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.

  • Paul Braterman

    Interesting but I think misguided. Calling oneself a cultural Jew does not imply acquiescence with Israeli policies, and only Likudniks and antisemites profit if you say it does. And Jews stopped proselytising, at the same time that their religious orthodoxy ossified, when they made their partial peace with Rome after the destruction of the 2nd Temple. But the well-warranted complaint against the racist subtext of Judaism goes back further, to Nehemiah and the return from Babylon; the Book of Ruth on my reading is a protest against it.

    So do I have something important in common with Prof Levine? I think I just proved that I do.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I’m aware of the point you’re making about the Book of Ruth, but according to the Bible Nehemiah forced Jewish men to divorce their non-Jewish wives. How is that a critique of the racist subtext of Judaism? (Maybe there’s something in the Book of Nehemiah I’m missing.)

      • Anat

        Paul is saying that Nehemiah expresses the same racist subtext and Ruth was written in opposition to said racist attitude. IOW the author of Ruth dissented from the culture and politics represented by the author of Nehemiah.

        • Chris Hallquist

          D’oh. In another day or two I should be fully recovered from jetlag and should not make these reading comprehension mistakes.

          In this case, I’d say that the racism Judaism goes back to the Torah: the Israelites are God’s chosen people, so he’ll help them exterminate the Canaanites and take their land.

          • Anat

            But how old is the Torah narrative really? When did the Israelites or Judahites start viewing themselves as people who escaped from Egypt to inherit land promised to their forefathers, rather than a group of Canaanites who developed a new identity? Some place this development very late.

  • Ray

    “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 strikes me as a somewhat biased summary. It ignores the role of Arab leaders in creating the hostile relationship between Arabs and Israelis. Not only would there be no Palestinian refugees to oppress, had it not been for the 1948 war, which several Arab states clearly initiated in direct opposition to the judgement of the UN, but the Jewish majority in modern Israel owes nearly as much to refugees who fled oppression in those same Arab nations after the 1948 war, as it does to Jewish refugees from WWII era Europe.

    There was violence and illegal immigration on the part of Jewish settlers prior to the 1948 war, but it was almost exclusively violence against the occupying British authorities, not the native Arabs, and the illegal immigration was in opposition to British law, not Arab law.

    None of this is meant to downplay the real suffering of the Palestinians who live in the occupied territories, but it is disingenuous to imply that the Israeli authorities justify their treatment of the Palestinians based on Jewish oppression at the hands of unrelated powers like Nazi Germany. The Israelis, since the very beginning of the modern state of Israel have justified their treatment of the Palestinians based on the aggression of the very Arab leaders who have claimed to be the allies of the Palestinians. In the current situation, the Israelis can even point to aggression from the Palestinians themselves (bus bombings, rocket attacks etc.) And while it may not be obvious that this justification is entirely valid, it certainly isn’t obvious that said justification is invalid either.

    • Ray

      “it was almost exclusively violence against the occupying British authorities, not the native Arabs”

      OK. I think I’m wrong about this part. On further research, it looks like Haganah and Irgun violence, while often against the British, was more consistently directed against Arab targets. Although it looks like violent Arab groups were doing pretty much the same thing to the Jews throughout the British occupation, and possibly earlier.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Yes, the behavior of Arab leaders is a big part of the history there. I have, however, heard the Holocaust invoked as a reason why there needs to be a Jewish state, and I think that was Levine’s point.

      • Ray

        Agreed. The Holocaust is an awful reason for justifying any policy in the current era (68 years after the fact.) That said, the use of bad justifications for a policy does not imply that there are no good justifications, nor does it justify the rest of what Levine said in the quoted text — he makes it sound like the Zionist’s plan all along was to get their land by violence, rather than legally purchasing the land as private owners, thereby creating a Jewish majority in a certain region of a loosely bound, multiethnic empire (first the Ottomans, then the British), and then negotiating for independence on that basis. Now even this plan gets into thorny issues of who has the right to set immigration policy and who has the right to draw national boundaries, but it’s not the kind of thing that justifies claiming that the ” Jews treated Arabs the way Jews were themselves treated in Eastern Europe.”

        • anna

          “The Holocaust is an awful reason for justifying any policy in the current era (68 years after the fact).
          The Holocaust might be not the best reason, but 68 years means that some Holocaust survivors are still alive and that most certainly many children of the Holocaust survivors are still alive.
          Unlike, overfed, overprivileged and OVERPRIMITIVE American “Jewish” barbarians, they were raised without families, without any emotional or financial security, in camps, as terrorized leftovers in Eastern Europe and as constantly endangered citizens of Israel when this human waste preaches from their mansions and corner offices. This human waste doesn’t know that their children will be next to be buried or burned alive.

          • Ray

            ‘overfed, overprivileged and OVERPRIMITIVE American “Jewish” barbarians’

            I sincerely hope you’re talking about Levine, and not me. Even then, though, lets not have the worst thing said about Jews, American or otherwise, said by someone trying to defend the Jewish people.

  • MNb

    Let’s keep things simple. Too many people, not enough fertile land and resources. Everyone who understands a tiny bit of the species called Homo Sapiens knows what will happen next. That’s why justifications, valid or not, don’t make sense. So I can’t be bothered if anyone calls him/herself a cultural jew or not.
    The hard but important question is what to do about it. I wouldn’t know.

  • anna

    A monster, an absolute and perfect monster.

    • Dorfl

      Who are you referring to?

  • anna

    “One of my favorite essays from Louise Antony’s Philosophers Without Gods anthology was Joseph Levine’s “From Yeshiva Bochur to Secular Humanist.”
    Yes, antisemites love, love, love useful “Jews.”

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