Heidi’s world lacks tight-knit communities that generate social capital, a commitment to having children and a willingness to make sacrifices to defend against threats to its security. One might imagine, therefore, that the main threat to Heidi’s world is that it would slowly peter out. But it’s actually unlikely to play out that way.
Meet Heidi’s daughter, Amber. Amber is a student at Oberlin, majoring in colonial and environmental studies. Her father is not Jewish and she has no substantive connection to Judaism, other than an inherited right to begin remarks hostile to Judaism with the words “As a Jew…”. As a woman, especially one who has willed herself an amorphous sexual identity, she regards herself as persecuted by cis-gendered white men.
Amber doesn’t share with Heidi the memory of a genuine community, of a large and committed family, and of grandparents who can speak of genuine persecution. Heidi’s residual connection with a family and a community is sufficient for her. But Amber needs some other mission to give her life purpose. Amber is a social justice warrior.
Amber doesn’t share Heidi’s rather benign notions of fairness. Heidi believes, inter alia, that harmless activities that people do in the privacy of their own homes are nobody’s business. For Amber, this is entirely inadequate. Amber believes, for example, that everyone has a positive moral obligation to affirm the virtue of sexual activity that Heidi once regarded as taboo and that a failure to do so under certain circumstances should be prosecutable. Amber also believes that euthanasia and abortion should not only be legal but that they are good and that doctors should be obligated to perform them.
It turns out that once Heidi’s “live and let live” principle is deemed passé by the likes of Amber, the door is open to a broad regime of morally-charged dos and don’ts. Heidi’s rather vague aspiration to fashion a new moral world out what she imagines to be rational considerations leads inevitably to Amber’s moral world – a faux religion that makes traditional religion seem benign by comparison.
Let’s consider some of the Commandments in Amber’s religion.
First, whatever sexual taboos Amber has overcome have been sublimated into a bewildering array of food taboos. Amber won’t eat produce unless it’s organic, locally-grown, not genetically modified, and processed by union labor. She’s vegan and avoids trans-fats, nightshades and any dish that suggests cultural appropriation.
Following Heidi, Amber’s concern for the long-term future is focused not on the advancement or preservation of civilization but rather on the preservation of the natural environment. Her concern for the environment, which she regards as threatened by the encroachment of civilization, is fraught with religious symbolism. For Amber, recycling is a system of rituals and shrines (many of which are actually net negatives for the environment) and she regards those who question orthodox views on global warming as deniers or heretics, better condemned and avoided than reasoned with about the evidence. She dismisses out of hand potential solutions to global warming (such as nuclear power or sulfur dioxide pumping) that do not serve the higher purpose of curtailing the spiritual contamination of the world by technological advance.
If this sounds to you like me just crowing about Amber’s hypocrisy or lack of self-awareness, that is not my point. This is the point: developed religions like Judaism serve to subdue the instinct for idolatry and primitive religion, the kind that encourages superstition, self-debasement, seclusion of untouchables and human sacrifice. The process that we are witnessing as we move from Heidi to Amber is primitive religion reasserting itself in the absence of developed religion.
Specifically, Judaism facilitates expiation of sin through relatively harmless means – initially through animal sacrifices (admittedly, not harmless to the animals) and subsequently through private repentance (Hoshea 14:3). Christianity has its own methods, as do other religions, some more harmless than others.
When the communists suppressed developed religion, they reinvented aspects of primitive religion, including ritualized public confession of sins and self-flagellation, re-education in proper doctrine and, for those who failed the final exam, human sacrifice. Amber isn’t there yet, but the same untamed religious instincts appear to be at work. For Amber, the sin of contaminating Mother Earth with her carbon footprint can be easily expiated with symbolic offsets, but the sin of white privilege requires grueling public confessions. Holdouts must be publicly shamed and shunned and sent for diversity and sensitivity training. Amber regards even consensual sex between white men and women as a form of rape countenanced by the patriarchy, but chooses to overlook the rape of European women by Middle Eastern men as the inevitable cost of white guilt. Can actual human sacrifice be far behind?
In short, Heidi’s soft cosmopolitanism is less likely to slowly peter out than to be replaced by a radicalized version of itself that undercuts the very freedom that is at its core. Like some overly-enthusiastic baalei teshuva, Amber’s unacknowledged religious tendencies lack the nuance of more experienced and worldly-wise religiously-committed people like Shimen.
In fact, Shimen and the rest of the ex-Gerrer survivors have quite well-developed senses of irony, especially about religion. They aren’t nearly as earnest as the oppressed Amber of Oberlin. But I suppose they can afford it. After all, as Amber will eagerly tell you, they’ve lived the privileged lives of cis-gendered white men.
In this post, we considered how too much freedom leads to a revolt against freedom. In the next post, we’ll see how too much equality leads to a revolt against equality.