Friday, March 09, 2007

What a Culture!

"Most of my Chinese friends are Jewish."

- Cecelia Nealon-Shapiro

The International Herald Tribune has the astonishingly scrambled life story of a girl, Ms Shapiro (née Fu Qian, born in Jiangxi). She was adopted from a Chinese orphanage and was raised by a lesbian couple in New York. According to the article, one of her parents was raised by atheistic Jews, the other was raised Catholic. They both ultimately turned to Judaism and raised the girl Jewish, and the article concerns her bat mitzvah, at which, like all girls who go through it, she had to speak Torah verses in the original Hebrew.

What are we to make of a story like that? It certainly puts the lie to the dreary rigid multiculturalism that divides us into permanent groups and reinforces those differences. It also has something to offend nearly everyone - the objector to gay adoption, the Chinese nationalist who is sure that race is cultural destiny, the Jewish traditionalist. This is clearly a girl who belongs to no culture, or maybe more accurately is part of the invention of a new culture - neither fully Chinese, fully Jewish, in an environment neither fully traditional nor (because of her parents' permanent attachment as a couple and observant religious practices) fully revolutionary. This is America.

Is culture a thing constantly in need of reinforcement, or a thing constantly improving through cultural competition, a product of sorts? I find myself with sympathy for both views. As Edmund Burke argued, cultural traditions have all sorts of hidden wisdom encoded within them, and so to angrily overthrow them in the name of a new order (as in revolutionary France) is to scatter that knowledge to the winds and, perhaps, have to regather it the hard way, one social catastrophe at a time. If we are too eager to cast aside, for example, the traditional form of marriage that has been the bedrock of societies of all kinds for centuries, then consequences will clearly follow, and there is no reason to assume that they must be good. (Defenders of traditional marriage have taken to calling it "natural marriage" in an attempt to emphasize its transcendent nature.)

And yet to reinforce particular cultural practices goes against every instinct I have about central planning. Cultural has always been dynamic, and some of the most reactionary violence against modernism has been and is being committed in the name of maintaining the old ways. Ultimately there is no stopping progress, even if not every single cultural experiment ultimately brings it. Indeed, Reform Judaism itself is one such invented culture. While beginning in Germany, it flourishes primarily in the U.S. (Authorities in highly secular Israel, where the saying is "We don't go to synagogue, but the synagogue we don't go to is Orthodox," do not recognize Reform conversions. Ms Nealon-Shapiro, since she is not the biological child of a Jewish mother, is not Jewish in Israel. Nor, AFAIK, do Orthodox girls even go through these ceremonies.) It is by far the most common form of Judaism in the US (and possibly, therefore, in the world), though its critics scornfully note that since Reform Jews intermarry a lot and have few children it is ultimately programmed for extinction.

And so someone like me, who believes both in the value of tradition as the bearer of hidden information and the utility of privatized cultural experimentation, has a problem making sense of the world he finds. For a believer in Western culture, may of whose aspects I think are indispensable to human progress and achievement even as they are under threat, ultimately must preserve and defend it from the bottom up, one persuasion at a time. There is no saving it from the top down. America is like no other country in its ability to reshape cultural forms (the young lady says that "Judaism is a religion, Chinese is my heritage and somewhat my culture, and I'm looking at them in a different way. I don't feel like they conflict with each other at all."); dynamism is our essence. Our cultural reach means that this kind of cultural creativity is going to spread. Traditionalists will revolt, but there is no stopping it. Ms Nealon-Shapiro's unconventional road to Judaism via Jiangxi has gotten her there just the same, and Judaism will be permanently different for her having arrived there.

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