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American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society

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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.

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1. Be the Jew You Make: Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism in Postethnic America

ePub

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.

 

2. Ethnicity, America, and the Future of the Jews: Felix Adler, Mordecai Kaplan, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

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“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

 

3. Pragmatism and Piety: The American Spiritual and Philosophical Roots of Jewish Renewal

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[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.

 

4. Postmonotheism, Renewal, and a New American Judaism

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As a moralist I am a monotheist; as an artist I am a polytheist; as a naturalist I am a pantheist.

—Goethe

No sentence is more dangerous or revolutionary than that God is One and there is no other like Him…. It was on the truth of the sentence that God is One that the ‘Third Reich’ of Adolf Hitler made shipwreck.

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics

Our troubles began with the invention of male deities located off the planet.

—Gary Snyder, “Anarchism, Buddhism, and Political Economy”

In the previous chapter I began to discuss what I consider to be a major metaphysical and theological innovation in contemporary America Jewish spirituality I called “post-monotheism.” Here I offer a more in-depth analysis of that innovation that I claim is the metaphysical basis of post-Judaism. The influence of the Jewish mystical tradition refracted through New Age religion coupled with the American ethos of experimentation, pluralism, and religious syncretism has created an opportunity for Jewish theologians to rethink classical monotheism as the exclusive template for any viable metaphysics.1 The idea of monotheism as a sine qua non of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition has been challenged by American thinkers from the Deists and Transcendentalists to William James, Alfred North Whitehead, and contemporary process theologians such as Catherine Keller and Laurel Schneider. The unassailable truth of monotheism has been subject to considerable debate in the American theological tradition for at least three centuries, yet only recently have Jews entered that conversation.

 

5. Hasidism, Mithnagdism, and Contemporary American Judaism: Talmudism, (Neo) Kabbala, and (Post) Halakha

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It is surely not difficult to see that our time is a time of birth and transition to a new period. Spirit has broken with the world as it has hitherto existed and with the old ways of thinking, and is about to let all this sink into the past; it is at work giving itself a new form.

—G. W. F. Hegel

Behind us lies Egypt, the Middle Ages, before us the sea of Talmudic legalism…. The spirit indwelling here in the West, the spirit of freedom, is the newly born Messiah…”

—Rabbi Samuel Adler, just after arriving in New York in 1857

As important as theology is to any theistic or post-theistic religion, Judaism included, the Judaism that was constructed by the rabbis after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was a religion founded primarily on law, also known as halakha. The commandments (mitzvot) of the Hebrew Bible took on a legal framework in the Mishna, the Talmud, and later the medieval and modern legal codes. Throughout Jewish history the theory and practice of halakha reigned supreme. Heresy was often determined not by doctrinal deviation but by halakhic transgression. Below I examine what I consider the transition from a halakhic to a post-halakhic outlook in contemporary American Judaism. This turn is not as radical as it seems although it takes a certain radical turn in Jewish Renewal. The move from legal dominance to what is sometimes called “meta-halakha” has a historical trajectory that extends back to the sixteenth century when the rise of Kabbala in Europe and the Levant resulted in the slow diminution of Talmud as the dominant template of Jewish life and letters.

 

6. From the Historical Jesus to a New Jewish Christology: Rethinking Jesus in Contemporary American Judaism

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It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism.

—Ignatius of Antioch, Magnesians 10:3

Jesus, ils entendent de tirer chex eux, ils ne veulent pas venire chez lui. Jews mean to draw Jesus to themselves, they do not want to come to him.

—Joseph Bonsirven, Les Juifs et Jesus

Contemporary Jews in America do not seem very interested in Jesus. Few rabbis today sermonize about Jesus from the pulpit and there are few courses about Jesus (or Christianity) in formal or informal Jewish education. Contemporary scholar of the New Testament Amy-Jill Levine correctly notes in passing, “If on the popular level we Jews are willing not only to acknowledge but also to take pride in the Jewishness of such generally non-observant Jews as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, the Marxes (Karl and Groucho although Karl was baptized as a child), and Jerry Seinfeld, why not acknowledge the quite observant Jesus?…I have heard rabbis in Reform and Conservative synagogues cite Homer (both the Greek poet and Bart's father), Plato, the Buddha, Muhammad, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Llama, and even Madonna (the Kabbalah-besotted singer, not the mother of Jesus). At least Jesus is Jewish with regard to family, practice, and belief.”1

 

7. Sainthood, Selfhood, and the Ba'al Teshuva: ArtScroll's American Hero and Jewish Renewal's Functional Saint

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This chapter explores a social dimension of Jewish Renewal in the form of spiritual leadership. Thus far I have not directly engaged American Orthodoxy, an important branch of American Judaism that has experienced a revival in the postwar years continuing into the period under discussion.1 I have also not explored the sharp differences between Israeli Judaism and American Judaism in this transitional period. While political allegiances may bind many American Jews to Israel, the stark disparity between the postethnic social and cultural contexts in which American Jews live and the ethnocentric world of Israeli society produces significant disparities that often go unnoticed under the banner of Jewish solidarity in the form of pro-Israel politics.2 Even given American Jews' proud and sometimes sentimental attachment to Israel, the Judaism they live, the challenges they face, and the identities they construct are vastly different from their Israeli cousins in large part because the ethnic anchor of “peoplehood” that is a given in Israel is far more complicated in America.

 

8. Rethinking the Holocaust after Post-Holocaust Theology: Uniqueness, Exceptionalism, and the Renewal of American Judaism

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Who knows, it might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason only do we suffer now.

—Anne Frank, Diary entry, April 11, 1944

There are few things in contemporary American Judaism that are as significant, and as confusing, as the Holocaust. By the “Holocaust” I do not only mean the historical event that took place in Europe from 1939–1945 that resulted in the genocide of six million Jews and untold millions of others.1 Rather, I mean the cataclysmic phenomenon, including the reception and memorialization of that historical event that reshaped Jewish identity and recalibrated the place of the Jew in American society. The Holocaust became a lens, in Emil Fackenheim's assessment, an “epoch-making event” a “commanding voice” (the voice of Auschwitz) refracting all that came before it (the voice of Sinai).2 Thus any reflection on Judaism in the present or future must address the Holocaust as a historical event and its place in the American Jewish consciousness.

 

Epilogue. Shlomo Carlebach: An Itinerant Preacher for a Post-Judaism Age

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It seems odd to write a book about contemporary American Judaism focusing on Jewish Renewal without having discussed the impact of Shlomo Carlebach (1925–1994). While he wrote almost nothing, was not an active participant in the many debates about Jewish identity discussed in this book, and did not formally weigh in on the relevant issues of the day, his music, his teaching, and his presence helped form the larger Renewal phenomenon I describe.1

Carlebach began his career as America's Jewish itinerant preacher together with Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in 1948 when the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yizhak Schneersohn, sent them both to a Hanukkah party at the newly opened Brandeis University to engage in acts of kiruv rekhokim (proselytizing to the wayward Jews). It may have been the first formal act of shelikhut (missionizing) that came to define Habad Hasidism in subsequent decades. Soon after that event, he and Schachter-Shalomi (then known simply as Schachter) went their separate ways but remained friends and often collaborated in Renewal gatherings, ecumenical meetings, and spiritual retreats. Shlomo was a ubiquitous presence in postwar American Judaism. Jews from all walks of life encountered him, either personally or through his records and tapes. His compositions changed liturgical music in synagogues from Orthodox to Reform; his fantastical stories of prewar Europe offered many America Jews a window into a world no longer accessible. On his storytelling Schachter-Shalomi writes, “Shlomo was also known as a great storyteller, and I like to say of him that he was a ‘genius’ of ‘virtuous reality’. Not virtual but virtuous reality. When he would tell the stories, they would come out in such a way that they would give you a great longing to live the life of the person whose great virtues were being talked about.”2 His stories were as much about his own self-fashioning as the story itself. He was once visiting a well-known American-born rosh yeshiva in Jerusalem and told a long-winded story. Afterward the rosh yeshiva said “Shlomo, that was the worst story I have ever heard!” Shlomo replied, “Yes, I know, but how did you like the way I told it!?”3 In what follows I offer a brief assessment of his contribution, not in any academic or historical vein but as a eulogy of sorts, a tribute to an individual who, while he could not find his way into this book, provided the soundtrack for it, both metaphorically and literally.

 

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