Philosophers and their religious practices, part 5 – The ethics and justice of mitzvot
March 20, 2015 — 15:38

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 0

This is the fifth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3 and 4. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.

The fifth interview is with Anya Topolski, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Leuven.

Can you tell me something about your academic position, and about your current religious affiliation/self-identification – please feel free to say something about your religious upbringing or history, or anything else that might be relevant to your current religious affiliation.

I am finishing a 3 1/2 year post-doc with the FWO (Research Institute of Flanders, Belgium). I am a political philosopher with research in ethics, gender, and Jewish thought. My post doc investigates the European political history/usage of the term Judeo-Christianity in relation to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. This is my first full post-doc, my previous post-doc was cut short by my maternity leave and the opportunity to start my current post-doc. I am 38 and have had four children so, in comparison, to my colleagues, am quite delayed in my goal to get tenure.

As far as my current religious affiliation the short answer is I am a practicing progressive (also known as reform or liberal – therefore non-orthodox) Jew living in Europe. The latter is important as I was born in Canada and being Jewish in Europe is very different than in North America both existentially and with regard to religious practice. Reform Judaism in Europe is closer to conservative Judaism in North America, i.e., Jews in Europe go between completely non-practicing (what Christian mainstream identifies as secular) to conservative with regard to rituals (because of the minority feeling) which is not the case in Canada where there is more choice and less complex history with regard to Jews as minorities.

I myself have become more practicing since moving to Belgium in 2000, this also due to having children. I regularly attend and am an active member of my liberal synagogue in Brussels. My children attend weekly Hebrew school. I had an interfaith wedding with two priests and two rabbis, and my children have had bris/simchat bat ceremonies and my eldest son had his first communion last year. For my parents this is scary and surprising. They are not practicing as they were persecuted for being Jewish, having to flee Poland in 1968, as were my grandparents, who were Shoah survivors, so they think its crazy and dangerous that I have returned to Europe and outwardly/publicly identify as a Jew.

Practicing means for me following certain rituals and has nothing to do with belief, i.e., observing the sabbath, studying Torah, eating kosher (according to reform not orthodox rules), raising my kids and living according to ethics and justice of mitzvot.

Could you say a bit about these practices (and perhaps also about how they differ between reform and orthodox forms of Judaism? You say they have nothing to with belief – I am intrigued about this and would like to hear more.

What I’ve realised since moving to Europe is that there are less distinctions between different denominations of Judaism in continental Europe, it seems here there is just orthodox or not-orthodox and in Belgium this means state support/recognition or no state support/recognition.

In North America there are many more denominations with large followings, especially with regard to reform Judaism which is the largest group, and with which I identify. The other groups are different kinds of orthodoxism (e.g. haredi, modern orthodox etc), conservative Judaism, reconstructionism, reform, secular etc. In my opinion Judaism is a religion of praxis in this way similar to Islam and also to more traditional Catholics. What you believe is a great dinner table topic but not as important as what you do, what you eat, what commandments you follow, do you keep the sabbath, do you celebrate the holidays etc..

In Canada, I was a reform Jew before but less practicing. Now in Europe I find myself keeping sabbath, not mixing milk and meat, not eating pork or shell fish, etc. and being much more engaged in struggles for inclusion, equality and justice with respect to gender, racism and Israel. For me the most important mitzvot is justice, tzedakah, which I have written about academically with regard to Spinoza and which is sadly now misunderstood, partially due to the influence of Christian society, as charity. If you find this interesting take a look at my paper on it.

Coming back to denominations, the differences are on how the practice is to be actualised. According to the orthodox we must follow the law quite literally even if this is impossible since the majority of laws have to do with a temple that does not exist. For the conservatives, tradition transforms and updates the laws, for reform and reconstruction Judaism, which are explicit in their views on belief as secondary to action, ethics is the core business of the mitzvot or laws and they aim at inclusiveness. This is also the case for gender, there is explicit equality of gender, sexuality etc for non-orthodox Judaism (conservative, reform and reconstruction) but not for the orthodox – at least not the Ashkenazi orthodox.

 Could you explain in more detail for our readers about your ideas about the justice mitzvah?

 Mitzvot are the 613 commandments in the Torah, they are laws and rules Jews should uphold/practice. They contain a variety of types such as ethical rules, dietary rules, purity rules, gender rules, sacrifice/temple rules. There is also a 614th commandment, don’t allow Hitler a posthumous victory (keep actively being Jewish after the Shoah) that is very important for many Jews although it’s obviously not biblical. Reform Jews often only follow the ethical mitzvot/good deeds. The central one of these is tzedakah – which translates as both justice and charity. I interpret this in more political terms to mean something like what we would now call global justice, it involves redistribution of food/land /money, involves equal rights and responsibilities, hospitality for the stranger, widow, orphan. It is a principle that guides my daily life, my political activism ( as well as my intellectual pursuits. Here is a brief description in a piece I wrote about this.

More substantially, the fundamental principle is that charity and justice are co-constitutive and that tzedakah is a fundamental political responsibility. The disadvantaged have the right to be assisted and all have the obligation to assist them. Tzedakah is not a form of philanthropy; it is a responsibility of all members of a community. In this vein, it also appeals to an egalitarian ethic as all members of a community are entitled to equal dignity and opportunities. In its original notion, tzedakah, was an agrarian based economic theory of just distribution, a commentary of the political necessity of debt relief, and a means to attain political stability

Could you comment on any other aspects in which your following Jewish practices informs your philosophical work, either directly, or indirectly (e.g., work habits and keeping the sabbath?).

I can think of three concrete ways in which Judaism affects my work.

  1. The first is what you mentioned, keeping the sabbath. Although I often fail – I do very much try to turn off my computer from Friday night until Saturday late afternoon. While I keep my phone on – and hence am tempted by work – I try my best to make the sabbath friend/family/me time and if at all possible I do not read/write emails or do any work. I also realised how much this helps me feel refreshed and ready to get back to work on Sunday, I think it also prevents me from being a total workaholic (the problem of course is that as an academic I love my job and even more problematic I still feel like I am trying to care for the world (tikkun olam) via my research) and to remember that my priority is to my friends and family.
  2. Because of my self-imposed Jewish dietary restrictions, I often do not (and if I do I appear high maintenance) eat at conference dinners since most often (in Belgium) the meat option is pork and there is mixing of milk-meat. Thank goodness there are more and more vegetarians and vegans who help me seem less high maintenance.
  3. The third is the most substantial. The content of my research is driven by the ethics I was taught as a Jew – never in positive terms, justice, inclusion and equality for all. My doctorate/first book is on two post-Shoah Jewish phenomenologists, Arendt and Levinas, and aims to develop a post-Shoah political ethics explicitly inspired by what I define as the Judaic – Jewish thought (I don’t use the word philosophy as that is part of the Greek tradition).

My first post-doc was on post-genocide research related to Srebrenica and again an explicit link was drawn to the horrific crimes of dehumanisation both during the Shoah and in Srebrenica. My current research is on the relationship between antisemitism and islamophobia and specifically the race-religion constellation in European thought/history.

Many thanks to Anya Topolski for this interview!

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