May 21, 2012

IT IS BECAUSE LIBERALISM CAN NOT BE SQUARED WITH JUDAISM THAT THEY ARE NO LONGER RELIGIOUS:

The End of the Jewish Left: Political theorist Michael Walzer and others argue about the death of the century-long Jewish-Leftist alliance (Adam Kirsch, May 16, 2012, Tablet)

Looked at another way, however, the softening mainstream liberalism of American Jews can be seen as the feeble remnant of what was once a fiery and uncompromising leftism. Indeed, as historian Tony Michels said at the YIVO conference, the history of American Communism "cannot be understood without Jews." But the mood of the conference was best summed up in the title of the keynote address, by the political philosopher Michael Walzer: "The Strangeness of Jewish Leftism." What was once a proud inheritance now seems like a problem in need of a solution. For many Jews, it remains axiomatic that Judaism is a religion of social justice and progress; the phrase "tikkun olam" has become a convenient shorthand for the idea that Judaism is best expressed in "repair of the world."

In his speech, and in his new book In God's Shadow: Politics and the Hebrew Bible, Walzer offers a contrary vision of traditional Judaism, which he argues "offers precious little support to left politics"--a truth that he recognized would surprise those who, like himself, "grew up believing that Judaism and socialism were pretty much the same thing." If a leftist political message cannot readily be found in the traditions of Judaism, it follows that the explosion of Jewish leftism in the late 19th century was actually a rupture with Jewish history, and potentially a traumatic one.

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Walzer's reluctance to associate Judaism too simply with leftist politics, or indeed with any politics, represents a break from his earlier thinking. In his influential 1985 book Exodus and Revolution, for instance, Walzer argued that the Exodus narrative had provided a template for generations of revolutionaries and progressives in Western society, offering a model of how to escape an oppressive past and create a better future. The contrast with his new book could not be sharper. In this work, Walzer reads the Bible with an eye to its explicit and implicit teachings about politics and finds that its most eloquent message on the subject is silence. "The political activity of ordinary people is not a Biblical subject," he writes, "nor is there any explicit recognition of political space, an agora or forum, where people congregate to argue about and decide on the policies of the community."

Coming from Walzer, who co-edited a multivolume treatise on "The Jewish Political Tradition," and who has been one of the leading theorists of mainstream left-liberalism for decades, this emphasis on the antipolitical nature of the Bible is striking. In his YIVO speech, he listed six central features of traditional Judaism that made it a conservative force, including the very idea of Jews as a chosen people--an idea that cannot easily be made to harmonize with universalism and egalitarianism.

Where the Greek tradition made room for public decision-making, Walzer argues, the same space in the Bible is filled entirely by God: All historical and legal initiatives must come from the deity, or appear to do so. In fact, the Pentateuch contains three separate legal codes, in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, which contradict one another in many details and clearly were written by different groups of Israelites at different times. But because of the pious fiction that all these laws came from the same God, it was impossible for the legal deliberations that created them to become public; the lawmakers hid themselves behind a divine facade. They were, Walzer writes, "the secret legislators of Israel," and as long as legislation remains secret, it cannot be truly political.

The same principle holds true of the later history of the Israelite kingdom. Much of In God's Shadow deals with the ambiguous status of the prophet in the polity of ancient Israel. When contemporary liberals and leftists want to anchor their beliefs in Jewish tradition, it is to the prophets that they most often turn: the scathing denunciations of Amos and Jeremiah, the messianic vision of Isaiah. "We have a picture in our mind of the people described by Amos," Walzer writes. "They are, so to speak, the local bourgeoisie," and Amos speaks for the Israelite proletariat.

But if you look at the actual content of the prophets' message, Walzer points out, its political bearing is not so clear. "Theirs was ... a fiercely antipolitical radicalism," he writes, which had little to say about the power structures of Israelite society. Indeed, one of the themes of In God's Shadow is that the writers of the Bible were so uninterested in politics that they included remarkably little information about how the Israelites were actually governed on a day-to-day basis--almost everything we can say about the functions of kings, judges, and royal officials is speculative. When the prophets called for justice, they didn't mean a redistribution of power but a society-wide submission to God: "God's message overrode the wisdom of men."
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Posted by at May 21, 2012 6:46 PM
  

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