Thursday, April 27, 2006

Quick Response to Ben

Ben writes:
I don't quite get the equation of the Bloom/Kushner stance with Bernstein's: To struggle with God over matters of right and wrong is, if not a religious stance, then a stance that keeps faith with what makes religion matter. Bernstein's non-Jewish Jew is something different, no?

Anyway, here's what I've been struggling with, trying to work out my own response to this "secular Jewish culture" project: if we set aside religious observance as our sole definition, what possible path could a Jewish-born writer take that would not be Jewish? Since even antisemitism has its Jewish aspect, as Sander Gilman once reminded us...
To answer the first of these, I'm going to have to go back to the original essay by Isaac Deutscher, "The Non-Jewish Jew." No time for that at the moment; the short answer would be that Deutscher's NJJs are all boundary-crossers or borderland-inhabitants who are free, by virtue of that ambiguous position, to disbelieve in the doxa that surrounded them and to believe instead in the "ultimate solidarity of man," which is why they have to leave "Jewry" behind. Bernstein's NJJs may not pledge allegiance to the second half of this (does Stein?), but I think they preserve the first half, and in that sense remain very much like Bloom's and Kushner's Godwrestling Jews. They struggle against the normative as such, or against "the way things are," and thereby metaphorically against whatever sponsors, preserves, or imposes "the way things are" on them. Since "Jewish identity" is one of those "ways things are," it gets abandoned or struggled against, too.

As for the second, it's a vexing, wonderful question! "What possible path could a Jewish-born writer take that would not be Jewish?" Hmmm... the rabbinic answer might be "none," in keeping with the dictum that "an Israelite, even though he sin, remains an Israelite" (Sanhedrin 44a). A Jewish-born writer, no matter what path he or she takes, remains a Jew, and thus his or her writing remains "Jewish" in the broadest sense of the word. Call this the Slow Train Coming paradox: Dylan's Christian songs are the songs of a Christian Jew, and we can listen to them as such. On the other hand, we might also--should also--be willing to say that some paths a Jewish-born writer could take are not interestingly Jewish; they don't hold our attention for long as Jewish cultural production or potential Jewish identity formations. Stein, for me, falls into that category: a Jewish-born writer whose work I find it hard to care about as Jewish literature, despite Bernstein's arguments.

See, for more on this, Boyarin's Border Lines: a book that grows more essential to me as I reread it. "There is now virtually no way that a Jew can stop being a Jew," he writes of the Stammaic period (when the Babylonian Talmud is redacted, roughly 450-650 C.E.) "since the very notion of heresy was finally rejected and Judaism (even the word is anachronistic) refused to be, in the end, a religion. For the Church, Judaism is a religion, but for the Jews...only occasionally, ambivalently, and strategically is it so. [...] Not a religion, not quite, Judaism (including the bizrrely named Jewish orthodoxy of modernity) remained something else, neither quite here nor quite there. Among the various emblems of this different difference remains the fact that there are Christians who are Jews, or perhaps better put, Jews who are Christians, even up to this very day" (224-5).

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