Yesterday, Marc Tracy, a blogger for Tablet, posted a response to Jonathan Neumann’s COMMENTARY article, “Occupy Wall Street and the Jews.” As an aside, he posited that “dissent and heresy” constitute the “other, dialectical half” of Judaism’s obsession with “laws and authority.”
This, in its pithy way –stated as a fact so self-evident that it need not be justified – illustrates well today’s central American Jewish argument over Judaism and Jewish authenticity, revealing how far from the true facts of things a small but well-placed minority of writers, philanthropists, and activists have strayed
and how, by so doing, they have set the latest roadblock to an invigorated American Jewish future.
The basic claim is this: A central aspect of the Jewish tradition (“half” of it, let’s say) is opposition. Figures like Hannah Arendt or Spinoza are cast as the central Jewish protagonists in a supposedly long-arching tradition.
More charitably, the claim is most likely driven by a vague sense of the Talmudic tradition, the great and awe-inspiring discussions that characterized the intellectual life of the long-vanished academies at Sura, Pumbedita and elsewhere.
Perhaps there is justification in casting this tradition as “dialectical,” if one is reaching for the ancient Socratic sense of the word. More likely though in its common usage today it is derivative of the Hegelian tradition popularized by Marx and, especially when coupled with the supposedly sacred values of dissent and heresy, little more than an intellectual club thought to be sufficiently sturdy to batter away all opposing arguments.
This is the central problem with the “Judaism as dissent” meme. Modern terms and ways of thinking about politics are coupled with a thin Jewish veneer to make far-reaching and radical claims about the Jewish past and future. Clothed in supposed authenticity, they are cast as, at a minimum, worthy halves of a Jewish tradition we all must grapple with.
The great intellectual tradition of the Jews has always been based on an expansive conception of truth and obligation, and not just halfway. The fire of the Talmudic tradition is driven by the conviction by interlocutors like Hillel and Shammai that they were in search of eternal truths God had revealed to the Jewish people, not by the postures of dissent or, even less, heresy. The Talmud in fact has its own idiomatic heretic: Elisha ben Abuyah, a brilliant student derided in the text as acher, “other,” precisely because his radical dissent from those truths eventually moved him outside of the community.
Today’s partisans of Jewish dissent likely believe that they are replenishing a tradition stunted in those American synagogues where rituals like responsive English readings are indeed stale and inauthentic.
Glorifying dissent though is simply today’s version of packaging the Jewish tradition in a contemporary box deemed more palatable than the true tradition, whose wonders only reveal themselves through patient and difficult study and are usually not in style on Madison Avenue.
Worst of all, the dissent posture so attractive to this cohort and the world they live in probably does not have nearly the resonance those inauthentic synagogues had for our parents’ generation, and so does not have the resources sufficient to match even their accomplishments. Which means that in the efforts of writers like Tracy, if they cannot be dissuaded from their strange path, we are seeing the emergence of a tiny yet indulged and influential American Jewish generation with little chance of appealing to anyone but itself and therefore doing its part to ensure that another generation of American Jews must pass before we can find one able to grapple honestly with the majesty of its own tradition.