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Orthodoxy and Liberalism

Isaiah’s challenge to Halachic life, then and now

Bernard Avishai
September 23, 2020

Every year, on Yom Kippur, we read from Isaiah and I feel a queasiness, though not quite the response the prophet would seem to have intended. We read: “Is this the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush, and lying in sackcloth and ashes? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; share your bread with the hungry …” and so forth. There is a certain satisfaction in the thought that some phantom rabbinic committee once obliged congregations to read the passage. Yet the plain meaning of the text seems a standing challenge to the rationale for rabbinic committees obliging anything; a challenge to Halachic life as a whole—to the Orthodox world of performative commandments, or rabbinic refinements of commandments.

I don’t mean a challenge like the one originating with St. Paul, who famously spoke about the spirit of the law, but who had resistible dogmatic claims of his own. It is a challenge deriving from what can only be called, in its modern incarnation, principled sympathy, rooted in the attribution of universal dignity. This is an ethical stance, foundational to liberalism, which, the prophet seems to be telling us, precedes and supersedes any ritual or sacrificial commandment—also, presumably, any quasi-ethical commandment, like hosting, visiting the sick, or comforting the mourner. One may, as my mother did, keep kosher, and give a sandwich to a beggar, and in both cases call the act a mitzvah. But—if you take Isaiah seriously—you would never have needed the generosity to be commanded. The capacity for it was already there.

I know, the prophet is not only appealing to a surpassing ethical faculty. He goes on to valorize the keeping of the Sabbath. Nor am I dismissing the value of Jewish ritual, so long as it is selectively voluntary, which is precisely what those enmeshed in Halacha reject. (I’ll return to both points in due course.) And I realize that Isaiah’s words are lifted from their context. These particular verses, from Isaiah 2.0, were apparently written around the time of the Babylonian exile, after the Temple was destroyed, and rituals of atonement replaced sacrifice—that is, a couple of centuries after Isaiah 1.0. Who knows what was meant exactly by obligatory fasting in the context of the Babylonian diaspora-in-formation? Nevertheless, Isaiah’s words are so vivid and clearheaded that they transcend their time. If you want to approach the divine, the prophet says, don’t be distracted by ritual obligations. Don’t soothe yourself with obedience. Rather, show loving mercy to the poorest among you. Help others cultivate what freedom they might exercise. You never needed that to be commanded. It seems a pretty clear, radical, timeless exhortation.

How is this principle of Isaiah’s foundational to civilized life—liberalism in the broad sense? More important, at least for our purposes, does living the Halachic life in any way help us come to it? Adam Gopnik struggled with the first question in his lovely book, A Thousand Small Sanities. He writes that, for instance, Montaigne’s manifest humanism must come before anything discernibly liberal:

[Montaigne] had a rich foundational impulse toward the emotions that make a decent relation between man and state possible—a far-reaching skepticism about authority, compassion for those who suffer, and a hatred of cruelty. We now imagine that these feelings are instinctual—but all experience shows us that they must be inculcated … An acceptance of fallibility and, with it, an openly avowed skepticism of authority—these are core liberal emotions … These were modern emotions. Compassion for human flaws is a different emotion than forgiveness for sins. The second presupposes the church capable of offering forgiveness; the first only a community capable of common feeling … Our father forgives us for our trespasses; we forgive each other for our faults.

Skepticism about authority, compassion for those who suffer, a hatred of cruelty—Gopnik, inarguably, is right to claim these as the humanist foundations on which all liberal norms build. We may want the emotions modeled, or evoked, or even codified in stories. (In some places—Joseph and his brothers, say—the Torah succeeds in doing all three; indeed, Gopnik may be wrong to insist that these emotions are inherently “modern,” though the means to institutionalize them are.) But modeling, evoking, etc., are hardly the same as thinking these emotions divinely compelled along with a body of mandated, ritual acts of submission. It is hardly clear, even in corners of Jewish tradition, that the ritual has any bearing on the ethical. Rambam said in the Introduction to the Mishna Torah that if God had not handed Moses the ethical parts of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, then humanity would have promulgated them on their own. Or as the late Christopher Hitchens put it, more glibly, if the children of Israel had needed Sinai to learn the sorrows attending murder, theft, disgracing parents, and outrageous greed, and so forth, then they never would have made it as far as Sinai, would they?

None of this excludes mystery from Isaiah’s ethical stance. To think about the common good, about standards for the commonwealth, you have to think about others as living a life of meaning, which needs to be respected and, if necessary, redeemed with acts of kindness. You need to believe, as Kant said, that we are ends in ourselves, not means to an end—that we have a dignity, not just a price. You have to believe that matter matters. The late philosopher, Hilary Putnam—with whom I read Torah, weekly, at our Worship and Study congregation for over 30 years—feels particularly missed whenever Kant is invoked in this context. Putnam would no doubt have added what Hitchens elided, that dignity is itself a mystery. To attribute dignity—or for that matter, to assume meaning, appreciate blessing, presume truth, or assert love—one can hardly rely only on scientific methods and rules of evidence, what Kant called “reason alone.”

These qualities—including the word “quality”—ought to engender humility in the face of ineffable questions. Liberalism without religious imagination is, in this humbling sense, impossible. Nor should the freedom to which Isaiah exhorts us be thought consoling. With freedom comes tragedy, what William James calls the “sickness of the soul.” Indeed, nothing embraces our disquiet more bravely than Yom Kippur piyyutim, whose touching metaphors—“like clay in the hands of the potter”— imply that metaphor-making is itself our most precious exercise of freedom. My wife, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, calls the paytan’s poetic grandeur testimony to our required “distance from the sacred”—argues that piyyutim should help us keep our distance, self-consciously, ironically, the way Yehuda Amichai’s poetry did. (“The singer of the Song of Songs,” Amichai writes in one of his last poems, “sought his beloved so long and hard that he lost his mind and went looking for her with a simile map and fell in love with the images he himself had imagined.”)

Do stringent Halachic practices—accepting the commandments, rabbinic authority, and so forth—help us get to transcendental dignity?

Let us return, then, to Isaiah’s impatience with ritual fasting. Do stringent Halachic practices—accepting the commandments, rabbinic authority, and so forth—help us get to transcendental dignity? I am not asking this about historical Jewish civilization, which, needless to say, is rich enough to mine for any virtue or vice. No, the question is whether Halachic life can avoid becoming what made other orthodoxies grotesque?

I confess that I once thought so, or at least took a certain pride in what I myself had comfortably called “tradition,” which I assumed to be wondrously old and weathered. I had been born into Halachic life, but was not, by my teens, what might be called a Halachic Jew—not with hybridized, Montreal origins, excited as I grew by the same cosmopolitan seductions that enthralled Leonard Cohen. Still, I assumed that Halacha—the “way,” the “path”—was, like Confucianism, our authentic Judaism, and that reforms were a kind of falling away; that Orthodox practice was a Keeping of the Flame whose end result was decency. It was a prejudice I brought with me—a Zionist, hence on a secular Jewish adventure—to Israel after the 1967 war, when I visited, and wallowed in the pathos of, Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

Indeed, a good part of what engendered pride in Halachic stringency seemed to map, interestingly enough, to the double insight Gopnik advanced more recently in his book: that compassion must be inculcated, and, second, that ordinary human freedom (“skepticism of authority”) derives from accepting fallibility.

Take, first, the need for inculcation. What was Halacha if not admirably restraining, a kind of divine yoga, albeit the bane of Alex Portnoy; a practice, as Rambam said in the Guide, to shape the soul to humility, common decency—pursue, as he believed, the fugitive, Aristotelian “mean”? Gopnik does not dwell on this, but the test of a cultural tradition, I figured, is not whether it encourages an otherwise innocent human mind to think something vile. We are not that good a species; you don’t have to be taught to hate and fear. In a way, every child is an adorable little fascist: in love with the tribe, passionately loyal, a hero worshipper, moved by symbols, eager to emulate, and gain approval—impatient to feel the thrill of power. The test for any cultural tradition, rather, is how well it helps us graduate from what comes naturally to something like honor for those unlike ourselves. And here I thought Halachic Judaism above average.

Mark Twain, condemning, as it happens, intolerance of the Jews, wrote: “To me, Jews are just merely human beings … To be a human being of any kind is a hard-enough lot, and unpleasant and disreputable in the best of circumstances.” I was grateful for the defense, yet, secretly, I wondered if he was being cavalier about us to make a point. Were we really “merely human”? Had not our tradition so prepared us to think humanity “merely human” that we were, humbled, morally secure?

What of Gopnik’s corresponding truth, that humanist freedom entails “acceptance of fallibility.” For liberals, this would seem axiomatic. Since human perceptions are inherently limited, our own various versions of things are bound to yield rival principles of action, interests, aesthetic sensibilities; so we learn that we must tolerate one another, and build the liberal state’s protections for our idiosyncrasies, because we want such inevitable competition to remain as nonviolent as possible. Well, didn’t Talmudic disputatiousness prove our belief in fallibility? I knew, as we all did, how to quote the famous passages in Bava Meziah, about rabbis challenging God’s miracles, and God admitting defeat—about God finally leaving interpretation to rabbinic debate? “Torah is not in the heavens.” Wasn’t this the anticipation of scientific doubt? Didn’t this make us above average?

Inculcation of compassion, assertion of human fallibility—Halacha, pride. That was then. For I feel an added twinge reading this portion of Isaiah nowadays. I have, as things turned out, lived a good part of my adult life in Jerusalem, where Orthodox Halachic practice is all around me, largely unencumbered by the persecutions, mockeries, and at times dialogues of a Christian or Muslim majority, which had once infused Jewish practice with a creative defensiveness. In colloquial Hebrew, we would say that orthodox Halacha in Jerusalem these days is Halacha netto, not brutto. And I must tell you that what I see isn’t pretty.

Remember, Gopnik’s test for a cultural tradition is how well it helps humans to graduate to civilized decency. I see little evidence in Jerusalem that Halachic stringency is passing this test. I could give dozens of examples from everyday political life. But look only at what the polls tell us. According to Pew surveys, just 3% of Israeli Haredim and 11% of datiim more generally, say liberal democracy should be given preference over Halacha—which is disturbing enough. But a subsequent Israel Democracy Institute poll posed a clarifying statement: “Most Jews are better than most non-Jews because they were born Jews.” Among the 52% who said the statement was “totally true” or “pretty true,” 66% identified as ultra-Orthodox, 45% identified as religious Zionists. In stark contrast, only 7% of Israelis who identified as secular said they supported the statement. A recent poll by public opinion expert Dahlia Scheindlin revealed that over 60% of “secular” Jews are opposed to annexation of the West Bank; 82% of “religious” Jews are for it. This means that 82% of Israeli “religious” Jews, Halachic Jews, are fine with Jewish supremacy in a state in which Palestinians lack the elementary rights Jews expect in America and Europe.

The test for any cultural tradition is how well it helps us graduate from what comes naturally to something like honor for those unlike ourselves.

On Jerusalem Day, I regularly witness some 40,000 youngsters, the products of National Orthodox schools and yeshivot, marching through the streets of the city to the Nablus Gate, shouting nationalist, even racist slogans; many wear T-shirts saying “sometimes it is fine to remove a kippa,” the Hebrew word also for dome, with a picture of a crane removing the dome from the Dome of the Rock. Other T-shirts, in Hebrew and Arabic read: “Don’t you dare even think about our women.” About their attitudes toward gays, or Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, the less said the better. Ultra-Orthodox men want the removal of women from advertisements; one National Orthodox minister spoke of American Jews intermarrying as comparable with losing Jews in the Holocaust. Today, the threat is even epidemiological: Ultra-Orthodox communities are hotbeds of COVID-19 because so many rabbis refuse to accept secular guidance regarding distancing.

I don’t mean to say that liberal citizens cannot also be Halachically observant in idiosyncratic ways. We all know people devoted to liberal principles who, say, observe various Sabbath practices; some of us take out their garbage. And we know scholars and teachers who explore Jewish law and the practices of the traditional kehilot to show what corners of Jewish tradition anticipated liberal or social democratic principles, from Abraham Geiger to Michael Walzer. Orthodox communities can be deceptively communitarian, showing spirit, solidarity, mutual support, though rarely beyond the precincts of their own communities.

And yet, that last point is key. The challenge to Halacha, remember, is not whether humility, skepticism, etc., contradict it, but whether these attitudes—which allow one to attribute dignity beyond tribe—are intrinsic to it, advanced by it, especially where it is reinforced with sovereign power. Could it be, rather, that Halachic practice can take us more predictably to authoritarianism and vanity?

Let me, an exasperated resident of Jerusalem, put things even more bluntly. Is it not past time to acknowledge the crisis that seems to have afflicted—and is produced by—Jewish Orthodoxy; time to explore what we have hesitated to explore given what happened to Jews in the last century? Do we not have reason to conclude that the life of Halachic practice, debating putatively revealed law, sticking to the Orthodox liturgy, and performing obliged commandments—all of these—provide little reliable groundwork for the attribution of dignity; to conclude that Orthodoxy, which inevitably puts adherents in mind of obligation to divine authority, has become increasingly dangerous? Is it not past time to admit that West Bank settlers, theocratic and misogynist rabbis, Wall worshippers, and Temple aspirants are no anomaly?

I might stop here, with rhetorical questions, but the grotesqueries one finds in Jerusalem today are much on my mind and prompt two related, if vague, observations. First, while it is true that the rabbinic tradition grew as a many-sided dispute over the meanings of revealed text, it never repudiated the idea—and can’t—that the text is, after all, revealed. If Gopnik is right about fallibility and skepticism, then universal dignity presumes that no text is sacred—that only the right to interpret texts is sacred (or as Ben Franklin would have corrected, “self-evident”). Yeshayahu Leibovitz, building on Kant’s legacy, supposed that the limits of reason justified the burden of Halacha. But that is plainly illogical: Sublime questions are not sublime answers, the latter so easily becoming pedantic, fierce, obsessive, and totalitarian. Halachic life, in the sense of assumed revelation, will always be vulnerable to an authoritative rabbinic caste whose moral prestige can seem to be God-given. As Leibovitz knew all too well, and lamented, Israel’s state-sponsored rabbinic courts like to keep things that way.

Which brings a second, related observation. The practice of Halacha, of Orthodox liturgy and law, rather than training the soul in humility, often seems rather to engender unearned superiority. Every morning, I walk my dog in a Jerusalem park and, rushing in the other direction are a half-dozen men, averting my eyes, holding their tallis bags, looking grim, as if they are late for work. I know their services inside out. When I attend them, I sense that, even for the pious—especially for the pious—the services seem, not a celebration of the transcendent, but a kind of sacrifice to an all too immanent and demanding superintendent. They seem a sacrifice of time, attention, a struggle against repetition and tedium, that leaves worshippers with the sense of accomplishment one feels after a workout; leaves them feeling, for their pains, manifestly elect, better than non-Jews, better than secular Jews, who are presumably not as disciplined.

They are the authentic Jews, so they think, keeping the tradition that murderous, dull-witted enemies tried to expunge over the generations—as if they are doing some cosmic work that should make the rest of us grateful to them. Which is exactly what the well-paid ultra-Orthodox rabbinate says to justify their students’ yeshiva study, while others around them build companies and serve in the military. The moment a Jew “stops following the religion of Israel,” David Azoulay, an ultra-Orthodox minister from the Shas party, told the Israeli Army Radio, “I cannot allow myself to call such a person a Jew.” Isaiah had his number long ago. So did the original Zionists, who ran from yeshivot to modern Hebrew poetry and other cultural innovations, and never dreamed of losing the state apparatus to the likes of Azoulay.

Isaiah had one more thing to say which, if what I attribute to him is true, might seem a contradiction. For after establishing the potential hollowness of ritual, he seems to mandate the keeping of the Sabbath:

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath,
From pursuing your affairs on My holy day;
If you call the Sabbath “delight,”
The LORD’S holy day “honored”;
And if you honor it and go not your ways
Nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains
Then you can seek the favor of the LORD

On the surface, this might seem an exhortation to the very commanded practice Isaiah seemed to eclipse with ethical humility and skepticism. But note his careful, urging language—the way he reverses the locus of expectation. He might have said that the Sabbath should be treated as an obligation. But he says, rather, that this day of putting the quotidian aside, of not “looking to your own affairs,” should be a “delight,” an oneg. It brings to mind what the late Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, the longtime director of Harvard Hillel, used to say about the mitzvot, that we should do the ones we find meaningful. In this view, a mitzvah should really be called an oneg, be performed as a gesture, not a limitation—something reverential, voluntary and beautiful. Think, indeed, of Yom Kippur’s piyyutim and melodies. Think of not having to repeat them to the point of banality.

For my part, I am hardly certain that keeping Sabbath in the way of Halacha can compete with what one feels standing before a Rothko, reading a poem of Leah Goldberg’s, watching Rubinstein play Chopin on YouTube, or even getting into the Zen of lawn-mowing. What I do know is that for any Jewish rites to deserve surviving in the liberal world—for Jewish rites to be transmissible to our grandchildren—they are going to have to be a celebration of dignity. Anyway, reading this portion of Isaiah, on Yom Kippur or otherwise, seems to me a delight, and hardly one to be taken for granted. In every generation, the bearers of orthodoxies rise against us to annihilate us. “At the fringe of the sky, at the edge of the desert,” Matti Caspi sings Yonatan Gefen’s words, “there’s a faraway place, full of wildflowers—a small place, forlorn and deranged. All-that-will-be is spoken of, and all-that-has-happened is thought. God sits there and shudders, guarding all He has created. ‘You are forbidden to pick the flowers of the garden!’ And He’s worried. Awfully worried.”

A version of this talk was delivered on Yom Kippur, Oct. 9, 2019, at the Harvard Hillel Worship and Study Congregation.

Bernard Avishai has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harvard Business Review, Harper’s and other publications. He is the author of, among other books, The Tragedy of Zionism and Promiscuous: “Portnoy’s Complaint” and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness.