The cultural critic Moe Syzslak is better known as the bartender in the masterful series The Simpsons. In season 13 episode 3, he and his friends visit an art exhibition. Carl, Homer’s co-worker at the nuclear reactor, is embarrassed. ”I don’t get all this eyeball stuff. What are they supposed to represent? Eyeballs!?” Moe explains: “It’s POMO… postmodern.” The confused look of the guys suggests that they still don’t understand. In his exaggerated New York accent, Mo elaborates: “Yeah, all right, weird for the sake of weird.”
When I saw an advertisement for this past summer’s religious Zionist women’s conference in Jerusalem sponsored by the organization Binyan Shalem, I immediately thought of Moe and his apt definition of postmodernism. The subject of the first lecture in the conference program is “Pure Living in a Postmodern World.” The term “postmodern” appears frequently in today’s Israeli religious Zionist discourse: in classes in Jewish thought, in teachers’ rooms, in pamphlets by popular rabbis, and in books. ”Postmodernism” is presented as a central threat within religious Zionism discourse in Israel. (The dynamics in American modern-Orthodoxy are different.)
But to be honest, though, it’s a threat that doesn’t really exist. This is not due to the complex and thoughtful response of the late Rav Shagar – one of the few religious Zionist leaders who took postmodernism seriously and bothered to study it in depth – but because the postmodernism that religious Zionism opposes is a straw man. Postmodernism has become an umbrella term for a long list of things that religious Zionist leaders oppose. The excessive and incorrect use of this concept makes it difficult to have an in-depth discussion of serious challenges.
In most cases, rabbis and religious Zionist leaders define postmodernism as a kind of extreme relativism, which denies any possibility of qualified and reliable human knowledge. According to R. Shlomo Aviner of Beit El, for example, postmodernism “does not offer anything. That is its innovation. There is no absolute truth. Everyone has his own truth. Each person will live according to his own faith. There are no absolute values. I have this value, you have another value.” Similarly, R. Yigal Levinstein, an influential and controversial educator, distributed a pamphlet under the title “Roadmap to the Postmodern Maze.” He defines the movement as advocating that “there is no truth at all,” and thus “life has no meaning, there is no absolute truth, and there is no overall meaning. Everything is relative and fluid, fleeting and casual.”
R. Chaim Navon, an author, publicist, and spokesman for religious Zionist ideological conservatism, takes this argument a few steps further. In his Hebrew book Cutting Roots: Jewish Criticism of Postmodern Dismantle [sic], he focuses not on epistemology (theories of knowledge) but on postmodernism’s perceived trend of systematic dismantling. He identifies a destructive urge to undermine social norms, institutions, and accepted ideas wherever they are. “This is not dismantling for the sake of construction. Instead, this is dismantling as a final and absolute move” (62). In the weekly synagogue pamphlet Olam Katan (#860), Gali Bat-Horin (a non-religious leader of the conservative think tank Forum Cafe Shapira, who has a regular column in the religious weekly) explained that “Marxist postmodernism” is “a monolithic ideology with one value and one total goal – to destroy everything that exists.”
Naturally, these writers see postmodernism as something bad and destructive: “There are concepts that are entirely invalid,” explains founder and President of Yeshivat Har Hamor, R. Zvi Tau. According to him, postmodernism is “the result of imagination, emptiness, loss of direction and despair of man in the image of God.” This trend is not only wrong and mistaken, but malicious: “They themselves do not believe in the trends they are leading” (The Courage for Independence, 7, 12).
A condition, not an ideology
There is a considerable distance between the way the term “postmodernism” is used in religious Zionist educational discourse and its meaning in the academic and professional literature. There are of course points of similarity, but religious Zionists describe a postmodernism that looks very different from what is described by artists, philosophers, and cultural researchers. Broadly, postmodernism is one of many twentieth-century currents in sociology, philosophy, and art, which opposes the optimism of Enlightenment modernism. It describes the human condition in an environment of late capitalism and ubiquitous and dynamic technologies, which increase awareness of the wide variety of human experience.
It is a culture in which people find it difficult to find solid ground. As a result, postmodernism prefers irony, local meaning, and puns and language, instead of the confidence in progress which was characteristic of the Enlightenment. It is skeptical of metanarratives that claim to explain everything, and it adopts an artistic and cultural style that is less interested in reality and more in certain types of games. Postmodernism was a broad topic for discussion in the second half of the twentieth century, and has since drifted from the cultural and intellectual agenda.
Despite the wide use of the word “postmodernism,” religious Zionist speakers do not reflect a sincere and serious attempt to understand postmodernism in its own terms. For example, according to these speakers, postmodernism is a movement with a clear social and political agenda, with an aspiration for cultural control. As R. Aviner explains, this is “a trend of thought that dominates the entire West, and also us.” Similarly, according to R. Levinstein, it is a “philosophical theory” that is part of “an actual movement whose goal is to fight for the advancement of that theory.”
But postmodernism is less a movement and more a “condition,” in the words of Jean-François Lyotard. First and foremost, a person is born into a postmodern context of mass-media saturation, of historical self-awareness, of difficulty finding solid cultural and intellectual ground, of a hegemonic capitalist economy, of technology that drives culture, and of difficulty to slow down. Many of the postmoderns are aware that this situation is not always positive, easy, or healthy. In this sense, it is not possible to agree or disagree with the postmodern reality, because postmodernism is primarily a description of the condition of man in the age of late capitalism, and not a set of beliefs or ideology.
Even when people create a postmodern culture or take a postmodern philosophical position, in many cases it is more an artistic style than a political ideology. This style includes blurring the boundaries between high and popular culture, pastiche (a work created as a collage from parts of other works), juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated things, the lack of a coherent narrative structure, and above all, irony – lots and lots of irony. As a “show about nothing,” the TV series Seinfeld (which enjoys great popularity among religious Zionists of a certain age cohort) is a prime example of postmodernism. Whether you like the humor or not, this is not the stuff of a political-ideological manifesto.
Indeed, some of the criticism of postmodernism, mainly from leftist circles, revolves around its lack of a political agenda. According to its critics, postmodernism does not offer a political alternative to the failure of modernist optimism and the belief that the achievements of science will lead to rational and successful politics. The abandonment of politics is a weakness of postmodernism. Many Marxists (who religious Zionists often wrongly conflate with postmodernists) attack postmodernism because it prefers irony and wordplay over an actual attempt to improve or change the world. There is an element of “dismantling” here, but less as a political and ideological move and more as irony, and of course there is nothing here that is “final and absolute.” Postmodernism is not an ideology with a clear and deliberate political agenda, certainly not a comprehensive one.
Self-awareness is not the denial of truth
Postmodernism includes discussions of epistemology and theories of knowledge, as well as criticism of the Enlightenment optimism about to the rationality of human beings and the universality of that rationality. But religious Zionist spokespeople exaggerate when they describe it as radical relativism. Postmodernism understands that human knowledge is culture-dependent, and in that it is absolutely right. Knowledge is partly a “social construction,” because there is no “view from nowhere,” to borrow terms from Peter Berger and Thomas Nagel (hardly radical figures in the academic landscape). We know things today that were not known in previous generations, and those who grew up in a given time, culture, and language will understand reality in a different way from those who grew up in another time, culture, or language.
And yet, there is a great distance between the awareness of the partial social construction of human knowledge and the belief that there is no truth or morality, that there is no way to separate truth from falsehood beyond the passing mood of an individual. An awareness that there are no completely “transparent” words or sentences, or adopting a position of skepticism towards “meta-narratives” – skepticism towards a single story, point of view, or conceptual framework that includes the whole truth – still leaves room for local knowledge or for smaller or more cautious narratives. As Chris Gowens argues: “Moral relativism has the unusual distinction—both within philosophy and outside it—of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone.”
Even if there are those who are inclined to extreme relativism, they are not representative of the surrounding culture and politics. Contemporary culture is not populated by those who have abandoned any attempt to reach intellectual or moral beliefs. On the contrary, many people in each camp claim to know things and try to live according to values they believe in profoundly. In many cases they try to convince, educate, and even impose their conviction on others. Those on the left try to convince others to join them, and those on the right act in a similar way. Even anti-vaxxers, who believe nonsense, will try to convince their listeners that vaccines cause autism as a scientific fact. They believe stupid things, but that is their sincere belief.
For example, those who advocate for the rights of LGBT people, and even for changing the accepted definitions of sex and gender, are not trying to dismantle the order of things. Instead, they act because they believe that there are people who are harmed by the existing definitions and the existing laws. They are convinced that changes will improve people’s lives. They may be wrong, perhaps even radically so, but their work is not due to “dismantling for the sake of dismantling.” If they are wrong, that claim has to be made at the level of history, science, sociology, and public policy.
Similarly, even when historians agree on the hard facts, they may disagree on the correct interpretation and the significance of those facts. Their positions may differ based on their values and methodological approach, and even differences in culture, life experience, and personality. Still, within the framework of their professional writing, these historians can often quite reasonably articulate their position and defend it. They do not give up on any attempt to decide, claiming that there is no difference between truth and falsehood.
Parenthetically and ironically, I would suggest that the discourse on postmodernism within religious Zionism is itself postmodern. Postmodernism likes to emphasize games and symbols instead of dealing with the world itself, and it treats unimportant subjects with ironic seriousness. In the religious Zionist discourse, the term “postmodernism” is a signifier without a signified, an empty symbol, a serious discussion about something that does not actually exist in the world. The word indicates an intellectual and cultural phenomenon that exists primarily in the imagination of the interlocutors themselves. What could be more postmodern than that?
What is at stake?
What, then, makes speakers and leaders in religious Zionism invest so much in polemics against a position not actually held by any significant contemporary movement? There are two possible answers to this question. The first is, quite simply, ignorance. When you don’t spend time and effort seriously listening to positions outside your own camp, then you spend time and effort debating imaginary opponents.
But there may be a better and more compelling reason: moral panic. Moral panic, a term developed by the sociologist Stanley Cohen, is a way to create social solidarity by identifying a dangerous enemy, even when that opponent is not a real threat. As Emile Durkheim taught, every society needs deviants to define for the normative group members what the group values are. Moral panic is an extreme example of this phenomenon. Enemies are identified or created not because they are truly threatening, but because the threat helps create solidarity among the members of the threatened group. The more extreme the threat and the louder and more emotional the response to the threat, the more successful the attempt to consolidate the group. The subject of the moral panic should be identified as ubiquitous and as a real threat to the foundations of society. In addition, the issue of moral panic should be vague and broad enough to block the possibility of a solution, because panic is not a bug but a feature. The leadership of the community and its members need panic so that it can be used for social cohesion.
“Postmodernism” has become a basket into which a long list of phenomena can be placed, with a common denominator that leaders in religious Zionism dislike them. The moral panic then spares the leadership the need to deal honestly with difficult questions and real challenges. Feminist claims and the questions raised by the LGBT community are real communal, philosophical, and religious challenges. It is easier to reject changes in the structure of the family or in the perception of gender in the surrounding society as part of a “postmodern threat,” than it is to understand why these changes are happening. It is easier to reject the criticism of nationalism, instead of dealing with the historical awareness that modern nations are very different than premodern ones, and that extreme nationalism could become a moral hazard.
I am not writing to defend postmodernism. I do, however, have more invested in religious Zionism, Torah, and Judaism. Torah faces real challenges in contemporary society, as it has many times in the past. The religious community is strong enough, and certainly the Torah is strong enough, to compete in the market of ideas without fighting straw men.
Dr. Yoel Finkelman served until recently as the curator of the Judaica collection at the National Library of Israel. A version of this essay appeared in Hebrew in Makor Rishon’s Shabbat supplement (October 7, 2022). Thanks to Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, who prepared a first draft of the translation.