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A History and An Analysis
by Lawrence Bush
From the Winter, 2014-15 issue (art calender) of Jewish Currents
To read Part 1, click here.
THE HISTORY OF JEWISH EXCLUSION and adaptability sketched in Part One of this article provides only half an explanation for the enduring nature of Jewish liberalism in America. Another element to investigate is the influence of Judaism itself as a wellspring of ethics. While many American Jewish activists assimilated quite thoroughly into American culture and detached from Jewish religious belief and practice — in many cases, even from basic knowledge about Jewish texts and lore — the religious philosophy of Judaism has nevertheless shaped Jewish family culture and outlooks for centuries, creating an enduring legacy. Many if not most of these Jewish activists, moreover, grew up similarly to how writer Grace Paley described her childhood: “in a world so dense with Jews that I thought we were the great imposing majority and kindness had to be extended to the other because, as my mother said, everyone wants to live like a person.”
While they may have “jettisoned Jewish religious institutional forms,” as historian Gerald Sorin writes in his recent biography of the novelist Howard Fast, many Jewish immigrants and their children “reshaped for themselves the moral content of Judaism and retained its communal or collective consciousness.” As early in the century as 1908, Chaim Zhitlowsky, a leading intellectual of the Yiddish-speaking Jewish left, had a name for this kind of secularization: “the poetic rebirth of the Jewish religion.” “A critical examination of our cultural heritage will disclose immense treasures,” Zhitlowsky wrote, “valuable because of the deep generally humanistic elements they contain.”
Perhaps the most significant of those “humanistic elements” is Judaism’s emphasis on the role of community in the individual’s life, and vice versa. The Jewish tradition requires a minyan, a quorum of ten, for the recitation of key prayers; it envisions God’s bestowal of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai as requiring the presence and affirmation of every Jewish man, woman, and child. As Judith Plaskow wrote in her 1991 feminist classic, Standing Again at Sinai, the individual in Judaism “is not an isolated unit who attains humanity through independence from others... Rather, to be a person is to find oneself... shaped, nourished and sustained in community...”
This spirit is expressed most broadly in Judaism’s economic philosophy, which recognizes the creation of wealth to be a thoroughly collective enterprise. “The earth is the Lord’s, and all of its fruits” (Psalm 24) serves as the keystone: The creation of livelihood, the verse implies, is not chiefly a product of individual genius, but the result of a collective effort, across the generations, using the shared legacy of the Earth’s natural resources. Judaism recognizes this as a fundamental reality principle, that all economic activity is “socialist,” by definition — and then Judaism unpacks its perception with a whole lot of detail.
The Biblical tradition of the Jubilee year assures that the rising of some families into wealth and the sinking of others into poverty will be curbed through the redistribution of land every half-century. The everyday tradition of tsedoke, mandated charity, organizes whole communities in poverty relief. Ancient Jewish agricultural laws consistently subordinate individual private property rights to allow for the gathering of wood by all, gleaning of harvest remains by the poor, communal access to water and fishing, and other kinds of sharing in nature’s resources. Other laws ban predatory practices from the marketplace, false advertising, windfall profiteering, and worker exploitation. With laws like these constituting a large swath of the 613 traditional Jewish mitzvot (rules of behavior), it is reasonable to see Judaism as a centuries-long discussion about how human beings can best live together in community, balancing the realities of self-interest and individual urges with the realities of interdependence.
A second liberalizing element of Judaism is its emphasis on compassion — rakhmones — as the glue of existence. This theme is front-and-center during the Jewish high holy days, when the shofar (a ram’s horn) is sounded. The shofar symbolically alludes to the Biblical scene known as the Akedah (Genesis 22:1-19), in which Abraham, the first Jew, is spared from having to ritually murder his son Isaac by the sudden appearance of a sacrificial ram. Ever since, says one interpretation in the Talmud, the blowing of the ram’s horn has served to remind God to leaven judgment with compassion.
An attitude of rakhmones contrasts sharply with conservative “marketplace” ideology, which leaves the successful to be just as selfish as they choose and the unsuccessful to flounder in a jungle of Social Darwinism. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism — the only American-born Jewish denomination — summed up Judaism’s rejection of that kind of live-and-let-die conservatism when he wrote in 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust: “What differentiates man from the beast is that his nature not only makes for the survival of the fittest, but aims to make the greatest possible number fit to survive.” Humanity thus becomes, according to Kaplan, “exempt from the law of natural selection, and... subject to the law of spiritual selection.”
A third liberalizing ingredient in Judaism is the deep skepticism embodied in Jewish texts, especially by some of the rabbis of the Talmud, towards Rome, the cruel power of their day. (“They establish marketplaces to make room for the prostitutes,” says Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, “bathhouses to spoil themselves with pleasures, and bridges in order to collect taxes and tolls.”) Skepticism toward power and authority was surely deepened by the Jewish historical experience of being persecuted and expelled so often, from so many countries, on the basis of outlandish excuses — the blood libel (the belief that Jews required the blood of Christian children to bake matzo), the Christ-killer charge, the belief that Jews were poisoning wells during the Black Plague, and so on. The “compact majority” must have seemed quite crackpot, dangerous, and worth keeping at arm’s distance, especially to a people who were more literate than others and fundamentally skeptical towards the dominant religion.
A fourth liberalizing ingredient is Judaism’s lack of investment in the archly conservative Christian idea of “original sin.” Rather than pessimistically proclaiming the “fallen nature” of the human race, Jewish teachings recognize the human capacity for both evil (the yetser hara) and good (the yetser hatov), and affirm our capacity to train ourselves to achieve mentshlikhkayt, true human decency. This optimistic, humanistic view of human possibility would ultimately feed a hopeful, pro-change attitude among American Jews.
Finally, there is the historical nature of the Jewish religious narrative. Whereas the sacred story of Christianity transcends history and even death, the most temporal boundary of all, Judaism’s sacred narrative emphasizes the continuity of a singular people within history. Its foundational story, revisited every Passover by 80 percent or more of American Jews, tells of an enslaved people who rose up to change the exploitative world-as-is and migrate to a “promised land” as a “covenanted” people — free but with a cosmic yoke of social responsibility on their shoulders. Henceforth their Bible would remind them to relieve suffering and embrace the stranger as kin because “you were slaves in Egypt.”
THERE IS ONE OBVIOUS contradiction, however, in the citing of Jewish religious principles as a wellspring of Jewish progressivism. In today’s world, after all, the most observant and traditional Jewish communities are also the most politically conservative. If Jews who are closest to Judaism in their daily practice find in it wellsprings of conservatism, how can one make the claim that predominantly non-religious Jews had their progressive views shaped by Judaism?
The late Rabbi Harold Schulweis offered a useful way to address this contradiction when he spoke of there being two traditions in Jewish life: an Ezra tradition of inwardness, and a Ruth tradition of outwardness. The former is epitomized by the biblical priest, Ezra, who is alarmed by the assimilation wrought upon the Jews by seven decades of exile in Babylonia. Leading his people back to their land in the 5th century BCE, Ezra insists that they reject foreign influences and even dissolve their own mixed marriages (Ezra 9-10). The Ezra tradition is one of particularism, separation, and self-interest (“Is it good for the Jews?”), which we would associate today with Orthodoxy. The Book of Ruth, on the other hand, tells of a non-Jewish woman who binds herself to the Jewish people (“Where you go, I will go”) and eventually becomes the foremother of King David, who in turn is the forefather of the ever-awaited Messiah. In this tradition, the Jewish enterprise reaches out to the larger world, and Judaism becomes a laboratory for the invention of a liberated- yet-responsible, liberated-because-responsible, humanity.
Both the Ezra and Ruth traditions have been indispensable to Jewish life at different historical junctures through the millennia, assuring Judaism’s survival as a distinctive culture (Ezra) and a meaningful, larger purpose for that survival (Ruth). It is clearly the Ruth tradition, however, that had the most enduring impact upon the mentality of American Jews throughout the 20th century. The “applied” Judaism of Orthodoxy, the consuming attention to details of ritual behavior, along with particularistic concepts like Jewish “chosenness,” did not journey well across the Atlantic Ocean. Irving Howe, in his classic 1976 study of American Jewish immigrant culture, World of Our Fathers, observed that the 40 percent or more of world Jewry who lived in Eastern Europe at the close of the 1800s lived mostly in rural Jewish shtetls, where for centuries they clung to the Ezra tradition of insularity for lack of other options. By the end of the 19th century, however, shtetl life and its escapist spirituality were well on their way to oblivion. The Jews of Eastern Europe had been pauperized and proletarianized; Jews were moving to cities and wading into secular ideological cross-currents that, for many, many Jews, would drown their concept of God but wash clean Judaism’s essential, humanistic teachings. “Once the shtetl began to crumble under alien pressures,” Howe continues,
the sense of history, suddenly rising to acute consciousness, became an obsession; or more accurately, the modern idea of time as the very stuff of life which can never be held or held back, was absorbed into a faith that had always been addressed to eternity, so that certain of the political movements among the east European Jews, notably Zionism and socialism, received nutriment from the very faith they had begun to displace.
Thousands of these Eastern European Jews who came to America between 1881 and 1924 were either full-grown radicals or ready for “conversion” even before they arrived. Whatever their ideological “denomination,” their activism would mix the universalistic idealism of the secular left with the humanistic trace elements of Judaism. Louis Brandeis had it right way back in 1915: “The ideals of 20th-century America” had been “the ideals of the Jew for twenty centuries” — but it took the sight of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor for most Jews to know it.
By the middle of the century, Isaac Bashevis Singer, the only Yiddish-language Nobelist ever, would be describing his people as “a people who can’t sleep themselves and let nobody else sleep” — and Lenny Bruce, the comic warrior of dissolution and free speech, would rhetorically dissolve all the remaining boundaries between “Ezra” and “Ruth” by labeling as Jewish (in his “Jewish-Goyish” routine, 1961) all Negroes, Italians, and “Irish who have rejected their religion,” all big-city dwellers (“If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish”) — and all hipsters, renegades, reformers, and underdogs.
Lawrence Bush is the editor of Jewish Currents and of JEWDAYO, the magazine’s daily historical blog.