A Diaspora of the Mind: American Jewry and the Secularization of Otherness

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December 14, 2010

Every year, we say: L’shanah haba’ah b’yrushalayim (next year in Jerusalem). We gather in Boston, we gather in Boca. We raise a glass and look toward the East, toward the mythological locus of Judaism, slouching toward the perpetually deferred dream.

The dream is dead, having finally been realized. Long lived is the dream, as Jewish longing has conformed to its parameters, and not to its realities. With the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent capture of all of East Jerusalem in 1967, the city fell under Jewish tutelage for the first time since the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-135 CE. Jerusalem was regained, but Jerusalem, being the polyvalent symbol par excellence, dominates those in which its memory reposes. On the day man’s capacity for imagination is irrevocably obliterated, Jerusalem will be ruled.

Ah, Jerusalem! “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” (Psalm 137:5) We did remember, and we came back. But the result of our initial despoilment—a centripetal consciousness of loss and narrative of communal redemption, rooted in our shared otherness—has been rendered incoherent. As a diasporic faith, periphery was central; all points could emanate equally lachrymose for a long-lost spiritual and temporal sovereignty. Subordinate to outsized Jerusalem, the diaspora experienced a diffused democratization of longing. In returning “home,” first as guests of the Ottomans, then the British, and finally as the sovereign Israeli polity, the conception of the diaspora took on a new meaning. Jews were no longer forced to wander the continents, dependent upon the benevolence of others. The locus reclaimed, diaspora Jews need no longer gaze expectantly towards Zion. Go ahead. It’s there if you’re so inclined.

It turns out, though, that most American Jews are not. In 2009, 3,324 American Jews made aliyah (literally, “ascent”) to Israel. There are some 5.3 million Jews in America, non-practicing Jews included. Why, after thousands of years of canonized longing, has the dream sputtered out at its precise moment of realization?

Perhaps we are too comfortable. Perhaps, happily ensconced in major American metropolitan areas, we see no need to rend ourselves from the American cultural fabric, our integration into which took considerable time and toil. Perhaps we are doubly alienated: not fully American, but not quite Jewish. There are a great deal of American Jews who do not practice Judaism, or at least do not do so on a regular basis. According to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey (2000-2001), 46 percent of American Jews belong to a synagogue—39 percent of which belong to the Reform Movement, arguably the most liberal and assimilationist branch of American Judaism—while only 27 percent of American Jews attend services at least once a month. We may attend a Passover Seder—77 percent of American Jews do—or, like 72 percent of American Jews, light some Chanukah candles, but our dedication to Judaism qua religious practice appears deeply attenuated. Nevertheless, Judaism—or perhaps “Jewishness”—remains an important aspect of our cultural identity. A full 52 percent of American Jews claim that “half or more” of their close friends are Jewish. This does not strictly correlate with synagogue attendance: 42 percent of Jews with no connections to a Jewish institution answered this question in the affirmative, while 48 percent of this unaffiliated group also “feels emotionally attached to Israel.”

Of course, the American Jewish community is not some kind of monolith, and its many iterations reflect a rich diversity, which are especially, but not exclusively, manifest in the large urban areas many Jews reside. Every morning, I board the Manhattan-bound F Train in Brooklyn, and I find myself at a loss, speechless before the diverse modes of being that, woven together, constitute the many American Judaisms. Hasids, Haredim, Mizrahi (many from Syria), Modern Orthodox, and highly assimilated, often secular Jews: all riding the same train, all with their own, not necessarily uncomplicated, relationships to America and to one another.

But it is true that, although all American Jews share a religious or ethno-cultural heritage, some can be said to constitute a distinct enough community or subculture to form their own cultural islands, or in the case of the Hasidic and Haredi Jews of Brooklyn, archipelagoes. All American Jews may share a sense of “remoteness-in-proximity” from American society at large, but this difference is not experienced uniformly. The difference is different. This fact is particularly salient when one considers the Hasidic and Haredi communities. Rejecting bourgeois mores entirely, these Jews inhabit a kind of community-fortified redoubt from modernity; their “being apart” is largely self-imposed and intentional, and their sense of otherness is manifestly different then the one experienced by most American Jews. They represent a kind of singular exception not just within the America Jewish community, but also to a mode of being conceived of as congenitally American. (The Amish, it should be said, provide perhaps the only other persistent challenge to this modus vivendi, but do so on very different theological and social grounds than the Hasidic or Haredi American Jews.)

So it is not so much this “traditionalist” strand of American Judaism I am concerned with—because although its membership is growing rapidly due to high birth rates, it still makes up a relatively minute percentage of American Jews as a whole—but rather the majority of American Jews who are to varying degrees assimilated into mainstream American society. At the risk of oversimplification, a basic taxonomy would divide this group into three. There are, first, the Reform and Conservative movements, which represent the established core of modern American Judaism. The second group, which is far smaller and less formally organized than the first, could be very loosely (and unsatisfactorily) called neo-Hasidic, and is notable for its fusion of religious observance, left wing politics, environmentalism, and various other New Age accretions. This group, while less assimilated in some ways than the first—in many of its followers’ strict observance of Shabbat, for instance—is often fairly radical in its political and social vision. Thus it defies easy characterization, because if your basic orientation is a liberal one, it can appear simultaneously orthodox (or at least “traditional” in some sense) and progressive.

Which brings us to the final group, secular Jews. By “secular” I do not mean those who endorse secularism as a basic principle of modernity—all three of these groups would certainly be considered secular by this definition—but those who do not consider themselves Jews in any kind of religious, as opposed to cultural, sense. They may be humanists, agnostics, atheists, or pantheists, but they are not Jews qua their practice of Judaism. It may be that, as the Jews most removed from Judaism, this group is the one most susceptible to the vague yet pervasive sense of unease, instability, and alienation—otherness—that I am attempting to describe. As secular Jews this group may be more liable to experience this phenomenon, because it has no structured religious practice to ground it. However, since all the members of these groups—Conservative, Reform, neo-Hasidic, and secular Jews alike—are broadly secularist in outlook, and to varying degrees embracing of modernity, it should be sufficiently clear that one need not be secular to inhabit, willfully and willingly, a secular world. This world is seen as something that is both inherently desirable, being characterized by a general constellation of values (among which are liberalism, egalitarianism, and representative democracy), and instrumentally so, as it protects the rights of minorities to worship freely, and advance unhindered in its private and public pursuits (granted that these do not fundamentally conflict with the aforementioned values).

The great majority of American Jews have thus placed a great deal of faith in this milieu, for reasons that reflect both calculations of self-interest and catholic first principles. And the opportunities it has presented have been spectacular: Jews, collectively and individually, have been able to pursue their own vision of human flourishing in a manner and scale that is perhaps unprecedented. It is true that we have much to be thankful for, but it is important that we recognize the inherent limitations, and the precariousness, of our social position.

The American liberal democratic system, which safeguards against a tyrannical majority, does not, however, explicitly prohibit the intense social pressure that a religious majority can induce through its “mere” conspicuousness. Secularism, particularly in its American manifestation, is a negative philosophy; that is, in contradistinction to its other formulations—say, the French notion of laïcité, which places positive prohibitions on religious influence and expression—American secularism is, unsurprisingly, more laissez-faire about the matter. The process of secularization, though, has not always reaped uncomplicated belonging. Jews’ demographic position in America has always required an implicit recognition of the deference required by a minority group in a majoritarian system, but faith in the moderating power of the secular state has somewhat eased this concern. The question I should like to pose is whether this sense of trust—the idea that, for better or worse, the state serves as a neutral arbiter, securing minority rights—is misplaced, unfounded, or naïve.

From a demographic perspective at least, America is a Christian nation. This observation is both indispensible and banal: the question is whether “Christian nation” means “a nation of Christians” living in a secular state informed by Christian ethics and legal principles, or an illiberal and volatile “Christian democracy.” Proponents of these two competing visions of America have been engaged in a philosophical war of attrition since the founding of the republic. For American Jews, however, the tension between these two visions—and the possible ramifications of the final victory of one over the other—has become obscured by the excessive fealty on all sides to the notion of “Judeo-Christian values.” This happy hyphen is the historical product of Protestant Americans’ rediscovery, thanks to its translation into the vernacular, of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. In rediscovering the Hebrew Bible, American Protestants saw parallels between their beliefs—such as their notion of “chosenness”—and those in the Tanakh. In turn, this newfound feeling of kinship to Jews produced a sense of paternal responsibility for their well-being; instead of the consummate deniers of His divinity, Jews were seen as legitimate carriers of an authentic tradition fully realized in Christ.

No doubt this hermeneutical distinction has benefited American Jews, and our fraternity with American Protestantism, and Christianity as a whole, has been emphasized when deemed desirable for reasons that are largely earnest but occasionally border on the disingenuous. (One case that immediately comes to mind is the distancing of Christianity and Judaism from Islam, when in reality the latter two systems share many affinities that the former does not.) Nevertheless, the distinction is an inherently Christian one. It was a gift, but gifts such as this function within a system of conceptual economy. Something must be returned; loss is inevitable and necessary.

Thus the largely secularist American Jewish population, which feels neither the covenantal pull of its forefathers, nor the desire to emigrate to the Jewish nation-state, nor the impulse to convert, finds itself in a unique kind of cognitive purgatory. Not Christian, but fully Americanized (or at least the most Americanized group of non-Christian Americans). Not practitioners of tradionalist forms of Judaism, but Jewish. Newly-minted members of a voluntary, not compulsory, diaspora. Otherness—a long-lived trope in Jewish history, to be sure, and one caused by both external discrimination and internal chauvinism—has, particularly in the case of secular Jews, outlived the actual practice of Judaism. Our otherness is not the otherness of our progenitors.

This newfound sense of otherness has precipitated a turn toward that most modern of objects of veneration, the nation-state. And, like many other Americans, American Jews have a certain affinity for their place of “origin,” as well as for the only real national homeland most have ever known: the United States. What is particular about the American Jewish experience, however, is that Israel has become our adopted national home, our surrogate history. We no longer trace ourselves back to the Pale, or in some cases, to the Arab states of the Middle East. We’re American in a very particular, and very distinct sense. The creation of nationhood—of the “imagined communities” from which we all derive a sense of belonging—moves at a glacial pace, but rests on deeply unstable ground. Nowhere is this more apparent than in places like Israel and the United States, with their complicated and morally contradictory founding myths; their promise of freedom and liberation from the past; and most importantly, their sense of “being-apart” from the community of nations, of being exceptional. In constructing our own sense of identity, American Jews draw deeply from both places but are wholly contained in neither.

But if we need to quell a certain sense of rootlessness, well, one only need pivot toward Jerusalem. Longing for Jerusalem, though, is nothing new. For many, its physical existence seems almost ancillary, for Israel has became perpetually impregnated with symbolism, arising out of a continuous birthing process. In its reality, Israel has become more of an idea than it has ever been. And so we look East, towards ourselves, or what we believe ourselves to be. Outside of our history, recreating it, we blot out the past by investing in a mythologized present. Here we are, outside of ourselves. This much has not changed, and thus, no matter how hard we try, we are encumbered with an unshakable sense of difference from others and otherness from ourselves. Here we are again, wandering.

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