Modern Judaism

views updated

Modern Judaism

Judaism has never been monolithically uniform. Made irreducibly complex by 3,500 years of turbulent history, it resists simplification. Its data refuse to be straitjacketed or handled dispassionately. Impartial attempts to understand it are easily spoiled by the partisan sympathies and deeply held antagonisms it activates in observers. Consider a mere sampling of the evidence. Its implications startle. In 1920, the American automotive industrialist Henry Ford articulated a widely held opinion that was infected by virulent strains of secular anti-Semitism without which the Holocaust would have been impossible: "Poor in his masses, [the Jew] yet controls the world's finances. The single description which will include a larger percentage of the Jews than members of any other race is this: he is in business the Jew is gifted for business" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 513). Vast numbers of Jews, however, were politically active in the labor union movement and on the Left. Four years earlier, Rosa Luxemburg, born to a Jewish family in Poland, an ardent socialist and leader of the Communist Party in Germany, acknowledged "that I have no separate corner in my heart for the ghetto: I feel at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 262). In 1930, Bertha Pappenheim, a religiously observant German-Jewish woman, a pioneering feminist and energetic social worker, explained that "women [in contrast to men] showed a ready understanding to relate the command to love your neighbor to modern times. Out of a new congruence of German cultural elements and Jewish civilization grew a spiritual substance of greatest importance These women who did not know how Jewish they were through their inherited spirituality became strong pillars of the feminist movement" (quoted in Mendes-Flohr, p. 288).

Similar divergence over other fundamental issues abounds. In 1885, a Conference of Reform Rabbis gathered in Pittsburgh. Echoing the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment, they declared that "we consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 468). In 1917, Ozjasz Thon, a Polish Zionist from Kraków, broadcasting the zeal that ultimately led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, announced that "the Jews are a nation, not a religious sect" (Mendelsohn, p. 17). Further complicating the challenge of defining Judaism, in 1966, in the refuge of Belgium, Jean Amery, a survivor of the Nazi death camps in Auschwitz, the son of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, wrote: "The necessity and impossibility of being a Jew, that is what causes me indistinct pain" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 292). In 1913, Gustav Landauer, a German-Jewish intellectual, echoing the ideals of romanticism embraced by countless Jews, proclaimed that "I feel my Judaism in the expressions of my face, in my gait, in my facial features, and all these signs assure me that Judaism is alive in everything that I am and do" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 276). In 1926, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, confessed that "what bound me to Jewry was (I am ashamed to say) neither faith nor national pride, for I have always been an unbeliever and was brought up without any religion. But plenty of other things remained to make the attraction of Jewry and Jews irresistiblemany obscure emotional forces as well as a clear consciousness of inner identity, the safe intimacy of a common mental construction" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 278). The juxtaposition of these divergent, contradictory voices is cautionary and instructive. Judaism is elusive.

Lexicons reflect this reality. Meticulously preserving popular usage and conventional wisdom, they report that Judaism signifies a religion, faith, set of theological beliefs and ceremonial practices, culture, nation, race, people, polity, tradition, heritage, or ethnic identity. The long string of terms is baffling. It fails to note whether the terms are neutrally descriptive or ideologically prescriptive. This failure wreaks conceptual havoc. Many of the string's terms are ambiguous; others are anachronistic. In combination, several of the terms are logically incoherent or mutually exclusive. The search for clarity seems doomed.

For scholarly purposes, Judaism may nevertheless be characterized as the sum total of symbiotic interactions between the Jews and their diverse geographical, sociopolitical environments. Perceived in this strictly descriptive, all-inclusive light, Judaism appears to have completed three phases of pre-modern development: ancient Near Eastern; Greco-Roman; and medieval, both Christian and Islamic. Currently, Judaism is undergoing its latest phase, the modern. As the contradictory voices cited above suggest, the modern phase may be the most tumultuous, fragmented, and poignant of all.

Like Judaism, modernity is irreducibly complex. Scene of utopian achievement and apocalyptic terror, modernity resists simplification. It swarms with counterpoint and paradox: unprecedented prosperity and abject deprivation, revolutionary reform and conservative reaction, egalitarian liberation and fascist brutality. Modernity simultaneously produces satisfied customers and frustrated discontents. Its beneficiaries and victims offer radically different assessments of its character. Jews have been both beneficiary and victim; they bear witness of a different kind. Historians nevertheless tend to agree that modernity is coterminous with the emergence of the bourgeoisie, the rise of the centralized nation-state, and the subsequent establishment of global hegemony in the West, in places such as Europe and North America.

Modernity may be said to have originated with the French, American, and Russian revolutions. Acting on the belief that "all men are created equal," the revolutions reordered society. They outlawed the denial of citizenship, special taxes, demeaning sumptuary regulations, and physical ghettos that had segregated Jews from society for centuries. The revolutions abolished the privileges of the agrarian-based aristocracy. They retrenched or eliminated the direct influence of clergy on public governance. Modernity may also be said to owe its temper to capitalism and its muscle to ongoing revolutions in science, technology, and industrialized productivity. These revolutions have transformed all aspects of life, especially the spheres of labor, communication, medicine, and warfare. In turn, the opportunistic combination of capitalism, nation-state, and technology spawned diverse modes of thinking: secularism, naturalism, materialism, and cultural relativism together with their dialectical counterparts, religious fundamentalisms, and variously insatiable appetites for the certainty of metaphysical absolutes.

Dynamics of Westernization

In North Africa and the Middle East, for example, where vast populations of Jews had lived for centuries in premodernity as dhimmis, one of several protected minorities, modernity witnessed the dismemberment and balkanization of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, establishment of European colonies, Westernization of the local cultures, subsequent wars of liberation, and eventual establishment of newly formed, autonomous states. The process was well under way in the 1820s when Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel lectured on the philosophy of history. His words reek with Eurocentric propaganda. Hegel declared that Islam had surpassed Judaism's ethnic particularism by embracing universalistic ideals. He then acknowledged medieval European debts to Islamic "science and knowledge, especially that of philosophy." He also noted Europe's contemporary appreciation of Islamic "noble poetry and free imagination." Capping the argument, Hegel reversed directions. Performing feats of imperious Orientalism, he lambasted the "East" and triumphantly erased Islam from the later stages of history: "But the East itself. sank into the grossest vice. The most hideous passions became dominant At present, driven back into its Asiatic and African quarters Islam has long vanished from the stage of history at large, and has retreated into Oriental ease and repose" (Hegel, p. 360).

As with Islam, so too with Judaism. Hegel's remarks expose the underlying pressures that have shaped and reconfigured Judaism for the past three hundred years. Dangling numerous incentives, the West circulated an interlocking set of guidelines: To reap the benefits of unprecedented prosperity after earning and being granted legal emancipation, the Jews would have to eliminate the "Oriental" habits that Westerners find odious. The Jews must modernize, accommodate, secularize, adapt, acculturate, integrate, and assimilate. Convert to Christianity, if they will. Remain Jewish, if they must, but let them heed the counsel offered in 1866 by Judah Leib Gordon, the Russian Hebrew poet, who wrote: "Be a man abroad and a Jew [in the privacy of] your tent, A brother to your [European] countryman and a servant to your [European] king" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 384). Be universalistic in outlook and education. Let the Jews preserve and continue to nurture only those elements of their premodern, rabbinic culture that conform to European tastes in science, philosophy, and the arts of "noble poetry and free imagination." Jews must dismantle traditional communal structures that privilege aristocratic leadership. Jews must retrench or eliminate the direct influence of the rabbinate on public governance. If it pleases, let them reenter "history at large" by wholeheartedly joining the contemporary nation-states of the West. Failing that, either for lack of interest in capitalism and global hegemony or because of virulent anti-Semitic backlash, let them re-enter "history at large" by creating an autonomous Jewish nation-state based on Western models.

Like all the other premodern societies that have encountered the hegemonic West in recent times, the Jews adhered to these guidelines, with varying degrees of resistance and success. Like all these others and the West itself, Judaism became a perpetual site of cultural demolition, construction, and renovation. Like them all, like memory itself, Judaism became a tangled work in progress where nostalgia for the past and hope for the future jostled for attention.

The pace, extent, and contour of modernization differed from one geographical location to another. Jews living in the heartland of the Westin France, North America, England, and Germanywere the first to be legally emancipated, culturally integrated, and professionally diversified. Pioneers, they underwent the crisis of transformation and adjustment long before their kin living in East Europe. In turn, the Jews of Europe became the beneficiaries of modernity earlier than their kin living in the peripheries of modernity situated in colonial North Africa and the Middle East. Alas, between 1933 and 1945, the Jews of Europe also suffered the worst of modernity's evils. The Jews fell victim to the dialectical waste products of liberal attempts to reform society: xenophobia and racism leading to bureaucratically managed and technologically enabled mass murder, genocide, the Holocaust.

Wherever they resided, the Jews were buffeted by an array of centrifugal and centripetal forces compelling them to formulate a livable equation that balanced loyalty to the past with openness to the present. The proportion of continuity and discontinuity with premodern Judaism differed in each of the equations. No single equation enjoyed universal consent. As the juxtaposition of contradictory voices cited above suggests, the equations provoked controversy. Among the Jews who preferred life in the Diaspora and identified Judaism primarily with religion, the spectrum of opinion and practice included Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and Hasidic varieties. Among the Jews who identified Judaism primarily with nationalism, the spectrum of opinion and practice included political, cultural, Socialist, Marxist, utopian, and religious Zionists of every stripe imaginable. Among the Jews, like Freud, who identified Judaism primarily with a cultural heritage or a set of ethical ideals, the spectrum of opinions and practices defies description.

In the traumatic midst of adjusting to Westernization, the Jews availed themselves of every tool available to make sense of their predicament and to stabilize their fluctuating fortunes. In the realms of philosophy and theology, the Jews flocked to rationality and romanticism, pragmatic naturalism and religious existentialism, sober positivism and exuberant mysticism, taking freely and modifying extensively what they needed from the resources of premodern Jewish tradition as well as from Immanuel Kant, Friedrich W. Schelling, Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Dewey, Jacques Derrida, and the entire host of speculative virtuosi. In the realms of literature, music, and art, they participated fully in both the avant-garde and in the popular rear. In their ranks stand Heinrich Heine, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Sholem Aleichem, Franz Kafka, Marc Chagall, and Arnold Schoenberg. Composing in every language, they uncovered the depths of humanity and mapped the enigmas of Jewish selfhood. In the realms of scholarship, other Jewish intellectuals invented the strictly academic, scientific study of Judaism. In all these realms, as in the realms of innovative political organization and religious experimentation, the unsettling and creative traces of modernity are unmistakable.

See also Diasporas: Jewish Diaspora ; Genocide ; Ghetto ; Identity, Multiple: Jewish Multiple Identity ; Judaism: Judaism to 1800 ; Orientalism ; Religion ; Religion and the State .



Hegel, Georg W. F. The Philosophy of History. Translated by J. Sibree. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991.

Hertzberg, Arthur, ed. The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader. New York: Atheneum, 1984.

Mendes-Flohr, Paul, and Jehuda Reinharz, eds. The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.


Alter, Robert. After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing. New York: Dutton, 1969.

Ezrahi, Sidra Dekoven. Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Guttman, Julius. Philosophies of Judaism: A History of Jewish Philosophy from Biblical Times to Franz Rosenzweig. Translated by David W. Silverman. New York: Schocken Books, 1973.

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Gunpowder Empires and Modern Times. Vol. 3 of The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Mendelsohn, Ezra. On Modern Jewish Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Meyer, Michael. The Origins of the Modern Jew: Jewish Identity and European Culture, 17491824. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967.

Peskowitz, Miriam, and Laura Levitt, eds. Judaism since Gender. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Kalman P. Bland

About this article

Modern Judaism

Updated About content Print Article


Modern Judaism