Israel and the Crisis in Judaism

Eli Zaretsky

The history of the American university is full of examples of wealthy, powerful men – often called ‘trustees’ – bullying the professoriate over what to teach and how to teach it, so there is nothing new in the recent successes of Marc Rowan and William Ackman in toppling the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. What is new is the extent to which this was done in the name of fighting antisemitism or protecting the rights of Jews. The incidents point to the terrific pressure to curtail support for the Palestinians that has emanated from Israel and the American Jewish establishment. The pressure also comes from outside the Jewish community. Jürgen Habermas, for example, has argued that because of Germany’s special responsibility to the Jewish people, Germans should not raise the question of genocide regarding Israel’s current behaviour.

Naturally, this has produced a reaction, at least among a portion of American Jews. Last month, the New York Times published a piece by Marc Tracy under the headline: ‘Is Israel part of what it means to be Jewish?’ It included a discussion of the diasporic theories of Rabbi Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth and author of The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance. According to Magid, ‘Israel has become the substitute for Jewish identity … we have at least a 2000-year history … We have to grab a hold of that and basically take it back from those who took it away from us.’ Whereas many Zionists claim that a Jew can achieve realisation as a Jew only by living in Israel, diasporism, as Tracy puts it, ‘holds the inverse: that Jews must embrace marginality and a certain estrangement from Israel the country, and perhaps even Israel the place.’

One of the epigraphs to Magid’s book comes from Eugene Borowitz: ‘Anybody who cares seriously about being a Jew is in Exile and would be in Exile even if that person were in Jerusalem.’ As Magid’s intervention shows, the question of loyalty to Israel rests on a prior question: namely, what is a Jew? This question is also relevant to the German situation, since it is unclear why German responsibility to the Jews should be equated with responsibility to Israel.

Not for the first time, there is a crisis in Jewish identity. Many Jews, including myself, abhor Israel’s current policies, the occupation, the dispossession and many other aspects of the Zionist project. And yet, they want also to affirm their identity as Jews. This suggests there is a conflict at the centre of Jewishness itself. Zionism v. diasporism, however, is not adequate to describe this conflict. Diaspora and Zionism are not alternatives but complements, in that they are both versions of national identity, but Judaism cannot be reduced to a national project. Diasporism, furthermore, is a transparent effort to integrate Judaism into the post-colonial paradigm, whereas the prior question is what distinguishes Judaism, not what it has in common with other peoples.

Around 1910, the philosopher Ernst Bloch faced a similar dilemma, when many of his fellow Jews, torn up by antisemitism, became Zionists. Bloch opposed Zionism, claiming it would substitute ‘mere nationality’ for ‘chosenness’. By ‘chosenness’, Bloch explained, he meant Judaism’s oppositional intellectualist culture, which embodied a clear opposition of ‘the good and the illuminated against everything petty, unjust and hard’. Chosenness v. nationality may be a better starting point for understanding the current dilemma.

The Hebrew sense of being chosen is grounded in the special character of the Hebrew idea of God, as having created the universe ex nihilo. This was not a uniquely Hebrew idea – we see it in ancient Egypt (Akhenaten), in Persia (Zoroastrianism) and later in Islam – but prior to Islam, no people pursued it with such sustained passion as the Jews. From the Hebrew point of view the alternative was a God that emerges out of some primal matter or archē, and therefore retains a connection to some non-divine substance, which reveals itself in the form of magic, polytheism or idolatry. This points to the contradiction built into Hebrew identity from the beginning: a universal God who created everything and everyone but chose one obscure, tribal, enslaved people to carry his message.

This contradiction deepens when we consider the Bilderverbot, the ban on images, which fostered an intellectual as opposed to a sensuous relation to God, and therefore was in tension with ideas of blood, race and national belonging. Kant appreciated the significance of intellectuality for Judaism. In The Critique of Judgment he wrote:

Perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law is the [second] commandment: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them.’

According to Kant, this ‘commandment alone can explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people in its civilised era felt for their religion, when they compared themselves with other peoples, or explain the pride which Mohammedanism inspires.’

The contradiction between Jewish chosenness, on the one hand, and universality, on the other, deepened with the rise of Christianity. The Christian claim that Jesus, the Messiah, was a Jew buttressed the Jewish claim to being special. At the same time, the Jews rejected this claim, which led to their being especially derided by Christians. Jews thought that the Christian apparatus of God having a son, of Mary and the Holy Ghost, of relics, saints, martyrs and so on, was a digression from the main point, which was to be naked before God. But many Christians – such as Augustine, Luther and Pascal – thought similarly, as did Muhammad. And Jews were in no position to criticise the idea that God had a son, much less an only son, since the idea that God had a chosen people was a version of the same idea.

The hegemonic ideas of European and American culture, such as freedom, progress and peace or reconciliation, were profoundly shaped by Christianity – not by ‘our Judeo-Christian heritage’, which is a Cold War neologism, akin to the idea that the Hebrew Bible is the ‘Old Testament’, but by the ‘good news’ of God’s sacrifice. Judaism survived in the quasi-secular form of oppositional or critical intellectuality, as Bloch claimed. Roughly speaking, I would identify three currents of contemporary thought that remain inflected by the original Jewish sensibility: intellectuality, messianism and cosmopolitanism.

Intellectuality. What’s distinctive about the Jewish tradition of intellectuality is that it has nothing to do with calculation or instrumental reason. Freud, in Moses and Monotheism, called it Geistigkeit, meaning a disposition to conceptual thought about the sacred, and the rise in self-esteem that comes with it. Freud traced Geistigkeit to the conceptual leap of the original monotheism. Walter Benjamin regarded Adam as the first philosopher. His concept of ‘aura’ – fundamental to the whole of modern film and media studies – is a direct descendant of the Bilderverbot. Both Freud and Benjamin paid dearly for their Jewishness. Benjamin died by suicide while fleeing the Nazis. Criticism of psychoanalysis has been plagued by antisemitic tropes, such as the idea that it is pessimistic, anti-social or sex-obsessed.

Messianism. While Marx’s theory of capitalism does not have particularly Jewish roots, what would Marxism be without its messianic dimension, according to which the proletariat, which was nothing, shall be everything? Certainly, this has Christian roots as well but, as Weber wrote in Ancient Judaism, the ancient Israelites generated the idea of a paradise in the past (the Davidian monarchy) projected into the future. In Weber’s words, ‘this did not happen only in Israel; but nowhere else did this expectation move into the centre of religiosity with such obviously ever-increasing force. The old covenant of Yahweh with Israel, his promise in association with the criticism of the miserable present, made this possible.’

Cosmopolitanism: Many modern Jewish thinkers were able to affirm aspects of their Jewish identity while breaking loose of the Jewish community. Spinoza was excommunicated by his synagogue. He rejected the idea of creation ex nihilo in favour of a quasi-atheistic conception of God as the totality of the universe. Yet Einstein, asked to describe his religion, said he believed in ‘Spinoza’s God’. Isaac Deutcher’s 1958 essay ‘The Non-Jewish Jew’, which has been adopted as a talisman by many secular Jews, gives six examples: Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and Freud. They were all Jewish by birth and their thinking began with Judaism but, in Deutscher’s words, all ‘went beyond the boundaries of Jewry. They all found Jewry too narrow, too archaic, and too constricting. They all looked for ideals and fulfilment beyond it, and they represent the sum and substance of much that is greatest in modern thought.’ In Freud and the Non-European (2003), Edward Said (a Christian Arab) praised Freud for putting Egypt (i.e. ‘otherness’) at the center of Jewishness. Jacques Derrida, born in Algeria in 1930, was a schoolchild when the German occupation of France led to the introduction of new anti-Jewish legislation. Derrida lost his French citizenship, but his work forged an enduring critique of all forms of identity, including Jewishness.

Given this history, how can we explain the grip that the nation of Israel continues to exert on so many Jews today? The answer lies in the second crucial event in Jewish history, after the rise of Christianity: the Holocaust. The Holocaust was both an event of mythic proportions and an event that has been understood in mythic terms. Fundamentally, the Holocaust cannot be restricted to the Nazi regime. From the 1880s on, every European country was debasing Jews in a new way that identified them with the rise of capitalism, and from Germany eastwards, Jews were being killed with some regularity. Israel today is composed overwhelmingly of refugees or the children of refugees, half from Europe and half from Middle Eastern countries. Every Jew since the Second World War has been told the story of the Holocaust. It shapes Jewish identity as much as the Nakba shapes Palestinian identity.

I believe it is possible to affirm Judaism today while recognising that, as Bloch warned, Israel is devolving into a ‘mere nationality’. At the same time, it is impossible to imagine a future for Palestine that does not preserve a place for the Jews qua Jews, whether in a single state or in two states. A true universalism, as originally imagined by the Jews, recognises difference, but we are as far from that as ever.


  • 21 February 2024 at 12:55am
    Khalid Mir says:
    Dear Eli,

    thank you for that very interesting piece. Do you think the intellectuality, exile and cosmopolitanism have contributed to a kind of 'worldlessness' in the modern age? (İ ask hesitatingly because İ know that that kind of question has lead in the past to a virulent, right-wing anti-Semitism).

    İ was struck by your notion of "versions". As with the 'son', can the intellectuality and 'chosenness' lead to a kind of idolatry whereby the knowing subject (or a particular people ) become everything ? (With regards the latter İ glanced a very interesting comment by Arendt on 'Ahavat Israel').

    Also, to what extent do you think 'chosenness' has- if at all- led to a kind of denigration of other, non-chosen people? Of course, I'm thinking of the Palestinians here.

    • 21 February 2024 at 1:14am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Khalid Mir
      thank you for a very interesting comment. First, I do think closeness has led to "wordlessness" in various ways, such as the luftmensch phenomenon but also Giestigkeit as I explained, and second, there is no doubt that the Jews feel "chosen." How much this has to do with their racist treatment of the Palestinians, I am not sure. Many peoples perhaps al feel superior to others. I was trying to get at something extra or different in the Jewish experience. hope this is helpful, Eli

    • 21 February 2024 at 7:35am
      Khalid Mir says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Yes, that was helpful, thank you. I was trying to get at whether you think the move from a theological approach (or from lived religious experience) to the conceptual/intellectual is itself a "leap"-a kind of 'fixing' and therefore idolatry (in some sense)? Was thinking of F. Rosenzweig's comment on 'wonder' and how philosophy tethers us to a problem instead of allowing it to be released into life.

      Yes, you're quite right. Wasn't trying to point out a kind of Jewish exceptionalism-lots of people (including Muslims), as you rightly say, think and have thought they're superior to others based on some form of identity. In this regard I *think* (but I'm not sure, I'm not a scholar) that the Qur'an alludes to that danger (2:112-114): Jews and Christians think only *they* will be saved but God is of the East and the West.

      Anyway, thanks for the reply Eli.


    • 21 February 2024 at 4:06pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Khalid Mir

    • 23 February 2024 at 7:22pm
      Charbb says: @ Khalid Mir
      You seem to be forgetting that Muslims and serious Christians also fervently regard themselves as "the Chosen People". Palestinians and Arabs have shown enormous contempt for Jews, refused to accept the UN Partition Plan of 1946 which was very generous to Palestinians and left the Jews with three barely connected pieces of Palestine. As for the "Nakba", there was a Jewish Nakba too, as Oriental Jews, some extremely ancient communities, were expelled en masse from Arab countries. They are now the majority in Israel.

    • 23 February 2024 at 7:26pm
      Charbb says: @ Khalid Mir
      Historically Muslims have shown extreme contempt for Jews and Hindus, regarding them as inferior, unwarlike people. The rage about Palestine is to a large extent because for once Muslims feel an inferior people has got the better of them.

    • 23 February 2024 at 8:36pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Charbb
      I think it's a little more complicated. Marshall Hodgson is great on Islam. It was a fantastic force for equality overall. Of course, there are deformations as well.

    • 23 February 2024 at 9:24pm
      Charbb says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      A "fantastic force for equality"? An extremely indulgent judgement. Historically in India the coming of Islam involved massive destruction of the Hindu heritage - temples, learned people, entire communities. Muslim chronicles revel in recounting the destruction. Ambedkar, the leader of the Untouchable or Dalit community in India, warned his people that whatever their bitterness with orthodox Hindus they should never side with Muslims or adopt Islam - under that there fate would be irrevocable. And so it has proved for the Dalits of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Their women are systematically kidnapped by Muslims and they are liable to be killed if anyone alleges they have criticised Islam. Some equality indeed. People like you are suckers for Islamist propaganda, the sophisticated type being far more dangerous. Like every civilization Islam has some achievements. But its exorbitant pride and incapacity for tolerance has made Islamism a grave international danger. Time for you to wake up from your sweet dreams in the land of abstract ideas and realise these hard facts.

    • 24 February 2024 at 3:03pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Charbb
      I recommend Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, for a contrary view. Islam pioneered the idea of spiritual equality for women, for orphans, for the poor.

  • 21 February 2024 at 12:57am
    Khalid Mir says:

    Where's that damned edit button?!

    • 21 February 2024 at 4:08pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Khalid Mir
      sorry. I answered this but my answer got lost. I do not think philosophy is superior to religion. I think there is a "leap_- but note the scare quotes from a religion still connected to magic, to spirituality per se, and a "leap" from astrology say to astronomy. Freud writes about the first leap, Plato about the second.

  • 21 February 2024 at 8:19pm
    Simon Gulliver says:
    Israeli Knesset member Hanoch Milbitsky:

    "You will die, your children will die, your grandchildren will die, there won't be a Palestinian state, there will never be," he shouted at Arab member Ayman Odeh following the voting regarding the possible recognition of a Palestinian state.

    The crisis is urgent for Jews, not least because it places them in terrible danger globally when the sky falls - as it inevitably must, sooner or later.

    • 22 February 2024 at 2:27am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Simon Gulliver
      yes, what Israel is doing is terrible. I was trying to redeem the meaning of being Jewish after what the Israelis were doing with it/.

    • 22 February 2024 at 7:56pm
      stettiner says: @ Simon Gulliver
      Simon Gulliver

      Well, these words, directed at Jews I hear every Saturday at the weekly "peace" demonstrations in my home town. Funny enough, I've heard them before October 7th and before the current "abhorrent" coalition came to power in Israel. Some things never change...

    • 23 February 2024 at 2:42am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ stettiner
      which words?

  • 21 February 2024 at 9:05pm
    Francis Landy says:
    I found this a fascinating post. Thank you. Coming from Jewish Studies and Biblical Studies, there were some points which I thought were overstated, or at least a matter of contention. It is completely true that the idea of exile, ever since Eden, is intrinsic to Judaism. One is never at home even when at home. The promise of the Promised Land is conditional; one is always a stranger there, one does not own it by right. Shaul Magid has done an invaluable service in demonstrating how American and Israeli Judaism have diverged, and how they are equally valuable. Where I started to have doubts is with your discussion of basic concepts and orientations in Judaism. For example, creatio ex nihilo is not a given. The first two verses of Genesis are entirely ambiguous. We simply do not know whether chaos ("the earth was waste and void") was preexistent or not. We do not even know what the word "create" means. These debates pervade traditional and contemporary scholarship. Similarly, while one strand of Jewish tradition is intellectualist (paradigmatically represented by Maimonides), another sees emotions as being primary (Judah Halevi). Likewise, the prohibition against making images is in the face of the plethora of images for God, against the impossibility of not imagining. Messianism can be narrowly nationalist, as in contemporary rightwing religious Zionism, or universalist, as, say, with the German Jewish philosopher, Hermann Cohen.
    I'm not quite so convinced as you are about the importance of the Holocaust. I think it is something of an alibi or a blind. I think that for many Jews Israel is what Benedict Anderson might call an imagined homeland. It plays the same role as Ireland for the Irish diaspora, or Serbia for the Serbian one.
    I feel intense love and loyalty towards Israel, but also profound despair over everything it has become. That is the real crisis. The myth of the lost homeland and the hope of restoration is surely intrinsic to Judaism, but it certainly is not its totality. Hence the importance of Diaspora.

    • 22 February 2024 at 1:33am
      dmr says: @ Francis Landy
      While I take Professor Landy's point (without partaking of the sentiment prompting it), his attribution of an imagined homeland to Benedict Anderson is a solecism. This great historian speaks of an imagined community - a different thing conceptually in being devoid of a territorial centre, text-based, and brought into existence by the mechanism and diffusion of print. The diasporic imagined community of Judaism exists in many ways in opposition to or perhaps in tension with the imagined homeland of Zionist aspitation.

    • 22 February 2024 at 2:30am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Francis Landy
      great post, Francis, if I may. I think all the points you make are worth long hours of discussion. This is exactly why I wrote my piece, to get especially but not only Jews thinking about who wea are and your tradition, not letting Israel dominate it. I am not convinced about exile, but Magic wrote my=e a beautiful email and posted my piece on his website, Eli

    • 22 February 2024 at 2:31am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Francis Landy
      sorry for the typos. I gather we cant edit these posts.

    • 22 February 2024 at 3:50pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ dmr
      this is a very interesting point. me imagined communities can never be terrestialized-- eg the Jewish, maybe, Augustine's City of God, others can. I want to think more on this, Eli

    • 22 February 2024 at 5:43pm
      Francis Landy says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Thank you, Eli. Time for a longer discussion - though I live in Canada! I would add, for Khaled, that the concept of chosenness is highly contested. Does it mean better (Deuteronomy says no)? Does it mean being "a light to the nations" (Deutero-Isaiah)? Should we drop it, with the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism? On exile, one could read Benjamin Sommer. As for imagined communities, I don't see the tension in Anderson. For him, the imagined community is the way the modern nation state constructed itself, and depends on defined borders. As for the antisemitic comment, I am floored.

    • 22 February 2024 at 8:34pm
      dmr says: @ Francis Landy
      Imagined communities as Ben Anderson understood the term are not necessarily bounded by nation-states geographically defined. His analysis is oriented on the intellectual and ideational origins of modern nationalism, a somewhat different concern. I think we can all agree that what is known as ‘Am Yisrael’ or ‘Klal Israel’ is just such an imagined community, a prime exemplar in fact.

      But as to your last sentence, what on earth is anti-Semitic about my comment? In referring to “Zionist aspirations” I had in mind political Zionism and its scripturally mandated project of a homeland in Palestine exclusively for the Jews. Political Zionism thus construed, and as distinct from cultural Zionism, is in any event a comparatively recent historical phenomenon. It is open to question whether the concept of ‘Am Yisrael,’ traditionally conceived, is co-terminous or synonymous with the idea of Jews-as-constituting-a-nation and thus in need of a return to the ancestral heimat wherein to attain sovereignity; or whether it is not, per contra, a late outgrowth or programmatic development of that concept.

      Like Shlomo Sand, I think it can be doubted that Jews, whether to be thought and spoken of as a civilization or a religio-ethnic collective, have long and actively sought to return to Zion from the diaspora as distinct from having been throughout their existence sentimentally and piously attached to Eretz Israel.

    • 23 February 2024 at 2:45am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Francis Landy
      I would love to meet if you ever come to New York, I don't expect to make it to Alberta. Moishe Boston, from Edmonton was a good friend though, Eli

    • 23 February 2024 at 3:36am
      Francis Landy says: @ dmr
      Dear dmr,
      By "anti-Semitic comment" I wasn't referring to you, Heaven forbid! I was referring to the person who described Judaism as "racist, arrogant, and murderous." That truly shocked me. You might have noticed that in mentioning Benedict Anderson I used the subjunctive: "might call an imagined homeland." I do think that the imagined community is inseparable from the national project.
      As for the rest of your comment I agree with you entirely.
      I am truly sorry for the misunderstanding.

    • 23 February 2024 at 3:38am
      Francis Landy says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      In fact, I live in Victoria, and everyone wants to come to Victoria!

    • 23 February 2024 at 3:38pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ dmr
      Francis explains this

    • 23 February 2024 at 8:33pm
      Charbb says: @ Francis Landy
      Muslims and serious Christians also fervently regard themselves as "the Chosen People". Palestinians and Arabs have shown enormous contempt for Jews, refused to accept the UN Partition Plan of 1946 which was very generous to Palestinians and left the Jews with three barely connected pieces of Palestine. As for the "Nakba", there was a Jewish Nakba too, as Oriental Jews, some extremely ancient communities, were expelled en masse from Arab countries. They are now the majority in Israel.

      Historically Muslims have shown extreme contempt for Jews and Hindus, regarding them as inferior, unwarlike people. The rage about Palestine is to a large extent because for once Muslims feel an inferior people has got the better of them.

    • 23 February 2024 at 8:37pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Francis Landy
      sounds great.

    • 23 February 2024 at 8:45pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Charbb
      The expulsion of the Jews from Baghdad, Cairo, Teheran and other Arab capitals is very important. Half of Israel are Mizrahi refugees. We need to keep the Israelis legible and grievable even as we fight for Palestinian rights.

    • 24 February 2024 at 3:04pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Charbb
      see my comment above

    • 24 February 2024 at 5:19pm
      Francis Landy says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Jewish exceptionalism is not exceptional.

    • 24 February 2024 at 6:37pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Francis Landy
      whaat does that mean? I do not call the Jews exceptional. I call them chosen. The US cals itself exceptional, but that has two meanings: Sui generis (Tocqueville) and superior (Ronald Reagan). You choose.

    • 24 February 2024 at 10:58pm
      Francis Landy says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      I was going to write you by email if I can find it. I think I was replying to the person who commented on Islam and Christianity. I was taking it in the second sense. The myth of being uniquely chosen is very widespread. "The English, the English, the English are best/I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest" (Flanders and Swann)

    • 25 February 2024 at 3:44am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Francis Landy
      well, yes , the problem of chosenness is difficult but worth exploring, Eli

  • 22 February 2024 at 2:16am
    Podge says:
    While you erudite gentlemen discuss how many angels can dance on a pinhead, may I remind you that Judaism today manifests as racist, arrogant and murderous?

    • 22 February 2024 at 2:30am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Podge
      I don't agree, obviously.

    • 22 February 2024 at 3:33am
      Khalid Mir says: @ Podge
      With respect, İ think you're slightly missing the point, Podge. Mr. Zaretsky is not focusing exclusively on İsrael's atrocities but, rather, on what it means to affirm one's faith *given* her current "abhorrent" policies (I'd question his use of the word 'current' but that's me).

      İn a somewhat similar (but not identical) vein, Muslims are not under any obligation to constantly denounce the actions of state X, Y or Z (or those of non-state actors).

      İ think the aniconicism in both of our traditions is of profound import. Where I disagree with Eli is on his apparent belief that the different "versions" (of 'sonship,' but equally cosmopolitanism and intellectuality) are not radically different in their religious and secular/modern/nationalist modes.

      That's not an argument against intellectuality per se but just a questioning of what it means without faith, humility or the Truth; similarly, 'chosenness' (for me) without faith leads to the same kind of arrogance. I'm not sure if the two are related. Maybe they are?

    • 22 February 2024 at 4:12am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Khalid Mir
      thanks again for this Khalid-- I think there is a lot of overlap between islam and Judaism on many of these points. I personally w]do not consider myself religious in the ordinary sense, but I certainly do not consider myself secular either. If that makes sense.

    • 22 February 2024 at 4:51am
      Khalid Mir says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Well, İ used to say: the only religious bone I have in my body is my funny bone (İ now find that embarrassing, silly). So, not 'naturally' religious-not that İ care too much for that word. My liberal friends think I'm a closet mullah and the mullahs think I'm a liberal! ("Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew your cosmopolitan sympathies").

      Like Walser (or Levi's 'Argon') İ do feel like dropping out or not inter-acting. İ was very drawn to what you said about exile (although that word sounds a touch too dramatic). The trick is, İ think, to find oneself at home in this homelessness. So, yes, to me you make a lot of sense, Eli.

    • 22 February 2024 at 3:51pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Khalid Mir
      great! Thanks so much for this, Eli

  • 22 February 2024 at 3:09am
    brodix says:
    Coming at the issue of monotheism from the cheap seats, it seems to me the logical fallacy is that, however one might see it otherwise, the universal is the elemental, not the ideal.
    A spiritual absolute would be the essence of sentience, from which we rise, not an ideal of wisdom and judgement, from which we fell. More the light shining through the film, than the narratives played out on it.
    Truth, beauty, platonic forms are ideals. The creeds, codes, heroes, narratives at the core of every culture are ideals. Without which they would break apart. Tower of Babel. Essentially a center of gravity. But like gravity is a focus of the mass, more a focus of the desire, than a source of the desire. The eye of the storm. The grain of sand at the center of the pearl.
    Democracy and republicanism originated in pantheistic cultures. The family and cycle of life as the ideal. the young god, born int he spring, to told sky god and the earth mother. Though by the age of the Olympians, zeus didn't give way to Dionysus. Tradition prevailed over renewal. as the old are loathe to give way tot he young.
    Which provided the fertile ground for the story of Jesus, crucified for questioning the establishment and risen in the spring, to take root.
    Ancient Israel, on the other hand, was a monarchy. The Big Guy Rules. Like the religion. When Rome adopted Christianity as state religion, it to had started to calcify, so it was the monotheism that served to validate the Empire rising from the ashes of the Republic. The Big Guy Rules. While the origins of the Trinity were shrouded by the Holy Ghost, as the Catholic church didn't actually do renewal, being the Eternal Institution, or women, for that matter.
    So the monotheism became the eschatological basis for the next 1500+ years of monarchy. Divine right of kings. As opposed to "Consent of the governed."
    When the West went back to democracy and republicanism, it required separation of church and state, culture and civics.
    It seems that to culture, good and bad are some cosmic conflict between the forces of righteousness and evil, while in nature, it's the basic biological binary of beneficial and detrimental. The 1/0 of sentience.
    While this might be useful and necessary to get the community functioning as one super organism, it does totally confuse our basic psychological evolution, given the mind is more a function of resolving the problems, than basking in the benefits. Too much of a good thing can be bad and the bad can be educational.
    Morality is not an absolute, because if it were, it could not be transgressed, like a temperature below absolute zero. Instead it is an ideal. The codes and creeds of a healthy society. The primary of which is collective responsibility, with rights as reward. While such documents as the US Constitution focus on rights, when it was being written, responsibility was a given, as the irresponsible went hungry.
    When rights are ordained and responsibility is optional, it is socially necrotic. Tower of Babel.
    The problem with making an Almighty God the moral policeman, was that as fear of God faded, it was the Will to Power that rose to fill the void, left by the lack of an organic code of behavior. Those most adept at that were not the knights in shining armor, as they represented the old code, but the amoral assholes who lie, cheat and steal as a matter of principle, as getting ahead is all that counts.
    The problem being that as they break down the social super organism, people are left as individual operators, like colonies of bacteria, rather than multicellular organisms. The advantage of multicellular organisms being the ability to sense and navigate the surroundings, not just crash up against the edge of the petri dish/resources.
    We are both organisms and ecosystems, nodes and networks. The node is one. The network is oneness.
    The centripetal and centrifugal forces of society, age and youth, conservative and liberal, have to work together, not just polarize.

    • 23 February 2024 at 2:46am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ brodix
      thank you. These are complicated ideas.

    • 23 February 2024 at 10:56am
      brodix says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      You are welcome.
      Actually in some ways, they are very simple. Basic cycles of expansion and consolidation. It is just that as they manifest on the surface psychology of people, it's the endless building up, breaking down and then the fragments reassembling, such that they can never be reengineered. That's why it becomes useful to think in terms of the basic dynamics.
      When it's millions and billions of people, it's not so much culture and politics, as biology and physics.
      If you want, the longer form;

  • 23 February 2024 at 12:23am
    Graucho says:
    What has always struck one about the unique Jewish contributions to learning is a remarkable ability to think outside the box. When you are an outsider on the inside unblinkered by the cultural norms that others around you take for granted then questioning assumptions comes more easily. Spinoza started from first principles, Marx questioned capitalism, Freud that humans thought rationally, Schoenberg that music had to be tonal, Einstein that space and time were absolute. Now Jews like gentiles are cursed with the blinkers of nationalism. We are all the poorer.

    • 23 February 2024 at 2:48am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Graucho
      yes, jews definitely benefitted intellectually from not being included in the dominant majority, in which every one assures everyone else that the dominant ideas are dominant because they are self-evidently true. The jews were in the position of saying the emperor has no clothes.

    • 23 February 2024 at 6:12am
      Khalid Mir says: @ Graucho
      That's a very interesting comment. Definitely agree that there's a lot going for being an outsider, for not being conformed to the world. However, İ think the ceaseless questioning of assumptions, once the excitement's worn off, can be a bit childish (not to mention its relation to liquid modernity, late capitalism).

      A Shaykh İ once met (not that I'm into that kind of thing) wrote, 'when the questions ceases, then Truth shines'.

      İt's not just emperors; does anyone have any clothes on today!? İt is said the settlers hated the 'Red Man's' love of secrecy. İn a transparent society everyone and everything must be 'exposed'. At the end of the day I think there's a big difference between curiosity ("question, interrogate everything") and studiousness.

      So, I'm not wholly convinced we are all the poorer- at least not for the reasons you seem to be suggesting.

    • 23 February 2024 at 11:28am
      XopherO says: @ Graucho
      Well said Graucho. I immediately thought of Kafka. The contributions to arts and sciences from Jews in the diaspora surely goes well beyond simple numbers. Eli Zaretsky included! though I must confess I have not followed all of this discussion - but it has been thought provoking.

    • 23 February 2024 at 3:41pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Khalid Mir
      I don't think there is any alternative to a critical intelligentsia. And criticism should never end. I do believe we are in danger of losing this today.

    • 23 February 2024 at 3:59pm
      Khalid Mir says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      İ certainly think you're right about the loss of common sense and of intelligence (replaced by ideology, emotion, fundamentalist unthinking, machine thinking etc.).

      Not so sure about the so-called "critical thinking" bit. Anselm: İ believe in order to understand. Or İris M: "M wanted to see D *lovingly*, not just accurately". And there's a lovely line by Herzog (Bellow,of course) which goes something like: İ seek an imperfect understanding, which is Jewish.

      Why not turn out criticality onto criticality itself? Reflection, understanding, love's knowledge, an acceptance of unknowingness, 'sound thinking', team reasoning,..there are so many other ways of 'thinking' and being in the world.

      Criticism should never end? Why not, Eli? İ think the hypertrophy of the mind (not the intellect in the medieval sense) in the modern west is from a certain perspective dazzling but it's surely at least asking,along with Leo Strauss, if there aren't other kinds of enlightenment. No?

    • 23 February 2024 at 4:07pm
      Khalid Mir says: @ Khalid Mir
      I'm not sure if it is Herzog now that I think of it! The quote is:

      "I count on this. Not on perfect understanding, which is Cartesian, but on approximate understanding which is Jewish."

    • 23 February 2024 at 8:41pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Khalid Mir
      I would say what we need is complicated, more than approximate. Definitely we need to go beyond Descartes. Spinoza actually criticized Descartes on precisely these grounds. Clear and simple ideas were not sufficient. Leibniz made the same criticism as Spinoza. but they were not defending approximations so much as depth and complication in thought. Richness, Inclusionof the subject in the object, that sort of thing.

    • 24 February 2024 at 12:41am
      Khalid Mir says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      I see what you're saying Eli but, not so sure, not so sure. I haven't studied philosophy but from personal experience İ increasingly feel there's a kind of 'richness' from simplicity (Aurelius: cut out all things; welcome everything). İris says it better- and maybe this is a function of age- do we really need the complications of endless possibilities and choices or do we need the right things- and a loving gaze toward them? What is the role of necessity in the structure of our thinking and in our lives?

      I suppose the modern subject is more complicated (complex?) in a way, maybe more three-dimensional, time-ridden/riddled. İs that necessarily or always such a good thing? A lot hinges on who this 'subject' is, no?

      At the end of the day it's our humanity that can make us sophisticated, rich; an over-emphasis on criticality, 'truthfulness' , the mind can, in my opinion, lead to a narrowing, an artificial kind of cleverness. Doubt, Allama Iqbal would say, takes place within the circle of faith. To think that we can and should always take a critical stance toward our assumptions seems neither possible or desirable.

    • 24 February 2024 at 3:07pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Khalid Mir
      I completely agree with the above remarks, Khalid.

    • 24 February 2024 at 5:26pm
      Khalid Mir says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Keep well, Eli. Look forward to your next post! Until then, Nanu Nanu.



  • 23 February 2024 at 7:51am
    MattG says:
    Jack Dann published a wonderful anthology of stories about alternative Jewish identities. It is called "Wandering Stars".

    • 23 February 2024 at 3:41pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ MattG
      I'll look at it

    • 23 February 2024 at 6:07pm
      MattG says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      just look at the list of contributors and you will want to get it

    • 23 February 2024 at 8:47pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ MattG
      Walter Benjamin, who is one of my heroes, was a huge fan of science Fiction. He was not a religious Jew at all, nor a Zionist. But I think he would have loved the idea of a genre of Jewish science fiction. Anyway, I love it.

  • 23 February 2024 at 10:31am
    David Gordon says:
    Many thanks to the LRB for Zaretsky's excellent and thought-provoking article, and the fine discussion that has followed.

    Civilisation still wins.

    • 23 February 2024 at 3:42pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ David Gordon
      so nice for you to say this. I feel the same way and very much appreciate LRBfor hosting this and other similar discussions.

  • 25 February 2024 at 8:43pm
    Neal Stiffelman says:
    Completely agree with the author's analysis, and share his outlook. Glad to realize I am not alone. Thank you.

  • 26 February 2024 at 2:41pm
    Matthias Gerberding says:
    If the enemies of Israel and the Israelis themselves would perceive the Israel of today in 2024 as a 'mere nationality', I think this would help Israel. One interpretation of the attacks on Israel is that a fantasy of Israel as an all-powerful supernation is attacked.

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