“I love Israel” (thank you, Yitz Landes)
“I love Israel” (thank you, Yitz Landes)
In the Forever Wild sanctuary in Riverside Park just off and above 116th Street there are wild raspberries along the path. They taste okay.
Okay, it didn’t quite look like this at all, but this is definitely what it felt like travelling underground on the subway late last night on the way home after meeting up with a friend downtown. Engrossed deeply in Jacob Neusner’s Messiah in Context (1984), all of a sudden I looked up and realized that I was lost and disoriented. Physically exhausted and almost panicky, was I even on the right train? In the right place? Scholem was right. Messianism is first and foremost a theory of catastrophe.
From Modern Jewish Ethics, edited by Marvin Fox, and since re-printed, here are the main ligaments to Aharon Lichtenstein’s famous question cum essay, “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize An Ethic Independent of Halakah?” I have re-arranged the parts out of sequence to make better sense of the answer, which I would phrase as a qualified: yes, there is definitely an ethic independent of halakahah, but it depends upon what you mean.
–Halakhah (JEWISH LAW) is not Din (defined by Lichtenstein as a body of statutes qua set of rules) (p.78)
–Din is not comprehensive (cf.66).
–The principle that one should (!!) stop before the line of the letter of the law (lifnim mi-shurat ha-din) is obligatory, not optional (pp.70-4). (Note: lifnim mi-shurat ha-din is often mistranslated by people who should know better as “beyond the law,” which only serves mangle the Hebrew and obfuscate the principle.) (The argument is posed with Nachmanides and against Maimonides.)
–No community can stand on statutes and rules alone. “Supralegal conduct is the cement of human society” (p.76). “Righteousness” technically understood as rule following has to be complemented by the “good,” understood in terms of “purpose” and “direction,” not “prescribed acfs” (p.79).
–In this respect, one can say that halakhah recognizes a “good” that is independent of din. But by the end of the essay it is no longer clear that we are talking about halakhah (p.82). What we’re talking about now is not halakhah per se.
Regarding arguments about halakhah and ethics, my own sense is that the modern orthodox drove the rest of us into the weeds. The status of halakhah and questions about that status are unique to them. Consider in contrast that for liberal thinkers, the umbrella term is Torah, a more capacious term, not Halakhah, which is too associated with positive law. The orthodox found and still find themselves stuck in it having once set up halakhah as some Jewish unum necessarium (p.82). What’s radical about Lichtenstein’s approach lies in the attempt to re-arrange by re-defining the conceptual furniture. Shifting the argument from halakhah to din, what the solution more than suggests is that Halakhah is not (!!) the relevant term.
That seems to be Lichtenstein’s direction, particularly given the concluding statement, “Does the tradition recognize an ethic independent of Halakkha? You define your terms and take your choice” (p.83). That idiom is strange, though, from Lichtenstein, who was a native English language user. Perhaps he meant, “take your chance.”
The more elegant solution is one with fewer moving parts. One might instead “choose” to restrict one’s use of the word halakhah to din (as happens in the Bavli) and then conclude that Judaism or Torah recognizes or even generates an ethic that is both rooted in and independent of halakhah. The relation would be recognized as one that is subject to tension, conflict, and splitting. It would require one to say that Judaism is a “religion” of Torah, not Halakhah, not as Law personified, and not as positive law. My guess is that such an admission would cut too sharply against the ideological grain for too many orthodox thinker and their students. But that’s their conceptual muddle, which turns out every once and a while to be a moral one. In Israel, the muddle is more dangerous than in the United States –hence the urgency of Lichtenstein’s question.
Does Jewish ethics exist? It depends. Again sticking with Modern Jewish Ethics, the 1975 collection of essays edited by Marvin Fox, Aharaon Lichtenstein put it quite bluntly. “[A]s formulated, this particular query is a studded minefield, ever key term is an ill-defined boobytrap” (p.62). The answer to the essay “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize An Ethic Independent of Halakha?” would hang upon what one means by “Jewish,” “tradition,” “recognize,” “ethics,” “independent,” and “halaklah.”
We could also throw in the indefinite article. The point I would make is that the entire edifice that is supposed to structure the query fragments into the component features of the edifice. For instance, in Fox’s essay in this volume on Saadya Gaon, the negative answer depends upon the way Fox has defined “independent ethics” in terms of the impossibility of reason to define on its own moral rules not just as socially useful, but as logically necessary. This raises the bar and turns it into an impossible condition. One could also note that the argument is based on the famous midrash in which the nations in competition with Israel all turn down God’s gift of the Torah, leading one to wonder who all these people are without enough moral sense to prohibit stealing, murder, etc (p.185). Having put his cart before the horse, there’s no way that Fox could answer the question in the affirmative.
Or consider Lichtenstein’s essay. Is there an ethical component to halakah that is “constitutive,” “continuous,” “pervasive,” consistent,” “inextricably interwoven,” “complementary,” and “overriding” (cf. p.67). Maybe a relation defined as less would be more? Maybe the fabric is “interwoven,” but subject to “unraveling”? Is Lichtenstein maybe talking about “Torah” instead of “halakhah” (cf. p.66). Perhaps it makes sense to avoid the term “halakhah” and replace it with “Torah,” on the one hand, and “din” (determinate and detailed lawful judgment) on the other? Lichtenstein suggests that the whole exposition might be a “sham” and wonders if “the fiction” of “halakhic comprehensiveness” might be preserved (p.77). Shifting terms, this would mean that “din” is indeed distinct from “good.” Indeed, I can think of no one who argues that “din” defines “Judaism.” But what then about “law” is not so clear. Lichtenstein comes close to recommending that we should fix our terms because “halakhah” is not the umbrella term in rabbinic literature (midrash Halakhah and Talmud) that it was to later become, i.e. that “unum necessarium of the Jew committed to tradition” as “commanding presence” and “magisterial to the point of personification” (p.82).
Looking past Hazal, what complicates the picture in Joseph Dan’s Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics is whether by ethics one means something ordinary like derekh eretz, i.e. ways of the world, standards of moral decency, or interpersonal (social) behavior, i.e. those mitzvot between a person and his or her fellow, versus the via mystica, i.e those mitzvot between a person and God (especially chapter 5), which is not what most of us mean by ethics, not today at least.
More on that mess later, and more on Lichtenstein. For now, let’s stick with this quick upshot. As per Lichtenstein, we are treading into “fiction” and make-believe. As “figures,” it really depends upon what one is going to mean by terms like “ethics” and “halakhah,”apart from which there is a lot of noise, but no such thing as “Jewish ethics,” whether dependent or independent of something called “din,” “halakhah,” or “law,” as well as what one means by “reasonable” and “rational.” Perhaps the only one advice to give –careful as you go now.
My search for Jewish ethics pointed me back to this little classic, Modern Jewish Ethics: Theory and Practice, edited by the inestimable Marvin Fox. Full of surprises, this anthology of essay is a neat little time capsule from the 1970s. Published in 1975, the essays were originally presented in 1972 and 1971 at the Institute for Judaism and Contemporary Jewish Thought at Bar Ilan University.
Is it the first ever study of its kind? A product of its time, the book includes essays by Fox along with Ernst Simon, David Sidorsky, Jackob Petuchowski, and the famous essay by Aharon Lichtenstein about halakhah and ethics. To my eyes very surprising is the appearance of Emmanuel Levinas making a very early entrance onto the Jewish philosophical scene in English and in Israel, and by Meir Pa’il, one of the great heroes of the progressive Zionist left.
More on particular contents are to follow. For now, I wanted only to comment on the volume itself, its object-like and iconic character, and the way it sits in place in the early to mid 1970s, a unique and understudied historical moment. Consider in this respect the thesis by Samuel Moyn about the relatively late appearance of “human rights” at around the same period. It might well be the case that, going back only so far, the current vogue in “Jewish ethics” as a distinct phenomenon has a discrete genealogical starting point, much later than one might have originally thought.
I was unsure what to make of it when this largely unnoticed story broke about the Biton Committee Report advocating the teaching of Mizrachi culture in the Israeli educational system. In lieu of my own analysis, here’s the opinion piece by Zvi Bar’el in Ha’aretz. What strikes me is how, according to Bar’el, the report goes beyond merely teaching mizrachi-sephardic heritage, but aims to integrate that experience and the Israeliness which builds upon as an integral part of larger Arabic-Islamic regional and cultural contexts. Since some of you may not have access past the paper’s firewall, I’m pasting this important article in full.
The Biton report, which invites Israel to reconcile with a Jewish culture it considers inferior, could also open a channel to a culture it considers hostile.
The Biton Committee’s report on “strengthening the heritage of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry in the education system” is one of the most important documents in the country’s history. Despite its flaws, about which rivers of ink will doubtless be spilled, in essence this is a document about defining identity – not the cultural, historical and national identity of Jews of Spanish and Middle Eastern descent, but that of Israeliness and of the State of Israel.
At its core, it is engaged in rehabilitating and correcting a narrative by exposing history that has been hidden, as well as in trying to heal one of the plagues of discrimination that Israel’s strife-ridden, angry society has created. This report must not be allowed to become another dead letter buried by the machinery of bureaucracy, or to serve as a flag for politicians to wave in order to demonstrate the largeness of their spirits and openness of their hearts.
The document, running 360 pages, is itself a piece of history that ought to be taught and studied since it constitutes written testimony, albeit certainly not complete, about the rickety structure on whose warped foundations the Israeli narrative was built. This is a structure from which parts of the public were deliberately excluded by being ordered to dissolve themselves in a fictitious melting pot.
The document comprises two spacious floors. One is built of the bricks of the past; it maps the place of Mizrahi Jews who came from the Arab states and Spain. The second offers a vision for the future that situates Israel within the regional culture.
This report, for the first time, puts forth a well-documented demand, without embarrassment and without apologies, to recognize the Arabic language; the history of the Arab states and Islam; the indissoluble ties between Arabic and Jewish poetry; the roles that the greatest Mizrahi Jews played in the histories of Middle Eastern peoples; Arab movements and education and nationalism. In short, it demands that we study and understand Mizrahi Jewish culture as part of a much broader context, rather than as an anthropological curiosity – a tribe with a common folklore.
“Arabs and Islam will be presented not just in relation to the Jews (usually either as subjugators or as providing good treatment), but as themselves, and from this, Jewish students can also derive immediate benefit; and the history of the Jews of Islamic lands will be put into a more appropriate historical context,” says the chapter on teaching history.
Poet Erez Biton presents Education Minister Naftali Bennett with the committee’s report.Moti Milrod
Without saying so in so many words, this report takes the idea of Jewish Arabness – which sparks terror among many Mizrahi Jews and serves as a pretext for condescension by “European” Jews – “out of the closet.” In a fascinating interview that Almog Behar conducted with Prof. Sasson Somekh in 2008 (and which was published in the literary journal “Iton 77”), Somekh explained that “in order to be an Arab Jew, a person must meet four criteria: His mother tongue must be one of the dialects of Arabic; he must have been born and raised in a Jewish community whose language is Arabic, and in an Arabic-speaking country; and the bulk of his basic education must have been via Arab culture. In this sense, even if it’s an exaggeration, I would say that in order for a person to be an Arab Jew, the first poet he reads in his life must be Al-Mutanabbi, the greatest Arab poet of the Middle Ages.”
Israeli Mizrahi culture cannot rehabilitate itself solely through increased funding or by appointing members to the Council for Higher Education proportionally based on their ethnic origins. Without spreading and bolstering the Arabic language, without knowing the history of the Arab states and the canonical Arabic literature, and when everything Arab is deemed unacceptable for nationalist reasons, the wellsprings from which Mizrahi Jewry drew will also be considered poisoned.
The Biton report, which invites Israel to reconcile with a Jewish culture it considers inferior, could also open a channel to a culture it considers hostile. The report legitimizes ending our fear of Mizrahi-Arab culture, because it is drenched in longing for the cultural pride that was stolen from Mizrahi Jews.
But before we get carried away by its good tidings, we ought to remember who the ministers responsible for education and culture are, and who is sitting in the government that’s being asked to establish the Mizrahi narrative.