9 Chapters
Medium 9780253008022

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

Shaul Magid Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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

Shaul Magid Indiana University Press ePub

[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.

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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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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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