A New Type of Judaism

Postethnic Judaism, the birth of which is heralded by author and professor Shaul Magid, is spread thanks to shared ideas, not bloodlines.

“American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society,” by Shaul Magid. Indiana University Press, 2013, 408 pp.

At the start of the 1960s, Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss held a series of lectures titled “Why We Remain Jews.” Strauss started out by discussing liberal democracy, which must not discriminate against a group of citizens, but cannot prevent private discrimination. The same rules that separate religion and state prevent the state from telling its citizens what to believe in – even if their beliefs are racist or anti-Semitic. Therefore, Strauss asserted that Jews have no choice but to remain Jews. Full assimilation is impossible, as general society is not ready to accept them.

You don’t need to closely examine American society to notice the extent of the changes that have occurred since Strauss held his lectures. Today, complete assimilation isn’t only possible – it is actually actively taking place. The state may not be imposing pluralism upon its citizen’s religious beliefs, but they are promoting an increasingly open and tolerant religiousness themselves. This is Christianity (and Judaism) for which liberalism is a commandment, and harmony among religions is a sign of the coming redemption. It is also a more personal religious belief that draws meaning from the soul of the believer.

From the perspective of Christianity, the transition to liberal, private and inner devoutness is natural, and to a certain degree necessary (Immanuel Kant predicted it and saw it as the realization of God’s Kingdom). But for Judaism – as the religion of a “people” – an ethnic and nation-based religion that establishes its community through shared commandments, this transition is nothing short of a crisis. Separation from halakha and the Jewish nation fundamentally changes Judaism. Add to that the ease of integration into American society, and you’ll get that “we told you so” look from Orthodox Jews who lament the decline of American Jewry. The Jews of America, who Strauss said would be forced to remain Jews due to discrimination, are now completely accepted. Therefore, many of them do not remain Jewish.

There is no doubt that American Jewry is at a crossroads. It is already an established fact that it has distanced itself from identifying with Zionism, the State of Israel and the memory of the Holocaust. For the younger generation of American Jews, Judaism is less an ethnic and tribal identity and more a cultural one that is less community orientated and more individualistic. Above all, it is open to change, and can be reinterpreted, adapted and updated. No less than 50 percent of married American Jews are married to non-Jews, and for years the non-Orthodox streams have been developing various programs and initiatives designed to embrace mixed partnerships.

A fruitful future

This new book by Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University, sets out to address this situation and examine the ways in which Judaism will survive in the future. The book’s title includes the term “Post-Judaism,” but Magid doesn’t use this term to announce the end of Judaism, but as a means of illustrating the extent of the changes it is experiencing. Magid identifies the creation of postethnic Judaism – a type of Judaism that does not take its identity from a tribal dynasty or a shared history, but from cultural values: things that are universal and suitable for everyone. Magid does not see this trend as the end of Judaism as a religion (in contrast to the Orthodox school of thought on the subject), or the end of Judaism as a culture. Through these non-Orthodox streams, Magid embraces this trend of integration and predicts it will have a productive future.

Not only is postethnic Judaism not rooted in tradition – it also removes itself from identifying with the historical Jewish nation. This is one step further than multiculturalism – which celebrated the different and the unique. Now, Megid says, young American Jews have no desire to proclaim how unique they are, and avoid discussing uniqueness or superiority like the plague. Hybridity has become a value, and the blurring of ethnic, gender and religious boundaries is a normative aspiration.

On the other hand, while many Jews simply forget Judaism, others are choosing to adhere to it – though less in a tribal sense and more in the sense of its cultural capital and ethical framework. These Jews adopt traditional elements such as Torah study and observance of the Sabbath (not necessarily according to Orthodox halakha) and set out to perform social acts of tikkun olam (repairing the world). They are proud of their religion and disseminate it as an idea, instead of something that is passed down the bloodline.

An important characteristic of this type of Judaism is that it is entirely dependent upon individual choice. In other periods of history, this situation would have resulted in its rapid decline, as Judaism was not especially popular, occasionally not even among its adherents; it’s hard to believe that someone would have chosen to be a Jew. In the U.S. today, Judaism is a brand associated with style and chic – and is flourishing as a result. A recent survey found that in New York, five percent of those who identify themselves as being Jewish do not have a Jewish parent.

Another characteristic of this Judaism is its post-monotheism. According to Magid, postethnic Judaism has departed from monotheism in several areas. It does not believe in religion being exclusive; it does not believe in the covenant between one God and his chosen people; it does not see divinity as transcendental, but as immanent; and it does not feel obliged to carry out the laws of a monotheistic God out of fear of divine judgment. The theosophy of this Judaism is not monotheistic, but it is also not atheistic or humanistic. It is pantheistic.

New territory

Therefore, this is a creative, voluntary and spiritual stream of Judaism that does not have tribal affiliations, rabbinical authority or commitment to halakhic traditions. It has become more prominent due to the living conditions in the U.S. – and these are not about to change any time soon. This rapid development presents us with a type of Judaism that we are unable to define using the current tools at our disposal – as you can gather from the frequent use of the prefix “post.” However, Magid wants to delve deeper, and to outline the path it may take in the future. He finds the tools to do so using “Jewish Renewal” – the new-age, mystical movement of American Jewry. Although it is a small minority, it has made substantial contributions to the larger Jewish streams, and since the '60s has been used as a kind of theological avant-garde that has an impact on the other streams (think of the contemporary impact of the works of Shlomo Carlebach have within the communities that once boycotted him).

While for Orthodox Jews authentic Judaism is synonymous with tradition, Jewish Renewal offers authenticity as a personalized project that is dependent upon the spiritual journey of the individual. Since the '60s, it has established communities that promote feminism and tolerance towards homosexuality, and also accept non-Jews into the fold. It offers a type of Judaism that is not halakhic, contentious or dogmatic. Magid argues that although it does not provide a complete answer to the postethnic situation, it has formulated a global, universal and especially pragmatic and flexible theology that can begin to tackle the situation. In Jewish Renewal (and especially in one of its main spiritual leaders, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi), Magid finds a new theological paradigm that can provide the necessary tools for the establishment of sustainable Judaism.

Magid comes to the realization that Judaism today is essentially post-rabbinical Judaism – which is considerably different from the movement that developed after the destruction of the Second Temple, which relies upon the commandments. In post-rabbinical and postethnic Judaism, the traditional strategies used to preserve internal Jewish cohesion are proved useless. They all rely on halakha, and the tribal identification with the “nation of Israel.” In the current situation, Judaism is disconnected from its guiding principle – ethnic identification – and enters new territory. So America – which offers unlimited possibilities for its Jews, also poses them their biggest challenge.

Magid’s important book is a clear and realistic – albeit incomplete – preliminary analysis of Judaism in America; its achievements; and its crises. It provides a variety of perspectives on the creation of contemporary Jewish society in the U.S. (its attitude towards the Holocaust, Kabbalah, Christianity, the Baal Teshuva movement) that provide an accurate portrait of postethnic Judaism. Magid’s analysis is accompanied by a tentative prediction of the future – which he is optimistic about. He does not see the changes Judaism is undergoing as the beginning of the end – but the heralding of a new age; where it will be detached from blood ties.

Magid himself was a Baal Teshuva (someone who was secular and became religious) in the past. He later left the Orthodox stream and became one of the key activists and prominent scholars of the Jewish Renewal. There is no doubt that he has a great deal of knowledge about his field. He has a bold, innovative perspective, and his educated analysis is timely. However, the book is not edited as well as it could have been, and at times it reads like a collection of essays. And though his writing is clear and cogent, the work would have benefitted greatly from a concluding chapter and a summary of all his arguments.

In the summary of his chapter on the post-monotheistic changes, Magid emphasizes Judaism’s need to react to major changes that he surveyed: “For Judaism to grow and not simply reproduce itself in preparation for some final redemptive act to sweep it beyond history… it must respond, and respond honestly, to a new era.” Magid makes quite a few attempts to do so in his book.  It will not be the Divine Monotheistic Father who will decide of his attempts are successful. 

Michal Fattal