Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Jewish People

There was comments on my first Austritt post (12/05) by someone whose nom de plume is A Yid that was incisive and relevant. My post is in response to his comment. I believe the following can be understood more or less on its own, but if someone has the time and interest, it should be read in conjunction with A Yid’s two comments and my two responses.

I said in my response to A Yid, “I think of the Jewish people as empirical entities, all the Jews who are alive today plus, in an extended way, all those Jews who lived and died and all those that will be born in the future.” He responded in part, “What is your view based on? Do you mean a sort of white supremacist racial Jew? Or outdated 19th century nationalism? Or just a fuzzy-wuzzy feeling of Jewishness with no definition at all?” My answer is, “Yes, Yes, Yes, plus a lot more.”

I want to introduce Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance. There are many terms that do not have a full and complete definition. The instances of the term share certain similarities and relations with each other, but these traits need not be identical in every instance. Some words don’t have to be totally defined and yet we still know how to use the word, because we are familiar with various clear cases and we know some of the relevant traits. These family resemblances might pick out fuzzy sets, concepts with blurred edges. A fuzzy set is not a problem when we are not thinking as Talmudists. The lack of precision does not make the expression meaningless.

Back to our topic: In order to use the concept ‘the Jewish people’ there need not be any one thing they share in common. The edges of the concept may be and in fact are blurred. There are halachic definitions of who is a Jew to be sure, and I am talking today of halachic Jews. Patrilineal-descent-Jews and goyim who identify as Jews are a separate topic, but any reasonable Volkish opinion depends on the idea that Orthodoxy is not the only legitimate way of understanding what is meant by ‘’the Jewish people.’’

What do the Jewish people have in common, if not a common specific religious belief and practice? The answer is many are religious, although the specific religious beliefs and practices are not identical but are similar to a greater or lesser degree. Some have no religious beliefs, but share other traits, i.e. common history, culture, and responsibilities such as being part of the IDF. Some are related genetically to the majority of Jews, but common genes are not necessary; it is just one more common trait. Some have a fuzzy feeling of Jewishness, which is another trait that they may share in common with other Jews. Neither feeling fuzzy nor feeling- Jewish are absolutely necessary. Some share what A Yid called an “outdated 19th century nationalism” i.e. Zionism, by living in Israel and speaking Hebrew. (We should all be so lucky to live in a world where nationalism is outdated.) And there are many other traits that I have not mentioned or need to mention since I am not defining the term by stating necessary and sufficient conditions.

Imagine a center, out of which come many ropes. Each separate rope is tied to an individual Jew. The various ropes are made up of different strands. The strands are not identical but overlap. Mr. A is tied by a rope with strands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5: Mrs. B is tied by a rope with strands 2, 3,4,5,6. Ms. C. is tied by a rope with strands 2, 3, 4. As we get out further from the center, there are people who are tied with only one strand. There are even cases of people who believe they are tied to the Jewish people and are not.

When it says that all Jews co-sign for each other, in my view it means at least all who are halachically Jews, even though they do not share the exact same connection, to the center. If someone wants to assert that ropes with strands 17-22 are the primary ropes and all others are secondary, that’s fine by me. If they go on to say it’s the one true rope and the only one God really approves of, again okay. All I am arguing is that we are connected with receive benefits from and have responsibilities to other Jews who are Jewish in non-paradigmatic ways. I therefore reject A Yid’s thesis that if Orthodoxy is the one true religion of the Jews, then what is good for Orthodoxy is good for the Jewish people. There may be things that religiously or otherwise strengthen an Orthodox Jew, but cause many other Jews to be less connected both to the center and to other Jews. Floating away from Judaism and the Jewish people is not good for a Jew. An example might be if all charity money went only to Orthodox Jews. (For examples how Daas Torah and halacha can conflict even with an Orthodox Jew’s welfare and well being in this world see my post ‘Gadol-Gadol on the Wall’, 8/14. )

I believe our responsibility to Jews who are dead and to our own history is less than our responsibility to Jews who are alive. Although we speak of praying for the elevation of the souls of our departed, that obligation is, relatively speaking, a minor obligation. In the same way, we have to discount our responsibilities to future generations of Jews. I can not count the interests of a Jew five generations forward as being of the same value as a Jew alive today from a public policy point of view. So although I am arguing for a sort of catholic Israel, I acknowledge a high discount rate both for the past and the distant future is plausible.

If A Yid discounts the welfare and well being of non-Orthodox Jews at such a high rate that effectively they can float out to sea for all he cares, it is not for me to tell him how to readjust his preferences. I do believe however that non Orthodox Jews would be very interested in knowing if his attitude is typical. I believe it is eccentric even for charedim.

Two more items…I want to emphasize the obvious that the primary responsibility for remaining connected to the Jewish people is on the individual Jew. There is only so much others can do if a Jew wants to walk out the door. Nevertheless, even though our communal responsibilities to each other are not endless or infinite, they do exist, and they exist even with respect to Jews who have violated the rules of the Torah.

The fact that I and others feel we must argue these points show how we have become fractured and separated. It also shows how our language coarsens our perceptions and feelings. Our language has become politicized with terms like frum and not frum, Orthodox or not, right wing this and left wing that. We constantly measure each other by degrees of religiosity. A poet, a dreamer, an artist, a philosopher, a social person who cares for people as such would have other primary ways of relating to the world than by immediately thinking…frum , he exists…not frum, he’s off our radar screen. Where did we all learn to speak and think this way? Where did we learn to think and feel this way?

To be continued


At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post. I like the way you tie in Wittgenstein. Were you the one who coined the term "Geek Judaism". That was very helpful for me. I feel more Jewish now that I know I have a label. Thanks.

At 9:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps there is also a sub-genre of "Geek Judaism" that we can call "Wikipedia Judaism" and consists mainly of writing and editing Wikipedia articles on Jewish topics. Am I alone?

At 1:13 PM, Anonymous Berthold in Arizona said...

Excellent and thought-provoking post, as always.
The irony is that the achievement of unity of the Jewish People is accomlished effortlessly by the violent antisemite. In the holocaust, left, right, frum, secular even intermarried were unified in destruction. Why can't we see the same unity?

At 1:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

b/c Hashem says so

At 2:52 PM, Anonymous Goofball said...

I am glad I am not the only one who sees the relationship of the PI family relations principle to this situation. Judaism was the first example I thought of when I first read of the concept. However, I am now undecided about whether I buy Wittgenstein's solution to the old problem of dealing philosophically with fuzzy concepts as they are employed in the world.
True, the old-fashioned idea that there must be an explainable thing which ties the category together other than the name itself is fallacious, and rejected by Witt. for a good reason: names can only be "explained" in terms of other names, and explanations must come to an end somewhere. Good, except that maybe infinite regress is NOT after all proof that a schema is senseless.
As I understand it, there is a solid tradition of nominalism (of realism/nominalism) fame in and around Judaism. Maybe we should thus define Judaism in traditional nominalist terms rather than than in those of Wittgenstein's dubious nominalist/realist compromise. Without, perhaps, going so far as to say with Kripke that a Jew is a Jew in all possible worlds merely by us calling him a Jew.

At 4:13 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

big-s skeptic...I did not coin the term , but I did write a post that circulated some where I explicated the concept. I have not developed the concept in further posts because of my sense that neither my Orthodox nor secular readers has much interest. I am with you on Wikipedia…after the wheel and fire it is right up there as a great invention.

anonymous… maybe so but you don’t know the exact extent of how far to be a kanai(zealot), unless you feel for any degree n of austritt, austritt n+1 is even better and more in tune with Hashem’s will. Just look what was done at the end of the comments section on a post announcing that the conservatives will soon decide on gay rabbis over at Rabbi Student’s Hirhurim blog. IMHO it was over the top and disrespectful, and the fanatic who did the mugging should ask Rabbi Student for mechila (forgiveness).

Goofball…hey Reb Goofball…Am I pleased to know you exist! Very clever especially the Kripke aside.

One thing I feel strongly about is that essentialism is bringing down both Jewish political philosophy as practiced on the blogs and is a hindrance in Talmudic studies. As long as Brisker people keep on talking about the essence of the essence of the thing we’re going nowhere. I spoke a little bit about this in my post on Austritt Psychology and got zero responses.

Be that as it may it would be nice to develop a blog on CONTEMPORARY analytic philosophy, political theory and Jewish issues. I am not the man, but if you know people who could run such a blog I would be happy to kibbitz.

At 11:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What counts as "CONTEMPORARY analytic philosophy"? I presume you mean "not medieval," but then what? Tarski? Russel? Putnam? Fodor?

At 8:53 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

big-s-skeptic...yes, post 1950's analytic philosophy, centering both on meaning and reference and political and moral philosophy.

Philosophy is so much more than Maimonides on X. If there was a contemporary moral philosophy blog, many issues coud be discussed at a deeper level than is now possible.

At 10:40 PM, Anonymous Noach said...

A couple of comments:

First, to say how much I enjoy the clarity and warmth of your writing, especially the invitation to "walk with you" thinking through ideas and cultural observations.

Second, I'm intrigued by the "non-essential" (so to speak) approach - it seems a good tool in trying to understand our well-documented fissile and obdurate characteristics in communities. I wonder if you've come across these two books over the fence (again so to speak, for I'm pretty sure neither has made it into frum circles, especially since their authors are not Jewish). One is is Raymond Williams' "Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society" in which he describes his own keyword as a "word that binds" i.e. is defined socially and culturally by actual usage (and not by an inner idealist essence).

The other book is more philosophical (and a little hard to read, actually): "Closure: A Story of Everything" by Hilary Lawson, who argues that instead of holding the world as a thing to be described we should hold it as open - and it is we who close it with our stories ...

Link to AmazonOnlineReader back-cover:

At 11:00 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

noach... The idea that concepts have essences is almost universally held in the Torah world, because it seems to be a natural outgrowth of Talmudic desire to have recursive rules.

I remember reading and talking about Raymond Williams' book Culture and Society. He was one of the first 'literary Marxists' Today with Jameson and Terry Eagleton his book is almost quaint. When the book you mentioned came out, my head was elsewhere and I missed it. I do not know the Hilary Lawson book.

I much appreciate knowing you enjoy the blog.

At 8:02 AM, Anonymous A Yid said...

It looks like this is going to split off into a seperate discussion. :-)
Before going further and in response to "I do believe however that non Orthodox Jews would be very interested in knowing if his attitude is typical" I have absolutely no idea. I speak for myself.

In order to have a debate you have to first define the premises.
Wittgenstein is an elegant evasion of a precise definition but let's take the "fuzzy" definition you're giving. Is it your personal theory? On what are you basing it on?

You say "but any reasonable Volkish opinion depends on the idea that Orthodoxy is not the only legitimate way of understanding what is meant by ‘’the Jewish people.’’/quote"
I take that to mean that your definition, such as it is, is not your understanding of the Orthodox religious view of the Jewish nation.
Is it the conservative or reform view? Your personal philosophy?
What is a reasonable volkish opinion? Do you believe in the collective, and in subjugating the individual to the collective?
Why should an individual have any responsibilities at all to a fuzzy collective Jewish people? Because of some coincidental commonalities? In what way is this different than Black Power or WHite seperatism?
Do all Chinese have a responsibility to the Chinese "volk"?
Do you think an American convert to Satmar Orthodoxy has anything in common with an Israeli who's paternally jewish? Or with a convert to Reform in East Europe?
(perhaps unfortunately, some of us are always thinking as "talmudists") :-)

At 12:20 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

a yid...We agree the relationship of having ‘something in common with’ (SICW) is nor transitive. Thus A has SICW with B And B has SICW with C , but A need not have anything in common with C . I have no problem with the relation being intransitive; you apparently do. We also agree that Talmudic thinking requires a definition which generates a clear cut between those who belong to the class of X and those who don’t. Philosophy, hashkafah is not halacha.

A volkish opinion takes the Jewish people as THE center of public policy and not some other value such as Torah. A Torah centered hashkafa might think of the Jews as vehicles for obeying and producing more Torah. A volkish view sees Torah as enhancing the life of the Jews. They are not exclusive, but rather differ on emphasis and degree of centrality.

I believe that a person is free to leave the Jewish people but it would be bad for him and his descendants. He would lose the special connection to God, Torah and other Jews. As long as a Jew has not left the Jewish people and derives benefits and privileges from his membership, he also has special rights and responsibilities as a ‘citizen’. Some of these duties and responsibilities are spelled out in halacha. Some exist even for those who do not accept Torah.

I believe most Jews, including Orthodox Jews believe in the idea of the Jewish people

At 1:22 PM, Anonymous A Yid said...

Throughout this conversation we seem to be speaking past each other. For some reason, I'm getting the impression that instead of actually reading what I wrote and thinking it through, you're fitting it into some preconcieved notion of what you think I should have said and then answering yourself. I don't mean to be insulting but..
The orthodox view is that nationhood or nationalism is meaningless per se. The word nation is just a term used to define a group of people who have obligations to God and each other under a religious covenant, as individuals and as a collective.
That is obviously not the definition you're using.
So let's start with a few yes and no questions.
Are you egalitarian? Do yoou believe Jews are somehow different than other members of the human race?
Do you think jews should try to associate with jews, and if so, would the logical extension of that be that whites should associate with whites, blacks with blacks and chinese with chinese?

"I believe that a person is free to leave the Jewish people but it would be bad for him and his descendants. He would lose the special connection to God, Torah and other Jews."
Why would it be bad for him?
Would a secular jew lose his connection to God and a Tora he doesn't believe in by leaving the jewish people? And how exactly would he leave?
What exactly is a "volkish opinion" in American English?


Post a Comment


Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home