Why So Pessimistic, Steve? (Unhappy Liberal Judaism) (A Conversation)

On the drive home back to Syracuse from the Franz Rosenzweig conference, my friend and colleague, let’s call him “Steve,” get to talking about Jewish thought and Jewish culture, and the current state of liberal Judaism. About the latter, Steve is very pessimistic. The argument is familiar. It has to do with demographics, commitment, assimilation. Steve thinks that the days of liberal Judaism are limited. We’ve seen these arguments before, I think the last bout was in the 1980s, and we’ll see them again, I guess, every twenty five years or so. Liberal Judaism is the ever-dying Judaism.

What’s new for me about these arguments is the new media environment, the lure of the internet, etc. etc. In every generation, the old guard fails to see how things manage to hang together. Georg Simmel had similar complaints about the generation of German Expressionism, which for me, represents the heyday of modern Jewish thought and philosophy. No matter.

Today, I’m trying to interest myself less in German Expressionism, less in things German, because that’s not where I see the future of Jewish thought and philosophy. I’m trying to interest myself in things more American.

And what strikes me about the worries about contemporary liberal Judaism is how little adapted the argument is to America. At one point I mentioned the American Transcendentalists, and Steve turned up his nose. Because of the “individualism,” which he and other critics of liberalism and liberal religion and liberal Judaism see as some kind of bane. Jewish philosophy for a long time has been in thrall to “heteronomy.” “Autonomy” and “freedom” are dirty words. I think some of this has a lot to do with Levinas.

This then is what I came to understand from my conversation with Steve, that the problem of liberal Judaism in America depends upon the problem of “freedom.” Because whether you believe in it or not, whether you like it or not, “autonomy” is a bedrock American value, around which Judaism, including liberal Jewish thought, struggles, usually in vain, to get its brain. We know the arguments by now having to do with the importance of community, and the way we bind and are bound to each other, morally and politically. And now the biological-science people tell us that “free will” and “the self” and “consciousness” are themselves “illusions.” And I would like to think that social liberalism was always the more robust plank in liberal ideology and practice than rights liberalism.

So what? Autonomy is indeed a myth, but didn’t we learn a long time ago with Schelling and Buber that myths represent a mode of thought containing false and true elements, all bundled and con-fused together?  If that’s the case, this might mean that liberal Judaism needs to make its own critical sense of this ideological staple of contemporary American life. If the problem of liberalism and liberal religion is freedom, the answer to that problem is not the un-freedom held up in conservative religious and conservative Jewish thought. The answer is more freedom, better freedom, not un-freedom. I think this was part of the point made by Adorno and Horkheimer in “Dialectic of Enlightenment.”

For my part, I’d like to see forms of contemporary Judaism that are free, not un-free, that champion individual idiosyncrasy, as opposed to boring and pernicious calls to the anxieties of lock-step tribalism that are so current today. I’m sure that “society” always finds and will always find a way to manage it. Somehow or another, I’m sure “Judaism” will manage to survive autonomy. And if it can’t, well, then what worth is it?

As for me, I see religion and its surrogates all over the place, in music, art, literature, and film, all over the internet, and in New York, the secular city. It would be interesting to see what happends when liberal religionists figure this out. Maybe that’s why I’m not so pessimistic.

That brings me back to Buber, always back to Buber, who also understood something about art, and literature, myth, and religion. Buber understood in his 1919 essay “Herut” that the tablets of the law are simultaneously “inscribed” and “free,” (harut and herut), and that to me reprsents a start to unpacking these and other riddles regarding the individual and society, individual autonomy and social obligation in liberal culture.

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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