Category Archives: Philosophy, Art and Literary Criticism

Notes on domination and the logic of psychiatry and similar professions

A fool says in his heart that he has no enemies. If he is a mystic, he believes that what everyone says or does is the act of an angel (a message from God). When most people are like this, the society will have ceased to become a republic. If it is a modern society where a theocracy is impossible, it will be one whose prevailing ethos is a therapeutic and at times exclusionary psychology.

Thus, the political is opposed by the psychological. In the political life of republican societies, having a problem means either that someone is unjust or some situation or institution or other social form is unhappy. In anti-political societies, theocratic or psychological, if you have a problem, it is just about you.

Anger is the political emotion. In republican social life, being angry means holding for true the belief, which will be normally recognized by others as possibly true, that one is affected by an injustice. This is expressed as a claim, and the claim is a claim upon the conscience of the persons to whom it is expressed. If the claim is made with passionate intensity, that is not normally assumed to portend violence, but rather reveals the intensity of the angry person’s care about the matter.

Whether or not it makes sense to believe in a God, republican or political life is only possible if there is no presupposed divine order of things that guarantees the good (justice and happiness). Politics is atheist because it cannot be pious. God has always been a principle of government. The first person who knew the God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, had to demand of this God that he be just. This is because justice and the good generally are contingent. God may promise it, as in the covenant, but he cannot guarantee it and so cannot be merely trusted to bring it about. Whether it comes about or not depends on the only beings who have a conscience and also exist. God is not the name of a being and in that sense can have no existence. All he can really do is serve as an object of a faith whose poetry inspires us.

I see no reason at all to think that the Jewish Halakhah (law) is invalidated by this recognition, nor our notions of the holy.
In fact, Judaism played an important role in the development of our notions of time. But these notions depend partly on contingency. All the good and all the evil that can and do happen are the consequence either of the actions and behaviors of human persons, or must be concerned the consequence of chance. This means that not only politics but ethics are subject to historical change. Indeed, an ethics partly is a response to unpredicted events that is not merely appropriate to them but is appropriate to the desire and will of actors. An ethics like a politics must be, as science, art, and love are also, constructive. It certainly cannot be reparative (or therapeutic), which is why the Jewish idea of tikkun olam, which is used often to mean perfecting the world, but literally means healing it, is wrong. There is no salvation, life is not a project of healing, which is a medical metaphor that is necessarily conservative, nor can an ethics or politics be the implementation of a plan. There is morality, but politics exceeds it. Moral codes are applied, implemented, realized, executed. Thinking, which politics and ethics do involve, is constructive, innovative, inventive. If God is a force of creation as well as revelation and redemption, then his concept exceeds him as does his work, which is really ours.

Societies cannot be healed and do not need to be. They should not be thought of as organisms and cannot be healthy or sick, only judgably good or bad, just or unjust, happy or unhappiness. Happiness is not reducible to health because its possibilities are unlimited. The good of a body is normality. Only persons and other animals have health or sickness and can be healed. That society can be healed is related to the idea that it must be defended. It is an immunological idea, and immunity, which is absence of poison or contagion, illness brought on from without, is opposite of community, which is the common, which is constructed, which has no definable boundaries, and which does not even allow of a definite form, as a body must have.

From a political point of view, notions of health are simply irrelevant. It is not a judgment bearing upon the good of a community or the justice of an action to say that the community or person is sick. A person could be sick and this not be in essence his own problem at all. This is because only “I” can define what I need or desire, and so what “my problems” are, and I too and only I can decide what it means to have them. Maybe I think my problems are entirely about and caused by you. That would be a claim that could be falsified, and could only be decided by a judge who is not me or you. If “you” or the state or employees of it can decide what my problems are, what kind of person I am, what I need, then I have no liberty and am subject to a tyranny. “Give me liberty or give me death” does not mean “Give me what you decide I need (and put me to death or allow me to die if you judge that you no longer can, or no longer want to).” A society that has rulers who decide what people need is not only a tyranny with no citizens but a state in which people are infantilized, and not because they have been judged as unworthy of adult citizenship, but merely because (medical or therapeutic, moral yet not legal) judges judge what people “need.” What anyone who is not a child or judge incompetent needs independently of what they will or choose, is a matter of total irrelevance, unless one merely wants to offer them advice. Health and sickness are as irrelevant as normality and abnormality, of which they are the forms proper to the animal body from the point of view of medical science. These terms have no other meaning and are in particular inapplicable to the mind. Were that not true, either persons would be expected by their society’s government to be right not only by the law and in terms of what they do, but right in how and what they think and in how they feel. This means that if “I” am ill affected by something, including something “you” are doing, “you,” if you are a medical authority, can give me an involuntary “treatment” (that is, you do something to me that is designed to modify my behavior or person and that follows some official protocols; medical or otherwise, we can call any such actions “treatments”), because unhappiness or disaffection are not to be tolerated, and those persons who “feel” (that they are) ill affected are effectively punished, and in this way they cannot try to do anything that would in any way (including by speaking) affect anyone else. If I have a power to affect you and you not me, than I dominate you. Indeed, this is also why in such situations if you appear to be (feel) affected and express this affection, you can be punished, because if you are manifestly affected and appear to not like it, that is “violence.” Because the oppressed often use their oppression as a weapon, as Fassbinder once said of women, you can be sure that in many such situations if the power dynamics between powerful and powerless map onto such as female/male or black/white, the victim will be punished and called a perpetrator. The basic problem here is augmented by identity politics but does not stem from it but from the asymmetric nature of power relations. In the United States it is almost uniquely the case (some of the other English speaking nations come close) that relationships of domination are not even recognized as such.

A people could declare that they are sick of the way things are, and it is the way things are and the faction of people who want it that way that need transformation or destruction and replacement, even if they in fact are happy and as healthy as anyone could be.

Wherever there are institutions of governance, there is no politics. Disagreements then that involve both persons in power and those without it are likely to involve official violence, which is never recognized as violence, punishing the disaffected for having something wrong with them as they have behaved improperly. Since disaffection involves disagreement characteristically, and disagreements are political, governmental or managerial situations always involve the implicitly coercive and potentially violent suppression of disagreement as such, which then cannot be spoken. This is what the demand for politeness is about. And the differend here (in Lyotard’s sense: a difference involving claims of injustice that cannot be recognized) also tends to be manifest in a language policing. The institution and its functionaries will have a linguistic code that those hapless persons subject to them are expected to use. It then is very important to the authorities that you use only their vocabulary and never your own. Often the terminology applies to you and names your lack, which is then quantified and used to measure your behavior in its terms; your using this vocabulary signals that you are a compliant, docile subject. You must use their terms and not your own metaphors because the terms available are defined in what is effectively their rule book, which a priori excludes all claims that would be made against these persons or what they are doing. If you use a term of your own that describes an interpretation of your own of what they are doing, they will correct you, saying, “No, it is not A but B,” and you are expect then to indicate agreement or at least not disagreement. They will most likely not tell you why they call it B or what that means; the important thing is just that you show that you respect their professional authority and understand that they tell you what is what and that is how it is. They will actually believe, because this is part of the “code,” that your metaphorical term is an incorrect concept (there are no metaphors in this world, and individuals do not have the liberty to describe what is what: that power is carefully regulated and jealously guarded).

Who controls meaning, controls the state and its people.

This means that in such institutions and in most social life in countries like the United States where most people believe in a middle class managerial ideology that accords with these institutions, as a general rule one may not say anything about anything to anyone. You can speak, but you cannot say anything. Statements are controversial; otherwise they are mere utterances and do not say or state anything because they make no claim. Utterances may be performative ones or order-words; they are often presented as statements: “This is an X” means “I am ordering you to behave in accordance with the demand to treat this as an X.” The difference is that orders cannot be contested in discourse but only obeyed or disobeyed; they are assumed true, yet in fact they are the kind of speech acts that are neither true nor false. Much professional discourse is of this kind.

Professionals usually have discussions among themselves that can involve disagreements, but managerial professionals almost never do and are highly unwilling to be transparent in what they say in terms of what it means, why they say it, and whether it is true, with persons they are charged with managing. Doctors are an extreme of this; good luck trying to ever have a real discussion with a psychiatrist in which you learn anything about how they think and why; they tend to be quite adamant in keeping you in the dark. They want to be sure you know how to comply with what they tell you to do, and will tell you what they think you need to know for that purpose, and nothing else. It is astonishing in fact how opaque many of them, and frequently if not most of the time what they say is not on the level, and may be manipulative (said only to provoke some kind of response).
Claims are of two kinds: political claims, which can be and usually are made highly informally; and those in “debates,” that is, carefully delimited zones where only persons admitted professionally to the practice of official discourse in the field, can exchange opinions about a matter.

The important thing to grasp is that in any truly political situation, one person or group of persons contests the practices and the power of the other persons. You cannot contest another practices or statements without contesting their power. Doing so in institutional contexts can only be met with threats of official punitive violence, and this will most often be legitimated by the person whose actions or statements are being attacked claiming that he or she is, and thus is being assaulted or threatened, or at least disrespected. If your statement is allowed, it will only be because you are not saying what you want to say, except by speaking in their terms. In this way, you unwittingly collaborate in framing what you want to say in their terms. Some people become stupefied or begin to stutter or seem confused when they are habituated to being directed by such professionals and try to think along the lines permitted and available to them, and this is even true when they think they are engaged in some alternative or counter-institutional practice which is at most simply parallel. The shortest route to stupidity and a kind of intestinal blockage of the creative mind is to become too habituated to what official institutions in your society have urged and made available to you as paths of thinking.

In this way, the constitutive injustice of such bureaucracies cannot be recognized. That the good is possible within some bureaucratic organizations is only because the zones of greatest intensity in which purely the procedural regulations and coded speech are involved, these are restricted, so that if it is a university they also have scholars and learning, if it is an art museum they also have artworks, etc. But it is the nature of bureaucratic organization to cause the political as such to be ruled out so that it in fact is impossible. One sign that it is absent there but not in everyday life is the relative absence in the latter of enforceable codes of politeness.

You can be sent to prison for saying “fuck” or appearing hostile to a bureaucrat, and while yesterday they might have just called you vulgar, today they will accuse you of violence. When feminists say that violence is implicit in, or the same as, aggressivity, they are enforcing a form of this. Presumably, they do not like sports, or else think aggression is permitted in them provided one plays by the rules. It is a myth that is part of the ideology of middle-class professionals that there is some of rules, stated or, as is usually the case in America, unstated so that people have to figure them out, and are responsible for doing so, and that all behavior of persons follows such rules. Some people do this in conversation: for instance, “You interrupted me, I wasn’t finished!” which is usually said with great anger, for “You are not following the rules!” There are people like this; I had a roommate like this once, a Black liberal from a very middle class background, and when he wanted to fight and win in words, he would accuse me of violating all kinds of social norms, which of course he knew and I did not, making me crazy in his eyes, and these rules are natural rules of society which fall from the sky as if from the Gods. Middle class people tend to have a police force in their mind, and they like this because they believe that if they live their whole lives by this set of rules, or believe that they do, then they will have good lives as part of the elite.

It’s funny if you pay attention to what middle class professionals and managers call “violence.” First, it is not said of what they will do to you if they want you punished, and those things are often violent in the literal sense that they involve the deliberate infliction of pain or injury on bodies in order to enforce the will of the persons executing the violence and those who commanded it (usually these persons are separate, which is why judges and psychiatrists do not normally have troubled sleep over the violence that they cause to happen). Secondly, it is said mainly of things that are not violent in fact. Your voice is too loud, you touched something or someone in the process of making a point, etc. Thirdly, these symbolic “violences” are usually named in order to legitimate the imminent violence of the authorities themselves. They need to enunciate this judgment in order to make their violence appear in their own eyes at least as necessary to counter yours.

All bureaucratic functionaries and people who think like them are hypocritical. What they accuse of they cannot be guilty of and may well be doing. It would be easy to show any unprejudiced person in most such situations that the essence of the matter is power, obedience, and compliance or insubordination. Most of the things that persons in power over you will be likely to accuse you of are things that not only could only be said by a person exercising domination of a subordinate, but that really amount in the end to nothing more than accusations of insubordination. Most relationships of this kind, between a professional and a non-professional, a functionary and an institutional client, etc., are of this kind and come down to: “I dominate here, you will obey me, or else. And you are not being obedient, and that is a crime.” Then they name the crime and it sounds like it really is one, and they believe it; such is the way of ideology.

The first person to recognize the radically contingent and thus atheistic character of true political life was Machiavelli. And that is why he is the founder of all modern political thought.

Hobbes, on the contrary, is anti-political, and Anglo-American society is Hobbesian because Lockean liberalism is a variant of it. Hobbes’s God is security. A totalizing authoritarian state can offer people security, protection, and the like. It can certainly protect and promote people’s “health,” and it can give them what they need, which can be something they want and ask for, or something the authorities decide to give them whether they like it or not. It cannot offer liberty. If there is a liberty, the state is subject to the people and not the people to it. If you were free, your doctor, for instance, would be working for you. The truth is closer to the other way around. Machiavelli’s God was liberty and she is a peculiar deity indeed.

The idea of a natural or divine or necessary order of things is what traditional political theology is about. In fact, it represents a way of thinking that is an incomplete movement away from paganism. A modern theology would have as ultimate principle only the recognition that what ought to be is not contained in any part of what is.

What all of this for American society is that it is not revolutionary. It probably is now less than ever; certainly it is become less and less so and more and more authoritarian since the early 1970s and the beginning of neoliberalism. The effect that the absence of a democratic character in social life in this country has on relationships in which one person believes himself oppressed (especially if he or she is Black or a woman) is devastating to all concerned. Because what inevitably results, since true equality and the democracy that would come with it, and make possible the only true liberty, is impossible, and people do sense this and that means: The only way “I” can avoid being treated like a slave by “you” is if I am able to treat you as my slave. (In this lies the explanation for the behavior, for example, of many Black men and women who work as security guards, or in professions that in fact amount to little more than that, such as hospital nurses. The authoritarian personality emerges in such situations as principled and angry opposition to “your” insulting or coercive attitude towards “me” (in fact, it might just be rebellious), perhaps because my exercise of domination over you is official, legitimated, I am doing my job, and there is a legislature that is elected and so all is right with the world.)

The United States of America is an anti-democratic country whose people would mostly prefer it to be democratic. Some think it is, others want it to be. It is a country that a limited revolution and whose history beginning at least by the time the Constitution was established renders that revolution and the revolutionary character of the society manifestly incomplete and indeed, we must say today, failed. There are forces that point in the opposite direction. Among them is the desire of many people to be free and to have a society in which people are free. For a merely liberal society that ties freedom to property and to independence from relations of domination cannot transform those relationships and be free as a society. It can only have individuals who are free when solitary or at least not at work or subject to any institutional authority. Neoliberalism is the ideology that says liberty is absence of authority. We can now see perhaps more than even that it only exists within democracy and that individuals are free only if a people are free, and that there is a collective liberty.

We do not need a war against the state, though the state is increasingly at war against many of us its citizens. We need to create a real democracy, which is this nation’s (its people’s) great unrealized desire. Processes of democratization do exist, and they are social movements (“revolutions” are one form thereof, in which theoretically the society, and not merely the state, are radically transformed from within), and what is essential to them is collective processes of thinking.

“No, you’re wrong!” When people can this and it is happy, not just unhappy, then there is democracy, then there is freedom.

The psychological state as the essence of neoliberal fascism

If America has become fascist, it is because it began to move decisively in that direction in the early 1970s. While neoliberalism could only mean promotion of empty notions of personal liberty in tandem with authoritarianism in the service of property, and thus the eclipse of democracy as the political was made personal, the crowning achievement of this reaction was what was announced already in the post-hippie “New Age”: the complete triumph of the psychological over the political.

In the days of punk rock, you could still be angry. In popular culture, like music, it is still not considered abnormal to be if you are black, but they all increasingly are given to understand you don’t want to be caught black while driving, or walking (who told you you could breathe?) In a society that still is a republic, whose culture is still democratic, where it is not taking your life into your hands to say anything to anyone about anything, since criticism is assumed to be assault, then it is understood that those who are angry are annoyed by an injustice. Now it is understand that those who are disaffected are mentally ill, and angry people are criminals or terrorist. Which is why Giorgio Agamben is right to note that the citizen today is considered a terrorist; politics itself is crime, and that is what the police state must suppress at all costs. The police told me when I met with them t hat they were harassing me because of the terrorist threat (which is nonsense, because in that case they would have arrested and tortured me, or threatened to do so unless I told then everything about everyone I know, but they know all that anyway and they also know very well that I am a New Yorker who hates what they only pretend to — for the terrorists in fact are in tacit league with the police state; they get off on each other). The undercover officer who met with me said that they would hospitalize me psychiatrically only if it was “a matter of life and death,” in which case it would be a matter of “elimination.” He wanted to scare me and succeeded. Veery funny. They eventually did lock me up as mad anyway, and then there were more threats, this time from the staff inside, one of whom, the social worker, made a vague threat to have me locked up in a psychiatric hospice on a long-term basis in a far-away location. She batted her eyelashes so I would know she was lying. They typically want you, I discovered, to know what they are doing, but they always say it obliquely so that they have deniability. That is the way of bullies, and bullies in general are ultra-conservative and are doing the work of the bosses. On the unit the head doctor only had one thing really to say to me: “This is a good country. And if you don’t like what I’m doing, you can (that is, I dare you to) sue me.”

The disaffected person is mentally ill, the angry person is a criminal. He is an actual criminal by virtue of the criminal potentiality we ascribe to him in our “scientific” theory. That is: Potentiality itself is evil, the ordinary people that our country’s government is increasingly at war against (many of them, anyway) have a potentiality only for evil. “Mental illness” largely means such a potentiality, and it is thought to be actual in your diseased brain. You are not punished, then, for what you do but what you are.

This bears real similarities to the Third Reich. Which was obsessed with health and sickness and metaphors thereof, it was a state with a pseudo-revolutionary will to create a health and pure national body through an immunological war against foreign pathogens. And the “mentally ill,” like Communists and dissidents, and others, shared the fate of the Jews. Who like them had been transformed into morally inferior biological deviants.

The angry person is annoyed about an injustice. But today that is impossible, because injustice has been legislated out of existence; there is only individual crime. Institutions and states and authorities cannot be unjust (that is, in their essence, in their projects, what they will to do through their “science” of management). Anger simply is the emotion that corresponds to a judgment that there is unjust that one is affected by. Now anger itself is just illness.

Ultimately, the enemies of the people are to be cared for carefully, in part because there is a lot of money in this. They are special, as all of the people are, for life is sacred, which is the hanging judge will say “And may God have mercy on your soul,” as iterating this holiness justifies the crimes of the state. This means that the poor people trapped in the net of a predatory governing agency (now largely privatized, its professionals by far the highest paid of their kind in the world and history), that we “must not be sacrificed.” Sanctity and holiness go with rituals and governing bureaucracies are full of these, they sanctify the executioner, who was never without pity. The holy or special person, says Agamben, “must not be sacrificed, but may be killed with impunity.” And that is why the Shoah was called “holocaust,” which means sacrifice (through annhilation of the victim). Don’t trample on the poor people’s human rights, especially to be preserved now that we have reduced them to animals in cages. They are special, the chosen ones, and life is sacred, there is a God, truly, above our bureaucracy and techniques. But of course, if need be, if “necessity” calls for it, we are at war (our government against its hapless people, or a great many of them) they “may be killed with impunity.”

The concentration camp of the future will be, in our new Nazism, a health care facility. This is progressive because they will care for people, so carefully that after they have taken from you everything that connects you to everything and everyone you are involved with or care about, they will wipe your ass regularly to prove to you that you can’t even do that. And it is progressive because they can run up a bill, which they legally can make you pay!, for your own systematic degradation into pure animal life in the name of caring for you sick mind and body.

Just don’t say it isn’t a good country.

In a fascist society, the disaffected are sick or criminal in their potentiality, and the angry are terrorists. In a republican society with a democratic culture, the disaffected tend to become artists and generalized anger leads to a politics. The political person is angry; he or she is angry about injustice. If you cannot angry, then injustice has been legislated out of existence, and in that case, there may be good government, as that bully doctor so proudly asserted (and I am sure, given the incomes of people in his profession in this country, even at public agencies, that it is a good country for him; and you cannot gainsay them, because these professionals see no evil, they keep themselves out of it, just as a judge has typically no clue of the depth of horror and cruelty that is almost certainly going to be experienced by the one who is victim of his judgment; if people knew and recognized what are the actual consequent res, carried out of course by others (and if they are Black or something, then the victim of their violence is expected to be angry so that they can dismiss him as a racist, for bureaucracies are so cynical that paradoxically they will appeal to every idealism, and these always go together). – There may be good government, in theory (at any rate, there will be government, meaning some professionals will rule other people, who must always want to govern themselves (before being released from a hospital, patients are sometimes asked to testify to their own measures for self-surveilling their “illness,” which could at any moment get out of hand, like becoming involuntarily excited (!)…There may be government (which always wants to be good, and its professionals have a professional ethics and think they are fair, the important is to always trust the authorities, who are in loco parentis, since the people cannot be adults who are to truly be self-governing, that is, democracy,…There will be government but not politics: No contestation, no disagreement, no tolerance for political conflict or even disaffection. Nip disaffection in the bud before it becomes dissent and disobedience: that is their strategy.

On Victor Frankl’s neo-Stoicist humanist accommodation to the Shoah

This neo-Stoic celebration of an ethics of responsibility that says that anyone can handle anything if they have enough faith, is false. Frankl shares this conventional view of God (or “meaning”) and the camps with Bruno Bettelheim and others. It announces a denial of the vulnerability (and mortal finitude) that is so much of what makes us human, in the name of the noble desire to overcome oppression and end its unnecessary suffering. It leads to neoliberalism, and is well refuted by Primo Levi in his own writings on the camps, unsurpassed for their moral realism and lucidity in describing the figure of the “Musselman,” and by Giorgio Agamben’s philosophical meditations on this in “Remnants of Auschwitz,” which stands as the most rigorous philosophical study of the Shoah to date. The truth of the matter is rather more interesting than the traditional inspiring, homiletical purpose befitting a sermon that is Frankl’s. It is the Levi/Agamben position that is more authentically Jewish, while the other and more popular position only seems to be, and in fact is closer to Christianity with its soteriology that renders ethics a purely psychological matter. In this regard, Judaism knows something that Christianity tends to forget: that man is a social and political animal.  Levi, one of the survivors who eventually would suicide (do the humanists of Frankl’s kind blame him for this sin and the despair behind it?), and whose complete works were recently made available in English translation, titled one of his books recounting his experience at Auschwitz, “The Drowned and the Saved.”  Just as one does not need a salvation to live a good life, drowning, perdition, damnation are conditions that we know, especially now, to be real enough that we can do without the moralizing.  Sermonizers, who do, or can, fulfill a useful role, may as well limit themselves to urging people to simply live the best lives they can; it is not an either/or matter such that a life would need, as in St. Paul and Luther, to be “justified.”

Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl Explains Why If We Have True Meaning in Our Lives, We Can Make It Through the Darkest of Times

The eclipse of interiority? Note on Freud and the century

The massive influence of Freud’s invention of psychoanalysis ought to have led, along with increased literacy, to an increased cultivation of a reflective interiority. But instead it joined with consumer culture in making possible the sexual revolution. (Here as elsewhere art offers a solution, because it is both enjoyment and thought.)

Notes towards a Jewish philosophy after Deleuze and Badiou

Which philosopher or theorist in the 20th century is the most liberal, the freest? I think Gilles Deleuze. The African-American writer Ishmael Reed once said he wished that more Americans would look to native sources like jazz instead of to France. But actually Deleuze is the most philo-American of French thinkers (he preferred American and, oddly, even English, literature to French), and of course you cannot get a philosophy that is more like jazz than “A Thousand Plateaus” and “What is Philosophy?” (Both of which he wrote with Felix Guattari).

When I write my book “Towards a New Jewish Philosophy” I will include a chapter on Deleuze, which I hope to add to the book’s provocation since most people would tiresomely reiterate “Levinas, Levinas, Levinas, and maybe Derrida.” Sure, but are we going to opt for welcoming the stranger that we are to ourselves and the world is, and so for nomadology, or not? Set tables are, you know, oh so medieval. If the great question is the ethical one of how to live a good life, and thus, what is a life, the first principe in approaching an answer is that there is no rule book for living exactly. Of course there are obligations, and I’m ok with 613 I can understand and that are all subject to elaboration through careful study (God would withdraw any of them if a rigorous moral philosophy proved it wrong) –which beats 6000 that require a legal staff to inform you of only to avoid liabilities. If Levinas is right that God is an infinity (because Being is) and not the author of a totality, then the perfection of the world is not the eventual reiteration of the salvific plan of a Book, as even territories have no perfect maps but Being is not a territory, whatever your cosmology.

Badiou may well misunderstand infinity in relying too much on set theory. The problem with the Cantorian approach to infinity is that it is for him it is sets that are infinite, but actually any set is only unlimited in its count but is bounded and counts in some particular way, and that makes it limited, and so finite. The root here is the chaos/cosmos relation with the latter dependent on the concept or conceptual name. (A name that is not conceptual indicates a person independently of properties, and so God and so human persons, both persons without qualities). Badiou has too much faith in concepts. And yet we do not want to retreat to the antinominalism and antinomianism of, say, Buber. Badiou is a Platonist, and all Platonism refers to concepts or forms, such as images, as primary. His argument for atheism is: God is an idea of the infinite, but the infinite is really secular and so not transcendent because it is really finite. Totality and infinity may be both figures of Bigness and thus Power or Availability, and if not, what, and how? Badiou looks to ontology (theory of Being) to decide the ethical question; again, I am inclined to side with left Heideggerians like Agamben (perhaps most clearly in “The Coming Community”….)

I take some hope from the embedded tendency of the French to use the term “interesting” to indicate what is good. We Americans want the “real” or the “true” or…. (and the religious perhaps want the holy, if anyone knows what that means anymore. I think that art captured aura long ago and religion is powerless to recolonize it because of our imaginary museum and the practically infinite multiplicity of Books, that have forever displaced all ideas of “the Book” (and author, authority, or origin as legitimating Being or value). (Derrida and the other left Heideggerians win that argument, among others; and yes, this is liberating! I would feel poor if I did drudgery all week and lived for a couple hours stolen from the night of study of the Great Text. But I live in the age of mechanical reproduction and the non-scarcity of an information economy. …)

There is an emergent new paradigm. We don ‘t have it, but it is in formation. Among other things, it already can be seen to include spectacular developments that rearticulate the division between the secular and the sacred.

So anyone tells you they are returning to “tradition” and find everything there, tell them we don’t advocate not reading the classics, but — well, send them to me, to my school, or give them my site address and bid them wait ten years for the book.

How Judaism has failed the Jews: Reflections on Norman Cantor’s “The Sacred Chain”

I have been reading historian Norman F. Cantor’s excellent book on Jewish history, “The Sacred Chain.” Cantor makes a compelling case for the failure of the decisively influential stands of thinking in the Jewish world going back to antiquity, their failure to do the one thing that, in various times of crisis (when the early Christian church was competing with Judaism before Constantine; and in the critical moments of 1096, 1492, 1648, and then the 19th and 20th centuries), might have led to different outcomes: such fewer people abandoning Judaism for Christianity, and the faith of most Jews and institutions supporting it being more relevant and useful to their needs.

The simple story is that Cantor thinks that always in the various diaspora sites, a substantial number of Jews became very successful and prominent, and what this generally did was to make them conservative. Conservative by the standards of what might have been had Jewish intellectual life been less exclusively tied to traditional sources, such that it might have involved more successful fruitful encounters with philosophical, scientific, and artistic ideas and trends in the larger culture.

Thus, not only does Cantor dismiss Cabalism as irrational (while interestingly pointing to parallels at its origin in the same place and time, 12th century Southern France, to the Christian Cathar Hersey which Denis de Rougemont has famously argued poised modern European culture by introducing morbid ideas into its understanding of romantic love, which begins with the love poetry of the Provencal Troubadours around the time of the First Crusade, which itself was influenced by the Song of Songs and medieval Arabic love poetry by Muslim and Jewish writers. The link is that both Catharism and Cabalism have roots in Gnosticism and Manichaeanism, which maintains that the world is evil in essence, and the divine forces of light are tools for its redemption from darkness). He also thinks that Judaism — if not, of course, secular Jewish thinkers, whatever it means for a work of thought to be Jewish — consistently failed at a theoretical level to produce a credible adaptation to the society of the time and the most useful and inspiring forms of thought within it. This is an almost black and white matter with regard to medieval philosophy and the Jewish participation in it, claims Cantor. Judah Halevi and others have little to offer besides poetry, and Maimonides is, philosophically, not our contemporary in the way that, along with all philosophical classics, arguably Aquinas, influenced by him, Scotus, and others are.

In the modern world, of course, assimilation meant that most Jewish minds of note were not in the rabbinate and what enchanted and excitement them was things other than the Talmud. In my field, philosophy, the difference is very striking and stark: There is a rabbinical canon of “Jewish philosophers.” Most of them are rabbis, they write inspiring 300 page homiletical sermons. Some are worth reading. But with one exception, in the last 100 years, only one deserves to be called a philosopher in a sense that the scholarly world of philosophy can recognize, and that is Emmanuel Levinas. There are other great Jewish philosophers, but no one calls them that, and no one at a rabbinical school will likely be assigned to read any of them. Most are political philosophers. (In my forthcoming – it may take a few years – book “Towards a New Jewish Philosophy,” I will argue that where Judaism most did and does differ is its politics.

The Jewish idea of God is different from characteristic Christian and Muslim ideas and the difference has to do with notions of power. The consequence is that Jewish theology at least potentially approaches social and political domination, injustice, and liberation differently. And it must. When that is recognized, other things will begin to fall into place. And we can finally say goodbye to the conservativism of the entire religious Jewish world as we know it today. The answer lies not in nationalism (though I see no reason to oppose the nation-state idea either; there is no alternative to “ours” except living in “theirs” and that will be so as long as there are not only nations but nation-states). All of the nihilist (in the Heideggerian sense) solutions of communitarianism, nationalism, familialism, or textualism (the authority of the text) must be seen as copouts and dead-ends. (A truly liberal Judaism of course values communities and families, but the -isms overstate the case in an intellectually dishonest or at least heteronymous mode of appealing to such things epistemically to legitimate belief based on some region of the way things are — the most un-Jewish idea imaginable). My argument will be philosophical, and this can allow for interpretation of texts, and of the meaning of various social forms, but the starting point cannot be them but a set of principles grounded in pure reason.

My polemic point is not that Reform and Conservative Judaism are doing so much as they are already dead, as intellectually they have nothing to offer. This is the fact: Reform Judaism sought to modernize it in ways that ultimately led nowhere (in part because no one is a Kantian anymore, at least not in Hermann Cohen’s idealizing sense).

And if I really have had too much to drink and it shows in my writing this, let me exit gracefully for now by saying that if I cannot solve this problem, maybe a bunch of us can, and certainly some good work has been done. I just find it annoying that I can go one of these nice synagogues that has nice music, a good sermon, and I like what they have done with the prayerbook. I understand that you cannot really expect to meet anyone there. I understand that most religious Jews are just interested in their careers, and families, and people like me don’t belong or are into strange fiery tomes and thinkings, and philosophy, which I study and take very seriously, is my own private enterprise, while if you probe a bit you find that these are people whose thinking is watered down Kant and Kierkegaard, via the “Jewish philosophers” who are mostly in the older German and not the more recent French and Italian traditions of Continental philosophy (to which almost all Jewish theology belongs).

Almost nowhere in Judaism today is there an interesting or relevant politics. Many liberal American Jews believe in “social activism,” but ultimately that is empty. It’s another private enterprise, and one that is encouraged.

What happened is nothing less than this: Most successful Jews today are either in business or one of the professions, or academia. The former group gets lots of opportunity for self-congratulation, and that is a major part of Cantor’s point. And the great Jewish minds have long abandoned Talmudism and the rabbinate for the universities. No one can complain about this, except that you can easily feel a disconnect if you are one of these intellectual types (if only because you find it annoying to be bored) and then you realize that you walk into a synagogue, almost any, and here people are reaping all the advantages of the Haskalah, which is why their thinking is usually at best a watered-down Kantianism, sprinkled with notions that they have gotten from the homiletical readings popular with many middle-class Jews and marketed to them, including homiletical and inspiring rather than critical forms of history, which is one of Cantor’s complains. And sprinkled with references to this or that historical factor that is homiletically pertinent. Maybe no connection needs to be made. But if you went, as I did, to a leading university and there studied in a humanities field, where some really exciting experimental thinking was going on, and then you meet your neighborhood rabbi and he or, increasingly she, is very nice and a bit helpful in some merely practical way, and suddenly you feel as in a time warp. So my question is: What would be a good way of catching up, if not to 2017, maybe to 1970? Please tell me, and don’t be embarrassed if you have to say no: Do you believe there is anything important to be learned from the 20th century or not? It seems to me that you are, like T. S. Eliot, holding out fragments from the distant past to shore against our ruins, and truth be told, you no more believe in the 20th century than the ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn who have shielded themselves from it.

I think that philosophy as a discipline sets the standards and forms of thinking clearly about anything at all. Debates about religion or politics or anything else of consequence should be formulated with reference to philosophical positions and arguments. When rabbis are not well-trained in philosophy, they must fall back, for example in any pastoral counseling context, but also in their sermons, upon argument by authority with citation of proof-texts.

And the question of assimilation is never whether or not, nor more or less; it is how, meaning to what. To which elements of the larger (not definitively Jewish) environment? And by what means (confronting these of “those” texts with which of “ours,” and in what way?

American Jews are not too assimilated; they are mostly assimilated in the wrong way. The reason is that an environment is both social and culture. Assimilation to a society is adoption of its mores and folkways and/or those of a professional career. Assimilation to a culture is understanding and using works of art and ideas that are in substantial measure a critique of the society that they are part of. And these are very different. The one, motivated by the desire for success and comfort, is intrinsically conservative. This is not bad, just limiting. The other will tend, as it has for many Jews in academia, towards the left. It will tend towards the experimental and the avant-garde.

Certainly, the idea of chosen-ness partly means being or being part of an avant-garde. The only thing that has changed there is that outside certain practices particular to us that we may (or may not) wish to maintain, and which are separative, like kosher, shabbat, circumcision, and the ban on intermarriage, with regard to most things that are normally found on either side of a social boundary, the borders are fluid. And this is true of all identities in the contemporary world, and for this reason. (It is true of gender except when it comes to meaningful differences that are anatomical).

I do not wish to suggest that synagogues should become little universities employing a hundred or more scholars and encompassing every interesting idea many of us can relate to. What I suggest is the more limited consideration that Judaism and its rabbis are today largely excluded, by the design of their profession and places of worship, from almost all of what is happening in the world today in the world of ideas, in the “spiritual” world (in the European sense: that of the world of ideas and thinking), that truly matters. And that, while I have no proposal on how to remedy this exactly, apart from suggesting that rabbinical seminaries teach or require prior study in philosophy and that this have the same degree of rigor traditionally accorded Talmudism. For look what Reform and Conservativism have done: By carefully cultivating a territory that is almost entirely irrelevant to the modern world they were both so eager to join and truly be part of, they have condemned much of American Jewish culture to disappear, if they continue on the same course, in perhaps a couple of generations. And all of the efforts that rabbis and Jewish community leaders worried about this have been undertaking are doomed because they assume that the solution to the problem is to repackage the ancient and medieval Jewish thinking that is still what is known as Judaism today.

Cantor hints that one reason for the conservatism of American Judaism today is the influence of the Jewish billionaires. I do suspect that much of the unquestioning American “Zionism” is partly a displacement and distraction. Israel is not under any immanent threat and has not been since 1973. Of course it needs to exist. But our politics should not be exclusively defined by the Israel/Palestinian issue nor by philanthropy and pleasant-sounding appeals about milquetoast social concerns that can be aired from the pulpit. For generations now, most Jews who are doing much that is interesting are not religious and could not want to be. Why is that? The rabbis want to sell them in more attractive packages what these people are smart enough to already know that they don’t want, certainly not if that’s all there is. The conservative faction has defined being Jewish in terms of Judaism and defined Judaism too narrowly. And yet, most of the things they want to cling to are fine, they just are not enough. And so the destiny will be that soon most Jews will either be non-religious in principle, or very minimally so indeed, and indeed, that is already the case. Either way, the religion is becoming irrelevant. At the very moment when, in the last couple of generations, philosophical theology has become interesting again, and in exciting new ways. But to study philosophy rightly you have to risk yourself, not cling to the shore.

Tentatively, my book will discuss a number of secular philosophers, Jewish and non-Jewish, mention some of the religious ones in passing only (as deserved), and will among other things attempt to “redeem” a political philosophy based on various sources including several 20th century Jewish philosophers who are not religious. I realize I could easily wind up writing a book that has only the most tenuous claim to a connection to Judaism, and tomorrow that may or may not matter to me; I have been reading some things that make it seem relevant. But then I will return to my starting point: A Jewish philosophy worthy of our time will be a political philosophy and vice-versa. Talmudism, Cabalism, New Ageism, and also Zionism are all in my view not really political. We don’t have a coherent politics, and that is because we don’t have a philosophy, or set of philosophies.

The question of the possible role of philosophy in Judaism has been raised since Philo in the first century. It is a vexed problem, and no less than Levinas and Leo Strauss have both claimed that “philosophy is Greek,” and Judaism can dance with it but only at arms length and not marry it. Maimonides thought differently, but he really is a hermeneutical commentator and not philosophically rigorous. Levinas is the sole figure I can think of who really does belong solidly in both camps. Spinozism is a live option today and as with Heideggerianism (and perhaps Kantianism and Hegelianism), it is by no means clear that it is a position that it places any adherent (for philosophy has adherents! It is an object of belief, of course; philosophy always claims to present what is “true,” though it asks for an allegiance that is essentially cognitive and cannot be demanded or commanded) must abandon the “faith.” Faith in what? Well, I will of course have to define what I take to be the proper Jewish idea of God, and some other things. Including, if not starting, with what he all too often is in Christianity and to my thinking cannot be: An omnipotent will who guarantees the good. The reason this is wrong is only secondarily because of “the problem of evil.” It has to do with the problems of injustice and that form of justice that is liberation. The contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben quotes in one of his books an Islamic Sura which presents the question where God was before the creation of the world. The answer is that he is with the oppressed.

God is all too easily identified with the state of things and the state authorities who represent it. Solving this problem is no easy matter, since notions such as “the people” (or, indeed, “we (or they), the oppressed”), perhaps precisely in being posited inevitable as authoritative principles on which effective action might be legitimated, they are also forms of “God.” God is his own worst enemy, and ours, because justice is as easily domination and liberation, and maybe intrinisically both. God had to be reminded by the first person who knew him well, Abraham, that it might be unjust to destroy the unjust if there might be just ones among them. Just try and sort this out in contexts where it is not easily sorted out by grouping persons. (That is, what if some are not wholly good or bad?)

The question of the role of Judaism in a philosophy is a form of the question of philosophy’s relationship to artistic (or textual) and historical “conditions.” Jewishness is always defined or understood with respect to the religion or to Jewish history. The essential features of Jewish history that make it distinctive are all already presented in the Torah and Bible. But philosophy is not hermeneutical exegesis. Rather, it always treats textual and historical exemplars as having “a vote but not a veto” (Kaplan), as at best presenting possibilities that are suggestive for a philosophical thinking that starts and ends with propositional truth claims that are grounded entirely in other such claims. Philosophy can have no non-philosophical presuppositions. Philosophy’s relationship to non-philosophy is that the latter gives it things to talk about. But any hermeneutic elucidation of an idea found in the text has only possible, perhaps even probable, validity, and that is how philosophy must treat it. A philosophical elucidation of a canonical text has not succeeded if it shows us what the text means but does not persuade us that this claim is true (or false), and in some way that we must care about.

Judaism’s idea of God was unique in not being essentially identified with authority, legitimacy, and domination, as in much of Christian theology and still much thought of God in Judaism. The Jewish God is a fullness and perfection in idea who rules without controlling Being (Nature and History) conceived as Lacking. This idea proved stronger than religion itself, because the Jews were always a minority, at least outside their proper territory in the diaspora where most of them have lived and still prefer to, and were always subjected to injustice, or liable to be, so that they could never long forget this, even if they abandoned received or traditional ways of thinking about and coping with this condition. The most fundamental ideological claim is simply that the way things are is the way they ought to be, and religious and non-religious Jews generally have intuitively refused this equation, if only because so much in their history and condition makes it difficult not to. And so, to begin with, the theological problem of God is the problem of injustice: As Abraham put it, must not the God of justice be just? Abraham presents a case that God has apparently not considered, though it is plain enough. God has made a judgment that is correct enough on its own terms, but what about “this”? There is something he seems to have overlooked. The Christians and Muslims have a tendency to say: But of course, God is just; he is what he is. This is the empty tautology of A=A, the way things are is the way they must be because it is the way things are, and what else is there? That is, possibility depends on necessity. But God’s famous enigmatic “I am what I am” which he says to Moses conjoins, in the Hebrew, two tenseless statements of the verb. (Doris Day’s song in Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” makes this “Que Sera, Sera,” whatever will be, will be, meaning that destiny is at most a fate unknowable in advance). In traditional theologies, His knowledge and wisdom are superior to ours, so we should defer and have faith and submit to his will; for “everything is the best in the best of all possible worlds,” and idea that Voltaire in the 18th century already could see, as is obvious today, is an obscenity. Judaism says instead: God must be just, for he is what he will be; that is, his promise, which requires our participation, ties what is possible or morally necessary now to our (possible) understanding of what must be and so can. Historical time is being’s lack of its own perfection. (And this is not, as in the Manichaean theme so often taken up in Christian and Muslim thinking, and recently by governments in the Cold War and beyond, a struggle of good and against evil that is thus a contest of wills, where each will is a knowledge in full possession of its objects.) The Jewish God is temporal (Bergson; and, perhaps, with Whitehead, processual), while the more common theological positions in the other religions and sometimes in ours are spatial and so static, conservative, and reflective of a desire for power more than love and freedom. They counsel a contentment that seems to us inadequate, and that is because Christianity at its origins, which was an accommodation to empire, was depoliticizing and psychologizing, solipsistic in its confident soteriology, which is why it had to oppose love to justice. And this is one reason why we must struggle with God in struggling with the world and its people, including ourselves, wresting a future rather than waiting for it, as if all we needed were reverential wonder, grace, miracles, and receptivity to the given and gifted character (as in the Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion) of a Being that is not just essentially good but wholly so (and maybe requiring only the right perspective).

And yet, maybe this is not the problem, either. Maybe the problem is class, even more than the influence of the billionaires. Most American Jews are satisfied with their lives and think this country has treated them well. Typically, they divide only on the issues of Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians, with this problem being the touchstone of all Jewish politics, in Israel and America. Yet this country has horrible problems, and most Jews don’t care very much about them. Their religious institutions are horribly and, from my perspective, stiflingly conservative. The old socialist movements died out and nothing has taken their place. The happy period of Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s is history.

Now we have arbitrary punishments, including practices like solitary confinement that warrant comparison with the Nazi death camps. (Precisely: while they do not produce physical death, they destroy the mind by destroying the brain, the degradation is drawn out in time and extremely painful, and in destroying the mind they destroy the soul and produce something like “the Musselman” figure in the camps, as described by Primo Levi and theorized by Giorgio Agamben in “Remnants of Auschwitz”). We have a health care system that is exploitative, and mental health care that mixes profitable neglect and punishment. Our educational system does not teach to people to think but only to conform and obey, at best with comfortable and betimes even greatly productive creativity, and perhaps retain a set of facts in their personal archive. We have no shared literary culture, that 19th century promise, which accompanied the birth of modern secular universal education, having been abandon in a society that has move far towards replacing the citizen with the more subject.
The universities that provided opportunities to so many young Jews and others who were intellectually inclined no longer do, and most trained scholars are unable to research or write as they have full teaching loads at starvation wages. Our popular arts of music and film are mostly just forms of advertising. The news media is entirely corporate-controlled and often overtly propagandistic. Politicians are beholden to investors in politics and lobbyists, and so their profession is essentially corrupt. Authoritarian governance is sustained by a mixture of the phony libertarianism and the medieval moralistic Biblical fundamentalism of the business and religious right-wings. Continuing racial segregation and unequal financing of schools through property taxes make overt racism, including frequent police and prison abuses, a constant likelihood. Automation is throwing people into the precariat instead of liberating them for more interesting lives. Our government continues to engage in constant overseas military operations, which often backfire, and its answer to the real terrorist threat is more domestic militarized policing and the effective elimination of civil liberties. We have a government that will rape you and then make you pay them for it. And the “liberal” rabbis want to defend this society (and the privileges of most of their congregants) and endlessly issue cautionary notes about those who want change. The shibboleths that Jews benefit from a free market economy and that socialism is dead are rather shopworn. Because God is also on the side of the oppressed. Pope Francis knows this, and many Muslims know this and get it wrong, perhaps because their Manichaeanism gets in the way. We must not oppose the rich because they are rich any more than the poor because they are poor: God is not only on the side of the oppressed, but he certainly is. But we are going to help build a better society or, I fear, go down sinking with it.

These are particularities of the present historical situation. A left politics worthy of the name today would surely be compatible with a plurality of positions in philosophical theology, or none at all. I think that Judaism and a left politics go very well together, and so do the current configurations of Reform and Conservative Judaism with a conservativism that cares not a whit for all the kinds of problems I have just summarized.

American Judaism today is almost universally quietist and apolitical. Rabbis and their congregants will have political opinions, but they are mostly uninteresting, irrelevant, or both. And this is related to the same intellectual poverty that may be the principle reason for their decline. Most synagogues today are no more relevant to any politics than most churches. Maybe God doesn’t need a politics. I say he does. What Reform did was to minimize the religious tradition and add a clause that you can fill it out with any set of supplements you like. This is part of the board nihilism of thought and “spirituality” in the modern world. Judaism, or a thinking that is true to it, is not the cause of this problem, but it might provide part of the solution. Tendencies in that direction lie almost entirely outside the realm of religion proper as it exists today, and I think the resources are in contemporary (the last hundred years) European philosophy. What this should and likely will mean for the future of Jewish difference I am not sure, though it seems to me clear that in teams of large-scale social peace, the importance of this difference will diminish as it will grow in contrary conditions. I worry more about what plants I cultivate in my garden than about how similar to mine is my neighbor’s.

Next, I will comment on what is wrong with the current official Platform of Reform Judaism, and the progressively more conservative character of each of the succeeding platforms since the first in the 19th century.

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How Judaism has failed the Jews (2): Further reflections on Norman Cantor’s “The Sacred Chain”

Postscript to my previous (yesterday) comment on Jewish historian Norman Cantor’s excellent popular, if middlebrow, book on the tale of it all: One question on which “Jewish history” may turn (In his book “Modern Jewish History” the more mainstream historical Howard M. Sachar essentially treats us to a long triumphalist narrative about the success of the Jewish bourgeoisie, identified of course with that of Jews as such) is the question of the perhaps outsized role of Jewish elites in both business and community “leadership,” religious or otherwise, and whether, to put it simply, we can only affirm capitalism and the status quo (in part because so many Jews have managed to do so well within it), or whether there is or could be any other game in town.

Cantor more or less demolishes the idea that any form of romantic Zionism could be that game, though it pretended to be for almost a century–I think a national liberation movement ends when it has become successful, and so since 1973 if not 1948 (or 1967), Zionism today does not exist, and this is a good thing, because it suffered the same ironical fate, success, as women’s and gay liberation, such that its proponents can fight only rear-guard defensive actions in the name of the supposedly constantly threatened character of the Jewish state, which certainly does have more enemies than friends but has survived through its own efforts and the alliance with the US, which cares about the balance of power in that region because of oil, ideological enthusiasms, and their conjuncture.

A history of the Jews that is only a social and not an intellectual history would be boring and surely would be like a social and political history of ancient Judaism that left out any thought about the classic texts that defined the Jewish people more than anything, while of course inspiring and haunting the imaginations of so many Christians. Indeed, Cantor makes two principle arguments about the Jews in the modern world:

1) Not only did all of the Allied governments do nothing to save the Jews from the Shoah, but also, Jews around the world, including in Palestine itself, and in American, England, and elsewhere (Cantor says nothing about France, which after the war held the world’s third largest national Jewish presence), did woefully little. In the case of the Zionists, they were too much preoccupied with their hopes for luring Jews to Palestine and achieving there an independent state to want to do more to try to save those European Jews who were unable to leave Europe for Palestine or who did not wish to until it was too late. Then as now there is a dominant grand narrative wherein the Shoah functions essentially to legitimate Zionism and Israel’s outsized claim to be the proper place for Jews everywhere, something that the vast majority of Jews in the diaspora have never accepted except as an ideological shibboleth which today provides a point of consistency to fragile modern identities. It surely did not help that the prevalent form of the Zionist ideology was an explicitly anti-intellectual form of Jewish self-hatred that blamed the history of anti-semitism on the wholesome and parasitical character of a diaspora Jewishness that was both too commercial and too intellectual and ought to mind the collective business by doing farming on the land and so bodily rejoining the real world of normal persons. Anyone who thinks that Jewish alienation is a moral fault to be cured with strategies of normalization is effectively an anti-semite.

2) Modernism in the arts and sciences was a heavily Jewish affair. But it never had any real influence in Judaism at all. I have argued this point with regard to philosophy, as Cantor does, in passing, also.

Like Cantor, I believe that Jewish leaders, including religious leaders, could help stem the tide of defections through intermarriage or boredom with what the religion offers, perhaps if nothing much more than a viable interpretation of what it means today, or can mean, to be Jewish were to be constructed that does not understand in such a narrow way what are, firstly on an intellectual plane, the challenges worth meeting. When I mention this to people with ties to existing institutions, I invariably get the response that maybe I should join the Society for Ethical Culture (an offshoot of early Reform Judaism that did abandon Judaism) since obviously I don’t believe in the covenant, the commandments, the holidays, Torah study, or anything else. But why on earth would anyone think that?

The causes may be related, having to do with the character of the Jewish elites and their characteristic concerns. The second problem seems to me the larger one, for several reasons. Personally, I find simply stunning the conservativism today of almost everyone who claims to speak for Jews or Judaism. I think that being overly sociological is deadly as it leads to anti-intellectual communitarianisms and the empty and nihilistic character of ideologies that cannot be critically examined and in fact have no substance. People who are in a position such that they should know better will “dire n’importe quoi,” say whatever they think suitable rhetorically.

If there is anything to which you are committed, consciously and with care and deliberation, but cannot clearly explain, including to yourself what it is you are committed to and why, and in a way that sustains critical examination, then you are an irrationalist. Maybe you appeal to an idea of “community,” or “tradition,” or familialism (in France, the right-wing Benny Levy, founder along with Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut, of an institute focused on the works of the great French Jewish philosophy Emmanuel Levinas, argued that the Jews are distinctive for having a rich family life, but of course lots of people have that, and you can very well have it with no idea of “God” or justice or liberation anything else, as is true of “community”: these are lousy candidates for names of God). The sociological reduction, especially tempting in a society like the US where scholarly thinking in philosophy has no popular appeal, as it does in France, is especially deadly. It entails an abandonment of the need for thinking at all, and so a wholesale abandonment either of the life of the mind or of its relevance outside the boundaries of one’s profession.

Cantor is audacious. For no clear reason, he singles out as representative modernists whose thought could be relevant to an intellectual renascent Judaism five Jewish thinkers who emerged around 1900, including Durkheim as well as Freud. Perhaps a book as sweeping and intended for popular consumption as his “The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews,” cannot be expect to go into much depth about this or anything in one 400 page volume full of interesting summary conclusions and no use of scholarly norms of elucidating the terms at stake in all arguments concerning all controversial claims. Suffice it to say that I would give a very list (and perhaps a long one) of modernist artists and thinkers, with no care to who was a Jew or carried Jewish identity papers and concerned solely with what I take to be the proper, intellectual responsible mode of inquiry in constructing a contemporary Jewish philosophy: Develop a body of interesting claims that are well-argued, that make ample reference to various developments in the world of ideas in the modern and contemporary worlds, that are worked out on the plane of philosophical discourse as it exists today, and that derive their claims for some measure of “Jewishness” from the implicit or explicit parentage of at least some of the key claims to Jewish texts and history
in terms of credible interpretations of them.

In Cantor’s reading, there seem to have been three kinds of elites in Jewish history until now. Until the modern period (meaning largely after 1792), the dominant elites were the intellectual elites who were essentially religious on the one hand, and secular elites who were ofter merchants or capitalists on the other. He seems to think that the creation of the state of Israel did not change this. The third elite was a secular scientific and cultural elite, which largely wound up being associated with universities. One could wonder if their importance is coming to an end. As most PhDs today are employ only to teach, at starvation wages, and given no opportunity for continued research and writing. One might put it more simply by saying that in Jewish culture there have always been the two figures of businessman and scholar, and that in the modern world religious thinking and scholarship lost its exclusive purchase on the Jewish (and non-Jewish) mind. Indeed, I sometimes think that the real question today is the future of intellectuals. I think the Jews as a people will have a future as long as they exist, as long as many are in the diaspora, and as long as there are opportunities available to them to succeed in. In the long term, there will be intellectual life as long as there are books and enough people who have access to them and leisure time to read and make something of them. In the short term, of course, the world seems dark. In America, anti-Semitism most often took other, or disguised forms, notably anti-intellectualism and anti-Communism. As I noted in my previous post on this, wherever else He may be found, God is on the side of the oppressed.

The left, it may be noted, has always been an alliance between certain kinds of intellectuals and the poor. One need only consider the Biblical Prophets to glimpse why it has so many Jews have been on the left. Indeed, the problem the Jews pose is partly that they are frequently intellectual people but who are not quite defined in their thinking by service to power.

Maybe reading middlebrow intellectual histories is the best training of the mind for enthusiastic mediocrity. But can I not at least allow myself the grandiosity of a pleasant fantasy? The fantasy that in all naivety imagines for a moment that there is something that can be done. People imagine, as Jews often have and as Holderlin suggested and some Marxists believe, that things will only get better after they only and decisively get worse. Most apocalyptic thinking assumes that. In our time, that style of thinking of course seems very dangerous. But this happens because when the state of things seems especially bad, one wants a response large and great enough to bring about a reversal, or important enough that it seems like it might.

It’s official: For Reform Judaism, “social concern” is extra credit, defines us not

Reform Judaism has an official platform that provides its defining principles. There have been four, adopted 1885, 1937, 1976, and 1999. Each new one was progressively more conservative than the last. The current one contains in it no political principles at all (beyond of course an affirmation of Zionism). The first two platforms did.

The 1885 platform included a broad statement of concern for social inequality and concluded with reference to “the evils of the present organization of society.”

The 1937 platform adds some specifics. Along with calling for “the creation of conditions under which human personality may flourish,” it declares “the right of the individual to…the pursuit of his chosen vocation.”

This is wholly absent in the current platform. And indeed, by 1976 it must have been the case that Reform Judaism was so throughly identified with the professional middle class, and so satisfied with the success of its congregants in attaining to positions within it and a sufficient sense of personal life satisfaction as a result, that there simply was no need to maintain a principled commitment to any such idea.

That must be why I found that even within what I knew to be one of New York’s most liberal Reform synagogues, neither on the part of the rabbinate, or its lay leaders, or anyone else I might meet or speak to in passing, any sympathy for my own essentially secular frustrations. I am certain that they could only respond with reference to psychological and therapeutic notions. Of the kind that explicitly defined for example the supposed “politics” of the liberal Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of a magazine explicitly devoted to “Jewish spirituality” and the one-time darling of the Clinton White House. That synagogue had no politics, and its rabbi then was a neoconservative who disdained discussion even at meetings held for that purpose, endlessly extolling “community” and, when not acting like a cheerleader for Jewish identity and the warm feel of shabbat, would talk about the need to instill moral responsibility into the minds of the recipients of charity, which he suggested to me was more his concern than scholarship. A neoconservative of the “I’ve always been liberal, but…” variety, he was a Platonist who thought his congregants mostly only dimly aware of the Enlightened truth of clergy like him and like everyone in need of reminding of their responsibilities, so that, 30 years after the onset of the neoliberalism and largely Jewish neoconservativism that he had learned from his mentor the “Jewish philosopher” Rabbi Eugene Borowitz (long the unofficial head rabbi of Reform ), they would grasp the truth, hear the inner voice that he thought was that of God (some of us are less sure of this), and perform some minimal mitzvoth rather than spending Shabbat at a suburban mall. He must have been right about his congregation because over some time I found that no one there said anything interesting that I did not find horrible, and no one either had much attitude for discussion about anything. When I tried I was unceremoniously shown the door, and I decided then that I had learned my lesson. They made me feel like a bull in the china shop of an Establishment institution, and I concluded that they were right. I can go there or anywhere else for services. The rabbi’s suggestion that I become involved in their community led me to wonder, what community? Do you see a community? The assistant rabbi suggested to me that “the community” is what exists in the sanctuary on shabbat, and it is invoked into existence by “the community.” Well, sure, there are prayer minyans and the like, and then there are communities that are a bit like a polis in the sense that there are conversations and an intellectual life there. I suspect that for my purposes (which are prima facie those of a secular philosophy), I will find that today in New York or anywhere else. That means for my purposes to pray at a synagogue and make friends somewhere else. There is a bit of sadness in this. I would find it regrettable if I thought myself the last New York Jew who is at all religious who has my politics (left) and interests in the world of ideas. There are probably a hundred thousand Jews in New York in that category, almost none of them are religious, but why worry? Why should I care so much about Judaism as a religion beyond the liturgical functions of the relevant social gatherings? Of course, in that case I will belong to no community and only a social network, like most people today, and most members of that congregation or any other, in Judaism, Christianity, and elsewhere: “community” is a holy name, but in practice it means being a, usually dues-paying, member of an organization that has regular meetings of some kind; in other words, “groups.” In the strong sense of the term, communities in general are dying with the passing of agricultural villages, and the success of the Brooklyn Hasidim in creating urban shtels of the kind that existed independently of religious groupings on the early 20th century Lower East Side, this is anachronistic and somewhat artificial, and in any case is not what anyone in Reform can believe in. Those communities are essentially closed. Everywhere else, porous boundaries have given way to none at all, though the champions of identity politics speak of them, no doubt, like all religious fundamentalists, precisely because they are anxiously trying to preserve by resurrecting something that no longer exists. In the absence of sets with boundaries, there are nodes with connections, and that is the model of the network as distinct from the group. You could have networks drawn entirely from larger sets whose members meet some membership criteria but do not meet as any group. I am not sure that the shift to a network society and model of social life is an entirely bad thing. But it is a fact that when leaders and policemen of organizations speak of “community,” they are engaging in a lot of wishful thinking, and it is their organization and maybe even its fees and dues, that they are concerned for.

My community can only by one of people who have at least a working knowledge of some common texts. I will not find that at a synagogue. There isn’t one. I probably should look for it in other places, like places with people interested in that part of the world of ideas that I care about.

Maybe I should just try to become a more effective resident of New York. And write for whoever will buy the publication my articles are printed in. Finding my friends where I find them, and being very wary of organizations.

To return to my original question (though the two are related): I wonder now that so many young people who had hoped to pursue a career as scholars at one of our nation’s numerous colleges and universities are now finding themselves shut out as teaching jobs are increasingly held by adjuncts who are paid starvation wages and not given time for study and research, I wonder if this could change things at all.

Jewish history has often been one of missed opportunities. Reform and Conservative Judaism now represent nice places to worship that have no politics to speak of at all. Maybe that’s all it should be, and all anyone could want. The counterargument is: If so, then how do we explain the continuing drift of younger generations away from Judaism and any Jewish identity through intermarriage and disinterest in the religion? Why can’t more of the scholars who represent the religion be more interested in the world of ideas that Judaism if it matters at all must be part of? And why would successful Jews decide that they no longer need care about poor people because there aren’t any? Their current platform advocates Aliyah (moving to Israel) but includes no statement at all about this society, its problems, or what “we” should want it to be.

The question comes down to: Are we contented or discontented? The idea that all discontent must be psychological is simply an avoidance of this question.

The Jewish God against “his” Theory/Story (Theology) as Injustice Justification

Most discussions are impossible, because at least one of the persons will not listen (that is, consider the argument the other is making). There is no point in discussing anything if you know already that you are right.

One difference between persons who are authoritarian and those who are liberal (in the old sense) and tolerant is just that the authoritarians do not even think this is a problem.

The better part of Western culture refutes them; the larger part of its institutions confirms their view. 

Part of the problem lies with mistaken views of language. It is something more or different from a tool (for getting what one wants). More fundamentally is making sense of experience.

The Western idea of God is tied to that project. Only if that were not the case could “God” be a power that arranges and controls all that happens, guaranteeing the good as product if not process (that much of what happens cannot be considered entirely good at least without reference to the teleology of some project for which it is means to an end: This is self-evident, and the idea that one need only change his perspective on unhappiness to be happy is so patently dishonest to be unworthy of consideration). Narratival teleology and justification of what is or what happens derives from the use of tools to accomplish tasks. There is something that gets left out, something crucial for human happiness, that is left out in that scheme.

One thing unique about the Jewish idea of God is that he was a figure of promise, and even of justice as project, as in the idea of liberation, and the temporality (“history”) that underlies it; but he was never quite a figure of justification. There is no Jewish theodicy. Theodicy is pagan, or at best, technological. Totality is a form of perfection, which is a property of created things, objects of the labor of our hands.

The conclusion to the book of Job is both less and more and less than a justificatory theodicy; God’s argument there is not that Job’s suffering was really happy or necessary, a false idea he well knows Job has too much moral courage to accept.

Rather, it is only that the book about it tells only the perhaps complete story of the experience of one man, while there are elsewhere other stories of losses and gains, and from an “absolute” point of view, the story of the world and its people is larger, if not more fortunate. It is as if God were suggesting to Job that he consider this, perhaps because it might give him something else to do besides complain (or seek reassurance). And maybe too God needs Job to patient with him, as the task of creating a world that is just and happy is unfinished, and Job has merely been given to understand something of the injustice that one has to start with.

“Never again,” the American Gulag, and its use of torture

Additional thoughts the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day:
It will annoy many people if I make a comparison, and while I think in both these ways American prisons today are in fact worse than the Nazi concentration camps, because obviously in most ways the latter were far more horrible and, of course, deadly, I will just say that if you remember the Holocaust and believe that remembering means saying never again and never again never means never again what happened before but also never again anything that is comparable in any significant way. What I wish to point to is the widespread and typically arbitrary use of solitary confinement in American prisons. It is recognized as a form of torture. It destroys the soul, much as the camps did according to Giorgio Agamben, as discussed in The Witness and the Archive: Remnants of Auschwitz. The men and women responsible for this murderousness are insouciant; American culture has never been one in which people who suffer have any droits de cité; to suffer from poverty or anything else is to be a criminal in the eyes of most Americans. And we treat criminals as damned and worthless, deserving of suffering that we inflict upon with a punitive alibi in a way that is beyond measure and so does not require any measure for measure. Christianity rejected Judaism’s lex talionis on the grounds that it is a mere rationalization for revenge, but what distinguished it was the limitation of punishment; you do not take two eyes for one, and in fact you may only require the payment for one, and payment assumes a measurable and therefore limited quantity, which is one way it is different from revenge. The figure of measurelessness retaliation in the Bible is Lamech, who declares he will kill anyone who bruises him and avenge himself 70 fold. Perhaps when you eliminate measured justice in the name of humanity, Lamechism comes in the back door. But of course American punishment is not only not Jewish but is even less Christian. Unless your idea of Christianity is instituting hell on earth in order to punish everything you think is damned. But in the end religion is probably irrelevant to understanding the prison: authority in American today more and more follows a military logic and the prisoner is treated like an enemy combattant and so neither questions of justice nor of mercy can apply to him. He is the object of a state of exception.
So this is my plea: if you really believe in “never again,” help stop the use of solitary confinement in American prisons. I do not say use: like all torture, it has no legitimate use.