Friday, July 03, 2009

The search for Jewish answers

Hipster Judaism is not the first Jewish youth movement to seek the reinvention of Jewish culture. Perhaps the examination of an earlier “innovation movement” might bring some differences into focus.

The anti-war campaign of the ’sixties was heavily populated by college-age Jews, but not many would have described themselves as committed. What they sought lay outside the Jewish life. They knew enough about it to know that. “Our young people know very well what Judaism is, and what it is not,” wrote Jakob J. Petuchowski. “That is why they speak of Judaism’s ‘irrelevance’ in the first place. They know that many of their mores and behavior patterns do not coincide with what Judaism has always been understood to teach.”[1]

What the young Jews demanded was more attention to what was “relevant” to their lives: racism, the draft, the Vietnam war. But not even the most politically engaged were particularly concerned about Jewish issues. “The Jewish campus activist,” said a Hillel rabbi, “who has a fluent vocabulary of slogans about justice and equal rights cannot see the plight of Soviet Jewry as equal to all other human concerns. He is unmoved by the Hitler era. Such issues appear far from him personally. . . . He considers them irrelevant.”[2]

A small minority of Jewish campus activists, however, sought specifically Jewish answers to the social problems they identified. They tended to remain aloof from anti-war demonstrations, feeling a “reluctance to engage in protest when there was nothing unique for the Jewishly involved students to do.”[3] They wanted to “see the world through Jewish eyes—eyes deep with the past, a bit too sad for constant merrymaking, too wise for boisterous idealism, eyes that shine with rage and hope, but that glisten with tears when confronted with innocence.”[4] They understood themselves as “self-aware intellectuals, who, though born into the Jewish community, find themselves in tension with that community.”[5]

In language that echoed the Port Huron Statement, the young Jews complained about the “crust of apathy” that covered the American Jewish community and the “inner alienation” they experienced growing up in it. They were contemptuous of institutional Judaism with its overlapping bureaucracies and self-preserving goals. In November 1969 a group calling itself Concerned Jewish Students issued a set of demands to the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, then meeting in Boston. The students objected to “distortions in the budget priorities of Jewish Federations,” and demanded that “all local Federations undertake a drastic and immediate reordering of domestic priorities in their local communities in order to improve the quality of Jewish education on all levels, and to stimulate the growth of Jewish cultural life on campus and in the community.”[6]

The young Jewish radicals derided Jewish illiteracy. Without an adequate Jewish education, they observed, the next generation would not be motivated to enter into the Jewish community. They themselves did not break entirely with institutional Judaism, but sought to expand it by creating institutions of their own. They started Response, a quarterly magazine of Jewish scholarship and opinion, and almost singlehandedly founded the havurah movement; they blew upon the sparks of interest in kabbalah; they defended Israel “without apology”; they raised the issue of Soviet Jewry; they turned attention to the Holocaust. Their activism contributed to the explosion of Jewish day schools and university-level Jewish studies programs around the country. In sum, they effected a “sea change in American Jewish life,” as I quoted Jonathan Tobin’s saying the other day.

The Jewish radicals of the ’sixties sought to reconcile freedom and authority, the hip and up-to-date with a 3,000-year-old rabbinical tradition, but their efforts were solidly grounded in Jewish texts. As Alan Mintz put it in the anthology that brought many of the young Jewish radicals together between two covers,

On the one hand, they are so eager to be considered new and fresh, to draw distinctions between themselves and the insights and positions of the established community; yet on the other, the very fabric of discourse is shot through with symbols from the Jewish past, evincing a strong reaching backwards in time, an impulse toward re-authentication.[7]Indeed, the The New Jews Table of Contents reads like a roll-call of currently important Jewish scholars: Mintz himself, of course, and also the literary critic David G. Roskies of Jewish Theological Seminary, the biblical scholar Michael Fishbane of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, Barry W. Holtz, dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arthur A. Green, the biographer of Nahman of Breslov, and the sociologist of religion Hillel Levine of Boston University.

In a word, the young Jewish radicals of the ’sixties were consequential. They left their mark on American Judaism. And the reason is that they did not seek a secular upgrade for the Jewish religion. They conceived their radicalism in uniquely Jewish terms, and when the occasion of their radicalism—the Vietnam war—faded away, they were left with the search for uniquely Jewish answers. The question for the current generation is whether, once their search for difference evaporates, they will be left with anything of substance.

[1] Jakob J. Petuchowski, “Relevance,” Jewish Spectator 34 (1969): 13–16.

[2] Herman L. Horowitz, “Can the Campus Lead the Way?” Jewish Specator 32 (1967): 10–11.

[3] Alan L. Mintz, “Jewish Students and the War: A Strategy,” Response 2 (Fall 1968): 32–35.

[4] James A. Sleeper, Introduction to The New Jews, ed. Sleeper and Mintz (New York: Random House, 1971), pp. 3–22. Emphasis in the original.

[5] Richard Narva, “Judaism on the Campus—Why It Fails,” in The New Jews, pp. 101–110. Originally published in Response 2 (Fall 1968): 11–17.

[6] Quoted in Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, “Jewish Youth Fights Gerontocracy,” Jewish Spectator 34 (1969): 2–5, 29–32.

[7] Mintz, Epilogue to The New Jews, pp. 244–46.