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Judaism as a Counterculture

Lawrence Bush
October 1, 2007

Jewish Values Versus Conservative America

by Lawrence Bush
In 1915, one year before he became the first Jewish U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis wrote in the premiere issue of the Menorah Journal that “the 20th-century ideals of America have been the ideals of the Jew for more than twenty centuries.” Among the shared ideals he identified were an “all-pervading sense of duty in the citizen,” a preference for “leadership. . . marked by force of character and intelligence,” and a“deep-seated community feeling.” Brandeis recognized, of course, the chasm between such virtues and the segregationist, monopolistic America of his day, but like other great reformers, he consistently sought to base his demands for social justice on our country’s most hallowed documents and traditions. In doing so, he helped turn the Jewish thirst for social justice into a vital part of ‘Americanism.’
Lately I’ve been wondering if Brandeis would have written such a passage about 21st-century America. When an “all-pervading sense of duty in the citizen” produces far more votes for the performers on American Idol than for presidential candidates, and our preference for “leadership. . . marked by force of character and intelligence” yields the likes of George W. Bush, it seems to me that a set of American values very different from those that Brandeis described — and quite contrary to the key values of the Jewish tradition — have been pushed to center stage.
For example, the ‘small government’ ideal that conservatives use to justify their assault on business regulation may share some kind of kinship with Jeffersonian philosophy, but it runs quite contrary to the Jewish emphasis on using law to balance economic self-interest with community needs. The shrill glorification of celebrity and ‘The Almighty Dollar’ in today’s media-driven culture may have roots in America’s entrepreneurial and antiaristocratic ideals, but it shares little with a Judaism that inveighs almost obsessively against ‘idolatry’ and consistently discounts economic status as a measure of human worth.
Classical statue
The corruption of free speech into demagoguery and sexual liberation into pornographic excess, has nothing in common with the virtues of self-restraint, careful speech and unalienated sexuality that Judaism classically promotes.
It seems to me, in short, that the twenty centuries of Jewish tradition celebrated by Brandeis actually offer a critique of 21st-century America and represent a counterculture in many ways antithetical to what drives our country today.
Before I detail some of the key aspects of that Jewish counterculture, I should acknowledge the pitfalls of generalizing about the ideals of complex cultures.
Obviously, I am indulging in subjective selection: For every “all men are created equal,” there is also some American expression of hierarchy, racism or sexism, and for every merciful sentiment in Jewish texts, there is some vengeful utterance by Yahweh, the tribal God. If such complexity prompts a reader to say “Bah, humbug!” about the value of interpretation, my discussion will be of no interest.
I should also acknowledge that many Jews do not infer from Jewish ideals any sort of critique of modern America. Many approach Judaism simply as a distinctive set of rituals without much philosophical content, to be embraced (or shunned) according to one’s level of ‘belief in God.’ Other Jews have gone the route of Jewish nationalism and find the security needs and well-being of Israel to be the most compelling element of Jewish identity. Still others are what my bobe would have called ‘alrightniks’ — materially oriented people who basically see Judaism as an elaborate bar mitsve reception and America as the catering hall. In fact, shamefully expensive bar and bat mitsves have become so popular in our country that non-Jewish kids, according to the Wall Street Journal, are now pressuring their parents to throw them “faux” b’nai mitsve, with DJs, celebrity impersonators, and all the trimmings. It seems that some of our people, rather than teaching America the Jewish values of self-control and moderation, are setting a new pace for excess.
Nevertheless, I feel secure in affirming that there is a progressive pulse at the core of Jewish thought. It is this pulse — humanistic, engaged with the world, responsive to cultural evolution, dissatisfied with the status quo — that most keeps me engaged with Jewish identity and committed to its nurture.
Illustration of Uncle Sam, ArmedNotwithstanding contrary interpretations or even widespread indifference to the philosophical riches of Judaism, I’m drawn to the view of I.L. Peretz, who wrote that Jews who “wish to be true to ourselves” should be asking “vital questions” about “conscience, freedom, culture, ethics.”
By contrast, I feel quite insecure about the durability of the progressive pulse in American culture, post-9/11. The New Deal liberalism that I grew up thinking of as normative has crumbled. The liberatory movements of the 1960s and ’70s look more and more like a last hurrah, rather than an invigorating beginning, of an American social justice revolution. Our prosperity is producing a culture not of gratitude and civic responsibility but of cruelty and heedlessness. I worry daily about where the United States is headed and even whether I will be able to be an American citizen with a clear conscience over the next couple of decades.

The most important contrast I see between modern American culture and Jewish culture is in their perspectives on the role of community in the individual’s life. One of the most progressive aspects of early American capitalism was that money, rather than birth status, did the talking here, at least for white men. This same democratizing force, however (which historian Gordon S. Woods has identified as “the radicalism of the American Revolution”), has now begun to trample all community bonds. Identities of class, race, religion, ethnicity and geography are being replaced by a single identity, that of the American consumer, who is offered incredible tools of self-sufficiency (DVDs, SUVs, on-line shopping, etc.) that privatize our lives and remove all sense of interdependency from our relationships.
The freeing of the individual from the fetters of traditional culture and involuntary community is probably one of the most astounding outcomes of the American experiment, yet carried to an extreme, such ‘freedom’ can also deaden our social impulses and produce a dog-eat-dog mentality that is destructive to our shared future. This is the danger when competition is endlessly promoted as the ‘natural’ human state and ‘rugged individualism’ as the motor force of the American dream; when money-based hierarchical elitism is packaged and sold as “platinum plus privileges,” “limited editions,” “business class,” etc.; when even religious salvation is pitched by the dominant Christian culture to the individual, who can be ‘saved’ or ‘born again’ simply through a leap of faith — while the unsaved, and unwashed, and unfed, especially within the suffering Third World, seem alien, not quite human, as we peer at them on our television screens.

Jewish thought, on the other hand, is highly communitarian, going back to the declaration, in the very opening of Genesis, that “It is not good for man to be alone...” ‘Rugged individualism’ is hardly admired in Jewish thought: It is the defining trait of the Passover hagode’s “wicked son,” who “separates himself from the community,” and of the sinful city of Sodom, which the Talmud portrays as so spoiled by its abundance that its people abandon all pretense to hospitality and civic decency.
As Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow wrote in her 1990 book, Standing Again at Sinai, the individual in Judaism “is not an isolated unit who attains humanity through independence from others. . . Rather, to be a person is to find oneself from the beginning in community.” This belief that “personhood is shaped, nourished and sustained in community,” she adds, “is a central assumption that Judaism and feminism share.” It is also a belief that secular Jewish socialist theorists and activists have promoted for a century and a half. “For us [Jews], socialism is not strange,” said Aaron Samuel Lieberman, the founder of the Hebrew Socialist Union in London and publisher the first Hebrew socialist periodical, Ha-emet, in 1876. “The community is our existence, the revolution our tradition. . .”
This communitarian sensibility is expressed most broadly in Jewish economic philosophy, which recognizes the creation of wealth to be a thoroughly collective enterprise. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24) serves as the foundational expression of this insight: Prosperity, the verse implies, is not a product of individual achievement or a mark of individual merit, but results from collective effort, applied across the generations to the resources of nature. Economic activity is social, by definition, and Judaism recognizes this as a fundamental reality principle — which it unpacks with a whole lot of detail.
We have the Torah tradition of the Jubilee year, which assures that the rising of some families into wealth and the sinking of others into poverty will be curbed through the redistribution of land every half century. We have the everyday tradition of tsedoke, the mandatory redistribution of wealth in the name of justice, which the Talmud calls “equal to all the other commandments.” We have numerous proclamations of the human worth of both rich and poor, and of the whole community’s responsibility for social and economic uplift.
Ancient halakhot (Jewish laws) about agricultural land consistently compromise private property rights to allow for the gathering of wood by all, gleaning of harvest remains by the poor, communal access to water and fishing, and other kinds of sharing in nature’s resources. Other laws ban predatory practices from the marketplace, such as false advertising (geneivat daat, literally, “stealing the mind”), windfall profiteering, and worker exploitation. There are laws against armaments sales and other forms of assistance to “perpetrators of evil deeds,” and other laws that can readily be interpreted in opposition to union-busting, excessive executive compensation, wholesale layoffs and other forms of corporate abuse.
With such economic laws constituting more than a sixth of the 61 traditional Jewish mitzvot (commandments), it is reasonable to see Judaism as, fundamentally, a centuries long moral discussion of how we can best live together in community, balancing the realities of self-interest and individual urge with the realities of interconnection and interdependence.

A second Jewish countercultural trait of particular potency for me is the tradition’s emphasis on compassion as a key ingredient of our survival. The Hebrew word for compassion, rakhamim (Yiddish: rakhmones), is derived from the word for “womb,” and it is this virtue, this mother-love, that Jewish texts emphasize as the glue of our existence and an inoculator against self-destruction. “Every day,” says one 8th-century text. . .

An angel goes forth from the presence of the Blessed One, setting out to destroy the world. . . However, when the Blessed One sees young children studying with their teachers. . . [the] anger immediately changes to mercy.

This theme is reiterated at Rosh Hashone, when the shofar (ram’s horn) is blown to alert the congregation to the start of the holiday. The shofar symbolically alludes to the Biblical scene known as the Akedah, in which Abraham is spared from having to ritually murder his son Isaac by the appearance of a sacrificial ram; ever since, says the Talmud, the sounding of the ram’s horn has served to remind God to leaven divine judgment with compassion. (Even for animals like that ram, Jewish texts urge compassion: As Sholem Aleichem puts it in one of his stories, subtitled, “Recollections of a Silly Boy”: “Pinye, your father’s a goy. . . because he doesn’t have pity for living creatures.”) Of course, whichever character traits rabbinic Judaism assigns to God are meant to be emulated by human beings. As the Midrash teaches:

No one should say, “Just as I have been humiliated, so, too, let others be humiliated.” If you do so, know Whom you are humiliating. . . the One in whose likeness we are made.

Compare these teachings with the hard-heartedness that has spread across the American landscape. We have a world-record two million people in prison, living in grim conditions — yet politicians are confident of rising poll numbers if they endorse policies of punishment rather than rehabilitation. We have desperate people from Latin America crossing a dangerous desert to find menial work here — yet right-wing talk radio hosts are confidently able to demonize them and make ‘amnesty’ into a dirty word. Our basic American traditions of habeas corpus and the right to a fair trial have been shelved by the Bush administration with hardly a peep of popular protest, and even torture has become widely acceptable in the name of national security. Meanwhile, our mass media cash in on offerings of relentless violence and sadism. Economically insecure and political helpless, the American population seems to thrive on the projection of its own humiliations.
There is a lot more in Judaism and Jewish culture that inspires and instructs me as a countercultural dissident. I love the Jewish emphasis on the social nature of redemption — “The Messiah will come,” wrote Franz Kafka, “only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival.” At the same time, the skepticism that the Talmudic rabbis expressed towards the actual prospect of redemption — “All the calculated dates of redemption have already passed,” teaches one of the sages, “and now the matter depends entirely on repentance and good deeds” — has helped to preserve me from the temptations of ideological certitude.
Jewish exaltation of the written word has helped to cultivate in me an old-fashioned devotion to books and magazines, even while I strive to achieve a high level of the ‘visual literacy’ that film, computer and television screens have fostered. The Jewish tradition of shabes has helped me keep a critical distance from shopping-mall culture; at the same time, the Jewish affirmation of human involvement in the cultivation and enjoyment of the world has helped me steer clear of ascetic or New Age schools of thought that indulge in wholesale rejection of Western science and society as somehow ‘unnatural’ and hubristic.
Does all of this add up to anything more than a little portfolio of enjoyable proverbs? Perhaps not — but as the Jewish tradition itself suggests, words are among humanity’s most powerful assets and dangerous weapons.

The soapbox that I’m standing on in this column is nevertheless slippery, and I can easily be pushed onto my tukhes, on the one hand, by the fact that highly observant Jews seem most susceptible to a conservative political outlook — and, on the other hand, by secularists who are just too anti-religious to care much about even the progressive elements of Judaism.
Over the years, I have discussed with several Orthodox Jews why it is that communities that are most observant of a purportedly countercultural tradition would consistently align themselves with the conservative mainstream on political and cultural issues. One informant spoke of the obliteration of the more cosmopolitan and progressive Orthodox and Hasidic communities of Europe during the Holocaust; what remained to re-root itself in America, he claimed, were the more rural and conservative Hungarian communities. A second described Orthodox Jews as so overwhelmed by their own religious needs — for kosher food sources, religious education, and so on — as to have no time for political idealism or activist citizenship.
A third spoke of the Orthodox community’s intimate acquaintance with anti-Semitism — a conservatizing force, he believes, that drives people towards a more defensive, self-interested politics. A fourth railed against Orthodox leaders for allegedly stressing ritual over philosophy, style over substance, in order to maintain their power.
I have yet to weigh these hypotheses or weave a whole theory about Orthodox conservatism (and I have been warned against thinking of Orthodox Judaism as a monolithic movement with a predictable political ideology). Still, the Orthodox embodiment of Judaism is not the only one with claims to authenticity, and while my thesis about the progressive pulse of Judaism is certainly challenged by Orthodox conservatism, it is not disproved.

As for my own secular Jewish community, in which I often feel like an infidel for spouting words of Torah, I can only reiterate my belief that one important task for progressive American Jews is to participate in the preservation of the countercultural aspects of Judaism. We should help to determine which aspects of Jewish thought have the most enduring impact, rather than leaving all religious knowledge and interpretation in the hands of conservatives because of some nasty Bible passages and our own theological literalism. Little more than a century ago, Jewish writers and thinkers like Mendele Mokher Sforim, Vladimir Medem, and Chaim Zhitlovsky were doing something similar: They turned away from the ‘cultured’ languages of Hebrew, Russian, and Polish, and embraced Yiddish, in order to be able to communicate heart-to-heart with the Jewish masses. In turn, they discovered the delights of a language that seemed naturally to lend itself to countercultural thoughts and values. Now it’s our turn, to immerse ourselves in the whole of yidishkayt — that is, the entire Jewish tradition — and see where it leads us.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.