The Blessing of Diversity versus the Curse of Multiplicity
By Yedidia Stern | 03/12/2009
Looking out at our society, in the present day, one sees not see the radiant aspect of the blessing that diversity brings, but rather the sadness and pain of the curse of multiplicity. The agents of influence in both cultures prefer to present them as mutually exclusive alternatives, set up for an unavoidable struggle: a culture war. They skew the relations between the two cultures, presenting them not as process but as a situation in which one side must prevail
Jewish society in Israel is essentially based on two civilizations: western-liberal, and traditional-Jewish. A substantial portion of all Jewish communities in Israel – secular, traditional, religions, and ultra-Orthodox – identify, from the outset and certainly retroactively, with both cultures. For example, a large portion of the secular and religious populations consume select symbolic and material products of Jewish culture and even of the Jewish religion. The religious have adopted values that are central to Western culture, such as equality, self-realization, liberty, and a regard for science and the rule of law. Even those on the fringes of ultra-Orthodox society, who conduct their lives in religious seclusion, in effect internalize cultural dualism at a personal level. Indeed, most of the Jewish people living in Israel carve out their lives from the rich mines of both cultures.
In a pluralistic society, open to the validation of the "other's" truth, dualism is a tremendous blessing. Diversity enables every one to construct his identity within a dialogue with the other culture. It has the potential of generating intercultural discourse, which can lead to dynamic growth in each culture. And yet, dualism poses the danger of serving as a catalyst for harmful competition for funds, ideational influence, and political power. The damage caused by competition is likely to be particularly problematic in a monolithic society, since it focuses on a single goal: silencing the voice of the other. Moreover, when zealots of truth do not merely hold by a hierarchical ordering of the truth (our truth over that of the other), but also refuse to tolerate the other's truth, competition can escalate into confrontation.
Looking out at our society, in the present day, one sees not see the radiant aspect of the blessing that diversity brings, but rather the sadness and pain of the curse of multiplicity. The agents of influence in both cultures prefer to present them as mutually exclusive alternatives, set up for an unavoidable struggle: a culture war. They skew the relations between the two cultures, presenting them not as process but as a situation in which one side must prevail.
Take note: even in a pluralistic society that has an open market of ideas, it is possible that every culture have its own array of authorities; espouse its own values and unique priorities; be characterized through separate symbols, ethos and myths, and promote independent arrays of meaning. However, every culture must do so in a manner that is not imperialistic, and based on an assumption that there is also a place for another "good" aside from itself. In our society, the emphasis on separatism, and self-characterization, were intended to serve a condescending and patronizing approach of exclusive truth. Both cultures, through their agents of influence, convey to their target audience – whether directly or indirectly – a sense of the illegitimacy of the other culture.
How is it possible to function given two non-identical ideological and cultural systems, when the living environment is hostile and aspires towards an unequivocal and an outcome lacking in complexity? How does the individual/community/people that is subjectively committed to both, handle the tension between the two?
I would like to set forth three behavioral strategies for dealing with the threat of dualism, employed by three central groups in Israel. All three are alike in that none includes an option of dealing directly with the ideas and issues involved in coping with the reality of existence in circumstances of cultural dualism. Rather, they express real-time, practical coping, which is made possible by our frantic reality; however, it is easy to see that they offer no consolation on an individual or national level.
The modern-Orthodox community has adopted to near perfection the extraordinary technique of compartmentalization and avoidance of making a choice. Modern- Orthodoxy is like a chest of drawers. Each opens at the appropriate occasion and place, at which time it is charged with content and norms. When a modern-Orthodox individual studies at a yeshiva, delves into a Talmudic dispute, is educated and socialized, teaches and engages in ideas, he is charging the "Jewish drawer." When he studies a profession, works, reads fine literature, spends his leisure time, goes to the market, and conducts his bourgeois life, he closes – sometimes hermetically – the first door, opens beneath it the "liberal-western drawer," and charges it with content and norms. The bureau that houses these drawers is the private individual, the modern-Orthodox community. Like double security gates, planned in a manner that makes it possible to open one only when the other is closed, the world of the modern Orthodox is cautious in regard to the mingling of realms between the two parts of identity that comprise it. It should be emphasized that the ethos and ideology of modern Orthodoxy speaks in a language of rebirth and renewal, with the goal of revealing the modern facets already extant in the tradition. However, its actual grappling with dualism is based on compartmentalization and avoidance. There is no harmonious solution, but rather a technique of survival in a world of multiple, ostensibly clashing identities.
The strategy of ultra-Orthodox society is relatively easy to identify. Here, compartmentalization is replaced by alienation. Instead of evading, there is separatism. From a cultural standpoint, the ultra-Orthodox have adopted the mentality of an occupied nation. They define their environment as "a small enclave of Godliness." Despairingly, they have relinquished the idea of the "collective of Israel," which has sinned, and they have in effect rent the cultural fabric, separating themselves from all other Jews. From within this viewpoint, they are able to function within the rubric of civil collaboration. This is a minimal, instrumental collaboration; it is not experiential and certainly not values-based. Therefore, the ultra-Orthodox strategy does not promote shared responsibility.
What does the secular public do? Instead of compartmentalization and alienation, their approach is capitulation. Rather than evasion or separatism, they choose to ignore. As a matter of fact, the secular public, in general, is moving away from intimacy with its heritage. Although a specific call for completely breaking away from Jewish heritage is sounded only by relatively limited (though influential) circles, this idea has taken up residence in the heart, in a practical sense, on a much wider scale. First of all, exchanging national identity for neutral individualism suits the Zeitgeist of courting normalcy and blending into the family of nations. Secondly and mainly, even the many people who are interested in Jewish identity layered in the historical heritage do not follow up in practical terms. Contemporary Israeli culture, as it takes expression in the educational systems, art and local works, thought, ethics, economy, language, media, politics, symbols, role models, and in the composite of social practices in our lives – is devoid of actual vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage. A living implementation, which could make use of the treasures of experience, memory and meaning of Jewish existence over the generations, as they have been preserved in our cultural heritage, has been relinquished. This is a capitulation, in the words of Gadamer (20th-century scholar of hermeneutics and culture), where the essential encounter between the horizon of the past and the horizon of the present, is forfeited.
For example, it is easy to assess the disruption of historical continuity precisely in the realm where generations of Jewish culture takes its most prominent expression – in Israeli law. The examples are well known: an article in the Legal Foundations Law – 1980, determining that where there is a legal lacuna, which states that the court will avail itself of "the principles of freedom, justice, honesty and peace found in Jewish heritage," is obsolete. For twenty years, the court has expressed no demand for these principles of Jewish heritage. More importantly, when the expression was coined in the early 1990s: "the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," a legal interpretation was suggested maintaining that the values of the Jewish state would take on a normative significance in common law if they were consistent with the values of a democratic, and not necessarily a Jewish state. The values of Judaism are subject to legal scrutiny based on the criterion of their suitability to democratic values. These perspectives are broadly accepted in Israeli society, of granting a place for Jewish positions that suit the overall worldview, while relinquishing the possibility of using deep infrastructures in Jewish-traditional culture, in cases where these express values and priorities unique to it. This is the sign of forfeiting "Judaism" in its traditional-halakhic sense as a relevant factor in making values-based decisions that are inconsistent with the teachings of universal ideas.
From Alliances to Crises
Today, these three strategies are collapsing before our eyes. Compartmentalization, alienation, and capitulation served each of the communities of Jewish society in Israel, and made it possible for each to exist without having to grapple with the important implications of the positions of the other communities on Israeli unity. Their relative success in the first thirty years of Israel's independence stemmed from the great priority that the young state placed on preserving a high level of allegiance between members of the Jewish communities living in Israel. Each of us, at the time, was careful not to push the other outside of the framework of the broad alliance that united us. For example, David Ben Gurion, who was himself estranged from religion, instructed the political system to operate according to relations between religion and state that were based on a regularized democratic model. He recognized the national importance of reaching a status quo regarding religious matters, and was prepared to pay the dear price of the secular majority's capitulation on parts of their way-of-life. However, the array of traditional agreements between Jewish communities in Israeli society has been steadily deteriorating in recent years, and the pressure on each of the three strategies is growing.
There are many people who make it their business to analyze the process of consensus-breaking and of turning our alliance-based democracy into a democracy of crisis. The important influence of a relaxation in the external security threat over our very existence, which is in effect a success of Zionism in the sense of a return to normalcy, is clear to all. More obscured is the effect of the breaking up of the existing hegemonies and the implications of the reallocation of political, economic and social resources from the old elites to peripheral forces. Moreover, it seems to me that in the future, we will think much about the implications of globalization in attenuating the braces that enable Israel's cohesion like metal rings around a wooden barrel. It may be that the greater the accessibility of foreign cultures and the more aggressive their means of marketing, and with the diminishing importance of the national unit as it is replaced with other forms of social organization (such as multi-national or super-national), the Israeli individual will also undergo a process of estrangement vis-à-vis his Israeliness.
What is the effect of decline in the level of obligation to reaching a working alliance in Israeli society and politics, and the focusing of the public discourse on cultural debates between parts of the Jewish people, on behavioral strategies in each of the three communities?
Collapse of Strategies
The modern-Orthodox community, which has not yet developed practical alternatives to the compartmentalization of its identities, pays a heavy price, on a daily basis. In the new reality of open and unconcealed grappling between cultures in Israel, the dividers between the drawers come loose, against the will of the modern Orthodox individual. He finds it difficult to adhere to the compartmentalization, since all around him there is a conflict between the two parts of his identity. He is forced into choosing from among the alternatives presented to him: either to take up residence in the Jewish drawer, and then, in order to push aside the "other," reveal a tendency towards ultra-Orthodoxy; or to take up residency in the liberal drawer, and then he will sometimes feel that he must remove the mantle of his religious identity, since it ostensibly contradicts the choices he has made.
The numbers show that the modern-Orthodox community encounters tremendous difficulties in keeping its young people within the ideological framework adhered to by the community's adults. In my view, the strategy of compartmentalization was a built-in downfall of religious Zionism. Compartmentalization cannot be marketed or managed, since does not function as a tool for dealing with a torn reality within a cultural struggle.
The ultra-Orthodox strategy of alienation also fails to provide a real answer. An ideology that labels good versus evil based on rigid criteria enjoys the same advantage of every clear and unequivocal message. However, the cost of alienation for ultra-Orthodox society is too high.
The dimensions of ultra-Orthodox society are constantly increasing. As a result, its needs are multiplying, and it is forced to make increased use of political power. In order to take advantage of this power for its natural and inherent needs, ultra-Orthodox society is taking control of broad segments of government. With power and government comes responsibility, and with it, collaboration. Collaboration cannot coexist for long with alienation.
In addition, the economic pressures acting on ultra-Orthodox society do not leave it many options for maintaining its position of separatism. In the new world, where capital, land, work power, and material resources are supplanted by information as a main asset in production, ultra-Orthodox society is forced to avail itself of a body of education that is not Torah-based. This education, power and responsibility will necessarily lead to the collapse of the strategy of alienation and separatism.
As for the secular strategy of capitulation, I believe that we are already seeing the first foundations of recognition of the fact that normal existence, which most of the public views as a desired objective, can also pose a true threat to Israeli culture, since it blurs its uniqueness. As a result, the question of identity rears its head with great intensity. In the course of the 20th century, an infrastructure of Hebrew-Israeli culture was indeed created, but it turned out that this culture was lacking in two aspects: it did not achieve the dimension of depth, or the height of religion, which has an answer to questions of the significance of human existence, and it did not have binding normative force. Very quickly it became apparent that a vacuum had formed, that the Israeli educational system lacked depth, that spiritual life was languishing, and that Zionism had been reduced to a given, rather than a challenge, a ideal to be realized.
This analysis demonstrates that all of the Jewish communities in Israel are finding it difficult to deal with cultural dualism in the reality of a society in crisis. The leaders and thinkers in each one of these communities bear a double responsibility: the responsibility of interacting as an aggregate, and the responsibility to the community to which they belong.
As far as the aggregative viewpoint is concerned: in the current situation, the lack of effective mechanisms for integrating and containing both cultures sweeps us into an aggressive competition in the marketplace of ideas. The casing that holds together the shared existence of Israeli society is being stretched to the limit… this is not limited to the matter of interests, although these also occupy a place, but also includes the components which, from a subjective viewpoint, form the basis of reality and provide meaning.
One miserable example is the political unfolding known as the civil-secular revolution. The very thought of handling such incendiary topics with the clumsy tool of political arrangements is evidence of the crisis-like nature of our society, and the lack of mature leadership. A decisive solution favoring a particular side, in a reality of a culture war, is a known recipe for complete crisis. In the eyes of the zealots of liberal truth, said decision is an essential rite-of-passage that Israeli society must pass through on its way to normalcy. They maintain that the presence of religion in public life gives religion a despised status, corrupts politics, infringes on human rights, impoverishes rational discourse, and runs Israel off the royal road of Zionism. In contrast, in the eyes of the zealots of Jewish heritage in its ultra-Orthodox version, the revolution is the government's actualization of the loss of a national identity. Disengaging religion from state is a betrayal of Jewish history, subordinates Jewish civilization to western civilization, and empties national life of meaning. And so, when each side buttresses itself behind a single cultural truth, the realization of one's dream will come at the expense of the reality of the other's nightmare.
In my opinion, there is some truth in each of these opposing views in relation to the significance of the civil-secular revolution. However, in the absence of a philosophy and modes of thinking that make room, for the values of both cultures to coexist, we will forever be forced to choose between them. The necessary result will be that the losing side will completely refuse to accept the outcome. Israeli society cannot afford this outcome.
Furthermore, since we are a society-in-crisis, it would be naïve to assume that any leader from among these three communities will take on responsibility for the aggregative results of the culture war that awaits us. How, then, can we conclude this analysis on an optimistic note? A foreshadowing of the answer is poking through the surface in the form of each community's self-interests.
The above analysis demonstrates that none of the widespread strategies accommodates the needs of the members of any of the communities. The modern-Orthodox are not succeeding at continuity due to the failures of compartmentalization; the ultra-Orthodox are encountering increased difficulties in functioning as a result of alienation; the secular are at the beginning of a process through which the cost of capitulation in terms of culture and identity is becoming increasingly clear. What is common to all three strategies – the rejection of grappling with the meaning of existence within cultural dualism – is also the common downfall of each of the communities. Each community, if it seeks life, must rise to the challenge. Dualism is a central fact of life for members of each community. A community that continues to sanction a flight from confronting this fact, and does not offer its members a solution that is both reasonable and coherent in light of the basic principles on which the community operates, will detract from its very ability to maintain continuity.
This is not the forum for presenting an entire thesis regarding the directions of development and possible results of this effort for each community. In any case, such a thesis, when it is presented, will be largely speculative not only because it projects into the future, but also because it deals with a new, unprecedented reality. And yet, an indication of the future can already be discerned in the present. As is often the case, the change in the marketplace of ideas will be determined by demand, which originates among community members, and not by supply, which is determined by ideological leadership.
For example, a survey of editions of the journals "Deot," or "Akdamot," shows that there is a rising demand for a new modern-Orthodox spirit that does not compartmentalize its faith. Seeping out between the lines of the journals of the religious intelligentsia is soul searching and pain in the face of cultural dualism.
The disappointment from the dissonance between the notable intellectual and spiritual efforts of the great thinkers of modern-Orthodoxy – such as R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, HaRav Kook, and R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik – devoted to developing models of integration between tradition and modernity, and the anti-modernist preferences of a large portion of the present rabbinical leadership of this population, is evident. A demand is being put forth for a new, charismatic leadership, one that desires to build bridges between ideology and awareness, and that knows how to use existing models (rationalist, cultural, mystical, instrumental and others), or will develop new models for formulating founding texts to constitute the basis for realistic solutions that have a palpable power of persuasion for harmonious, or at least dialectical existence between the two cultures.
In the ultra-Orthodox community, there is a growing demand for the reverse of separatism: involvement. If, in the past, the ultra-Orthodox, for ideological reasons, maintained a position of non-involvement regarding questions of foreign policy and security, today they have become a prominent ideological marker precisely on these issues. It is to a great extent the ultra-Orthodox street that compelled the rabbinical leadership to change its approach. Of course, the ultra-Orthodox are also developing increased involvement in terms of government.
In the secular community, a fascinating demand for the study of Jewish sources is developing. The first issue of "Eretz Acheret" reported the establishment of 169 beit midrash programs where Jewish texts are studied alongside secular texts (sometimes with religious participants, with the intent that the programs will serve as a meeting place between communities). These programs focus on an intimate encounter with the text. I differ with those who believe that this is a passing fashion. Rather it expresses, in my opinion, an existential need of a culture seeking meaning in its sources. Secular individuals who are sensitive to the question of identity are not prepared to allow the Jewish sources to be appropriated from them, since they are likely to find in them meaningful answers to the riddle of their national and cultural uniqueness. It is to be hoped that Torah will come forth from the secular beit midrash programs, a kind of modern midrash that will infuse secular Jewish existence with original and unique content.
Here we have it, an optimistic statement. Although the main demand at present in the local marketplace of ideas is for solutions that involve a victory in the culture war, it appears that over the long term, reverse forces will prevail. This does not stem from the ascendancy of a sense of national responsibility or mutual caring over particular interests, but occurs because these interests dictate such an outcome. Adjustment to a life of internalized cultural dualism is a need common to members of all of the communities. The duration of the healing process, and the question as to whether the patient can hold out until the medication is developed, depend on the level of ideational flexibility on the part of leaders in the three communities, and on the extent of pressure exerted on them by their constituents, the demand-driving consumers of cultural dualism.
Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is the Vice President for Research of the
Israel Democracy Institute [and professor at Bar-Ilan University Law School]