Judaism as Je Ne Sais Quoi

(This weekend, IISHJ is holding a colloquium on the future of Judaism at the Birmingham Temple. I can’t be there due to a business trip; I’ll be in Dallas at a convention. But in the spirit of the colloquium, here’s my feeble attempt at figuring out exactly what Judaism is. The short answer is: “I know it when I see it.” That not being good enough, I’ve written this. In addition, congratulations to Ed Klein and Susan Averbach on their upcoming rabbinic ordinations during the colloquium. Mazal tov to them both!)

Last week, I responded to the idea that we should focus on how people “Do Jewish” as a way of getting past essentializing labels like “What shul do you go to?,” and I ended with the note that ideas matter. I want to attack the problem of Jewish identity from the other direction.

Ideas aren’t enough, either.

What prompts this? I’m belatedly reading Douglas Rushkoff’s book, Nothing Sacred. (It came out about 11 years ago.) There are a number of very valid criticisms one could level at this book (and they’ve been leveled by many others): his history is sometimes just simply wrong on facts, his characterization of ideas and events is often far too pat where the reality is complicated, he can’t decide whether the Bible is metaphor or historical textbook, and he basically has blinders on when it comes to the real diversity of Jewish thought in the 20th century. For example, a reviewer for Zeek noted that Rushkoff never once mentions Mordechai Kaplan–though Kaplan is essentially right up Rushkoff’s alley.

The factual misses are easy to pick on. And I actually agree with much of his diagnosis of the etiology of the problems facing the contemporary American Jewish establishment. Yet I can’t help but think that Rushkoff misses something very important.

At bottom, his combination of three components of Judaism–iconoclasm, radically abstract monotheism, and social justice–doesn’t seem especially…dare I say it?…Jewish.

That’s not to say there aren’t Jewish resources that point in the direction he’s going; there are plenty. (Of course, there are plenty that point in inconvenient directions for Rushkoff, too.) But other than the notion that these ideas were specially–though not necessarily exclusively–preserved and carried by the Jewish people (and for all his rejection of the Chosen People label, Rushkoff spends lots of time expressing something not terribly different in many respects), the vision in Nothing Sacred of what it means to be Jewish could be espoused as easily by a Unitarian, someone who considers her- or himself “spiritual but not religious,” or Muslim.

What strikes me as particularly interesting in Rushkoff’s approach is that he seems to have sort of tripped upon an approach taken to identifying forms of Judaism–Judaisms–by scholarship preceding him by more than a half-decade. (Ruskhoff doesn’t cite any of this scholarship, and it’s not clear to me that he really would have encountered it.)

I’m thinking particularly of the work of Gabriele Boccaccini, whose work on the Second Temple and rabbinic periods identifies as Judaisms various religious systems centered on particular ideas that are not fundamentally different from those Rushkoff identifies. Boccaccini eventually proposed a differentiation between Judaism and Jewishness to get at the difference between the intellectually similar systems of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on the one hand (all of them Judaisms, he asserts), and the ethnically divergent facets of the Jewish people vis-a-vis other groups on the other.

I find Boccaccini’s and Rushkoff’s accounts ultimately unsatisfying for essentially the same reason: they are interesting intellectual heuristics, but they provide no solid answers.

To be fair, I don’t think there is an easily announced “this is Judaism” definition, so much as there are approaches to Jewish practice and belief that sit on a recognizable spectrum and take into account a group’s self-identification as well as its structural or intellectual taxonomic markers. Some of how we know whether something is “a Judaism” is probably a kind of gut-level, Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. A certain…I don’t know what, if you will.

For Jewish identity to thrive, it cannot be purely intellectual construct. It cannot be bloodless. And I’m not sure, at the end of the day, that Rushkoff’s approach makes for anything much more than a kind of bloodless ideology with ties to some facets of what historically may be called Judaism.

I don’t think that Ruskhoff thinks his approach is bloodless. Rather, the problem I see is that by setting up Judaism as centered on the three characteristics I listed above, without anything else really necessary, the “stuff” of Judaism is removed. (We could also dispute whether there’s any real necessity for the monotheism component of Rushkoff’s “trinity” of Judaism.)

For that reason, I persist in thinking that what makes a Judaism Jewish is still centered on a culture of reflection, refraction, and rejection of the trio of god, torah, and Israel. It contains the ideas that Ruskhoff finds intoxicating–and the ideas that Hasidim and, for that matter, Secular Humanistic Jews, find intoxicating. (To be fair Rushkoff emphasizes the role of conversation and questioning; but the scope of what constitutes Rushkoff’s version of Jewish conversation is too narrow.) It recognizes the place of ideology (god), culture (torah–writ large), and people (Israel). And the reflection, refraction, and rejection allows for specific approaches to the trio to be set aside–so long as the conversation itself is not set aside.

That may be the best we can do for a functional definition of what Judaism “is,” and that would be my “on one foot” definition of Judaism: an ongoing process of reflection, refraction, and rejection of the trio of god, torah, and Israel.

It has mojo–a certain, as the French say, “I don’t know what”–don’t you think? (This doesn’t make sense if you haven’t watched the video above. Go watch the video. It’s even cued to the right place!)

All the rest is commentary. It’s time to go and study.