I came across one of those trivial click-bait internet articles today that inevitably claimed it would “blow my mind.” But this one made an impression on me. The article’s about a recently out lesbian teen who shares her aunt’s horribly bigoted opinions about her choices, followed by an equally insulting apology. When the teen fights back and shares the fight on Twitter, her family becomes mystified how the teen, not the aunt, could possibly be so insulting. The family then gets a blitzkrieg of social media remonstration. No doubt, the family deserves it, but it won’t help rebuild that family.
It’s 2017. Families around America are breaking up forever. I’m positive things like this happen in Jewish families all the time, I suppose I’ve occasionally seen them myself. But I’d imagine a statistical survey about would demonstrate Jewish families breaking apart slightly less often — if only because we’re usually bickering often enough that it doesn’t get so close to family dissolution.
Who can blame a young person from a family like that one for being troubled? It’s the refusal of conservative families to evolve with the times that creates the radicalism conservatives so loathe. Radicalism is its own kind of conservatism that refuses to adapt to reality no less than the people against whom they rebel. In the best of circumstances, family and friendships contain all the seeds of misunderstandings most bitter. Any perception of someone different from ourselves is necessarily limited. However well-meaning we are, our dealings have condescension and micro-aggression. No amount of study on how to be a better ally can surmount that barrier, and only builds still taller barriers against new enemies. Both conservatism and radicalism are signs of a society’s devolution and signposts that its tolerance for Jews grows limited.
There are only two major Western beliefs that do not preach ideals that cannot be fulfilled: Judaism and Liberalism. The history of every other belief lurches between attempts to fulfill ideals and failures so spectacular they obliterate entire ways of life. Most cultures are unrecognizable from era to era because they are not flexible enough to adapt themselves to new requirements. Christianity teaches absolute mercy, and its history’s bedecked with thousands of examples that less vengeance would occur if Christians were less forgiving. In Judaism, there are unforgivable sins, and because forgiveness is not a requirement, forgiveness in Judaism means more.
I don’t think Jews should apologize for just the smallest hint of jingoism. For all my obvious anger at our community, I still think the average Jew is a tinier but smarter and better valued than their equivalent in any other community. Hardly more so, but enough that our reactionary tendencies are slightly less reactionary, our revolutionary tendencies slightly less revolutionary.
What conservatism and radicalism both demand is not tolerance, but obedience; or to use our president’s favorite word, loyalty. There’s no sentiment less Jewish than that. Tolerance never means that all wishes are guaranteed or respected, quite the opposite. For any right to be meaningful or permanent, it must be proven necessary; and can only be proven necessary by endless testing, debate, criticism, and argument. Laws and rights and morals aren’t universal edicts, they’re living concepts and documents that evolve and devolve from year to year, continually expanding or contracting life’s opportunities. There’s no such thing as a revolutionary transformation of morality that liberates millions without oppressing millions first.
It is this debate that creates something more valuable than community. A community’s not enough, because community implies unity. A community can only be purchased at the ostracizing of those who depart from that unity. What life requires is not community, but polity; in which debate, rather than distance us from each other, bonds us together. Debate only break us apart if ending the debate seems like an option. If we realize that life is a debate which we can’t escape having, then our adversaries become people to whom we’re bonded to in understanding and sympathy.
From epoch to epoch, Jews try to live their lives as best they can while the world around them pursues ideals they can never fulfill. There is no ideal in Judaism, only the bitterness of accommodating reality that makes us all hurl generations of bitter remonstrations at each other along the way. But yet again, we’ve survived, the core of our culture intact, just like the eighty generations before us. All the world over, there are people who conspire to kill every inhabitant, and how much more do they conspire against Jews? Family is the greatest and most important shield that lets us endure, and a family that does not evolve is a family that breaks apart, and a precursor to a society that does the same.
Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.