Commentary Magazine

The Rational Symposiasts & Other Matters

Principle and Interest

Many states require adoptive parents to be of the same religion as the natural mother, so far as possible. From time to time cases arising out of a departure from religious matching, as it is called, make the headlines and cause bad feeling, like the Massachusetts-Florida, Catholic-Jewish case a few years ago. New York has long had the matching provision in its law regulating adoption through social-work agencies, and the same clause is in a new law for tightening supervision over private adoptions. In hearings in February, before the law was enacted, everyone agreed that better control of private adoptions was needed, but there was disagreement about matching. Protestant and Catholic bodies were for it and Jewish organizations and the New York City Bar Association were against it.

For the Protestants and Catholics, matching was the accepted rule in agency adoptions and an expression of public policy, and therefore clearly necessary in a measure for bringing private closer to agency standards. The City Bar Association’s experience was that matching is one of those ceteris paribus things, in theory, that become inflexible commands, in practice. For the Jewish organizations, matching violated religious liberty in that it would prevent or at best hinder a mother from agreeing that her child should be brought up in a different religion.

The Jews and the Bar Association were right and the Protestants and Catholics wrong, of course. Matching restrains and constricts. It is more appropriate for a pre-modern society of status than for a modern society of contract. It invokes the secular arm in defense of denominational corporativism. Why do not the Protestants and Catholics see that? After all, they too are committed to democracy, not feudalism.

Perhaps they fail to see it because they see something else, which Jews, persuaded of their own rectitude, do not. If generally there are fewer children to be adopted than couples who want to adopt, the deficit is especially marked among the Jews. Abolition of the matching requirement, besides being a blow for liberty, would help Jews to adopt more children and therefore help the Jewish community to gain at the expense of the Christian. The Protestants and Catholics probably suspect that if the situation were reversed, the Jews would like matching. The suspicion is not entirely justified—though emancipation itself has caused us losses from the beginning, we are as devoted to it as ever—but it is natural.

Some years back, in New York City, there was a clash between Catholics and Jews over matching youthful offenders and their probation officers, the Catholics wanting probation officers to be as much as possible of the same religion as the children assigned to them, and the Jews wanting professional competence to be the only test. The ratio of Jewish probation officers was higher than the ratio of Jewish delinquents, and the Catholics probably suspected that the Jews were interested in jobs. As I remember it, finally competence was declared primary and matching secondary.

Some years ago, also, a high-level administrator of a federation pronounced before a convention of Jewish social workers what quickly became known as his Jewish-eyes-are-weeping speech. Neither in their emotions nor in their work were he and his audience hotly Jewish, but institutions, jobs, fund-raising machinery, and a communal generosity existed and had to be justified. He said that there was a mysterious something that made it especially desirable and useful for a Jewish social worker to help Jewish clients in a Jewish agency—with the clear implication that it did not much matter whether anything Jewish was retained but the name. His interest was essentially the same as the Catholics’ when they pressed for matching the religion of probation officer and offender. The difference was that they were serious about their principle.

We Jews of the modern West prefer the contract society of individualism—and not only because we fare so much better in it—to the status society of ascription. We ought to be able to believe that contract is intrinsically better than status without taking a high moral tone toward those with different interests and, consequently, different preferences.

In matters like adoption we disagree with Protestants and Catholics. In other matters we disagree implicitly with Negroes, and the disagreement is likely to grow. The Negroes, about 10 per cent of the American population, have less than 10 per cent of America’s goods, including its rewards and promises, and it would be to their advantage if the goods were distributed according to quota. The Jews, about 3 per cent of the population, have more than 3 per cent of the goods, and a distribution according to quota would be to their disadvantage. The clash between the two positions is not merely potential. In Harlem the Negroes are bringing pressure upon liquor stores to buy from Negro salesmen. (Most of the salesmen are white, and most of the whites are Jews.)

Quotas do not fit easily into an ideology of individualism, and we like individualism better than any competing ideology. Individualism is better than any competing ideology. What complicates things is that individualism is not enough.



Sacred Idea

It has finally happened. Representatives of Orthodoxy have told a Congressional committee that they favor federal aid to sectarian schools, thus joining hands with the Catholics against an otherwise solid Jewish (and Protestant) opposition. For years the day-school people threatened that without the support of Jewish federations they would have to ask for state aid. Now they, or some of them, have done it.

Less than two weeks before the first of two such statements, a Midwestern Jewish newspaper upheld in this language a federation’s refusal to support a day school: “. . . the separation idea is sacred . . . it applies to our schools as much as it does to . . . government itself. . . . [Support of the day school] becomes a private matter. . . .” Not Judaism is called sacred, but the separation idea. And just as for the state, religion is held to be a private matter—a proposition that the great 19th-century Reformer Abraham Geiger was not very fond of—so for the Jewish community, intensive religious education is held to be a private matter. As someone said to me, those people not only believe in the separation of religion from government, they also believe in the separation of religion from the Jews.

I expect that after the Orthodox rebellion, federations will see reasons for supporting day schools that they never saw before, but I expect also that it will be too late. Many of the Orthodox are now committed to the Catholic position, and federation subsidies, unless very generous indeed, will not buy them off.



The Rational Symposiasts

The symposium of intellectuals in these pages last month, with all that talent, all that verve, all that candor and concealment—what is one to make of it?

The editor noted a central tone very similar to the tone of the symposium seventeen years ago—rejection of the Jewish community as it is and as it probably can be. Still, as the old proverb has it, even in bad luck it is nice to have good luck. The symposium showed a rather uniform respect, however shy and obituary, for the Jewish tradition. (Many sounded like the two Viennese Jews in the good old Dolfuss days. First Jew: What do you retain of Judaism? Second Jew: I still read the Neue Freie Presse [= New York Times] . And you? First Jew: I’m still afraid of dogs.) And while the symposiasts successfully dissembled their love for the Jewish community, they did not quite kick it downstairs. If we compare what they said with what the Jewish angry young men were saying in England very recently, and with the responses of Jewish university students to a questionnaire in France some years ago, the American Jewish community could have fared worse, and so could the religion and tradition which the community is supposed to embody.

There is irony here. All the symposiasts find it hard to forgive American Jewry for its success, its thorough Americanization. Yet it is that very success which is responsible for their (grudging) respect. Jewish existence in America has affected American thinking. “The Judeo-Christian tradition” is more than a formula that serves the civic peace. It is taken seriously by serious people. An eminent New Testament scholar of foreign birth and education now teaching in the United States has been quoted as saying that until he came here and saw all those Jews he never fully appreciated Judaism and the Jewishness of Christianity, though he had certainly studied Strack-Billerbeck. Reinhold Niebuhr’s ideas about Judaism have been strongly influenced by the many Jews he has known—most of them not very Judaic Jews, at that. Part of the respect for the Jewish tradition expressed by the symposiasts is to be traced to the prestige of Judaism in America, and that prestige reflects the numbers and achievements of the Jews in America.



Some random observations:

1. Why so much admiration for the older generation of socialist intellectuals? Orwell should have helped us to see that there was something ambiguous about the radical intelligentsia of the 30′s and what it stood for and worked for. Rereading the literature, I incline to believe that the best of the Jewish socialist intellectuals in this country—those with the clearest conscience and the least arrogance, those least prompted to apocalyptic political gestures by a kind of aesthetic and emotional fauvism—were the tiny minority associated with the Labor Zionist Jewish Frontier. Why did no one mention Hayyim Greenberg? And why, when the New Leader was once mentioned, was it dismissed with a sneer? At least the New Leader has no blood on its conscience. The older generation of socialist intellectuals deserve to be an example, but an equivocal one, a warning as well as a model—often wrong, disastrously; always cocksure.

2. Several say that the Jews (everywhere?) are now so prosperous and secure, so tainted by complicity in their own success, that active sympathy can no longer go out to them. A generation or a half-generation ago most intellectuals were saying that to worry about the Jews was parochial and was to mistake the symptom for the cause. The thing to do was to abolish capitalism. It is easy to see why the United Jewish Appeal and the federations do not organize an intellectuals’ division.

3. Everybody is agreed that the world is changing very rapidly. The wave of the future, as fact and as desideratum, is Afro-Asian. Why are they so happy? Say Sino-African instead, and we really have something to worry about. How does one reconcile a passion for such a future with a stated allegiance to the values of John Stuart Mill and E. M. Forster? Perhaps this is a time for caring about the Western tradition and how to keep it from being made into an archaeological relic.

4. The editor commented on Elihu Katz’s statement: “The trouble with Israel is that it is such a big idea in the perspective of world history and such a little idea in the perspective of modern history.” I am not sure that Katz meant land of Israel to the exclusion of children of Israel, or even religion of Israel. Perspective is a tricky thing, and so is world history. Greeks and Romans did not consider Israel to be a big idea at all. Neither did H. G. Wells, and neither, probably, would the Chinese or Hindu thinker. Voltaire was savagely contemptuous of the spiritual and intellectual state of the Jews just when Hasidism was being born and just before—as time should be measured in the perspective of world history—Veblen wrote his essay on “The Intellectual Preeminence of Jews in Modern Europe.”

Early in the last century Archbishop Whately, satirizing the new Bible criticism, wrote in Biblical language a true chronicle of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Then, applying the best historical and philological analysis to his narrative, he was able to show that it must be a tissue of lies, myths, and errors. If anyone today were to write in Biblical language the story of the Jews in the past hundred years, it would seem as incredible as what happened between Joseph and Joshua. On any proper scale of measurement that is not little but big.


5. Werner Cohn does not like “cigar-smoking B’nai B’rith gentlemen.” His great Jewish model is Freud—a cigar addict who valued his B’nai B’rith membership.

Security will not come with shuddering at the round, smooth faces of the vulgar. Form a community of the happy few and Mary McCarthy will be around to expose it.

6. It must mean something that the Jewish saint most often mentioned in the symposium is Marx. Alfred G. Aronowitz’s brother-in-law likes Hank Greenberg because he is a Jew. At least he is a Jew. Heine may have regarded himself as a Jew, even Disraeli may have regarded himself as a Jew, but not Marx. Certainly not Marx.

They should find themselves a better Hank Greenberg.

7. There is a kitchen culture that teachers of foreign languages, especially, are familiar with. A son of Italian parents takes Italian in high school because he thinks it will be a snap. The teacher discovers, as he expected, that the boy knows only the familiar form of address, imagines that certain Italianized English words are part of Dante’s vocabulary, and assumes that a regional dialect, as spoken by the untutored, is standard.

Most of the symposiasts have a smattering of Jewish kitchen culture—a peculiar position for intellectuals to be in. Yet most are not backward about declaring flatly what Judaism is or is not. For instance, they speak confidently about Jewish messianism. Now Jewish messianism is a subtle, complex thing—activist and quietist, Utopian and restorative, cosmic and national, immanent and circumstantial, antinomian and halakhic. Gershom Scholem of the Hebrew University has written some remarkable things about it, and his colleague J. L. Talmon has discussed it too. No one would talk about, say, the Protestant ethic and capitalism without knowing something about Weber and Tawney. I rather doubt that most of the contributors know something about Scholem and Talmon.

Of course, their notions of Judaism come from something else as well, besides kitchen culture—the prestige of Judaism in American culture generally, which I mentioned earlier. (A colleague has pointed out to me how curiously little most of them seem to know or want to know about Christianity.)

8. They agree that it is not tradition but persecution that accounts for Jewish sympathy with the downtrodden. Nat Hentoff puts it this way: “Growing up as a Jew, I very early and involuntarily acquired some understanding of and empathy with other minorities. . . . my concern with civil liberties was first stimulated by being beaten up as a child because I was Jewish.” But the premise is false. Minorities do not necessarily or even typically sympathize with other minorities.

Reinhold Niebuhr knows the reluctance of Jews to attribute their generosity or social decency to their tradition, but does not share it. I am reminded of something that Jacob Viner once wrote in a study of mercantilism. Discussing the origins of an 18th-century war, he noted that economic causationists were delighted by contemporaneous justification of the war as designed to increase trade and fatten the treasury. What more explicit proof could there be of its economic causes? But, Viner asked, why should we assume that there was not then the same difference between good and real reasons as now? Trade was then a good reason. The real reason was dynastic.

I agree with Malcolm Diamond, who agrees with Nathan Glazer, that we should guard against self-righteousness in explaining the way we are about justice and compassion. Still, it is just possible that Jewish tradition, even though a suspiciously good reason, may be as real a reason as being beaten up.

9. The symposium produced a scientific discovery of some moment. Dynamic psychologists agree that there is a birth trauma and some would also say that there is a weaning trauma. Ned Polsky has disclosed the Bar Mitzvah trauma, and has shown how serious it can be.



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