Wednesday, August 8, 2018


Synagogue models in the collection of the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C., photo by Jared Soares/New York Times (very cool article by Noah Welland about what's really happening in American Judaism). 

Speaking of Monsignor Ross, his Sunday column ("The Jewish Crossroads") was somehow about criticizing Judaism, or Jews, which seemed like a remarkable development even though it was hedged round with the Douthatian hedge—he wasn't actually doing it, just talking about how it might be done—and something that ought to be worth my complaining about, but I couldn't understand what he was up to. Now I think I've got an idea.

Plus an opportunity to tell one of my favorite jokes, about the Jewish Robinson Crusoe. The guy is marooned on a tropical island for 30 years before he's finally rescued, and when the sailors show up he naturally shows them around the environment he's built himself, almost a little town, with a deli where he likes to have breakfast, a grocery store, a bar that serves home-brewed coconut vodka, a park, a public library, and two synagogues.

"Two synagogues?" asks one of the sailors. "How come two?"

"Well," says the Jewish Robinson Crusoe, pointing, "this one I go to, and the other one I wouldn't go near."

I'll get back to that.

What Ross is up to starts with the noteworthy sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who seems to have been practicing various forms of sexual misconduct that have been getting depressingly familiar to us all recently, on lines of unwanted grabbing and kissing, generally with women over whom he has some kind of professional power, so it's pretty awful, though it doesn't bother me personally in the sense that he's not somebody whose work I'm really aware of, but it's pretty gross and "bad for the Jews" as they say, not to mention bad for the sociologists, what a jerk.

But The Forward, as we learn from Ross, has a pretty interesting take on the situation (by Kate Rosenblatt, Lila Corwin Berman and Ronit Stahl, or as Ross primly puts it "three female historians" he'd rather not name), which is that there's a connection between macho abusiveness and the kind of research Cohen has specialized in, in response to fears about the prevalence of intermarriage in the Jewish community in the US and the fear that it could disappear, which critically biases the shape of the data by projecting a value system on it:
Most troubling about the data-driven mode of Jewish continuity conversations are its patriarchal, misogynistic, and anachronist assumptions about what is good for the Jews. We learn that single women, queer people, unwed parents, and childless individuals or couples are all problems. And we learn that the Jewish community, should it want to survive, must step into the role of calling out and regulating those problems.
Jewish communal leaders, in turn, learn that the continuity crisis — and its prescriptions about how to regulate primarily women, their bodies, and their sexuality — has its own productive energy that can be harnessed to convince donors to open their pocketbooks and support the very research and programs that prove that the crisis exists.
Which Ross reads by pushing Cohen right out of the equation: where Rosenblatt, Berman, and Stahl are talking about a corruption of social science (like Cohen's research) working in tandem with a corruption of human relations (like those of the male principal investigator with the female research assistants), Ross just sees "female historians" kvetching that "liberal Jewish life" has sat down at the wrong spot on a center-left to center-right spectrum and not thinking about sociology at all:
What Cohen’s critics have in mind, specifically, is the way that the longstanding angst within the American Jewish community around assimilation, intermarriage and fertility tends to sustain a kind of soft traditionalist pressure even in liberal Jewish life — one that defines Jewish identity in exclusionist terms, they complain, while marginalizing “single women, queer people, unwed parents, and childless individuals or couples.”
Because what Ross is in fact interested in is the "longstanding angst" and "soft traditionalism".  The sociology was just an excuse (and an opportunity to suggest that academics, who we know are all liberals, are all hypocritical perverts, just by the way as he happened to be passing through).
What the authors are describing pejoratively, the way that a general Jewish liberalism can coexist with more conservative impulses and attitudes, has long been particularly obvious in debates about the state of Israel, where the most cosmopolitan of Jewish liberals can suddenly sound like strident nationalists. (Or as the writers of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” put it in their “rap battle” between two rivalrous female Jewish lawyers: “Cause we’re liberals/ duh, progressive as hell / though of course, I support Israel.”) But it extends to a general Jewish interest in, and sometimes alarmism about, issues like fertility rates and cultural preservation that in the world of Gentile politics are associated with the social and cultural right.
And what Ross is repelled by here is the coexistence, in a single Jewish mind, of "right" bits and "left" bits, as if he were a believer in some kind of intellectual kashrut in which conservative thoughts are meat and liberal thoughts are dairy and you should at least wait a couple of hours after having one of the one kind before you have one of the other.

It's probably worth mentioning here that the question of whether the Jewish people will survive as a people in the United States is not exactly the same as white nationalism in the sense that Jews actually are endangered, like the even more ancient community of Indian Parsis, descendants of the Persian Zoroastrian nation that once generously took the Hebrews in. White Austrians and Hungarians and Tennessee hillbillies will carry on, whatever their fascist parties may think, but the Parsis will certainly disappear (they're a lot sterner than most Jews and don't accept any kind of intermarriage at all, so those who inevitably do intermarry are lost to the tribe). I personally think the Jews will be fine and benefit from some new blood, as they no doubt did when Esther married Asahuerus, but I understand the fear, and don't think of it as all rightwing.

The point Douthat gets to isn't that either, in any case. What really comes out to me is that he objects to there being so many different kinds of Jews, pulled in various directions—
One form of pressure comes from the left, which is increasingly intent on rooting out all residues of traditionalism within the liberal order — treating any form of nationalism as suspect, any policing of religious orthodoxy as dangerous, any approach to sex and family and childrearing that isn’t purely gender-egalitarian as a dangerous atavism....
At the same time, there is a different pressure from Israel itself. As the Jewish state’s political and cultural debate has shifted to the right, Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced the view that European Jewry’s old enemy, Christian nationalism, is less dangerous to the Jewish future than the dissolving effects of liberal cosmopolitanism and the threat posed by Islamist anti-Semitism. Thus you have the striking phenomenon of the Netanyahu government cultivating friends like Hungary’s Viktor Orban...
Toward American liberalism on the one hand and Israeli fascism on the other.

And Douthat's conclusion is that Jews will have to choose one or the other. What Douthat can't stand, it seems to me, is the concept of Jews being different from each other, black and white, American and Israeli, macho and feminist. He wishes they were all the same, and doesn't understand that this is exactly what Jews always do, exist in opposing forms, the shul I go to and the one I wouldn't go near, which is too complex for his uptight, haunted mind.

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