“Why Bother?” A Response

N

achman of Bratslav once said (and I paraphrase), “If what you say does not stir controversy, it means you are not saying anything new.” Admittedly, “new” does not mean “right” or even “useful,” but I thought of this aphorism when I read Allan Arkush’s review of my book American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society. When I heard Arkush was writing the review I assumed it would not be pretty. Anyone familiar with his work and mine will immediately know we often see things differently.  But when I read the review I was quite pleased, even gratified; not because he agrees with me, he does not, but because the review put into relief a clear choice that readers can use to make their own judgment. In short, Arkush gets the book. He offers a few caricatures (to be expected) and a few misconceptions but by and large he presents the argument in a clear and accurate fashion. The accusation that the book is “radical,” more radical than The Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford who subvented the project, thinks, is well-placed given what I consider Arkush’s perspective to be. That is, what I suggest as post-Judaism is indeed the end of Judaism as he knows (or wants) it, but I suggest that that Judaism has already ended, so that part of my argument is less prognostication than description. Arkush does not think “post-Judaism” is upon us. He may be right. But he does not say that postethnicity is not upon us, which is the foundation upon which post-Judaism serves as an alternative. He is right that I give writers like Alan Dershowitz and Elliot Abrams “short shrift.” This is because I think they are “Chicken Little” Jews, they like to tell us how the sky is falling but have few realistic alternatives that are viable given the present state of affairs.

American Post-Judaism argues that we have entered what historian David Hollinger calls a “postethnic” period. He describes this as a time “that favors voluntary over involuntary affiliations, balances an appreciation for communities of descent with a determination to make room for new communities . . . that incorporate people with different ethnic and racial backgrounds.” I argue that religion has long ceased being the primary anchor of Jewish identity for most American Jews and has been supplanted by three pillars: ethnicity, the Holocaust, and Zionism. All three are in a state of decline or, better, transition as stable anchors of identity for American Jews. Postethnicity destabilizes ethnic identity; the aging and inevitable passing of the last Holocaust survivors makes the Holocaust something different than it was for those who knew survivors; and Israel, while still a strong source of Jewish identity in America, is a much less mythic and more complex place for those who only know it as a country in the throes of a 43-year occupation. And it is what I would call “pro-Israelism” rather than Zionism that is really at play. How many American Jews who are not academics know even the basic history of Zionism? In any case, Arkush’s critique of American Post-Judaism appears to me less about its description of the present reality than its normative solutions.

One of the central claims of American Post-Judaism is that given the seismic changes in the society in which it lives, the revitalization of American Judaism requires more than social correction, ritual innovation, or a reintroduction of text-study into Jewish intellectual life. While these are all crucial to the future of Judaism in America, I argue that what is needed is a new metaphysics, that is, a new way of conceptualizing the fundamental principles upon which Judaism was founded, including the relationship between God and world, Israel and the nations, peoplehood, the function of halakha as something more than a tool of separation from the world and collective survival, Judaism’s relationship to/with other religions, and its understanding to Jewish tragedy, in particularly the Holocaust. I treat all these in American Post-Judaism arguing that Jewish Renewal, in accord with new interpretations of Reconstructionist Judaism, to which it is partially indebted, provides this new metaphysics upon which Jews can confront the changing reality of the American landscape. It is the viability of this new metaphysics where Arkush focuses his most sustained critique.

Let me begin by stating unequivocally that Arkush’s foregrounding of my intellectual and spiritual biography is fair game. I decided to include this in my Introduction precisely to argue that this is what most scholars do, and it is about time we own up to it. So, then, Arkush’s convictions are no less a product of his experience than post-Judaism is of mine. I don’t know why he left Camp Ramah in 1964 unimpressed with Zalman Schachter, lived in Israel for a few years, returned to America to work on the 18th-century German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and chose a secular Jewish life with a neo-conservative bent. But whatever those reasons are, they cannot be separated from the fact that “he sees things differently” than I do.  His biography drives his review as much as my biography drives my book.

That being said, in the spirit of serious debate let me respond to some of the salient points in his critique. Let me begin with this claim that my post-Judaism is abandoning Jewish solidarity by focusing more on American Gentiles than Jews elsewhere (i.e., in Israel). Jewish solidarity is an odd, albeit often-deployed term that always leaves me confused. Jewish solidarity? When exactly was there Jewish solidarity? It is mostly a convenient myth used to criticize any idea that challenges the status quo. Was Hasidism’s move to establish separate prayer houses (shtieblach) a breach in Jewish solidarity? What about the rise of Reform Judaism in 19th-century Germany? In an interview in 1992 the iconoclastic Orthodox Jewish philosopher and life-long Zionist Yeshayahu Leibowitz was asked about what he thought of “the Jewish People.” “The historical Jewish People,” he responded, “ceased to exist in the 19th century!”  While I am not quite certain what Leibowitz meant by that, the premise of my book is precisely that the status quo of the Jewish People, the extent to which it exists at all, has already changed in postethnic America. Alternatively, is Arkush suggesting that my idea of post-Judaism is wrong because it isn’t “good for the Jews”? In order to assess that claim one first needs to know what “good” means and who are “the Jews”? Does “good” mean the continuity of Jewish existence as it has previously been understood? I argue that is no longer possible. Does “the Jews” mean the stable ethnic enclave of the Jewish past? Leaning on David Hollinger’s Postethnic America, I argue that is already irrelevant.

Arkush is disturbed that I concentrate more on Gentiles in America than Jews in Israel. That is true, and for good reason. Israel is a country and a society with its own issues, concerns, and challenges that are far different than those Jews who live in America? Sadly, most American Jews view Israel as their spiritual theme park and a resource to strengthen their identity at home . . . in America. They have a hard time, and little interest, in learning about the messy fissures in Israeli society: social inequality, misogynism, racism, violence. Many American Jews understandably take pride in Israel as a “Jewish” state, even as that state may be more myth than reality. But what role does Israeli Judaism have to play in the formation of a new American Judaism that has to function in a society that is categorically different than the society in Israel? Very little, I argue. Moreover, there is not much reciprocity in this regard. Most Israeli Jews know and care very little about contemporary American Judaism. Most Israeli Jews arguably know more about Judaism in 19th-century century Poland than 21st-century America. The study of Jews in the diaspora in Israeli schools includes very little time on contemporary diaspora Judaism. Nor do I see a particular Israeli Jewish commitment to solidarity with diaspora Jews other than as supporters of Israel or potential olim. I am in much more sympathetic to Simon Rawidowicz’s dual-center theory (Israel and America) than Ahad Ha-Am’s Israel as a spiritual center.

There is in Arkush’s insightful review a crucial question worth examining. “What I think is worth asking in Magid’s case is why does he bother? Why isn’t it enough for Jews just to drink the new wine straight out of the American vat from which it comes?” And, “Why does Magid himself feel that the archaic and dilapidated house of Judaism should be so massively renovated instead of just being treated as a teardown?” These are real questions and they are significant not only for my book but for those of us who think seriously about these matters, Arkush included.

To begin to answer this question I refer the reader to Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan’s Beyond the Melting Pot, which they begin by saying “The point about the melting pot is that it did not happen.” At least, I would add, not the way they thought it would. But something did indeed happen. Horace Kallen’s “cultural pluralism” gave us multiculturalism, which has yielded postethnicity. As I argued in the book, postethnicity does not mean the end of ethnicity but its transformation into imagined, performative, multiethnic communities that may have a dominant ethnos but also include other narratives, practices, and histories. I do not mean to be glib when I say that I “bother” because Jews, in the increasingly complex way in which they are defined, and define themselves, still want to be Jews and still want Judaism to be a part of that identity. I include myself in that mix. Unfortunately for Arkush, the Judaism that Schachter-Shalomi calls “old paradigm” Judaism is simply not commensurate with the new reality as I see it. I did not argue Renewal is the answer to all questions. What I did suggest is that Renewal is particularly honest and open in its assessment of the new reality as I see it and courageous in constructing a Judaism and implementing change that can meet 21st-century American Jews where they are. This is not about accommodation; it is about spirituality, it is about the function of religion in any society. Moreover, to say, as Arkush does, that “Traditional Jews will necessarily find such a blend altogether unacceptable” is not quite true. In the past decade groups of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews in America and Israel have become quite receptive to Renewal’s alternatives. They will mold it in ways that will make it their own, but they too see that the Judaism they are living is simply outdated. Schachter-Shalomi recently published a Hebrew kuntrus (booklet) Sifsei Kohen Yishmaru Da’at that makes the case for Renewal in the language of the beis medrish.

“Why bother?” is an important question I think all interested Jews should be asking, and I thank Arkush for asking it. The answers will vary. I invite Arkush to leave the “Chicken Little” Jews behind and come up with some constructive alternatives of his own. Nostalgia has very shallow roots. Wishing things were different is the lazy response of the cynic. American Post-Judaism was meant to contribute to the future as I see it. I may turn out to be wrong. But as the Talmud teaches, I will put the book under my arm and take it with me to the heavenly yeshiva beyond.

Allan Arkush’s original review (“All-American, Post-Everything”) of Shaul Magid’s book American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of the Jewish Review of Books.

Arkush’s reply to this essay can be found here.

Comments

Suggested Reading

Climate of Opinion

Climate of Opinion

Alvin H. Rosenfeld

Academic scholars, of all people, should recognize that excoriation is not an acceptable substitute for argument, but, in fact, it pervades much of the discourse that today passes as “criticism of Israel.”

Out of the Ghetto

Allan Arkush

Are they for the Jewish state or against? A new book from Israel distills recent scholarship on the haredim.