A couple of months ago, I sat down with an Israeli journalist to talk about my work. It turned out that she was primarily interested in the issue of when and how “Judaism” as we more or less know it today emerged from the Israelite religion of the Bible. In the scholarly circles in which I travel, there is a loose consensus that this occurred during the “Restoration” period, beginning around 520 BCE with the building of the second temple in Jerusalem. This reformed worship of the God of Israel continued with some hiccups until the rabbinic period, when the rabbis shifted the former emphasis on sacrifice to Torah. I related this narrative to her and tried to tie it in to some of my more recent work. The interview was recently published online in Hebrew on Ynet here. I don’t know if it will be translated into English, but it does a nice job summarizing (in slightly sensationalistic form) this scholarly narrative.
I was stunned to watch this piece gather comments. Over the week it was published, according to the YNet page, the article received 565 comments; 67 Facebook comments; and 1,200 “likes.” The pace of comments has now slowed to a trickle. Much more interesting than the number of comments, though, is what they said.
Somewhere close to 90% of these comments excoriate me for ripping down Judaism. Maybe the tone of these comments is best captured in the one liner, “This is absolute heresy. The professor is a bad man.” These comments do not mention that at the end of the article I strongly separate the historical conclusions from issues of applied religion. If they made it to the end, I guess that they either did not understand what I was trying to convey or did not care.
Nor did the end of the article register with another 5% of the commenters who used the article to show either (1) that today’s rabbis are evil and that Judaism in Israel must be reformed, or, more extremely, (2) that Judaism itself is a bad and modern religion. The other 5% of the comments offered reflective thoughts that more seriously engaged the issues raised in the article.
In my own reading of the comments, I was struck by the ease with which people read this article through the lens of their own worldviews. Most of these readers approached this article with their own convictions firmly in place; their engagement with it was on the level of whether it confirmed or denied these convictions. If the latter, then its arguments and its author must be explained, put into the right cognitive “box,” and safely stored away.
I am not observing anything new. I see this kind of approach to new data and opinions all the time in the press; on partisan cable channels; on my Facebook page; and in my classroom. Psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman have discussed the cognitive mechanisms that lead to such responses. Watching it happen to me, though, in real time, was a a bit of a shock. The vast bulk of the comments said much more about the commenters than they did about the article or the ideas presented therein.
There was another take-away for me. I don’t think that an interview like this would have attracted very much notice if done in English in the U.S., even within the Jewish community. One reason, I think, is that in the U.S. “public square” we talk and think about religion very differently than they do in Israel. We have developed a civic discourse that to some extent bifurcates discussions that are consequential to religious communities from those that are about them. This, in turn, has allowed us to discuss religion in a way that does not immediately escalate into verbal brawling; it has perhaps injected enough critical distance to take the potential edge out of these types of discussions.
And that makes me wonder: If, in Israel, the more serious public discussions about religion and its relationship to the state had a tad less of an edge, might they also be a bit more productive?