Monday, January 28, 2013

The Jewish Whalers

Last week was the publication of the third issue of Makom, a journal on Jewish thought for which I'm the academic editor. Read the latest issue here; if you want a print copy, email me at

This is the article that I wrote for the last issue's symposium. My thinking has changed substantially since it was published, so ascribe this post to the Jonathan of last October.

File:Walvisvangst bij de kust van Spitsbergen - Dutch whalers near Spitsbergen (Abraham Storck, 1690).jpg

Imagine a whaleship, and bear with me. 

The ship is at sea for a specific purpose: to hunt and kill whales for their oil. If there were no market for whale oil, there would be no whaleship. If no one believed that sperm whales existed, there would be no whaleship. 

But the ship is full of activity that has nothing to do with whaling. The cook has developed a unique menu. The sailors have invented an ingenious variation of contract bridge, which they hardly ever play on Sundays. And as a sign of their membership in the gallant crew, they cut off the tips of their right pinkies, even if they think it’s gross. 

Moreover, the population of the ship is not uniformly committed to the project of whaling. Some crewmembers deny the very existence of whales, even though they’re willing to stay on board because they grew up on the ship. Others, seeking a direct experience of the Cetacean, declare organized whaling to be an impediment to their happiness and threaten to strike off on their own in small whaleboats. 

I propose that Judaism works on a similar principle: Judaism is a nation whose raison d’être is a collective religious history. Starting with the generation that crossed the Jordan, the Jews have been sustained by a national memory of revelation, if not a direct experience of revelation itself. 

But Judaism is also filled with activity that has intrinsically little to do with this religious experience—consider Israeli dancing, the Hebrew language, borscht, and latkes. Institutions like these are important to Judaism and common to most Jews, but unconnected to religion. 

Moreover, many Jews renounce the religious aspect of Judaism. Though this decision separates them from the central Jewish project, it does not remove them in the slightest from the Jewish nation. An atheist Jew can still be important to her community, can still find prayer beautiful, and can still look forward to Shabbat dinner every week. In much the same way, the ship’s cook has no interest in whaling, but he is just as much on board the ship as anyone else. (The only difference between the cook and the whalers is that a ship full of cooks would have no reason to exist.) 

All this granted, though, theology is at the root of Judaism, in three different senses of that phrase. In the first place, theology has historically provided the basis for the forms of Jewish practice. A completely secular Friday-night dinner is conceivable, but it is difficult to imagine its having been sustained over the millennia without its status as a commemoration of Creation. In the same vein, the only reason that Passover is today a dynamic and empowering cultural experience is that Jews over thousands of years believed that they should recount the story of the Exodus as real history. 

Second, theology it is the only thing that unites every Jewish community on Earth. The Jews have very little national history beyond the Revelation and the few centuries that followed it: Iraqi and Ethiopian Jews had already left the scene, for instance, by the time the Romans occupied Jerusalem. There are also next to no cultural practices that are common to all Jews. (I find gefilte fish revolting and Ashkenazic music vapid. Less trivially, put a Jew from Latvia in a room with a Jew from Cape Town, and they’ll stare at each other without a language in common.) Even the Rabbinical Law came too late to reach some far-flung communities. But there is no Jewish community on Earth that does not recognize the Revelation as a national event. 

Finally, and most importantly, the theological element of Judaism is the only thing that gives Jewish practice special meaning. There is no society on earth that is not filled with idiosyncrasies, and Jewish idiosyncrasies are perhaps more notable, and certainly more ancient, than those of other groups. So the cultural anthropologist might want to examine the sociological innards of Judaism in order to satisfy his curiosity. There is no reason, though, why that anthropologist should be more interested in Jewish culture than that of any other ethnic group: a bagel is no more intrinsically noteworthy than a slab of pork, and the hora is simply a Balkan dance. Seen from the outside, though, the Jews are marked by a central project more important than all of their idiosyncrasies, and which sets them apart from other nations: responding to a revelation at Mount Sinai. 


“Who are the Jews?” 

“A group of Hebrew-speaking Europeans and Africans that complains endearingly, tells sardonic jokes, eats bagels, doesn’t pick up the phone on Saturdays (though different Jewish cultures have variations on this custom), and is committed to the ethical principle of tikkun olam.” 

“And what was the Pequod?” 

“It was a ship of men who always used to sling their hammocks from the third hook up the post, some of whom hunted whales, and who ate each piece of toast with two squares of butter…”

1 comment:

Jonathan S Nathan said...

In case you're curious, this is why I've changed my mind (taken from a private email):

I might make the empirical historical claim that there would have been no Jewish people without the memory of the revelation, or that the religious component of Judaism has generally been necessary for its historical success.

But an effort to pin down the essential structure of Judaism is going to end in frustration, because we're building a model that's sure to be inconsistent with some things that a reasonable person would call essentially Jewish. I might point to the Reconstructionist movement, for instance, as an example of a group of Jews that gets along just fine while denying revelation. Or to the atheist Zionists in Israel who did more to preserve the Jewish people than anyone else in the 20th century.