Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Coercion, Deviance and 'Jewish' Survival

"Anyone whose youth was similar to mine will have heard numerous sermons on the miracle of Jewish survival. Our Rabbis intoned: the ancient empires of the past were long gone, conquerors and conquered, yet the Jews lived on. Where were the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans?...Yet the Jews, a truly eternal people, had been protected by God, and were still here. Somehow the miracle of Jewish survival was supposed to instill in us a commitment to live as Jews, not to be the last links in the chain, but to remain loyal and pass on that allegiance to future generations.

From a historical perspective, however, Jewish survival does not look quite so miraculous. After the return from the Babylonian exile, at the time of Ezra, in the second half of the fifth century B.C.E., the Persian government enacted a series of regulations granting the Jews autonomy. These rules created a situation in which Jews had no status except as members of the Jewish community and subject to its discipline.

The Persian king could have established any law he wanted for the Jews, but he chose to make his law for the Jews the law of the Torah, as interpreted by local Jewish authority. Thus Ezra was empowered by king and counselors to find out how things stand in Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the law of your God with which Ezra was entrusted (Ezra 7:14). Ezra was to appoint judges with authority over all Jews in the province Beyond-Euphrates. The mandate of these judges for Jews who acknowledged their position is obvious. Those Jews who did not acknowledge these judges were to be "instructed." Whoever did not obey the law of God as interpreted by Ezra, and that was also the law of the [very temporal] king was to be punished (Ezra 7:25-26). Violation of Torah law was thus also violation of royal law. For that reason those who administered Torah law were effectively royal civil servants, [which may explain the recent surge of Israeli Charedim to play an active role in the Rabbinut of a government they don't believe is even legitimate] for which they received indirect compensation in the form of exemption from taxes (Ezra 7:24).

This system was so useful that it survived numerous empires and lasted until the emancipation of the Jews, beginning with the Revolution in France at the end of the eighteenth century. With emancipation, Jews now had choices previously unavailable. The community could no longer coerce them. The dam that had been holding back change was broken and could never be rebuilt. A new era in Jewish history began. Jewish survival up until the French Revolution and its aftermath was therefore not such a miracle. The political, legal, and religious arrangements under which Jews lived gave them no choice but to survive as Jews. (16)

Another way to put this point is to note that while communal autonomy was considered the ancient version of freedom of religion, its modern equivalent would be religious coercion. Thus, while autonomy allowed groups to live by their own laws (as opposed to those of their imperial sovereign) and in this sense was highly desirable, it also allowed those who determined the application of the local laws to coerce other members of their group to live by the interpretation of the laws they endorsed. In Ezra 7:25 this coercion was euphemistically denoted as "instruction." Thus, when considering the miracle of Jewish survival as a consequence of the circumstances under which Jews lived, coercion plays a significant part in that result.

Albert Baumgarten, "Two paradoxes: reflections on history and belief" Judaism,Summer-Fall, 2004

We are told, as individuals (though often in group setting), of the willing martydom of generations of individual Jews, the imposed martydom of the Shoah-generation - all of which may be utterly true - and of the adherence of American 'great' grandparents to minutae of halacha (not often the case; sources to come). Yet the quantified history of Jewish communal life is vastly more complex.

As soon as the traditional Ashkenazic religious authorities lost the power to coerce their constituency into communal religiousness -Jews in great numbers left communal observance.

Though this is treated as an "on-going" circumstance in many BT circles ("one which you can put a stop to"!...) - for historians and normal Jewish settings (secular, Reform, Orthodox, whatever) - it is an era that is long over; general, public communal observance has been the deviant for more than a century. Though it may be the reality that Observance is spiritually normative - the unconscious, unspoken (for fear of shattering the dream?), mindset that suggests observance is somehow still the "facts on the ground" amazes me. Non-observance was an established reality even in Eastern Europe well by Great Great-grandparents days - and normative in most of Europe by then. The teshuvot reflect the breadth of pluralism in observance, mounds of secular study reflect it.

But for two generations now, there have been new, strong Orthodox communities! There's infusion from BTs and Gerim; the lost descendants have 'returned' in some sense, right?

Some recent insights on religious coercion and the children of these returned children, in the setting of Israel, in the aftermath of Gush Katif and the failures of Religious Zionism;

To everyone's surprise, observant Judaism in Israel, which after the Six Day War had been optimistic and even eschatological, has suddenly become more vulnerable to post-modernism than has American Orthodoxy. As the prediction of imminent redemption made by their teachers came to be proven painfully premature, growing numbers of the young modern, observant community in Israel have been turning away from mutually-shared goals and ideals in search of alternative modes of self-fulfillment [previous generations had been moved by secular, ideological collective ideologies about the world at large - Communism, Socialism, Anarchism, Zionism, etc. Since the Boomers and the abject failure of both Flower Power and 'The' Movement, it's been a self-absorption, deemed a "search for Self"...]. Within religious life, this has led to a surge in Carlebach-davening, to a quest for spirituality including Eastern spirituality, and to a renewed interest in hassidut and finding one's own way to God - positive developments, accompanied, on the other hand, by less uniformity in religious behavior, in externals as well as creed. What is not "in" is coercion, and here there is a head-on clash with Judaism. Judaism demands kabbalat ol malchut Shamayim, the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven and the yoke of mitzvot [not hitzbiah min haShamayim - a concept perhaps quietly adopted from the reform movements], but acceptance of any yoke is anathema to the post-modernist ['yokes' are anathema, except those that come inescapably from nature - whether external tevah or internal teivah].

The whole piece is very much worth reading. So...comes a fascinating idea from the dreaded cultural comparison to further flummox this catharsis! In a recent essay by astoundingly-brilliant R. Joshua Berman, he indicates commonalities between ancient treaty structures and Covenant in Torah and Nakh, suggesting (among other amazing ideas), that connection is more in covenanted obligations between parties than "ecstatic affection" for the Divine, the "personal" sense of connection apart from communal obligations that is so pursued by many [footnotes excised, bracketed notes mine];

The terminology of the treaties and of the dynamics that governed the relationship between their partners is especially illuminative of several biblical passages. What does it mean to “love God” as the book of Deuteronomy demands? Medieval thinkers [with no recourse to a view of the Ancient Near East, apart from what came down in the mesorah] understood that one was required to yearn for God even as a man yearns for an unattainable woman [which has a clear, Medieval Goyishe parallel in concepts like "courtly love"]. The term “love” (ahav), however, plays an important role in the language of ancient Near Eastern political treaties. To love, in the political terms of the ancient Near East, is to demonstrate loyalty. In the El Amarna letters of the fourteenth century B.C.E., the king of Byblos (in Phoenicia, present-day Lebanon) writes to Pharaoh about the rebellion in his own city: “Behold the city! Half of it loves the sons of ‘Abd-Asir-ta [who fostered the rebellion], half of it loves my lord.” In another letter, a vassal king writes to Pharaoh, “My lord, just as I love the king my lord, so do the [other kings].” The converse is seen as well: Ancient Near Eastern treaties speak of breach of covenant as an act of hate.
Turning to the Bible, we encounter the same sense of the words “love” and “hate.” According to the book of I Kings, Hiram, the king of Tyre, sent representatives to the newly anointed Solomon, “for Hiram had always loved David,” that is, had always been loyal to him in covenant. To love God, then, may be understood not as an emotional disposition, but simply as a noble command for steadfast loyalty...Those who are said to love God are not necessarily those who reach an ecstatic experience of God’s presence, nor even in the contemporary sense of having a profound emotional attachment to God. To love God is simply to demonstrate fealty to him through steadfast performance of his commandments. To violate those commandments is to breach the terms of the treaty, or in other words, to display disloyalty, here called “hate.”

This renders profoundly serious the application of various halachic formulations to mitigate the sinfulness of Sabbath desecrators commonly used in the modern era. How well their use has stood the test of time is a matter of current discussion in academic circles (much of the Orthodox generally avoids discussing how complicated they are, since it's the basis of so much of their outreach work - and inreach work; "we have the 'heterim' we need, stop asking questions!"). Later in the piece, the trans-communal nature of Covenant/connection. ;

It emerges that the treaty imagery in the Bible bypasses the personage of the subordinate king and replaces him with the common Israelite. He is the one addressed by the covenant; he is the one upon whom God has bestowed favor; it is he who is enjoined to pay a fealty visit to the “court” of the divine sovereign...The degree to which the Bible envisions a direct relationship between the individual Israelite and the Almighty is unparalleled in the ancient Near East. Religious laws for the masses are sparse within Hittite legal codes, and are entirely absent from Mesopotamian ones. The common man in these cultures had only a small role to play in the public worship of the deity, which was relegated to the king and the priests. For all that we know about Mesopotamia, we possess no document that speaks of a role for the public in the official state liturgy or cultic ceremonies, even on the occasion of major festivals. There is no cultic protocol that ever beckons any member of the public to enter the temple.
By contrast, God’s interest in each and every member of the Israelite polity is expressed in the Sinai narrative, which refers to the Israelites as a “kingdom of priests.” Every member of the polity is called upon to behave in a priest-like fashion; and indeed, we find in the Bible parallels between laws that are specifically enjoined upon the priestly class and analogous laws for the common man of Israel.

Again, another piece that must be read in full. He has a new book out as well.


At 3/09/2016 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ferziger book on tolerance orthodoxy.


Post a Comment

<< Home

<< List
Jewish Bloggers
Join >>