American Post-Judaism
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American Post-Judaism

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312 pages
English

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A vision of Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness for the 21st century


How do American Jews identify as both Jewish and American? American Post-Judaism argues that Zionism and the Holocaust, two anchors of contemporary American Jewish identity, will no longer be centers of identity formation for future generations of American Jews. Shaul Magid articulates a new, post-ethnic American Jewishness. He discusses pragmatism and spirituality, monotheism and post-monotheism, Jesus, Jewish law, sainthood and self-realization, and the meaning of the Holocaust for those who have never known survivors. Magid presents Jewish Renewal as a movement that takes this radical cultural transition seriously in its strivings for a new era in Jewish thought and practice.


Foreword
Acknowledgments
Introduction
1. Be the Jew You Make: Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism in
Postethnic America
2. Ethnicity, America, and the Future of the Jews: Felix Adler,
Mordecai Kaplan, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
3. Pragmatism and Piety: The American
Spiritual and Philosophical Roots of Jewish Renewal
4. Postmonotheism, Renewal, and a New American
Judaism
5. Hasidism, Mithnagdism, and Contemporary American
Judaism: Talmudism, (Neo) Kabbala, and (Post) Halakha
6. From the Historical Jesus to a New Jewish Christology:
Rethinking Jesus in Contemporary American Judaism
7. Sainthood, Selfhood, and the Ba'al Teshuva: ArtScroll's American
Hero and Jewish Renewal's Functional Saint
8. Rethinking the Holocaust after Post-Holocaust
Theology: Uniqueness, Exceptionalism, and the Renewal of American
Judaism
Epilogue. Shlomo Carlebach: An Itinerant Preacher for a
Post-Judaism Age
Conclusion
Notes
Bibliography
Index

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Date de parution 09 avril 2013
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780253008091
Langue English

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Exrait

RELIGION IN NORTH AMERICA
Catherine L. Albanese and Stephen J. Stein, editors
SHAUL MAGID
AMERICAN POST-JUDAISM
IDENTITY AND RENEWAL IN A POSTETHNIC SOCIETY
INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS
Bloomington and Indianapolis
This book is a publication of Indiana University Press 601 North Morton Street Bloomington, Indiana 474043797 USA
iupress.indiana.edu
Telephone orders     800–842–6796 Fax orders     812–855–7931
© 2013 by Shaul Magid
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The Association of American University Presses' Resolution on Permissions constitutes the only exception to this prohibition.
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences-Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48–1992.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Magid, Shaul, [date]    American post-Judaism : identity and renewal in a postethnic society / Shaul Magid.       pages cm. — (Religion in North America)    Includes bibliographical references and index.       ISBN 978-0-253-00802-2 (cloth : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-253-00809-1 (ebook) 1. Judaism—United States—History—21st century. 2. Jews—United States—Identity—History—21st century. I. Title.    BM205.M25 2013    296.0973’09051—dc23                                                                                                                      2012049481
1 2 3 4 5 18 17 16 15 14 13
PUBLICATION OF THIS BOOK
IS SUPPORTED BY A GRANT FROM
Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford
For Yehuda, Chisda, Miriam, and Kinneret It is your world now. Please try to leave it better than you found it.
If Judaism is terminable, Jewishness is interminable. It can survive Judaism.
—Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever , 72
For Judaism's future to be rescued something will have to die.
—Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism , 170
Contents
Foreword
Acknowledgments
Introduction
1. Be the Jew You Make: Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism in Postethnic America
2. Ethnicity, America, and the Future of the Jews: Felix Adler, Mordecai Kaplan, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
3. Pragmatism and Piety: The American Spiritual and Philosophical Roots of Jewish Renewal
4. Postmonotheism, Renewal, and a New American Judaism
5. Hasidism, Mithnagdism, and Contemporary American Judaism: Talmudism, (Neo) Kabbala, and (Post) Halakha
6. From the Historical Jesus to a New Jewish Christology: Rethinking Jesus in Contemporary American Judaism
7. Sainthood, Selfhood, and the Ba'al Teshuva: ArtScroll's American Hero and Jewish Renewal's Functional Saint
8. Rethinking the Holocaust after Post-Holocaust Theology: Uniqueness, Exceptionalism, and the Renewal of American Judaism
Epilogue. Shlomo Carlebach: An Itinerant Preacher for a Post-Judaism Age
Conclusion
Notes
Bibliography
Index
Foreword
Shaul Magid's new book is groundbreaking. Building on David Hollinger's concept of a “postethnic” America, Magid turns the postethnic lens on American Judaism to reveal an emergent form of the received tradition that represents a new interpretive turn. In Magid's reading, Judaism is becoming postethnic, and that is a very good thing. Whereas traditional academic tropes regarding Judaism merge into Jewishness and ask searching questions about whether both are better seen as ethnicity or religion, Magid stands this concern on its head. Jews—the people and their faith—have been changing. In so doing they risk dissolving the boundaries of their thick identity as a people in favor of spreading abroad their spirituality and culture in a quasi-universalist gesture.
This will surely be a provocative thesis for many. As Magid presents it, however, it is hardly a completely new development. With readings that encompass a wide-ranging cast of characters and phenomena, Magid looks to earlier American Jewish figures like Felix Adler and Mordecai Kaplan even as, with his complex knowledge of the European Jewish mystical tradition, he lifts out themes regarding Kabbalism and Hasidism and other cultural manifestations. All of this comes into focus for Magid in the American Jewish Renewal movement and its founder and charismatic leader Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Magid's sympathies for Schachter-Shalomi are no secret here, and they form the basis for a hermeneutic that re-centers American Judaism even as it de-centers it from convention scholarship and received understandings.
In the midst of this, Magid's book combines historical materials, cultural analysis, and theological exegesis in a blended methodology. The result is a tour de force to argue for the Jewish Renewal movement of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century as a major cultural force. Here Jewish Renewal, with its “new paradigm” Judaism, represents an engine generating a radical change in Jewish thought and practice as well as identity in the present-day United States. According to Magid, Schachter-Shalomi combines the Hasidic tradition with a strong infusion of New Age spirituality to deliver a combinative form of religiosity unlike any Judaisms of the past. At the core of this new creation is a move from the particularism of the traditional Jewish ideology of chosenness to a new universalism—a global consciousness on the part of American Jewry that prompts Jews to offer their spiritual insights to the world.
As the Hollinger allusion already suggests, the backdrop for all of this is a discussion that Magid situates within general cultural studies scholarship. Here the emergence of a postethnic America signals a social world in which multiculturalism has become a kind of new norm. With the later phases of multiculturalism and with the Jewish record of intermarriage, runs the argument, Jews in a mood of post-assimilation or even dis-assimilation have opened themselves to an ethos at once universalized and globalized. In the case of the Holocaust, for example, Jews choose such universal outlooks not because they are without power but because they are truly free and have not experienced the systemic anti-Semitism of Europe. As Magid tells the story, Jews establish their universalism on their own tradition, which they use to support a rebirth of social justice concerns throughout the world.
Chapters, as they develop, pursue many different angles as so many vectors leading, from various directions, to this central thesis about postethnic Judaism and the role of Jewish Renewal in promoting it. As the larger perspective emerges, Magid's introductory discussion of ethnicity and postethnicity explores the terrain. Then, in a new chapter, these concerns yield to the close reading of Adler and Kaplan as well as an integrated account of Schachter-Shalomi in the context of Adler's and Kaplan's work. Several chapters take on American philosophical pragmatism in relation to the spirituality of Jewish Renewal, probe the theology of Jewish “postmonotheism,” and scrutinize Hasidism and related movements as they shape Renewal. In another chapter, a rethinking of the Jewish view of Jesus past and present demonstrates that from the nineteenth century Jewish leaders were attempting to negotiate their view of Jesus in the context of American society. Looking to themes of sainthood and “selfhood,” yet another chapter examines a series of popular biographies of Jewish “saints” published by an American Orthodox Jewish publishing house, ArtScroll. Finally, Magid looks to the issue of how Jews have dealt with the Holocaust and are dealing with it now in an age of post-Holocaust theology. As a revealing epilogue, Magid introduces us to Schlomo Carlebach, the itinerant and charismatic storyteller/preacher who wrote almost nothing but, in his life and work, epitomizes the themes and issues raised throughout the book in the context of the Jewish Renewal movement.
Throughout this work, Magid displays astonishing facility in his ability to comprehend so many thinkers and in the readings he offers, readings that weave them into his central thesis with apparent ease. His comparative proficiency is in display seemingly at every turn and suggests the wealth of erudition he brings to this book. Magid has read widely, argued convincingly, and quoted succinctly. His work will surely stimulate conversation and lead to earnest debate in the Jewish scholarly community and elsewhere. We are pleased to be publishing it.
Catherine L. Albanese Stephen J. Stein Series Editors
Acknowledgments
This book was written over a period of about six years. There were many people along the way who helped, some of whom I will regrettably forget to mention. To begin, I want to thank Jo Ellen Kaiser, who first asked me to write an essay on Jewish Renewal for Tikkun magazine in 2006. After she received my overly long submission, she suggested I publish it in three installments. Those essays were the germ cell of this project and I thank her and Michael Lerner for their support. Kathryn Lofton was instrumental in this project from the beginning, as she really introduced me to the field of American religion, gave me numerous lists of books to read, and made me believe I could make the transition from a scholar of Jewish mysticism to a part-time Americanist.
Many people generously read versions of chapters, sometimes numerous times, and offered helpful advice and comments. They include Sydney Anderson, Yaakov Ariel, Michael Berenbaum, Nathaniel Berman, Zachary Braiterman, Jessica Carr, Aryeh Cohen, Shai Held, Susannah Heschel, Zvi Ish-Shalom, Martin Kavka, Barbara Krawcowicz, Nancy Levene, Yehudah Mirsky, Michael Morgan, Tomer Persico, Devorah Shubowitz, and Elliot Wolfson. Thanks to Sarah Imhoff, who read numerous drafts of numerous chapters and offered sage advice. Joseph (Yossi) Turner has been a conversation partner on these topics for many years, and his friendship and support in this project was invaluable. Lila Corwin Berman carefully read the manuscript in its entirely and saw the book for what it was in ways that I did not. Catherine Albanese was of enormous help in terms of the American religious context of the book. She saved me from some embarrassing errors.
I gave numerous academic talks on various chapters of this book over the past few years. I want to thank David Myers, Carol Bakhos, Don Seeman, Nathaniel Deutsch, Nora Rubel, Boaz Huss, and Sarah Pessin, all of whom generously offered me the opportunity to present my work. Thanks to Susan Berrin, who published a shorter version of chapter 1 on post-ethnicity in SHMA; Zev Garber for publishing a version of the chapter on the Jewish Jesus in The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation; Steven T. Katz for publishing an abbreviated version of the chapter on sainthood and selfhood in Modern Judaism; and, Kocku von Stuckrad and Boaz Huss for publishing a version of the chapter on pragmatism and piety in Kabbalah and Modernity. Thanks to Jonathan Sarna and Steven Cohen for their comments on questions of American Judaism and postethnicity. We may see things differently, but you both have been gracious and kind in your critiques.
I want to thank Jeffrey Veidlinger and the Borns Jewish Studies Program and David Brakke and David Haberman and the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University. Both have been truly wonderful intellectual homes and places of support and encouragement. Thanks to all my friends at the Fire Island Synagogue for your continued patience and support. Thanks to Hila Ratzabi for an invaluable job copyediting the manuscript; Nancy Zibman for the index; and Janet Rabinowitch, Dee Mortensen, Sarah Jacobi, and Angela Burton for all their hard work at Indiana University Press and for believing in this project from the very beginning and seeing it to publication. Thanks to Steve Stein and Catherine Albanese, editors of the IU Press series Religion in North America for including this unorthodox book on American Judaism. Thanks to R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi for all his continued help and support and for all the gifts he gave my generation. Thanks to Shlomo Carlebach for providing the soundtrack for this entire project and to Elliot Wolfson for permission to use his painting Entanglements for the cover. Thanks to Jon, Josh, Barbara, and Yehuda for the music, and to Zeelion, carrier of new light and words. My sons Yehuda and Chisda have listened to this book for years. While their intellectual interests lie elsewhere, they listened, sometimes reluctantly, and often had incisive things to say.
Chapter 3 , “Pragmatism and Piety: The American Spiritual and Philosophical Roots of Jewish Renewal” appeared in Kabbalah and Modernity , Boaz Huss, Marco Pasi, and Kocku von Stuckrad, eds. (Brill, 2010), and is reprinted with the permission from the press. Chapter 5 , “Hasidism, Mithnagdism, and Contemporary American Judaism,” appeared in The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy , Martin Kavka and David Novak, eds. (Cambridge University Press, 2012, and is reprinted with the permission from the press. An abbreviated version of chapter 6 , “From the Historical Jesus to a New Christology: Rethinking Jesus in Contemporary American Judaism,” appeared as “The New Jewish Reclamation of Jesus in Late Twentieth-Century America: Re-Aligning and Re-Thinking Jesus the Jew,” in The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation , Zev Garber, ed. (Purdue University Press, 2011), and is reprinted with permission from the press.
I dedicate this book to my children, Yehuda, Chisda, Miriam, and Kinneret. They all make me realize that what we have tried to do will be in good hands. May you all find your way, forward and back, and make the world a better place.
Introduction
American Jews or Jewish Americans? American Judaism or Judaism in America? What is at stake in the placement of the adjective, or in the hyphenated or non-hyphenated appellation? Is it simply a hierarchical question of identity: American or Jewish? Both, of course, but they are not identical nor are they prima facie equal. One is; the other describes. Which best captures the reality of Jews who happen to live in America and, in one way or another, identify as being “Jewish,” whatever that may mean? From a different angle: how much “America” is in American Judaism? How much “Jewishness” is in America? How much has “Jewishness” changed in contemporary America? And how much has America changed?
This book approaches these questions from two related yet distinct perspectives: the first analytic and the second constructive. The analytic perspective explores what I understand to be the challenges of Jews in America in the beginning of the twenty-first century, an era David Hollinger calls “postethnic.” 1 Defining the term Hollinger writes,
A postethnic perspective favors voluntary over involuntary affiliations, balances an appreciation for communities of descent with a determination to make room for new communities, and promotes solidarities of wide scope that incorporate people with different ethnic and racial backgrounds. A postethnic perspective resists the grounding of knowledge and moral values in blood and history, but works within the last generation's recognition that many of the ideas and values once taken to be universal are specific to certain cultures. 2
Following Hollinger, I claim this postethnic shift in American society presents distinctive challenges to communities for whom “ethnicity” (broadly defined) used to serve as the primary anchor of identity. 3 While it is impossible to determine exactly when this postethnic shift took place—Hollinger's Postethnic America was published in 1995—we can generally say this has been developing for at least the last two decades.
This book argues that when the ethnic bond is broken or dissolves into a multi-ethnic/multi-racial mix, the age-old strategies Jews deployed to meet the challenges of survival of both Jewishness and Judaism become largely inoperative, since those strategies assume an “ethnic” root of Jewish identity as its foundation. While Judaism as a religion was often viewed as the glue that held the Jewish people together, the opposite has also been the case. That is, it was a notion of peoplehood (ethnically defined) that historically enabled Judaism to continue to serve as a meaningful identity label. 4 While throughout its history Judaism was often destabilized by the challenges of external rubrics, for example, Hellenistic culture, Greek and Western philosophy, mysticism, and science, what remained mostly stable was the ethnic core of Jewish peoplehood.
Today Judaism in America and Jewish peoplehood are in a state of transition—in a “post” state—in large part because the notion of peoplehood more generally is struggling to find footing in a society where ethnicity is becoming a more liquid and thus less dependable source of identity. 5 This is only partly the consequence of the empirical reality of intermarriage. It is also the consequence of the changing nature of identity in America, moving from the inherited to the constructed or performed. 6 In short, the success of Jews in America, and America's own turn from inherited to constructed identity, has created a challenge that is distinct if not unique in Jewish history.
The constructive component of this book presents one alternative for “Jewish” survival in such a shifting society. I argue that Jewish Renewal, a diffuse counter-cultural movement that began in the 1970s, offers a radical critique of Judaism coined by its founder Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi as Paradigm Shift. Throughout this book I argue that Jewish Renewal contains some thoughtful responses to postethnic America. 7 While Renewal today largely consists of a fairly small group of alternative communities scattered throughout the urban landscape of North America, its influence extends beyond these counter-cultural enclaves and offers American Jews a progressive alternative that is post-halakhic, global in scope, and more embracing of the multiethnic makeup of contemporary American society. I engage Renewal as a topos, a theoretical frame of reference that is connected to but not limited by the sociological reality of its communities. I argue that Renewal's critique of Judaism and its constructive alternative reach down to the very roots of Judaism and Jewishness, offering various ways to reconfigure Judaism for what I call a post-Judaism age, an age where Judaism remains related to but is no longer identical with Jewishness. In the words of Jacques Derrida cited as an epigraph to this book, “If Judaism is terminable, Jewishness is interminable. It can survive Judaism.” The opposite is arguably also the case.
This book assumes that we live in an era of “posts”: post-colonialism, postethnicity, post-Zionism, post-halakha, post-monotheism, even post-Judaism. The term “post-Judaism” is not simply a placeholder but, following Homi Bhabha's assessment of post-colonialism, I suggest Judaism in America is “marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the borderlines of the ‘present,’ for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post.’” 8 I do not mean to suggest that contemporary Judaism in America should be viewed through a post-colonialist lens, only that Bhabha's framework for understanding the post-colonialist world can be helpful in understanding the transitional nature of Jewish identity in America.
The borderlines, the unchartered marginal space, the “post” state of contemporary Judaism in America have emerged in large part due to two related phenomena: the collapsing structures of ethnicity and the culmination of a period marked by a Jewish spiritual renaissance that dominated American Judaism in the 1970s and 1980s. That period saw a resurgence of Orthodoxy, the Ba'al Teshuva (newly religious/born-again) movement, and a renewed embrace of traditional practice among non-Orthodox American Jews that included the rise of egalitarian traditionalism and the Havurah movement that was the precursor to Jewish Renewal. 9
Today we are arguably living on the other side of that renaissance, in a place “between,” no longer in the paradigm of a previous generation but not yet aware, and surely not familiar, with the new territory we already inhabit. Here is where we encounter Bhabha's notion of “post.” Much contemporary Jewish thinking continues to function, sometimes quite successfully, in an old paradigm—be it traditional or progressive—creatively rethinking past rubrics to answer the challenges of the present situation. But, as Bhabha suggests, “newness” does not exist on the continuum of past and present. Rather, “it renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent ‘in-between’ space that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present.” 10 My claim is that we are living in that rupture that produces the “in between.” I do not propose that the experience of being “in between” is one that must be rejected or reformed, but rather, I attempt to understand the nature of this grey zone and explore ways to live in it, and from it.
Bhabha's reading of the post-colonial world is skeptical that our marginal position can be understood by old models. “These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood—singular and communal—that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.” 11 The age of Jewish assimilation and acculturation is over and has largely been successful. Jews are arguably one of the most integrated minorities in America. 12 And the age of romanticization and nostalgia in the form of Jewish rediscovery has run its course (although its after-effects will continue to be felt for some time). As is sometimes the case, our social reality has advanced beyond our capacity to conceptualize a response to it that will simultaneously embrace and engage—and not resist or reject—the “new.” In this post-Judaism era, the past requires a combination of translation and abandonment, or translation as abandonment.
The term “post-Judaism” has been used in contemporary Israel to describe a spiritual renaissance among non-affiliated Jewish Israelis who are adapting Jewish motifs and rituals outside any formal institutional or spiritual framework. It is also sometimes used to describe a humanistic notion of Judaism not limited to Jews. 13 This includes large New Age gatherings in the Galilee and the Negev corresponding to Jewish festivals modeled after the Rainbow Gathering in the United States. An American articulation of post-Judaism would be different in large part because Jewishness, as a secular identity, is a much more stable category for Israelis than it is for American Jews. For American Jews, “Judaism”—either in a normative or “post” state—is a much more important source of Jewish identity than it is in Israel where Jewishness is defined through national affiliation and membership in the nation-state.
My use of the term “post-Judaism” is closer to Amanda Porterfield's use of “post-Protestantism” in her Transformation of American Religion. Porterfield suggests that “the transformation to a post-Protestant culture is the result of a variety of factors working together to loosen the dominance of Protestant institutions over the larger culture while at the same time allowing beliefs and activities rooted in Protestant tradition to interact more freely than ever before with beliefs and attitudes from other traditions.” 14 Normative Judaism, either traditional or progressive, assumes a stable ethnic anchor, although the Reform movement's embrace of patrilineal descent has significantly challenged that stability. 15 It is my contention that the ethnic anchor of Jewish identity has been irreparably torn in postethnic America. The inclusion of non-Jews in Jewish communities resulting from intermarriage, and the ways in which postethnicity has contributed to Jews defining their Jewishness by constructing/performing their Judaism outside any normative framework—including free and open expressions of religious syncretism and borrowing—has moved Judaism to what I have been calling a “post” state. In some ways, post-Judaism is a term that replaces “heresy” in a world where orthodoxy is no longer strong enough to enable heresy to be operative. 16 In the past, heresy was mostly, albeit not always, limited to doctrine and practice. 17 In contemporary America it is not only doctrinal and practical, but also cultural and biological. It is also the product of the lack of any central authority that is indicative of American religion more generally. All religious/rabbinic authority is limited solely to the individuals who accept that authority. Coupled with the individualistic spirit of American religion, Jewishness and Judaism have become liquid categories.
While this book argues that Renewal is perhaps the first systematic attempt to reconstruct Judaism in a post-Judaism era, I do not claim that it solves the problem. One aspect of this “post” phase is that the questions themselves are in a state of flux. I submit that Renewal's program is a radical departure from the very foundations of Jewish tradition. However, I suggest that it recognizes the shifting globalization of human, and Jewish, civilization in ways that may contribute to a new Judaism for the proximate future.
If postethnicity (and thus post-Judaism) is indeed upon us, new rubrics will be required to navigate the dislocation of ethnicity and construct a Judaism that is no longer tethered to a notion of peoplehood as previously understood. Bhabha describes what I think is also applicable to contemporary American Judaism and Jewishness: “The very concepts of homogenous national cultures, the consensual or contiguous transmission of historical traditions, or ‘organic’ ethnic communities— as the grounds of cultural comparativism —are in a profound process of redefinition.” 18 The “post” state is the unstable space of “in between,” not only between the past and future but between the possible and the unthinkable. Throughout this book, Renewal will be presented as offering a metaphysical, (post) halakhic, societal, and pragmatic template with which Jews can navigate the contours of the new territory in which they now live.
As mentioned earlier, I do not envision Renewal as a way out of this “post” state. In Bhabha's words, once we “touch the future on its hither side” 19 there is no going back. If post-Judaism is one way to describe this new present, can it also be deemed successful? Have Jews in America moved beyond the possibility of saving themselves by reviving the past in an unrecognizable way? In the words of the Christian hymn, has American Jewry “drifted too far from the shore”? 20 If so, it is possible to think about ways of constructing this post-Judaism to engage the past without trying to save it. Ironically, America, which provided the most tolerant and embracing society in the Jewish Diaspora, has presented Jews with perhaps the most serious challenge they have faced in their long history: how to reconfigure Jewishness beyond ethnicity. For both classical secular Zionism and contemporary American Judaism, the Judaism of the past is over. Zionists, at least many of the radical secularists, viewed Judaism as a Diaspora phenomenon no longer necessary in a sovereign Jewish state. For them, Jewishness is a national identity, not religious. Jewishness as rooted in inheritance, in ethnicity, may not easily survive the postethnic turn in America, where biological descent increasingly yields to consent, where Jewishness is, for many, a choice rather than fate. While secular Zionism offered Jews Jewishness without Judaism, postethnic America has challenged Jews to consider whether Jewishness can exist beyond Judaism.
Before proceeding with this argument, it is important to take a step back and ask: Why focus on America? The assumption of this book is that America is categorically different than other parts of the Jewish Diaspora for at least two reasons. First, it is the first destination where Jews arrived emancipated. They never fought for their right to be there. They were almost immediately, with a few exceptions, expected to meet their obligations as citizens; they were assured of their right to practice their religion, and, perhaps ironically, quickly assumed the posture of acculturation and assimilation. “Americanization” was not one of a variety of options for Jews in America. It was the default position. 21 And this largely remains so, even for those who resist that description. This experience is true of all minorities. It is part of what living in America means. And even the continued disassimilation of many American Jews—Jews rediscovering their Jewishness within their Americanness—is part of their experience of being American in a multicultural society. But as I mentioned above, that too may be a thing of the past. This book is not about Judaism and multiculturalism but Judaism in an increasingly postethnic world, a world where identities are mixed, where allegiances are more voluntary than inherited, more the result of consent rather than descent.
Second, the United States is one of the first, if not the only, significant diasporic venue where Jews were not the most “othered” Other. In the United States, racism has always trumped Jew-hatred or anti-Semitism. Even when anti-Semitism was a palpable problem, from the 1920s through the late 1930s in the voices of Father Coughlin, Henry Ford, and others, it was never as pronounced or as threatening as racism. 22 In light of the racialist nature of American society, Jews were confronted with a different question: were they “white”? That is, were Jews a “race” and if so, what kind of race were they? The history of this question has been examined by numerous scholars and of late has become a subject of intense academic interest. 23 For Jews in America the race question was quite different from what it was in Europe. In Europe racialism was largely a handmaiden of anti-Semitism. In America, racism was situated within the historical context of slavery. While it included discrimination against “non-white” races, that is, Latinos, Asians, and Jews, its primary focus was against blacks. This difference is crucial in a discussion of Jewish identity in America, firstly, because it renders anti-Semitism an untenable source of Jewish self-definition and, secondly, because it means that Jews are unable to depend, negatively or positively, on simply being defined by another. They must define themselves.
How does this all play out in a time—our time—when “race” and ethnicity have become more complicated? In a society that aspires to be tolerant, where ethnicity is no longer supposed to be foundational, what separates the American Jew or Jewish American from any other American with a chain of hyphens to call his or her own? 24 In America it is not gentile animosity, as Sartre famously argued in his Antisemite and Jew , which defines the Jew. And it is no longer adherence to a religion defined as a set of behaviors and beliefs, since a majority of American Jews are secular and an increasing number of self-identified “Jews” say they have “no religion.” 25 Rather, it is an attachment to an ethnos , a pedigree, a “people,” often claimed without a sense of what that means. And it is that very structure that I argue is collapsing. A return to religion, that had its day from the early 1970s through the 1990s, is one answer to the question of what Jewish identity means. But that will only suffice for a small group of self-selected individuals, and even then its reach is quite limited and, in any event, requires a multicultural society in order to function.
In the past few decades we have witnessed a significant shift on the question of ethnos in America. It is often overlooked that the first African American president is also the first mixed-race president. In some ways the latter is even more monumental than the former, and the fact that we call him the first African American president without any real recognition of his mixed-race pedigree shows the extent to which we are still thinking in a binary ethnic/racial paradigm (black or white). It was only in 1967 (when Barack Obama was a child) that the Supreme Court determined that the prohibition of interracial marriage was unconstitutional. The growing rate of interethnic marriage among many hyphenated groups—Jewish intermarriage rates are largely on par with most of these groups—has helped create an empirical postethnic reality that challenges American Jewry's ability to identify, as it had for centuries, within the binary categories of “Jewish” and “American,” as if the former is distinct from, albeit integrated in, the latter. 26
This book assumes we are still living in a period of post-assimilation, which I have preferred to call disassimilation. 27 I divide American Jewish disassimilation into two basic periods: the romantic/nostalgic and the constructive/illustrative. 28 The first period lasted from the 1960s until the late 1990s. It gave us the resurgence of Orthodoxy, the Havurah movement, the rise of Habad and ArtScroll, even the fledgling Independent Minyan movement and a variety of traditional and progressive forms of reengagement with tradition in a world in retreat from secularism. This period is romantic in its depiction of the “old world,” holding it to be somehow more authentic than the world we live in today. It maintains an allegiance to a kind of legal formalism where precedent is authoritative albeit not always definitive. 29 One can even see this in the progressive three-volume Jewish Catalogues published from 1972 to 1976. The veritable “bible” of the New Age Jewish renaissance, the Catalogues present a largely nostalgic vision of the past with quaint photos of Hasidim from the Lower East Side or Meah Shearim and street addresses of hasidic “rebbes” to visit while in Jerusalem. The Catalogues designate New York's Lower East Side as a “sacred place [where] a Jew could engage with authentic Judaism…and a suburban Jew could sensually imbibe the residue of a more traditional past.” 30 The implication here is that the suburban Jew could be considered, by comparison to the Lower East Side Jew, inauthentic. The depiction in the Catalogues of the simplicity of the Sephardic and Yemenite Jews illustrates a kind of Jewish Orientalism common in those circles. The Catalogues had a very ethnic orientation. This period of Jewish romanticization did break new ground, but it cannot survive the transition from the postwar period to the period of (spiritual) globalization. There is, of course, a wide ideological chasm between, for example, ArtScroll and the Independent Minyan movement. The former are staunch traditionalists and halakhic formalists; the latter are progressive traditionalists and halakhic innovators. Yet when compared to what I argue is a radical critique of Judaism and Jewishness in Jewish Renewal, both occupy opposite ends of the first stage of disassimilation in American Judaism.
By the constructive/illustrative period I mean a selective adaptation of a tradition that is then reframed through the lens of ideals distinct from traditional/Orthodox articulations of that tradition and aligned with New Age spiritual and politically progressive principles. Thus it is not a “return” or even a “corrective” that we see in Orthodoxy or even traditional egalitarian (what I call post-Conservative or neo-Reform) Judaisms. It uses traditions from the past but no longer needs to romanticize them or hold them to be anything more than creative resources with which to reconstruct a new Jewish spirituality. It is radical, because it reimagines Judaism from its very roots without the obligatory tie to halakha or its past authority, while committed to ritual as a basis of communal cohesion (in some circles called “post-halakha”).
While dedicated to the affirmation of Jewish particularity expressed in ritual and practice, constructive/illustrative disassimilation has a trajectory that is expansive rather than insular, widening its scope to view Judaism as a template for the world rather than simply the source of Jewish identity. It proposes not only a (post) halakhic alternative (here strongly influenced by Mordecai Kaplan's Reconstructionist Judaism) but a metaphysics that grounds its new Judaism in an alternative theological system. 31 It is open to the conscious use of religious syncretism and the sharing of texts and rituals with other religions. Its commitment goes beyond the “religious pluralism” that occupied progressive Judaisms in the romantic/nostalgic period. It is committed to an open and expansive trajectory not based on a new method of textual analysis or even societal reality but on a new metaphysical foundation that I call “Jewish post-monotheism” (elaborated in chapter 7 ). This post-monotheistic turn is not overtly rooted in historical precedent, although I argue it may reflect pre-monotheistic dimensions of Ancient Israelite religion. In line with an Aquarian Age ideology, it asserts that human civilization has entered a new epoch, and that Judaism (like all traditions) must recalibrate itself to conform to the cosmic and humanistic dimensions of this new epoch.
The prehistory of the constructive/illustrative period of disassimilation in the United States was a classic third-generation nostalgic search for roots that mirrored a similar phenomenon in general society sparked by, among other things, the 1977 television miniseries Roots 32 Jacob Neusner suggests that American Judaism in the 1980s was the creation of the third generation of Jewish Americans beginning with the wave of immigration from 1880 until the Johnson-Reed act of 1924, “the result of a contentious effort to remember what its parents equally deliberately forgot. The decision was made in a free society and represented free and uncoerced choice…it is the first generation to define for itself what ‘being Jewish’ would consist of, and how Judaism, as an inherited and received religious tradition, would be taken over as part of this definition.” 33 In the early 1970s and 1980s American Jewry, fully assimilated and mostly comfortable, witnessed a phenomenon of religious return sometimes referred to as the Ba'al Teshuva movement. In many ways this was a classic third-generation return to roots; it was influenced by everything from the counterculture to the rise of identity politics and ethnic pride (the 1967 Six-Day War, the movement for Soviet Jewry, and Holocaust education are only a few Jewish cultural referents). 34 Children of second-generation assimilated Jews began to explore their tradition, and many found a faith that was lost in the receding current of Jewish Americanization. The Orthodox Jewish establishment, lacking direction in the rising tide of Americanization in the 1950s and early 1960s, was poised for such a postwar turn and quickly developed “outreach” organizations for these newly religious seekers. 35 At the same time, albeit for different reasons, Israel began to play a more prominent role in American Jewish identity as well. The post-1967 era, a strong U.S. dollar, and more inexpensive overseas travel, coupled with the leisure time—and financial resources—of many young middle-class Jewish Americans, made Israel a popular destination for a generation seeking to discover their origins. On this reading, the Ba'al Teshuva movement was “identity spirituality” in practice.
Yet even in its widest articulation, the Ba'al Teshuva movement was essentially a return to Orthodoxy. Many young Jews were fleeing their overly Americanized, middle-class, and hopelessly sterile non-Orthodox synagogues (portrayed as the source of existential angst and banal cynicism in the Coen brothers' film A Serious Man ) in search of an authentically spiritual path, a Jewish nirvana, and a way out of the American suburbs. Orthodoxy presented itself as a spiritual alternative to American materialism and the uninspiring and bourgeois Judaism of their parents (Franz Kafka's “Letter to My Father” resonates with this sentiment even as it was written in a very different time and place). Thinkers such as Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel served as bridge figures between these young, Jewishly illiterate but highly intelligent men and women and the “spirituality” of “authentic” Judaism. And the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe Menahem Mendel Schneerson and his Habad movement provided the resources and an uplifting spiritual message of authenticity and nostalgia (Hasidism as “good old-time religion”) that touched many in this generation of seekers. This movement back to tradition/Orthodoxy also coincided with the rise of New Age religion in America in the early 1970s. Many young Jews became ba'alei teshuva through a short stint in one of the many New Age venues.
As time went on three things happened to undermine or at least attenuate the ba'al teshuva phenomenon, eventually leading to its demise as a movement and giving rise to what I call the constructive/illustrative period of disassimilation. First, many Jews began to construct New Age Judaisms that retained a strong commitment to the progressive ideals of New Age religion but expressed those ideals through a reconstructed Judaism no longer tied to Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy's claim of authenticity weakened in the less sentimental psychology of the fourth generation. Many in this fourth generation gained access to tradition and then severed it from its ideological foundations without feeling the weight of tradition pressing down on them.
Second, the rise of Jewish Studies in the American academy began to produce scholars who were offering more nuanced and complex studies on the history of Judaism and the Jewish textual tradition. By 1971 over 185 colleges and universities in America began offering courses in Jewish Studies. Over the past two decades, Jewish Studies scholarship has begun to make a tangible impact on the larger questions of Jewish identity and Judaism more generally. 36 Functioning in the secular academy, many of these scholars and the newly found Jewish Studies programs where they teach offer new (and often subversive) perspectives on the Jewish tradition that are neither rooted in traditional ideology nor tied to any community (Elliot Wolfson's work on Kabbala and Daniel Boyarin's reconstruction of rabbinic culture are significant contributions to this phenomenon). Like many academic disciplines in the humanities, and the study of religion in particular, Jewish Studies often sought to undermine accepted “orthodoxies” and question previous assumptions about tradition. Representing a new approach to Judaism unmoored from religious life or practice, academic Jewish Studies provided resources for a new generation in search of a way to define “Jewishness” outside the confines of institutional religion.
Third, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, after the Ba'al Teshuva movement had significantly waned, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaisms began to offer outreach to a new generation of American Jews in search of a “return” to Judaism but no longer willing to abandon their progressive ideals and join Orthodoxy. Traditional egalitarianism and the Independent Minyan movement, still in its infancy, and Reform's return to ritual and “spirituality” are some examples of these new responses. More recently, certain factions of Modern Orthodoxy have begun to creatively rethink their own commitments to their ideals, specifically but not exclusively related to issues of gender, producing an inner tension within the Modern Orthodox community that is working itself out in the first decade of this new century. These all constitute late instantiations of the romantic/nostalgic period.
In each chapter of this book, I argue that the transition from this first phase of disassimilation (romantic/nostalgic) to the second (constructive/illustrative) can be found in what has become known today as Jewish Renewal. 37 Renewal offers new rubrics to reintegrate Judaism by reformulating it from its very foundations in an era in which (a) ethnicity is no longer the first-tier source of Jewish identity in America; and (b) American Jewry's successful assimilation and integration into American society means that it no longer needs to construct its religion as a way to protect it from the world. Rather, Renewal offers the argument that Judaism can now move beyond its parochial interests and enable Jews to contribute to global civilization as Jews, offering Judaism's many positive attributes to the non-Jewish world while erasing many of its negative qualities that Renewal claims are remnants of an “earlier paradigm” stemming largely from Jews' historical status as a pariah people.
Renewal in America is diasporist and “post” post-Holocaust in the following way. It is not founded on Zionism or the Holocaust, the two pillars of contemporary American Jewish identity and the centerpieces of the romantic/nostalgic period. This is not to say that Israel and the Holocaust have no role to play in Renewal thinking. It only means that their centrality is viewed as part of a previous epoch and must be recalibrated, along with everything else, in this new epoch. In my view, this phenomenon is also part of a shift in the thinking of contemporary American Jewry more generally.
Jews in America today do not need Judaism in order to identify as “Jewish,” and they do not need to identify as “Jewish” or to identify with a Jewish collective (nor do they need to convert to some other religion) in order to live fully integrated lives in twenty-first-century America. 38 Yet increasingly many Jews in America want to identify as Jews—even many who are married to non-Jews or who have one non-Jewish parent—and they want Judaism in some form to serve that identity. But they want it on their terms in part because the myth of tradition no longer operates for them as authoritative. Moreover, being ethnically Jewish (Jewishness sans religion) is no longer sufficient when a growing minority—and soon, the majority—of American Jews are multiethnic. For many of them, being Jewish is one part of a more complex narrative of identity.
In addition, the significant diminution of anti-Semitism in America provides new opportunities for Jews to rethink Judaism as something other than a way to self-identify in opposition to a threatening host society. The fear of disappearance is no longer operative as the driving force for Judaism to serve as a protective shield against assimilation. American Jews are largely assimilated. Yet many choose to remain Jews, regardless of the extent of their Jewish knowledge. It is true that the increasing multiethnic makeup of American Jewry and the growing number of non-Jews who, for various reasons, want a voice in the Jewish community without becoming “Jews,” will change what was the ethnocentric character of Jewishness in America. This radical change in the Jewish community is clearly a result of thriving in a tolerant society. The fact that non-Jews want to marry Jews and then often choose to play a role in the Jewish community without converting to Judaism is a sign of the success, not the failure, of American Judaism. It is also a sign of the success, and not the failure, of American society in general with regard to its relationship to Jews. The changing nature and texture of Jewish identity and community are only tragic if one remains wed to a confined, albeit normative, definition of Jewishness or Judaism—a definition that I would also argue is unsustainable.
This book is not a historical study. It is also not a sociological study in the formal sense of the discipline. It is, rather, a contribution to the growing field of Jewish cultural studies. I examine various phenomena, both religious and cultural, throughout the American Jewish experience in an attempt to construct what I find to be the seeds of a new paradigm of Jewishness in Jewish Renewal widely construed. I have been very selective in choosing topics to illustrate my thesis. The topics include ethnicity/postethnicity, Jesus in the American Jewish imagination, piety and progressive religiosity, halakha/post-halakha, sainthood and selfhood as models of leadership, and the Holocaust.
The choice of topics mentioned above indicates a specific point of view, even bias, in that these topics include what I think is both important and interesting about American Jews and American Judaism in the contemporary world. I begin in the first chapter with a general discussion of ethnicity and postethnicity to serve as the frame of the analytic part of my argument. The second chapter offers a trajectory on the question of ethnos and Jewishness in America from the late nineteenth century to the present in three figures: Felix Adler, Mordecai Kaplan, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.
Chapter 3 explores American Jewish attitudes toward the figure of Jesus, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing, with some interruption, until today. My assumption, following Stephen Prothero, is that Jesus in America is not solely a religious figure but also a central cultural icon. Jewish reactions to Jesus, no longer as prominent as they were in the nineteenth century, continue to be expressed in American Jewish theology today. 39 Much of that discussion in postwar America took the form of ecumenicism focused on shared values and paths of cooperation. Almost all are born from the historical Jesus school that began in nineteenth-century Germany among Protestants and was adopted by Jews in both Europe and America and, to a certain extent, in Mandate Palestine/Israel. Here I argue that Zalman Schachter-Shalomi breaks new ground by abandoning the search for the Jewish Jesus as a historical figure and painting a Jesus who is a Christ figure. This is not say that Schachter-Shalomi advocates Jewish worship of Jesus, but that Jews must consider the role Jesus plays for Christians as a Christ figure and not simply as a rebellious rabbi. He creatively deploys the kabbalistic/hasidic notion of the “collective soul” ( neshama kelalit ) as a way for Jews to acknowledge Jesus as Christ for Christians and also to explore how a similar model of the “collective soul” could function in contemporary Jewish spirituality.
In chapters 4 through 6 I turn to Jewish Renewal more systematically. I focus on three areas: post-monotheism as a new American Jewish metaphysics exemplified in Renewal's radical Jewish theology ( chapter 4 ); the relationship between Renewal and pragmatism and American philosophical thinking ( chapter 5 ); and the question of “talmudism,” halakha, and post-halakha in American Judaism ( chapter 6 ). In chapter 7 I examine the issues of leadership and authority, illustrated through a comparison of the rise of sainthood in contemporary Israeli Judaism and the turn to selfhood in American Judaism. Here I engage contemporary Orthodoxy in the form of ArtScroll publications and compare it to Renewal to illustrate the way ArtScroll reconstructs the Jewish saint into an America hero as a self-help guide, and, similarly, how Renewal views the “rebbe” as function rather than person. In both cases, there is a kind of humanization of leadership or, at the very least, a diffusion of the model of wonder-working saint as it exists today in contemporary Israel.
In the final chapter I examine the Holocaust and its American reception as an introduction to Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's “post” post-Holocaust thinking, which I argue changes the trajectory of the discussion of the Holocaust and its place in twenty-first-century American Judaism. To set this innovation in context I examine five very different American Jewish thinkers, none of whom are considered Holocaust thinkers but all of whom have very important things to say about it. They are Jeffrey Alexander, Henry Feingold, Jacob Neusner, Meir Kahane, and finally Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. The goal is to broaden the discussion about the Holocaust at a time when its witnesses are slowly fading from our midst. A child born today may never know a Holocaust survivor as an adult. American Jewry in the next generation will have to construct ways to understand, memorialize, and integrate the Holocaust in their American lives in very different ways from their parents or grandparents. Formulating a response to the Holocaust as “history” may be one of American Jewry's biggest challenges in the next generation, just as the death of the last African American born a slave in the 1960s was for African Americans. Post-Holocaust consciousness is endemic to the sweeping cultural changes that began in the second half of the twentieth century.
I conclude this introduction with a kind of confession. While this book is scholarly in both apparatus and method, its genealogy is far more personal and complex (or, perhaps, messy). Here I have found Edward Said's comment in his essay “Overlapping Territories: The World, the Text, and the Critic” quite instructive:
I think there is no doubt that one does organize one's study out of concerns for the present; to deny that is bad faith. You're interested in things for all kinds of contemporary reasons. It may be the advancement of your career (to start at the very bottom), but it can also concern your own genealogy, as Foucault would say, your sense of belonging within a particular field…I guess you could say that a project arises out of two normally unconnected things: convergent political concerns in the contemporary world and a genuine historical curiosity about what produced this situation. And you have to carry it out in a conscious and rational way, with lines of force emerging out of the past for transformation in the present. 40
While we are taught in graduate school that personal investment is not a criterion for scholarship, as we mature and explore the intricacies of academic books and the scholars who write them we come to realize that the very teachers who taught us this principle did not, could not, live up to it. Whether we agree or disagree with his “concerns,” Said is the model of a scholar who was unafraid to openly acknowledge the relationship between his thinking and his experience of the world. Another example of this courageous step (and the confession that one's personal investment in academia is, in fact, courageous) appears in Judith Butler's “Preface 1999” to her groundbreaking book Gender Trouble (1990). Reflecting on almost a decade since the appearance of her book she writes:
Although I've enumerated some of the academic traditions and debates that have animated this book…there is one aspect of the conditions of its production that is not always understood about the text: it was produced not merely from the academy, but from convergent social movements of which I have been a part. And within the context of the gay and lesbian community on the east coast of the United States in which I have lived for fourteen years prior to the writing of this book…At the same time I was ensconced in the academy, I was also living a life outside those walls, and though Gender Trouble is an academic book, it began, for me, with a crossing-over, sitting on Rehoboth Beach, wondering whether I could link the different sides of my life. 41
It seems to me Said and Butler not only recognize the legitimacy of such confessionals but feel responsible to give their readers a sense of the psychological nature and personal investment of their academic writing. 42 Here, briefly, I add my own.
I grew up as a secular Jew in the suburbs of New York City. In 1978 at the age of twenty I became a ba'al teshuva and fairly quickly entered into the haredi world in Brooklyn and Jerusalem initially under the tutelage of an obscure and enigmatic hasidic rabbi named Dovid Din. Before entering the sphere of old-world Hasidism I had a few brief encounters with two individuals who maintained considerable space in my psyche throughout my adult life (largely unbeknownst to them): Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Dovid Din had been a student of Schachter-Shalomi in the mid 1960s). Looking for the “authentic” spiritual life, I walked the hasidic walk and talked the hasidic talk, studying in hasidic, Sephardic, and later Modern Orthodox yeshivot for almost seven years and then living for three years in Moshav Modi'im, a small collective community in Israel founded by students of Shlomo Carlebach. For reasons not relevant here I eventually left that world, and subsequently Orthodoxy more generally, yet remained fascinated by, and deeply invested in, the complex nexus of Judaism and the American counterculture in which I was raised. Academia, in particular, the field of religious studies, is a logical choice for many in my situation, people who passed through various avenues of alternative lifestyles yet felt unsatisfied being on the “inside.” One sometimes has to leave those worlds to gain a deeper intellectual understanding of how those worlds work and why they didn't work for them. For people like me, academia is a form of self-exile.
After writing many scholarly articles and numerous books on Hasidism and Kabbala (and, yes, getting tenure), I came to a point succinctly expressed by Butler above, “I was also living a life outside those [academic] walls…[and I wondered] whether I could link the different sides of my life.” And so, in light of, and in spite of, my enduring commitment to the academy I turned my attention to what Said coined as one's “own genealogy” as a way to avert the “bad faith” he claimed accompanied the illusion of objectivity.
The claim of this book is that we stand on the cusp of a new era, what Bhabha calls a time of “posts.” But for me it is also a time to reassess what Jews in America have accomplished in the past fifty years and the role I have played as a participant in that ongoing project. I do not write as an impartial observer but as a player in many of the communities mentioned in this book and as an “experimenter” in many of the ideas that have become concretized in its chapters. In “I Shall Be Released” Bob Dylan wrote, “every distance is not near.” Proximity does not by definition produce bias. Investment does not necessarily yield apologetics. The best critic, perhaps, is one who is open (to herself at least) about what is at stake, collectively and personally, in her scholarly projects. As Butler wrote, scholars also live lives outside the walls of the academy, and those lives mold, inform, and have a voice in the production of good scholarship. For better or worse that is how I have chosen to engage in my scholarly pursuits, and this book is perhaps the most overt example of this process. Readers and history will be the judge of its, and my, success. And that is how it should be.
1
Be the Jew You Make: Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness in Postethnic America
Have ethnicities, the influx of which has formed the population of the great modern republic of North America, kept their particularities? No.
—Bruno Bauer, “La question juive”
What will become of the Jewish people?
—A. B. Yehoshua, lecture to the American Jewish Committee, 2006
The trajectory of the twentieth century has taken America from a theory of the melting pot focused on the erasure of distinct immigrant identities to a resurgence of cultural specificity in Horace Kallen's cultural pluralism, multiculturalism, and identity politics. Jews have been active participants in all of these cultural shifts, both as Americans and as Jews. 1
The postwar reiteration of Horace Kallen's cultural pluralism in works such as John F. Kennedy's Nation of Immigrants (1958), Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan's Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), Michael Novak's The Unmeltable Ethnics (1971), Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers (1976), and Alex Haley's Roots (1976) eventually produced a multiculturalism that enabled Jews (and other ethnic groups) to rediscover the religion and cultural distinctiveness of their grandparents that was largely hidden from view in the decades of assimilation. 2 Yet even as American Jews in the 1960s and 1970s became reacquainted with their tradition, or at least less afraid of expressing their Jewish identity, they largely remained secular and continued the forward motion of acculturation and assimilation. This tension is aptly expressed by Bernie Steinberg, the Jewish character in the early 1970s sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie , when he says to his family, “I don't believe this. I've lived with you people all my life. Now why is everyone all of a sudden being so Jewish?” 3 Intermarriage rates among American Jews continued to rise, and Jews' full participation in secular American life continued to thrive unabated.
In short, in postwar America Jews became more interested in their Jewishness, and even Judaism, albeit not always in a specifically religious way. Zionism and the impact of the Holocaust served as new anchors of identity for many Jews who wanted to be more “Jewish” but also wanted to remain secular. This arguably brought ethnicity back to the forefront of Jewish identity in postwar America. 4 White ethnic revival, especially after the Civil Rights movement, included the American Jewish search for its own roots as a part of the progressive political concerns of many American Jews. 5
The connection between identity politics and the reclaiming of Jewish ethnic identity is duly noted by Eric Goldstein. “In the years that followed the emergence of black nationalism in the mid 1960s, young Jewish activists, many of whom had been active in the struggle for black civil rights, decided that the renewal of their own cultural traditions and the highlighting of their own ethnic distinctiveness was the only way to attain a sense of difference they desired.” 6 This phenomenon is true of American society more generally. Will Herberg was simply mistaken when he wrote in 1960 that “the ethnic group [in America] had no future…ethnic pluralists were backward looking romantics.” 7 In 1986 Werner Sollors, writing about the reception of Mario Puzo's The Godfather as ethnic literature, said, “This attitude is quite common in ethnic studies today. It is based on the assumption that experience is first and foremost ethnic. Critics should practice cultural relativism and stick to their own turfs (based, of course, on descent), since an unbridgeable gulf separates Americans of different ethnic backgrounds and most especially all White Anglo Saxon Protestants from all non-WASPS.” 8
Sollors's comment was written almost a generation ago. The residual effects of identity politics in America have largely morphed into a different set of political and social concerns, significantly influenced by globalization. While ethnicity remains a strong source of identity both in America and in other countries around the globe, we need to take seriously Arjun Appadurai's observation that ethnoscapes, the conjunction between an ethnos and territory, are no longer an ironclad anthropological object, in large part the result of the dissolution of historically unselfconscious or culturally homogenous societies. 9 Ultimately, Herberg may have been correct, albeit in a way he could not have imagined. Consider, for example, the trajectory from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which inspired the Black Nationalist movement, to Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father (1995), which showed a young man who had been inspired by Malcolm X and came to terms with his mixed-race parentage: a Kenyan father he barely knew and a white mother and white grandparents he adored. 10
America is steadily being transformed from a multiculturalist and ethnocentric society to a postethnic society, and this change undermines, or at least problematizes, the place of ethnicity in American identity that dominated the second part of the twentieth century. This does not suggest that ethnicity has disappeared, or will disappear, and that America will become a society divided purely by class. “Ethnicity,” depending on how the term is defined, will survive but will become something other than purely a consequence of ascription or descent. 11 A multiethnic or polyethnic society will produce new ethnicities that are created by a combination of descent and consent, ascription and affiliation. Disassimilation will often occur before ethnicities are totally reconstituted, because disassimilation is not a return to a pre-assimilated ethnic mode as much as a revision, taking into consideration the changes assimilation has invariably produced. Disassimilation among ethnic groups that have already lost a sense of “pure” ethnicity due to intermarriage and assimilation will generate new ethnicities and not erase ethnicity as a category of social identification. This type of assimilation is quite different from the “structural pluralism” Milton Gordon described in 1964.
The acculturation process, thus, has drastically modified American Jewish life in the adaptation to American middle-class values, while it has not by any means “dissolved” the group in a structural sense. Communal life and ethnic self-identification flourish within the borders of a group defined as one of the “three major faiths” of America, while at the same time its members and, to a considerable degree, its institutions become indistinguishable, culturally, from the personnel and institutions of the American core society. 12
While structurally Gordon's assessment may still be relevant, one could argue that the American Jewish community has moved beyond what he describes into a “post” phase outside this “acculturation without assimilation” model to something more complicated and less cohesive. 13
Defining ethnicity is no easy task and has been the subject of many studies by social theorists. 14 For my limited purposes I have found Max Weber's definition suitable, albeit not perfect.
We shall call ethnic groups those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; this belief must be important for the propagation of group formation; conversely it does not matter whether or not an objective blood relationship exists. Ethnic membership ( Gemeinsamkeit ) differs from the kinship group precisely by being a presumed identity, not a group with concrete social action, like the latter. In one sense ethnic membership does not constitute a group; it only facilitates group formation of any kind, particularly in the political sphere. 15
Weber's distinction between ethnicity and kinship, between real and imagined connectedness, between blood and custom and, I would add, between history and narrative, speaks to ethnicity as conceived throughout Jewish history. Anthony Smith's definition of “ ethnie ” adds some texture to Weber's definition above.
An ethnie may be defined as a named human population with a shared myth of descent, shared memories and culture and a sense of attachment to a “homeland.”…They may be seen as communities of culture and history based on a fictive kinship, summed up in a powerful myth of descent that binds and legitimates the community…. The “core” feature of such memories, myths and symbols is the point of reference in the past, in myths of origin and memories of liberation and a golden age. 16
Many Jews in America identify as Jews primarily through the notion of a relatedness that speaks to Weber's and Smith's notion of cultural formation, religion being only one piece of that group identity. Of late, this primal identity has begun to waver, if not disappear. 17
Following David Hollinger I suggest this shift from ethnic to postethnic and from identity as fixed to identity as performed merits a re-evaluation of the melting pot and Reform Judaism's claim that religion and not ethnicity should define American Jews. 18 This is not to suggest these theories can be resurrected. The conditions of twenty-first-century America make that impossible. It is to say, rather, that the underlying problematic of ethos (religion) verses ethnos (ethnicity) that informed these solutions over a century ago has not disappeared and, in fact, may have reappeared in new ways in postethnic America. 19 The contours of postethnic America provide different rubrics for what the melting pot could mean and how religion is increasingly a product of voluntarism and inventiveness as opposed to inherited tradition. 20 New formulations of these ideas could serve to construct new forms of identity in a postethnic civilization.
There is considerable fear in the contemporary American Jewish community that America's acceptance of Jews and Judaism—perhaps coupled with America's postethnic turn—could result in the disappearance of both. Books such as Alan Dershowitz's The Vanishing American Jew and Elliot Abram's Faith or Fear , and programs such as Birthright Israel , are three examples among many in which this fear is addressed and solutions are sought. 21 Others, like Jonathan Freedman in his recent Klezmer America , offer an alternative perspective. Commenting on Dershowitz and Abrams, Freedman writes,
The anxiety they register, it seems to me, is not significant in and of itself—clearly those who identify with traditional Jewish identity politics of either a secular or a religious nature are going to want to stress their embattlement for strategic reasons—but it is an indicator of an impulse in Jewish intellectual and cultural life with which I am in profound disagreement, one that stressed the need for purity, consistency, essence, limits, boundaries in defining what is and what is not Jewish. This is of course one impulse in Judaism as a religious practice itself, one in which the delineation of the clean and unclean, the pure and corrupt, is central, definitional. But it's more powerfully, and more problematically, a repeated impulse in the critical response of American Jews in a multiracial, multicultural America—an impulse to (as it were) circle the wagons, to define Jewishness (itself a notoriously multiple religious practice and identity) in monolithic and essentializing terms. 22
I am sympathetic to Freedman's intuitions here. In part, the fears he draws attention to may be the result of an old paradigm trying to force itself on a new situation that cannot meet its criteria. If postethnicity is indeed a growing reality, and if Jews in America are so integrated into their social structure that asking them to reject it would be tantamount to asking them to become an anomaly in order to “survive,” might we think about how this postethnic turn can suggest new structures of Jewish identity? That is, how can “survival” be reformulated in a way that enables the entire notion of identity to be calibrated anew?
My point in this chapter is not to argue that our understanding of the future of Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness in America should be driven solely by the realities of the American cultural landscape (that is, that the “ought” should, by definition, be determined by the “is”). One could surely argue quite forcefully (and many have tried to) that the existence of a burgeoning postethnic America should compel Jews to create an even stronger ethnic anchor in order to prevent Jewishness and Judaism from becoming hopelessly buried in the multiethnic mix of American society. This is exactly what Dershowitz, Abrams, Steven Cohen, and Jack Wertheimer argue. In some way, the Orthodox kiruv (outreach) movement and contemporary Reform's return to ethnicity and tradition (first manifest in the 1937 Columbus Platform's advocating a return to the notion of Jews as a nation, and more recently in the Reform embrace of a new style of progressive “halakha”) are implicitly making such a claim. 23 What I am suggesting, however, is that while the “is” of postethnicity poses certain challenges, it also poses certain potentially productive opportunities to rethink the very notion of the “ought.”
Here I am compelled by Georg Simmel's notion that when cultural forms become spiritually empty and no longer embody the life of the society, they cease to serve to perfect the members of the society in question. Such a situation does not require new articulations of older ideas but new models of understanding the very categories in question. Put differently, the new reality is not simply one more obstacle to be overcome (the traditional argument) or one more dimension of modernity that Jews must creatively respond to in order to survive under traditional parameters of survival (the progressive argument). 24 Rather, postethnic America is, to borrow a term used by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi for different purposes, a “paradigm shift” that demands a totally new approach to the very notion of survival, to the very contours of what we mean by “Jewishness” and “Judaism” in contemporary America (that is, to rethink the very parameters of the “ought”). 25 My point is only to begin with the premise that postethnicity is with us for the foreseeable future, and Jews must learn how to think within its boundaries and not simply deny its existence or remain wed to old-paradigm “oughts” in order to create models for survival, continuity, and renewal. 26
The question as to whether the instability of identity and ethnicity is a phenomenon limited to the individual or whether it extends to the very fabric of the Jewish collective is pertinent. That the individual Jew is in a state of flux in America is not a new observation. The important question is with regard to the collective. The debate among sociologists, cultural theorists, and historians who study American Jewry is generally about the collective future of Jews and Judaism in America. 27 Much of it begins with the assumption that being Jewish in America is no longer a liability. In the words of Bethamie Horowitz, “The major change in contemporary America is that there is no longer a stigma attached to being Jewish.” 28 For some this is the blessing under which hides a curse. While some argue that the Jewish collective has already collapsed, others argue that notwithstanding the danger posed to Jewish individuals, the community remains stable, intact, and thriving and continues its process of Americanization, managing the tension between tradition and acculturation. 29 I submit that the Jewish collective in America (as previously construed) is in a state of collapse, but unlike those who view this change in purely negative terms I suggest this collapse is largely dependent on the lens through which it is viewed, that is, how we understand the criterion of the “Jew” and the makeup of the Jewish collective.
The Jewish collective in America will survive; it will just look different than before. The normalization of intermarriage combined with a fairly new phenomenon of the intermarried Jew remaining part of a Jewish community and bringing his or her spouse and children into that community raises new issues about the very construction of a Jewish collective that includes non-Jews. The actual multiethnic and multiracial makeup of many American Jewish families should be examined considering Hollinger's thesis of postethnicity. This postethnic approach considers young men and women who own multiple narratives, family histories, and affiliations without a sense of disparity. It includes many who choose to live in multiple ethnic communities without seeing that choice as a contradiction. Here Horowitz's distinction between ethnicity and ethnic identity is helpful. She writes, “In contrast to ethnicity, ethnic identity refers to a person's self-perception of being a member of an ethnic group. In the bumpy ride from distinctiveness to assimilation and incorporation, the concrete ethnicity of old immigrant neighborhoods gave way over the course of time to what Herbert Gans has termed ‘symbolic ethnicity’ by which he means an individual idiosyncratic ethnic identity that has no institutional underpinning.” 30 In my view, the age-old criterion of Jewishness as rooted almost exclusively in familial history and affinity cannot survive the multiethnic family that no longer requires one to choose ascribed allegiance. One can contest and/or lament the reality that is emerging, and even try to institute measures to prevent it, but one cannot turn a blind eye to the changing contours of Jewishness in contemporary America.
To further explore the meaning of postethnicity, we first need to distinguish it from pluralism, of which multiculturalism is one form. 31 In general, pluralism respects inherited boundaries, acknowledges different ethnoracial identities, and seeks to preserve those identities through tolerance and recognition of the subaltern as a productive member of society whose voice needs to be heard independent of the dominant culture's influence. 32 This idea is not new; it has its roots in the early twentieth-century critiques of the melting-pot theory by Horace Kallen and Randolph Bourne. Kallen's cultural pluralism, most succinctly articulated in his 1915 essay “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot,” argues for the retention of ethnic “inheritances” in the face of American “accommodation.” Kallen believed that the very foundation of democracy is to promote and cultivate individual and collective self-realization that would necessitate cultural difference. More strongly, he argued that the project of Americanization underlying the melting pot is contrary to the nature of human civilization. 33 Old-style cultural pluralism is perhaps most succinctly described by Milton Gordon. Gordon suggests that “the presumed goals of the cultural pluralists are to maintain enough societal separation to guarantee the continuance of the ethnic cultural tradition and the existence of the group, without at the same time interfering with the carrying out of standard responsibilities to the general American civic life.” 34
Kallen's cultural pluralism summarized by Gordon was a response to a proposal of legislating the melting pot through, among other things, forced miscegenation. Kallen did not, perhaps could not, predict the extent to which “forced” miscegenation would not be required to undermine ethnicity in a society where ethnicity as the primary anchor of identity is voluntarily abandoned. 35 The intermarriage rate for Jews, Poles, and Italians in contemporary America, all around 50 percent, was achieved without legislating forced miscegenation. But it was part of the transition from pluralism (as merely tolerance) to multiculturalism, combined with the normalization of hybridity in which diversity is celebrated and not simply tolerated, and constructed ethnic identities are considered normative. Or, to quote Warren Beatty's half-crazed character Senator Bulworth in the film Bulworth , “All we need is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction.” 36
Today hybridity has largely become a badge of honor and not a sinful stain. This shift in perspective aligns with a postmodern sentiment suggesting that boundaries, that is, gender, sexual orientation, even ethnicity, are constructed rather than essential categories, hybridity serving as an alternative structure and not an occasion for the dissolution of essential communities. The celebration of hybridity in addition to diversity is one sign of the postethnic turn. This emerging postethnic social reality loosely corresponds to what Laurel Schneider refers to in her discussion about the political implications of theological multiplicity versus the “logic of the One.” She calls “a world of porous exchange” a place where boundaries of sameness built on the foundations of Ernst Renan's theory of the nation as the “spirit” of a people dissolves into what Jacques Derrida calls “cosmopolitan centers.” Multiculturalism as the celebration and not mere tolerance of diversity was the last phase before the very boundaries of otherness became porous and permeable enough to hemorrhage into new communal structures. 37
Cosmopolitanism in America reaches back to the period when the melting pot was undergoing critical scrutiny (cosmopolitanism has a much longer history in the Kantian tradition in Western Europe). 38 Randolph Bourne was perhaps the most articulate voice distinguishing between the “100 percent Americanism” espoused by Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt and the cultural pluralism of Horace Kallen. David Hollinger offers a succinct definition of Bourne's cosmopolitanism worth citing in full:
The “cosmopolitanism” to which I refer is the desire to transcend the limitations of any and all particularisms in order to achieve a more complete human experience and a more complete understanding of that experience. The ideal is decidedly counter to the eradication of cultural differences, but counter also to their preservation in parochial form. Rather, particular cultures and subcultures are viewed as repositories for insights and experiences that can be drawn upon in the interests of a more comprehensive outlook on the world. 39
Bourne also acknowledged that descent—the foundation of Kallen's argument—must co-exist with consent in a free society where we choose our affiliations even as we may still adhere to inherited ones. 40 Bourne hoped that this admixture would produce a cross-fertilization whereby new alliances are formed in which each inherited “culture” will contribute to the progress of the larger society. Kallen was not averse to crossing lines, although he was wary of their erasure. Bourne was more optimistic and less worried about the loss of inheritance, perhaps realizing that the very contours of inheritance would undergo a transformation in this experiment. 41
Contemporary cosmopolitanism and postethnicity acknowledge that ethnicity plays a role in individual and communal identity, but identity and community more generally are founded on voluntary and socially constructed affiliations. Postethnicity is wary of ethnoracial enclosures, knowing that the power they generate and the injustices they produce, largely through collective memory and nostalgia, can overshadow other dimensions of cultural identity. Postethnicity acknowledges and promotes multiple, not merely hyphenated, identities and the liminal character of group affiliation. 42 Anthony Appiah suggests that ethnicity may remain a part of the general script of one's identity but that script is rewritten by individuals and communities—often multiple times—according to values and principles not determined by ethnos. 43 Mitchell Cohen seems to concur when he concludes his essay “Rooted Cosmopolitanism” in Dissent Magazine , “I fear that too many votaries of multiculturalism have become unreflective celebrants of particularism.” 44
It is worth asking whether plural mono-culturalism is the best way to describe American society. Theorists and critics such as David Hollinger, Mitchell Cohen, and most recently Anthony Appiah advocate what Cohen calls “rooted cosmopolitanism,” which is more respectful of ethnicity in principle but stresses voluntarism and not birth as the root of individual and collective identity. This idea has its roots in Bourne's essay mentioned above. While present-day cosmopolitanism is universalist in nature, it differs from traditional models of universalism in that it respects the inevitability of diversity as part of its universalist vision and not as a problem to be overcome. 45 The failure of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism and Marxism to eradicate ethnicity and nationalism as determining factors in human society is a given in most postethnic models discussed today.
Postethnicity appreciates ethnicity as a piece of one's identity. The “post” in postethnic seeks to bring ethnicity back into focus, but this new notion of ethnicity is already restructured and, in part, a consequence not only of voluntarism but also of invention. 46 On this, Hollinger notes, “A postethnic social order would encourage individuals to devote as much—or as little—of their energies as they wished to their community of descent, and would discourage public and private agencies from implicitly telling every citizen that the most important thing about them was their descent community. Hence to be postethnic is not to be anti-ethnic, or even color-blind, but to reject the idea that descent is destiny.” 47 In addition, postethnicity supports the emergence of new ethnic configurations and new religious movements, a phenomenon so prevalent in the American religious landscape that there is a scholarly journal, Nova Religio , devoted exclusively to it. 48
Even though postethnicity gestures to Durkheim's notion that human collectives seek subcultures as opposed to the more amorphous category of the human, it simultaneously undermines traditional categories of ethnic inheritance supported by cultural pluralism and multiculturalism in favor of invented groups, multiple identities, and the formation of new groups. 49 In other words, in today's world of multiple identities, the notion of primary and secondary affiliation is largely context-driven and not determined by inheritance or even non-contextual preference. As David Hollinger puts it, “A postethnic perspective challenges the right of one's grandfather to determine primary identity.” 50 More explicitly, he writes, “Kallen used to say, ‘you can't change your grandparents,’ as if this was a knock-down argument against ethnoracial liberals…. You may not be able to change your grandparents, but you need not become cultural clones of them.” 51 On this point Lila Corwin Berman's comment regarding an earlier period, from World War I to the Cold War and Civil Rights Era, supports Hollinger's critique. “The problem with cultural pluralism, however, was that it appeared inaccurate: it assumed that groups would maintain their differences in perpetuity, and it did not face the reality, pointed out by sociologists like [Julius] Drachsler, that the lines dividing groups were already shifting, through the marriages members made across nationality and even religion.” 52
That the Jewish experience in America is distinct from other areas of the Diaspora is not a twentieth-century observation. Historians such as Heinrich Graetz already remarked in the nineteenth century that American Judaism does not easily fit into established rubrics of Jews in the Diaspora. There were no expulsions or pogroms in America, and the Disestablishment Clause prevented the legal system from denying Jews the freedom to practice their religion. In short, the Jewish story of exile does not easily conform to the American Jewish experience. Hence Reform Judaism's Pittsburgh Platform in 1885 erased exile as a description of American Jewry. 53 This erasure of “exile” not only suggested recognition of the viability of Jewry in America. It opened the possibility of seeing the Diaspora as a model of identity that extends beyond the political realm. Jonathan Freedman calls it “queer diasporism…a vision of reality that rejects origin, nationhood, cultural reproduction in favor of a vision that embraces cultural syncretism, wandering, exile without any sense of a mortal imperative of returning to origins.” 54 While this vision is surely not what American Jews had in mind in 1950, postethnicity opens up the possibility of hybridity (a notion Freedman borrows from Homi Bhabha's postcolonialist theory) not as a sad consequence of assimilation but as a constructive tool for a new paradigm of identity. 55
The dialectic between liberation, a term Jews often used to describe their immigration to America from oppressive regimes, and the dogged attachment to minority status that was used as a call for solidarity and continuity, resulted in what David Biale calls American Jews' “double consciousness.” 56 In America, Jews had to navigate between the desire to be integrated and the desire/need to remain separate. Biale's “double consciousness” may be a useful alternative to the more conventional dual allegiance that was also experienced in post-emancipated Europe. 57 European emancipation arguably never quite erased the barrier of separation enough for Jews to be threatened by assimilation in quite the same way they were in America. As Biale rightly notes, many of the alternatives of American identity in the twentieth century, such as socialism, liberalism, and the return to tradition, were spearheaded by Jews as a way to make sense of the double consciousness dilemma. Given the more recent postethnic turn, this dyad (integration-survival) is complicated by the removal of one of Judaism's most crucial components: ethnic distinctiveness.
There has often been a complex relationship between Jewishness and Judaism, if we set aside the myth that religion was always the glue that held Jews together before the Enlightenment and emancipation. 58 The vexing relationship between religion/culture and ethnicity as markers of identity is not unique to the American Jewish experience; it has existed in various forms for most of Jewish history. Martin Buber wrote that “Israel is a people like no other, for it is the only people in the world which, from its earliest beginning, has been both a nation and a religious community.” 59 Such a depiction is often used to exemplify a paragon of Judaism's distinctiveness. But Buber's comment is both anachronistic and simplistic. The claim of equivalency between religion and ethnicity ( cum nation) is not corroborated by Jewish history. Examples of Jewish identities that were not both religious and ethnic are found at least as far back as late antiquity, with the ambiguous status of the “fearers of heaven” ( yirei shamayim ), Greek pagans who lived as Jews without becoming Jews, to the status of the converso in medieval Iberia and southern Europe—born a Jew, reared a Christian; or born a Christian, claiming to be descended from Jews. The debate in post-emancipated Europe and America about whether Jews are a people or a spiritual/religious community also acknowledges this historical complexity. As Will Herberg says in his Protestant, Catholic, Jew , “[for Jews] the religious community bore the same name as the old ethnic group and was virtually coterminous with it.” 60 The context of Herberg's claim is significant. By the 1950s Herberg recognized the dissolution of Jewish ethnicity as a consequence of American integration. Coupled with the secularization of American Jewry, he argues that a new anchor of identity must be forged. His “triple melting pot” theory argues that Jews, like other religious communities, could find a new sense of identity in their religious heritage. 61 Herberg rightly observed that peoplehood was becoming less and less an operative category as integration and assimilation increased.
The question of the relationship between religion and ethnicity is still central to contemporary Jewish Americans. Deborah Dash Moore asks, “What did identity politics mean for American Jews?…Politics now extended into all reaches of society and culture, including Jewish life. What did it mean to be an American Jew? Was it a religious question? A question of ethnicity? Perhaps a political question? How did Jews understand themselves as individuals and as members of a group in the United States?” 62 In some ways, while these general questions may have been relevant to other Jewish communities throughout history, even today, the American context has enabled Jews to explore these issues more broadly, more freely, and more experimentally.
The attempt to divorce peoplehood from religion common in nineteenth-century Reform was countered by certain strains of Zionism that reversed the emphasis but maintained the essential structure of the equation. That is, Jews are first and foremost a people qua nation, religion serving as the dominant but not essential diasporic articulation of national consciousness that could, and should, be replaced by a secular form of nationalism realized in a nation-state and a revived secular Jewish culture. 63
In Jewish America the fragile dichotomy of religion and peoplehood was framed in the Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, the first doctrinal formulation of identity of Reform Judaism in America. 64 The fifth principle reads as follows: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” 65 While this statement may have been gesturing to the fledging Zionist movement's attempt to argue the opposite, it also intended to sever, or at least significantly weaken, the tie between ethos and ethnos in part to avoid any semblance of dual allegiance that threatened to undermine Reform's assimilatory project. Zionism was working in the opposite direction. 66 More broadly, Reform may have been trying in a somewhat radical fashion (albeit no less radical than Zionism) to once and for all resolve the complex relationship between religion and peoplehood that Jews struggled with for centuries. This was particularly problematic in America, where Jews were almost immediately expected to become full members of a foreign national collective.
As a result of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, ethnicity (Jewish nationalism was one expression of ethnicity in a secular Jewish society) became a more operative category in American Jewry. 67 This development was aided by the maturation of Horace Kallen's notion of cultural pluralism. 68 Among many other things, cultural pluralism, which morphed into multiculturalism by the 1980s, enabled assimilated and integrated Jews in America to retain their particularistic identity as part of a larger American project with little or no aid from religion. The fact that many Jews were prominent in promoting this ideology only speaks to the continued anxiety of marginality of a well-integrated minority, what Berel Lang calls the “anxiety of the hyphen.” 69 Jews may now be described by what David Biale calls a “double marginality.” They are well integrated into American society yet still desire in some ways to remain distinct from it. In America Jews are not, nor have they ever been, the most “othered” other. They struggle with the mixed blessing of successful integration. 70
Both cultural pluralism and multiculturalism are attempts to normalize diversity—in the case of multiculturalism, to celebrate diversity—and both have been very productive for Jews and other minorities. But America is in the midst of a significant postethnic shift. Postethnic—as opposed to multicultural—America presents serious challenges to the continuity and survival of Jews and Judaism precisely because it undermines the very notion of ethnicity that served Jews as an anchor of identity for most of its history. 71 This is particularly true in America as opposed to Europe because, at least in principle, American civic society is not founded on ethnicity. 72 Even as ethnos remains a constitutive part of distinct communities in America, it is arguably no longer the center of national collective consciousness. Thus ethnicity, even when maintained, is often less generative than other identity markers; for example, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, and popular culture groups (Trekkies, Oprah fans, Deadheads, etc.) make up distinct and sovereign American subcultures that are multiethnic. 73
Another way to view this shift away from the centrality of ethnicity is suggested by Herbert Gans in his “symbolic ethnicity” hypothesis. Gans argues that, as generations in America increase, “people are less and less interested in their ethnic cultures and organizations…. For the third and later generations, ethnicity is often symbolic, free from affiliation with ethnic groups or ethnic cultures, and dominated instead by a consumption of symbols.” 74 These “symbols” often manifest in artistic and aesthetic ways. For example, the plethora of fusion movements in contemporary American music speaks to a kind of symbolic ethnicity where ethnos is one tool in a larger toolbox that contributes to the creation of a new form of creative expression. 75 Jazz, often known as the quintessential “American music,” is a classic example of a “Creole” hybrid and fusion phenomenon. 76 The Klezmer revival in the 1980s gave birth to Klezmer fusion, which has led to a broader radical Jewish artistic renaissance, helping to set the stage for the popular Matisyahu, who fuses reggae music styles with lyrics on Jewish religious themes and has made Hasidism “cool” for a non-Jewish audience.
This new form of integration is even stronger today when Jews as individuals have succeeded in becoming an integral part of American culture, politics, and commerce. Arthur Hertzberg argued that anti-Semitism no longer plays a significant and certainly not a threatening role in American Jewish identity. 77 Yet there is some perceived truth to Nahum Goldmann's aphorism, “When things are good for Jews, they are bad for Jewry.” 78
The diminishing of anti-Semitism and the successful integration/assimilation of American Jewry resulted in what the Israeli Bible scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann rightly feared more broadly was the inextricable link between emancipation and assimilation, or “the eradication of the most fundamental aspect of Jewish national existence, of its historical uniqueness ( yihudah ha-histori ) and of the unity of its national soul ( ahduta hanafshit ha-histori )” 79 But while Kaufmann was speaking only of the Jews, and primarily about the Jews in Europe, in contemporary America where multiculturalism is succumbing to a more complex notion of ethnicity, this form of integration is in part the result of the sustained trajectory of interethnic and interracial marriage and the rise of other significant markers of identity. Thus Jews are simply part of a societal trajectory, living in a society that not only accepts them, but one that they play a significant role in constructing. 80
Jewish intermarriage rates are obviously alarming to those concerned with what I take to be a somewhat reflexive jeremiad of Jewish “survival.” In 1971 Marshall Sklare argued that intermarriage would be the quintessential challenge to American Jewry in subsequent decades. 81 He also noted that “it is precisely the ‘healthy’ modern intermarriages that raise the most troubling questions of all to the Jewish community.” 82 Lila Corwin Berman's comment is even more prescient: “In reality, the true problem that Jews faced was explaining why they persisted in marrying only one another in a country that granted them the freedom to do otherwise.” 83 Jewish exogamy rates are today on par or lower than other ethnic groups such as Irish and Polish Catholics, and Italians, and slightly higher than Asian Americans. 84 About 25 percent of Hispanic marriages are intermarriages. 85 Only African American exogamy hovers slightly above 10 percent, and given that marriage between blacks and whites was illegal in some states until the Supreme Court declared the prohibition of interracial marriage unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, this is quite remarkable. 86 But considering that we now have an American president who is the child of interracial marriage, the stigma of such unions is likely to dissipate precipitously. 87
More importantly, it is not only that Jews are intermarrying, but that their attitudes toward intermarriage have changed considerably in the past thirty years. For example, in a 2000 national survey of Jewish opinion in America, half of the Jews surveyed said that “it is racist to oppose Jewish-Gentile marriage,” and more than half disagreed with the statement that “it would pain me if my child married a Gentile.” 88 And yet at the same time Judaism in America is arguably experiencing a cultural and creative renaissance. So while Kaufmann may be correct in his assertion about ethnic nullification via assimilation, the lessons that can be drawn may be quite different for Jews living in a society in the process of its own de-ethnicization. Kaufmann's remarks were largely in response to European societies still founded on ethnicity. The “ethnic nullification” of the Jew meant, for him, merging with the ethnicity of the host culture either through assimilation or conversion. 89 In a postethnic society this is quite different. 90 Sklare's assumption about intermarriage is understandable in 1971. Even though intermarriage always existed, as did conversion to Judaism, until mid-twentieth-century America (perhaps excluding certain times and locals in late antiquity), those numbers were of little consequence for the Jewish people.
The nullification or at least weakening of ethnicity among American Jews through intermarriage and other cultural means is not anomalous but, in fact, an indication that Jews are behaving like the good Americans they have long sought to become. This sentiment was expressed as early as 1934 in Mordecai Kaplan's Judaism as a Civilization. 91 It was even truer by the late 1950s. On this period Lila Corwin Berman writes, “Jewishness, in order to continue serving as an ideology about the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, increasingly had to account for Jews who loved and pro-created with non-Jews, and non-Jews who became Jews.” 92 In the heyday of cultural pluralism, Louis Brandeis said that “being a good Zionist was being a good American.” 93 What equation would fit America's postethnic turn? 94 The question of survival—of Jews, of Judaism—is another matter, but in my view these important questions must be examined within and not external to the de-ethnicization of America more generally. The perennial tension between assimilation and distinctiveness has entered a new phase at the close of the twentieth century.
Can Jews and Judaism in America survive without ethnicity as its foundation? And, if so, how can they survive when identity is increasingly a performative act rather than an inherited state? This is neither a theoretical question nor one based solely on ideology. It is a question based on an emerging descriptive social reality. 95
The oft-cited quip at the beginning of Nathan Glazer's and Daniel Moynihan's 1963 Beyond the Melting Pot that the most important thing to know about the melting pot is that “it never happened” may prove to be premature. It certainly did not happen the way some thought it would. But the de-ethnicization of America through intermarriage, coupled with the voluntaristic and inventive nature of both ethnic and religious affiliation, has arguably given us a different kind of melting pot. It is not the homogeneous Americanism that Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson anticipated but a society in which ethnic borders have become translucent, enabling the restructuring of those borders (as well as considerable movement within them), yielding new and invented ethnic combinations. What makes Americans the same is not that they are different—that would be a multicultural turn of phrase—but that they are becoming multiethnic and are free to explore new vistas of ethnic and communal affiliation. Jews are right in the middle of this postethnic turn and, given their integrated status, there is little reason to believe they will, or should, revive what would amount to an anomalous status that once simultaneously held them together and caused them considerable grief. In the words of Edgar Bronfman, “[In America] fear of assimilation and intermarriage should not replace fear of anti-Semitism.” 96
Postethnicity allows for a certain inventiveness of ethnicity and religion, or at least an ethnic and religious voluntarism that complicates the ostensible resolution of the dichotomy of Jewish peoplehood and religion through the erasure of peoplehood (Reform) or the erasure of religion as determining Jewishness (Zionism). Both classical Reform and Zionism still adhered to a traditional notion of ethnicity that I contend no longer dominates the American landscape. The transformation of America from a society founded on descent to one founded on consent, a distinction developed by Werner Sollors, in one sense speaks to the classical Reform platform as well as contemporary Reform's position on Jewishness. 97 For example, adopting both matrilineal and patrilineal descent, contemporary Reform considers a child of intermarriage Jewish only so long as he or she exhibits a “commitment to Judaism.” This does not necessarily require exclusive identification with an ethnos but a commitment to an ethos. Stephen Sharot goes so far as to say, “According to the [Reform] movement's decision on patrilineal descent, the supposition of Jewishness conferred by birth must be authenticated by the individual's commitment to Judaism. Thus the born-Jew also becomes a Jew by choice.” 98 In fact, the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) in a 1990 study showed that many children of intermarried couples in America who identify as Jews (and are therefore considered as such by the Reform movement, the largest denomination in America) also identify with the ethnicity of their Gentile parent. That is, they identify, for example, as part Irish-Catholic (which constitutes an ethnicity) and also Jewish. 99 As mentioned above, early in the century Horace Kallen advocated for cultural pluralism because “men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives [ sic ]…but they cannot change their grandfathers.” 100 This was written in an era when the exogamy percentage rate among Jews was in the single digits. How would this statement fare at a time when far more than fifty percent of American Jews have both Jewish and Gentile grandparents, and choose to identify with both?
America now has entire networks, virtual and actual, that consist of these multiethnic Jews. One of the largest, www.half-jewish.net , is more than a support group. It is an advocacy organization that seeks to be a voice for the inclusion of multiethnic Jews in the Jewish community. On this website we read, “Some of us are contented Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, but we'd like to learn more about our Jewish ‘half’ in ways that don't involve leaving our current faith or culture. Some of us are Jews who are curious about our ‘other half.’ A number of us want the Half-Jewish Network to help us speak up for ourselves the next time a Jewish organization releases a ‘Who Is A Jew?’ statement or report that is negative about us or harms our interests. We're tired of keeping silent.”
Or consider Joey Kurtzman's response in a letter on Jewcy.com (an umbrella website for progressive Jewish culture, arts, and letters) to Jack Wertheimer:
At Jewcy we've half-jokingly referred to ourselves as part of the first generation of Jewish-American mongrels, or Frankenjews. The majority of Jewcy 's staff is the product of intermarriage.
To a one, we regard the traditional Jewish revulsion toward exogamy as an anachronistic holdover from premodern life. Needless to say, we are of dubious halakhic Jewishness. This will be truer of our children than it is of us.
Our cultural influences are more polluted than our bloodlines, and that is the important part of our mongrelization. We're evolving new ideas and new forms of religious expression informed by non-Jewish traditions. This is not because we have poached from alien traditions, but because those traditions, too, are our patrimony. I believe that Conservative Jews say that tradition has a vote, not a veto [actually this was Mordecai Kaplan]. For most young Jewish-Americans, it would be truer to say that Jewishness has a vote, not a veto. 101
When self-described “mongrel Jews,” adopting queer theory as their method of identity, are running a popular Jewish website for young progressive Jews in America, the era when the intermarried Jew blended into the vast cultural landscape of American society is over. Multiethnic, mongrel, or “half-Jews” (a term that was merely a fiction a generation ago as there is no halakhic basis for a half-Jew) want a voice as Jews. The internet gives them a voice that circumvents any interference by institutional Judaism. 102
Given their numbers and influence (a majority of Jews in America now have a relative who is non-Jewish, or who at least is a multiethnic Jew) it is hard to imagine that the American Jewish community can ignore these intermarried Jews. How they will be integrated, and what role they will play in the Jewish community is in the process of being determined. What is clearer, however, is that conventional notions of Jewish “peoplehood,” defined primarily by ethnicity, are quickly becoming obsolete. 103
The embrace of multiethnicity is also increasingly important for many who convert to Judaism. The notion that conversion to Judaism requires abandoning one's ethnic origins cannot easily survive a society in which people often identify as multiethnic. This acceptance of multiethnicity may also be a subliminal by-product of classical Reform's severance of ethnicity from religion as the template of American Judaism. For some, to convert to Judaism is not to erase one ethnicity for another but to add another ethnicity to one's already complex identity. 104
Increasingly, Gentiles who marry Jews in America feel less compelled to convert to Judaism because they feel able to participate in Jewish life and engage in Jewish practices without becoming “Jews,” retaining affiliations with their own ethnic past. Kerry Olitzky's Jewish Outreach Institute and Edmund Case's InterfaithFamily.com are devoted to supporting non-Jewish spouses of Jews who are choosing to raise their children Jewish. 105 The Jewish Multi-Racial Network is devoted to the cultivation of Jewish identity for those who live in multiracial (Jewish) families. 106 Concomitantly, many Jews are beginning to see less and less of a contradiction in their choice to remain Jewishly active while being part of an interfaith relationship or marriage. 107 These phenomena exhibit the increasing dominance of voluntaristic and inventive constructions of identity and a comfort with multiethnicity as part of American Jewish identity indicative of a postethnic turn.
Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright discovered some time around 1997 that she was “Jewish.” 108 Her response was very telling. She acknowledged that she was of “Jewish background,” but that did not extend, for her, to an acknowledgment that she was a Jew. 109 This was not because of other religious commitments but more a statement of ethnicity. She denied her Jewish ethnicity and, in so doing, chose not to affiliate as a Jew. In his essay “Jewish Identity, Assimilation, and Multiculturalism,” David Hollinger understands Albright's choice as a distinction between ascription and affiliation. 110 Though Jewishness always contained both components, ascription continued to dominate for much of Jewish history. Hollinger's use of ascription may be likened to the sociological category “historical familism,” coined by Charles Liebman and Steven Cohen to describe a sense of belonging that is not determined by behavior or belief. 111 One was a Jew because one was ascribed as such by the law, by tradition, by the community, or in the cases of the medieval church and later Nazism, by the enemy. One's internalization of that external ascription brought a sense of familial connectedness rooted largely in a historical narrative (real or imagined). And one was not a Jew by the same criterion.
The label “Jew” was sometimes defined and even preserved by an external authority. Affiliation was a second-tier concept; the subject was always free to identify with that ascription or not. But that generally did not affect the ascribed status. Jews were so ethnically tied that one's “Jewishness” was really beyond one's control. Even in the case of conversion to another religion, many medieval authorities argue that one need not “convert back” (the term itself is dissonant) to Judaism. Nonascription, in whatever way—ideological and apathetic—was largely an ineffectual act. In the case of Albright, affiliation was used as a first-tier concept that undermined ascription. Here she seems to have unknowingly subverted the entire trajectory of Jewish identity. While acknowledging the empirical fact that her mother's family was Jewish, thus halakhically and normatively making her a “Jew,” she essentially erased that ascription by her refusal to affiliate; that is, by her refusal to extend her familial roots to her own identity. 112 Rejection of affiliation in spite of ascription determined her identity (does it matter if rabbis think she is a Jew if she denies it?). Hollinger concludes, “Affiliation is no less important to Jewish identity in America today than is ascription, and as long as American Jews are free to ‘invent’ their Jewishness, this will continue to be true.” 113
I extend Albright's ethnic inventiveness to Judaism as a religion. One of the fundamental elements of American religion is its creativity, the license it takes to revise and restructure existing modes and create new ones. This is not to deny the existence of structures of religious authority, social norms, customs, and the like. It is to say, rather, that these structures have become more liquid in American Jewish self-fashioning. For example, Jewish texts remain, but how they are used, read, revised, and even excised, is no longer determined solely by the hermeneutical lenses of the past. Undermining the heteronomy of tradition is an American religious past-time going back to Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and forward to New Age religion. 114 Jefferson's Bible is one example of the audacity of American religious textuality. 115 This tendency is even more overt in America's postethnic turn.
Susannah Heschel notes that postmodernism and intermarriage “[have] brought [Judaism] to ever-increasing swaths of the non-Jewish population. Consequently, traditional Jewish boundaries and rabbinic determinations of Jewish identity have become unwieldy and meaningless. Postmodern America has invented a uniquely multiform Judaism, and the openness of America's multicultural society has encouraged a mixture of identities…. The cultural boundaries in America have become so porous that Jewishness develops into a free-floating identity open to appropriation by anyone, including Jews.” 116 Irving Howe described America as a place where “the new” was more than an American value; it was an ethos. 117 In such a society, even as tradition has a place, its place will always be refracted through the lens of the new. The “new” newness in our society has taken the form of a postethnicity that challenges Jews to revise their notion of ethnos as a static and reliable way to define Jewishness. In some way, this is not the price of postmodernity but has a genealogy that extends back to the nineteenth century when Jews were formulating the contours of American Judaism. Whether this is a passing fad, we do not know. But we can only postulate from our station in history.
To return once more to classic Reform's severance of ethnicity from religion in 1885, it is obvious that what classic Reform meant by “religion” then was some essentialist notion of Judaism as “ethical monotheism” based on its claim that prophetic religion captured the true meaning of Judaism. Today Judaism has become, at best, Judaisms, and the growing expression of Jewishness is no longer exclusively an essentialized notion of religion or peoplehood. One could say that Jews (however defined) can, and are, inventing and reinventing new forms of religion, “new” Judaisms through religious syncretism, by using Judaism as a template for world ecological concerns, and by creating new rituals to mark communal, national, and global events that have nothing whatsoever to do with Jews, Jewish history, or the Jewish myth. These new practices are often not exclusive to “Jews” and have been increasingly integrated into other religions (church and ecumenical versions of the Passover Seder are one example). 118 Construing Judaism as something not exclusive to Jews is yet another illustration of the severance of ethnicity from religion in a very different form than what was originally intended, one that more closely adheres to the postethnicity under discussion. More nationalistic or traditional Jews may mock such activity, or lament it, but ultimately they have no power or authority to stop it or even define it for anyone outside their particular community. That, too, is part of the American experience. 119
Determining whether something is truly “Jewish” or not has lost some ground to the inventive spirit which itself is an expression of affiliation contra ascription. The danger of relativism exists. That will always be the case when authorities lose control of defining boundaries. Those who maintain that Jewishness can only be determined by ascription, that is, by external criteria defined by particular communities, and that Judaism is meant solely for Jews, will never acquiesce to this seemingly anarchic and radical rethinking of Jewishness and Judaism in a postethnic era. Yet it is, in my mind, a worthwhile endeavor to explore this phenomenon for the simple reason that this is increasingly where American Judaism lives. While the “is” should not, by definition, determine the “ought,” those who reflect on the “ought” certainly need to give it careful and serious consideration, especially in a Jewish society in which religious, political, and cultural hegemony is absent.
2
Ethnicity, America, and the Future of the Jews: Felix Adler, Mordecai Kaplan, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
“You're a Christian soul! By God, a better Christian never lived.” Nathan replies. “And well for us! For what makes me for you a Christian, makes yourself for me a Jew.”
—Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, “Nathan the Wise”
I have been baptized but not converted.
—Henrich Heine
Introduction: Ethnicity and Thinking “Jewishly”
In the previous chapter I examined what I take to be the emerging postethnic nature of contemporary American society and explored how this development has posed distinct challenges to American Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness in this century. Of course, the question of Jewishness and ethnicity is not a contemporary issue but has been part of Jewish self-fashioning for a long time, particularly in the modern era when emancipation required Jews to construct an identity no longer determined by their exclusion from the social norm. While the term “ethnicity” to describe Jews and minorities in general only became popular in the postwar era, it reflects a situation that existed in different ways throughout much of modern Jewish history albeit couched in different terminology. 1 This chapter examines three thinkers, two of whom wrote before “ethnicity” was common parlance (Adler and Kaplan) and one who writes after it has ceased being the dominant marker of identity (Schachter-Shalomi). Hence I use the term somewhat loosely to define the broader phenomenon of what one could call “differentiated identity,” that is, the ways in which Jews held fast to a notion of being a “community of descent” coupled with their desire to acculturate into American society. I avoid the term “race” that was more commonly used to define the Jew in the period when Adler and the early Kaplan wrote, but means something very different today. I also avoid the term “peoplehood,” which is too ambiguous and diffuse to capture the nuances of what I am arguing. 2
The age-old dichotomy of the particular vs. the universal with regard to Judaism played an acute role in the American context in which Jews, now quite able to assimilate, felt compelled to create ways to defend the erasure of difference while striving to curtail its outward expression. The identity crisis that now challenges Jews in postethnic America—in large part due to the success of Jewish integration into American society—has a prehistory in some late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Jewish thinkers. They believed that the tension of assimilation and difference that stood as the cornerstone of Reform Judaism was hypocritical and required a resolution that conformed to the distinctive nature of American society. While they never could have imagined Judaism and Jewishness in twenty-first-century (postethnic) America, I believe these thinkers can help us contextualize the present dilemma as another chapter in a much longer, and more complicated, story.
For heuristic purposes I divide the Jewish experience in the last 150 years in America into three broad periods: the period of assimilation, the period of cultural pluralism/multiculturalism, and the period of postethnicity. There are, of course, many gradations, overlaps, and shifts within these periods, but my larger point is to see how the issues that have been raised in the postethnic period existed in very different forms in the earlier assimilatory period.
Felix Adler (1851–1933) will represent the assimilatory period, Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1993) the period of cultural pluralism/multiculturalism, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (b. 1924) the period of postethnicity. Each figure represents a radical position vis-à-vis Jews and Judaism, yet each one gets to the very core of what challenged Jews and Judaism in their time, and each remains relevant, in some way, to the ongoing challenges of Jewishness in America today. Adler and Kaplan were responding most directly to Reform Judaism (then the default Judaism in America), and confronted the emergence of Zionism and its new program of Jewish nationalism. Schachter-Shalomi in some way also responds to Reform, although less directly, and has built his New Age Jewish Renewal as an amalgam of Kaplan's Reconstructionism and a strong reading of Hasidism stripped of its parochial and xenophobic exterior. 3
Adler's solution was to end positive religions altogether and create a society that drew from all traditions refracted through Kantian ethics in order to create the necessary condition for the Ethical Ideal that was, for him, the higher goal of religion. Kaplan adapted some of Adler's ideas but was committed to a theory of nationhood. But as we will see, Kaplan's notion was not founded primarily on ethnicity but on communal commitment to the pursuit of contributing to human flourishing. His audacious rejection of the divine election of the Jews is one component in that larger humanistic project. 4
Given that Jews in America never had to fight for emancipation, American Jewish identity has its own particular texture. American Jews dove headfirst into an assimilatory project of “Americanization” that was considered not only acceptable but obligatory, not only tolerable but necessary. Michael Meyer notes that “Jewish responses to modernity all appear as reactions to the problem of Jewish particularism: inwardly and outwardly directed attempts to justify the continued existence of the Jews as a separate entity.” 5 While this comment arguably reaches back to Napoleon's conditions for the emancipation of the Jews in 1806, it is just as true for American Judaism in the period in question. 6
While Meyer is writing about Judaism and modernity more generally, in America Jews had a distinct religious vision to explore. The Great Awakening and the pietism of Jonathan Edwards yielded to the rise of Unitarianism, the anti-ecclesiasticism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the mysticism of Walt Whitman, the Theosophical Society, New Thought theology, and the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism to American shores with the Vedanta Society. In their own way, they all (excluding, perhaps, Edwards) held the hope for a new American religion to emerge that reflected America's individualistic, syncretistic, or, according to Catherine Albanese, “combinative” spirit. 7 While religious conservatism always existed in America and emerged as a political and cultural force in the postwar period, the rise of New Age religion in the 1970s gave new life to earlier forms of religious experimentation, keeping alive the restless and anti-ecclesiastical character of earlier forms of religion in America. Adler was actively involved in these experiments, as were many of Kaplan's disciples, and Schachter-Shalomi's entire Renewal project is founded on the religious radicalism of that combinative American spirit. 8
The question of differentiated identity, that is, what makes one a “Jew,” “Hebrew,” or “Israelite,” was paramount for Jews in America. 9 Progressive Jewish leaders in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century thought creatively about the availability of a Judaism separate from nationhood as part, perhaps even the center, of an American religion. 10 Could, or should, Judaism in America become more than simply a religion of and for the Jews? That is, could Judaism ever be severed from the notion of Jewish peoplehood? While this may seem like a dead letter in a multiculturalist society—less so in our postethnic one—it was very much an issue when Jews became more rooted in American soil. 11 The initial project of considering the expansion of Judaism beyond its “ethnic” borders first occurred in the nineteenth century at a time when many Jews had abandoned religious practice substituting a secularized version of ethnicity, or “community of descent,” as the center of their identity. 12 Most, but not all, rabbinic leaders fiercely fought this kind of assimilation. Committed to religion in the formal sense and denying the viability of a de-theologized notion of peoplehood, most Reform leaders (who dominated the intellectual conversation at that time) sought to revive Judaism as a religion in a world where Jews no longer needed it—or wanted it—in order to be “Jewish.” 13 The Jew who abandoned Judaism in late nineteenth-century America need not have become a Christian. He or she could just remain, as many did, “ethnic” Jews.
Some Reform rabbis did attempt to take Judaism beyond the confines of the Jewish community. Reform leader Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, for example, argued that Reform Judaism should be, and would become, the de facto religion of America by the end of the nineteenth century. He preached, at least until the 1880s, that American Christians would see that all that is humanistic and ethical in Christianity is Jewish and thus become, as he called it, “denationalized” Jews. 14 While this rhetoric may have dominated the pages of the Reform journal American Israelite , a journal he edited, and engaged some rabbinical councils in that period, the challenge of the Jew in the street was more banal but no less important. The Jew during this early period of assimilation and “Americanization” had to decide at least two things: first, whether, in fact, there was a necessary connection between Jews and Judaism and, if so, what were the parameters of that connection; second, if he or she wanted to become a full participant in the project of American religion and still cared about Judaism, what correctives needed to be made to Judaism in order for that to happen?
Felix Adler, Group Identity, and Thinking beyond the Ethnic
Felix Adler was one of those American Jewish radicals—Kaplan and Schachter-Shalomi may be two others—who simultaneously garnered great respect and intense animus, sometimes by the same people. Each of these figures had deep Jewish knowledge, rabbinical training, a profound literacy of classical and modern literature, and fertile, creative, and restless minds. Each understood the dilemma of the American Jewish experience and each posed radical solutions to it that in time served as templates for future thinking.
Adler was, in some way, the most radical of the three in that he openly rejected positive religion more generally and Judaism in particular. The Society for Ethical Culture he founded is arguably one of the more intriguing thought experiments in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American Judaism. 15 It was a prelude to what would later be called post-religion and what I am calling post-Judaism. In many ways his Society was an outgrowth of his critique of Reform Judaism which argued that Reform's ostensible progressive and humanistic agenda in America stood in blatant contradiction to two precepts it refused to relinquish: supernaturalist monotheism and divine election. Adler openly rejected theism, including Reform's ethical monotheism, as well as divine election (with no personal God there can be no election), and argued that positive religion could no longer serve as the basis for any community to achieve the highest goal of human society, the establishment of a human fellowship based on the ethical ideal. In some way, he took Reform Judaism to its radical conclusion.
Adler's thinking resonated with a Kantian commitment to the ethical ideal as the primary “duty” of humankind. And, more relevant to our concerns, he sought to construct a community of individuals not founded on common descent who would use the force of communal fellowship to achieve this goal. For Adler, America was uniquely prepared for this experiment:
The country in which we live is most favorable for such experiments as ours. There are lands of older culture, and men there of wider vision and maturer wisdom, but nowhere, as in America, is a truth once seen, so readily applied, nowhere do even the common order of men so feel the responsibility for what transpires, and the impulse to see the best accomplished…. O, if it were thine America, America that hast given political liberty to the world, to give that spiritual liberty for which we pant, to break also those spiritual fetters that load thy sons and daughters. 16
Sharing this optimism about America as the condition for the fulfillment of humanism with others in his time, Adler believed that ethnic (i.e., inherited descent) and religious affiliations can be overcome and replaced by what he called a “morality of groups.” These groups consist of “unlike individuals exercising unlike functions.” 17 According to Adler, for group morality to work, groups cannot be homogeneous, ethnic or otherwise. Rather it is their “unlikeness” in origin, vocation, and temperament that creates the organicity necessary to fulfill the function of embodying the ideal of human fellowship. “In the international group the dissimilarity is that of the various types of civilization represented by the different peoples. As will be seen, the desirable relations within the groups, and of the groups with one another, is what is commonly called organic.” 18
For Adler religion and ethnicity once served as the frame of group identity, but society has moved beyond the need for such limiting and limited constraints. The formation of societies along religious and ethnic lines never produced the organicity he sought.
The dogmatic assertion of religious teachings we hold to be a serious evil, and dogma as such we cannot accept. Its influence in the past has been pernicious, and is so at the present day no less. It has inflamed hatred of man against his brother man, it has led to the fatal error of duties toward a personal Creator, distinct from our duties toward our fellows…. It does not afford a common basis whereupon we could unite for it is by nature uncertain and calculated to provoke dissensions. 19
This is not to say Adler had no use for religion at all. He wrote, “We cheerfully accord the religious conceptions of the past a poetic value; they are poetry, often of the sublimest kind; but we cannot deceive ourselves as to the noble weakness of the heart to which they owe their origin.” 20 He often wrote about religion and religions, delineating the ways religion benefited society in the past. And yet he was committed to society transcending religion in order to attain the Ethical Ideal. In 1931 (the decade is important, because this is written in the heyday of Horace Kallen's “cultural pluralism”) Adler wrote, “Let religion unfurl her white flag over the battlegrounds of the past, and turn the fields she had desolated so long into sunny gardens and embowered retreats.” 21
The Society for Ethical Culture was not intended to be a substitute for religion. In fact, Adler instituted his weekly lecture series on Sunday so as not to interfere with those Jews in his community, and there were many, who chose to attend synagogue on the Sabbath. In his inaugural address in 1876 he announced, “We propose to entirely exclude prayer and every form of ritual. Thus shall we avoid even the appearance of interfering with those to whom prayer and ritual, as a mode of expressing religious sentiment, are dear.” 22 If people chose to affiliate with obsolete models of community for nostalgic or even spiritual reasons that was fine, so long as they understood that the real work of humankind was elsewhere.
Adler had no interest in creating a syncretistic religion (Schachter-Shalomi) or transforming religious creed into some form of secular Jewish culture (Kaplan). He had no need for either because he felt that religion had served its purpose to humanity and that ethnicity, or a community of descent, was not a constructive way to found group morality because, among other things, communities of descent are founded on a sense of sameness not conducive to achieving the Ethical Ideal. He was committed to the notion that religion and ethnicity could not foster universal fellowship. Yet he denied that Ethical Culture was an iconoclastic movement. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Ethical Culture movement in 1931 he wrote, “Even icons…have a certain beauty; even idols, statues of gods like the Olympian Zeus and the Hermes, have a certain greatness—only they must not be worshipped, as if they were more than similitudes.” 23
What we have in Adler, I think, is a position that can tolerate ethnos and even its religious/cultural expression, so long as it does not serve as the center of group identity. He saw absolutely no reason why Jews should retain any ethnic separation from Gentiles. 24 Religion was rejected because of its commitment to “creed” as the engine that generates “deed.” This notion was flawed because creed, for Adler, implied an absolute category that could never fully embody the only absolute value humankind needed to achieve: the Ethical Ideal. While he was committed to the notion that the Hebrews were the first to posit a moral God—and thus the notion of morality as a religious act—the Hebrews cum Jews failed because their religion was too particularized to enable that moral ideal to become truly universal. In this sense, for Adler, Christianity added a necessary element to the Hebrew model by individualizing the national ideal. In Christianity, “it was no longer the holy people but the holy individual that constituted the chief object of concern.” 25 But Christianity failed by internalizing holiness in the self, giving birth to a concept of purity that was no longer about separating one group from another (as it was in Judaism) but the separation of the impure self from the purified self. Christianity's ascetic orientation was a flawed depiction of the human condition. For Adler, the “morality of groups,” distinct from the metaphysical baggage of both Judaism and Christianity (each containing components that prevented the Ethical Ideal from being universalized), would be the first communal structure in a post-religious age. If Judaism and Christianity both contributed to human society, yet each contained a fatal flaw that prevented the good within them to flourish, why not abandon them precisely by taking what was good and jettisoning what curtailed the fulfillment of their universal message?
This idea was not exclusive to Adler. In the late 1800s Josephine Lazarus, a much lesser-known figure (sister of the celebrated American poet Emma Lazarus), argued similarly in her Spirit of Judaism (1895). 26 When one reads this text one understands why Lazarus has been written out of American Jewish history. Her eloquent and passionately argued essays make a case for the return of Judaism, very broadly defined, to its central prophetic message, precisely by ending Judaism as a religion for Jews. Or, put differently, that America provided unique conditions for Judaism's fulfillment by manifesting its core universal message which would require the dissolution of Judaism. She posited this as a first step toward dissolving all forms of positive religion: “It is in America, that the last great battle of Judaism will be fought out; amid the temples of the New World, it will make its last struggle to survive.” 27
Her prose celebrates the ethical core of prophetic Judaism, an approach reminiscent of the Reform Judaism of her time (which she detested), yet points to two caveats, one historical and one contemporary, which she argued prevented the fulfillment of Judaism's universal message. The historical caveat was Pharisaic Judaism, that is, Orthodoxy, which she utterly disdained and which she claimed created legalistic and ethnic enclosures that smothered Judaism's prophetic message. 28 “The Prophets were the ‘high lights’ of Judaism; but the light failed, the voices ceased, and prophetism died out. In spite of its broad ethical and social basis, its seeming universality, it never became the religion of the masses, because in reality it is the religion of the few, the elect and chosen of God, who know and feel the beauty of His holiness.” 29
The contemporary caveat was that Jews constituted three classes in America: Orthodox Jews, the practices of whom she writes off as medieval and irrelevant; atheistic Jews, who she claims have nothing spiritual to offer humanity; and Reform Jews who have largely abandoned the particularistic customs of religion but have not replaced them with anything other than a “racial” tie and “the Messianic hope, and belief in the destiny of Israel again to give a religion to the world, but this time a religion without inconvenient customs or unreasonable dogma, without miracles and without any mysteries.” 30 Lazarus argued that Reform Judaism would not suffice as it still tied religion to ethnos; it was still exclusively for the Jews and the Jews alone until the fulfillment of a future utopian vision. On this reading, Reform's ostensible universalism failed in its comforting embrace of whitewashed parochialism.
Let us not be deceived. We cannot save our Judaism in any narrow, in any broad sense even, unless we lose it, by merging and adding to it that which will make it no longer Judaism, because it's something that the whole world claims, and therefore cannot be the exclusive prorogation of Judaism,—in other words, by entering into the large, spiritual life which makes no conditions, no restrictions necessary. 31
She protests the Judaism in her time by asking why it is “[that] in order to teach the universal truth we remain aloof from the world except for purposes that have no bearing upon this universal truth…. We must preach unity, and [yet] we must practice the most rigid exclusion, the most uncompromising separation the world has ever known.” This is not only a critique of Orthodoxy but Reform as well. And finally, echoing a common platitude against Jewish particularism going back to Paul, “If, as we claim, we have the world's truth in our keeping, shall we therefore keep it for ourselves?” 32
Why should the Jew be the first to relinquish her religion? Because, Lazarus argues, in this act of liberation the Jew gives to the world the universal message of truth—the message that Jews have hidden away in their cloak of law and custom, and in the constraints of peoplehood, for almost two millennia. Only this truth, Lazarus suggests, will provide the world what it needs to move beyond the pettiness and insularity of a bankrupt particularism and dependence on positive religion. For Lazarus, the Jew holds the key to liberate herself from potential destruction. Abandoning the Judaism that Jews held onto as they were martyred in the Middle Ages is the very thing that can free them from being martyred again.
From our perch in history, it appears Lazarus and Adler have a great deal in common, yet the differences between them are as interesting as their similarities. On the one hand, Adler is less convinced about the ethical truth of Judaism than Lazarus, albeit he acknowledges Judaism's discovery of a moral divinity. On the other hand, Adler understood more deeply than Lazarus the ways in which age-old traditions may still be needed by religious and ethnic groups, and he tolerated that particularism so long as it did not serve as the dominant source of group identity. As a former rabbi and Torah scholar, Adler instinctively knew that Lazarus's claim that Jews were ready to fully embrace universalism was premature, although he did believe they needed to abandon their religious and ethnic identities if they wanted to participate fully in the American ethical project. Positive religion, marginalized by Adler as “poetic,” could remain, although it would never achieve the one goal that has thus far eluded humanity: the Ethical Ideal.
For our concerns, what Adler and, to a lesser extent, Lazarus represent is a radical release of the tension that pervaded American Reform through its formative period of Jewish assimilation and “Americanization.” Each viewed ethnic identity as an impediment to the fulfillment of Judaism's universal message. While both these writers may sound somewhat dissonant to us today, they asserted that the survival of the Jews as an ethnic group and as the sole carriers of a Judaism that serves exclusively to fortify that ethnic identity can only serve to undermine the success of Judaism. For Judaism to finally succeed, it must liberate itself from the bonds of ethnicity.
Mordecai Kaplan's Return to a Revised Ethnicity and His Religion of Ethical Nationhood
Mordecai Kaplan is arguably the thinker who most systematically reframed the relationship between religion and community in American Judaism. 33 In some way his magnum opus Judaism as a Civilization (1934) anticipated the multicultural turn in American society and provided new rubrics to understand Judaism in a post-religious age. Kaplan's return to ritual and ethnic identity outside the parameters of traditional Judaism paved the way for Jewish Renewal and the post-Judaism era. In concert with Adler and many like-minded progressives at that time, Kaplan believed Orthodoxy was largely antiquated and irrelevant (early in his career he served as the rabbi of Kehillat Yeshurun, one of the largest Orthodox synagogues on the east side of Manhattan). 34 More interesting and foundational is his critique of Reform Judaism, specifically Reform's substitution of law and custom in favor of ethical monotheism. 35 Kaplan's Reconstructionism is founded on reframing law and ritual in light of Emile Durkheim's “folkways” and representing Jewish peoplehood in the non-theological category of “civilization.” He was the architect of what his disciples have termed “post-halakhic Judaism.” 36 Kaplan affirms the viability of ethnicity or “communities of descent” not merely as a nostalgic gesture to past allegiances (Adler) but as an integral part of a community's contribution to humanity. Religious praxis is a program that affirms a community of descent's identity without making claims for its exclusivity or, in the case of Judaism, its elected status.
There is, for Kaplan, a real affinity in ethnic ties, not racially generated but driven by a common past, whether imagined or real, inherited or adopted. Perhaps best articulated as a “community of a common narrative” (a different way of formulating ethnos ), this group expresses itself in folkways that perpetuate its myth of origins and survival. The danger, noted earlier by Kaplan's teacher Felix Adler, was that communities of descent tend to become insular and care primarily about their own survival, forgetting their responsibility to humanity. A deep believer in democracy and Judaism's humanistic potential, Kaplan was acutely aware of this. Below I examine his affirmation of ethnic communities not focused on an explicit connection to descent but tied to a notion of a shared past, as an alternative to Adler who rejected ethnicity as a productive model of Jewishness and Jewish expression. Kaplan's rejection of the exclusivity of descent as determining ethnos is made quite explicit in his discussion about the need to accept intermarriage as a part of the American Jewish experience. “What is valuable is the Jewish social heritage, or civilization, and not physical descent.” 37
Kaplan's Judaism anticipates a multicultural age, a celebration of diversity without an overt theological hierarchy. In this sense, one could argue that, at least structurally, most postwar American Judaism, from Modern Orthodoxy to Reform, is Kaplanean. While few accept the more radical components of his theology in terms of post-halakhism and his metaphysical erasure of the personal God and divine election, many Jewish communities in America envision law and custom primarily as the glue that binds community and serves as the vehicle for its spiritual expression. And almost all American Judaisms function with some gesture to religious pluralism.
Kaplan was very much a thinker of his time, strongly influenced by Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and John Dewey (among other American Pragmatists). Less known is how much he was influenced by Felix Adler. 38 Given Adler's rejection of Judaism and his rejection of any notion of Jewish peoplehood or ethnicity more generally, one might reasonably surmise Kaplan would be quite critical of Adler's work. Yet when one reads through Kaplan's corpus one finds that when Adler is mentioned—and he is mentioned periodically—it is always with admiration and deep respect. 39
The relationship between Kaplan and Adler was quite personal. Adler was Kaplan's MA thesis advisor at Columbia University, and we know that Kaplan took no less than five courses with him during his student days at Columbia. 40 With this in mind, we can see how some of Kaplan's most well-known positions are adaptations of Adler's ideas. Kaplan's rejection of supernaturalism, his rejection of divine election, his belief that religion needed to serve as the aspiration of the Ethical Ideal, and Adler's notion of “group morality” as the root of any society may form the core of Kaplan's idea of Jewish civilization. Anecdotally, when Kaplan was formulating his society that would become the “Society for the Advancement of Judaism,” the first name he considered was “The Society for Ethical Jewish Culture.” 41
One major difference between the two thinkers, of course, is that Kaplan chose to stay within the confines of Judaism and rejected Adler's call to erase ethnicity as the glue that binds group identity. Kaplan's project was thus not an alternative to Judaism but a reconstruction of it. 42 When his rejection of supernaturalism led to accusations of atheism or spinozism (which in those days meant naturalism), Kaplan countered with his notion of a transnatural God. 43 When he was criticized that his rejection of divine election produced a flattened and denuded notion of Jewish peoplehood, he borrowed an idea from Randolph Bourne's two essays in 1916, “Trans-national America” and “The Jew and Transnational America,” and posited the Jews as a “transnational” people. 44 Below I focus on the notion of transnationalism and the relationship between Kaplan's reconstituted particularism and his belief in the universal and humanitarian obligation of any civilization. This is a first step, in my view, toward loosening the ostensibly inextricable tie between Judaism and the Jews that later comes to fruition in Renewal's post-Judaism.
Kaplan's The Religion of Ethical Nationhood (1970) is a restatement of his belief in the need to reconstitute Jewish peoplehood and, in doing so, revive the moribund state of the Jewish religion. In this late work his commitment to Durkheim's notion of religion as an expression of collective identity is coupled with his acceptance of Adler's notion of “group morality.” Kaplan makes it clear that “communities of descent” have the right to exist (and should continue to exist) yet not unconditionally. Their existence is justified only to the extent that they contribute to the larger global cause of humanism. A nation or people's existence should not solely be to survive, or even to foster its own inward ethical culture. 45 Judaism can be a religion of the Jews but only to the extent that it is used to pursue global, humanistic goals. For example, Kaplan writes, “If we regard God as the Life of the universe, the Power that evokes personality in men and nations, then the sense of the nation's responsibility for contributing creatively to human welfare and progress in the light of its own best experience becomes the modern equivalent of the covenant idea. ” 46
In a conversation with Arthur Cohen on September 17, 1971, printed in the book If Not Now, When? (1973), Kaplan states, “I therefore think that the logical procedure for us now would be to try to spell out the concrete procedure which has to be followed in order to effect the reconstitution of the Jewish people in a spirit which would impel it to act in accordance with a three-fold purpose we've agreed upon, namely universal peace, ethical nationhood, and individual happiness.” 47 The notions of universal peace and ethical nationhood suggest that Kaplan viewed Jewish civilization as having a universal goal that is not relegated to a future messianic hope, which he flatly rejected. This universal enterprise is not merely a subcategory of Jewish peoplehood but, for Kaplan, its very reason to exist. It is here, I think, that Kaplan's appropriation of the notion of “transnational people” comes into play.
Describing American society in 1916, Randolph Bourne writes, “America is coming to be, not a nationality, but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors. Any movement which attempts to thwart this weaving, or to dye the fabric any one color, or disentangle the threads and strands, is false to this cosmopolitan vision.” 48 While a frontal attack of the moribund “melting pot,” Bourne's essay is also an attack on ethnic nationalism. It is the multiethnic character of America, Bourne calls it America's “cosmopolitanism,” that is its greatest strength. 49
Adapting Bourne's categories, Kaplan defines the Jews as a transnational people in opposition to what he determined, as a Zionist, was the inability of Zionism to provide the full expression of Jewish peoplehood.
Zionism has demonstrated that human initiative rather than divine intervention, established the Jewish State…[but] Zionism was in no position to formulate a comprehensive program for restructuring the Jewish people. Time is running out. The Jewish people must be reconstituted. A practical program for its creative survival as a transnational people with the Jewish community in the State of Israel as a catalytic agent for the rest of Jewry—must be implemented. 50 [emphasis added]
In one sense this sounds very much like Ahad Ha'am's spiritual Zionism that Kaplan adopts in his A New Zionism. 51 But if we take his notion of transnationalism and couple it with “ethical nationhood,” what Kaplan may be saying is that Jewish civilization must cultivate a cultural dual-allegiance precisely because dual-allegiance in principle subverts the tendency of all peoples toward ultra-nationalism and insularity. 52 If I am correct here, Kaplan would be turning dual-allegiance from a perennial Jewish problem to one of its greatest assets. Moreover he would be turning classical Zionism's “negation of the Diaspora” on its head. For Kaplan, Zionism works only with the Diaspora, not as its substitute. Israel is not the solution to the “Jewish problem” (arguably the political impetus of Zionism) nor is it solely a project of creating a Jewish secular culture. Rather, Israel/Zionism provides one part of the two-part transnational equation, allowing Jews to then rethink their role as a part of another nation that they also call home. 53 In this vein he continues, “The old image of the Jew derives from a nation in exile; the new image must project the Jews as a transnational people in dispersion. The unifying factor of a nation is political, the unifying factor of a people is religio-cultural.” 54 Similarly, “The new Judaism moves the center from Israel to Humanity. The Shekhina is in Humanity.” 55 Kaplan appears to reject the term “nationality” as a category of Jewish civilization to enable Jews to claim allegiance to more than one nation. And in the religio-cultural category of “peoplehood” Kaplan argues for an “ethical nationhood” (“nation” here appears to be used in an informal sense) 56 that sets it sights on contributing to the universal project of human fellowship.
Given the fact that Adler was Kaplan's teacher during a very formative period of his life, it is plausible that Kaplan's concept of peoplehood may have been at least partially adapted from Adler's category of “group morality” discussed above. In opposition to Adler, however, Kaplan believes the group must be constituted on commonality and not difference. This commonality is not ethnically construed in any biological or even mythic notion of common descent but is founded on a common cultural fabric. “Hence, man's spiritual needs can be met only among those who pursue a common way of life, speak the same language, and communicate in the same universe of thought and discourse.” 57
There seems to be a convergence of Durkheim's notion of community with Bourne's eulogy of the “melting pot” in Kaplan's claim of collective identity. And yet one gets the sense from Kaplan's work that universalism is a recurring notion that he is never able to eradicate. 58 Just as his ostensible naturalism becomes “transnaturalism” and his peoplehood becomes “transnational,” Kaplan attempts to view the collective as existing not for its own sake but for the sake of humanity or, to use Adler's phrase, the “Ethical Ideal.” While classical Judaism often makes this claim (Israel as “a light unto the nations,” for example), Kaplan means it in a different sense. For Kaplan it is not (only) that Judaism has a universal mission but that Judaism must conform to a humanistic program. This would include a reformulation of its praxis to cohere with its ethical aspirations. Here Kaplan is countering Adler's program only in how communities are determined, not in their ultimate goal; hence his initial consideration of calling his movement “The Society of Ethical Jewish Culture.”
Kaplan begins his Religion of Ethical Nationhood with a discussion of the Hebrew prophets, predictably basing his universalism on their teachings.
What are those traits that make for international involvement and commitment? They stem from a sense of human responsibility toward the human community, beginning with the family and terminating, at present, with the nation. The Israelite nation alone through its spokesmen, the prophets, conceived of mutual responsibility as extending beyond the nation to which one belonged. 59
He sounds strikingly like Adler when he writes, “But religion's passivity with regard to the other social responsibilities has impeded its moral role even on the interpersonal level…. The failure of group religion to cultivate ethical values and its concentration on piety and polity have rendered both church and synagogue irrelevant to the moralization of human character and to the betterment of human relations.” 60
His notion of “reconstitution” now becomes clearer. “If contemporary Jewish civilization is to function as an instrument of Jewish solidarity, Jews must transpose their tradition into a key of religious humanism and reconstitute themselves structurally as a people.” 61 If they do not, Kaplan suggests, their function evaporates and they will, or perhaps should, cease to exist as a people. This is illustrated in a stunning passage about the State of Israel published in 1970.
The land which is a people's home should foster a humanizing way of life. The people that fails to pursue a civilized and enlightened way of life must ultimately be exiled from its homeland. The narrative parts of the Pentateuch and ancient prophecy articulate these ideas concerning the role of Erez Yisrael in the life of the Jewish people. 62
What I suggest here is that Kaplan's entire structure of Jewish civilization is a response to Adler, which accepts Adler's basic premise about the goal of “group morality.”
Kaplan attempts to give us a theory of Judaism based on Adler's rejection of it. Kaplan believed, unlike Adler, that ethnos , widely defined, could still provide a basis for pursuing the Ethical Ideal. But if it could not, would Kaplan choose Adler or a model of civilization founded purely on the principle of self-preservation, a peoplehood that would not embody “ethical nationhood”? Kaplan continued to believe in the possibility of reviving Judaism and Jewish civilization, but this was not without ambivalence. In an early journal entry he noted, “Time and again it occurred to me that I ought to join the Ethical Culture Movement.” 63 This kind of ambivalence seemed to remain with him and surfaced, perhaps, in the striking comment cited above, written in the late 1960s, about humanism as a condition for the existence of a Jewish state.
While this section stresses the ways in which I believe Kaplan's notion of ethnos and community is a response to, and is also influenced by, Felix Adler, Kaplan also serves as a bridge between Adler and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. The connection between Reconstructionism and Renewal is well known. It was no accident that Arthur Green, a rabbi who has deep connections to Jewish Renewal through Havurat Shalom (a non-denominational egalitarian havurah founded in 1968 in Somerville, Massachusetts), was the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) for a decade, and that Renewal rabbi and social activist Arthur Waskow taught at RRC. In the following section I show that while these connections were substantive and lasting, Schachter-Shalomi moves beyond Kaplan on the question of ethnicity and, in some way, returns to Adler, albeit in a post-multicultural age. Kaplan believed in the possibility of ethnicity as the foundation for community and, as such, his Reconstructionism was fairly Judeo-centric. That is, for Kaplan, Judaism was largely a religion by and for Jews. Schachter-Shalomi reconsiders this model and tries to find a place for the non-Jew inside the Jewish community, making ethnos a part but not the entire foundation of Jewish community, and Torah a template for the world that needs to be shared, and even practiced, by non-Jews as well as Jews. In my view this constitutes one post-Judaism position that may offer a viable alternative for postethnic Jewish America.
Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on Conversion to Judaism and the “Jewish” Non-Jew
In 1968 Isaac Deutscher published an essay entitled “The Non-Jewish Jew” that garnered some attention in the early 1970s. 64 The essay is a kind of ode to the Jewish heretic, from the rabbinic sage Rabbi Meir, who learned from his teacher-turned-heretic Elisha ben Abuyah, to Benedict Spinoza, Henrich Heine, Karl Marx, Leo Trotsky, and others. Deutscher argues that the “non-Jewish” Jew, that is, the Jewish heretic, should be considered an integral part of Judaism; that heresy is not outside but at best, the outside of the inside or the one who takes the inside outside. It is not insignificant that Spinoza was excommunicated, Heine converted to Christianity, Marx's father converted to Christianity before Marx was born (Marx later abandoned Christianity and “converted” to Communism), and Trotsky ideologically and practically severed his ties to the Jewish people. Yet the label “Jew” still stuck for all four. The problem of Jewish modernity, at least through the postwar period, was aligned with the problem of the Jewish heretic. Put otherwise, Jewish modernity had to determine the elasticity of the term “Jew.” The fact that most of those mentioned in Deutscher's essay had little or no connection to the Jewish people and that many had crossed over to another “religion” (Christianity, Communism) speaks to the anxiety of Jews in this period; the anxiety of “converting” out. While non-Jews throughout history have converted to Judaism, this was rarely viewed as a threat to Judaism or the Jewish community. The conditions for conversion were stabilized in the rabbinic period and were largely adhered to into modernity. 65
In contemporary America, conversion to Judaism has in large part been an extension of intermarriage, while Jewish conversion to other religions has waned considerably. A fairly new but growing phenomenon is the Jewish adoption of non-Jewish children who are then converted by their parents, widening the Jewish gene pool in yet another way. While the phenomenon of conversion to Judaism in America contributes to the postethnic makeup of contemporary Jewry, the ethnic, as opposed to religious, impetus for conversion raises a series of questions regarding the nature of conversion more generally. 66
There is a kind of symmetry between the Jewish heretic and the contemporary convert. The heretic is a Jew by birth but a “non-Jew” by belief, even though his “Jewishness” remains. Many Jews speak proudly that Spinoza, Freud, Einstein, and Trotsky were “Jews” and their Jewishness, at least for the first three, was very important to them. 67 The contemporary convert, a non-Jew by birth, becomes a full-fledged “Jew” by conversion, even though he or she might not adhere to, or even believe in, some of the fundamental precepts of Judaism and will likely maintain positive and caring relationships with her non-Jewish family. The complexity of conversion as a phenomenon in classical halakha is such that the convert to Judaism ostensibly loses all connection to her non-Jewish status, albeit in practice this occurs with less and less frequency among contemporary Americans who convert to Judaism. According to Maimonides, the convert has the status of a newborn child (with no history). 68 Yet many contemporary converts to Judaism are not comfortable with that halakhic dictate. For example, it appears that increasing numbers of converts to Judaism in America want to refer to themselves ritually as “son/daughter” of their biological parents and not the halakhic “son of Abraham and Sarah.” They want to retain close family ties with their non-Jewish relatives, cultural narrative, and even rituals and ceremonies. This is, perhaps, indicative of a postethnic society where multiethnicity is a norm. Hence the notion of severing one's ties to a part of one's past seems unnecessary if not offensive. 69
If in postethnic America the Jew is no longer solely defined by his or her ethnos (or is perhaps defined by multiethnicities), why should those converting for “ethnic” reasons (e.g., to be a Jew for one's spouse, to have Jewish children, to be a member of a Jewish community) convert at all? Why should those who want to be a “Jew” but do not want to abandon their non-Jewish past become “Jews”? If the problem of Jewish modernity was finding a place for Deutscher's “non-Jewish” Jew, is the problem of postethnic America finding a place for the “Jewish” non-Jew?
Below I explore this question by examining a series of remarks and essays by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on his theory of partial conversion to Judaism or, rather, his proposal to diminish conversion of non-Jews to Judaism by creating a category of the non-Jew who is a functioning participant in Judaism. Let me state at the outset that this approach is different from recent proposals within denominational Judaism to welcoming the non-Jewish partner in synagogue life. 70 Those efforts are primarily an attempt to prevent the Jewish intermarried spouse from abandoning Jewish life altogether by widening the role of his or her non-Jewish spouse in the mix. The non-Jewish spouse is not the main concern. These efforts still function within an ethnic paradigm: the non-Jew is fully a non-Jew, an outsider. We can embrace her in a gesture of Abrahamic kindness, but her status remains the same as in more traditional models.
Schachter-Shalomi moves beyond the ethnic paradigm by creating a non-ethnic “Jew,” one who is not fully a Jew but not fully a non-Jew. The category itself is not new; it has roots in rabbinic literature largely in the form of the “resident alien” ( ger toshav ), who was often the slave of a Jew or other resident in a Jewish community who may have had certain privileges and responsibilities (we are not certain) but was not a convert ( ger zedek ). The minimal requirement of a ger toshav is to accept the seven Noahide commandments as dictated by the sages. 71 Alternatively, the sages spoke of “God-fearers,” likely Greeks who lived among Jews during the Hellenistic period and took on numerous Jewish practices. 72 Using these rabbinic templates and unmooring them from their historical contexts, Schachter-Shalomi offers an alternative to conversion, undermining the notion that Judaism is the exclusive property of Jews. 73
In many ways I view Renewal as an amalgam of a kind of transvalued Habad Hasidism and Reconstructionist Judaism. Schachter-Shalomi began his rabbinic career as a hasid in the Habad community and one of R. Joseph Isaac Schneersohn's and later R. Menahem Mendel Schneerson's first emissaries in the late 1940s and early 1950s. While he left the communal and ideational framework of Habad and Hasidism more generally by the early 1960s, he took with him a deep understanding of Hasidism and a commitment to restructure Judaism by adapting many of Hasidism's principles refracted through a New Age lens.
One of the more innovative components of the modern Habad project initiated in earnest by the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Joseph Isaac Schneersohn (d. 1950) was the attempt to spread the Noahide laws to the Gentile population. While the need, even obligation, to do so is codified in Moses Maimonides' Mishneh Torah , “Laws of Kings,” 8:10, it was rarely practiced in such a proactive way, especially in traditional circles. Interpreting the deeper meaning of R. Joseph Isaac Schneersohn's release from prison in 1927 in Stalinist Russia, R. Menahem Mendel Schneerson (his son-in-law and later the seventh rebbe of Lubavitch) said that Jews have a duty “to unify all the people of Israel by means of the dissemination of the Torah and Judaism, which includes the spreading of the fulfillment of the commandments of the sons of Noah in all the world in its entirety.” 74 Given that R. Joseph Isaac Schneersohn's release from prison is viewed in Habad as a crucial part of their messianic program, it is safe to say that the Noahide project has messianic connotations as well.
While some view this as a move toward inclusivity in Schneerson's thinking, I agree with Elliot Wolfson that this is a gesture that solidifies Jewish exclusivity. Wolfson writes, “The seventh Rebbe's effort to promote the observance of the seven commandments on the part of non-Jews was certainly laudable, but a careful analysis of his remarks on this topic indicates that they only reinforced the deleterious alterity implied in his portrayal of the non-Jew as other to the other who is a Jew.” 75 I would suggest here, although I have no evidence to prove it, that this project may also have been Schneerson's response to the conversion to Judaism of many who would not live as halakhic Jews, a phenomenon Schneerson surely viewed as very troubling.
Of all ultra-Orthodox groups, Habad is perhaps the least encouraging of conversion. This goes back to the early period of Habad Hasidism. 76 Its metaphysics is founded on a racial and soul-based determination of Jewishness. While enthusiastically open to non-observant Jews on college campuses, Habad rabbis are far less open to non-Jews who take an interest in Judaism. 77
In any event, could we speculate that part of Schneerson's Noahide campaign may be his alternative to problematic conversions or conversion more generally? That is, non-Jews should not become Jews; they should become righteous Gentiles by accepting and abiding by the seven Noahide laws. This coheres with Wolfson's thesis that the ostensible inclusiveness of the Noahide campaign is actually a strengthening rather than loosening of Jewish ethnocentrism. 78 This brief foray into Habad ideology serves to draw a connection between the Habad Noahide project and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's much more audacious and, to my mind, inclusivist theory of partial conversion which overtly functions as a response to what he believes are inauthentic conversions practiced in much of non-Orthodox American Judaism.
In an unpublished encyclical to Renewal rabbis entitled “Concerning Gerey Tzedek (Full Converts) and Gerey Toshav (B'nai Noah) in our Communities,” Schachter-Shalomi lays out the basic contours of his approach to conversion. 79 The frame of his remarks is pastoral. He is concerned that Renewal takes conversion too lightly, that it converts people for the wrong reasons, and that its conversions will not be accepted by the larger Jewish community. As opposed to the popular program instituted by Harold Schulweis in Los Angeles of proselytizing to unchurched Christians, Schachter-Shalomi prefers another route to open Judaism to the non-Jewish world. 80 “With some of them [prospective converts] I have discussed the possibility of them not joining in full conversion but instead of that to organize themselves in a circle of God fearers. Such groups of God-fearers have been around since Temple times as we can point out in various psalms which offer them a voice in the worship.” 81
While the ambiguous God fearers ( yirei shamayim ) and perhaps to a lesser extent gerei toshav may have had some status in the Jewish community in late Antiquity—the former were likely “members” of the Jewish community although the extent of that membership remains unknown—the normative halakhic tradition in the post-rabbinic period has little to say about them. 82 On the God-fearers Shaye Cohen notes,
Gentiles who were conspicuously friendly to Jews, who practiced the rituals of the Jews, or who venerated the God of the Jews, denying or ignoring all other gods—these gentiles had an unusual attachment to Judaism, were sometimes called “Jews” by other gentiles, and may even have thought of themselves as “Jews” to one degree or another. Would [the] Jews too have called them “Jews”? We cannot be sure, but I would argue that the answer is no…. The Jews of antiquity in both Greek and Hebrew termed these gentiles, or at least some of them, “Fearers of God” or “venerators of God,” a usage attested in Josephus, Acts, rabbinic literature, and several inscriptions. 83
The halakhic use of the term ger toshav , generally defined as one who accepts the seven Noahide laws, is to differentiate the righteous Gentile and the idolater. 84 Sometimes the ger toshav is also equated with the convert-in-process; e.g., one who has been circumcised but has not yet immersed in the mikveh (ritual bath). 85 In any case, in the classic halakhic tradition the ger toshav is fully a non-Jew. Most of the halakhic distinctions have to do with cases such as wine used for idolatry ( yayin nesakh ) or other matters dealing with defining the practices of gentiles related to the “impurity” of idolatry. 86
Schachter-Shalomi means something very different by the term ger toshav , reviving its ostensible late antique origins when these Gentiles may have actually been a part of the Israelite or Jewish community. While the gerei toshav and God-fearers were not identical, Schachter-Shalomi deploys both terms to describe those who desire to become part of the Jewish community but may not be prepared, or ready, for full conversion. 87 Instead of encouraging these modern-day God-fearers to become Jews through conversion, he suggests they remain Gentiles and take on certain Jewish practices. 88
Schachter-Shalomi offers an interesting rendering of the kabbalistic idea popularized in the sixteenth century—perhaps in response to the phenomenon of returning conversos—that converts are individuals with Jewish souls in non-Jewish bodies. He refers to something Jean Houston called “psycho-semitic” Gentiles: individuals who feel close to Judaism. He claims these people “have their own unique gifts to share with us and the world.” Instead of taking the next step to encourage them to convert, he says to them, “You think Jewish; you pray Jewish, you feel Jewish. It's all there. Maybe at some point later on, it will really be right for you to convert, but right now you can do it voluntarily. Why would you need to become a convert? Did you get ‘marching orders’? In other words, on those deep levels, I believe that this person was Jewish already and wouldn't gain anything through conversion.” 89 Such an individual would also be granted certain ritual rights in the synagogue and a status in the Jewish community. From his point of view, this better reflects the “reality map” of many (but certainly not all) converts today who maintain a dual membership in Jewish and non-Jewish communities. 90
There may also be a person whose conversion represents a kind of dual membership. The person may feel guided to be also Jewish. There is no halakhic precedent allowing for this. In the past it was clear that one would have to say to the convert to sever all relationships [with] past religions. However much of what the person brings to the conversion process is the progress they have made that brought him to seek affiliation with Judaism. 91
He refers to this dual membership as “hyphenation”:
Whenever a person commits to the spiritual renewal of Judaism, it almost always carries with it some commitment to practices learned outside Judaism. In fact, this is true everywhere in the modern world…. Given those new realities, why can't we allow somebody who wants to convert to Judaism to be hyphenated just as many of whom were born Jewish are? Why can't people join us and, while accepting the Jewish part as their core practice, still remain loyal to the best of what brought them to Judaism? 92
Is conversion as the exclusive response to those aspiring to participate in Jewish life and draw from Jewish wisdom a product of an ethnic paradigm? Must Jews make the non-Jew “Jewish” before enabling him or her to live inside the Jewish tradition? And can this ethnic paradigm that demands the convert sever ties with his/her non-Jewish family survive a postethnic society when most Americans embody multiethnic pasts and readily embrace multiple narratives and histories? Schachter-Shalomi is sensitive to that dilemma when he writes that according to tradition,
In order to become a convert, you have to give up everything that you ever had before; all your religious and familial connections have to be cut, and you are…compared to a newborn. That's a wonderful idea, that becoming a Jew is a fresh start, the beginning of a new life. But at the same time, it is also problematic, because it assumes the person must start over with respect to their moral and faith development. 93
These are some of the questions that underlie Schachter-Shalomi's proposal of a postethnic ger toshav. His overt concerns here are more pastoral than theological. According to him, the narrative of Judaism can be shared in conjunction with other narratives by liberating “Judaism” from its exclusively Jewish context. He is not suggesting, as Adler and Lazarus did before him, that Judaism as a positive religion ostensibly should cease to exist. Judaism will remain largely a religion of the Jews and for the Jews. It just will not be exclusively so.
Unlike Adler, Schachter-Shalomi does not promote a universal vision that erases positive religion. In this he is no triumphalist. As a child of multiculturalism, he fully recognizes that particularity plays a crucial role in any universalism. In line with Kaplan, he also supports a Judaism whose humanistic mission is not simply to be a “light unto the nations” via a parochial and nationalistic agenda. Unlike Kaplan, Schachter-Shalomi refuses to limit Jewish ritual and practice as the exclusive property, and expression, of the Jews. His global paradigm shift requires Jews to move confidently beyond the borders of ethnicity to share their wisdom with the world and to allow the world's wisdom to enter into their sacred space.
The gerei toshav need not abandon what brought them to the synagogue. They are not halakhic converts. On the contrary, Schachter-Shalomi wants to transform the synagogue into a place of spiritual experimentation, where participants may learn from the wisdom of the east, from the ecstatic dances of Sufism, and from the melodic and ethereal cadences of Gregorian chants. Instead of abandoning the traditional synagogue for the secular Society for Ethical Culture, Schachter-Shalomi wants to transform the synagogue into a Society for (Jewish) Global Spirituality. He writes that “the only thing that I would want to not ask the ger to say is that they give up those allegiances that brought them to this place.” 94 Kaplan's Jewish Community Center model, the “shul with a pool,” sought to merge American (Jewish) secularism and religion. 95 Schachter-Shalomi wants to turn secular humanism, environmentalism, and human rights into acts of Jewish devotion not merely through social activism (Reform) but through creative ritual performance that seeks to reconstruct the shekhina (divine presence) in this world. Creating space for the “Jewish” non-Jew by creating a new ger toshav is one way of restoring Adler's vision of Jewish humanism, without erasing Judaism, and moving beyond Kaplan's multicultural and Judeo-centric Reconstructionism.
Adler and Kaplan have at least two things in common. First, they both viewed Reform Judaism (the default American Judaism in their time) as inadequate to the task of reviving Judaism in America. Second, in different ways each held American society more generally to be their primary concern. 96 In this way, both shared Reform rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise's belief, construed quite differently, that it was Judaism “denationalized” (and for Adler, de-Judaized) that would save America from the fate of European anti-Semitism. They also each, in his own way, held that the tension between Jewish ethnic particularity and Judaism's universality could not be maintained. Hence, for them, Reform was not up to the task. Adler formed his views on this matter before the rise and demise of the “melting pot.” Kaplan, thinking with Horace Kallen, Randolph Bourne, and others in opposition to the melting pot, opted for a “transnational” nationalism referred to by some as “civilization nationalism.” 97 We can, of course, historicize Adler and Kaplan and view the logic of each within his cultural context. My concern, however, is how all this plays out in a postethnic America. Adler and Kaplan offer different visions, in different times, of challenge to the notion of ethnicity that remains operative today. Both of their visions, now somewhat obsolete, contribute to the new vision offered by Renewal. Among contemporary American Jews today, only Kaplan has survived. This is not because his position has more merit but because he constructed a model that conformed to the conditions of what American society became in the postwar period. One of the more impressive things about Kaplan is the way he was able to foresee societal changes decades before they happened.
My question is whether Kaplan's and Adler's reformulations of ethnicity can still be relevant today. Kaplan wrote his major work almost eighty years ago, and Adler is a largely forgotten figure whose vision disappeared long ago. If we follow Hollinger's postethnicity argument that identity has become more fungible, is there room to return to the pre-multicultural question as to whether Jews can, should, or must, separate Judaism (widely construed) from the Jews? That is, should Jews offer Judaism to the world such that Judaism becomes more than a way for ethnic Jews to remain Jews? In addition, in our world, is this prescriptive or descriptive? The move beyond ethnicity is already happening. Yet, for many, the inextricable link between Judaism and the Jews persists; American Jews do not yet have the ideational or ideological frame in which to understand and respond to Judaism's expansive allure.
If ethnicity is no longer tied to ethnic myths of belonging to a “blood nation,” ancient people, or even a community of descent, but is constructed out of a variety of different, often conflicting, personal and collective narratives, by “liberating” Judaism (to borrow a term from Lazarus) and Jewishness as the sole property of the Jews, can both sides (that is, the Jews and Judaism/Jewishness) produce fruitful new categories of identity for Jews and others? 98 Today, the Jews need not disappear in order for Judaism to be fulfilled, as Lazarus suggested, because contemporary cosmopolitanism would, to paraphrase Kaplan, allow ethnicity “a vote but not a veto.”
At first blush, Kaplaneans may argue that this diffusion of ethnos in favor of a variegated and constructed narrative of identity is precisely what Kaplan fought against. To some degree this may be true, but I am not convinced this is the only way to read him. His continued ambivalence about the dangers of closed communities suggests that he may have been less convinced of his own project than many of his readers. First of all, he was the one who gave us Jewish “transnationalism” in an attempt to enable Jews, to encourage Jews, to have dual allegiances and multiple identities. Did he believe that the Jewish side of the Jewish-American hyphen would always have priority? Should it? I do not know but can imagine he would have been somewhat disturbed at the way many American Jews today have come to understand their commitment to Zionism, for example, as a badge of Jewish national pride regardless of what kind of society Israel has produced. And the diasporic bumper sticker, “I Love NY But Jerusalem Is My Home,” is not something I imagine Kaplan would have appreciated. My point, of course, is that the breakdown of the dual to the many, of the ethnic to the multiethnic and then postethnic, leads us back in some way to Adler for insight about the possibilities of what Judaism would look like without it being solely for the Jews, and what the Jews would look like if they thought creatively about their identities and responsibilities to the world with Judaism as only one component of a much larger, and more complex, narrative.
Schachter-Shalomi is presented here as offering one practical alternative to some of the challenges of postethnic America. Focusing here solely on the topic of conversion I submit this alternative is a response to the shifting sand of American Jewry. For the first time in modern history many Gentiles, for a variety of reasons, actually want to become Jews. They do not all feel bound to the Jewish people, nor do they come to Judaism, or Jewishness, with a strong commitment to Jewish belief and practice to the exclusion of all else. However, they do come to Judaism because there is something about it, or about Jews, that is compelling. Many do not want to sever their ties with their families or their past in an absolute way. And many come with significant spiritual gifts they attained elsewhere. As Schachter-Shalomi notes, for some people conversion is not always the ideal path.
His alternative is based on the principle that Judaism and Jewishness need not be fused. Living in a world where most Americans have complex identities, it is not farfetched to suggest that non-Jews should be allowed to choose to take on aspects of Judaism and be considered part of the Jewish community; many are already doing so. Schachter-Shalomi's proposal to create a category between Jew and non-Jew for many of these seekers is timely. Within an ethnic paradigm, this middle ground is impossible. The most that can be done is to accept the non-Jewish spouse, offer a few non-ritualistic and nominal roles in the synagogue community, and present conversion as an option. The new category of ger toshav goes further, recognizing that the social and cultural paradigm of Jewishness has shifted in America, and it is time for the Jewish community to offer a realistic, creative, innovative, and yes, radical response.
3
Pragmatism and Piety: The American Spiritual and Philosophical Roots of Jewish Renewal
[Nature] is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.
—Pascal, Pensees
No renewal of Judaism is possible that does not bear in itself the elements of Hasidism.
—Martin Buber, The Legend of the Baal-Shem
Neo-Pragmatism and Religion
Arguably the only indigenous American Jewish metaphysics of the early twentieth century belongs to Mordecai Kaplan and the Reconstructionist Judaism he founded based largely on the philosophy of John Dewey and Emile Durkheim. Most other forms of American Judaism were transplanted from Europe and constitute adaptations of European trends and ideas. Yet while the practical and communal impact of Kaplan's work remains pervasive in American Judaism, his philosophical naturalism is no longer in vogue the way it was in the prewar period. In part due to the ten-year directorship of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College by the neo-hasidic theologian Arthur Green, Reconstructionism has become the vanguard of the neo-hasidic movement that is usually labeled under the moniker of Jewish Renewal, which embraces a mystical theology quite distinct from Kaplan's naturalism yet in many ways an extension of his broader project. 1 Below, I examine what I consider Renewal's “pragmatic pietism” that constitutes a new metaphysical template for Judaism in the twenty-first century.
Richard Rorty was one of America's great contemporary philosophers and public intellectuals. He abandoned a successful career in analytic philosophy in favor of a new kind of pragmatism (sometimes called neo-pragmatism), deciding that it was impossible to step outside the traditions, linguistic and other, within which we do our philosophical thinking and self-criticism. 2 This phenomenon represents a small cadre of analytically trained philosophers in America who abandoned the apolitical style of analytic philosophy in favor of a reconstituted pragmatism initiated by William James in the early part of the twentieth century. 3 The spirit of this transition at the end of the twentieth century is aptly captured by Cornel West, one of neo-pragmatism's most vocal and prolific voices.
The distinctive appeal of American pragmatism in our postmodern moment is its unabashedly moral emphasis and its unequivocally ameliorative impulse. In this world-weary period of pervasive cynicisms, nihilisms, terrorisms, and possible exterminations, there is a longing for norms and values that can make a difference, a yearning for principled resistance and struggle that can change our desperate plight. 4
West expresses here an urgency common among some American intellectuals to re-enter the public sphere with a program that could contribute to the rejuvenation of American (and world) civilization founded on (American) principles of pluralism and democracy. 5 These neo-pragmatist philosophers offer more than a political program; according to West they offer a philosophical and metaphysical basis for understanding the nature of truth and reality that they hope will contribute to the larger project of reconstructing society. One of the tenets of pragmatism, primarily but not exclusively the pragmatism of John Dewey, was the commitment to social change through human and collective experience and taking seriously the ideas of ordinary people. 6
Beginning with Ralph Waldo Emerson, 7 such an approach was viewed as an anti-ecclesiastical movement as it turned away from the elitism of European thought and the institutional church that Emerson held were constitutively antidemocratic. While this philosophical shift did not yield a cultural populism, it took democracy and egalitarianism as metaphysical principles that would be the foundation of a new conception of truth.
By the twentieth century the split between those for whom philosophy was an integral part of cultural and political formation and those for whom it was a logical science became more pronounced. Yet both for those who came from the analytic and realist traditions propagated in Great Britain in the early twentieth century when philosophy was not an integral part of the public arena, and for those who came from the continental tradition where philosophy espoused idealist theories of politics (e.g., socialism, Marxism, the Frankfurt School), the turn to pragmatism was a radical reorientation of philosophical thinking. And, just as important, it was a return to an American tradition of philosophy and culture that began with Emerson and took concrete form in James and Dewey.
Below I explore a somewhat surprising form of American (neo) pragmatism in Jewish Renewal. Renewal's ostensible roots in the Jewish mystical tradition (refracted through Hasidism) and the ethos of the American counterculture, including New Age religion, to some extent belie a deep dependence on American metaphysical religion in general and American pragmatism in particular. 8 In this sense, Jewish Renewal is not only an alternative vision of American Judaism; it constitutes a new articulation of an indigenous form of American spirituality. 9
As a religious movement within Judaism, Renewal constitutes more than a fifth denomination of American Judaism (in addition to Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reform, and Reconstructionism). It may be the first fruits of a post-denominational period in American Jewry and better categorized as a type of New Religious Movement (NRM), a fairly new category in the social analysis of religious society. According to J. George Melton, NRMs are religious movements that are viewed as outside the mainstream of established religious society, are sometimes “feared, disliked, or hated by outsiders,” and are movements that espouse what are perceived to be radical doctrines that undermine established practice and dogma. 10 The NRM began as a category to offer a more value-free assessment of what were previously called “cults,” but its parameters have expanded to include offshoots of conventional religious movements that offer more than cosmetic changes to the status quo. Elsewhere I have examined some of the basic tenets of Jewish Renewal and its founder Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and thus I will not rehearse them here. 11

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