Friday, August 03, 2007

What is a Jew Redux

Just recently chatting with Ken Gordon at JBooks on the question of Judaism and Modernism, or as he puts it, “Making Jews Modern,” it seems to me this is yet another variant of the perennial question, What Is a Jew. Is this a weird question? Christians don’t seem to ask “What is a Christian,” or at least they don’t ask it where I can hear it. On the other hand, many Afro-Americans do seem to hold the self-scrutinizing mirror up in a similar way, asking themselves Am I black enough? Am I too black? Is it a question of blood? Is it a question of culture, and if so, what culture?

For Jews, one crude dividing line has long been Religious (or Observant) versus Secular. Personally, I think these are leaky categories. I was a Red Diaper baby, or as I like to put it, a Third Generation Atheist Socialist Jew. My grandfather on one side stopped studying Talmud and started studying medicine; the grandfather on the other side was a disciple of Kropotkin; my father was a Union man and for a few years a Party member; my parents voted for Wallace when everybody else was voting for Truman. My Jewish education consisted of being told that religion was the opiate of the people and that Jews were in favor of education, tolerance, justice and kindness, and against poverty, war, ignorance and prejudice. Because Jews suffered, we were supposed to help anybody who was suffering.

Did my parents know that their passion for social justice was rooted in the Hebrew prophets Isaiah and Amos, or even further back, when we were commanded to love the stranger because we know the heart of the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt? No. My parents never saw the inside of a shul, and they never read the Bible. When I became obsessed with writing midrash, in my late 40’s, my mother (in her ‘70’s) thought I was crazy. But in retrospect, the lineage is obvious. So the split between religious and secular Judaism is, as we say in academe, problematic.

Two books I’ve recently read touch on this, Esther Schor’s biography of the poet-essayist-journalist Emma Lazarus, and Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza.

I’ll condense a bit here from my review of Schor’s book, in Sh’ma:

Lazarus, born into an extremely wealthy and visible New York Sephardic family, was never “religious.” Throughout her life she pretended not to notice the genteel anti-Semitism of her elite literary and artistic colleagues and friends, while her own Jewishness grew increasingly intense as she matured. She translated medieval Sephardic poets, then Heine, and wrote a sharp essay about Heine’s conversion to Christianity, claiming that “no sooner was the irrevocable step taken than it was bitterly an unworthy concession to tyrannic injustice.” When anti-Semitism of a less genteel kind began to swell in Europe, she responded instantly. In her melodrama The Dance to Death, about massacre and martyrdom in fourteenth century Germany. viciousness is not underplayed.... Like other assimilated Jews of her class, Lazarus felt condescension for the “ghetto Jew” of Eastern Europe. But in the 1880’s, when floods of Russian Jews fleeing pogroms became a “problem” both for Christian America and for assimilated Jewry, Lazarus not only became a major player in the debate, unflinchingly attacking both Christian hypocrisy and Jewish complacency; she visited the refugees on Ward’s Island and elsewhere, advocated for sanitation, education and job training, published Songs of a Semite, and in a weekly column in the American Hebrew announced her vision of a secular Jewish state in Palestine—years before the word “Zionism” was invented. She also insisted on a new idea of America. “Every American,” she wrote in an unsigned essay, “must feel a thrill of pride and gratitude in the thought that his country is the refuge of the oppressed.”

Lazarus died at the age of 38, of Hodgkin’s disease. Her writing came to respect and quote prophets and rabbis. She is known today for her words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. But Schor’s excellent biography makes clear that by the end of her life she “was inventing the role of an American Jewish writer” whose prophetic burden “was to glimpse, in the trials of her people, the pain of the world’s exiles, and in her own passionate vocation, a mission for her country.” This sense of mission is still felt by many Jews in the worlds of literature, art and journalism, not to mention the Jewish activists who still crowd every progressive organization and gathering, and for whom being Jewish means you side with the oppressed and against the oppressors.

One common type of Jewish activist, of course, doesn’t come out as “Jewish,” just as lefty. But what Isaac Deutscher called “the non-Jewish Jew” has a long lineage. Allen Ginsberg is perhaps the most significant recent avatar—somebody who hated being labelled as a Jew, and was conspicuously extremely Jewish. Goldstein calls her philosophical-cultural biography of Baruch Spinoza Betraying Spinoza because her project is to “out” him as the Jew he chose not to be. For Goldstein, the spiny Spinoza (his name means “thorn” in the Portuguese of the Amsterdam Jewish community in which he grew up) was among the inventors of modern philosophy, standing between Descartes and Leibniz as a proponent of Rationalism—one might say Extreme Rationalism, since for him the universe is itself composed of pure Reason. Her description of his writings is lucid, and to a philosophical novice like myself, fascinating. But her larger project is to show how his philosophy was shaped, despite his disavowal of contingency, precisely by the contingencies of history.

In 1656 at the age of 23 Spinoza was excommunicated by the Amsterdam Jewish elders, in a writ that accuses him of “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds,” curses him, and forbids other Jews to have any kind of contact with him. One can see why. He must have been a thorn in the side of a community of refugees from the Inquisition. His later monistic metaphysics emphatically rejects the concepts of a providential God, a chosen people, the Mosaic authorship of Torah, a personal afterlife, and much else that was essential to this community’s often turbulent efforts to define what a Jew was supposed to be and believe—including “belief” itself. Like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus who, when banished from Rome, retorts “I banish you!” and seeks “a world elsewhere,” Spinoza became the West’s first advocate of a purely secular state. More than that, he dismisses the significance of whatever interferes with Reason: family, race, religion, gender, nationality, are all irrelevant to Truth, all obstacles to the knowledge which is the proper goal of all human life.

Goldstein’s portrait of Amsterdam Jewry and its theological controversies in Spinoza’s time is rich and convincing. I confess that I enjoy learning that Jews were at least as contentious in the 17th century as they are now. She tracks the rationalism Spinoza inherits from Maimonides, as well as the “ecstatic impulse that irradiates kabbala;” both impulses were alive and well in Amsterdam, and both clearly charged his batteries. Somewhat less convincing is her attempt to portray Spinoza as enacting on a small scale the story of the persecuted and secretive Marronites in their attempt to forge a new identity for themselves What’s most fascinating, it seems to me, is that in Spinoza’s thought an absolutely rational secularism is identical with an absolutely impassioned amor dei intellectualis, the intellectual love of God. “The mind’s highest good is the knowledge of God, and the mind’s virtue is to know God,” he writes. He calls this knowledge “blessedness.” God is the infinite center of his thinking, and though his idea of God as immanent in all that exists isn’t what his fellow-Jews had in mind at all, it wouldn’t surprise me if many Jews today—both “religious” and “secular”—think something similar.

I’m recommending both these books. But I’m also curious what others think about the “religious” versus “secular” divide. Obviously the distinction is a useful first-order one. Some Jews are purely and faithfully observant, some are purely and faithfully atheist. But what about the areas of overlap? What about those of us who live in the blur? If I look at the table of contents of Rubin’s Telling and Remembering, or Barron and Selinger’s Jewish American Poetry, I’m wiling to bet that more than half the poets in these volumes live in the blur. What does that tell us? I think I m out on a limb here, and I hope others are there with me.

Alicia Ostriker


1 comment:

myshkin2 said...


I am hanging out there on that same branch--just so you know there are others. (Of course there are!)