This summer I read a philosophy of history book entitled "Decline of the West" by 19th century German thinker Oswald Spencer. It is a study of Cultures, and how Cultures both western and non-western throughout history pass through a series of stages. Judaism is a Culture like any other, and is heavily contaminated with Western Culture - and by "culture" I don't mean what's on TV and Radio, I mean "culture" in the academic sense of the word, the underlying assumptions, thought-patterns, and world-view that make up the writing and thinking of a given people.
These stages and patterns of the progress of a Culture from its birth to its "death" are chronicled by various historical cultures all over the globe, and these stages can be summed up, and using these stages one can identify where, for example, American or Jewish culture IS on this cyclical chart. The West, and America as the hyperactive embodiment of the West, is in Decline, and so is Judaism - not meaning Judaism will disappear, because the stages are cyclical. American culture is self-destructing, and what will take it's place is another stage on the journey. Jewish culture is also self-destructing along the same path - and what will emerge from our self-inflicted wounds? That is the question.
This post picks up the analysis in the second part of the Introduction of Spengler's book. The first part can be found at
Analysis of the rest of the chapters of Spengler's book will continue intermittently over this summer and fall. But I think this part of the Introduction sums up our situation rather aptly.So, with no further ado....
Decline of the West, continued: Part two of the Introduction of Oswald Spengler's comprehensive philosophy of history, with commentary I have inserted to illustrate the "Decline of Judaism" parallels the fate of the West and for the same reasons.
Kant philosophizes...but what he poses as necessary forms of thought are in reality only necessary forms of western thought.
It is this that is lacking to the Western thinker, the very thinker in whom we might have expected to find it - insight into the historical relative character of his data, which are expressions of one specific experience and one only, knowledge of the necessary limits of their validity, the conviction that his "unshakable" truths and "eternal" views are simply true for him and eternal for his world-view, the duty of looking beyond them to find out what the men of other Cultures have with equal certainty evolved out of themselves.
Almost all of what passes for current Orthodox Judaism is based upon a shtetl mentality that they idealize as having been "perfect" for Judaism when in fact anything but. It gave the Ravs a power and control that they had never had in the past, and paved the way - perhaps for the first time introduced - coercion, intimidation and violence into the Rav's "protection" of the community and an individual's choices concerning stringencies in the practice of Halacha. The philosophy, that is, the thinking of Jewish thinkers was also stunted in an incestuous way in the shtetls - no new blood because no idea allowed to grow that had not "already" existed, stunting the growth of Judaism and encasing it in a backwards and medieval cast that has no room for the realities of the present age. They cast this paradigm backward onto their grandparents and founding fathers as if it has always been - in order to give it legitimacy, but it certainly has none. The mental products of the shtetl are direct results of the shtetl, and had no reality before, and should have no reality now. Pretending to still live in shtetls will not make economic, scientific, medical, philosophical, and political reality just go away.
But something much more disquieting than a logical fallacy begins to appear when the centre of gravity of philosophy shifts from the abstract-systematic to the practical-ethical and our Western thinkers from Schopenhaur onward turn from the problem of cognition to the problem of life ( the will to life, to power, to action). Here it is not the ideal abstract "man" of Kant that is subjected to examination, but actual man as he has inhabited the earth during historical time...and it is more than ever futile to define the structure of his highest ideas in terms of the "ancient-medieval-modern" scheme with its local limitations. Bit it is done, nevertheless.
Orthodox Judaism, of course, tries to obscure this fact by claiming that their modern interpretations are in fact the same as the Bronze Age, but any intellectually honest perusal of the history of Jewish populations around the world will clearly show this is just not the case. What is now "ultra-orthodox Judaism" is a construct of the 20th century, and is joined to the fathers of the Bronze Age only in the most superficial sense. Instead of acknowledging the ebb and flow of the course of the history of practice of Judaism as a religion, the Ultra Orthodox have invented a mythology of a "direct transmission" to themselves from Sinai.
Consider the historical horizon of Neitzsche. His conceptions of decadence, militarism, the transvaluation of all values, the will to power, lie deep in the essence of Western Civilization and are for the analysis of that civilization of decisive importance. But what, do we find, was the foundation on which he built up his creation? ...In short, "ancient,medieval and modern" history. Strictly speaking, he never once moved outside the scheme, nor did any other thinker of his time. ...Is not their whole psychology, for all its intention of world-wide validity, one of purely West European significance?
Likewise the Near Eastern and North African social, earlier halachic (that is, pre-western contaminated halachic), and philosophical viewpoints, the true Sephardi origins, are completely ignored and even discriminated against by modern orthodox Jews, with their white European ethno-centric interpretation of Judaism.
What the West has said and thought, hitherto, on the problems of space, time, motion, number, will, marriage, property, tragedy, science, has remained narrow and dubious, because men were always looking for THE solution to THE question. It was never seen that many questioners implies many answers, that any philosophical question is really a veiled desire to get an explicit affirmation of what is implicit in the question itself, that the great questions of any period are fluid beyond all conception, and that therefore it is only by obtaining a group of historically limited solutions and measuring it my utterly impersonal criteria that the final secrets can be reached.
The natural, the "Copernican," form of the historical process which lies deep in the essence of that process and reveals itself only to an eye perfectly free from prepossessions. For [example], such an eye was Goethe...for him, the world-as-mechanism stood opposed to the world-as-organism, dead nature to living nature, law to form. ...So here we shall develop the form language of human history, its periodic structure, its organic logic, out of the profusion of all the challenging details.
Unfortunately, this requires an interpretation of the picture of Classical history very different from the incredibly one-sided, superficial, prejudiced, limited picture that we have in fact given to it.
What Orthodox Judaism needs, to be accepting and inclusive of all levels of practice within the halachic framework, even the basic Biblical minimums, is a non-prejudiced view of the history of Judaism, which looks at the reality of the myriad interpretations and fluctuations of practice in the historical Jewish communities. Orthodoxy also needs to discard the myth, which the Ravs themselves created, that Judaism has always been or was ever meant to be a monolithic entity of exact sameness everywhere. Equal, yes. Identical, no. The original 12 tribes lived in different territories, with different microclimates, different agriculture products and practices, different cultural and social practices, and different practices within the halachic framework. This was, and still is, acceptable to Hashem.
Economists, politicians, jurists, are inclined to take the "progress" of present mankind as a standard for judging everything earlier. Conversely, artists, poets, philologists and philosophers may feel themselves out of their element in the present, and choose a standpoint in this or that past epoch that is just as absolute and dogmatic from which to condemn today.
In all history there is no analogous case of one Culture making a passionate cult of the memory of another. We have projected our own deepest spiritual needs and feelings onto the Classical picture.
Or, in our case, onto the Judaic past.
[For example], there there is not the slightest inward correlation between the things meant by "Republic," "freedom," "property," and the like then and there and the things meant by such words here and now, it has no notion whatever.
Looked at in this way, the "Decline of the West" comprises nothing less than the problem of Civilization. Every Culture has its own Civilization. The Civilization is the inevitable destiny of the Culture, and in this principle we obtain the viewpoint from which the deepest and gravest problems of historical morphology become capable of solution. Civilizations are the most external and artificial states of which a species of developed humanity is capable. They are a conclusion...they are an END, irrevocable, yet by inward necessity reached again and again.
Pure Civilization, as a historical process, consists in a progressive exhaustion of forms that have become inorganic or dead.
The transition from Culture to Civilization was accomplished for the Classical world in the fourth, for the Western in the nineteenth century.
World-city and province - the two basic ideas of every civilization - bring up a wholly new form-problem of History proper, the very problem that we are living through today with hardly the remotest conception of it immensity. In place of a world, there is a city, a point in which the whole life of broad regions is collection while the rest dries up. In place of a type-true people, born and grown on the soil, there is a new sort of nomad, cohering unstably in fluid masses, the parasitical city dweller, ...utterly matter of fact,...clever, unfruitful, deeply contemptuous of the countryman and especially that highest form of countryman, the country gentleman. This is a very great stride towards the inorganic, towards the end - what does it signify?
For those reading this with even a passing familiarity with Cheredi and Ultra-Orthodox communities of all kinds, you know that the contempt for people who work for a living is palpable, and of course farming most of all.
To the world-city belongs not to a folk but a mob. Its uncomprehending hostility to all the traditions representative of the Culture...the keen and cold intelligence that confounds the wisdom of the peasant...the [unacknowledged, but widely practiced] new-fashioned naturalism that in relation to all matters of sex and society goes back far to quite primitive instincts and conditions, the reappearance of panem et circenses in the form of wage-disputes and [entertainment] - all these things betoken the definite closing down of the Culture and the opening of a quite new phase of human existence - antiprovencial, late, futureless, but quite inevitable.
Though the Ravs are at pains to attempt to cover up how far Jewish society has gone down this path, the sexual perversions, drug use, pornography, and other signs are all there, plainly to see. Rejection of honest labour leads to decadence, and the communities of Orthodox Judaism have become profoundly decadent while denying they are decadent at all. It is an amazing cognitive dissonance to watch, but will have an inevitable outcome. As Spengler says, it is futureless. The sooner the communities are redirected into a more healthy paradigm, the less damage will be done. But it is unclear how much damage can truly be mitigated. Jewish Culture appears to be going through every stage of Decline as Western Culture in general.
For it will become manifest that, from this moment on, all great conflicts of world-outlook, of politics, of art, of science, of feeling, will be under the influence of the same contrary factor. What is the hallmark of a politic of Civilization today, in contrast to a politic of Culture yesterday? It is, for the Classical rhetoric, and for the Western journalism, both serving that abstract which represents the power of Civilization - money. It is the money-spirit which penetrates unremarked the historical forms of the people's existence, often without destroying or even in the least disturbing these forms...
Though forms subsist, the great political parties nevertheless cease to be more than reputed centres of decision. A small number of superior heads, whose names are very likely not the best-known, settle everything, w hile below them are the great mass of second-rate politicians - rhetors, tribunes, deputies, journalists - selected through a provincially conceived franchise to keep alive the illusion of popular self-determination.
The conclusion: Imperialism. To maintain the herioc posture for centuries on end is beyond the power of any people. Imperialsim may continue to exist for hundreds or thousands of years - dead bodies, amorphous and dispirited masses of men, scrap material from a great history - is to be taken as the typical symbol of the end. Imperialism is Civilization unadulterated. In this phenomenal form the destiny of the West is now irrevocably set. The energy of culture-man is directed inwards, that of civilization-man outwards.
It is not a matter of choice - it is not the conscious will of individuals, or even that of whole classes or peoples that decides. The expansive tendency is a doom, something daemonic and immense, which grips, forces into service, and uses up the late mankind of the world-city state, willy-nilly, aware or unaware. Life is the process of effecting possibilities, and for the brain-man there are only extensive possibilities.
The Jewish Civilization is expressing its Imperialistic stage of development in the Orthodox world by attempting to invalidate, co-opt, and rule all other sects and expressions of Judaism. There is no doubt about it - the gedolim have become Imperialist conquerors in a quest that has little to do with "concern" for the "spiritual fate" of other Jews and a whole lot to do with money and power and control.
Political success means territorial and financial success, and only that.
This should be self-evident. Coercion does not lead to real spirituality, or love for Hashem, or respect for Chassidic leaders.
All this, broad and imposing, is the prelude of a future which is still in store for us and with which the history of West European mankind will be definitely closed. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries, hitherto looked on as the highest point of an ascending straight line of world history, are in reality a stage of life which may be observed in every Culture that has ripened to its limit - a stage of life characterized not by Socialists, Impressionists, electric railways, torpedoes and differential equations (for these are only body-constituents of the time), but by a Civilized spirituality which possesses not only these but also quite other creative possibilities. That, as our own time represents a transitional phase which occurs with certainty under particular conditions, there are perfectly well-defined states (such as have occurred more than once in the history of the past) later than the present-day state of West Europe, and therefore that the future of the West is not a limitless tending upwards and onwards for all time towards our present ideals, but a single phenomenon of history, strictly limited and defined as to form and duration, which covers a few centuries and can be viewed and, in essentials, calculated from available precedents.
To this single idea one can refer, and by it one can solve, without straining or forcing, all those separate problems of religion, art-history, epistemology, ethics, politics, economics with which the modern intellect has so passionately - and so vainly - busied itself for decades.
Up to now, everyone has been at liberty to hope what he pleased about the future. Where there are no facts, sentiment rules. But henceforward, it will be every man's business to inform himself of what can happen and therefore of what with the unalterable necessity of destiny and irrespective of personal ideas, hopes or desires, WILL happen.
We have to reckon with the cold hard facts of a late life.
All genuine historical work is philosophy...but the operations of the systematic philosopher are subject to constant and serious error through his assuming the permanence of his results. He overlooks the fact that every thought lives in a historical world and is therefore involved in the common destiny of mortality. He supposes that higher thought processes an everlasting and unalterable objectiveness (Gegenstand), that the great questions of all epochs are identical and that therefore they are capable in the last analysis of final answers.
But question and answer are here one... There are no [cultural, philosophical, world-view, social] truths. Every philosophy is the expression of its own and only its own time and - if by philosophy we mean effective philosophy and not academic triflings about judgement-forms, sense-categories and the like - not two ages possess the same philosophic intentions.
And the prevailing attitudes toward halacha and Judaism ARE philosophies of our time, and in the same manner birthed in our immediate past and reflective of our fears and issues of our time only, not all of history.
At highest, the philosophy may absorb the entire content of an epoch, realize it within itself and then, embodying it in some grand form or personality, pass it on to be developed further and further. Only its necessity to life decides the eminence of a doctrine.
Or a Culture can pretend to such an absorption, in spite of all historic fact to the contrary.
[But] all philosophers [and religious thinkers] of the newest age are open to a serious criticism. What they do not posses is real standing in actual life.
Whenever [Spengler] takes up a work by a modern thinker, [he finds himself] asking: Has he any idea whatever of the actualities of world-politics, world-city problems, capitalism, the future of the state, the relation of technics to the course of civilization, Russia, Science? Goethe would have understood all this and revelled in it, but there is not one living philosopher capable of taking it in.
We must allow ourselves no illusions as to the gravity of this negative result. It is palpable that we have lost sight of the final significance of effective philosophy. We confuse philosophy with preaching, with agitation, with novel writing, with lecture room jargon. It has come to this, that the very possibility of a real philosophy of today and tomorrow is in question.
So here we are - Jewish Culture is in a crisis and "more of the same" is not going to solve it. The question is, can we formulate a real path out of this quagmire that can function in the real world and meet people's needs without sacrificing the covenant? We can, but will we?