(Outside In) The Jews and Jewishness (Parochial)


At this exhaustion point in American life, at this tipping point of American Jewish life, it might be a good time to reflect on how little the Jews matter in the world today. By this I mean something specific. After a long century during which Jews and Jewish things were at the front and center of everything, 2020 might very well be the year that, suddenly, they’re not. The Jews and Jewishness are not at the center of a global pandemic, not at the center of the plague of anti-black racism and the struggle for BLM, and the scourge that is everything Trump. The Jews are no longer universal; they never were, even if seemed that way to some. More and more, the perspectives brought by Jewish voices to the world will be increasingly parochial, beside the point.

Thinking about the new Jewish parochialism, I’m re-visiting the thesis by Yuri Slezkine in The Jewish Century (2006) about the Jews and Jewishness (if not Judaism) as quintessentially modern, about the 20th century being the “Jewish century.” Setting aside the grand narrative contrast between Mercurial service people versus the cloddish Apollinian host culture, service nomads with unique sense of superior separateness, and how in modern times Appolinans (i.e. gentiles) become like Jews (urban, mobile, etc.). In Russia, Nazi Germany, and America, it seemed that the Jews and Jewishness were everywhere at the center of everything. Jews were exemplary, uniquely exposed at the center of things. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the Arab-Israeli, Israelo-Palestinian conflict represents something by way of an epilogue on the world stage.

It is not like I do not think that the Jews and Jewishness, including Judaism, were ever not deeply imbricated in the world. As the starting topic-subject-point of academic Jewish Studies, itself a discourse of modernity, this entanglement meant a lot to and for the Jews and Jewishness and less so to the world. Where and how in the world the Jews and Jewishness were remains an open question. But let’s assume that the 20th C. was anomalous, even a lot like the 1st C. CE when ancient Judea and Roman Palestine, its political revolts and religious movements were at the center of things, at the center of empire. What if for most of their history, the Jews and Jewish things, Jewish ideas and Jewish texts included, were never really at the center of things, but were always caught in between or just off on the side? The 21st century might be more like that. It will not be “the Jewish century,” not even “a Jewish century.”

That the Jewish textual tradition puts the life of Israel at the center of cosmic drama is part of the Jewish self-delusion that the Jews and Jewishness are at the heart of everything. A critical view suggests otherwise. Un-Christ-like, Judaism, for its part, tends not to take on the weight of the world. More often than not, a Jewish thing gives up on itself when it goes out into the world. In life, Judaism tends to tend closely to its own little corner.

The Jews and Jewishness could never really rule the world, no matter what the anti-Semites say. As worldly as they might be, Jews are not a “world people.” With no critical demographic, there are simply too few Jews in the world to matter all that much. I’m thinking of my father and grandparents now whose own lives spanned almost the entire 20th century. Always the small part of a large whole, the Jews never filled a continent. (I’m assuming here, not tongue in cheek, that a culture can’t make a claim to being “universal” if it can’t control at least one continent.) Closeness and intimacy are the Jewish virtues par excellence, alongside a religious culture whose very logic is built upon a splintering logic and points of disconnection. As a small pariah people, the Jews know that world does not come together as a rounded whole. Against what Freud thought, there is no logic of sublimation in Judaism. If its logic is de-sublimated. The Jews and Jewishness, Judaism itself, never really get off the ground

Once upon a time, Christians could blame the Jews for plagues and pandemics. Once upon a time the Jews were at the forefront of revolutions in Russia, the object par excellence of European hatred, the movement for Civil Rights in America. Today they are barely relevant on the national and international stage. Even in the Middle East, Israel hardly matters, and Palestine even less so. Caught up in larger networks, the Jews sought a place of its own. On Twitter, they remain an irritant to white and Black anti-Semites alike in this country and in Europe. That paranoiacs given to conspiracy theories want to kill Jews and pick up arms to do so enters into and out of the general consciousness.

Readers of continental philosophy and critical theory will recognize the cardinal configurating of Jews, the Jews, and Jewishness in works by Benjamin, Kafka, Adorno, Sartre, Arendt, Marcuse, Levinas, Lyotard, Derrida, and Agamben. On the American scene one would count Roth, Bellow, Mailer in literature and the Black-Jewish simpatico and tensions in culture and politics represented by iconic names like King, Heschel, Baldwin, and Fanon along with Cornell West, bell hooks, and Henry Louis Gates. All of that was once upon a time. Today the Jews and Jewishness hardly matter and do not appear in more contemporary theory (object-ontology, new materialisms, affect, critical race). Subsumed under the blanket of whiteness, their difference, their ship has long since sailed.

The 20th C. was unique in Jewish history. In the due course of time and its turns, it has itself become historical. What makes the contemporary situation unique in its own right is the modicum of real power and relative privilege Jews secured for themselves in America and Israel, after the Holocaust, and also the broadening of its internal horizons, especially in Israel. As Caryn Aviv and David Shneer note in a 2006 book about “the end of the Jewish diaspora,” what they call “the new Jews” are a global people, interconnected at an intensity of scale unique to Jewish history. Jews were always in the world, especially today, but were Jewishness and Judaism of it or were they just something ex-centric? In the history of Jewish religion things like Bible, Talmud, and Kabbalah turned away from the world. Their creators, their operators, their users looked out at the world when they did through their own particular and resistant prisms. Jews and Jewishness “have always” marked out a place for itself in a world that is largely indifferent and intermittently hostile to Jewish things.

[[The extraordinary images from a “fake photo studio” at the top of the post are by Stephen Berkman, Predicting the Past—Zohar Studios: The Lost Years  about which you can read here at Hyperallergic]]

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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