dinsdag 22 januari 2013

Collectivity and Individual

The relationship between collectivity and individual can be complicated. In the film Life of Brian the crowd shouts out oudly “We are all individuals” and so precisely confirms its herd character.

With (other) Jews it may be the other way round. They belong together in a shul or in Israel and pretend to be linked to each other by a shared tradition but then don’t miss an opportunity to emphasize their own individual positions.

It is interesting to observe the relation of the individual versus the collective through history for both the Jewish and the Christian tradition. Then it appears that the two traditions on this theme often are out of phase with each other, but at other times nicely match.

For the period - some two thousand years ago - in which the equation can be made for the first time, I would say that they are out of phase with each other. In the Jewish tradition learning is strongly emphasized, as a duty incumbent upon each individual. In the Christian tradition collective confession of the new faith is promoted under the leadership of clerics who tell the people what that faith must entail.

From the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance Judaism and Christianity in these matters moved towards each other. In the West humanism came to blossom, with great attention to the development and independence of the individual. This trend was only strengthened by the Enlightenment in the 18th and Romanticism in the 19th century.

Many Jews felt attracted by this development and joined with enthusiasm in the pursuit of greater individual freedom and fuller citizenship of the surrounding culture. The struggle for emancipation of the Jews was matched by that of other groups in society and the bourgeoisie as a whole.

In our own time, the developments seem to be somewhat out of phase again. Christians complain that the collective story is lost, that society consists only of loose individuals. What exactly connects these individual citizens to each other, according to the philosopher Marcel Gauchet, and how they relate to the state has become subordinate to the defense of their individual freedom. Which is not to be limited in any way.

Conversely, in the twentieth century Jews rediscovered, already before the Holocaust, their collectivity. This resulted in the Zionist movement and the creation of Israel. It may be true in general that, still, Jews don’t easily allow others to tell them what to do, not even their fellow Jews. But meanwhile, the Jewish tradition is alive and Israel, with all its shortcomings, is a thriving country. Paradoxically a certain connectedness stands out there.

Maybe it’s the connectedness of everyone who does not let himself be silenced: that creates a bond. But if that’s the case, then the Christian and the Jewish world at one point will be back in line with each other. Because, to wish that your voice is heard, isn’t that a universal human desire? Or as I heard say David Grossman recently: the least which must be awarded to each human being is the opportunity to speak in his own words about his own things.

Also see Parrhesia

donderdag 17 januari 2013

Winter and Wilderness

According to many authors the desert plays a central role in the creation of  Jewish monotheism and thus of the Jewish identity.

One can think of Moses, who gets his first message from the Eternal when in the wilderness He  speaks to him from a burning bramble bush. Consequently  Moses leads the 40-year  groupidentity-forming process of the journey through the desert, and there on Mount Sinai receives the Ten Commandments.

Later in the Bible, after a 40-day trek through the desert without food or water the prophet Elijah eventually reaches  Mount Sinai where he is gifted with an appearance of God. He  shows Himself in an  abstract desert-like  manner not in storm or earthquake or fire, but in a gentle breeze. His successor Elisha also passes a while in the desert.

For North-West Europe a completely different identity shaper can be indicated: winter. At least, that’s what Adam Gopnik says in his book Winter. Five windows on the season. According to Gopnik winter played an essential role in the development of the self-consciousness of young European nations. Especially romantics in northern countries such as England, Germany and Russia experienced deep awe for mysterious virginal white plains and let themselves be inspired by fairy tales and heroic sagas which play there.

Gopnik’s attention to the European winters appeals to me, but not because of their romantic nature. I am struck rather by a kinship that the winter has with the desert, which kinship I find in the wintry stillness, in the halt of time when the water freezes and all life is covered with white. That to me is the European equivalent of subtropical deserts. In either situation stillness, if not hardship, occurs by which man can  be brought in a mood of repentance.  Not without reason white is the color of Yom Kippur.

Those  situations have another feature in common, namely that you can long to them: to the severity of dry heat or biting cold, probably because of an intensified internal consciousness that may be caused by them. That desire comes up, at least with me, whenever we live through the type of half-hearted ailing winter we had up to now this year.  Then you may be  looking for hard ice.

But Western culture is sufficiently steeped in the Bible so as to make the desert, besides the winter, figure as a spontaneous metaphor for inner edge. This is evident when a Dutch author gives his impression of an everyday car-ride from Amsterdam to The Hague:  rippling, messy and crowded. “I passed  the junction, then Wallmart, Primark. I stood behind a huge truck in a short traffic jam. At the truck’s back I read  that I could call if I was not satisfied with the driver. But the man did nothing wrong, though he stood still. A forklift, loaded with pallets, drove on the sidewalk. A cyclist, now faster than the cars,  passed  us. He had a parcel under his elastic straps, but what was in it? Everyone was busy with something, on their way somewhere. Everywhere houses, offices, megastores, people working behind windows. You know what it is, the poet Mustafa Stitou recently said to me: Holland has no desert.”

Also see Scapegoat

dinsdag 15 januari 2013

Church and State

It is, apart from the hostilities that there may be between Muslims and Jews, remarkable how much these two cultural-religious groups have in common. This can appear when it comes to parallel rituals and customs such as circumcision and dietary laws. It also appears to apply to a completely different field, that of the constitutional question of the extent to which it is desirable to separate religion and state. Anyway, neither Islamic States nor Israel just let themselves be squeezed into the straitjacket of an absolute separation of church and state.

I arrive at this parallel after hearing a lecture by Joseph Weiler, an expert on constitutions of countries around the world. His lecture starts from the question whether, if Israel wants emphatically to be a Jewish state, the separation of church and state would be jeopardized. And if so, whether that would be bad.

It actually looks like being bad. Because at first sight, says Weiler, there seems to exist but one proper view on the relationship between church and state. Namely, the one according to the French and American constitutions. In them religion and state are considered to be fully detached from each other, so to be things which can very well be absolutely separated and should be so. France and America don’t want to be nation states, but rather states of their citizens regardless of their faith or group identity.

That paradigma served as an example and has become normative for much thinking about the separation between church and state. And that's weird, Weiler thinks, because except for France and the U.S., there are in fact no other countries in the world with such absolute separation. For most of the cultures, there are not only the state on the one side, and the individual on the other side. If that’s the case, religion and group identity could indeed very well disappear behind the frontdoor and the state would be absolutely religionfree.

But for most countries, there is also such a thing as a national sentiment, a collective identity. Coupled with the belief that this identity should take shape in the establishment of a collective fundamental right. This is for example what the Egyptians want at this time, by adopting a constitution with references to Sharia. This is what Italy wants when it comes to crucifixes on the walls in classrooms. And it is what the Israeli people want by emphatically stating that Israel should not only democratic but also Jewish in character.

Besides these empirical observations Weiler suggests that a neutral position in these matters is, even from a theoretical point of view, an impossibility: those who want neutrality, form an ideological group alongside other ideologies or religions. So opting for neutrality is not neutral, but is favoring that particular group. In a society where the main dividing line is not between religious groups such as Christians, Jews or Muslims, “but between religious people and irreligious people, there is no luxury of neutrality. Laïcité is not a neutral position”.

It should be taken for granted, he adds, that there must be religious freedom, “freedom of religion and freedom from religion”. But actually, a country with a fully-fledged parliamentary democracy and respect for personal freedom may very well have a religious identity. For that reason Weiler fought before the European Court of Human Rights for Italy's right to hang crucifixes in the classrooms.

By the way, in this identity struggle Israel does not only resemble Egypt and some other Islamic countries. It runs, except with Italy, also in line with most other European countries, says Weiler. Look at England, where the Queen is head of the church, or to Greece where a government is ordained by the Orthodox Church.

And conversely: France, although striving to strict neutrality, is not always successful in curbing French chauvinism. As Geert van Istendael wrote: the gift of Fraternite was only granted to those who spoke French.

Also see Progress after all