Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Apostates

A very interesting review by Adam Kirsch of three books which touch on the theme of Jewish apostasy -- Jews who betray the Jewish community to hostile gentiles. This, of course, must mean something beyond criticizing Jews -- Kirsch immediately draws the distinction between those who criticize from within the community as an attempt to make it better, and those who remove themselves from the community and seek to tear it down. Moreover, he observes that their is a significant qualitative difference between how one criticizes Jews when they are purely in a position of marginalization and weakness versus when they have gained some measure of power and influence (not the least of which comes in the form of a state with an army).

But the key point Kirsch returns to is that Jewish apostasy has been the source of some of the gravest threats to Jewish lives and livelihoods across history. It was medieval Jewish apostates who could credibly claim "insider" status whose polemics against the Jewish community and the Talmud sparked some of the most aggressive anti-Semitic campaigns by the Church. This is in many ways the violent cousin of Derrick Bell's concept of superstanding -- the heightened authority African-Americans receive when they speak out against the majority of the African-American community. Likewise, there is always a healthy audience for Jews who will eagerly tell non-Jews exactly what they've always yearned to hear about Jews; that even a Jew will affirm that most Jews are worthy of contempt.

I don't mean to minimize the difficulty of the question: freedom for Jews, or any minority group, includes the freedom to dissent from the orthodoxy of one's own community. No doubt there are strong vested incentives for those currently in positions of authority within a community to take a broad view of what counts as apostasy against it. This is an age-old problem -- one not limited to Jews -- and I don't pretend to have an easy answer other than adopting a principle of anti-tokenization. It is fine to be a Jew who is deeply critical of mainstream Jewish practices. But it is not okay for people to treat such voices as emblematic of Judaism such that it replaces their need to engage with the Jewish community writ large.

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