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Jews, Damned Jews, and Sociologists

What is this thing called Jewishness? What does it look like?  What are its boundaries?  Even the most neutral-sounding answer reflects some position on one side or the other of the crazy-quilt of conflicts that have defined and continue to define Jewish life over the last 200 years.  The meaning of "Jewish identity," the Holy Grail of organized Jewish life, is massively unclear, the very search for it a sign of abiding uncertainty and anxiety.  How can we make sense of the numbing welter of cross-cutting and conflicting meanings of "Jewishness" in our world?  What's a Jew to do?

Relevant Links
Identity = ?  Yehudah Mirsky, Jewish Ideas Daily. “Jewish identity” may be, for now, the most defensible common denominator available for discussing Jewishness. But what does the term mean? And how useful is it?
Speaking of Jews  Jeff Jacoby, Commentary. In the 1950s, American rabbis worked to show that “America needed Jews as much as Jews needed America.”

I know: Let's ask the sociologists!  After all, they're scientists.

Yet Dynamic Belonging: Contemporary Jewish Collective Identities, a new volume of studies, complicates the picture even more.  Covering topics that include religious Zionism, intermarriage, the Diaspora in Israeli culture, "Masorti"—neither religious nor secular but traditional—Israeli women, New Age and neo-Hasidism, and the new Jewish experience called "Birthright," the essays effectively put to rest, if it was still necessary to do so, the idea that contemporary Jewish life can be mapped onto familiar contours of denomination, communal affiliation, and ethnicity—in America, Israel or, most likely, elsewhere.

An essay by Harvey Goldberg, one of the book's editors, demonstrates just how distorting it is to view the complicated realities of Israeli society in "binary" categories of religious/secular, left/right, or Ashkenazi/Sephardi, whose own meanings are anything but stable and often as much determined by partisan politics and ideology as by any attempt to understand individuals and cultures as they understand themselves.  Yaacov Yadgar, in a fascinating study, shows how self-described "traditional" Sephardic women weave conscious paths between their identification—as much ethnic as spiritual—with religious norms, and their assertion of control and freedom in their own lives.  Another volume editor, Steven Cohen, describes how many young American Jews "piece together music, symbols, texts and other cultural elements from once-isolated if not disparate traditions, seeing the process as an act of creativity, and expressive of their own individuality."

A brief essay by Rachel Werczberger notes that this reworking of tradition under the influence of "expressive individualism" has brought about a "growing resemblance between the two largest national communities," in America and Israel.  (One wonders if they resemble each other in renewal or dissolution.  Some of the volume's essays, on phenomena like treyf bagels and what might be called the "Jewrosis" of Larry David's comic art, demonstrate the unbearable thinness of much of what passes for American Jewish culture. Which is not to say that Larry David doesn't have his Israeli peers . . . )

But urban cosmopolitans are not the only ones who exhibit this expressiveness.  In an especially penetrating study, Shlomo Fischer argues that the one-size-fits-all category of religious "fundamentalism" largely ignores contemporary religion's deep engagement with the romantic celebration of selfhood and authenticity (personal, national, even divine) that is as much a part of modern thought and experience as bureaucracy, political liberalism, and scientific rationality.  Thus the rubric of a "fundamentalist" category is wholly inadequate, for example, to describe the "militantly nationalist Bohemianism" of radical religious Zionism.

Indeed, one unmistakable feature of contemporary Jewish life in general, and a deep departure from most of Jewish history, is the centrality of subjectivity, the conviction that the truth of any thought or experience is inseparable from the self—individual, collective, or cosmic—that is thinking or experiencing it.  The prominence of subjectivity reflects the both displacement of traditional authority by autonomous reason and a modern idea of Jewishness as something that is meant to bring fulfillment.

Indeed, perhaps the deepest fault line in Jewish life today is between people whose Jewishness is chosen and autonomous and people whose Jewishness is embedded in and circumscribed by some larger communal framework.  Today there are two such frameworks: a polity, the State of Israel, and a subculture, Orthodoxy.  They have boundaries and at least some internal coercive power; within those boundaries the individual's own wishes and desire for self-expression are secondary to collective norms and values.  Thus, these frameworks are more likely to survive over the long haul.

Yet neither Israel nor Orthodoxy is fully stable or coherent.  Israel is famously wracked with internal debate over the most basic questions of identity; it is unable to write a Constitution because of a well-founded fear that the exercise would tear society apart.  Orthodoxy is rife with internecine struggles over everything from the place of Western culture in education to the meaning of rabbinic authority and, of course, the status and roles of women.

There is no escaping such processes and anxieties.  They have been with us from the beginning, even if the joints were held more fixedly in place by the metaphysics and political arrangements of earlier ages.  Sociology, which traces the whirls and undulations of these processes, is very much a part of them.  Its work mirrors the moral, political, socio-economic, and even spiritual dramas of their lives and times.  Much of the master-narrative of modern sociology—the dissolution of traditional forms of authority and belonging and the search for their reconstituted substitutes—is of a piece with the larger cultural and socio-political preoccupations of the age.

In her illuminating study Speaking of Jews, historian Lila Corwin Berman traces the ways in which a tacit alliance made up of rabbis and sociologists developed and used social scientific categories—such as group identity and ethnicity—to explain, to others and themselves, Jewish persistence "beyond the melting pot" in 20th-century America.  In Israel, sociologists played a significant role in conceptualizing the institution-building and society-building work of the early decades; their successors in recent decades have trained increasingly critical lenses on those same processes.

In the end, the difference between social and natural science is that the crustacean or the quark passes in silence before those who study it (even when it adjusts itself in conformity to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, we don't know what it's thinking).  Social science, by contrast, is part of the story society tells about itself, however cumbersomely it sometimes plays that part.  It is, willy nilly, in dialogue with the life of its times and, when done well, help trace our missteps and deformities and point to the processes that may yield solidarity, creativity and renewal.  Sociology, like all "ologies," cannot relieve us of the burden of our choices.  But it can, sometimes wonderfully, illuminate the currents that shape our choices and the directions in which those currents, and our choices, are taking us.

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Steve Brizel on March 1, 2012 at 9:12 am (Reply)
The author touches on a long festering issue. Sociologists, with their "big tent" modus operandi, have a vastly different point of view about Jewish continuity from that of either the Modern Orthodox or the Charedi world, which at least share the common denominators of Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim as the core elements of Jewish continuity, despite their hashkafic differences on the proper degree of interaction, if any, with the secular Jewish and non-Jewish world, secular studies, and the degree of theological importance of the restoration of Jewish sovereignty. Sociological studies in the United States too often seem either ignorant of or studiously unwilling to conduct studies within the Modern Orthodox and Charedi worlds, except for academics such as Samuel Heilman, who have their own axes to grind on the subject and bemoan the so-called shift to the right.
Daniel Paul K on March 1, 2012 at 10:59 am (Reply)
A person who likes and respects Jews and who wishes to see Jews remain Jews forever would like to say that intermarriages and conversions will not do good things to Jews and Judaism.
Menachem Kovacs on March 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm (Reply)
Halacha provides G-d's definition of a Jew, i.e. offspring of a Jewish mother or a convert according to Jewish law.
Integrating Halacha and sociology means there are many sociological Jews who are not Halachic (real) Jews and many Halachic Jews who think they are not Jews. We need to revive and strengthen the use of the Halachic definition to overcome the confusion with one kosher and holy standard.
Menachem Kovacs, Professor Emeritus, Sociology
Jerry Blaz on March 1, 2012 at 5:02 pm (Reply)
Since the late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan defined Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people around 80 years ago, descriptions of Jews and Judaism have been iterations of his inclusive definition. While Jews have a right to use halakhic definitions, Jews whose Jewishness has little to do with halakha cannot be ruled out of the "tribe." Today, we are a complex group of people who understand ourselves in a myriad of Jewish ways. No one's attempt to redefine the phenomenon to give their definition more clout than other definitions will change anything--except to make their version of Jewishness one of a plethora of versions of Jewishness.
Ellen on March 3, 2012 at 4:15 pm (Reply)
American Jewish sociologists have been the least correct in their descriptions of Jewish life of all the internal and external commentators on this subject. Without exception, the great Jewish sociologists of the 1950s and 1960 predicted that traditional, halachic, communal Judaism--Orthodox Judaism--would disappear by the end of the 20th century because of its old-world nature and inability to stay in tune with the contemporary zeitgeist. In contrast to this popular view, was the decidedly unpopular and largely unknown view of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, expressed in the 1950s in a letter to someone who asked why Brooklyn's Orthodox rabbis so disliked the rising Reform and Conservative movements, which seemed at that time to have won the day. The Rebbe replied that he didn't think that a Jewish community that defined itself by ethnicity, secular liberalism, Borscht Belt jokes, and disdain for its historic religious purpose would be able to sustain itself in an open, tolerant society for very long. He said that at a time when the intermarriage rate in the United States was about four percent (in New York City, it was closer to one to two percent). Sixty years later, the smarter one turned out to be more correct. The Rebbe understood that Jewish life ultimately comes from belief and practice, not from the silly, shallow trivialization of Jewish culture that was created in the American popular imagination during those years. Judaism will survive and flourish in America. It will resemble the Judaism of Chabad more than the vaporous predictions of Marshall Sklare and Nathan Glazer.
Jerry Blaz on March 3, 2012 at 11:42 pm (Reply)
There are two kinds of definitions. One kind describes a phenomenon as it exists. One is prescriptive, describing the phenomenon as it should be. Even though we may want it to be as prescribed, Judaism exists as Jews live their Jewish lives.

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