Freedom and Conservative Claptrap – Liberal Judaism and the Changing Face of the “New York Jew”

I’ve been thinking about the new study by Steven Cohen about the changing face of the New York Jewish community –more orthodox and ultra-orthodox, less liberal. A part of me thinks that this is not a big story. It has almost nothing to do with Judaism or American Judaism and everything to do with shifting residential demographics and New York real estate. Middle and upper middle class liberal Jews families leave for the suburbs. And the ones who stay in New York tend to be less (and less) observant.

I think the good folks over at Commentary are too quick to crow about the death of liberal Judaism. And if it is indeed true that liberal Judaism is kaput, well, I think that says something pretty sad about Judaism and liberal Judaism, that American Jews have still not figured out how to fuse religion, devotion, and genuine freedom.

By freedom I don’t mean the fake “religious freedom” of politically religious conservatives that tends to mean the freedom to discriminate against people and to limit their rights. I mean the freedom to move through worlds, secular and religious, with open hearts and critical minds. If all that’s left of Judaism are the itchy appeals to authority and obedience, and the anger and anxiety about Jews, Judaism, and Israel that get expressed in non-liberal Jewish circles, well then, I guess it’s no surprise that liberal people will shy away from it like a bad smell. If that’s what’s left of Judaism, it’s not worth having.

Clearly, liberal Judaism has its work cut out for itself, no matter where it finds itself, in New York or the suburbs. Personally, I have grown increasingly tired with the artless conservative claptrap inundating contemporary Jewish philosophy –heteronomy, law, the political, authority. I wanted to create a more felicitous place. That’s why Moses Mendelssohn remains the patron saint of jewishphilosophyplace.

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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5 Responses to Freedom and Conservative Claptrap – Liberal Judaism and the Changing Face of the “New York Jew”

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    because he is becoming more and more a symbolic figure for me, i would like to propose the possible addition of salomon maimon to the patron sainthood here. although i think mendelssohn’s account of modern judaism is more consistent, i think that maimon’s more conflicted relationship with judaism and modernity is closer to the existential truths of the question. In a way, i think maimon is what mendelssohn would have been were he not so damn suave.

  2. zjb says:

    i’m kind of post-conflict these days, which is what puts me in mendelssohn’s camp. i’m tired of the self-dramatizng anxities. as for maimon, i’m not sure in what club he be elected as a saint, patron or otherwise, but it’s reminding me of the old groucho marx joke.

  3. hayyim rothman says:

    yes, it is like an old groucho marx joke. i hear you on self-dramatizing and, more so, self-important anxieties, but what i find compelling about maimon is that he carves out his place, whatever that means, as a place of humor. his lebensgeschicht is one of the funniest things i have ever read.

    • zjb says:

      maimon’s funny…assuming you were never married to him. (i’ve also felt sorry for the goat he kicked in order to prove Cartesianism.)

  4. hayyim rothman says:

    i hear you, but, on the other hand, trying to prove cartesianism by kicking a goat is something altogether different than writing a learned treatise about it. what about his conversion bid? or the story about his dual betrothal? or his belief in the kabbalistic procedure for invisibility and how he discovered that it doesn’t work. or his “becoming a rebbe” after observing the magid? it is certainly a slapstick humor… sort of a learned version of the 3 stooges, but without doubt a comic event.

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