Philosopher Joseph Levine on why he’s not a cultural Jew

One of my favorite essays from Louise Antony’s Philosophers Without Gods anthology was Joseph Levine’s “From Yeshiva Bochur to Secular Humanist.” Levine offers a fascinating account of his life as someone who was raised within Orthodox (he says “fundamentalist” would be quite accurate) Judaism. But what most stuck with me was his explanation of why he doesn’t even identify as culturally Jewish anymore:

But the interesting question for my purposes is not really why I can’t take Torah Jewish theism seriously, but why it should matter. As I mentioned above, there are many Jews who maintain varying degrees of connection with traditional practice who don’t espouse the fundamentalist beliefs definitive of Torah Judaism. It was certainly an option for me to join their ranks. Maybe I couldn’t really be a full-fledged Torah Jew anymore, since that really does involve buying the fundamentalism, but I might have maintained a somewhat traditional Jewish life nevertheless. It certainly would have allowed me to maintain a normal relationship with my family, which was a pretty strong incentive. So why didn’t I choose this option? This gets to the heart of the matter that I think this entire volume is about. What kind of life have we given up, why, and what kind of life have we chosen instead?

The reason I couldn’t really choose the “cultural Torah-Jew” option had to do with certain deep moral objections to that way of life, together with the realization that it just wasn’t personally fulfilling. I spoke above of how essential the role of the Jewish People, its special status, is to Torah Jewish life. In many prayers the phrase “and You chose us from among all the other nations” occurs, and the claim that we are the Chosen People is one of the principal tenets of Torah Jewish faith. The spirit of that claim pervades much cultural Jewish life, even for those who don’t strictly believe it. Well, I just couldn’t buy the Chosen People idea anymore. For one thing, it just didn’t seem true. I looked around at my fellow Jews and at the other people I knew, and also thought carefully about the histories of various peoples, and this special divine spark that supposedly attached to the Jewish people just didn’t seem evident. I came to the conclusion, something I believe to this day, that all peoples – not all people, because there certainly are individual differences – are pretty much the same.

But the main problem was that the doctrine of the Chosen People conflicts with very basic moral principles I had internalized concerning the value of every human life, and the general egalitarian ideals that attend a modern Western democratic culture. I had also never really abandoned the leftist political views I had acquired while in public high school, which were more radically egalitarian in nature. Torah Judaism is actually not consistent in this regard, since one can also find sources for this more egalitarian ethic, but the emphasis is clearly on our inherent special nature, and I could no longer abide that form of chauvinism.

Though just at the level of ideology this insistence on Jewish specialness bothered me, it wasn’t until I lived in Israel that it began to cause serious internal conflict. It was there that I saw first-hand how Jews treated Arabs the way Jews were themselves treated in Eastern Europe. It took time for this to sink in, but the seeds of future moral outrage were planted then. I could no longer ignore how the ideology of special divine favor was being realized in practice.

I remember years ago talking with a friend of my parents about the relative virtues of various religious traditions. One virtue he maintained for Judaism was its disdain for proselytizing. “Well,” I said, “this can go two ways. It might easily be seen as an expression of racial or ethnic superiority; we are the “chosen people” and won’t encourage others to join us.” He responded that whatever sense of superiority or exclusivity there was in Jewish sensibility was nothing for others to fear, as historically Jews have not been responsible for any of the kinds of crimes against other peoples that have been perpetrated by others, especially against us. I replied, “perhaps historically this has been true, but then we haven’t had any power for two thousand years. Just look what happened once we got some, in Israel.”

Let’s be clear what founding the Jewish State of Israel involved, and continues to involve. We came into another people’s land – admittedly, after enduring centuries of oppression ourselves – kicked them out brutally, and treated those who remained like dirt. We continue to oppress Palestinians horribly, and shamelessly exploit our own history of oppression and guilt-trip the rest of the world into letting us get away with it. This is how God’s people act? Not any God I wanted to have anything to do with.

Of course any people, even God’s chosen people, can act badly, and this alone might not be enough to undermine the doctrine. What bothered me in particular, however, was that this didn’t seem to be an aberration. Both the role of Torah Jewry in actively participating in the oppression and subjugation of Palestinians, and the way that Torah doctrines lent themselves to be exploited for that purpose, made this evident. God gave the land to us, it’s a sin to give any of it back, Arab lives don’t have the same value as Jewish lives – all of these claims have Torah sources. It’s just too natural and easy to slide from thinking of one’s own kind as distinguished by God to thinking of others as beneath contempt.

I want to emphasize that this isn’t just a matter of how the government of Israel behaves. Unfortunately, today, especially in the US, Jewish communal life has been largely hijacked by the Zionist project. Though there are finally some cracks in the wall of defiant support for anything Israel does, the kinds of vicious accusations leveled at anyone who shows concern for Palestinian suffering has made the organized Jewish community an unwelcome place for many who might otherwise seek fellowship there. Though there are many factors that explain this unhappy state of affairs – and again, Jews’ history of oppression is clearly among them – I do believe that the chauvinistic emphasis on the People that is deeply rooted in Torah Judaism is among them.

Though I have to add the disclaimer that I’m no expert in the Israel-Palestine situation, I can say that since reading this essay, it’s been hard for me to not get a bit squicked out at even the idea of merely cultural religion.

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