty much right. As Pete Townsend said, “the kids are alright.”

      • Nina S. Kretzmer says:

        I definitely like your take on modernism. I think that Rabbi Wasserman gets excited at the end about that modernism as lived by the new center; in the CJ article he makes clear that relativism and/or radical autonomy, i.e. the free choice to choose a structure, is the future. Maybe it’s somewhat close to yours…but you’re the best judge of that.

  2. Don’t we just love the “crises” discourse? Shidduch crises, conversion crises, this and that stream crises… Sometimes i get the feeling we are a bunch of drama queens… (I am traditional, not liberal, but still.)

    • zjb says:

      “crisis” discourse is actually a staple in modernist culture, going back, at least to the german expressionists, who were so influential on 20th c. religious thought (barth, tillich, buber, heschel). i guess it made sense before and right after both world wars, but for today, i too find it too “dramatic.”

  3. ej says:

    Kudos to you, I agree with your three cheers for autonomy and liberalism. I would add looking forward, one solution is to join a Jewish studies- wissenschaft- Talmud- halacha/tradition culture and some liberal program. The philosopher Sam Fleischacker’s new book goes a long way in arguing that halacha comes after morality, understanding morality at least in part as giving primary importance to liberty and justice as fairness. When liberals connect solely with popular (Jewish) culture, or even high brow world culture they lack the language to connect with the Jewish rabbinical past or present, and we end with a two nations kulturkampf. There was a moment when Yiddish plus the Bund was a possibility, but that has come and gone.We cannot now win a battle on all fronts, liberal politics, humanist non religious culture and assimilation to a larger world culture, even one where Jews played a big role.

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