Pluralistic Judaism
Published on: May 1, 2013
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  • wigwag

    “April is the cruelest month;” these are the words that T.S. Eliot chose to open his opus, “The Wasteland.” The poem, one of the greatest in the English language, describes Eliot’s apocalyptic vision of the modern world in the aftermath of World War I. Why Eliot chose this particular phrase to open his poem is a matter of debate among scholars. The explanation that always made the most sense to me is that during the War, April was usually the month that the soldiers left the trenches after a long, hard winter to begin a season of typically fruitless assaults. After July (when the Battle of the Somme was fought), April was the deadliest month of the war.

    Although Eliot couldn’t have known it at the time, there are other reasons to believe that April is the cruelest month; it was the month that the Warsaw uprising took place and it was the month that Adolph Hitler was born (April 20th). On April 8 many Jews observe what is called Yom Ha-Shoah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה) or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Being an anti-Semite himself (how could he not be? He was educated at Harvard in the early 1900s and Ezra Pound was his mentor), Eliot would probably object to having his assignment of “cruel-month” status to April associated with anything to do with disasters that befell Jews; but there it is.

    I bring this up because at his blog, “The Middle East and Beyond,” Adam Garfinkle has a fascinating post up commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising (it began on April 19th). I don’t know if Professor Berger has read Adam’s beautiful essay, but if he hasn’t, he should. This post by Professor Berger put me very much in mind of Adam’s post.

    Professor Berger’s post describes the three categories of normative Judaism; Orthodox, Conservative and Reform while at the same time making note of a few American outliers like the reconstructionists (on the “left”) and the Haredi (on the “right.”). For the purposes of his post, Adam is interested in a different intracommunal cleavage; that between what he calls “semi-assimilated” Jews and more observant Jews.

    Adam points out that “semi-assimilated” Jews have “replaced authentic Judaism and the God at its core with a “lite” politicized version in which the State of Israel is the deity and the Holocaust its ritual liturgy. Both God and normative Judaism have been rendered completely superfluous to it.” Adam goes so far as to accuse some “semi-assimilated” Jews of creating what he calls a “Holocaust cult” that he says is profoundly “un-Jewish.”

    Adam is in the camp of Jacob Neusner, Irving Howe, Peter Beinart and many others who believe that substituting an obsession with the Holocaust and a focus on Israel for piety and ritutal is a recipe for communal suicide.

    There are many reasons to believe that Adam might be right. He puts it beautifully when he says, Jews vouchsafe their communal existence by building “palaces of memory in the hearts and minds of their children using words and melodies, not bricks and stone.”

    It would be interesting to know how Adam thinks the cleavage that he describes between “semi-assimilated” and observant Jews intersects with the three main branches of normative Judaism that Professor Berger discusses in this post. Are only secular Jews “semi-assimilated” or does Adam believe Reform Jews are as well? What about the Conservative branch of Judaism that, as Professor Berger points out, is in crisis; where do they fall on the spectrum of “assimilation?” My guess is that like everyone else, Adam would put them somewhere in the middle; but does he see them more as part of the problem or more as part of the solution?

    Finally, it would be interesting to know from Professor Berger whether there are analogous cleavages in other religions, especially Christianity, that have such profound implications for communal survival.

  • wigwag

    “Thus the individual who escaped from Brooklyn may join a Reform synagogue on the Upper West Side, or become a Roman Catholic, or for matter become a Buddhist (a considerable number of Buddhist teachers in America have Jewish names).” (Peter Berger)

    A number of people have noted similarities between some forms of Buddhism (e.g. Tibetan) and Jewish and Islamic mystical traditions such as Kabbalah and Sufism. Whether these comparisons represent anything more than “new-age” mumbo-jumbo I don’t know.

    Professor Berger points out that a number of Jews find themselves drawn to Buddhism; some Jews actually credit Buddhism with serving as a bridge to reconect them with their Judaism. There’s an interesting book on the subect entitled, “The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish
    Identity in Buddhist India” by Rodger Kamenetz.
    It is worth a look.

  • In practice, Mr. Berger is probably right that Reconstructionist Judaism is to the “left” of Reform, but the denominations’ founder, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, taught for many years at the Conservative flagship, the Jewish Theological Seminary.

  • Dagnabbit_42

    Funny thing, that saying.

    These days, Puerto Ricans vote more conservatively than either Jews or Episcopalians, and it’s hard to tell which is more left-wing, the Jews or the Episcopalians. So Jews vote like the Episcopalians, just as they earn like them; and the Puerto Ricans seem irrelevant to either group.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I am not competent to comment on the pluralistic versions of Judaism in America. But Berger’s nuanced discussion about the tripartite church-sect-denomination typology is salient for further comment.

    What has always seemed to be missing in the church-sect typology paradigm is the issue of counterculturization. Arguably and hypothetically, Christianity was either created or co-opted by the Romans to be the inverse of Judaism to quell the militant Maccabean zealots and the terrorist Sicarii as described in Josephus’s The Jewish War. To do this they had to construct a new form of Judaic religion that loved enemies, rendered taxes unto Caesar, replaced law with the grace of a ruler, and espoused turning the other cheek and pacifism. The Maccabeans were the only Roman colony where the occupied refused to worship Caesar and the Imperial Cult in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

    Thus, the Romans hatched anti-Semitism plausibly with the aid of elite Jews such as Josephus, Bernice daughter of Herod, and possibly Tiberius Alexander who was the Roman Emperor Titus’ brother. Josephus and Bernice pleaded with the Maccabeans to not resist the Romans for fear of annihilation, which eventually came with the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple (see Jospehus’ conclusion of The Jewish War). This thesis is not original and can be most recently found in Jewish scholar Barrie Wilson’s “How Jesus Became Christian” among other works. Later, Christianity ironically co-opted the Romans and became the religion of empire. The sect co-opted the church.

    In other words, the Romans turned Judaism inside-out. Much later, Jewish psychologist Sigmund Freud reduced Christianity and Judaism to an internal conversation; as did Karl Marx reduce Protestant and Jewish Capitalism to mere economic ideology. And subsequently, many secular “sects” set out to counter psychoanalysis in the same way that Protestant religious sects rejected Catholicism.

    Following Max Weber, what made “churches” world-affirming was that they were state affirming. Conversely, without the external support of the state the church couldn’t be considered to fall into the category of a “church.” What made sects “sects” was that they were world-rejecting and thus to some degree also state rejecting.

    The rise of the denomination in America changed state-rejecting sects into state-affirming sects (see David Martin, “The Denomination,” British Journal of Sociology, 13(1962): 1-14; and Peter Berger, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies, 1961). The decline of mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. possibly parallels the decline of Conservative Judaism.

    The cult might be considered a rather small, tight-knit, and radical group that never is able to form a formal organization or bureaucratic hierarchy and disaffirms both church and sect (e.g, the Sicarii?). At the cognitive level, churches created worldviews, sects heresies, and cults gnostic secret knowledge. Cults had no “routinization of charisma” (as Weber called it) and thus were unable to perpetuate themselves to the next generation.

    As Berger points out, denominations caught in the middle tend to just eventually die out.

    The above is all very speculative and hypothetical and unaccepted in the sociological literature. But there is a counter-cultural process of turning a church into a sect; and perhaps vice versa as pointed out above, as Christianity became the Roman state religion.

    Berger’s “The Sociological Study of Sectarianism”(Social Research, 21 (1954): 467-485, introduced a different operational variable in distinguishing sect from church: “nearness to the spirit.” The rise of Protestant Pentecostalism in Africa and South America seems to fit this approach.

    I realize I have opened up a can of sociological and hermeneutic worms with the above comments. Nonetheless, I remain a sectarian Protestant Christian, in religious faith, albeit following Berger’s “Heretical Imperative.”

  • TomSolomon

    All is true, with the exception of the statement that Conservative Judaism as “living with ambiguity”. The CS, like the Reform, has decidely cast its values with theose of the secular left – a belief in advancing gay rights and gay marriage, abortion rights, and a seperation of church and state. These are the CM’s new mitzvot. As such, why participate in religious life, if one can stay at home and read the NY Times and get the same message? And so they do, and thereby emptying the pews.

  • Rafael Guber

    The quote “The future of American Judaism will be mainly determined by developments outside it” With a few exceptions as regards Orthodox Judaism, nothing could be further from the truth.

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