American Judaism – Adventure in Modernity (Jacob Neusner – 1972)

American Judaism – Adventure in Modernity

by Jacob Neusner
Prentice-Hall, Inc. – 1972

If one is a Jew through filio-piety, is such a bond strong enough?  Memory has its risks.  The sense of the past is often merely the present read into the past.  Memory is selective; it screens out the hurts; it throws resonant hues.  Remembering what happened in one’s lifetime is difficult enough; uncovering the past of history is even more so.
The greatest risk of memory is sentimentality, and Jewish life has paid dearly for its sentimentality.  The lachrymose recollections of the shtetl (which are still with us) fail to recall its narrowness of mind, its cruelty, especially to school children (to which a whole series of memoirs, such as Solomon Ben Maimon’s, testify), and its invidious stratification.  In the same vein of nostalgia, there are the glowing reminiscences of the Lower East Side, or Chicago’s Maxwell Street – but they omit the frequent coarseness, the pushing, the many other gross features of that life.  At its best, this parochial identification exists as a tie of memory through pity; at its worst, it may be a continuity of appetite – the lox, cream cheese, and bagel combinations; or through comedians’ jokes. (65)

A different form of filio-piety is in the satisfying of memory, when there is no faith, by “good works”.  One is a Jew, by discharging one’s obligations as a Jew, through membership in Jewish organizations.  Here lies the second risk, of accommodationIn the embourgeoisement of Jewish life in America, the community has become institutionalized around fund raising, and the index of an individual’s importance too often is the amount of money he donates to hospitals, defense, agencies, philanthropic groups, and the like.  The manifest ends are the community functions being served, but frequently the latent end is the personal prestige – yichus.  This kind of institutional life may even lend itself to historic forms of corruption: of simony, when those who have risen high in Jewish organizations receive their rewards in appointive office in Jewish life; and of indulgences, when leadership is the simple reward of wealth.  And in performance of charity as a way of Jewish life, self-satisfaction may take on the face of righteousness.  The most sensitive of the Jewish agency professional, lawyers, and businessmen have often deplored this situation, yet are trapped by the system.  (65-66)

…  The whole story however is still not told.  Two other factors, one positive and one negative, contribute powerfully toward the disintegration of self-esteem within Jews.  Anti-Semitic propaganda is addressed to Gentiles, not Jews.  But Jews listen, and may also be convinced by what they hear.  They are persuaded that they deserve their bad repute.  Does this seem incredible?  Then reflect on the Jew’s position.  In books and newspapers, in lectures, in conversations he overhears, it is dinned into his head that he and his kind are pretty bad specimens of humanity.  He is told that he is obnoxious socially, unclean physically, degraded morally.  Sooner or later he may begin to reason with himself that there may be something to all this ado, that where there is smoke there must be fire.
But once again, should he reach the pass of believing that the anti-Semite has a case, he will refuse to concede that it applies to him.  Whatever truth may be in it, he assures himself, must refer to other Jews.  Whereupon he gets very busy scrutinizing Jews outside his circle, hoping to detect in them the vices catalogued by the anti-Semite.  And, as would be the case with any group of human beings, he manages to find some Jews who are the kind he is looking for.

Now his condition is sad indeed.  He has come to believe the worst of all Jews except himself and his coterie.  Yet the world somehow refuses to see the distinction among Jews that is so clear to him.  If he is a restrained person he will forever entertain, though never voice, the hope that Gentiles will in the end perceive that he is “different.” If he is less meticulous, he will be crass enough to proclaim his exceptional nature.  In any event, he will hold himself aloof from other Jews.  So by a strange turn, anti-Semitism victimizes the Jew in a fashion anti-Semites never conceived.  It converts him to its cause.

All this would have been without effect on Jews were it not that something has disappeared from their make-up.  The medieval Jew was subjected to a full-blooded anti-Semitism that compares impressively with contemporary Jew-baiting.  His exclusion was absolute, his security, even of life, virtually nonexistent.  Yet, whatever anti-Semitism might do to his person and possessions, it scarcely touched him psychically.  Certainly he was never seduced by it into despising himself or his group.  Against that he was protected by his tradition.  His religion invested his existence as a Jew with intimations of eternity.  Knowing the culture of his people, identified with it, he felt that it enriched and stimulated him.  The prophets, saints, and sages of the Jewish past were his companions.  No matter what the anti-Semite might say or do, he knew that Judaism and Jewishness were honorable and meaningful realities.  That knowledge armored his sense of worth.

For many modern Jews these preservative forces are no longer operative.  Having abandoned their religious tradition, ignorant of the Jewish past, unedified by its present, uninspired by any aspirations for its future, they have nothing on which to sustain self-esteem.  Jewishness to them is simply a disability.  They have lost the secret of that spiritual prophylactic which enabled their fathers to preserve their psychic wholesomeness.

But the gravest consequence of psychic malaise among Jews, even in this, its mildest form, is to be found in their group life.  For quite naturally, Jews who are uneasy over their Jewishness will be reluctant to associate themselves with anything Jewish.  They will stand aloof from the Jewish community or will strive sedulously to keep it as inactive as possible.  They will resist the Jewish religion and Jewish culture.

When they are exposed to instruction in Judaism, even indeed when they themselves seek such instruction, their mind-set may prevent the educational process from “taking.” They may block out or minimize what they learn; they may be incapable of learning at all.  As thousands of children have difficulty with arithmetic because they dislike the teachers who present the subject to them or the schools in which it is taught, Jews forever keep repelling Jewish knowledge no matter how it is drummed into them because they are not at peace with the core fact of Jewishness.  This circumstance, as rabbis and Jewish educators will testify, constitutes one of the largest single obstacles against imparting to Jews a familiarity with their heritage and the will to live by it.

Everything touched by Judaism suffers in consequence.  The insecure Jew may turn antireligious simply because religion comes to him through the Synagogue which is perforce a Jewish institution.  Or he may manifest sympathy with every religious communion except the Jewish.  Even in the Synagogue itself the process of self-repudiation leaves a trail of destruction.  It impels those under its sway to seek to fashion Jewish faith and worship not after its own genius but in conformity with prevailing non-Jewish patterns.  Conversely, it induces antagonism toward all distinctively Jewish forms.  Many a Jew has difficulty in making peace with the most beautiful and meaningful of ancestral Jewish ceremonials simply because these depart from majority practice and in consequence are unmistakable tokens of Judaism.

Where in Jewish life can the unhappy influences of the sick soul not be discerned? Jewish education, for the child and the adult alike, is its victim.  The Jew maladjusted to his Jewishness is not only, as we have already observed, himself loath to learn, he will seek to prevent instruction for others or to limit it to the barest minimum.  He will frown on Jewish art, music and literature, either rejecting them out of hand or at the best suppressing whatever spontaneity and exuberance they may exhibit.  Himself uncomfortable over his Jewishness, he wants beyond all else that it shall be inconspicuous. (79-80)

[Howard] Steinberg wrote more than two decades ago, when the trauma of the Hitler period, with its American counterpart, widespread Jew-baiting, was still fresh.  At that time Jews were carefully excluded from the better colleges and from whole fields of economic life; anti-Semitic stereotypes were taken for granted in literature and politics.  Today much has changed.  But it is a measure of how much remains the same that the effects of self-hatred continue to shape the self-assessment and the collective program of American Jews.  Howard Singer writes of contemporary Jews who differ little, if at all, from Steinberg’s Jews of the middle generation.  [Referring to Bring Forth the Mighty Men, by Howard Singer]