(Orthodox Religion) Bellicose and Narrow (Michael Wyschogrod)

Modern Orthodox Judaism has wrestled with the tension between halakhic norms and human-moral conscience since the late 196os. I have posted already about Aharon Lichtenstein and Gerald Blidstein. Apropos to this year’s ugly national-religious flag march last week in the Old City of Jerusalem, provocative and racist, I am adding a short bit by Michael Wyschogrod. It’s from a book review of Eugene Borowtz’s A New Jewish Theology in the Making (1968). In this 1969 review, Wyschogrod responds to Borowitz’s break with classical of Reform Judaism, with what Wyschogrod calls “orthodox” Reform Judaism. At the conclusion of the review, this critique of Orthodox Judaism comes as if out of the blue.

Orthodoxy will therefore not solve the problem of conscience by learned articles which elicit the bounds that the law imposes on conscience. A review such as this is of course not the place for a full theological consideration of this problem—and it must be theological rather than a Halakhic con sideration because a purely Halakhic consideration would beg the question. I am, however, prepared to say this: in the final analysis it comes down to what kind of hu man beings are produced. If the young people Orthodoxy produces today are bellicose and narrow, assuming airs of superiority because of a profound insecurity, unable truly to listen to those with other views because deep down they know that were they to listen they would yield, if this is indeed the typical product of Orthodox education, then we have forgotten what the Torah Jew was meant to be. When it worked, the tradition produced men who were individuals, who were not frightened, who listened and loved their fellow Jews and their fellow men. A religious tradition either produces such men loved by God or it perish” [“Reform Reformed” in Tradition, (fall 1969), p.91].

What stands out in these comments is the date of publication. Wyschogrod’s critique concerns the type of young people that Orthodox Judaism was producing, The remarks were prescient and as keen as its author, one of the great Jewish theologian-philosophers of the late twentieth century and a major figure in Christian-Jewish dialogue. Marked today by extreme expressions of anti-Palestinian racism and acts of violence, the so-called flag march through the Old City has become a national religious holiday peculiar to the nartional religious sector of Israeli society and orthdox Judaism. Secular Israelis by and large have nothing to do with this march anymore, and more or less not much to do with Jerusalem. For its part, Religious Zionism and the orthodox Judaism it represents has turned into a “bellicose and narrow” mutation “assuming airs of superiority” whose violence masks deep insecurity. What Wyschogrod’s comment reveals is that tensions around moral conscience and modern Orthodoxy are already surfacing in 1969, long before the occupation of Palestinian territories and Jewish settlements, an inherntly violent state-supported structure, became the religious norm that it has become today in modern orthodox and religious nationalist communities.

(h/t Ittai Hershman)

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(S1) Sassoon Codex (Sephardic Jewish Cultural Memory)

S1 is one of the names of the Sassoon Codex, one of the oldest biblical codex. This precious object made of sheepskin and ink was just bought at Soetheby’s for some $38,000,000 by a purchaser acting on behalf of the Museum of the Jewish People (formerly Beit Ha’tefuztot) in Tel Aviv. The story of the sale, reported here, of this very old Bible, from Syria or the Land of Israel, dating back to the 10th century, is itself an icon of modern Judaism. It’s about a lot of things all together: the codex itself, the Sassoon family and modern Sephardi history, migration and global Judaism, enormous wealth and culture, opioids and British empire, fine Judaica, the history of precious objects, the State of Israel and cultural nationalism. As for the Sassoon family, the prominent line of the family fled Baghdad in the 1830s, relocated to Mumbai, set up shop in Shanghai and London, where the family became prominent in English society and where the family history effectively ends in the middle of the 20th century. The Sassoons are themselves the subject of a recently published family biography, written by a Sassoon, and of an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York City.

From here at Wikpedia, there is little bit about the modern provenance of the object: “[T]he codex resurfaced when David Solomon Sassoon purchased it for £350 in 1929 and added his bookplate to the inner binding of the manuscript.  Though known to scholars in the 20th century, the book stayed under private ownership. It was owned by D.S. Sassoon’s descendants until 1978, when they sold it to the British Rail Pension Fund through Sotheby’s Zurich. S1 was exhibited just once, in 1982 at the British Museum.[ The manuscript was auctioned again through Sotheby’s on December 5, 1989, when it sold to a dealer for £2,035,000, who sold it to investor Jacqui Safra that same year. It was sold at Sotheby’s in New York on May 2023, for $38.1 million. The codex was on display prior to auction in London, ANY-Museum of the Jewish People in in Tel Aviv., Bridwell Library at Southern Mehodist University in Dallas, Los Angels, and New York. It was purchased by the American Friends of ANU — Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv with the aid of a donation from Alfred H. Moses. This marks it as the fourth most expensive book and manuscript ever sold.” 

About the codex, apparently a sloppy job, I found this detail at the same Wikipedia page: Codex S1 (or MS1; formerly Codex Sassoon 1053 and also Safra, JUD 002) is a Masoretic codex comprising all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, dated to the 10th century. It is considered as old as the Aleppo Codex and a century older than the Leningrad Codex (1006), the earliest known complete Hebrew Bible manuscript.[1] Alternatively, it might be dated to the late 9th century. The Aleppo Codex was missing 40% of its leaves when it resurfaced in Israel in 1958, while in Codex S1 12 leaves are completely missing and hundreds more are partially lost. The scribe of S1 was unusually sloppy, frequently forgetting punctuation, diacritical marks, and vowels; he also errs in his consonantal spelling on dozens of occasions

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Nakba & Democracy

For general interest I am posting here the translation of a historical document from an Israeli security officer regarding the Palestinian Nakba and a 2019 article here by Hagar Shezaf relating to it and other documents being hidden/removed from Israeli archives. The original document was used by Benny Morris in a 1986 article on the subject. It was written in late June 1948 by an officer in Shai, the precursor to the Shin Bet security service. Providing granular, statistical detail, the twenty-five page document details the factors contributing to the explusion/flight of Palestinans during the 1948 Israel War of Independence: mainly military operations by regular armed Israeli forces and “dissident” forces (i.e. Irgun and Lehi forces) and also general fear and waves of “evacuation psychosis” among the Palestinian-Arab public. Insofar as Israeli history is Jewish history, so is the Nakba. In her article, Shezaf cites the view presented in a report by Yaacov Lozowick, the previous chief archivist at the State Archives, who wrote upon his retirement that “a democracy must not conceal information because it is liable to embarrass the state.”

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(Poland) Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Photographs)

These are 80 year-old photographic film prints being released by the Warsaw-based POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, as per this article here by Ofer Aderet at Ha’aretz. As per Aderet, whose language I am cribbing below, the photographs were taken by Polish civilians.

One series was secretly shot by a Polish fireman, Z. Leszka Grzywaczewski, who was age 23 at the time. He was sent into the ghetto to extinguish fires set by the Germans suppressing the rebellion. His photographs represent Jews being rounded up by the Nazis to be sent to death; there are also photographs of Polish firefighters A second series was documented by a Polish engineer  Rudolf Damec outside the ghetto. They represent Polish civilians looking over the walls at the burning ghetto.

These are precious historical documents. Most Holocaust photographs were taken by the German perpetrators. Of note in these photographs are the point-of-view reflections of Polish bystander-civilians witnessing the Nazi genocide of the Jews. The bystander photographs are shot from behind. No faces are shown. I think they seem to register shock.

Much more to see here at the POLIN Museuem website from the Around Us a Sea of Fire exhibition of these photographs. More pictures from the exhibition are here.

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Spinoza Passover Hebrew Republic

This Passover at a time of global and religious reaction, let’s be done with political theology. And let’s remember Spinoza, the exodus from tyranny, and the blueprint of a Hebrew commonwealth, based on the Bible, in which religion and state reflect distinct social spheres, and where philosophy curbs superstition and fanaticism and rational religion contributes to the common good.

[image by Judith Joseph, Vision of Spinoza]

artist’s statement:

As a descendant of Marranos, Spinoza understood the tyranny of prejudice and religious fanaticism.  He was born in Amsterdam, into a city surrounded by water, where the ships of the Dutch East India Company came and went.

I imagine Spinoza flying above the rooftops of Amsterdam, free from the intellectual limits that bound his community, loving the beauty and order of science and logic.  In such a flat land, the sky is huge, and the light is great, reflected by water all around, like a huge lens.  I like to think that Spinoza knew that eventually the world would catch up with him.

Printed by artist on Takach press, 20” x 16”. Small edition, up to 25 prints. Numbered and signed by artist.

Printed by artist on Takach press, 20” x 16”. Small edition, up to 25 prints. Numbered and signed by artist.

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Religion and Violence (Horror)

It should be obvious that there is, of course, no single or linear-causal relation between religion and violence. As argued by Religious Studies scholars, this is a modern secular myth. Attentive to difference, one could note that there is civil religion and uncivil religion, a religion that respects people and one that does not, a religion of humility and kindness and a religion of supremacy. But this fine distinction does nothing to explain the pronounced correlation between religion and social exclusion or for the phenomenon of religion as a non- unique form of social violence. Viewed analytically, religion is a force and power of social cohesion that exacerbates social conflict, a force or power of group cohesion that exacerbates inter-group and intra-group violence. Religion is a source of social division and dissolution, and, at the same time, a force of social formation.

The impossibility of separating religion from society is what makes the problem of religious violence so acute. The academic study of Religious Studies will have always recognized that religion is not something simply private. At the core of religion is the group. The group is its ground. And at the core of group life is violence. Group life is structured by external and internal lines of difference by which the group seeks to extend the territory of its range and power. In this respect, the violence of religion is ordinary, not uniquely religious.

The relation between religion and violence is primarily social and historical, but not simply. Unique to religion as such and to religion as a source of violence is the structure of spiritual valuation, the special intensification that religion brings to group life and by extension to group violence. Religious rites and representations symbolize the social life of the group in the form of a supplement. As understood by Derrida, a “supplement” can both complement its object or overtake and replace it.

As a supplement, religion crystalizes the social practice of group life and group power into a normative or superior order that is set apart from the society into which it secretes itself, which it seeks to represent. But religion is not simply homeostatic. What Durkheim called the negative cult is also aggressive. Under conditions of conflict, as an elementary form of human society, religion attracts violence which it shapes and stamps with the special aura of the holy before the presence of the will of God and the gods. Religion is a nexus that sharpens the force of social violence into a distinct and sacred schematic.

Religious violence and ordinary (profane) violence constitute two overlapping modalities. There is ordinary group-creating violence and group-maintaining violence. And there is religious violence. Ordinary group violence is directed towards a primary political or economic purpose. Ordinary group violence us supposed to further the interest of the group and of vested group actors in the name of the group. Religious violence is symbolic, mediated through symbols. Religious violence is like a circle. Like religion itself, religious violence spins around its own axis, which makes it hard to stop.

The still influential counterargument by William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (2009) is against the notion that religion promotes violence in any unique way. He claims that this is a myth, and then calls it “a variation on the idea that religion is an essentially private and nonrational human impulse, not amenable to conflict solving through public reason” (p.121). Cavanaugh’s is the popular and convenient line in critical religious studies and conservative religious discourse. The point is to argue that religion and society are not separate, while wanting to distinguish non-violent from violent forms of religion. This is the nub of the argument. The claim by Cavanaugh is that there is no religion that “harbors an unchanging impulse toward absolutism” and that “to blame violence on religion as such makes it difficult or impossible to distinguish good theology from bad theology, or peaceable forms from malignant forms” (p.229).

The problem with this argument becomes evident assuming its central thesis. Religion and religious violence are especially volatilizing not for being private and irrational but precisely because religion and religious violence constitute social mechanisms. But these mechanisms conform to an internal logic or code. In a similar way, “good” and “bad” religion are distinct one from the other without, however, being separable. Violent and non-violent religion belong to the same social genus and spiritual matrix, both steeped in the power of the sacred. Good religion is good when it is able to contain the power that saturates religious social structure. Good religion is only good when it is itself contained by non-religious authorities and actors, held in check, and folded into larger rubrics of the common good. Bad religion is absolute when pushed and pushing against constraining limit.

In On Suicide Bombing, Talal Asad sets out to understand why people in the liberal west are so horrified by the spectacle of suicide bombing. Asad sets out to blur the difference between the religious violence of the suicide bomber and the secular violence of the liberal state, even as he establishes a basic distinction between the one and the other. According to Asad, what one might otherwise call religious violence has two aspects. First, the violence of the religious suicide bomber is the “the collapse of social and personal identity” and the “dissolution of form.” Second is the transmutation of violence into a schema of religious redemption (p.3, emphasis added). In this act of deconstruction, Asad speaks to the western response to acts of terror inspired by political Islam, while rooting it in the very sacrificial structure of Christian theology.

Reading him against the grain of his own critique of western liberalism, Asad provides a theoretical resource with which to understand the phenomenon of religious violence as a special form of horror. In religious violence, “perhaps what horrifies [the liberal imagination] is not just dying and killing (or killing by dying) but the violent appearance of something that is normally disregarded in secular modernity: the limitless pursuit of freedom, the illusion of an uncoerced interiority that can withstand the force of institutional disciplines.” Writing in an romantic vein against iberalism, Asad argues that liberalism “disapproves of the violent exercise of freedom outside the frame of law.” He goes on to state that liberal law or the modern law of the secular state “itself is founded by and continuously depends on coercive violence.” From this he concludes that there is no real difference between the just war of liberalism and the so-called evil acts of religious terrorism (pp.91-2; emp added).

But the argument trips itself up if, in fact, it is true that secular violence is bound up in law and legal structures, which religious violence works to “dissolve,” “transmute,” or otherwise suspend. We see this dissolvent-transmuting dynamic at work in the State of Israel today under the pressure of an ultra-rightwing and ultra-religious government. As Asad could have predicted, liberal Israelis and liberal Jews in the Diaspora are horrified at the attack against secular society by religious zealots and Haredi reactionaries who now hold critical levers of political power in Israel. And I think he explains why. Israeli state structure is secured and maintained by power and is no less violent than religion. But liberal or ordinary violence works towards liberal or ordinary ends that are pragmatic. In contrast, political religion and religious violence are rooted in a value scheme that is higher than the ordinary life of the larger society. The political-symbolic violence of uncivil religion starts in the magical circle, and extends out into the world as an assault against the rule of secular law and liberal norms, against economic and state structure itself, in order to secure the religious rule and domination of the circle as it take over group-life.

Subject to dissolution and transmutation, the state is a secular institution, while, for its part, the holiness of religion is a force set apart from the ordinary life into which it intrudes. This can be tracked in actual time and place. Religious sites and times constitute special zones of conflict. Holidays, temple sites, etc. are always marked by contestation, a fulcrum of violence in society. In Israel and in Palestine, the Temple Mount and Hebron are flashpoints in ways that an ordinary place like Tel Aviv is not; particularly around holidays like Passover and Ramadan. Under conditions of social stress and conflict, these turn into hot points at hot times. Religions signify and symbolize, always meaning “more” than life itself. A violent and truly horrifying thing is when religion takes over and seeks to transform society into the crystal image of its own sharply drawn circle.

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(Religious Dictatorship) Tikvah Funds Anti-Democratic Coup (Israel)

I’m including below a notification sent to my email from the Tikvah Fund and this link here to an op-ed written by Elliot Abrams and Eric Cohen in the Jerusalem Post in support of the judicial coup in Israel. Long time followers of the Tikvah Fund will recognize the sleight of hand meant to cover up a radical anti-liberal and conservative-religious worldview. [1] There are mealy words of compromise and unity in the op-ed, which reads more like sponsored content promoting the good offices of Tikvah than an actual op-ed. [2] They exaggerate the activism of the Supreme Court in Israel and underestimate the forces tearing up the country. [3] They want you to think that what is at stake is a good faith “debate” within the parameters of a democratic framework, as opposed to the tearing up of that lowercase liberal framework in order to set one up on a conservative foundation.

More aggressive here at Commentary is Abrams writing against the regime-change critics, primarily American Jews, staunch Zionists like Hillel Halkin and Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Anschei Chesed in New York City. No mention is made in this piece or at the Jerusalem Post of the criminal and extremist religious interests of the varied coalition parties. The extremist and racist Religious Zionism party is said to represent a miniscule social force in Israel with no mention made that the extremist members of this party are controlling central levers of the government and causing huge damage being done to the country (economic, military, diplomatic). No mention made of special privileges that the Haredi parties want to cement into law. No mention is made about a government whose leaders from West Bank settlements, illegal under international law, promote occupation and annexation, anti-Arab racism and anti-Palestinian violence. No mention is made that the army is collapsing. No mention made that the majority of the country’s gatekeepers are aligned against the government, and that opposition to the judicial crosses the political spectrum, that this opposition is led (in Hebrew) by very serious people, not “hysterics.”

It is with no little irony that the cover image for the JP editorial is of protesters against the government decrees. These are, of course, the very people whom the Tikvah Fund and Kohelet Forum have helped enflame and the streets and the country that they have helped set on fire, and whose lives they are endangering. Quintessential bad actors acting in bad faith since day 1 of their operation, Tikvah has a lot of money behind them. But they have no constructive role and nothing valuable to contribute to the flourishing of a democratic state, not in Israel and not in the United States, and nothing of value to contribute to Jewish community.

They write:

Dear Friend,

As the intense debate in Israel over the government’s judicial reforms continues in full force—and the entire Jewish world follows along with great interest—we at Tikvah have thoughtfully considered what constructive role we might play as an institution dedicated to the flourishing of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

It is in this spirit that we offer two just-released contributions to this vital debate focused on what Tikvah does best: serious analysis and ideas.

First, our Chairman Elliott Abrams and CEO Eric Cohen have penned an
op-ed in the Jerusalem Post highlighting the importance of judicial reform as well as the higher national purpose of seeking a prudent compromise that restores unity and civility within Israeli society. As Abrams and Cohen write, “This is a time for statesmanship and wise compromise, not callous and inflammatory accusations…In our view, a negotiated and broadly consensual agreement remains the best outcome, incorporating those reforms that have the broadest democratic majority and postponing those that do not.”

You can read the full article by
clicking here or scrolling to the bottom of this email.

We are also pleased to share with you our comprehensive new reader, Thinking about Israel’s Judicial Debate, which collects a quarter-century of essays and arguments sponsored or published by Tikvah about the power of Israel’s Supreme Court.
You can sign up to receive it here.

Thank you—as always—for your
support. We hope these ideas make a valuable contribution in this moment of great consequence for the Jewish state.

About Tikvah and the Kohelet Forum there is this article in the mainline and centrist Times of Israel

About the Supreme Court and the coup, there are links in this blogpost that I recently posted here that reflect the considered views of Israeli scholars, lawyers, and legal-activists.

About conservative American Jews funding regime change and religious dictatorship in Israel, you can draw your own conclusions.

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(Secular Icons) Poster Protest Art (Liberal Israel)

An article here at Ha’aretz about a group of graphic art and design people creating posters against the regime coup in Israel. The activists formed a group whose work is offer at this Hebrew language FB page: Democracy Will Win” –Protest Posters.

According to the article, each poster goes through a process of group process and discussion. On Saturday, sites are set up in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where demonstrators can pick up signs for the protest that evening. They reflect a liberal-national ethos.

Particularly strong are the posters that pun on figures and motifs that belong to the repertoire of secular Israeli Jewish culture.

I am posting two images here, but there are more at the Ha’aretz website and and new rounds of current work at the group’s FB page.

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(Bnei Brak) Haredi Religion & Secular Protest (Israel)

This thread in Hebrew by Alon-Lee-Green from Omdim b’Yahad contains a lot of negative pushback. But Green explains why going to demonstrate this coming Thursday in Bnei Brak and doing so under the banner “No Democracy, No Torah” might be a bad, bad idea.

Religion is at the heart of the regime putsch in Israel and Haredi communities overwhelming support the new government, which would not have been put into power without that them. At issue raised by Green is respecting the line between political protest and targeting an entire community, many members of which are themselves socially vulnerable.

Suggesting that Green may have erred in judgment is this thread by Tal Schneider documenting the anti-government protest in Bnai Brak:

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(Democracy) Red Line (Jerusalem)

Artist-activists draw a red line in Jerusalem connecting the Russian Compoun and the Supreme Court

The organizer released this startement in Hebrew which I google-translated:

A red and pink stripe will be painted along the way, marking the inseparable connection between an independent judicial system and freedom of expression and creativity, leisure, culture and sports… History shows that the destruction of democratic institutions inevitably leads to persecution, silencing and censorship of art, culture and creativity.

The image of a bright red line intersecting the city speaks more powerfully than words, not just about these inseparable connections but about the sharp red lines upon which democracy depends and which cannot be crossed.

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