The Jewish Telegraphic Agency is a nearly century-old institution of Jewish life in America. Although it is a news service, describing itself as “the definitive source for American Jewish community news and opinion,” its press releases are written in a style familiar to anyone who, out of idle curiosity on the way to the trash can, has dipped into the free community newspaper tossed into his front yard once a week. The JTA provides the fillers between the ads and activity calendars in Jewish weeklies around the country. Given its position of dependence, it is extremely protective of institutional Jewish privilege in the U.S.
So it comes as no surprise that a JTA writer by the name of Ben Harris has taken the trouble to savage my essay “The Judaism Rebooters,” which appears in the July/August issue of Commentary. The essay, Harris says, is “[m]ore caricature than fact,” it is a “screed,” I am “wrong,” I am “lazy,” I have “chosen to condescend.” (Rather than what? To gnaw on the jaw-breaking ideas of the leading hipster thinkers? Harris names none, because it is easier to accuse me of going after “the low-hanging fruit” than to correct my negligence with an introductory reading list. Perhaps, however, the reality is that there are no hipster thinkers to name.) Worst of all, I offer “no answer to the question of how to engage Jews in contemporary times.” I have “nothing to say about how to understand an ancient tradition in a radically changed world.”
Most of Harris’s charges deserve no reply. True, he does catch a typo. I misspelled Jennifer Bleyer’s name. Yes, I did; it was sloppy of me. Sadly, I have made this kind of mistake before. But Harris’s ideas (such as they are) do not provide much of a correction. They derive wholly from current commonplaces, and his grasp of history is shaky. In my essay I had pointed out that “the term hipster came out of the jazz scene around the Second World War,” and then was “given currency by Norman Mailer [in the] 1957 essay ‘The White Negro.’ ” To which Harris responds:
So too the difference between radical personal autonomy and freedom. Here is the one point, and one only, where I need to expand my essay to reply to Harris. “The shift from external authority to individual control over Jewish identity is the hallmark of the hipster movement,” I had written. Harris observes that this is “also the hallmark of contemporary society,” failing to draw the obvious conclusion that Jews who insist that they themselves decide whether and how they are Jews—regardless of their birth, marriage, or daily regimen—are thus the products of contemporary society and not Jewish tradition. The question, Harris goes on doggedly, is “how to reconcile” the ethic of radical personal autonomy “with the external demands that Judaism has traditionally sought to exert.” How do you do that “in an age when personal autonomy is deemed sacrosanct and in a country where notions of liberty and freedom from government interference have birthed a culture of radical individualism?”
But personal autonomy and “freedom from government interference” are not the same thing, and deeming the former “sacrosanct” does not make it so. (It is also not true that radical autonomy was “birthed” by American notions of liberty, but that’s a discussion for another time.) The quick and dirty answer is that the doctrine of the “sovereign self,” as Harris calls it, cannot be reconciled with Judaism. In as far as the age deems radical autonomy sacrosanct, Judaism is countercultural. It provides an alternative to the sovereign self, a means of escaping the limitless demands of personal fulfillment.
It seems never to occur to Harris that some Jews, young and old, might experience their freedom, not as a liberation from external demands, but as the elective decision to treat someone other than themselves as sacrosanct. And whatever else they are, such Jews are not hipsters.
Update: Daniel Sieradski decides I “dislike” that hipster Jews “are liberal.” No, what I dislike is the confusion of political liberalism—well, liberal attitudinizing, really—with Jewish commitment. Nor is this confusion particularly new, although Sieradski prefers to call Jewish hipsterism the “innovation movement.” (The thing I like about Judaism is that it is immemorial.) Whatever it is called, Sieradski claims that the latest movement of liberal Jewish secularism has “succeeded tremendously.” I doubt it, but we shall see in a generation or so. In the mean time, my money is on Orthodoxy.