A Modest Proposal: For the Reinstatement of the Kahal in the Diaspora

February 4, 2010

(Note: what follows is a piece I once pitched to a magazine that was rejected for publication.  I was told that it was not clear whether I was being satirical or not; apparently I argued a bit too persuasively that Jewish emancipation should be rolled back.  Well, what better venue than this one to have my piece finally seen by people?  After all, isn’t that what the internet is for i.e.  giving the non-credentialed and untalented a place to publish?  TheCiceronian’s Modes Proposal has inspired me to save my own from the dustbins of disappointment.  Hail to thee!  One point of terminology: The “Kahal” refers to the semi-autonomous Jewish communal governments of pre-modern times prior to their enfranchisement within the modern state.)

It never ceases to amaze me how easily people adopt a certain paradigm.  We accept certain truisms and our thought becomes stodgy, stifled by an unwillingness to leave convention behind.  Once, everyone knew with the greatest of certainty that the world was flat.  Not too long after that physicians thought blood-letting cured all.  Today, people have convinced themselves that we are free and autonomous individuals capable of making our own moral decisions and are endowed with certain unalienable rights.  Furthermore, these same people tell us, we should live in a non-coercive society in which the group identities of our past are freely embraced or discarded as we see fit.  What’s worse, Jews believe this kind of thing too.

Modernity has been bad for Jewish group cohesion.  Before the Emancipation of European Jewry, to be a Jew meant something tangible.  Your place of residence, the jurisdiction under which you lived, even your dress was infused with Jewish meaning.  In fact, it was simple to distinguish Jews from other populations.  Muslim and Christian ruling authorities were the first to pioneer a distinctive Jewish style, complete with special hats, garments, and patches.  Imagine the boon to Jewish material culture and creativity if we were forced to design and wear pilleus cornutus (the Jewish hat) once again.

High population density has always accompanied great Jewish civilizations.  From the biblical tribes to the shtetlekh of Eastern Europe to the Five Towns on Long Island’s south shore, Jews have always thrived in thick, intimate space.  The word “ghetto” has sadly fallen into disrepute, but designated areas of Jewish residence help solidify ideas of communal belonging and distinctiveness.  No one can accuse our brethren in Brooklyn of not knowing who they are or where they come from.

The Kahal represented (and could still represent!) the best of Jewish political sovereignty in the Diaspora.  A board of communal elders, often successful and influential leaders in business, would distribute the tax burden throughout the community.  Local Federations will no longer struggle to meet fundraising goals and individuals will be spared the anguish of deciding whether to give and if so how much.  The Kahal would also hear cases and pass judgment on civil disputes within the community.  A communal rabbi would be the single religious authority in any given place.

Furthermore, some of the most gripping and divisive questions of recent years would be readily solved.  The “Who is a Jew?” question has proven capable of producing real cleavages within the Jewish people.  Rather than gut-wrenching disputes over Jewish law and patrilineal descent, a simple bureaucratic checking of paperwork will bring all parties into accord.  The term “card-carrying Jew” will be fraught with meaning.

Today, Jews “pass” as white Americans.  There is a fluidity of identity and belonging that is troubling.  In modern times we are expected to be Jewish AND, constantly weighing and negotiating two sides of a hyphenated identity.  To reinstate the kahal would be to bring an end to our existential dilemma.  At least we will be able to bring peace of mind to some of our more anguished souls (Phillip Roth and Woody Allen come to mind).  It’s too damn hard to be a Jew in the Diaspora.  Let’s help out some of our wayward brethren by making Jewish identity a foregone conclusion.

2 Responses to “A Modest Proposal: For the Reinstatement of the Kahal in the Diaspora”

  1. kataphasis Says:

    the problem with the kahal, as we all know, is the corruption and class conflict that will inevitably erupt, as foretold by the outdated historical characterization of benzion dinur.

  2. Rabbi Dr. Prof. Jurgen Haverstam, DHL Says:

    A Zionist historian like Dinur needs the kahal to be a losing proposition in order to show that any attempt at Jewish self-government in the diaspora will come to naught. A good old-fashioned American non-Zionist like Salo Baron on the other hand probably comes closest to reality in his portrayal – ultimately power was in the hands of the gentile state but the kahal did wield a great deal of social and political autonomy.

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