The death of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has resonated far beyond the borders of the United States of America. Sadly and inevitably her death has become yet another fissure in the already crack-ridden edifice of American society. Each side uses it for their own ends, and this shows up in the reporting of her death.
I noticed something interesting, and quite disturbing, when the Guardian newspaper released its obituary to Ginsburg. It came some way down when the author, Godfrey Hodgson described how, despite being “brought up in a conservative Jewish tradition,” she “abandoned her religion” because she couldn’t join a minyan to mourn the death of her mother when she was 17. Hodgson then wrote that, in 1993 Bill Clinton “was anxious to make the supreme court more diverse, so Ginsburg’s Jewish religion, which she had given up 46 years earlier, may have counted for more than a lifetime of commitment.”
I’m sorry, what? These two passages, now amended following complaints, tell us something both about Jewish identity and the total misunderstanding of this by some of the most elite of our cultural institutions.
Speaking as someone outside the Jewish community and the Jewish tradition, it is painfully obvious to me that abandoning one’s Jewish faith does not then mean one stops being Jewish. Being Jewish, to state something blindingly obvious to those in the community, amounts to far more than only believing tenets of a religion, important though that is to many people.
As Bari Weiss most recently put it in her book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, being Jewish means both a religion and a culture. Simplifying a multilayered and richly textured phenomenon, peoplehood, faith, and the land of Israel all comprise parts of Jewish identity.
The interplay between the three, and the ambivalence felt more or less often through individual lives and throughout history characterise much of Jewish art, literature, and music. Who cannot listen to the poetry-through-song of Leonard Cohen, for example, and not hear this echoing through? Or Felix Mendelssohn, who even though baptised a Christian, produced the violin concerto in E minor (my favourite piece of music) that resonates with the longing for the home of Israel, and the grief of being exiled from it for so long.
As Melanie Phillips writes, despite Ginsburg’s distance from the Jewsish faith, she still identified intensely with Jewish culture and tradition. She and Martin, her husband, sent their children to Hebrew school, and she had a mezuzah fixed to her office door. The dialogue between faith, culture and history takes place in Israel as nowhere else, with secular Israelis taking greater interest in the history of their people and faith, a discussion that reaches back thousands of years and brings the past into the present.
This is something that we in the now post-Christian west simply find almost impossible to understand. The imprint of Christianity is still felt no matter how far our cultures are from the religion that grounded them. Christianity, being a confessional faith can be picked up or dropped according to belief. If you no longer believe, then you no longer are. The implicit denial of peoplehood when reducing Jewishness to just a religion, amounts to saying that Jewish life is just one lifestyle choice among many others in an existential buffet. This is profoundly degrading and in my view amounts to a passive form of antisemitism.
This lack of understanding, wilful or otherwise, of the thickness of Jewish identity and its non-confessional aspects also reveals itself in the attitudes to the land of Israel. The question is often asked, implicitly or explicitly, ‘if it’s just a religion, why do you need the land of Israel? Surely religion is something of the heart that can be taken anywhere?’ Again, the most charitable interpretation one can give is that this sort of attitude stems from a cavalier misunderstanding of Jewish identity and Israel’s central place in this.
However, it also reveals a less benign aspect of left-wing culture’s embrace and subsumption by a pervasive universalism that brooks no dissent from its imperialist purview, as Yoram Hazony argues in The Virtue of Nationalism. Israel represents national and cultural particularism in a way that our liberal-universalist culture finds extremely hard to grasp. Often they simply make no attempt to do so, preferring instead to castigate Israel as the last remnant of white Western settler-colonialism, an ethnostate in a diverse world filled with people contemptuous of those not like them. The idea that the Jewish people have a historic connection to “some spot of a native land,” as Eliot put it in Daniel Deronda, is outrageous to enlightened, universalist opinion.
The idea that something could be particular and universal at the same time is beyond comprehension to the leaders of our cultural discourse, besotted as they are with dreams of borderless, nation-less utopia. Israel, in my view, combines both the particularity of peoplehood, tradition and place while serving as an example to the rest of the world, a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). The universality of this call in Isaiah can only be revealed through the particularity of Jewish faith, peoplehood, culture and land. Likewise, the universal nature of the art of Cohen and Mendelssohn only resonates as it does beyond the particularities of Jewish identity because of the particularities of Jewish culture and history. You cannot have one without the other, and Jewishness cannot simply be reduced to one or the other.
Whether those who make the same mistake as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s obituary writer can understand this is another matter for another time.