New Jewish Kotzker Culture & The King’s Glory (Response to Shaul Magid)


The King’s glory is in a multitude of people, but the ruin of His Princedom is in lack of people. בְּרָב עָם הַדְרַת מֶלֶךְ וּבְאֶפֶס לְאֹם מְחִתַּת רָזוֹן:

[Proverbs 13:28]

In a recent piece published here at Zeek, which you can read here, friend of the blog Shaul Magid takes on the hand wringing about the future of American Judaism most recently published online at Mosaic Magazine by two eminent sociologists of the American Jewish community, Steven Cohen and Jack Wertheimer. Pointing at the demographic crisis afflicting non-orthodox synagogues and dayschools, the analysis turns into a kind of numbers game that Shaul wants to check. Taking his key from no less than the Kotzker Rebbe, Shaul makes a normative claim, insisting that quality has to trump quantity. Against sociological Judaism, or membership Judaism, Shaul looks to the effervescence of new Jewish culture to paint a less lachrymose picture of and for the community based on new music, new art, new forms of spirituality, new media.

I’m of mixed mind here because I think that Shaul is right about content and wrong about numbers. The sociologists might fret about declining demographics, but they provide no real platforms on which to base a reconstruction of new Jewish culture apart from tribal affiliation, and anxiety about tribal affiliation. Anxiety, of course, never drew anyone into a social formation, and certainly not today when such affiliations are thought to be “voluntaristic.”

At the same time, I think Shaul is wrong about numbers. A basic pillar in the sociology of modern religion, “voluntarism” tends to get overstated, forgetting the fact that groups of people select and self-select according to social patterns, even when people think they are operating according to strict individual choice. My own tendency is to think that there is a logic to the patterning of group behavior.

Numbers matter, even if they don’t mean everything.

Shaul’s prescriptive Judaism is elitist in its disregard for the perceived banalities ordinary American Jews. In our text from Proverbs, nothing less than the King’s glory is made to depend upon a multitude of people, to fill up space, and to breathe new life into a social form, to give it a jolt. It’s one thing to point to the Kotzker. Who doesn’t love the Kotzker? But what stamped Eastern European Jewry at the close of the 18th century was Hasidism as a mass movement. Even today, the picture of Hasidic and other haredi multitudes continues to hold an iconic aura, the mass and movement of a people around a tzadik, dead or alive. One could point as well to the crowds in a liberal synagogue for the High Holidays or a big bar or bat mitzvah, or for a Shabbat oneg at the cool shuls, when a place fills up with people with a sense of excitement and possibility. It’s always in a crowd that things happen, even if it’s a small crowd packed into a small space. That’s where the mental-physical energy is pooled, where the hive mind gets to work, where schisms happen, where things hold together and break apart simultaneously.

It’s too easy to overrate intellectual and spiritual “substance.” It’s the form that “matters.” In a house full of boorish people, large and raucous, it’s the body that “matters,” including the “fat” social body. Made of gristle, Shaul is right to call out Cohen, Wertheimer, and the crowd at Mosaic where this kind of handwringing about and against liberal Judaism is encouraged. Against a strict sociological determinism, I think I’m of one mind with him about the following set of questions, but I think I’m probably more in tune with Cohen and Wertheimer, even if I think the line of argument they pursue is hopeless. How do you build a mass? How do the center and the margins of a community shape and re-shape each other, and under what social and intellectual pressures? What’s going to attract a crowd if not the novelty of new form and new formats meeting new situations? How does a small avant-garde set itself against the dominant social form only to gain broad social traction over time –like Zionism once did?

As always, I’m giving Shaul the last word, and putting it in bold:

SHAUL MAGID responds:

I want to begin by thanking Zak for his comments and giving me the opportunity to respond. Perhaps my Kotzker “affiliation” in the original essay gave the wrong impression. Unlike the Kotzker, I do not think of myself as an elitist, and surely not when it comes to the Jewish people. My initial impetus for the essay was to pose a question regarding how a society determines its well-being. The tenor and substance of Cohen and Wertheimer’s approach appears to suggest that such a determination is largely achieved by numbers, more specifically, affiliation with or membership in, Jewish institutions. There is little doubt that most American Jews share this perspective.  For example, even if there was a dearth in creative Jewish thinking today, which there isn’t, most people would still be more concerned by the Pew Poll than the moribund state of Jewish scholarship. There is, perhaps, an unspoken canonical attitude regarding the numbers approach, to wit, who can argue that diminishing numbers in any institution is a cause for celebration rather than lamentation? For example, when returning from shul on Shabbat it is common for those who did not attend to ask, “Nu, how many people were in shul?” If the response is “it was packed!” that is good. If the response is “it was half full,” not so good. What would the reaction be if the response was “there were only 10 people but the davenning was mamash on fire!”?

 I invite the iconoclastic Kotzker rebbe into the conversation precisely to question that modern “principle of faith” (i.e. more Jews, good, fewer Jews, bad). My critique of Cohen and Wertheimer is founded on two pillars: first, that today’s voluntaristic and performative, rather than essentialist and ethnically stable, culture (notwithstanding Zak’s skepticism) creates an environment where “living” Jewishly is not necessarily commensurate with affiliation or even communal identity. Hence numbers are less than meaningless, they sometimes obscure rather than clarify. Second, given American’s tolerance toward Jews that borders on the philosemitic, why should we care if Jews affiliate since most of those unaffiliated Jews (1) would most likely affiliate nominally anyway; and (2) they could live happy healthy lives without living “Jewishly.” I understand this second point raises a kind of cognitive dissonance as it touches on another reflexive modern Jewish principle of faith (i.e. Jews should live Jewishly). Setting aside Habad’s metaphysics, which I assume neither Cohen, Werthimer, nor Braiterman adhere to, what is the theory that underlies this sociological faith principle? Zak suggests the Proverb “The King’s glory is in the multitude of people.” Having davenned in Uman with close to 7,000 Jews on Rosh ha-Shana and having attended many Grateful Dead concerts, I can certainly attest to the truth of that proverb. And yet, “multitude” must contain substance. I do not think the author of Proverbs uttered this dictum having in mind a multitude of bored dues-paying congregants sitting in the pews, mostly on their iPhones, waiting for shul to end so they can have a shot of single malt and some kugel and then get in nine holes before their reservation at the Chinese restaurant. Mind you, I am not criticizing these people at all (in fact, as an adolescent I was one of them which is why I disaffiliated completely and went to live in rural New Mexico after which I found my way to Meah Shearim). Quite the opposite, I think I am showing them more respect than Cohen and Wertheimer. I respect their life choices while Cohen and Wertheimer would prefer they attend synagogue before hitting the links so that they can be included on the positive side of the identity ledger.

My approach is a (neo) Hasidic one. If you’re waiting for shul to end thirty minutes after you arrive, then don’t waste any more of your time. Life is too short.

So, yes, “body” matters, but what kind of body? A leaner healthy body may be better than a large unhealthy one. The question, “how do you build a mass?” should be preceded by “why build a mass?”. That was the Kotzker’s question. This is the conversation I would like to have before we move to the “how” question. The multitude is only a multitude when it functions as a Kotzker minyan (anyone who has been to a Dead show knows that!). The Kotzker’s response to the “why” question is that you don’t need a multitude to change things; you need a small cadre of passionate Jews. They will create the conditions for a Jewish future. Maybe they will attract the multitude! Like Cohen, Wertheimer and Zak, I too would love to see a real multitude, an emesdike multitude. The difference between us is that I do not think that is where our creative energy should go. We can be avlei tzion (modern mourners of Zion) or we can be disciples of the Besht. He began with a small group of mostly adolescent renegades. The rest is history.


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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2 Responses to New Jewish Kotzker Culture & The King’s Glory (Response to Shaul Magid)

  1. ej says:

    it is not as if we can choose quality or quantity. Either way nothing happens if there is no interest in being Jewish. Nor are there any scalable procedures to make Judaism interesting. People join the Jewish world, religious, cultural or nationalist, when they expect to derive greater benefits from being involved than from alternate activities. This is fundamentally an economic choice. Our time is limited, and there is a lot out there that is interesting and entertaining. Like all market activities it has invisible hand qualities. Sermonizing, kvetching produce little.

    Jewish culture broadly understood with or without a religious patina, based on highbrow torah /talmud or not, has the virtue that it expands to touch on many other issues of an era, philosophical, critical and artistic. This culture doesn’t have to try to be meaningful from a Jewish perspective. It ends up this way, or at least so we imagine. Proust didn’t try to write a Jewish novel, but his work is of great interest to Jews. Hollywood, Broadway and popular culture are not about being Jewish…they just happen to throw up Jewish themes and role models. Laissez faire, allowing the many tribes of Israel to develop each in their own way, produces imo far better results than any form of centralized planning, whether Zionist or Wertheimer-Cohen moralistic attempts to set priorities with other people’s money and time.

  2. Doug Schwartz says:

    I love reading and listening to arguments on both (all) sides, which Shaul affords me that opportunity. I have a conservative Jewish education and have read a lot. But the intellegences here are beyond me…so I continue to read and listen. And thank you.

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