Many Ways to Do the Same Thing All Over Again

There exist at least 1000 variations of the saying “there is more than one way to be Jewish.” This saying obviously is aimed against exclusivist notions of law, and normative claims of “how things should be.” It propagates a multi-facetted, individualized Judaism, one, that is supposedly more “just” and better responds to the changing conceptions of Jewish identities in a modern world. It claims to capture the “lively kernel” of Judaism, against an a-historical, stubborn, single-minded orthodoxy that turns Judaism into an empty shell. In short: It sounds intuitively good.
Things, which sound intuitively good, usually are those, which are deeply embedded in contemporary mainstream notions of “the good,” and as such, make my alarm bells ring. I will therefore take a second look at this “there is more than one way…” and point out how a thoroughly positively connoted “diversity-discourse” becomes a rhetorical means that camouflages appropriation and cultural colonization, and works towards the maintenance of existing power-relations, and not to their deconstruction and/or questioning.

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Directed against the notion of normative practice, “there is more than one way…” implies embodied practice to be an ornamental, folkloristic and voluntary addition, an “outward” performance of Judaism that has neither epistemological value, nor any bearing on issues of representation and/or membership. Similar to our deconstruction of heterosexuality as the only legitimate normative, “natural” sexual identity, we now deconstruct the notion of normative Judaism and instead, recognize diverse Jewish religious practices as equally representing the diverse facets of Judaism.
The analogy, however, is wrong: First of all, representation and recognition are always related to embodied practice, or in other words: If my entire practice, from clothing to sex to body-language, says that “I am a cisgender woman,” then I will never be able to represent, let alone to claim recognition, as anything but a cisgender woman. I can speak about other women, but I cannot claim to be part of the collective I am speaking about: When it comes to issues of legitimate representation, intellectual knowledge never substitutes embodied practice and embodied experience.
Secondly, “There is more than one way…” implies that one party, who propagates a “lenient” interpretation of the law fights for recognition against another party that adheres to a “stringent” interpretation of the law. Yet, I’d frame the conflict in wholly different terms: It is not about “chumrot” (stringencies in observance), but about the very relevance of embodied practice to begin with: if one does not need to fast in order to have a “meaningful” fast, if Shabbat is an “event,” that begins at 7pm all year long, if one does not need to see the stars through the Sukkah’s ceiling in order to reenact the “clouds of glory,” if no living water is required in order to let a new cycle begin, then the struggle is not about stringent versus lenient practices, but about the relevance of practice(s) in the first place. The fight of the “lenient” party here is not about a deconstruction of the gender-binary, or the acknowledgement of diverse sexual identities, but about the displacement of the centrality of sex/practice itself.
The “lenient” party does, in this respect, also not represent the oppressed minority, but very much the opposite: The idea, that embodied knowledge is dispensable, or at least secondary, that doing has no intrinsic relation to being, is among the primary characteristics of a Christian, specifically Protestant reading of Jewish texts. Whereas the Jewish tradition understands embodied practice as the pre-discursive, internalized foundation of identity, Protestantism regards it as a voluntary, individualized addition – which is why circumcisions are made on the 8th day of life, and baptisms require a “confirmation” at age 14, as part of a conscious decision and after a period of education. I am absolutely not saying that the one concept is “better” than the other, but it is a thoroughly different one. It is not a “lenient” version, but presupposes a wholly different ontology.[1]

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As white Europeans we are all raised in a way that assures us that we do not have to respect boundaries, and that the world should do all it can to protect our feelings. We demand to be let into any room, to be given recognition and power in those other rooms, as if the entire world owes us such recognition simply by virtue of our own self-definition. In the name of diversity, we appropriate and colonialize, and “there is more than one way to be…” is one of the countless rhetoric strategies utilized towards this end. Claiming the enlightenment our heritage and freedom our flag, we do the same thing again and again and again, coming to rest only when also the very last stubborn soul will be convinced of our “diversity’s” moral superiority.

shalom03

[1] This different ontology is, I add, also not necessarily “liberating”: A disregard and contempt of the body’s epistemological worth lies at the very heart of the strategies, that legitimize objectification and appropriation. To mention but one example: Tons of books have been written by men about women, because you do not need to be a female body, in order to know a female body and thus, can dispossess it.

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