Friday, June 10, 2005

Three strategies for Jewish moral engagement

Jewish leaders continually weigh 3 strategies for confronting economic interests with Jewish moral concerns. Praise, silence, critique.

These 3 strategies were exemplified in the daf yomi at bShab 33. Rabbi Yehudah praises the Romans for developing markets, bathhouses and bridges. He is honored by the Romans. Rabbi Yose keeps a measured silence, perhaps because dissent was persecuted. He is exiled (well, maybe put under house arrest). But R. Shimon bar Yohai harshly criticizes the Romans and the immorality behind Roman economic developments. He is hunted as a rebel. Besides a rebel, Shimon b. Yohai is also a mercurial critic of business. (He may be a deep ecology prototype. Later in the Talmudic story, he and his son attack Jewish agricultural businesses, too.) He opposes not only business as a means, but apparently business per se as a distraction from Torah study.

Since posting these words elsewhere, I’ve looked at ADDeRabbi’s fine piece, who points out that the conversation is echoed at Avodah Zarah 2a-b. There, God says “Whomever occupied himself with [Torah] may come and claim their reward.” The Romans say: “Master of the Universe, we instituted many markets, we built many bathhouses, and we increased wealth, and only for Israel, so that they may busy themselves with Torah.” God’s comeback: “Most foolish ones! All that you’ve done was for your own needs: markets to place whores there, bathhouses to rejuvenate yourselves, and all gold and silver is Mine!...they immediately left dejectedly.” As ADDeRabbi explains, this A.Z. text rejects R. Yehuda’s view while R’ Shimon view matches God’s judgment. But Shimon b. Yohai is unrealistic, too idealistic, as the bShab story shows. ADDeRabbi says: R. Shimon b. Yohai “suggests that life in exile must be lived as a protest against reality, and that any culture which is not Torah culture is worthless. R’ Yehuda, on the other hand, is willing to accept reality at face value without passing judgment. Features of the prevailing culture which further the Torah’s cause can be embraced regardless of their original intent. Indeed, he sees value in actively searching for means of accommodation and rapprochement, and in generating a modus operandi for Jewish life in an alien culture as soon as possible.”

The three Rabbis might by typed both as rhetoric (e.g., praise, critique) and as religo-political responses. They fit a pattern of Accommodation (R. Yehudah) and Resistance (R. Shimon b. Yohai). Peter Berger (The Heretical Imperative) reframes these as liberal and neo-orthodox religious responses to modernity. Meanwhile, I believe R. Yose moved to an internal exile at Tzippori, where he might be understood as taking up the strategy of Retreat.

As a side note: I'm wondering how much of R. Shimon b. Yohai's critique is aimed at the Romans. Granted, they are discussing Roman productions and the Romans certainly interpret it as a rebellious critique. But maybe he is angry with the materialist/economic culture in general. Thus, when they leave the cave, his anger is direct in an undifferentiated way, i.e. also at fellow Jews. So, though we like to see him as rebellious to Rome, perhaps he (or the gemara) intended his response as a broader critique to commercial culture?

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