Amoral Judaism: Liberating Jewish Values From The Illusions Of Authenticity
This is ‘book’ 10 in the series The Impossible Books of Keith Kahn-Harris. The cover was created by Gus Condeixa. For more on this series, read the introduction here.
What sort of book is it?
A scholarly book, but with a strong and provocative message designed to resonate outside the academy
How likely is it that I will write the book?
Unlikely. It would need a fairly extensive process of research on Jewish texts and philosophy which, while I could probably manage it, would take me a very long time (and probably a career change too).
Am I happy for anyone else to write the book?
I think it’s unlikely that anyone will, but I guess you never know.
· When Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians in 1994, was he reflecting authentic Jewish values?
· When Rabbi Heschel marched at Selma with Martin Luther King, was he reflecting authentic Jewish values?
· When sexual abuse is covered up within the ultra-orthodox community, is that a reflection of authentic Jewish values?
· When Jewish supporters of the Palestinians stand in front of bulldozers in the West Bank, are they reflecting authentic Jewish values?
The answer is yes.
Jewish tradition is, depending on how you date it, probably over 3000 years old. Over this long period Judaism and Jewishness has expanded and been transformed in a myriad of different ways. From the vantage point of the early twenty first century, there are both living and extinct precedents for a vast range of models of what being Jewish means. Jews can be radical particularists, radical universalists or some mixture of the two. Jews can be secular, religious and all points in between. Jews can be committed to the Diaspora or to a Jewish state. Jews can be politically liberal, conservative, radical or quietist. Jews can be chauvinistic or committed to pluralism.
It isn’t just that Jews have developed a highly diverse range of ways of being Jewish. ‘Classic’ Jewish texts seem to legitimate a range of apparently antithetical positions. The ambiguity and open-endedness of the Jewish textual tradition lends itself to radically different readings of traditional Jewish concepts. The biblical call not to ‘oppress the stranger’ can be heard as a radical form of anti-racism, but it can also be understood as merely suggesting that non-Jewish minorities in a Jewish state receive a minimal level of courtesy while still remaining second class citizens.
The kabbalistic concept of Tikkun Olam, can be read by modern liberals as an injunction to pursue social and ecological justice, but it can just as easily be read as an esoteric injunction to pursue elite piety. The voice of the biblical prophets can be heard by Reform Jews as a call to remake the world in a more equitable and just way, but it can also be heard as a proto-fundamentalist call for religious purity. Even the most unambiguous laws that would punish those who deviate from traditional sexuality can be counterpoised to other laws that specify compassion.
Who is right? Whose Judaism is the real one?
I can certainly tell you which Judaism I prefer: a Judaism that prioritises action to make the world a better place for all, a Judaism that balances the universal and the particular, a Judaism that resists and refuses the machinations of the powerful.
So I don’t believe that all Judaisms are equally valid or equally right. But I do believe that almost all Judaisms are equally authentic.
This isn’t a pleasant belief to hold. I don’t like to affirm the authenticity of those, for example, who advocate for a racist theocracy in Israel. Yet I can find in their vision of Jewish values as much foundation in Jewish tradition as I can for mine. Their values are not my values, but they are equally Jewish.
There is another reason why I affirm the authenticity of Judaisms that I reject and find hateful: it means that I avoid the smug and lazy self-satisfaction of those who proclaim that their vision of Jewish values is the ‘real’ one. Too often, proponents of particular visions of Judaism and Jewishness fall back on shrill proclamations of their own authenticity in ways that reject the authenticity of others. This isn’t just intellectually unconvincing, it’s also pointless. Proclaiming the authenticity of one’s own Jewishness will never erase the deep convictions of those who hold to the authenticity of opposing forms of Jewishness. Sterile debates about who ‘really’ has Jewish tradition on their side serve only to entrench divisions.
I want to go further though than simply affirming the authenticity of competing forms of Jewishness. I want to advocate a form of Judaism and Jewishness that is completely decoupled from morality, ethics, values etc: an amoral Judaism.
In the early twenty-first century, amoral Judaism is, ironically, the most authentic form of Judaism, in that it recognizes all the other competing authenticities that have emerged in the last 3000 years. Amoral Judaism is Judaism liberated from sterile and pointless debates about authenticity, in favour of an acknowledgement of the inevitability of an irreducible diversity. Amoral Judaism is a kind of ‘meta Judaism’, that encompasses all Judaisms, all of the competing visions of what Jewish values could and should be. Amoral Judaism refuses the easy path of legitimating one’s values through inevitably selective readings of Jewish tradition. Amoral Judaism affirms everything and nothing in Jewish tradition; it embraces, but does not necessarily approve of, the entirety of Jewish tradition in its contradictory splendour.
The amoral Jew is not a Jew who is amoral — quite the opposite. The amoral Jew has to face, unmediated by an illusory quest for Jewish legitimation, the awesome task of defining their own values, their own morality, their own approach to the world. The amoral Jew knows that whatever s/he chooses, s/he could find a precedent in Jewish tradition — so why bother? Instead, the amoral Jew has to legitimate his/her values and morals on their own terms. The amoral Jew expresses those values drawing on Jewish tradition, but always with an uncomfortable awareness that there are other competing Jewish values.
Amoral Judaism is not pure relativism. It is perfectly reasonable to try and drive out of business competing visions of what Judaism should be — I myself would be pleased if my own brand of social-justice oriented Judaism could become the dominant one. But this cannot be done on the basis of denying the authenticity of competing visions: not only is it intellectually disingenuous, it rarely works anywhere. There is nothing to be feared from fighting for one’s own Judaism on the basis that it is better, rather than more authentic.
Amoral Judaism is intensely moral then — but it is a morality without illusions.