Sunday, January 3, 2010

The main issues in Jewish thought today

There is a new fellowship opportunity at JTS next year which will feature a weekly philosophy seminar and bring some of the leading Jewish thinkers to the class to talk about their work as we read it.

And it’s a paid gig, too. Sounds good to me. Below is the application essay for the seminar, an assignment to address the main issues in Jewish thought today. In some ways it's rhetoric, but I'm also interested in the translation of the issues to the practical, which I touch on in the essay itself.

The wording of the question: Describe what you think the main philosophical and theological issues confronting the Jewish thinker are. What methods should Jewish thought follow? What audiences should Jewish thought address? What external philosophical and theological frameworks should Jewish thought employ?

I also point you to a well articulated similar thesis by Rabbi Ethan Tucker, recently published in the Forward.

“The establishment of the State of Israel is the second challenge of the modern world to the survival of Judaism. The first challenge came about 150 years ago, with our emancipation from political and economic thralldom and with our admission into the body politic of western mankind. We have not yet recovered from the impact of that first challenge.” — Mordecai Menahem Kaplan, Delivered Dec. 6, 1949

The merits of Kaplan’s speech still ring true six decades later. The fundamental question that American Jews encounter today is to define Jewish identity in an age of unmatched autonomy. These questions are not new; they remain the fundamental questions of the modern age, one still very much with us in the 21st century.

Yet while the questions themselves endure, the contemporary scene presents untold challenges in terms of scale. As Chancellor Arnold Eisen frames the issue, 21st -century Judaism exists within an age of the “sovereign self,” a condition prevailing ever since Emancipation. Yet even to address the predicament of Judaism within modernity, the very discourse must be refreshed from that moment when Kaplan spoke to the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism. Whereas Judaism as a religion and Israel as the center of its peoplehood had previously stood as fundamental presuppositions for philosophers and social leaders in the community, any contemporary scene ideology seems hollow compared to previous generations.

Before Judaism can truly engage in dialogue with modernity, a prior — and primary — task must be to bring Judaism into conversation with itself. Only then can we add those layers that continue to challenge the modern Jew. Earlier this semester, I heard contemporary Zionist thinker Hillel Halkin address why there is a decrease in Zionist fervor in Israeli society, saying that “the age of ideology is dead.” Whether or not, this verdict is hyperbolic or premature, such a comment compels the re-crafting of particular messages, particularly for Zionism, even if the message itself remains fundamentally the same.

During November this year, the New York Times published an article about a British court case, contesting whether a publicly-funded Jewish school could deny a child access based on religion. This decision was particularly charged, because the child was an observant Jew as defined halakhically, but the British chief rabbinate still refused to accept the supervision of the child’s mother’s conversion. This article soared up the “Most Read” chart on the website, surely indicating its pertinence for the Jewish readership of the New York Times as well as the sociological realities of American Judaism’s relationship to the media. But, more importantly, the British high court decision touched a nerve at the core of the religion, the essential question of our contemporary era: What does it mean to be Jewish? What comprises the meaning of Jewish identity?

In Israel, contemporary sociology addresses the ongoing definition of the Jewish state, particularly by dealing with a special subset of the wider question of Jewish peoplehood. The national flavor of “Israel” poses an even more basic question regarding the kind(s) of separation between Church and State. A few examples: Minister of Justice Yaakov Neeman recently declared that the law of the State of Israel should be the same as religious halakha. Similarly, Hesder Yeshiva rabbis have declared that the law of the land will not replace the law of God, so that Hesder students and soldiers thus feel conflicts between the authority of their rabbis and of their nation with regard to military actions. The Haredi community can nearly shut down the Intel plant in the Kiryat Sh’muel neighborhood of Jerusalem because it was open on Shabbat. And Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a talit at the Kotel. All these items manifest the central issue: whether indeed there is such a universally valid concept as the Jewish people or is it a fiction, reinforced throughout the collective memory, but actually variable according to geography and politics?

The question of what it means to be “Jewish” centers around discussion of Jewish peoplehood, of the “Israel” component of the philosophical triad, “God, Torah, Israel.” Today the American Jew finds herself in the freest society in the history of Judaism, all but free of anti-Semitic attacks, which historically forced the community to coalesce and necessarily defined Jewish identity, albeit from the hostile outside. Precisely because Jews have such autonomy in the world and because others on the outside are no longer defining Judaism, Jewish thought from the inside must now affirmatively restate in contemporary, yet fundamental terms the basic postulates of both faith and peoplehood. — What is Judaism? Who are the Jewish people? How does the Jewish people relate both to itself and to the Other? What meaning and degree of priority does the state of Israel hold in this context? All of this discussion will undoubtedly involve the halakhic definitions of a Jew in this discussion, but these issues also transcend legal arguments.

Virtually every segment of the American sociology shows Jews engaging with the non-Jewish world, and in many cases, defining this social work with Jewish language. This interaction can be seen most clearly in the wide spectrum of Jewish service organizations that serve the greatest needs in society, usually outside the Jewish community, but also throughout the philanthropic world.

Clearly, the modern Jew holds competing allegiances, multiple identities. But more accurately, the American Jew is a member of a series of concentric circles, which need not stand in opposition to one another, and in fact can effectively complement each other, if only they are so construed. In a world where individuals are engaging with “American” identities and “Jewish” identities, often within separate cultures, can we find a framework that honestly engages both American and Jewish identities within a larger, shared system? Indeed can there be some synthesis in the Hegelian sense of Jewish life within America? For me this dilemma remains an open question, one which personally I have struggled to reconcile over in the past several years. But affirmatively engaging both American (or even Israeli) and Jewish identities, the thesis and antithesis, provides the central task of Jewish thought in the 21st century.

Lest this description leads one to think that such a framework leads to a dilution of Judaism, with the infusion of American ideals, I will emphasize that democracy “fundamentally implies the right to be different,” as Rabbi Leo Jung stated in 1945 (“Religion in the American Dream,” The Orthodox Union, June 1945, 4). The articulation of strong particularist ideals is essential for religion to thrive in the land of autonomy.

Part of this thinking about particularist ideals must clearly engage with how other religions are addressing the same issues of engaging both the particular and the national-universal. Communities across the country are engaging in “inter-faith” dialogue, of commonalities across cultures, of social action for the communities they each share. The framework that other religions are using of Americanism and that religion are the best partners that Jewish thought has.

During an era when anti-religion, anti-God manifestos, soar up the best-seller charts, engaging religion from the center, from various religious perspectives, serves as the only way to engage such polar attacks. By describing in positive terms the redemptive qualities of religion, of the particular, religion in turn stakes a claim for itself on the American landscape as a contributor to democratic ideals. What is Jewish peoplehood? Paradoxically through the particular, the American Jew, and for that matter every other religionist in the United States, declares democratic ideals more powerfully than a polemical attack ever could. But this is the case only when religion is framed in such a context of being both universalistic and particularist in and of itself.

The question arises: why America in particular? What about the rest of the world? What about Israel? Indeed all of these are important questions, but I am writing from my own perspective, and one that I think is underserved. Additionally, the point of American Jewish identity is the starting point, by definition, for American Jews. Perhaps the land and state of Israel should indeed be the ontological presupposition of Jewish peoplehood, indeed an Ahad Ha’am-ist view of the cultural epicenter of the Jewish nation. Throughout all of this, these issues represent the fundamental importance of engagement with these issues, of redefining and reframing “Israel” for contemporary Jewish thought. For Jewish thought to be relevant, it must engage with the fundamental issues the day, which by definition are those which occur on the ground.

The Seminary’s decision to change the name of the philosophy department to the department of “Jewish thought” reflects the emphasis of looking outward and expressing thoughts rather than looking inside to find Truth. For Jewish thought to be relevant, it must be conducted in the matrix of the community. And it is precisely for this reason, that engaging with Jewish peoplehood in the 21st century must be the central issue in Jewish thought.

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