Thursday, July 12, 2007

"Judaism" without Jews 

The phenomenon recounted in this article--the popularity of all things "culturally Jewish" in Jew-less Poland, the site of Auschwitz and the most deep-set historical anti-Semitism--is extremely complicated.

Some say that this "cultural trend" is a way of resisting strains of fascistic pseudo-Catholic nationalism. I'm sure that's partly true. But the idea that this "embrace" of "Judaism" signals a "transformation in the soul" or "ethics" of Poland--as suggested by numerous people quoted in the article--strikes me as absurd. The idea that Judaism is a real part of Polish culture that needs to be "recovered" also seems absurd to me. Jewish culture was enclosed and alienated, physically, in all of its former host countries in Eastern Europe. Surely the relation between Jewish culture and the cultures of Eastern Europe is real and worth considering; but the idea of a hidden "Jewish soul" of Poland is denial and wishful thinking.

I suspect something much more complicated is going on here in this "revival" of "Jewish culture." The very idea of a "Jewish culture" should raise red flags. Judaism is (or was) a religion and a community, or set of communities (all relatively enclosed, both by outer anti-Semitism and inner exclusivism--which no one will admit today). Like all real religions, Judaism was never just a "religion" in our sense, never just a set of beliefs. It was a polity with a symbolic language (or "culture") with associated metaphysical and cosmological presuppositions. Religion in the true sense names that whole cultural-political-metaphysical system. (In this sense Western political liberalism, with all of its unacknowledged presuppositions, is a bastardized "religion".)

The idea that the Jewish communities could be destroyed, their metaphysical and cosmological presuppositions abandonded, and yet their "culture" thrive--this is a nearly incoherent idea.

And yet this is the way we talk about Judaism, not just in Poland, but in the United States and even in Israel--which is not a shtetl but a modern Western liberal state that happens, in an utterly undefined way that has been debated constantly since 1948, to be "Jewish."

What is a Jew? Who is a Jew? Can one be a Jew without the old Eastern European political and juridical regulations of independent Jewish communities? Can one be a Jew without belief? For Israel, the answer to these questions has to be, Yes. But what, then, defines "Jewish-ness"? Is this a question of blood? Yes, it has always been a question of blood for Judaism. (This was what St. Paul objected to in his attacks on the Torah or "Law".) But can there be a Judaism of blood, without belief, without practice, without political significance? What sort of "culture" remains to give meaning to this bloodline? Is this "culture" sufficiently distinct from merely racial classification?

"Cultural Judaism" is not a religion, but a culture with a nebulous sacred significance--one that is dangerous because it is undefined and prohibits rational thought.

What is a "culture" in this strange, entirely post-modern sense?

It is an identity. It is a name, a signifier of belonging, a shield from behind which aggressive claims are made. Like all modern/American identities (gay, black, Hispanic, female, etc.), it is shifting, vague, and blends with others. And also like all such identities, the Jewish one is founded as a reaction against injustice--a dangerous way of forming an idenity, as it lacks positive content and is determined by violent external power.

Pre-Holocaust Judaism had a positive meaning--a community, a language, a political and juridical apparatus--apart from the hatred the Jews suffered during their hundreds of years in Europe. The new Judaism is defined by the Holocaust. Its negative self-definition is in fact more intense than the negative definitions of all other such identities, because the Holocaust has become the very symbol of irrational hatred and of the evil from which the liberal state must protect us. Modern identities, as they make their rights claims (most totally justified and necessary--do not misunderstand me) must make their appeal to the liberal state. An identity determined by rights claims depends on the beneficence of the state.

The association with the Holocaust makes Judaism different from other negatively, reactively constructed modern identities. And this difference is even more emphatic because Judaism (unlike skin color, gender, sexuality) is supposedly a "religion."

Judaism has in fact become the one and only sacred identity. It seems to me that "Judaism" now names the inherently sacralized character of the victims of the evil from which only the liberal state can protect us. Judaism is, more and more, the religion (hidden under the "guise" of culture, as in Poland) of the liberal state itself.


What is the difference between Judaism in Jew-less Poland and Judaism in the New York described by the Jew-fetishizing New York Times? What is a Jew? Are there any actual Jews, besides the Hasidim, in New York?


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?