We learn a great deal from the possibilities of language. Certain notions can be espoused, certain phrases are based on key assumptions, certain concepts can be almost impossible to express. In this case, let’s combine the words radical and traditional. Let’s explore the possibilities:
1) radical traditionalist – this implies that we are traditionalists but also radical
2) traditional radical – implying a similar meaning
3) traditional and radical – indicating both existing on a equal footing.
What is difficult to do – and precisely what is necessary – is to define radicalism as a result of traditionalism, that in radical thought and action we cling on to an ancient tradition of iconoclasm, subversion and counterculture. If we are not radical, we would not be true to our tradition.
This is more than facile wordplay. Our society perceives tradition as static and conservative, whereas radicalism represents nemesis; a rupture or break with the past. The notion that the old may be more progressive than the new is ignored by those brought up on liberal myths of progress, which show humanity moving steadily towards ever increasing rationality and material wealth. For many jews, judaism is placed firmly in the camp of that which is steady and unchanging. They may love it, feel warmly towards it, even practice it – but it represents something to be kept securely in a shut box. Witness the reverence given by secular jews to orthodoxy – it alone represents the religion they do not practice. Even when jews are engaged in radical action, that part of their lives is seldom linked to their ‘jewish’ side, they operate in separate and contradictory spheres. This approach is not traditional – rather it is heresy. As Louis Jacobs has put it, ancestor worship is a form of idolatry.
Our tradition is radical to the core. Jews reject conventional views of wisdom and strength (who is wise?…one who learns from everyone. Who is strong?… one who restrains themselves…)
Jews reject empire-forming with a long standing hatred of military and political power. We preserved the memory of the ancient Judean state-creating; a utopian paradigm by which to judge all subsequent ruling groups and oppressors.
Jews reject the logic of nationalism, where land comes before life. At the centre of rabbinic mythology is the story of Yohanan ben Zakkai – rather than die in a doomed battle to save Jerusalem he runs away to Yavne to create a new culture, one based on the power of language. In this, jews became perhaps the first moderns, disparate yet joined, brought together by text, their virtual homeland. Words over land – perhaps the quintessential jewish subversion.
Jews refused to accept the world as it was. In the words of Levinas ‘God is a force to judge history’ or of Michale Lerner ‘YHVH is the force of transformation – demonstrating that what is, not what must be.
Jews rejected the straitjacket of simple meaning long before deconstruction and literary criticism. For every reading of a text there was d’var aher – another interpretation. And another… and another. In torah, text is a meeting place; a virtual symposium through which we find ourselves, and each other.
Jews have always represented the essential other – the outsider, the stranger, the symbol of difference. Furthermore, jews internalized the meaning of otherness through ethical obligation. ‘Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt ’, is repeated again and again in torah – in the hope that the message may eventually get through.
Jews demand economic justice: from the biblical system of leaving the corners of fields for the poor, to yovel (jubilee), which demanded a periodic freeing of slaves and returning of land to its original owners, to the communal ‘kupah’, a prototype welfare state with obligatory contributions of 10% of earnings, to the socialism of the ‘bund’ and to the revolutionary politics of Marx, Trotsky or Rosa Luxembourg. Jews reject charity and demand tzedakah – justice.
These concepts are widely accepted as radical, and will continue to be necessary as long there exists power and oppression which needs to be challenged. To fail to challenge it is to endorse the most political form of nihilism; that there is nothing that can be done to alter the essential social and political order. We can and must transcend linguistic possibilities, and within them the limits of our conservative culture, and strive to build a society of radical torah all around us. Go on…deep breath… “I’m a traditionalist”…