October 20, 2020
Photo by Bernhard Lang/Getty Images

One of the most influential and challenging social theories of the early twenty-first century has been the idea of intersectionality. As defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary, intersectionality is “the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap or intersect.” Race, class, language, education, sexuality, age, gender, ethnicity, and culture are factors in this commonality. For most people, intersectionality seems to boil down to race and gender. In fact, the discourse among intersectionalists often involves a discussion of who qualifies, with various communities proffering their tribulations as the price of admission.

There are practical inconsistencies with intersectionality. As a friend has pointed out to me, intersectionality theorists know that being oppressed in one way does not make people less oppressive in another. For example, there are white feminists who could be racists and Blacks who could be exploitative of one another. A mature intersectionality does not just put colonialism, heteropatriarchy, and racism into a stew and valorize the individuals with the most points on their scorecard. However, not everyone is mature.

There are practical inconsistencies with intersectionality. As a friend has pointed out to me, intersectionality theorists know that being oppressed in one way does not make people less oppressive in another.

The spread of this doctrine has led many young Jews to argue for their non-whiteness, as if the American Jewish experience of the last one hundred and twenty years has caused them similar oppression. This is a dubious premise for some of us “Ellis Island generation” Jews, descendants of the millions of Eastern Europeans to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. I think that the products of that migration have been the beneficiaries of the whitest of privilege, despite the fluid and mutating nature of anti-Semitism. Then again, I can’t speak for a Bukhari or Kavkazi Jewish kid growing up in a tough neighborhood in Queens, or a Persian or Israeli child in the San Fernando Valley, or a young Russian or Ukrainian émigré in West Hollywood or Brighton Beach. They may be struggling, and the Jewish establishment needs to support them more, not that it does.

Elements of my religious and academic training make me instinctively distrust the doctrine of intersectionality. The intellectual traditions that were formative for me regard the doctrine as a dishonest way of viewing ideas and society. In turn, a false comparison can lead one group to a  distorted perception of the other, as evidenced by the projections and schisms of contemporary society.

Incompatible Ontologies

My distrust of intersectionality derives from the years that I spent at Yeshiva University in the 1970s, at a time when Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (the “Rav”) was the regnant social force. In his teachings, the Rav was fond of the expression “ontology,” meaning the nature or study of being. And the Rav’s own ontology was such that no two things were alike or altogether comparable. This view of the world, which he had inherited from his ancestors, the Rabbis of Brisk, a town in Belarus, looked at a given topic and reduced the subject to its essence. In his teaching of the Talmud, the Rav’s methodology was to discard sentiment and illusions to isolate the essence of a given problem or teaching.

One area in which the Rav was not at all reticent was in the area of interfaith dialogue; he opposed it. At that time, the Vatican had issued its proclamations forgiving the Jews for Jesus’ death. The more liberal Jewish denominations seemed to be jumping into bed with the Christians. The Reform leaders said that all Christians and Jews should sit down and build relationships. The regnant Conservative movement held back more, saying that only the clergy should dialogue, that perhaps if the laity got into the act, it would be “dangerous.”

One area in which the Rav was not at all reticent was in the area of interfaith dialogue; he opposed it.

The Rav was having none of it. In his essay “Confrontation,” he asserted that just because Esau wanted to see Jacob after long years of enmity didn’t mean that Jacob had to go. Every religion had its own ethos, its own inner nature, and these could be compared no more than people could compare their spousal relationships. The religions in America should cooperate for their mutual benefit, but to actually sit down, compare, and, inevitably, debate their ideas was a pointless endeavor.

The Rav loved America and Boston, in particular, and his favorite yom tov may have been Thanksgiving. More than most, the Rav appreciated his autonomy as an American. Yet he declared that Christianity and Judaism were “intrinsically antithetic.” In his view, “the language of faith of a particular community is totally incomprehensible to the man of a different faith community.” Hence, dialogue should only take place between religious groups at a mundane level—but not as a dialogue about the “truth claims” or objects of their faiths. The truth claims of Islam and Christianity, for instance, are that they supersede Judaism. And there really is no point in discussing that.

My more benighted opinion of interfaith dialogue was influenced by the comedian Lenny Bruce’s portrayal of “Religions, Incorporated.” That routine depicts the religious leaders of his era—such as Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, the Pope, and Rabbi Steven Wise—sitting down to divide up the spiritual landscape of America like struggling theatrical agents in dusty offices off of Broadway. Whether one followed Lenny Bruce or the Rav, the recognition of potential corruption was the same.

Later, as a graduate student in the history of religion, I found another application for this point of view. My primary field was Kabbalah, or, as we called it, “Jewish mysticism.” William James coined the very idea of a universal kind of mysticism in his work ”The Varieties of Religious Experience,” which was based on a series of lectures that he gave at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902. James was followed by a number of scholars, such as Evelyn Underhill, R.C. Zaehner, Jacques Mauritain, and many others. The idea of universal mysticism—a creaturely human experience that was the same cross-culturally—began to take on a rather Christian template over time, until, finally, Aldous Huxley advanced the idea that one could attain this experience through the use of drugs such as LSD.

I was leery of this trend and, thankfully, found a rebbe in Professor Steven Katz, currently at Boston University, and his community of scholars. Over the course of several volumes, Katz maintained that people were different and religions were different, with varying structures and dissimilar objects and goals to which they aspired. The intense religious experience of a Catholic, therefore, was not necessarily the same as that of a Buddhist or a kabbalist. Religions were distinct, and their mysticisms—their most intense religious experiences—were distinct as well, so that there was not a universal core of “mysticism.” Rather, there was only the most intense experience of each religion, which was its particular mysticism. I preferred this view; it seemed to me to be how the Rav would consider the subject. In recent years, my friend Boaz Huss, a professor at Ben Gurion University, has advanced the idea that there is no Jewish “mysticism.” Instead, he asserts that there are merely a set of esoteric traditions that don’t fit into the “cross-cultural model of mysticism” at all.

Unique and Sacred to Itself

I suspect that the Rav would have been skeptical of intersectionality, although he was conceptually open to many philosophical trends in America. The elevation of oppression as an organizing principle would probably have seemed too broad. The concerns of women in academia, trans people in the third world, and Black people on the streets of America are distinct and nuanced, with different levels of pain and safety. I believe that the Rav would have said that their ontic natures were different. Every comparison could be an act of violence to the integrity of the initial phenomenon. The same would go for comparing the Shoah to American slavery. The memory of each atrocity is unique to itself, sacred to its descendants and taboo to the outside world.

Every comparison could be an act of violence to the integrity of the initial phenomenon.

In a contemporary application, the current “Black Lives Matter” movement seems to inspire, on the part of American Jews, a need to subjectivize, appropriate, compare, and generally feed the topic into the Great Jewish Word Machine. One only needs to review the archives of this publication or scour social media for examples of this phenomenon. In fact, it would be better to hear the problem for what it is, namely that the Black experience in America is sui generis. It is not time for the Jewish community to jump on the bandwagon and offer, unsolicited, their take on the matter, how it relates to the Jewish experience, and how that experience is really comparable. Frankly, until American Jews are at risk of being seized and killed by the police, the respective Jewish and Black experiences will remain different.

The better and more difficult task would be to listen to—and act on behalf of—the Black community to respect the special nature and ethos of a different community’s real problems. It is better to not be distracted by any ancillary concerns that don’t directly protect a Black teenager who wants to walk home at night, a young woman driving to a new job as a college administrator, someone sitting in their own home and minding their own business, or any other victims of police impunity and internal culture.

To paraphrase the words of the Hasidic rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, “If I am myself because you are you, then neither of us is ourselves, but if I am I because I am I and you are you because you are you, then I am myself and you are yourself.” The perverse, spontaneous recrudescence of anti-Semitism in America is a unique phenomenon, comparable to nothing else. The same is true of white supremacy’s irruption as a unifying social force in the early part of this century. With regards to supporting the Black community in this present hour of travail, Jews may find, in the short term, that the best response is to listen and the best tikkun is silence.

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