Fragmentation, G-d and the Western Jew (Ideas #135)

There are many things we encounter that need not be the way they are. Similarly, when we read the Torah, it chooses one resolution out of many possibilities in each case. And in general, thinking about why the Torah did not choose any of the other options can be a useful tool for creative thought.




Along these lines, I recently noticed the timing of G-d’s presence resting on the Tabernacle, paying attention for the first time that it only happened when the Tabernacle was finished (the same is true with the construction of the Temple). Granted, this may seem like the most obvious possibility, but upon more careful consideration that is really not clear at all. G-d’s presence need not be understood as an all or nothing phenomena. In fact, the Talmud speaks about His presence moving away from the Temple only gradually during its last days. So would it not have made more sense for G-d’s presence to also come down gradually while the Tabernacle was being built? The closer the building came to its completion, the fuller G-d’s presence – until the final brushstroke marks its almost imperceptible culmination, both physical and spiritual.




There are certainly many ways to go with this observation, but one thing that strikes me is the apparent need for completeness in order to bring down G-d’s presence. Perhaps it is G-d’s own, albeit all-encompassing, completeness that prevents Him from dwelling in an incomplete Mishkan. Whatever the reason, however, it makes us think twice about the nature of completeness and its lack.




Incompleteness is not just something lacking a piece of itself. Since it does not yet fully occupy all of its space (or if it does, it does not occupy it in its ideal form), perforce it is made up of itself and a foreign element. In other words, before any given piece of Mishkan furniture is built and placed in its proper place, the area where it will one day stand is not simply empty space. Rather, it contains a non-Mishkan entity and so fragments the Mishkan, its space containing both itself and something else.






In the last hundred years, we hear Western intellectuals speaking more and more about a fragmented world. They feel that one can no longer hold on to some grand cultural narrative of truth. Of course, there always have been multiple narratives, each culture inevitably looking at reality from its own unique perspective. What has changed is that the Western intellectual has lost that primary allegiance to his own narrative, an allegiance characteristic of human life as it had always been known. It is thus not Western culture that has become fragmented – there are still many intelligent people that hold on to the Western Christian narrative. Indeed, were the narrative itself to be truly fragmented, it would cease to be a narrative altogether. Rather it is a growing number of individuals who have become fragmented.  And as they have done so, they have not surprisingly felt further and further away from G-d.




When Abraham Lincoln warned pre-Civil War America that “a house divided against itself will not stand,” it was really a rhetorical flourish. A nation can generally be subdivided into several nations or at least provide greater autonomy for certain subgroups or regions. In that sense, most nations are not organic units like the Mishkan but rather amalgamations of subunits, combined together for certain purposes. But what Lincoln exaggeratedly said about a nation is certainly true about a person – a person divided against him or herself cannot stand. It is, after all, not for naught that the Mishkan has been compared to a human being.




Jews have not traditionally claimed that only they have access to Divine inspiration. Nonetheless, such inspiration requires wholeness. And to the extent that such wholeness is becoming a thing of the past among Western elites, that society is truly in danger of losing its critical connection with G-d.




Is the Orthodox Jewish intellectual in better shape? To the extent that he or she has lost primary allegiance to the Jewish narrative, the answer must also be no. Perhaps even more so than for their non-Jewish colleagues. For even if post-modern academia is willing to admit a bias, that bias is not to be Jewish. It was only 2002 when Robert Bellah could, I believe correctly, point out that “our culture has always been Protestant to the bone and still is. Catholics and Jews [who participate in it] have been Protestantized for a long time…”


If we think that we really have no choice if we are to be taken seriously, we should perhaps review EchadhaAm's critique ofWissenschaft der Judentumwhen he said, “that there was no sign of any attempt onthe part of Jewish scholars to controvert, this axiom of Christianinvestigators, that the historical evidence of Greek and Romanliterature is always to be accepted as against that of the Talmud andMidrashim, where the two are in conflict... [while, in fact,] theTalmudic method rests on sound foundations, the difference between that method and the Greek logic is notaccidental, ... [with] its roots in a deep-seated and fundamentaldifference of spirit between the Jews and the Greeks”.




On the one hand, it could be that this situation is simply what Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch would call the derekh Eretz, the sociological conditions in which Torah is somehow equipped to continue and flourish, as it has done in nearly every other cultural climate it has found itself. On the other hand, we should also at least consider that the current intellectual climate, though superficially more friendly and tolerant of traditional points of view, may be insidious in a sui generis way.




This is certainly not a call to ignore the rest of the world and the fascinating realm of ideas that should legitimately attract our interest. Rather, it is a call to first return home, not only physically but ideologically. Before we can criticize ourselves, we must be ourselves. For some, this may be a tall order, but without it, whatever else they have to say will simply float in mid-air, in some wraith-like form, unattached to anything because it is not rooted in anything.




Perhaps the point is best summarized by an important footnote in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations: In enumerating the important civilizations of the world, he seems ambivalent about skipping over the Jews. He points out that today “with the creation of Israel, Jews have all the accoutrements of a civilization… But,” then he asks the pointed question, “what about [Jews’] subjective identification?” In other words, when Jews don’t primarily identify with their own unwesternized worldview, they can speak Hebrew and even eat matzah until they are blue in the face; a Jewish civilization it does not equate.