Jews, Damned Jews, and Sociologists

By Yehudah Mirsky
Thursday, March 1, 2012

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?

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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