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“There is No Self Without Its Relations”: A Review of Judith Butler, _Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism_

March 24th, 2013

There Is No Self Without Its Relations[1]: A review of Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. 256 pages. $27.95. Yitzhak Lewis It seems timely to review this book around the holiday of Passover. The celebration of freedom at the heart of this holiday has always resonated with another question; a question regarding the price others pay for our own redemption. The Talmud[2] famously wonders what God was doing while the Israelites were singing on the far side of the Red Sea: the Heavenly Hosts wished to sing His praises, but He did not allow them. “My creations are drowning in the sea and you want to sing!?” God admonishes them, at least in the imagination of the Rabbis. We might understand other contemporary writers such as Peter Beinart[3] and Jeff Goldberg[4] as suggesting that, at least in the eyes of American Jews, Israel today no longer hears the resonating force of this admonishment[5]. Butler’s book is a powerful injunction to hear this divine admonishment of the angels, and a difficult questioning of what it might mean for us humans. Thus, her stated project in this book is to elaborate a Jewish ethics that takes as its point of departure the demand for a relation to the non-Jew. Butler does not beat around the bush. For her this resonance is nowhere stronger than in the history of relations between political Zionism and the Palestinian people.  She leaps right in to an analysis of the impossibilities of conversation (and translation) this palimpsestic discursive field suffers from in contemporary Jewish-American debate. This discursive impossibility has very real political consequences, she explains in the introduction and first chapter. But in order to elaborate the mechanisms of discourse and their relation to political reality, a clear definition of the terms of debate must be set out. Butler does this clearly and elegantly, delimiting her book’s scope to the clash between political Zionism on the one hand and on the other hand both the Palestinians and a tradition of liberal-Jewish ethics. This dual clash only highlights the very timely observation of a deep connection between a Jewish ethical discourse and the lived political reality of contemporary Palestine/Israel. In this sense, while the book is titled “Parting Ways”, its more powerful argument in fact suggests a conjoining of ways, between the present political situation in Palestine/Israel and the present discursive situation of Jewish ethics. If in the first chapters it seems to a contemporary American Jewish reader that this book attempts to see things “from their point of view" (a worthy goal to be certain, but beside the stated aim of the book), it is due perhaps to certain affective triggers that mine the field of debate; terms such as "settler colonialism", "illegal land confiscation", "dispossession", "colonial expansionism", “Israel’s right to exist” and more, which abound in the first two chapters. But Butler soon leaves these terms behind and in chapter 3 begins an attempt, by no means less harsh, critical or indeed less affectively poignant, to see things “from the outside”, from outside the dialectics of “us and them” within which all the concepts she criticizes continue to circulate (retribution-self defense, legitimacy-illegitimacy, etc.). This attempt continues through her reading of major 20th century Jewish thinkers mainly including Emanuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber and Primo Levi, alongside prominent Palestinian writers Edward Said and Mahmud Darwish. Butler’s general effort is the search for a Jewish ethics of cohabitation. Yet her central contribution to the particular Jewish debate about Palestine/Israel may be presented as follows: To the extent that Zionism is a European "Modern Jewish Movement" (like Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Ultra-Orthodox, to name only the largest) – that is, an ideology of Jewish identity as group identity, with its own answers to questions such as the role of religion in (any) nation state, the right relation of Jews to non-Jews, the right relation of Jews to a non-monarchical sovereign power, the place of Jews in history, messianism, the relation of religion to the public sphere or of Jewish law to state law and indeed the very conceptualization of Jewish practice as law – to the extent that Zionism is an ideology defined by its answers to such questions, the critique of Zionism from a liberal Jewish perspective (a perspective inseparable from the emergence of these same Modern Jewish Movement) is predetermined to proceed along the lines of these questions. And indeed Butler's book does just that. But to the extent that political Zionism has much invested in its self-articulation as a super-category capable of subsuming any such Movement, Butler provides an invaluable service to the debate about the State of Israel by demonstrating that its logic (the logic of political Zionism) runs along the very same lines of questioning. The first contribution is thus to demonstrate that a liberal Jewish position is as much political as it is ethical, and that political Zionism is as much an ethical configuration as it is a political idea. To level the discursive field in that way is hopefully an effort that will enable new conversations. And yet there is the sense that of all such Modern Jewish Movements this book directs its argument particularly towards a secular Jewish reader. This is first suggested in Butler's insistence that a secular Jew is not a contradiction in terms[6]. It continues through the book’s lack of engagement with the central modes of reasoning and preferred resources of tradition such as the ethical demands of the biblical prophets (a major textual tradition for the Reform movement); the elevation of practice to "law" through the social construction of communities (a central critique of Jewish Law by the Conservative movement); the external divine obligation that precedes any demand "coextensive with the self"[7] (certainly an Orthodox tenet, at least since Rabbi Soloveichik). In this sense Butler's book makes an even greater effort and contribution in that it puts forth a strong argument that within the realm of Jewishness, "secular" is not coextensive with "Zionist". Liberalism will always insert its ethical demands between these two, argues Butler; a demand that is as internal to Jewish textual traditions as it is external to any particular political setting. It is here that the book’s second stated project is most pertinent: "envisaging a polity after Zionism"[8]. But if we take Zionism to be an overly particularistic political ideology (we might say ethnic nationalism, as opposed to liberal nationalism) than there is no need to envisage a polity after Zionism, such liberal-democratic polities exist in many places. Are we then referring to envisaging a Jewish polity after Zionism, or perhaps envisaging an Israeli polity after Zionism? The original omission here risks the blurring of precisely the terms Butler wishes to parse: Judaism and Israel – or as the fifth chapter is titled, “Is Judaism Zionism?” What are we attempting to envisage? A polity in the geographical territory today known as Palestine/Israel, which will succeed the political Zionist project of the State of Israel (namely a one-state solution)? Or an ideal polity in the realm of a textual-tradition-based Jewish ethics (namely a Jewish ethics of cohabitation)? The challenge, it seems, is to do both. In that sense Butler's intellectual effort truly lives up to her stated project: envisaging a polity that espouses the universalism of liberal ideology through a particularly Jewish ethical demand. This attempt to envisage departs from the common aporia of debates about the dual (Jewish-democratic) nature of the State of Israel in two significant ways. First, it attempts to go beyond the particularistic discussion of Jewish demographics that such debates are often reduced to. It does so by abstracting the discussion from the realm of politics (how may one behave) to the realm of ethics (how aught one behave). Second, it attempts to go beyond the universality of Judaism, the limited nature of which is revealed precisely through its encounter with the "democratic" in Israel's Declaration of Independence, as (in chapters 1 and 2) through its encounter with the Other in Levinasian philosophy. For “Jewish” and “Judaism” Butler substitutes "Jewishness", understood as a personal formation containing both the particularity of an historical-textual tradition and the universal ethical-philosophical demand it embodies. In her reading of Walter Benjamin’s texts (chapters 3 and 4) Butler highlights another internal contradiction in "Jewish-democratic" that goes even further still. If a Jewish polity cannot be based on Jewish demographics nor on a universalistic Judaism, it can equally not be based on Jewish Law. Not, as it has been understood, because this would stand in opposition to the operation of any democratic legislature, but because, as she maintains following her reading of Benjamin, "Jewish law is more generally decidedly not punitive" [9]. As such, even biblical injunctions such as "thou shall not kill" (Benjamin's example) cannot be effectively translated into the liberal language of democracy. To be sure, this language lacks no justification for a punitive enforcement of such a law. But as far as Jewish Law is concerned, "Benjamin evokes the commandment as mandating only that an individual struggle with the ethical edict communicated by the imperative"[10].  In that sense, perhaps paradoxically, Jewish Law becomes inseparable from any idea of a Jewish polity. It is not a set of religious practices in opposition to secular democratic procedures, nor is it an arcane structure of social organization that has been outdated and replaced by rational enlightened social structures - it is an a-historical and (in its logic) not politically determined personal ethical imperative. Indeed the place of this imperative and the persons that it binds is laid out in Butler’s in-depth discussion of Arendt’s critique of the nation state (chapter 5) and sovereignty (chapter 6). One broader question that arises throughout the book is the changing nature of both the Zionist project and the thinkers Butler refers to throughout the 20th century. Buber's weariness of political Zionism, for instance, was certainly different before and after WWII, and his letter to Ghandi[11] (perhaps a watershed moment in his own political formation) would indicate this. Equally, Arendt's critique of the nation state and state violence, which receives new nuances with every new development, from her early membership in Zionist circles, through WWII to the Eichmann trial and the war of '67. Certainly the political position of Herzl in 1897 was quite different from that of Ben-Gurion in 1948, and still different from those of Olmert in 2006 or Netanyahu in 2009 in their respective wars. The thinkers Butler discusses, and her own criticism, ring true in important ways for each of these moments. But her sustained and honed argument is blunted by the lack of intellectual-historical nuance: is not the assumption that, for instance, the critique of Herzl’s 1879 politics is neatly translatable to the 2006 war in Lebanon not in some sense an affirmation of precisely the kind of introverted historical over-determinacy that Butler wishes to replace with a notion of cohabitation? One response would be that the lack of such critique in 2006 is precisely what this book decries. Another response would be that the conversation introduced between Jewishness and the texts of Said and Darwish in chapter 8 demonstrate the alternative: synchronic cohabitation rather than diachronic bifurcations. Throughout the book, Butler demonstrates the persistent relevance of Said's thought to the questions (to the intertwinings) of conceiving Palestine and Jewishness. And her sensitive readings of Darwish in chapters 1 and 8 (which one is left wishing there were more of) demonstrate the force of her conceptualization of Jewish ethics. To go beyond the ethical; if this book contains a political suggestion it is not one of an operative, but rather of a putative nature: that is, it does not propose a "road map" (as the popular progress-oriented future-looking metaphor would have it) but a shift in the "now-time" of how we think certain categories. This turns out to be a far more ambitious, delicate and complex project. Butler attempts to reconfigure the way we think about and through major categories: time, history, remembrance, atonement, retribution, self, other, legitimacy, violence, law, nations and more. This new configuration, perhaps the right word is constellation, is what she ultimately would like to name: Jewishness. And, if successful, then, seen through this kaleidoscopic configuration a Jewish ethics emerges, one which demands (as did Said) that we ask: "perhaps two exilic peoples might establish principles of social justice on the basis of their converging and resonant histories of dispossession"[12].  

[1] Quote from p. 98
[2] Tractate Megilah 10b
[3] See: Peter Beinart. The Crisis of Zionism.Times Books, 2012
[4] For example in a recent interview with Haaretz, where he suggests the insurmountable gap between Obama's formation through liberal American Judaism vs. Netanyahu's formation in light of his own father's – historian Benzion Netanyahu – ideology:
[5] See also CJL’s own alum. Jason Rubenstein’s article in the Times of Israel:
[6] p. 35
[7] p. 41
[8] p. 33
[9] p. 74
[10] p. 74
[11] Can be found here:
[12] p. 113

Public Panel: Law and Identity in Comparative Perspective: Reflections on Debra Kaplan’s _Beyond Expulsion: Jews, Christians, and Reformation Strasbourg_

March 24th, 2013

How does law shape communal identity and foster group solidarity? Join us as we host a public panel devoted to this theme in Debra Kaplan's recent book, Beyond Expulsion: Jews, Christians, and Reformation Strasbourg (Stanford University Press, 2011). According to  Professor Kaplan, laws promulgated in 16th-century Strasbourg limiting contact between Christians and Jews were not intended to govern practice but rather to construct communal identity. In order to facilitate comparative discussion of this theme, panelists will reflect on the role of law in constructing group identity in other contexts, including international law, American Constitutional law, and contemporary Zionism. Panelists: Debra Kaplan, Dr. Pinkhos Churgin Memorial Associate Professor of Jewish History, Yeshiva University Alexander Kaye, Tikvah Post-Doctoral Fellow in Jewish Thought, Princeton University Jeremy K. Kessler, Legal History Fellow and JD/PhD Candidate, Yale Law School and Yale History Department Joseph Weiler, University Professor and European Union Jean Monnet Chair, NYU Law School Date: Sunday, April 21, 6-8pm Location: Cardozo Law School, 55 Fifth Avenue To RSVP, email or call 212-790-0258

Review of Thiessen, _Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity_

March 20th, 2013

Review of Matthew Thiessen, Contesting Conversion:  Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011. 256 pages. $65.00 By Jon Kelsen In Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity, Matthew Thiessen argues that while for the rabbis, circumcision signifies conversion into the covenant (and thus, male converts to Judaism must be circumcised), this is decidedly not the case for the Hebrew Bible. Rather, contends Thiessen,  it is not at all clear from pre-rabbinic sources that circumcision was understood as a means of conversion into the Abrahamic covenant and the people Israel. If anything, the opposite is the case: texts such as Genesis 17 serve to demonstrate that the circumcision of an adult non-Israelite does not serve to enter that adult into the covenant. This position lasted into the early centuries of the common era, and underlies some core Gospel texts treating the status of the Law for Gentile followers of Jesus. In chapter 1, Thiessen focuses on Genesis  chapter 17, and especially verse 14, and contends that the goal of the circumcision legislation  articulated therein  is to mark Isaac as Abraham’s sole covenantal heir. This is to the exclusion of Ishmael, despite the fact that both sons are circumcised. This is because the conversion performed on Ishmael when he is thirteen years old is utterly distinct in kind from the circumcision performed on the eight  day old Isaac. Given the proximity of his circumcision to his birth, Isaac is for all symbolic intents and purposes born circumcised; he is essentially  ‘born into’ the covenant, rather than entering it later in life.  Being circumcised at thirteen (or ninety-nine, for that matter, as in the case of Abraham himself), is simply too late: to accept the circumcised into the covenant at that point would be to accept him qua convert, a possibility the Hebrew Bible actively rejects.  (A textual rub for Thiessen is the absence of any temporal parameters for the circumcision in the masoretic text’s version of  Gen 17:14; he therefore spends considerable effort demonstrating the priority of witnesses to an alternate version of the verse in the Septuagint, Jubilees, and perhaps the Dead Sea Scrolls, which do indeed include reference to the eighth day in the verse). In chapter  2, the author continues his survey of sources regarding adult circumcision in the Hebrew Bible, finding no source which “portrays circumcision as a ritual through which non-Israelites can become Israelites.” (pg. 43) In chapter three, he argues that it was only during the Hasmonean period that some Jews began to believe that Gentiles could become Jews via a process which included circumcision of male Gentiles. In response to such innovative conceptions of theology and identity, the book of Jubilees “links law observance inextricably with birth and therefore with genealogy, insisting that eight-day circumcision is the principal indicator of Jewish identity…[by stressing the eight-day timing of covenenantal circumcision, Jubilees] excludes the possibility that second-century B.C.E. Gentiles can become  part of Jacob’s seed.” (pg. 85)  In chapter four, Thiessen argues that such a conception of Jewish identity persisted into the second century C.E. Contrary to Shaye Cohen’s contention that “by the time of the Maccabbees, conversion, ritually defined as circumcision, is securely in place…” (from Shaye Cohen, "Conversion to Judaism in Historical Perspective: From Biblical Israel to Postbiblical Judaism," Conservative Judaism 36.4 (1983): 42; cited in Thiessen, pg. 110),  Thiessen insists that some Jews even during the beginning of the common era still denied the possibility of Gentiles becoming Jews. Thiessen focuses on the example of the Idumeans, who practiced conversion and nonetheless were not accepted by all Jews as members of the tribe. In chapter five, Thiessen applies his thesis to an innovative reading of Christian Scripture. Much classic scholarship has read Luke-Acts (and the figure of Paul as narrated therein) as abrogating the force of Jewish law and the necessity of circumcision for entering the Abrahamic covenant. In Thiessen’s reading, however, Luke is a more conservative document, maintaining the ancient genealogical definition of Jewishness. “Even after Jesus’ death and resurrection…God has not entirely eradicated the differences between Jews and Gentiles.” (pg. 141)  This coheres with Luke- Acts’ emphasis on eighth-day circumcision (see Luke 1-2 and Acts 7,  21). The reason  Luke’s Paul does not insist that Gentiles circumcise themselves is because they have ‘missed the date;’ circumcision performed after the eighth day does not result in entry into the ethnicity Israel, and as such would be meaningless  for them.  In other words, the author of Luke retains the ancient  conception of Israelite/Jewish identity which denies the possibility of  adult conversion.  The  ambitious claim  that Gentiles can  receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and enter into a joint community with Jews  is a crucial one, but is not to be confused with a claim that Gentiles can become Jews. As a student of rabbinic literature, I find Thiessen’s strict distinction between eighth-day and later circumcisions to be especially intriguing. While rabbinic law does acknowledge the possibility of conversion into Judaism (whenever that notion began and was crystallized,  it is certainly taken for granted in the Mishnah and later sources), the distinction between eighth-day  circumcision and circumcisions performed later is retained by the rabbis.  While circumcision performed  'bi-zmanah' (in its time, i.e., on the eighth day) trumps  observance of Shabbat,  circumcisions which were delayed thereafter (because the child was jaundiced and it was deemed dangerous to perform the circumcision on the eighth day, for example) do not  trump Shabbat (see for example TB Shabbat 24b).  Might this distinction be  a distant echo  of the emphasis on eighth-day circumcision and its utter distinction in kind from later circumcisions, as implied in early sources such as Jubilees? Overall, the book is well-organized and promotes a clearly articulated and thought-provoking thesis. It is a worthwhile read for students of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, as well as rabbinic literature.

Conference on “Shaping Legal Cultures from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages”

March 11th, 2013

The University of Pennsylvania will be hosting a one-day conference on "Shaping Legal Cultures from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages." From the press release:
This one day conference will explore ways in which region affected the “packaging” of legal traditions within disparate cultures that flourished in geographic contiguity between the sixth and the twelfth centuries. Students of late Roman, Sassanian, Byzantine, Jewish, Islamic and Christian canon law will consider how their respective traditions of law were shaped by such extra-legal phenomena as patronage networks, institutions, circumstances of material production, compositional choices, modes of disseminating law and jurisprudential theories. By facilitating awareness of the regionalism of certain formative, extra-legal factors, this cross-cultural collaboration should stimulate new avenues of historical research. WHAT: "Shaping Legal Cultures from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages: Institutions, Genres, and Theories in Roman, Jewish, Sassanian, Christian, and Islamic Law" WHEN: Sunday, April 7, 2013, 9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. WHERE: Cohen Hall, Terrace Room, 249 South 36th Street, Philadelphia Graduate students from outside the Philadelphia area may be eligible for a modest transportation stipend. Those interested should contact Chrissy Walsh at for further information. To find out more information on the event, click on link: 

Summer Workshop in Philosophy, Hebrew Scripture, and Midrash at Shalem

March 11th, 2013

The Institute for Advanced Studies at the Shalem Center will be holding a Summer Workshop in Philosophy, Hebrew Scripture and Midrash. From the call for applications:
The Institute for Advanced Studies at the Shalem Center, July 17-25, 2013  The Institute for Advanced Studies at the Shalem Center will hold its first Summer Workshop in Philosophy, Hebrew Scripture and Midrash in Jerusalem from July 17-25, 2013. Up to 15 graduate students and recent PhDs will be accepted to the program, which will be conducted in English by Institute scholars. Participants will attend seminars on philosophical issues in Hebrew Bible and Midrash (classical rabbinic stories), present their own research, and visit historic sites in Jerusalem.  As part of the Workshop, participants will take part in the fourth annual international conference in the “Philosophical Investigation of the Hebrew Scriptures, Talmud and Midrash.”  Invited speakers at this conference include Ronna Burger, Lenn Goodman, Yoram Hazony, Alan Mittleman, Kenneth Seeskin, Shmuel Trigano and Roslyn Weiss. Workshop participants will stay on in Jerusalem and to participate in this conference, which will give them the opportunity to interact with leading figures in the field and to further develop their thoughts and ideas together with a greater community of scholars.  Assistance with travel expenses and accommodation is available. In addition, all participants will receive meals, free registration for the conference, and a modest stipend.   To apply, please send a 1-2 page letter of introduction describing your interest in the program, a recent CV, and a writing sample of up to 20 pages.    The application deadline is April 1, 2013.  Please send all application materials and inquiries to Meirav Jones on

Conference on “Religious Legal Theory” at Touro

March 8th, 2013

The Touro Law Center will be hosting this year's conference on "Religious Legal Theory" from April 10-12, 2013. From the conference description:
The conference was designed to bring together national legal scholars to explore ways in which religious thought might help illuminate law and legal theory ... This year’s conference theme is “Religious Legal Theory – Expanding the Conversation” and includes topics such as Religion and the Practice of Law, Media Perspectives on Law and Religion, Religion and the Laws of War, among others.
For the schedule, click here.

Articles of interest from law review volume on “Constitutionalism, Ancient and Modern”

March 5th, 2013

The latest issue of the Cardozo Law Review -- recently ranked as #23 for best law journal in the United States -- is devoted to "Constitutionalism, Ancient and Modern." Among other very rich articles, readers of the CJL blog might be particularly interested in Melissa S. Lane, "Lifeless Writings or Living Script? The Life of Law in Plato, Middle Platonism, and Jewish Platonizers," and Arthur J. Jacobson, "Job's Justice." Those interested in the nexus between religion and constitutionalism in the contemporary context should take a look at Ran Hirschl, Constitutional Theocracy, which includes much worthwhile discussion about constitutionalism in the State of Israel.