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

Shaul Magid Indiana University Press ePub

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

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

Shaul Magid Indiana University Press 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.

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4. Postmonotheism, Renewal, and a New American Judaism

Shaul Magid Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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

Shaul Magid Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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

Shaul Magid Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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