Is there any more eloquent or definitive evidence of human individuality, of human dignity, than the face? My face shows that I am unlike you, that I am myself; and in this beautiful incommensurability we establish solidarity with each other, because your face also looks only like itself, only like you. The hiddenness of the face — the Divine face, too — is commonly regarded as a curse or a punishment, and its revelation as an epiphany. This is certainly the case in the mystagogic morality of Emmanuel Levinas, for whom the sight of the face is “a visitation,” “the first disclosure,” “a bareness without any cultural ornament”: “[T]he face enters our world from an absolutely foreign sphere, that is, precisely from an absolute,” and so it signifies “a command.” Where the face is covered, ethics cannot exist.
I have been pondering all this again on the occasion of “the bill to forbid covering one’s face in public,” or the anti-burqa measure recently passed by the National Assembly in France. It has been defended on grounds of human rights. France, declared its minister of justice, “does not accept attacks on human dignity. It does not tolerate the abuse of vulnerable people.” Uh-huh. I confess that I am watching the French struggle with the distinction between Islam and Islamism — I mean the French who are struggling with it at all — with a certain malicious delight. Is the distinction really so slippery? When did France become the homeland of l’Autre, naturally tolerant and welcoming to cultures unlike its own? (The philosophy of Levinas was, among other things, a prophetic castigation of France.) And the same question may be asked of other European societies whose suspicion of, or hostility to, the Muslims in their midst has a foul familiar air.
Otherness is the challenge that Europe never mastered. (I apologize for the gross historical generalization, but I have been immersed in Jordi Savall’s monumental reconstruction in music of the Cathars and their destruction.) And now, to fight Islamism in France, the power of the state, the frightened state, is being used to forbid the free practice of religion. It is of course shocking to encounter a person in a burqa, as it is to encounter a person tattooed from head to toe: It is a mutilation of personhood. But by what right does the state intervene? If some Muslim women are forced into their hideous sartorial prison, the state will not relieve them, and the Muslim men who are solicitous of their humanity, of the need to dissent and to rebel —of the rupture of modernization, which can only occur within, as it did in Christianity and Judaism; and if many Muslim women cover themselves consensually, the state should leave them be. Intolerance is a poor security policy. Moreover, the face is not all it’s cracked up to be. The face may be manifest but deceptive, and no disclosure at all; or it may disclose anger and hatred and violence. A visible face may be more dangerous than an invisible one. I am thinking of 19 faces in particular.
The French state is not the only state that is trampling upon religious liberty. So is the Jewish state. And the religious liberty being violated belongs not to the Other, but to the Same. Or more precisely, the Rotem bill that would secure the control of the Chief Rabbinate over all conversions to Judaism represents a denial that Reform and Conservative Jews are indeed the Same, and their banishment to the perdition of the Other. Many critics have rightly observed that the success of such a measure would lead to a schism in the Jewish world and bitterly alienate the Jewish Diaspora from the Jewish state; and Netanyahu has rightly vowed not to allow this monstrosity to become law.
But the thwarting of Rotem is not the end of the matter. There is a larger problem for my Reform and Conservative brothers and sisters. The problem is the very existence of the Chief Rabbinate. It is a poisonous institution. It has diminished Judaism into an apparatus of the state and conflated it with power and patronage. It disguises low politics with high theology. Its resort to coercion in matters of belief is a mark of spiritual emptiness. In its outrageous pretension to central religious authority, it is a deeply un-Jewish office that would abolish the local and improvisatory and variegated character of Jewish religious life since the Sanhedrin. The Chief Rabbinate was not created by God at Sinai; it was created by the attorney general of the British mandatory government in Palestine. Many of its occupants (though not the one who was my cousin, of course) have been intellectually mediocre. It has become the most powerful instrument of the takeover of Orthodoxy by the ultra-Orthodox, who grow wilder and more insular all the time: They prefer the Torah without Jews to the Jews without Torah, and their lack of compassion for anyone but themselves is sinister. Worst of all, the Chief Rabbinate solves nothing: If it did not exist, the legal and denominational perplexities of Jewish life after the era of religious reform — the rupture, again — would still be with us. Two hundred years ago lasts month, in the town of Seesen, in Westphalia, “Jacob’s Temple,” a synagogue with a bell tower and an organ, was dedicated with a German chorale and a sermon about universal brotherhood —and there is nothing that any of the holy beards in Jerusalem can do about it.
This is the actually existing Jewish people. Insofar as the Ultras in Israel do not believe in religious liberty, they are at odds with the state in which they live, whose Declaration of Independence “guarantees full freedom of religion [and] conscience”; and insofar as politicians in Israel pander to them and play their sordid games, they, too, are in defiance of first principles. “Laws do not alter convictions; arbitrary punishments and rewards produce no principles, refine no morals. Fear and hope are no criteria of truth. Knowledge, reasoning, and persuasion alone can bring forth principles.” Those Jeffersonian words were not written by Jefferson. They were written by an observant Jew in Dessau, in the most neglected classic of the Enlightenment, and the greatest Jewish contribution to it. Moses Mendelssohn established this wisdom in “Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism,” in 1783. In one of the more sublime coincidences of history, he was composing these reflections at precisely the time Jefferson, a world and a culture away, was preparing his own argument, in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” that “t is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” The rabbis Mendelssohn and Jefferson.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic, where this essay originally appeared. Reprinted with permission.