Postmodernity Means Jewish Transformation Will Be Local, Not Global

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January 6, 2010

Can the Jewish people reshape itself into a movement for world transformation? I don’t think so, Arthur. Let me share my reasons why.

First, I wonder if “world transformation” is still possible. Is there a thing called “the world?” And, if there is, what is it? What we have are multiple worlds, multiple narratives defining reality for different peoples in different places. The very idea of a “world” is a modernist, even imperialist notion that no longer speaks to a postmodern (but unfortunately no less imperialist) time.

Second, I wonder if there is even something we can meaningfully call “the Jewish people.” Certainly those who hate Jews have no difficulty identifying us, but we ourselves may be at a loss to do so. But, even if we could define “the Jewish people,” are they harmonious enough to be reshaped? I don’t think so. There are millions of Jews and dozens of Judaisms, but there is no center from which to shape or reshape any of these.

What we can do, and what you have spent most of your life doing, is identify or invent core memes that the majority of Jews share (or might come to share), shape these memes (Shabbat, kashrut, etc.) in our own liberal/universalist/feminist/ecological image, and do all we can to get them to “go viral.”

You wrote: “We have emerged because of the transformation of the world through modern means of control… so strong that they threaten all our existing communities and many, perhaps most, of the species and ecosystems now on our planet, and the geochemistry of the planet itself.”

We are seeing the next stage in human cultural evolution from tribes to city-states, from city-states to nation states, from nation states to multinational corporations, and now from multinational corporations to transnational corporatism where states and peoples (if either survive as recognizable entities) are simply commodities to be used and exploited in pursuit of profit. The promise of transnational corporatism is the sovereign (and ideally alienated) individual who defines freedom as the ability to shop anywhere s/he likes and consume anything s/he wants. While I agree that Judaism’s memes can be reshaped to resist transnational corporatism, I worry that the “Jews” will find such resistance meaningless.

The children of transnational corporatism will have no ethnic, national, religious, or racial narratives, or at least none strong enough to matter. Our differences will be like the 31 flavors at Baskin Robbins: manufactured differences all serving the same corporate system. People will change and play with personal identities the way we mix and match fashion and fuse musical styles. The Judaism that will emerge from this will mirror this world, not challenge it.

You asked: “The question I want to raise is: Does this new paradigm, this movement for Jewish renewal, do we ourselves, have a purpose, a mission, a task beyond itself, beyond us?”

While it pains me to say this, Arthur, I doubt it. Jewish Renewal is about Jewish renewal. We’re renewing Tu B’Shvat, not Christmas or Ramadan.

In fact, if our goal is beyond Jews and Judaism, if we want our reshaped memes to be universalist in nature—kashrut as ethical consumption, for example—it will be hard to make a case for maintaining the kashrut meme at all. Why brand ethical consumption as Jewish? Why not just promote ethical consumption and not get side–tracked with having to reinvent kashrut?

I suspect the answer to this question is that we—you and I—are still attached to a Jewish narrative that values kashrut. We are Jews and not “Jews.” That is to say we use Judaism to define ourselves, and since we want to define ourselves differently we have to make Judaism different. Most people will simple be different and leave Judaism behind.

You asked: “Are we simply a reaction to the world transformation, or are we prepared to enter the process of transformation as a proactive rather than only reactive community?”

In other words, can we offer an alternative to transnational corporatism? Of course we can, but only as a small counter-cultural movement. The question we have to ask is this: Do we want to be an enclave of utopian pietists like the Essenses or the Amish who live outside the dominant culture? Or do we want to find a way to defend the dignity of person and planet in a transnational corporate world where both are commodities to be traded and exploited? If we opt for the former, we can do so with relative ease. But if we opt for the latter we have to ask ourselves if a focus on Judaism isn’t both irrelevant and distracting?

You asked: “Can we imagine ourselves moving through a wilderness of war, injustice, religious hatred, and degradation of the earth, moving toward a new kind of Sinai that speaks to the Jewish people in its particularity and calls the Jewish people to act in alliance with others to heal the world?”

I think you are romanticizing the original Sinai. While Moses may have received a revelation from God, the people opted to open up a franchise of the Egyptian Golden Calf. Moses had to slaughter tens of thousands of his own people before earning enough market share to go head to head with the Canaanites. The future, if there is one, isn’t Moses’ flash at Sinai, but Elijah’s sheer voice of stillness: not the power of might but the power of meme.

Judaism will survive as it has always survived— by accommodating itself to the larger socio-economic reality. Look at Israel. Tel Aviv is where the future of Israel is; Jerusalem is becoming a Hasidic theme park. And Tel Aviv is, as the book Start-Up Nation suggests, all about transnational corporatism. The Jews of Tel Aviv will create their own Judaism—highly secular and humanistic, with just enough ritualized jingoism and nostalgia for the ancient past to feed the romantic needs of a nearly soulless present.

Of course there are exceptions among us, especially Orthodox Jews, and if demographics is destiny, they may become “the Jewish people” over the next century, but they will have no interest in the Judaism you and I desire. We are speaking to a dying majority more drawn to convenience than covenant. They are not unhappy with the Judaism they have; it provides them with an identifiable narrative without asking anything significant of them and their lives. And those who are unhappy become Buddhists.

I love you, Arthur, as I love Reb Zalman. The two of you have shaped my life and my Judaism since the 1970’s. But it is time, if I may borrow from another Jewish renewalist, to “let the dead bury the dead.”

Your role, if I may be so bold, is to continue doing what you do so well: reinvent our memes and set them free in the world. And while I suspect that those few who are ready to hear that “still small voice” will recognize it as yours, neither one of us will live long enough to know for sure. But that is why we are people of faith.

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