Commentary Magazine

The Jewish Community & the Jewish Condition

If one travels around much among American Jews, attending the various rites, cultural or religious, by which they celebrate their own self-conscious sense of community, it is terribly easy to become disheartened, depressed, or simply sickened. If, however, one travels far enough and looks in the right places, it is actually possible to find circles of sanity, islands of hope. Let me offer, to begin with, two contrasting images of the American rabbinate that I encountered in recent months: the two are separated by hundreds of miles of geography and, as will be immediately apparent, by perhaps as many light years of spiritual distance.

Not long ago I was invited to speak at a very large, conspicuously sumptuous synagogue in an affluent, predominantly Jewish suburb. The rabbi, who served as moderator for the evening, was a man of some reputation, apparently regarded with considerable admiration by most of his congregants and, to judge by the heartfelt panegyrics of the woman who introduced him, held in downright awe at least by some. His platform style seemed a rather ragged imitation of certain of the tougher-mannered television interviewers; even his public moments of expansive geniality scarcely masked the steely intentness with which he was selling himself and his own views on the nature of Jewish life in America while arguing for the interests of the national Jewish organization in which he held a prominent position.

For me, however, his most revealing moment occurred before the start of the program, when the participants were invited into the rabbi's study. The congregation had recently been given a private collection of rare Hebrew books, and one of them, a large volume bound in worn brown leather, had been strategically left out at one end of the long conference table. It was an early printed Pentateuch, the rabbi explained, and though the Library of Congress had been unable to identify it, he rather imagined it was Yemenite. (Though no bibliographer, I rather imagined it was not.) The rabbi opened the volume with proper pride of possession; it was in fact an unusual Pentateuch, with the Targum, or Aramaic translation, printed interlinear with the Hebrew text. The rabbi, to complete the antiquarian display, decided to read for me a line or so of the original. It was one of the great catalogues of curses in Deuteronomy: arur shokhev 'im-ahoto bat-aviv, “cursed be he who lies with his sister, his father's daughter. . . .” Although the pointed text was perfectly clear, the rabbi pronounced the Hebrew syllables haltingly, pulled up short after a few words, and explained, “It's . . . er . . .”—with a sudden note of practiced definitiveness—“a genealogy,” and hastily closing the book, moved toward the other end of the table. A pity that the monitory Deuteronomist did not include in his list of abominated acts the enjoyment of rabbinical prestige on false pretenses.

My opposing image of the American rabbinate is a somewhat younger man—the age difference could be symptomatic—who gave a paper at a recent conference on Judaica in which I participated. The leader of a large, modern Orthodox congregation, he is a man of thorough Jewish learning with a genuine academic competence in philosophy as well; forthright in his views and boldly independent of established positions, theological or otherwise, he is respected by most of his congregants, though undoubtedly suspected by some of them, too. (He reports that an influential figure in his community actually once burst into his office waving a copy of Maimonides's Thirteen Principles, with the imperative question: “Rabbi, now give it to me straight, are you willing to sign these or aren't you?”) Where my first rabbi's style was all mannered gestures, that of the second rabbi was quite without affectation. He spoke as he was, so that the language he used, at least among friends, was an engaging conglomeration of Brooklynese (he had grown up in Williamsburg), standard American English, Yiddish, Hebrew, academic-intellectual locutions, and swinging slang. In virtually everything he said one sensed a man passionately committed to the values that seemed important to him and yet so utterly honest with himself that he did not hesitate to question the premises on which many of those values rested.

Over against the proud show of holy books by my first rabbi I would like to set an anecdote about holiness in Israel told by the second rabbi in the course of his lecture. He had been to Israel for the first time shortly after the fighting in June 1967. On his return, some of his congregants wanted to know what had been his greatest religious experience in the Holy Land. Was it seeing the Wailing Wall, the graves of the Patriarchs? The answer he gave, he said, just didn't make sense to most of his questioners. For what he considered his most serious religious experience in Israel was coming across a bunch of kibbutzniks building a road through the middle of their kibbutz where no road was needed. Puzzled by such seemingly senseless “WPA work” when there was obviously more than enough to be done in the fields, he asked the workers and they explained: One of the kids on the kibbutz had been stricken with paralysis, and the only way they could manage practically to keep him with them on the kibbutz was to build a road for his wheelchair.

Now, to see sanctity not in stones or relics but in such an act of humanity requires neither saintliness nor intellectual insight but, quite simply, a quality that we might call spiritual common sense. It has not been a quality much in evidence among the leaders of American Jewry who, as the official apologists for ossified theologies and ideologies, have tended to have little spirituality and less common sense. Against this background, what was especially encouraging about my second rabbi's presentation was that it was made before a group of Jewish thinkers and leaders who, whatever the sharp differences among them, shared in varying degrees a refreshing kind of spiritual common sense. The group itself is worth describing in some detail; if it does not have the leverage to move the mountain of moral inertia of American Jewish life, it at least embodies suggestive possibilities of an honest and serious Jewish existence in our time and place.


The I. Meier Segals Centre for the Study and Advancement of Judaism founded four years ago by a very small group of independent-minded, mostly younger, rabbis and Jewish academicians. Despite its name, it is less an institution than the happy occasion for a unique kind of meeting—made possible chiefly through the generosity of a single Montreal philanthropist. Each summer the Centre has convened at a small Canadian resort for a week-long session during which papers are presented and informal discussions conducted on some significant general topic of Jewish concern. Most of the participants are academic specialists in Judaica and related fields, or rabbis of an academic bent, with interests ranging from Bible and rabbinics to Jewish history, philosophy, and theology, and religious positions running from secularist—a rare exception in the group—and Reform to rigorous Orthodox. There is a good deal of academic professionalism in the formal presentations, most of it quite admirable, yet the tone of the discussions tends to be peculiarly personal, for what people are really talking about, despite the distancing effect of their various academic perspectives, is the things that make them what they are, or what they care to be.

Perhaps for this reason, some of the most valuable exchanges at the conference take place after the lectures, in private discussions over the dinner table, on walks around the grounds, or in little knots of debaters arguing late into the night. The context of the discussions, in a word, is one of fellowship, and that is something hard to come by anywhere in the ordinary academic world or, for that matter, in the world of organized Jewish life. It is the experience of fellowship—that old, honorable term has been so compromised by promotional applications that one almost hesitates to use it—which struck me as the most important aspect of the Centre on my first visit to it last summer, and this sense of mine was emphatically corroborated by those who had been attending the conferences since their initiation.

From the viewpoint of the individual Jewish intellectual whose Jewishness plays some serious role in his intellectual life, even a taste of such fellowship is encouraging and morally supporting because the bizarre anomaly of his position among other intellectuals, whether Gentiles or Jews, so often isolates him, perhaps sometimes makes him wonder whether like-minded people really exist. Let me emphasize that when I say “like-minded” I do not mean people of the same opinions but people with the same concerns. I may, for example, vehemently disagree with someone on what is a desirable disposition of Israel's occupied territories, yet a bond can exist between us because, for both of us, the achievement of peace in the Middle East, and an equitable peace, is a matter of urgency that we feel with the most personal immediacy. In a discussion, on the other hand, with someone who has no special concern for either the fact or the quality of Israel's existence—for whom, say, Israel and Indonesia are matters of equal interest—I feel cut off from any deep rapport because the involvements by which in part I define my own humanity do not exist for him. (Such utterly dispassionate observers, incidentally, are in the habit of claiming that theirs is a truly “objective” view, but I have rarely found this to be the case. In the instance of the Middle-East conflict, their lack of involvement usually keeps them from bothering to inform themselves about the complicated facts of the matter, and thus with their assumed stance of neutrality they feel free to fit the conflict into theoretical and quite inapplicable schemes—imagining it, for example, as a confrontation between one mythical entity called the Third World and another one described, in blithe disregard of history, geography, and demography, as the West.)

What I was personally grateful for, then, at the meetings of the Segals Centre was the opportunity to share a community of Jewish concern with a group of people who by and large commanded my intellectual respect. It was almost equally important, I should add, that the participants were not only interested in reaching some of the same ultimate destinations but also carried along with them much of the same intellectual baggage. Now I would suppose that in general to be an intellectual means first of all to have some informed sense of the cultural past together with an interest in its possible bearings on the present. (The full exercise of this role may be growing at once increasingly urgent and increasingly rare in an American society that has been hypnotized into stupefaction by its fascination with the “now” generation and the fashions or causes of the moment.) The relevant past, of course, could be anything from the decline of the Roman empire or the spread of the Reformation to the philosophy of Hume, the poetry of Rimbaud, the thought of Nietzsche or Marx. What was unusual about the discussions at the Centre was that the assumed common past also included things like the opposed categories of Halakhah and Aggadah, the contending movements of Hasidism and Mitnagdut, the rise of Zionism, the mysticism of Luria, the poetry of Bialik, the theology of Rosenzweig, and that these were examined, explored, debated, out of a concern for their possible relevance, not merely scrutinized with the eye of the antiquarian or the collector of exotica. The discussions themselves, in other words, illustrated the continuing viability of a realm of serious discourse which at times one might think has altogether shrunk to a memory or dwindled into the shop talk of a few over-specialized academicians.

The differences, to be sure, among the participants, in religious belief and practice, in political commitments, perhaps even in moral sensibility, were quite pronounced, and no attempt was made at the conference to gloss over these differences or to harmonize them. The changing configurations of agreement and opposition, however, in the various discussions, were instructive. The disagreements, as far as I recall, simply never took place along the conventional party lines of American Judaism. Typically, a Conservative proponent of a highly imaginative atheistic religious humanism would be most sharply attacked by the more traditional Conservatives and the more theological Reform people and would receive enthusiastic support, at least for much of his argument, among the intellectually venturesome of the Orthodox. There is, admittedly, a certain logic in the particular alignment I have just described, but it only demonstrates that the discussions moved with the logic of ideas intently pursued instead of conforming to the gross symmetries of institutional affiliations. This aspect of the conference was especially striking because quite a few of the participants held academic appointments in the seminaries of the three main movements of American Judaism. One could infer that these men must be in some ways painfully isolated within the institutions that are their chief sphere of professional activity, while, paradoxically, the orthodox on the Right and the Reform Jews on the Left seemed a good deal closer to each other in intellectual outlook and even in priority of commitments than they could possibly be to their own respective chancellors, presidents, and administrative oligarchies. Even the most heated differences among discussants took place in an atmosphere of complete, quite unselfconscious, mutual respect, while the sense people seemed to have of their own institutional hierarchies was that they had done much to abdicate whatever claim they might have had to respect.


The most general positive inference that I would draw from my own experience of these discussions is that, for all the factionalism that has twisted the face of Jewish life in recent generations, what unites Jews is finally still more important than what separates them. Almost anyone who tries to be a Jew in this country must suffer in one way or another from the ubiquitous and highly ramified institutionalization that American Jewish life has undergone. Here, as in other areas, the institutions are probably a necessary evil, but there is surely a good deal more evil in them than is strictly necessary. For they have created their own cadres of parochial, small-minded organization men; they have set up walls of mutual mistrust and censure among Jews by equating loyalty to the institution with loyalty to Judaism, with each institution claiming itself to be the sole “authentic” continuation of historical Judaism. At their very worst, they have produced a leadership that too often reflects American Jews at large in all the defects of their affluent bourgeois existence—smug, pretentious, delighting in power, wealth, and prestige, deficient in the imagination of change, and at times ignorant as well. But even at their best, the institutions persist in their effect of cutting off Jews from Jews. One can grow up, for example, with the best kind of Jewish education that the Conservative movement has to offer and still emerge with the impression, conveyed more through implication than open statement, that all Orthodox Jews are self-deceiving fools or fanatic obscurantists, all Reform Jews mock-Protestant assimilationists, all Jewish secularists simply beyond the pale. It hardly need be added that the sense of the other two movements conveyed in the institutions of either Reform or Orthodoxy is scarcely likely to be more charitable.

My one general criticism, in fact, of the Segals Centre is that its organizers may have conceded too much in their selection of participants to the division of American Jewry on an explicitly religious basis into three streams. It is true, of course, that for the majority of “affiliated” American Jews, community tends to center upon a nominally religious institution, the local synagogue, yet what now most deeply unites the largest number of Jews who choose to be thought of as Jews is not religion but a common involvement in history. In this regard, the choice of subject for the Segals Centre discussions last summer was most appropriate: the Emancipation and its aftermath in modern Jewish life. Since the Emancipation is the point—though of course it did not occur neatly at one “point” in time or space—when the entire social and cultural context of what it meant to be a Jew underwent radical and irrevocable change, the whole crucial historical process remains as a challenge and question for all kinds of Jews, affecting the thoroughgoing secularist as much as it does the traditional religionist, failing to touch only the ultra-Orthodox, who reject modernity, and those on the way to assimilation, who are indifferent to their Jewish antecedents. I would imagine that the Centre's discussions on this subject might have gained in breadth and intellectual excitement if the non-religious viewpoints had been more amply represented. It would have been intriguing to see what possibilities of dialogue exist among religiously oriented Jewish intellectuals and a secular Jewish universalist like George Steiner, a socialist exponent of Yiddish culture like Irving Howe, a modern-style secular Zionist like Ronald Sanders, perhaps even an artist working with the legacy of immigrant culture like Bernard Malamud. As it was, there was a pronounced tendency in the discussions to approach the problematical aspects of modern Jewish existence primarily in theological terms, but, interestingly, three of the most meaningful presentations turned out to be attempts, each conceived quite independently, to go beyond theologizing and speak about Jewish existence in a vocabulary that made sense for almost any kind of person who has chosen at this point in history to continue to be a Jew.


Since one of these papers has been made available, in somewhat different form, to readers of this journal, I would like to use it to illustrate this phenomenon of theology reaching out beyond the limitations of its own conceptual framework and its own assumptions of belief. The paper, by Emil L. Fackenheim, appeared in these pages as “Jewish Faith and the Holocaust: A Fragment.”1 It is revealing that Fackenheim should begin his essay by speaking of history, clearly indicating the three large historical vectors which together thrust the Jew today into a unique relation to history: “Within the past two centuries, three events have shaken and are still shaking Jewish religious existence—the Emancipation and its after-effects, the Nazi Holocaust, and the rise of the first Jewish state in two thousand years—and of these, two have occurred in our own generation.” This is aptly comprehensive, especially if one notes that the statement would be just as precise if the qualifier “religious” were dropped. There is something intransigent, ineluctable, about the way historical crisis surrounds the Jew, demands that he define himself in relation to it. If one thinks of Jewish intellectuals, it should be clear that these three looming events have as much direct bearing on figures like Hannah Arendt, Alfred Kazin, even Lionel Trilling, as they do on explicitly “Jewish” thinkers like Abraham Heschel, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem. It is the nature of each of these events to be in its own way profoundly troubling. The Emancipation opened a whole new realm of inner as well as outer freedom, but precisely because of that fact, it was fraught with ambiguities, confusions, contradictions about the limits, values, goals, and rationale of Jewish existence. The Holocaust, as a revelation of ultimate evil scarred deep in the living flesh of the Jewish people, raises the most disturbing questions about all value and meaning, questions that have to be confronted but that must remain unanswerable. The creation of the State of Israel is of course the one event of the three that is suffused with hopefulness and positive achievement, but it, too, is not without its troubling aspects—because life in Israel poses some of the sharpest questions about continuity with the Jewish past or connection with the Diaspora, because Israel has been forced to maintain its existence in a painful and precarious state of siege, because the very emergence of a Jewish state depended in part upon the Holocaust.

Fackenheim's essay, of course, concentrates on the Holocaust and tries to make spiritual sense not out of the unintelligible event itself but out of our response to it as Jews. All of us, he argues, Zionists, Yiddishists, Jewish secularists and religionists of every variety, have made a meaningful, even portentous, choice by the determination to persist as Jews after Auschwitz. The vocabulary he uses to describe this choice is quasi-theological—he speaks of a “Voice from Auschwitz” to which Jews have responded—or, to put it another way, it is the language of a necessarily “fragmentary” theology used where an integral theology would not be appropriate even if it were possible. Undoubtedly, there are non-religious Jews who would feel a little uncomfortable with some of the terms of Fackenheim's argument, but the terms neither exclude them nor are meant to “pre-empt” them for a religious position they themselves would disavow: I suspect that the essential difference between Fackenheim and, say, George Steiner, on the basic question of deciding to continue as a Jew after Hitler is a difference of rhetoric and symbolic allusion, not of substance. Fackenheim's style, by the way, in this essay, seems to me itself an indication of the openness that was so clear in his presence at the Segals Centre and in the tenor of most of the discussion there. For he writes on this occasion with a simple eloquence I have not encountered elsewhere in his work. He is eloquent because, putting aside all vocabulary of profession, sect, or party, he speaks with intelligent feeling directly out of the fullness of his particular condition as a man to all other men who share the Jewish particularity of that general human condition.

I clearly do not mean to suggest that the group whose tone is so finely illustrated by Fackenheim's essay represents some sort of annual convening of the Thirty-Six Just Men. Intellectuals are more cantankerous than most people, and the sessions of the conference that I attended had more than a few moments of obtuseness, wrong-headedness, intellectual perversity, especially when some participants seized frankly non-theological statements and tried to wrench them back into the cunning conceptual vises and analytic engines of theology and philosophy. Nevertheless, the experience of the conference demonstrated, at least on a limited scale, that unity among Jews is not a theoretical goal to be realized through ecumenical programs but rather an existential fact, merely ignored, disguised, or hidden from consciousness by the partisan quality of Jewish public life.


Being a Jew is, I would contend, a condition that can very easily diminish one's humanity, or, on the contrary, enlarge it, at least give it a certain clarity of focus and breadth of historical perspective. Doctrinaire universalists are in the habit of speaking contemptuously of “tribalism,” and it is hardly a secret that tribalism exists in some of its most offensive, myopic varieties among Jews. Universalism itself, however, seems to me a seductively neat and unreal antithesis to tribalism, for mankind is as far away as ever from recognizing the idea of a human being in the abstract—all the observable human beings with whom we live come equipped with social, cultural, national, ethnic, modifiers. The question, then, is not how to transcend one's group of origin but how to belong to it in a way that will extend one's moral and intellectual involvement in the larger life of mankind. In this regard, negative prescriptions are easier to offer than positive ones. I suspect that there is a close relationship between tribalism and factionalism, at least among Jews. A Jew who conceives his identity in terms of a cosy sense of belonging to his immediately surrounding group, and in terms of an allegiance to the positions and persons of a familiar institutional bureaucracy, in effect cripples his own imagination both of other kinds of Jews and of other kinds of men. The universalist who denies part of himself by denying any special connection with his own antecedents would seem to me to be at bottom an inverted tribalist: like the doctor in The Brothers Karamazov, he may find it possible to love the idea of humanity while loathing most of the actual human beings with whom he comes in contact.

By contrast, any Jew who achieves some sense of solidarity with the Jewish people as a whole has begun an exercise in the moral imagination of humanity by first identifying with this particular part of it, which remains so stubborn, recalcitrant, contrary, and abrasive, in its improbable variety. (Needless to say, the same argument can be made for belonging to other groups, though perhaps the variety is more exasperatingly extreme among Jews.) If this particular segment of humanity has had any kind of observable “destiny,” it has been to live at the terrible cutting-edge of history, to try to create and sustain there a truly civilized life. In the ominous encirclement of Arab armies and Russian weaponry, it is what Israeli society has had to do and must continue to do. It conceivably might be what American Jews will be called on to do in a different way, caught in this country between forces of reaction and anarchy which both threaten them directly and invite their complicity. This is surely a moment when the profound and necessarily vulnerable implication of the Jews as a people in history should be eloquently evident. One can only hope that those who are beginning to speak out of an intelligent awareness of this common condition are not solitary voices crying out in a wilderness of factions and petrified institutions.


1 August 1968.

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