Liel Leibovitz published an article in Tablet Friday (Dear Social Justice Warriors: Your Religion is Progressivism, not Judaism). It’s a nasty, sneering piece of work. He wants–had he only such powers–to excommunicate Jews working for social justice from the tribe.
Leibovitz is upset with Peter Beinart for suggesting that the organized Jewish community should take a stand against the burkini ban and against anti-Muslim bashing in general. Leibovitz refuses to name Beinart, derisively calling him “the columnist” and linking to his article in Haaretz. Leibovitz likewise sneers at Jewish social justice activists for Black Lives Matter and Jewish activists opposed to Israel’s now 50 year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Religious liberty and social justice are not Jewish values, implies Leibovitz. Jews should attend to their theology, and theology has nothing to do with social justice: “Wrestling with the bond that ties us to the Creator is hard,” says Leibovitz, “preaching some gauzy nicety about embracing the Other is not.” Our social democratic values correspond at best in a tangential way to those of Judaism, he claims. Craving social justice is a mood, not a belief system, says Leibovitz.
“That which is hateful to you, do not unto another, that is Torah; the rest is commentary, now go study!” That is the famous adage attributed to the first century rabbi Hillel. It has given rise to a long tradition of Tikkun Olam (healing the world through justice) in rabbinic Judaism. But that is not Judaism, no that is not Judaism at all, says Leibovitz:
It’s time we ended this farce. Those of us who find little use for Judaism except as a stage on which to perform the pageantry of progressivism should kindly take a bow and leave for other precincts that better suit their interests. They do the rest of us no favors by sticking around and insisting that we contort our beliefs to mean nothing more than whatever political agenda happens to be fashionable at the moment. …. But all of us who remain should … refrain from arguing that this engagement (with Judaism) somehow gives us the authority to make claims on anything but the faith itself; and to have the intellectual and moral decency to realize that while political and theological questions sometimes converge, they are never, at their essence, the same questions. As Jews, there’s really nothing else we ought to do.
Oy. If religious liberty and social justice are not values we can find in Judaism, then what’s left, and why should we bother? Arbitrary dietary laws? Arcane prohibitions on conjugal relations? Rules about the slaughter of animals in a temple 2000 years gone?
Ethnicity is what’s left, says Leibovitz; and that special feeling of being God’s chosen people; and Jewish law. “Whether you consider the Jews followers of a faith, members of a nation, or both,” says Leibovitz, “you can hardly ignore the historical and doctrinal truth that they became whatever they may now be one day long ago at the foothills of a mountain far away, when they accepted the strange burden of becoming God’s chosen children.”
But no. Jews did not become what they are today one day long ago at the foot of Mt. Sinai. As Leon Wieseltier said in his essay Against Identity in the New Republic (1994), quoting Hawthorne: “Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors; and let each successive generation thank Him, not less fervently, for being one step removed from them in the march of ages.” Time marches on. Our values change.
According to a comprehensive 2013 Pew study, 62 percent of American Jews believe being Jewish is more about culture and ancestry than religion. Nearly half of American Jews are intermarried. More than half don’t believe in God. Yet they continue to engage with Judaism. They continue to engage with Judaism through synagogues, through education, through study programs, through museums, through music, through social service groups, through engagement with Israel (both pro and con), and yes, through working for social justice and equality: Tikkun Olam. Fifty-six percent of American Jews in the Pew study, when asked “What does it mean to be Jewish?” answered working for social justice and equality. Only 19 percent felt that observing Jewish law was important.
Leibovitz says Judaism is all about observing Jewish law, and not about social justice. He succumbs to the lure of identity and the lure of wholeness. But, as Wieseltier noted in his essay, Jews are not one thing, they are many things. There is room for Chabad and room for atheists. And American Jews are not just Jews. They are Americans. They hold constitutional values of liberty, equality, fairness, and justice. They bring those values to their Judaism. They are children not only of European Jewry, but they are also children of the Enlightenment and ofHaskala. They are the product of our American universities and hold values and world views absorbed there. They are professionals and bring with them the values and ideals of their professions. They have connections to French, German, Austrian, Spanish, Polish as well as Israeli cultures. They, like all Americans, are many things.
The American achievement, said Wieseltier, is not a multicultural society: it is the multi-cultural individual. The multicultural individual is what tribalists like Leibovitz fear, Wieseltier suggested. They want to be one thing; but we are not one thing.
Leibovitz harkens back to the reactionaries of the counter-Enlightenment. Social justice and Enlightenment values are not universal, they don’t fit comfortably in Judaism says Leibovitz. J.G. Herder (1744-1803) shared that view. He too denied universal values. He regarded the nation as the basic unit of humanity. The identity of an individual is dependent on his culture, and Herder strongly affirmed the right of each people to determine its own path and worth. We must understand each culture on its own terms and as an organic unity, he said. That’s what Leibovitz is doing in his thinking about Judaism.
Herder claimed the nation (or Volk) is what provides the most basic and original horizon for understanding and interpreting the world, and that it is only insofar as we belong to a particular people that we can begin to make sense of our life. That’s what Leibovitz says about the Jewish “nation.” To be exiled or alienated from one’s people can be spiritually disastrous, suggested Herder, for an individual is nothing without the community that has nurtured him or her and from which the individual takes all his bearings.
But what is the relevant community? What does “all bearings” mean?
Leibovitz is channelling Herder and the Spanish Inquisition when he tells Peter Beinart, Jews for Black Lives Matter, and Jews working for justice in Palestine that they should all get lost. He wants to keep Judaism pure for those concerned with Jewish law (theology). He has no room in his Judaism for atheists. He has no room for Peter Beinart. He wants to excommunicate most American Jews.
But like Herder, and his successors on the European radical right, Leibovitz is wrong, wrong, wrong. American Jews are many things. And there is room in Judaism for all of them. Even for Liel Leibovitz.
An appeal to Tikkun Olam and looking to Judaism for inspiration for social justice is somehow inauthentic, suggests Leibovitz. But authenticity, Wieseltier reminds us, is a paltry standard by which to appraise an idea, or a work of art, or a politics. Authenticity, he said, is a a measure of provenance, and provenance has nothing to do with substance. Jewish law or theology may be ours, and still be false. A piece of art may be ours and still be ugly. A politics may be ours and still be evil.
Authenticity is reactionary, said Wieseltier. It is the idolatry of origins. Tikkun Olam and the inspiration to work for social justice should be celebrated, not least because these values are made from what was given. Such values are derived not only from the theology itself; they draw on broader traditions, including our Enlightenment values and our American values. Our values are richer for it, and not any less Jewish.
This post first appeared on Roland Nikles’s site on Saturday August 27.