Tzvia Greenfield and Judith Butler

Tzvia Greenfield, our haredi Meretz Keneset member, just published an appreciation of Judith Butler, the feminist literary critic, on Israel/Palestine.

My first reaction was one of treating it as an extreme posture. I mean, come on, one could not get almost any rabbi or Jewish communal figure anywhere on the spectrum to read Judith Butler. I thought of Leib Weisfish, who was on the speaking circuit in the 1980’s as a Mea Shearim dwelling Haredi Neturai Karta who was a passionate admirer of Nietzsche. Weisfish maintained a correspondence with Walter Kaufman, the translator and wanted the grave of Nietzsche to be transferred to Israel.

But my second thought was back to Greenfield’s haredism, which is not a sectarian culturally limited Haredism of Meah Shearim and probably should not be called Haredism. Her view seems to be closer to the older Rabbi Isaac Breuer influence world of Agudah from Germany where one can have a PhD in literature or biochemistry. But one holds that the Torah is above any politics, beyond any this worldly referent, and not subject to any personal choice- a radical separation of Torah and Derekh Eretz. Rabbi Breuer could discuss the secular world based on Nietzsche and Schopenhauer because the Torah was pure and entirely above society. He could also say that the Torah from a this-worldly perspective is biased against women but that is OK since Torah is to be considered from the eternal perspective. A few decades ago, there were still academics from the Poalai Agudah world that had such views.

(In 1990, Rav Shakh basically dissolved Poalai Agudah, telling them that “Torah only” was the only acceptable career, source of ideas, or worldview. The approach of Torah and a sharply bifurcated derekh eretz was no longer to be tolerated.)

So here is Greenfield’s article praising Judith Butler that the occupation needs to end because it would be the collapse of Israel as a democracy and as source of knowledge and talent. I am less interested in the political details as much as the synthesis of Meretz and Orthodoxy played out through Judith Butler. The reason for the sudden interest in Butler is because she passed through Israel a few months ago and obviously met with Meretz. In addition, Butler seems to at work on a monograph on Judaism, human rights, and Hannah Arendt.

Greenfield From Haaretz

Yet another terrifying possibility, of course, is that Israel would consciously renounce its own self-definition as a Western democracy. It would then gradually turn into a dictatorship that defines itself as Jewish. It would use armed force to continue to control all the territory west of the Jordan River, and would continue to deny the Palestinians’ right to either freedom or equality. A choice of that kind would destroy Israel as a modern state, and accordingly also its ability to defend itself and to develop as a secure, flourishing, 21st-century society.

In this case as well, it is clear that most of the country’s intelligentsia, and indeed anyone with initiative, would leave Israel. Israel would remain with its religious population and its rightists – some of whom are capable of defending it, but most of whom are devoid of high-level development and management skills. The Israeli-Jewish dictatorship would thus suffer from a substantive weakness that would eventually lead to its defeat at the hands of its Muslim enemies.

It is sad to think that this process has apparently already started: The collapse of education and higher learning, together with the political corruption and the tremendous growth of those sectors that are not prepared to share the social, economic and military burden, is encouraging the more talented and diligent Israelis to leave the sinking Jewish ship.

Even if treating Israel as the country that embodies the ultimate evil in fact expresses a new and ugly incarnation of traditional anti-Semitism, which always viewed the Jews as the representative of all the world’s ills, the truth is still simple, but difficult to face: An Israel that does not allow the Palestinian situation to be resolved has effectively announced its own inexorable death, via the gradual destruction of the resources of knowledge and talent that have enabled it to develop and defend itself until now. In order to save Israel, we must immediately separate from the territories and their inhabitants.

Butler in her own words
Judith Butler: As a Jew, I was taught it was ethically imperative to speak up 24/02/2010

Part one Part two

Philosopher, professor and author Judith Butler arrived in Israel this month, en route to the West Bank, where she was to give a seminar at Bir Zeit University, visit the theater in Jenin, and meet privately with friends and students.
Why Israel-Palestine? Is this directly connected to your Jewishness?

As a Jew, I was taught that it was ethically imperative to speak up and to speak out against arbitrary state violence. That was part of what I learned when I learned about the Second World War and the concentration camps. There were those who would and could speak out against state racism and state violence, and it was imperative that we be able to speak out. Not just for Jews, but for any number of people. There was an entire idea of social justice that emerged for me from the consideration of the Nazi genocide.

I would also say that what became really hard for me is that if one wanted to criticize Israeli state violence – precisely because that as a Jew one is under obligation to criticize excessive state violence and state racism – then one is in a bind, because one is told that one is either self-hating as a Jew or engaging anti-Semitism. And yet for me, it comes out of a certain Jewish value of social justice. So how can I fulfill my obligation as a Jew to speak out against an injustice when, in speaking out against Israeli state and military injustice, I am accused of not being a good enough Jew or of being a self-hating Jew? This is the bind of my current situation.

Let me say one other thing about Jewish values. There are two things I took from Jewish philosophy and my Jewish formation that were really important for me… well there are many. There are many. Sitting shiva, for instance, explicit grieving. I thought it was the one of the most beautiful rituals of my youth. There were several people who died in my youth, and there were several moments when whole communities gathered in order to make sure that those who had suffered terrible losses were taken up and brought back into the community and given a way to affirm life again.
So I agree with you. But I think we have to get over the idea that a state has to express a nation. And if we have a bi-national state, it’s expressing two nations. Only when bi-nationalism deconstructs the idea of a nation can we hope to think about what a state, what a polity might look like that would actually extend equality. It is no longer the question of “two peoples,” as Martin Buber put it. There is extraordinary complexity and intermixing among both the Jewish and the Palestinian populations. There will be those who say, “Ok, a state that expresses two cultural identities.” No. State should not be in the business of expressing cultural identity.
I think that the BDS movement has taken several forms, and it is probably important to distinguish among them

More Butler from this Spring

Lastly, let me say this. You may feel fear in voting for this resolution. I was frightened coming here this evening. You may fear that you will seem anti-Semitic, that you cannot handle the appearance of being insensitive to Israel’s needs for self-defense, insensitive to the history of Jewish suffering. Perhaps it is best to remember the words of Primo Levi who survived a brutal internment at Auschwitz when he had the courage to oppose the Israeli bombings of southern Lebanon in the early 1980s. He openly criticized Menachem Begin, who directed the bombing of civilian centers, and he received letters asking him whether he cared at all about the spilling of Jewish blood. He wrote:
I reply that the blood spilled pains me just as much as the blood spilled by all other human beings. But there are still harrowing letters. And I am tormented by them, because I know that Israel was founded by people like me, only less fortunate than me. Men with a number from Auschwitz tattooed on their arms, with no home nor homeland, escaping from the horrors of the Second World War who found in Israel a home and a homeland. I know all this. But I also know that this is Begin’s favorite defense. And I deny any validity to this defense.
As the Israeli historian Idith Zertal makes clear, do not use this most atrocious historical suffering to legitimate military destructiveness–it is a cruel and twisted use of the history of suffering to defend the affliction of suffering on others.

Here is a video of further musing of Butler about on Hannah Arendt And Israel delivered this past fall.
For those interested, here is also an online discussion between her and Agamben on human rights.

I am less interested in the politics and more interested in the cultural weave. Haredi religion as entirely a choice of the heart without any social, cultural, or political ramifications. Rabbi Isaac Breuer influence? Prof Yeshaya Leibowitz? In the 1950’s Orthodox Rabbis separated between Torah and American democracy- keeping them apart. Greenfield claims to be following a diaspora model. Can it it be reformulated for a half century later?

9 responses to “Tzvia Greenfield and Judith Butler

  1. The attempt on the part of Judith to make herself over into a Jewish philosopher following Levinas et al has not convinced me. Looking at a book like Precarious Life, it is not at all clear what function the Levinasian face argument serves. Butler would not embrace a transcendant in the way Levinas would. Even as she realizes that the action is with the religious theopolitical stuff (this is changing very fast) she has no way to incorporate it into her very Hegelian, recognitive reappropriation of critical theory. For Tzvia not to see right through Judith’s self proclaimed Judaism does not speak well to her understanding of our religion. Because where, really, does Judith Butler fit into Jewish Philosophy?

    • It seems this will be Butler’s 2011 book.

      “The Critique of Violence and Other Jewish Quandaries”: A Study of Jewish Criticisms of State Violence and Dispossession in the Twentieth Century, Focusing on Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi, and Emmanuel Levinas.

      This study considers several twentieth-century Jewish thinkers who offered public criticisms of state violence and encountered the risks and obligations of making such public claims. A deliberate consideration of major Jewish intellectuals, including Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Hannah Arendt, and Primo Levi, yields critical perspectives on state violence formulated through ideals derived from Jewish philosophical or religious thought or from twentieth-century reflections on dispossession and genocide. Public criticisms against gratuitous state violence, arguments in favor of co-habitation, and opposition to dispossession constitute important, if underappreciated, dimensions of Jewish values.

  2. I will leave the substantive critique for that book, then. What I saw in precarious life was not blowing me away. Perhaps the practical effect will be to focus attention on Jewish Philosophy in a positive fashion; something we can all get behind.

  3. I would associate this view of torah as atemporal, therefore talk of bias is a mistake with the use of Brisker conceptual analysis in the philosophy of RJBS. As we know RJBS held there is no place for historicism or sociology in our understanding of Torah. Torah is apriori and must be understood as pure halacha, and not by its use and effects in our daily lives. In the discussion of the RCA decision on women rabbis on Hirhurim many people said they agree feminist criticism of torah is off limits, citing the Rav. This could be as a convention of sorts, that enables some to say female rabbis are yehuraig val yavor. But my reading is that most think torah is immune from sociological analysis because of its transcendental a temporal quality. If you need a yekke, maybe an aspiring lamdan like Rabbi Shimon Schwab would be a better pick.

    On why Greenfield thinks Butler is relevant to her is beyond me. When Butler was darshening gender as a performative was she also inspired by her Jewish quest for justice? Maybe Greenfield used Butler for shock value. Her core description of the Israeli dilemna is valid enough that it needs no support from Butler. Her position is actually almost identical with the ideas of Bernard Avishai.

  4. Please excuse the following rant:

    It takes very little real courage to critique Israel today. You aren’t some lone voice of dissent; you are instantly ingratiating yourself into a anti zionist academic and intafada-chic love fest; you have the benefit of at least one person calling you a self-hating Jew, so so you get instant credibility there and get to consider yourself among the pantheon of great accused self-hating Jews; you can even travel around Israel and meet plenty of like minded people.

    In short you have access to an instantly coherent and ready-made identity. There is no tension, no angst, no night sweats. It is utterly and completely facile.

    In any event, I think that Greenfield’s bifurcation of religion and the state is probably born more from a recognition that Israeli politics has devolved into a dysfunctional muddle of short-sighted special interest deal-making and pandering – much of which revolves around placating various religious factions. (America may have been trying to bring American-style Democracy to Iraq; instead they recreated the Knesset).

    All the fist shaking from abroad and self-flagellating from within about resolving the Palestinian problem is meaningless without reinventing Israel’s political machinery. Liberal Israeli’s spend too much time in a state of existential self negation without seriously rethinking the way their government is structured and agitating for that kind of low level change.

    My Roadmap to peace starts with an Israeli constitutional convention – and for that you will get a lot more mileage from reading some of the nitty-gritty Rawls and Habermas and ignoring those who project everything political onto a plane of symbolic interaction that has become so abstracted that it might as well be called a new metaphysics.

  5. I do not get why you think Judy has not read the nitty gritty Rawls and Habermas. She is clearly going beyond both these thinkers in her social philosophy.

  6. My suggestion was not that Butler has not read Rawls and Habermas – It’s that Tzvia Greenfield, and others interested in rethinking democracy in Israel, even if they read Rawls and Habermas would be better off contemplating those contributions to the discourse. I don’t think that Butler has much to contribute to that discussion.

    • Judith has what to contribute to discussions of normativity as any other critical theorist does. What might be worth tuning out is precisely the critique of violence, levinas meets Israel stuff. This stuff is tangential to her greater recognitive schema. The latter is sketched quite powerfully in books like Psychic Life, and we would be profoundly dumb to not use these insights in any political formation.

  7. Moshe Halbertal already noted around 12 years the “normalization” of both the Dati L’Umi & Hareidi world and their rejection of Messianic discourse.

    Perhaps Greenfield is the flip side of the claim of Chareidim that they are the true Zionist and their adoption of Nationalist claims. If being a Chareidi is no longer about rejecting the State as being a heresy, but being no different than any other secular state, you can adopt any position vis a vis the state, including Greenfields.

    The interesting thing about her position is that it views Israel with neither the classic Eastern European position of viewing the state as non-Jewish and the Jews (or Chareidim) as a self-contained minority nor as a particular Jewish state, but to treat it is any other country.

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