December 15th, 2022
In this week’s newsletter, we decided to do something unusual. Instead of bringing you a single, new piece of writing, we wanted to share some of the most thought-provoking letters to the editor that we’ve received in response to recent articles.
At Jewish Currents, we’re proud to cultivate a robust letters section: We regularly reach out to readers who comment on our pieces on social media, invite them to write up their thoughts at greater length, and then work with them to hone their arguments, whether complimentary or critical. We invite letters from our political opponents as well as our allies and publish them when they make good faith, factually accurate arguments (one of the letters below comes from the Zionist Organization of America). As Poynter, a nonprofit publication that covers the media, reported earlier this year, this commitment makes us an outlier in an era when many outlets have decided to let Twitter and Facebook take the place of a traditional letters section. We believe that maintaining a space for a longer-form, less ephemeral kind of exchange is essential to our mission to host the debates that matter most to our communities. When we redesigned our website last year, we were especially excited about adding a feature that permanently links letters to the articles they comment on. As editor-in-chief Arielle Angel told Poynter: “If we’re publishing it, we really feel like you shouldn’t read this piece without also reading this letter.”
Below, you can read six letters from our readers that enrich our pages and contribute new dimensions to our internal conversations; in one case, we’re also including a reply from our editors. If you ever want to write to us, we welcome letters on our published work at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allen Lipson’s article thoughtfully charts how Conservative synagogues were used as tools for the deradicalization of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in America. Partly as a result of this push to assimilate, for generations many left-wing Jews have found their political and spiritual home outside religious Judaism and its institutions. We can see this in the history of Jewish Currents itself, which was founded in 1946 as a secular magazine affiliated with the Communist Party USA, and later evolved into “a democratic socialist, secular Jewish publication.” Jewish Currents still maintains an explicit commitment to this secular identity: Each print issue includes the tagline “A progressive, secular voice,” and the magazine is published by a nonprofit called the Association for the Promotion of Jewish Secularism.
I recognize that this language is somewhat anachronistic, and that the magazine has published excellent pieces engaging with left-wing religious Judaism (like Eli Rubin’s “The Soul of the Worker”). Still, in light of the magazine’s affiliation with secularism and the rarity with which it features religious topics and authors, its stated commitment “to the rich tradition of thought, activism, and culture of the Jewish left” suggests that this tradition includes nothing religious. Jewish Currents thus implies that there is a hard line between religious Judaism and left-wing Jewish activism.
In reality, the two have always been intertwined: Jews have long been brought to activism by their religion (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s theology leading him to a prominent role in the civil rights movement) and vice versa (Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s work with Jews for Urban Justice bringing him to the Jewish Renewal movement).
As Marc Tracy wrote in The New York Times Magazine last November, while historically “Jewish leftists have usually been secular . . . the new Jewish left is distinguished by the degree to which it embraces Jewish law and ritual and draws on Jewish texts to articulate its politics.” (Tracy goes on to identify Jewish Currents as a documenter of this movement as well as a part of it, overlooking its secularist editorial line.) Today, a sizable contingent of clergy and future clergy have used their positions to agitate for human rights within the Jewish community. As Lipson mentions briefly, last year 93 rabbinical and cantorial students signed an open letter criticizing the dominant American Jewish stance toward Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The most prominent institutional expression of this association between religious Judaism and progressive politics is T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Anecdotally, progressive synagogues like New York’s Kolot Chayeinu often overlap in membership with nominally non-religious Jewish activist organizations like IfNotNow, Jews For Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), and Jewish Voice for Peace. These organizations, in turn, sometimes collaborate with religious counterparts: For example, JFREJ recently partnered with T’ruah to form Tirdof: New York Jewish Clergy for Justice. There are also vibrant activist struggles for social change within religious Jewish communities: For example, many Jewish feminists belong to Women of the Wall, an organization aimed at granting women the same right to pray at the Western Wall that men have, or join calls on social media to address the crisis of agunot (women who are trapped in broken marriages because their husbands refuse to grant them a get, the halachically required bill of divorce). Elsewhere, we’ve seen religious organizations advancing new progressive Jewish practices and pedagogies, like the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva.
All of these organizations and struggles should be natural subjects for the flagship publication of the Jewish left. However, Jewish Currents addresses most of them rarely, if at all. It is long past time that Jewish Currents fully embrace its role in documenting and giving voice to the entire range of the Jewish left by casting off the vestigial commitment to secularism present in its institutional language and expanding its scope of coverage.
New York, NY
Editor’s Note: We appreciate your response to Lipson’s article and your generous critique of the magazine’s relationship to both secularism and religious Judaism; we’re grateful for the opportunity to reflect on our perspective on these issues in the context of the long history of Jewish Currents.
As you correctly note, the magazine began as a proudly secular publication. For editors and readers of early Jewish Currents, “secular” was a word that situated them in a particular context and community—opposed to the strictures of religion and aligned with the anti-religious Communist Party, but still in possession of a rich Jewish identity and cultural heritage. Though this lineage is reflected in some of the language still associated with the magazine, “secular” has ceased to signal for us as it did for our forebears: As you highlight, this language is more of an anachronistic remnant than a conscious re-commitment to their particular values. In fact, our board of directors recently voted unanimously to rename the nonprofit that publishes the magazine from the Association for the Promotion of Jewish Secularism to Jewish Currents, in recognition of the fact that the old name no longer describes a core mission of the organization, even cheekily. While we have no immediate plans to remove the magazine’s tagline (“A progressive, secular voice”) from print issues, we see this as a tip of the hat to our magazine’s history, rather than an expression of an exclusionary editorial philosophy.
As for the question of our coverage, while we appreciate the acknowledgment that we have done good work on religious subjects, these contributions are more significant and frequent than your description suggests. Since the 2018 revival of Jewish Currents, we have published many pieces engaging with religious ideas and figures from a leftist perspective, ranging from a trans reading of the story of Jacob and Esau, to reviews of Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible and an anthology of Neo-Hasidic writings, to a reflection on Heschel’s radical legacy, an argument that leftist Jews should trade social justice haggadahs for the traditional text, an extensive oral history of the Yom Kippur service at Occupy Wall Street (which shows up in Tracy’s New York Times Magazine article), and an entire series of essays reckoning with the Book of Exodus in the context of the pandemic and the George Floyd uprising.
Certain recurring forms also engage explicitly with religion. We call our editorial column Responsa as a tongue-in-cheek allusion to rabbinic legal decisions, but it has also become a site of real wrestling with religious subjects—for instance, justice and mourning and messianic time—which often appear there as a means of exploring contemporary, “secular” questions. (One piece dealt directly with the question of solidarity between secular and Orthodox Jews.) And in our forthcoming print issue, we’re debuting our new Chevruta column, named for the traditional method of Jewish textual study, in which we match leftist thinkers and organizers with a rabbi or Torah scholar to study a pressing political question.
As these examples from our coverage make clear, we value the resources of religious Judaism in a way that distinguishes us from our forebears, many of whom are far more dismissive or distrustful of religion, in part for the reasons discussed in Lipson’s piece and recognized in your letter. (We hear not infrequently from longtime readers of Jewish Currents who are frustrated by our engagements with religion.) While we may not regularly cover religious political organizing directly, this is not out of some specific disinterest in religion, but a blanket aversion to friendly, human-interest style reporting on organizations in our sphere. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that most of the specifically political organizations you named in your letter are not explicitly religious ones, but instead hold complex and multifaceted relationships with religious practice and communities. We see ourselves in a similar position.
For the current stewards of the magazine, our explicit acknowledgement of Jewish Currents’ relationship to secularism names an important lineage, as we carry forward aspects of our forebears’ tradition while also finding new ways to interrogate the boundaries between secularism and religion under the vexed banner of Jewishness. This includes questioning the categories themselves: As Talal Asad and many other scholars have argued, modern conceptions of “religious” and “secular” are inextricably bound to a Protestant worldview, in which religion is understood principally as a matter of personal belief, and therefore divisible from ritual, communal affiliation, and other aspects of life. Our goal is to undermine this division—not to identify primarily as secular or religious, but to rigorously explore leftist Jewishness in all its irreducible multiplicity.
Without diminishing Hazem Fahmy’s overarching analysis and conclusions in “A Pantomimed Reckoning,” I would like to offer two points that complicate the issues under consideration, and perhaps suggest that the Israeli artists critiqued in the piece merit a measure of empathy.
The first is that Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an escalation of its war on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), took place against the backdrop of the ascension of the country’s first right-wing government, a reflection of a shift in Israeli demographics. Most of the soldiers who made up Israeli combat units came from parts of society that had supported the prior social democratic government, and did not feel represented by the new leadership that planned and executed the invasion. Thus, there’s a good argument to be made that Israeli soldiers’ feelings of disengagement from the Lebanon adventure, as portrayed in the films of the “Lebanon trilogy” that Fahmy critiques, were in fact genuine: What is known to this day as “Israel’s first elective war” did not have even the semblance of a defensive purpose, and did not seem to the soldiers who fought in it to be made of the same stuff as previous wars.
The second fact is related to the first. It is the existence of a cycle of iconic films about the Lebanon War made by Israeli directors in the 1980s and early ’90s—in other words, in the run-up to the Oslo agreements. This cycle, which predates the more famous “Lebanon trilogy” by roughly two decades, includes Eli Cohen’s bittersweet Shtei Etzbaot Mi’Tzidon (Two Fingers from Sidon) from 1986—made by the IDF film and photography unit—as well as Haim Bouzaglo’s scathing anti-war Onat Haduvdevanim (Time for Cherries) from 1990, and Eran Riklis’s masterful Gmar Gavi’a (Cup Final) from 1991. These films give us a more synchronous view of the Lebanon invasion that is no less full of misgivings and disenchantment. It might still be true, as Fahmy suggests, that a rapid and decisive victory in Lebanon would have obviated Israelis’ desire to undertake a cinematic reckoning with the war. But it’s hard to say for sure, since the war was considered a misadventure almost from the start.
Still, there is a difference between the two cycles of Lebanon War films that would be profitable to dwell upon. Whereas Fahmy is right to note that the “Lebanon trilogy” focuses on the victimhood of the Israeli soldier and practically ignores the Palastinian foe, the earlier cycle incorporates Palestinian actors and characters—for example, Mohammad Bakri portraying a charismatic PLO captor in Gmar Gavi’a—in a manner that reflects a willingness for co-existence and cultural dialogue. Though full of soldiers shooting, then crying, these films were made in a time when a Jewish–Palestinian solidarity could still be imagined.
I am grateful for Mari Cohen’s reporting in “The Fight for the Future of Israel Studies,” in which she reveals the context behind the massive retraction of donor funds from the University of Washington’s Israel Studies program because of Liora Halperin’s political views. I was frustrated, however, to read the comments of Association for Israel Studies president Arieh Saposnik asserting that donor hostility to Halperin’s use of an “Israel/Palestine” framing in her courses was merely about “the integrity of Israel Studies as a field.”
Saposnik’s choice of analogy to make this dubious point is revealing. He suggests that donors to a hypothetical French Studies program would obviously be right to object if that program expanded to include studies of the Americas or if a professor taught a joint history class on France and another European country. But actually-existing French Studies programs have recognized that French Studies cannot be limited to France itself and must include the places that France colonized, like parts of northern and western Africa and, yes, regions of Europe and the Americas, where Francophone culture continues to thrive. This is why many such programs have changed their names to “French and Francophone Studies.” Those who have objected to this modified focus in French Studies have done so because they resent acknowledging France’s imperialist past—and present.
Putting Israel Studies and Palestine Studies in direct conversation with one another does not harm any scholarly field. Saposnik is being disingenuous when he purports to argue for academic “integrity.”
The letter writer is an associate professor of history at the University of Washington.
I appreciate Eta Demby’s thoughtful portrayal of psychoanalysis in Israel and Palestine, including her conclusion that demands for recognition should be linked to material demands for equality. However, I take issue with her characterization of the Acknowledgment Project and my psychoanalytic theory.
The Acknowledgment Project aimed not to whitewash colonial domination but to have Israelis acknowledge their responsibility for the Nakba, while avoiding the denial or normalization of Palestinian oppression. We believed that acknowledging suffering and moral injury means not that “all are guilty so no one is guilty,” as the Sheehis say, but rather, that reconciliation can occur when violators take responsibility for harming, make reparation, and potentially heal their alienation from the community. Victims choose to accept acknowledgment; the community chooses to repair. Acknowledging the suffering of those who have committed violence can be part of that repair. This is the moral agency Palestinian participants realized at the end of our program; to say they were forced to recognize their oppressor distorts that intention.
Could a “community” of those opposing the occupation—comprising both Israelis and Palestinians—create a form of reconciliation that fosters solidarity? It’s true that when Palestinians wanted to be heard, Israelis often felt blamed despite their best intention to give acknowledgment. The idea of the project was to explore these obstacles to acknowledgment, to see if we could work through them rather than succumb to the dynamic of accusation and blame. Realizing the moral agency of the oppressed and the vulnerability of harmers can be a means of overcoming those familiar destructive dynamics, helping those committed to political liberation transcend zero-sum struggles for recognition.
New York, NY
The letter writer is a psychoanalyst and the author of The Bonds of Love and Beyond Doer and Done To: Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity and the Third.
hannah baer’s piece “Therapy Was Never Secular” embraces the re-enchantment thesis, which was developed in philosophy and religious studies using the work of the philosopher Charles Taylor, and which calls for a return to a spirituality that secular modernity has supposedly destroyed. This paradigm imagines “the secular”—a concept that is best understood as a strategy by which Protestant states manage religion—as an unproblematic opposite to “the religious,” and rests on the discredited idea that the secular came into being by way of a previous disenchantment, or a rationalization of all aspects of life. Instead of interrogating the terms of this binary, advocates of re-enchantment reverse the qualitative judgments bequeathed to them by modernity; now it’s the secular that is bad, and the spiritual that is good! Even under this thesis, religions remain too messy for the modern, liberal subject to fully embrace, so they get shorn of power and reduced to utilitarian “spiritual tools,” available for purchase and accessorization by whoever has the power to appropriate them. Jeff Bezos’s love of meditating is not a corruption of some pure “spirituality,” but a paradigmatic example of what being “spiritual but not religious” entails. baer’s desire to excavate the wisdom of Judaism from psychoanalysis in order to use it therapeutically is in danger of falling into this trap. Psychoanalysis, like science itself, has religious roots, but that fact is not necessarily an indicator of liberatory potential. There is little that is practically objectionable in baer’s call for the reform of therapy, but her reliance on the mistaken frameworks of the secular and the spiritual has unfortunate consequences.
As a new therapist who is Jewish and a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I found “Therapy Was Never Secular” to be the piece I didn’t know I needed. Like the students hannah baer describes, I was likely first drawn to the mental health field in an attempt to better understand incomprehensible loss and intergenerational trauma—in other words, to understand my family and myself. baer put into words things I didn’t realize I’d been considering, such as the inherent spirituality I feel in my clinical work. While I see that cognitive-behavioral treatments provide relief for many people, I also notice ineffable sacredness, subtlety, magic, and mystery during moments in therapy when I believe the therapeutic relationship itself—in all its pure, mindful presence and psychodynamic imagination—is functioning as the vehicle for healing. When the session ends, I make notes to convey which “medically necessary” interventions I used, sensing a quiet space between what I did and what I can bill insurance for—and I wonder what, if anything, that space means. This piece helped me reflect on all of that in a new way.
hannah baer’s article “Therapy Was Never Secular” cogently calls on psychotherapists to more deeply engage the “sacredness” of their work, insightfully drawing attention to the repressed influence of Jewish mysticism on the emergence of psychoanalysis. One way to bridge the gap baer so poignantly exposes is through the work of Fischl Schneersohn (1888–1958). A scion of Chabad’s dynasty of Hasidic rabbis, he studied medicine at the University of Berlin and carved out a liminal career as a psychologist and novelist who wrote mainly in Yiddish and always kept one foot in the Hasidic world. His most important psychological work, Der ṿeg tsum menṭsh, appeared in English translation as Studies in Psycho-Expedition in 1929.
Rather than reducing psychoanalytic explanation to questions of sexuality (following Sigmund Freud) or inferiority (following Alfred Adler), Schneersohn argued that art and religion provided the keys to the “hidden” and “extraordinary” depths of the human soul. “Artistic intuition,” he wrote, “grasps man in his totality and infinite multiformity.” He termed this sense of all-encompassing intuition “spherical soul-life,” and concluded that psychical pathologies develop when a person’s “spherical quotient” goes unmet. In the spherical state, “the personality becomes free, unhampered, not premeditated, intuitive, and non-rational,” and hence is revealed in its “unrestricted genuineness and pristine integrity.” Elsewhere, he expressed the idea in a more mystical vein: “To become merged in a thing and to resurrect, is the open mystery of all creation, the dialectic aspect of the integral intimate-spherical life of the soul.” He also noted “the spherical impetus inherent in the communal life”—a focus shared by baer’s article.
Although Schneersohn pointed to antecedents for his terminology in psychological literature, it seems quite likely that he derived his concept from the Kabbalistic notion of “spherical” divinity (“or hasovev”) that is emphasized in the Chabad tradition he inherited. His exhortation “to become merged in a thing and to resurrect” echoes the practice—twice daily, in the recitation of the Shema—of merging oneself in the all-encompassing transcendence of divine being. This point deserves more elaboration, but I raise it here as a potent example of what might be gained if we take up baer’s challenge to honor the occluded religious roots of therapeutic practice.
Your article about the University of California Berkeley School of Law erroneously states that Kenneth Marcus “pioneered” the “strategy” of filing civil rights complaints using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to remedy campus environments that are hostile to Jewish students. While Marcus has surely been an impactful advocate for Jewish students, it was the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) that pioneered the Title VI strategy, as Marcus himself discussed in his book Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America.
In October 2004, the ZOA filed a Title VI complaint to protect Jewish students at UC Irvine from antisemitic harassment and discrimination, the first such complaint that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) ever agreed to investigate. This was a groundbreaking case because historically, OCR had not viewed Jewish students as protected under Title VI. By its terms, the law prohibits discrimination based on “race, color, or national origin”—not religion—in federally funded programs and activities. OCR viewed Jews strictly as a religious group and thus outside the law’s protections. It was after the ZOA had already devised this strategy of using Title VI to remedy a hostile antisemitic environment for Jewish students at UC Irvine that, in September 2004, when he was acting head of OCR, Ken Marcus issued a “Dear Colleague” letter which stated that “groups that face discrimination on the basis of shared ethnic characteristics may not be denied the protection of our civil rights laws on the ground that they also share a common faith.” Under this policy, Jewish, Arab Muslim, and Sikh students would thus now be afforded the protections of Title VI.
After Marcus’s departure, OCR dismissed the Irvine complaint, but ZOA continued its battle. Other organizations, including some that had opposed our legal effort at Irvine, eventually joined us, and we ultimately succeeded. In 2010, OCR issued a policy letter making it clear that Jewish students would be protected under Title VI. In 2019, President Donald Trump affirmed this policy in an executive order.
Susan B. Tuchman
New York, New York
The letter writer is director of the Center for Law and Justice at the Zionist Organization of America.