Jewish Identity and Its Discontents
A Philosophical Retrospective: Facts, Values, and Jewish Identity
by Alan Montefiore
Columbia University Press, 216 pp., $29.50
John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage
by Ze'ev Maghen
CreateSpace, 292 pp., $12.50
I grew up in a thickly Jewish environment and always felt very much at home in it, but when I was a college freshman it seemed to me, briefly, that continuing to be Jewish was an option I might choose not to exercise. If one didn't believe in revelation—and I couldn't—and if ethnic solidarity was rooted in mere prejudice—as I was tempted to think—then what sense did it make to carry on as a Jew? No single piece of writing played a larger part in helping me to answer this question than a mimeographed copy that an older student gave me of a talk that the political theorist Leo Strauss had delivered a few years earlier entitled "Why We Remain Jews." "What shall those Jews do," Strauss asked, "who cannot believe as our ancestors believed?" They must be brought to see, he insisted, how disgraceful it is to deny their origins and heritage and to abandon their Jewish identity. And they must understand that even if Judaism is at bottom a delusion, "no nobler dream was ever dreamt." Strauss didn't answer all my questions or make me pious, but he kept me loyal.
Ever since reading Strauss' lecture, I have kept my eyes open for new essays and books that revolve around the questions he addressed, especially the ones produced by thinkers and writers who make their living neither as rabbis nor as professors of Jewish thought. John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage, by the American-Israeli professor of Middle East studies Ze'ev Maghen drew my attention in part because it explicitly targets "the current generation of up-and-coming Jews as they decide just how Jewish they want to be, as they debate how much space and how much importance to give Judaism and Jewishness in their lives." The British analytic philosopher Alan Montefiore's A Philosophical Retrospective: Facts, Values and Jewish Identity sets no such goal. But both books represent serious intellectual efforts to grapple with the question of preserving Jewish identity and both of them are eminently worthy of consideration.
The fact/value distinction to which Montefiore alludes in his book's title, and on which his entire argument rests, is one that Leo Strauss spent a fair amount of time combating. In his book Natural Right and History, Strauss maintained that a sharp bifurcation between facts and values, one that entails the rejection of the possibility of any genuinely true value system, inevitably leads to nihilism and absurdity. He might nevertheless have regarded A Philosophical Retrospective in a somewhat positive light. Agreeing, in effect, with Strauss, that facts and values always remain to some extent "obstinately intertwined," Montefiore doesn't simply consign Jewish identity to the realm of arbitrary values; he seeks to clarify whether, for the individual Jew, it is not an inescapable fact.