I finished yesterday teaching my course “Introduction to Judaism” for the first time. I planned the course along a historical paradigm, divided quite simply into three major eras: Ancient, Medieval, Modern (see paradigm attached). For the last section, I assigned Leora Batnitzky’s recent book, How Judaism Became a Religion. The book is excellent for undergraduate students, and ties together in flowing prose basic pieces of information, memorable anecdotes, and in-depth analysis. All this is accompanied with the benefits of an original and critical perspective Batnitzky offers to long-standing questions, and supplemented with useful lists of suggested readings.
The strengths of the book were especially productive for my own course, since Batnitzky seems to view things from a very different perspective than I do, on more than one occasion. From the outset, she explains how the book is going to examine and discuss the modern invention of Judaism as a religion, meaning the modern aspects of its categorization, perhaps even reduction, as such. I was planning to show how modernity, secularism and Zionism reimagined Judaism as a nation rather than religion. Through the book, I was able to draw in my students to a debate that questioned my own views.
Similarly, my course intentionally steered away from the Holocaust, as much as possible. I did not dedicate a class to it, and repeatedly stated that this was an ideological choice: I refuse to assign any ideological or theological development to the Holocaust. It is part of the history of the Jewish People, but not of Judaism as a system of beliefs or identity.
This argument, too, was undermined or at least questioned, through the readings. When comparing Cohen and Soloveitchik (p. 63), Batnitzky argues that “Cohen’s claim… is deeply problematic because it suggests that Jews ought to make themselves passive victims,” and that Soloveichik cannot accept this in the shadow of the Holocaust. My counter-argument would be that this could be problematic after pogroms no less than after the Holocaust, and the reason that it becomes problematic is not because the extent of the Holocaust is incomparably more horrific than a pogrom, but because an actual alternative to passive victimhood had arisen, embodied in the State of Israel. The fact that Cohen is echoed in post-Holocaust philosophers as Levinas (p. 59), is a further argument that allows me to hold that it is not the Holocaust that causes this shift. Similarly, I ascribe the difference between Kook the father and Kook the son (pp. 95-100) to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel that shapes a new theology, rather than to the Holocaust and its aftermath.
Considering these differences in interpretation, I cannot avoid noticing a strong (and somewhat surprising) Zionist strand in my thought, which is a result of my upbringing and my existence as a secular Israeli, even if I now live and teach in the United States. While reading, contemplating these differences and discussing some of these ideas with my students, I became strongly convinced that it would be very important to have this book translated to Hebrew, and I can only hope someone has shown interest in doing so already.
This is especially true in light of the second part of the book, which addresses Yiddish culture (represented mainly by Mendele and Shalom Aleichem), then Zionism (Herzl and Ahad Ha’am), and then American philosophers Kaplan and Strauss, which are rarely the focus of Israeli public discourse. This triad places Jewish thought and identity in a refreshing context: Herzl’s lack of originality and depth is known in academia, but was refreshing to read in light of recent debates on Zionism in Israel. Ahad Ha’am, when sandwiched between the Yiddish Masters and American theologians, is highlighted in his maverick and neglected approach to the Zionist enterprise. Furthermore, these chapters bound together question my previous argument, which assigns to Zionism new theological implications on various rabbis and philosophers, and places Zionism in a context that stresses it as an alternative among a range of Jewish identities and responses, not the ultimate result. Once again, I am betraying my presuppositions.
[And nevertheless]: The conclusion of Batnitzky’s book, focuses on the Satmar community in Kiryas Joel, in Orange County, NY. As I have argued before (following a presentation by David Myers and Nomi Stolzenberg at the Tikvah Seminar, 2008), I think that even Kiryas Joel is a very Zionist enterprise, or at least a result of Jewish sovereignty in Israel. The mere name “Kiryat X,” is not something attested in the Jewish tradition, where we find Qiryat Arba’ (Gn 23:2), Qiryat Ye’arim (Josh 15:60), and Qiryat Sefer (Ju 1:11), to mention a few. The closest we come to a name is Qiryat Hanah David (Isa 29:1), “City where david camped”, and that is entirely different. The name Kiryas Joel, is comparable only with those “Qrayot” named after major Zionist leaders: Qiryat Hayim, Qiryat Motzkin, and Qiryat Bialik. But the name reveals, I believe, something deeper: only through Jewish sovereignty in Israel, and the political dealings over their rights to separate from the heretic state of the Zionists, did it become thinkable to contest and challenge authority and to exhibit proud seclusion, as the Satmar eventually do in the case of Kiryas Joel. Admittedly, other religious (non-Jewish) groups have done the same, and US courts accommodation to multiculturalism and personal freedoms need not be dismissed or ascribed to the result of Zionism. But in this specific case and turn of events, it remains an open question for me.
The debate continues: I raise an argument favouring a non-Zionist interpretation (for Cohen, Kiryas Joel, Herzl or another topic), and immediately revert to a classic Zionist response. Whether or not I have answers at the end, I am satisfied to know that my questions have become richer through the worlds I’ve travelled.