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Modern Judaism

Dynamics Of Westernization, Bibliography

Judaism has never been monolithically uniform. Made irreducibly complex by 3,500 years of turbulent history, it resists simplification. Its data refuse to be straitjacketed or handled dispassionately. Impartial attempts to understand it are easily spoiled by the partisan sympathies and deeply held antagonisms it activates in observers. Consider a mere sampling of the evidence. Its implications startle. In 1920, the American automotive industrialist Henry Ford articulated a widely held opinion that was infected by virulent strains of secular anti-Semitism without which the Holocaust would have been impossible: "Poor in his masses, [the Jew] yet controls the world's finances.… The single description which will include a larger percentage of the Jews than members of any other race is this: he is in business … the Jew is gifted for business" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 513). Vast numbers of Jews, however, were politically active in the labor union movement and on the Left. Four years earlier, Rosa Luxemburg, born to a Jewish family in Poland, an ardent socialist and leader of the Communist Party in Germany, acknowledged "that I have no separate corner in my heart for the ghetto: I feel at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 262). In 1930, Bertha Pappenheim, a religiously observant German-Jewish woman, a pioneering feminist and energetic social worker, explained that "women [in contrast to men] showed a ready understanding to relate the command to love your neighbor to modern times.… Out of a new congruence of German cultural elements and Jewish civilization grew a spiritual substance of greatest importance … These women who did not know how Jewish they were through their inherited spirituality became strong pillars of the feminist movement" (quoted in Mendes-Flohr, p. 288).

Similar divergence over other fundamental issues abounds. In 1885, a Conference of Reform Rabbis gathered in Pittsburgh. Echoing the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment, they declared that "we consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community … ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 468). In 1917, Ozjasz Thon, a Polish Zionist from Kraków, broadcasting the zeal that ultimately led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, announced that "the Jews are a nation, not a religious sect" (Mendelsohn, p. 17). Further complicating the challenge of defining Judaism, in 1966, in the refuge of Belgium, Jean Amery, a survivor of the Nazi death camps in Auschwitz, the son of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, wrote: "The necessity and impossibility of being a Jew, that is what causes me indistinct pain" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 292). In 1913, Gustav Landauer, a German-Jewish intellectual, echoing the ideals of romanticism embraced by countless Jews, proclaimed that "I feel my Judaism in the expressions of my face, in my gait, in my facial features, and all these signs assure me that Judaism is alive in everything that I am and do" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 276). In 1926, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, confessed that "what bound me to Jewry was (I am ashamed to say) neither faith nor national pride, for I have always been an unbeliever and was brought up without any religion.… But plenty of other things remained to make the attraction of Jewry and Jews irresistible—many obscure emotional forces … as well as a clear consciousness of inner identity, the safe intimacy of a common mental construction" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 278). The juxtaposition of these divergent, contradictory voices is cautionary and instructive. Judaism is elusive.

Lexicons reflect this reality. Meticulously preserving popular usage and conventional wisdom, they report that Judaism signifies a religion, faith, set of theological beliefs and ceremonial practices, culture, nation, race, people, polity, tradition, heritage, or ethnic identity. The long string of terms is baffling. It fails to note whether the terms are neutrally descriptive or ideologically prescriptive. This failure wreaks conceptual havoc. Many of the string's terms are ambiguous; others are anachronistic. In combination, several of the terms are logically incoherent or mutually exclusive. The search for clarity seems doomed.

For scholarly purposes, Judaism may nevertheless be characterized as the sum total of symbiotic interactions between the Jews and their diverse geographical, sociopolitical environments. Perceived in this strictly descriptive, all-inclusive light, Judaism appears to have completed three phases of pre-modern development: ancient Near Eastern; Greco-Roman; and medieval, both Christian and Islamic. Currently, Judaism is undergoing its latest phase, the modern. As the contradictory voices cited above suggest, the modern phase may be the most tumultuous, fragmented, and poignant of all.

Like Judaism, modernity is irreducibly complex. Scene of utopian achievement and apocalyptic terror, modernity resists simplification. It swarms with counterpoint and paradox: unprecedented prosperity and abject deprivation, revolutionary reform and conservative reaction, egalitarian liberation and fascist brutality. Modernity simultaneously produces satisfied customers and frustrated discontents. Its beneficiaries and victims offer radically different assessments of its character. Jews have been both beneficiary and victim; they bear witness of a different kind. Historians nevertheless tend to agree that modernity is coterminous with the emergence of the bourgeoisie, the rise of the centralized nation-state, and the subsequent establishment of global hegemony in the West, in places such as Europe and North America.

Modernity may be said to have originated with the French, American, and Russian revolutions. Acting on the belief that "all men are created equal," the revolutions reordered society. They outlawed the denial of citizenship, special taxes, demeaning sumptuary regulations, and physical ghettos that had segregated Jews from society for centuries. The revolutions abolished the privileges of the agrarian-based aristocracy. They retrenched or eliminated the direct influence of clergy on public governance. Modernity may also be said to owe its temper to capitalism and its muscle to ongoing revolutions in science, technology, and industrialized productivity. These revolutions have transformed all aspects of life, especially the spheres of labor, communication, medicine, and warfare. In turn, the opportunistic combination of capitalism, nation-state, and technology spawned diverse modes of thinking: secularism, naturalism, materialism, and cultural relativism together with their dialectical counterparts, religious fundamentalisms, and variously insatiable appetites for the certainty of metaphysical absolutes.

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