Alt+SHIFT: Striking Roots

Ytizchak Blau Tradition Online | January 12, 2023

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues his new Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew.

Chaim Navon, Makim Shorshim: Bikoret Yehudit al HaPiruk HaPostmoderni (Yediot, 2018) 192 pp. 

Partnership between political conservatism and religious ideology has become a major topic in contemporary Israeli discourse. Organizations such as the conservative Keren Tikva and Forum Kohelet prize this combination, although a recent issue of the liberal-leaning Deot (published by Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah) included a number of articles critical of this approach. R. Chaim Navon, a prolific author and columnist for Makor Rishon, represents one of the most articulate voices for a robust religious conservatism. His book, Makim Shorashim lays out much of cultural conservatism’s central themes. (An English title might be something like Striking Roots: A Jewish Critique of Postmodern Deconstruction—but there’s a clever double entendre: le-hakot shoresh means to take root, but here, as depicted on the book jacket, Navon examines the consequences of uprooting a tradition.)

Rabbi Soloveitchik famously distinguishes between the covenant of fate and the covenant of destiny; individuals choose the latter but find themselves born into the former. Today’s world focuses exclusively on choice and fails to see the valuable aspects of the identities we do not select for ourselves. If Jews once understood communal solidarity (the covenant of fate) and challenged religious observance (the covenant of destiny), they now question the covenant of fate itself. Nineteenth-century intellectuals such as Abraham Geiger and Rosa Luxemburg, stuck in universalistic categories, could not appreciate any special concern for the plight of distant Jews in other countries.

Political scientist Benedict Anderson (d. 2015) and others argue that nationalism is a nineteenth-century invention used to keep the underprivileged committed to communal causes. This line of thought continues an old Marxist error. Marx argued that the proletariat from all countries would unite in the communist rebellion, but nationalist sentiments proved much stronger than he had anticipated and French and German workers remained on different sides of military conflicts. 

The focus on consent also undermines the centrality, role, and importance of family that important web of relations a person is born into against one’s will. Knesset member Merav Michaeli, chair of the leftist Labor Party, has in the past attacked the institution of family. Western society currently experiences fewer marriages, rising divorce numbers, and a birthrate lowered beyond replacement rate. Japan and a few European counties will soon lack enough young workers to support the elderly.

Philosophers Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel note how all learning occurs within a context; there is no “view from nowhere.” One needs to grow up learning a specific language to understand the concept of a language and learn other languages. Furthermore, since no private language exists, one always begins in a group setting. Taylor cleverly notes that rejecting the values of one’s American parents constitutes a traditional American maneuver. Flag burning is just as much acting out a trope as flag waving—even radicals and revolutionaries work within certain traditions. Finally, Alasdair MacIntyre observes how liberals often forget the importance of collective identity manifest in how even contemporary Germans feel a need to compensate for a Holocaust they played no role in. 

Chaim Navon

Navon includes many classic critiques of modern liberalism. Liberals value the individual and the state but forget about the importance of intervening institutions, such as the family, the congregation and the neighborhood, that pass on values and make life livable. In fact, they protect against governmental tyranny; it is no accident that the Soviets tried to undermine all these other allegiances. 

Edmund Burke warned against radical change that too easily eschews the accumulated wisdom of the generations. Navon utilizes the Israeli Kibbutz movement as an example. Removing young children from their parents’ homes and co-ed showers and bathrooms all proved quite destructive. 

Postmoderns do not like to make qualitative judgments and dropped Great Books courses from their curricula (along with jettisoning other classics of western civilization). This overlaps with prevailing attitudes that equate defending minorities with sidelining “Dead White Males.” At the end of the day, some works are simply deeper and more rewarding than others, and we abandon them at our own peril. 

Navon laments the loss of a desire to mirror the religious behavior of one’s grandparents and attributes this to an absence of religious self–confidence that brings grandchildren back to the books instead of relying on family and community. Interestingly, he critiques both liberals trying to significantly change religious practice and conservatives searching for greater stringency. Each group remains uncomfortable with the natural continuity of family customs. For Navon, there is nothing less authentic than searching for authenticity. 

In sum, this conservatism calls for greater recognition of the value of group identity and the communal customs “of fate” into which we are born. Samuel Huntington wryly observes that only Western intellectuals endorse this rejection of our given identity. Most of the world understands how unrealistic and unnatural this is. If we wish to remain vibrant we need to appreciate the combination of consent and coercion or of communal covenant and individual contract that constitutes a rich human life.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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