Critical Reflections re: American Post-Judaism (Shaul Magid)


You can read here what I wrote a bit at Open Zion about Shaul Magid’s recent American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in A Postethnic Society, including remarks relevant to questions relating to Israel. It includes a basic synopsis of the article about post-ethnic Jewish identity in the United States, the shift from secular and ethnic models of Jewish identity based on peoplehood concepts of common kinship to more open models of group identity open to the surrounding environment. What I was not able to convey in the short review (850 words or so) was a more careful look into the things I don’t like and like about the book. Shaul’s book deserves very close and critical attention, and like I said, I cannot recommend it enough.

The model of post-ethnic Judaism is actually not as radical as it sounds. The Jewish-peoplehood crowd won’t like the thesis, but will they understand it? Shaul makes clear repeatedly that the idea is not so much to dissolve the notion of Jewish peoplehood as much as to decenter it, that peoplehood, or group identity, no longer dominates the center of Jewish thought and culture. What this does, I think, is to “flatten” Jewish identity across a horizontal conceptual surface, what Deleuze would have called a plane of immanence. Instead of setting up the people as a golden calf, Jewish group identity is allowed to shift in orientation across larger conceptual, including social and political, horizons. The danger, of course, is that the apparatus might rip apart in the vortex of centrifugal pressures. But the potential here is to make Jewish identity not static or reactive, more mobile and plastic. No longer fixed around a center, Jewish identity becomes adaptive and emergent like a rhizome, animal, more machine-like in the ways theorized by Deleuze. Post-ethnic Judaism is the fitting figure for Jewish identity in the age of new media, in the worlds of network culture. These are lines of inquiry that Shaul does not develop himself but which I recognize in my own philosophical meanderings.

In terms of my own critical remarks, I would put this first and more constructive set of remarks this way. [1] As a theorist, Shaul is very interested in transitions (the transition from one form of Jewish identity into another), but how unstable are these transitions? [2] Shaul wants to move Jewish identity off of blood-origins and history, the staples of 20th century Jewish philosophy, but I don’t think he has sufficiently considered the question of simulations and simulacral formations. Namely, is post-Judaism itself an artifice, a simulacrum, whose design requires great care and caution. [3] The model of post-Judaism is based on a theory of globalization, but this suggests three questions. Is the emergent post-Judaism in the end a “neo-liberal” or hyper-capitalist product, another niche in the marketplace of ideas and spiritualities? Just how globalized is the world in relation to the savage sectarians roiling the political landscape in the Middle East and the stubborn ethnic particularities in Europe?  And what is the relation between globalization and particularities? [4] Is identity ever based on “voluntarism,” as picked up by Shaul from American sociology of American religion? My own sense is that the desire that drives Jewish identity has more to do with social-political-spiritual patternings than the voluntary choices made by individuals. But what one “wants” or “desires” is not always volunteered, at least not consciously.

What my first, more friendly line of critique might all mean in a nutshell, is that one never really transcends blood and history, as per Hollinger, as much as these become simulacral in our current technological, economic, political, and spiritual environments. Sometimes, Shaul seems to think there are “roots” to the kind of Judaism and Jewishness he’s interested in cultivating, whereas I am more inclined to suspect that its turtles all the way down, turtles built on turtles without no solid ground; or perhaps a shell build on a shell, built on a shell, with no turtle. This, I don’t think attention to simulations and artificial constructs is an argument against Shaul’s thesis, more like a friendly amendment; at least in my own mind.

My deepest problem with Shaul’s thesis has less to do with notions of post-ethnic or the notion of post-Judaism. These I all rather like. It more has to do with the source material Shaul wants to use to build his model, namely Jewish Renewal. My own spiritual life is modeled differently than Shaul’s so I hope he understands this and forgives me this rant, my second line of critical remarks.

I understand why Shaul turns to build post-Judaism on the basis of Jewish Renewal, especially around the figure of Zalman Shachter-Shlomi. I understand that Jewish Renwal is presented as one gateway into the post-ethnic Jewish future, and I understand that Shaul understands that Jewish Renewal will not be the Judaism of most Jewish people as much as its avant-garde, presenting, in nuce, the Judaism we all embrace, even if we don’t embrace Jewish Renewal. For Shaul, Jewish Renewal provides the best platform to think about post-ethnic models of Jewish Renewal that are not ethnocentric, that are post-monotheist, and post-halakhic. This would be a model of Judaism that breaks down the conceptual, political, and spiritual barriers between God and the world, God and human personhood, Jews and the world, namely Jews and gentiles.

About post-monotheism and cosmo-theism, I’ll say more in my next post. I scrambled to read, finally, Jan Assmann, because of Shaul, so I’ll leave out those remarks for now, except to say that I’ll end up embracing “the Mosaic Distinction” rejected by Shaul. At a more basic, conceptual level, my argument with Shaul, and maybe it’s not even an argument as much as it is different emphasis, has to do with line drawing. Is the post-Judaism of Jewish Renewal really antinomian, really able to break down barriers between Jews and the world, between Jews and gentiles, or do its proponents only pretend to do so? This is not just a sociological question. It’s theoretical as well.

I find it hard to see Jewish Renewal ever expanding out beyond the narrow basis of hippie and post-hippie American Jews out into the common places of American and American Jewish popular culture –television, internet, shopping malls and synagogues. Jewish Renewal remains Jewish-all-too-Jewish. I wonder if Jewish Renewal is a kind of hucksterism, and I also wonder, no I actually doubt, that very few people, Jews and gentiles, are going to buy it. And not because there’s something wrong with the market, but rather because there’s something wrong with the product. For all its pretentions to a new kind of Jewish globalization, Jewish Renewal looks narrow, sectarian, and not just a little cult-like. Its places are too small, and this has everything to do with “Zalman,” the figure of the Rebbe, or what Shaul calls “rebbetude.” The notion that Jewish Renewal is post-hierarchical, that the charisma of the rebbe, i.e. Zalman, is supposed to be rounded out and shared (pp.178-85) sounds apologetic to me. As an outsider, I don’t believe a word of it.

It seems to me there’s something wrong here, the crossing of the boundary between the individual, e.g. the rebbe, and the collective, Judaism and the world that’s off here. I’m not sure what to make of the case in which the smallest particular point, i.e. the rebbe, i.e. Judaism, pretend to embrace the largest universal, i.e. the collective, i.e. the world, i.e. the mind of God. But I’m neither mystical nor Hasidic, whereas Shaul remains so. So maybe what’s at stake are the place and limits of mysticism and neo-mysticism in American and American Jewish thought and culture.

What I like, really like, is the way Shaul opens up and out Judaism, pushing the lines that shape it as far as possible, right up to but not over the point of their disappearance into larger virtual worlds. This again is Deleuze. We see it especially pronounced in the chapter on Christianity, where Shaul tries to bring the figure of Jesus back into the Jewish fold, while doing so in a way that would utterly violate and/or transform what Jesus has meant as a template for Christianity, where it has developed on its own for two millennia. About Jesus, by the end of the Jesus chapter, Shaul concedes that Jesus is just a “collective soul” for Christians, not Jews, but this comes late at the end of the chapter which means that Shaul does not really draw out the implication of this limit.

Having finished the book and now reflecting back on it, it would seem to me that post-Judaism reflects not just a simulacrum, but a fantasy. The notion of fantasy comes at the end of the book (235, 236, 239). It might have been a more generative concept earlier on in the book, but this is, I think, how academic discovery works. The conclusion to a book is the best place from which to start thinking anew. Perhaps fantasy is the hard-won conclusion to this exercise in post-ethnic Jewish modeling.

Under which star or spirit I don’t know, but Shaul concludes at the end of his epilogue, that “everything possible” (p.239)? Could this be the best of all possible worlds, in which almost all things are possible? Maybe, maybe not, but definitely there are more possible things in the world than ever imagined, and this is a truth that Shaul wants to bring to Judaism, the couplings of heterogeneous things, forces and counter-forces into the Jewish machine. I don’t think Shaul has done anything in this book to contradict my own sense that even as it goes out into world, to be more of the world, that Judaism will maintain the more intimate scale provided by the small frames of a small people in its place in the larger world. But I’m beginning to think we’ve got this all wrong in a more fundamental and unexpected way. Perhaps it might be the case that Judaism, the Jewish-monad-thing, won’t get big as much as the world is in the process of contracting. This is where I would pick up Shaul’s book, not with Zalman or Spinoza, but with Deleuze and Leibniz.

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.
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3 Responses to Critical Reflections re: American Post-Judaism (Shaul Magid)

  1. evanstonjew says:

    I love this post. I agree with your skepticism about Jewish Renewal. In my youth I was friendly with Zalman Schecter while he was still musing on Belz, playful, willing to experiment, but like so many seekers, somewhat hesitant to cut himself away from his roots. There comes a point, I was no longer close to him, when he couldn’t turn back, but had yet not developed the fortitude to lunge forward come what may. Caught in mid air, betwixt and between, is the place where I think non-Orthodox American Judaism is today. Magid knows a Zalman with pleitzes of steel, willing to ordain a small army of story tellers and would be JewBoos, conducting interfaith services and all the rest. For late Zalman, all barriers have been broken down, and when he then tries to hold onto something Jewish, it appears, at least to me, as nostalgia,sentimentality and more than a bit kitschy.

  2. Nostalgia and sentimentality fit well with my thoughts when I think of Judaism and I am not ashamed of it. I would love to roam the hills of Judea and Ur. What a tragedy the region is such a mess. But isnt the whole world. I am not a jew but have a deep love of the poetry and symbolism of the bible. I would not like to see Judaism lost in a sea of melded amorphous multiculture. But perhaps that is the eventual fate of all cultures. It will noy however be the end of war and suffering.

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