Judith Butler on deriving principles from a Jewish cultural tradition

“What gives a tradition legitimacy is very often what works against its effectiveness. To be effective, a tradition must be able to depart from the particular historical circumstances of its legitimation and prove applicability to new occasions of time and space. In a sense, such resources can only become effective by losing their grounding in historical or textual precedent….” — Judith Butler

Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of ZionismOur highlighted book this week is Judith Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. You can enter our giveaway for a chance to win a FREE copy!

Today we have part of the introduction of Parting Ways. In this excerpt, Butler explains “what it means to derive a set of principles from a cultural tradition” and then applies this explanation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can read the introduction to Parting Ways in it’s entirety on Scribd.

To Derive a Set of Principles

Let us reflect first on what it means to derive a set of principles from a cultural tradition and then move to the larger political issues at hand. As I noted, to say that principles are “derived” from Jewish resources raises the question of whether these principles remain Jewish once they are developed within a contemporary situation, assuming new historical forms? Or are they principles that can and must be, always have been, derived from various cultural and historical resources, thus “belonging” exclusively to none of them? In fact, does the generalizability of theprinciples in question depend fundamentally on their finally not belonging to any one cultural location or tradition from which they may have emerged? Does this nonbelonging, this exile, help to constitute the generalizability and transposability of the principles of justice and equality?

If such principles are derived from Jewish sources, others might conclude that they are Jewish values originally, fundamentally, even finally. It follows from that argument that one must look to that religious, secular, or historical set of traditions to understand those values, at which point Jewishness becomes a privileged cultural resource, and the Jewish framework remains the only or at least the privileged one by which to think the problem of cohabitation and even binationalism. We thus fail to depart from the exclusive cultural framework of Jewishness. And this has especially contradictory and unacceptable conclusions of we are trying to think about equality and justice in Israel/Palestine.

Even as such a conclusion is unacceptable, there seems to be no easy way around this paradox. One point, however, already seems clear: equality, justice, cohabitation, and the critique of state violence can only remain Jewish values if they are not exclusively Jewish values. This means that the articulation of such values must negate the primacy and exclusivity of the Jewish framework, must undergo its own dispersion. Indeed, as I hope to show, that dispersion is a condition of possibility for thinking justice, a condition we would do well to remember during these times. One might say, “ah, dispersion—a Jewish value! Derived from messianic scattering and other theological figures for diaspora! You attempt to depart from Jewishness, but you cannot!” If, however, the question of the ethical relation to the non-Jew has become definitive of what is Jewish, then we cannot capture or consolidate what is Jewish in this relation. Relationality displaces ontology, and it is a good thing, too. The point is not to stabilize the ontology of the Jew or of Jewishness, but rather to understand the ethical and political implications of a relation to alterity that is irreversible and defining and without which we cannot make sense of such fundamental terms as equality or justice. Such a relation, which is surely not singular, will be the obligatory passage beyond identity and nation as defining frameworks. It establishes the relation to alterity as constitutive of identity, which is to say that the relation to alterity interrupts identity, and this interruption is the condition of ethical relationality. Is this a Jewish notion? Yes and no.

Of course, the rejoinder to such a position is usually that the Jews cannot survive in dispersion, that what I have offered as a Jewish/non-Jewish approach to ethics would imperil the Jews. But ethical self-departure is not the same as self-annihilation or even risking annihilation. This argument can be effectively countered in several ways. First, nothing risks courting aggression more than instituting, through violent means, modes of colonial subjugation that deny the subjugated population basic rights of self-determination. Second, not only is there substantial evidence that dispersion is the mode in which Jews have in fact survived, but the idea that dispersion is a threat to Jews that must be overcome often relies on the notion that “dispersion” is a form of exile from the homeland (a condition of galut that can only be reversed through “returning” to the homeland). If dispersion is thought not only as a geographical situation but also as an ethical modality, then dispersion is precisely the principle that must be “brought home” to Israel/Palestine in order to ground a polity where no one religion or nationality may claim sovereignty over another, where, in fact, sovereignty itself will be dispersed. I will elaborate on this point later and note only for now that this was one of Edward Said’s most important political aspirations in the last years of his life.

It may seem like a paradox to establish alterity or “interruption” at the heart of ethical relations. But to know that we have first to consider what such terms mean. One might argue that the distinctive trait of Jewish identity is that it is interrupted by alterity, that the relation to the gentile defines not only its diasporic situation, but one of its most fundamental ethical relations. Although such a statement may well be true (meaning that it belongs to a set of statements that are true), it manages to reserve alterity as a predicate of a prior subject. The relation to alterity becomes one predicate of “being Jewish.” It is quite another thing to understand that very relationship as challenging the idea of “Jewish” as a static sort of being, one that is adequately described as a subject. If to “be” that subject is to have already entered into a certain mode of relationality, then the “being” gives way to a “mode of relatedness” (suggesting a way to think about Levinas in relation to Winnicott). Whether one claims that being should be rethought as a mode of relating or whether one insists that a mode of relating contests ontology is finally less important than the primacy of relationality for thinking about this problem. Moreover, the kind of relationality at stake is one that “interrupts” or challenges the unitary character of the subject, its self-sameness and its univocity. In other words, something happens to the “subject” that dislocates it from the center of the world; some demand from elsewhere lays claim to me, presses itself upon me, or even divides me from within, and only through this fissuring of who I am do I stand a chance of relating to another. If one tries to say that this is the formulation of “Jewish ethics” that is proposed in this text, one would only be partially right. It is Jewish/not Jewish, and its meaning lies precisely in that conjunctive disjunction. An understanding of this perspective, itself necessarily double, will be important to understand why a diasporic frame may be crucial for the theorization of cohabitation and binationalism, with the proviso that there can be no workable “living together” under conditions of colonial subjugation that does not ratify such a political condition. As a result, coexistence projects can only begin with the dismantling of political Zionism.

This view of diaspora also sheds some light on why it makes sense that perspectives from “elsewhere” should be brought to bear on topics that are regional. The State of Israel has established itself by expelling Palestinian populations elsewhere and even views the Jews from elsewhere as badly situated for comprehending the various reasons why colonial rule must continue in the name of democracy. The argument that no one from the outside should pass judgment on what happens there seeks to restrict whatever arguments there are within the nationalist frame of Israel. But if one looks “inside” there, one finds that the “elsewhere” is already within the regional, defining it essentially. Palestinians are both within and outside the borders of the established state; the borders themselves establish an enduring relationship to the lands and peoples they exclude and monitor. The relationship is characterized by violent dispossession, surveillance, and the ultimate control by the Israeli state over Palestinian rights to mobility, land, and political self-determination. So the relationship is cemented along these lines, and it is utterly wretched.

A similar problem emerges when we say that this idea of ethical relationality is “derived from” Jewish sources. One the one hand, this is a true statement (which is to say neither that those are the only sources from which it is derived or that such ideas are derived from no other sources). As the debate between Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor made clear, it matters whether one claims (a) that certain values are derived from religious sources and then translated into a domain of rationality considered to belong finally to no religion (Habermas) or (b) that the religious reasons we give for why we act as we do belong to certain idioms and can never be fully extracted from those discursive fields (Taylor). Whether one takes the first or the second position, it is still necessary to enter into a field of translation, since either the secular content has to be extracted through some means from the religious discourse or the religious discourse has to make itself communicable beyond the community of those who share the idiom. So even if a certain conception is “derived from” Jewish resources, it has to enter into translation in order to be more broadly communicable and for its relevance to be established outside a
communitarian frame (whether religious or national). The origins of a practice are, as Nietzsche claims, “worlds apart” from its eventual use and meaning—one important contribution of his notion of genealogy. Still, for such a crossing of worlds to become possible, a process of cultural translation is required. A certain transposition of the tradition takes place through time (indeed, without an institutionalized repetition of such transpositions, traditions cannot prevail). And this means not only that tradition is itself established through departing from itself, time and again, but that a resource only becomes “available” for ethical purposes if it first enters into a field of translation and transposability. This does not imply a translation from religious to secular discourse (where the “secular” is understood to have transcended its religious formulations), nor does it necessarily mean that it remains immanent to its own communitarian frame. Rather, it means that what begins as a “resource” upon which one draws undergoes a set of changes in the process of being drawn upon. Indeed, a certain temporal trajectory has to be undergone for a resource to become incisive or illuminating in the present; it is only through a series of displacements and transpositions that a “historical resource” comes to bear upon the present and to achieve applicability or renew its effectiveness. This temporal trajectory is at the same time spatial, since the movement from one topos to another cannot assume a single, continuous, and stable geographical ground; the movement remaps the topography itself, especially when questions of land become bound up with historical claims. What gives a tradition legitimacy is very often what works against its effectiveness. To be effective, a tradition must be able to depart from the particular historical circumstances of its legitimation and prove applicability to new occasions of time and space. In a sense, such resources can only become effective by losing their grounding in historical or textual precedent, which means that only by “ceding ground” does an ethical resource from the past come to thrive elsewhere and anew, in the midst of converging and competing ethical claims, as part of a process of cultural translation that is also a remapping of social bonds or indeed of geographical space itself.

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