Constituting Communities Through Words That Bind: Reflections on Loyalty Oaths

Preparation of this essay has not served to resolve my own ambivalences about what, after all, Duncan Kennedy once named the “fundamental contradiction” of all social life, the tension between “individual freedom” and the coercive communal life with “[o]thers (family, friends, bureaucrats, cultural figures, the state)” that is “necessary if we are to become persons at all – they provide us the stuff of our selves and protect us ,in crucial ways against destruction.” It should not be surprising if something so fundamental does not prove amenable to resolution. In any case, the reader should not expect to find a linear argument that moves toward a purportedly ineluctable conclusion, so much as an attempt to explore what underlies (and justifies) the mixture of responses. At best, I might hope these remarks achieve the status of meditations that aid the reader in analyzing what I am suggesting will (or ought to) be his or her own complex views.

My remarks are best understood in the light of the context in which they were originally presented, a Conference on Community Membership held at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Israel, in December 1985. A number of scholars, drawn from political theory, American law, and Jewish law, convened to discuss notions of community membership revealed in these various bodies of thought. As one of the principal organizers of the conference, I was motivated not only by the inherent interest of these topics, but also in substantial part by my own perplexities, over the years, about the twin notions of being Jewish and being American.