(Levantine) (American) Judaism

After all the Americana in the preceding posts, I’m not sure about the connection. You may or may not find this strained, but I just finished reading Nissim Rejwan’s Outsider in the Promised Land: An Iraqi Jew in Israel and would like to make a connection.

My interest in all this Levantine-theory I’m reading in these days has a lot to do with creating larger lines of connection between different orders of world and culture than the ones available in the current, confining ones that constrict the way we talk and think today about Jews, Arabs, Israel, and Palestine. The writings by Ammiel Alacalay (whom I’m now reading) and Jacqueline Sohet-Kahanoff (about whom I posted below) address the same phenomena and hold out hopes for a more free grouping of concepts and identities.

By now much about Rejwan’s text is familiar terrain. A critic of Zionism (an anti-Zionist?), Rejwan is a prolific writer about the sephardic experience in Israel, about Jews and Arabs, and the place of Israel in the Middle East. His is an early, critical voice detailing not just the phenomenon of Ashkenazi racism and the historical abuse of Sephardic Jews, but also the more loose and free model that once (and still does?) characterize Sephardic attitudes to Judaism and to religious culture.

The book itself is not so much a book as a collection of book reviews and articles published in the 1950s and 1960s by the author.  Once I understood that, I could look at this book as both a political manifesto and historical document.

What I did not expect to find was the Anglophone and American connections. The first surprise was Rejwan’s English language fluency, which in retrospect should not have been such a surprise given the fact that Iraq was under the British Mandate after World War I and remained under British influence for a long time after (until the rise of the Baath Party?). 

The second surprise was Rejwan’s claim that a more serious understanding of culture might have made for a smoother integration into Israel of Jewish immigrant-refugees from the Arab world.  In making this argument, he pointed to American anthropologists like Margaret Meade and Franz Boaz. All of a sudden, there’s all these Americans peopling these memories of an Iraqi Jew in 1960s Israel. He working at the Jerusalem Post, writing for Commentary, and corresponding with Steven Scwarzchild and Jacob Neusner.

The place of Neusner in this story is interesting. Most of us know Neusner as a scholar of mishnaic and other forms of rabbinic Judaism. For Rejwan in the 1960s, Neusner is noted as the author of a multi-volume history of Babylonian (read Iraqi) Judaism and Jewry.

What this does is to thread out a filament connecting the world of the ancient rabbis, the history of Iraqi Jews, and a line of communication between an Iraqi Jewish intellectual in 1960s Israel with American counterparts –in this attempt to bypass the European connection and European experience, which for Rejwan means political (and also cultural?) Zionism.

The larger political project is to “divorce” “completely” Judaism from Zionism (to separate synagogue from state).  This is probably not a bad idea, given the current impasse between secularism and religionism in the State of Israel today. It would probably do a lot of good for both synagogue and state to loosen the bonds between them. Part of Rejwan’s argument here is that Israelis will first need to make peace with each other before Israel can make peace with “the Arabs.” A first step in that direction would be the de-politicization of Judaism, a thought which, oddly enough, is not currently in vogue in academic Jewish philosophy.

The Judaism modeled upon the Sphardic experience is not too unlike the Judaism as (non) observed by most American Jews, especially in more recent years. Separate from the state, the observance tends to be either lax or not too strict, and there’s almost no spiritual pretentiousness –at least not of the same quality as one often finds in more observant, circles that are self-described as “religiously serious” or “philosophically deep.” There is, to be sure, a definite trend towards a form of traditionalism. But the practice is more like a relaxed, loose, and yet, for all that, a sustained cultural reflex. The model is less Martin Buber-Franz Rosenzweig-Abraham Joshua Heschel-Lonely Man of Faith more Mordecai Kaplan and Judaism as a Civilization. It hums less than it howls.




About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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