Friday 3 January 2020

I'm in another mainstream Jewish tradition

Sigmund Freud was Jewish but he didn't affiliate to a synagogue and, as far as I know, wasn't in any way 'observant' in terms of Jewish customs and worship.

In the present climate of labelling Jews as 'mainstream' or 'not mainstream', if Freud was alive today he would be 'not mainstream', 'not in the community', 'not part of the Jewish community'. This way, whatever he had to say about e.g. fascism and Nazism (which he wrote about by the way), could be dismissed as 'not representative' and if (in this little fantasy I'm running by you) he signed letters to the paper in support of a candidate for election or if he didn't go along with 'mainstream' opinion then he would be vilified as e.g. a 'used Jew' or even a 'kapo'.

We might imagine Freud would say that he never sought to 'represent' anyone and that he is 'his own man'. More than that, that he feels he has inherited and studied traditions of thought from many cultures including those expressed by people of Jewish belief and/or origin. Or more than that, perhaps, that he expresses a kind of culture or sensibility that developed in Europe over hundreds of years as part of the encounter between Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of no religious belief but in his case, it's 'flavoured' or is intertwined with specifics to do with the Jewish beliefs, customs, habits, communal life of his predecessors and people around him in Vienna and later Hampstead, London.

And more than that (!): now that Mr Freud's own ideas have had a huge impact on how people all over the world think about consciousness and what it is to be human, then talking about Freud as either 'mainstream' or 'not mainstream', or 'representative' /'not representative' misses the point. No statistic represents his impact. No attempt to minimise him by excluding him from the 'mainstream' deals with the fact that his ideas have spread.

Now, if you multiply Freud by all the other secular Jewish thinkers, and add in anyone and everyone who has led their life in some respect or another in acknowledgment of their Jewish background without being religious, we have a picture of something much bigger and much more significant than an entity that can be dismissed as 'not mainstream'.

And, importantly, its claim - if ever one were to be made - is not to counter it by saying, 'o yes we are part of your mainstream'. Its claim is simply that it exists, that it is diverse, multi-voiced, does not have to be corralled into specific categories or given labels that reduce it to this or that minority.

What is absurd is that the media (in the fullest sense of the word ie the whole Fourth estate' or 'republic of letters') has plenty of such people working in it and yet the media as a whole has repeatedly trotted out the fib that there is just 'the Jewish community'. It's as if Freud (and Marx and Kafka and Walter Benjamin (you add thousands more!) had never existed and that there is nothing for those of us alive now to read, be inspired by or to draw on in our lives, politics and action from this huge tradition!

We need another word: a word to counter this reductive matter of 'mainstream' or 'not mainstream'. The word 'secular' doesn't do it. For the moment I can only think of whole sentences along the lines of 'inheriting some of the many diverse traditions of secular Jewish thought - and that there are millions of people, Jewish and not-Jewish who are part of this.' (Not much of a sound-bite, though!)

Every time someone uses phrases like 'inferiority complex', 'Kafka-esque', 'class war', and thousands more, they come from the minds of people who were born into some kind of Jewish tradition and have been taken up by millions of people since then.

I, for one, am delighted and proud to be part of this, both as someone who was also born into one aspect of Jewish tradition but also as someone who lives and works in a world which shares these ideas (along with the ideas of course of many other cultures and traditions).

Perhaps - thinking aloud here - I (we?) should reclaim the 'mainstream' word and say, 'I'm part of the "mainstream secular Jewish tradition", thank you very much.'

I'm not in your mainstream perhaps (seeing as you keep telling the world I'm not!) , but I am in another mainstream Jewish tradition...