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The Long Jewish History of Social Distancing

Why so many of our greatest thinkers only shone when isolated from others

Daniel Mackler
April 06, 2020
Tablet Magazine; original images: Flickr Commons
Tablet Magazine; original images: Flickr Commons
Tablet Magazine; original images: Flickr Commons
Tablet Magazine; original images: Flickr Commons

The email a few weeks ago that let me know that I was under a nine-day quarantine induced one of the deeper stomach-drops of my admittedly cushy life. It galled me that, of all the high schools in all the towns in all the world, the coronavirus walked into mine.

That I was seemingly spared from the virus itself; that not going into work didn’t threaten my ability to pay rent or put food on the table; that, as a young Manhattanite beneficiary of various axes of privilege, I am unprecedentedly, historically free even in quarantine: All those only made me slower to comprehend that I suddenly wasn’t allowed to do whatever I wanted. It was Purim, and what I wanted was mainly to celebrate a raucous holiday with friends. Instead, I found myself alone in my room, gamely dressed up as a frog, listening to the Megillah trip in electronically through my computer speakers. The next day, I ate a quiet festive meal with the roommates. All the while I felt a dull tug toward the ceremonies as I’d envisioned them in the anticipatory weeks before Purim, communal and crowded and in Technicolor.

But consolation wasn’t late in coming: I’m an aspiring student of modern Jewish philosophy, so much of which is cast as the happy breakthrough of the individual from the confines of community. Social isolation is a theme at the root of both our present coronavirus situation and the early birth pangs of Jewish modernity. Despite the deeply communal nature of Jewish religion, Jewish philosophers were forced by circumstance to engage with Judaism as an individualistic exercise. Within a strand of modern Jewish philosophy’s wide tapestry, we find lonely Jews thinking lonely thoughts.

While Jewish legal decisors throughout history had no choice but to root themselves in religious communities and depend on their consent, many modern Jewish philosophers did their thinking alone. Spinoza was a heretic cut off from his community. Less sympathetically, Salomon Maimon abandoned not only his hometown but a wife and children to chase philosophical truth. Nachman Krochmal taught secretly in the rural hills of Galicia before rushing (and failing) to complete his book before his death. The earliest ones to put modern philosophy in conversation with Jewish texts were largely self-taught and often socially isolated, beyond the bounds of normative Jewish communities.

In an earlier age, or even a different community today, my quarantine could have been a great chance to secretly read up on a Jewish Index of Forbidden Books. Regrettably, I’ve never needed to hide German philosophy under my pillow, or stash works of biblical criticism behind big books of classical commentary. My local Jewish community—my synagogue and the high school where I work—has wide intellectual horizons. There is no divide between the people I daven with and the people I talk to; they are the same collection of eccentric Jews. Cut off from these conversation partners, my quarantine is what was intellectually confining. On my better days, the video chats I got from caring friends helped tide me over and lessen the annoyance of quarantine. At other times, communicating virtually dropped into the uncanny valley of Jewish communal interaction. The effortful, flat nature of connecting over the computer made me more intensely miss the warm serendipity of the real thing. I’ve never felt suffocated by my community, as Spinoza may have been by his, but I was too many days into this quarantine and I missed being swaddled.

Beyond the persona of the lone, heroic, modern Jewish philosopher, strands in modern Jewish thought itself have established individual experience as the basic unit of Jewish religiosity. This shift was inaugurated by Moses Mendelssohn in the 18th century. In the Protestant West, there was active pressure to downplay the communal nature of Judaism and express it in terms of personal faith, the better to assimilate into hostile Christian society. This strand stayed strong throughout the 20th century, whose existential turn again focused on personal religious faith. Joseph Soloveitchik, though firmly established in Jewish community, emphasized autonomy and individuality. He explored the possibilities of the unfettered modern man, and spilled more ink on the religious tensions within the human psyche than on those between people in community. While Jewish modernity is an enduringly communal enterprise, it has so much individualism in its intellectual foundations.

And so, by the lights of some of Jewish modernity’s greatest thinkers, my quarantined Purim should have been a ladder to certain kinds of new spiritual heights, my isolation an opportunity for white-knuckled, religious existential encounter. It wasn’t. Religious experience, I strongly believe, is something that happens in a community. Instead, my quarantine saw me flit between Netflix and a novel, periodically munching the chocolate cookies my roommate was good enough to pick up for me. As I idled away the hours, I thought of Purim, the holiday that lives in the space between a reader and a listener of the Megillah, within the giving of gifts to the poor, amid the chatter of a packed festive feast. The lone Jew on Purim is left to serve a God who, as in the Book of Esther, is frustratingly obscured from view.

At the time, I was rare for having been in quarantine. Sadly, many more others may soon join me. How will we weather this crisis? Religious Jews have succeeded in creating robust communities in a modern-day America where community can be hard to come by. Judaism will survive this, too, as it has so much in the past. And our central concern moving forward should be with those for whom COVID-19 acutely threatens their health and livelihood. But in the doldrum hours of this quarantine, going a little stir-crazy, kept company by my own mind and by the Jewish philosophical canon arranged in messy piles, I bumped up against the stark limitations of being Jewish alone.

In her recent work The Obligated Self, Jewish philosopher Mara Benjamin reacts against the individualistic thrust of modern Jewish thought, instead positing a vision of Jewish freedom grounded in dependency, community, and physical interaction. She captures the constant, interdependent nature of Jewish ritual by analogizing it to a mother’s care for a child. We should be cleareyed about the fact that if Judaism is so intensely social, a Judaism that must navigate the social distancing imposed by coronavirus will be intensely diminished. For the past number of years, I have largely celebrated even Judaism’s domestic rituals (e.g., Shabbat dinner) with people I do not live with and am not related to. The expansive possibilities of reemphasizing home-based Judaism during coronavirus feel farther away for me, as I imagine they might for similarly situated peers.

The isolation of the first modern Jewish philosophers was born of communal scorn; our present isolation is a mark of communal care, even as it pushes us further apart. And amid this pandemic, by necessity more than by choice, I have been pushed to think through the enduring power of Jewish philosophical traditions that before I would have described as individualistic to a fault. Now is as good a time as ever to newly explore Jewish productivity and spirtuality in isolation. To be sure, loneliness isn’t the only Jewish philosophical lens relevant right now. One could just as easily connect our situation to themes of care, family, and healing, among others. But there is undoubtedly loneliness ahead, and the isolationist trend within modern Jewish thought should be appropriated as a resource to guide us through.

Daniel Mackler teaches as a Beit Midrash Fellow at SAR High School. He will be starting this fall at NYU as a PhD student in modern Jewish thought.