Judaism with a Human Face

Leon Trotsky once remarked that those who wanted a quiet life were unfortunate to have been born in the twentieth century. Those with a sense of history—a defining characteristic of the JeW’ish people—would certainly nod in agreement and remember the events of the past hundred years. The purveyors of popular entertainment in Britain will help us to recall the Wright brothers’ first flight, the abdication of Edward VIII, the ascent of Everest, the Beatles, the life and death of Princess Diana, and, possibly, two world wars. But Jews will remember the Holocaust and the establishment and struggles of the State of Israel.

A hundred years ago, Jews were attempting to locate an identity which would allow them to exist both as Jews and as citizens of the world.

In Western Europe, the nineteenth century spawned a plethora of Judaisrns and various under-standings of Jewishness. Some embraced assimilation and universalism—with a fair degree of self-denigration. As Ferdinand Lassalle, the founder of German social democracy, commented: ‘There are two classes of men I cannot bear—journalists and Jews. Unfortunately I belong to both.’ Theodor Herzl was similarly a member of this assimilated Jewish intelligentsia who espoused new faiths and causes as a means of obscuring and forgetting. Yet all these products of a European education came up against the brick wall of antisemitism. Max Nordau, who had changed his name from Suedfeld—from ‘a southern field’ to ‘a northern meadow’—achieved great success as a man of letters, yet remained an outsider. Both Herzl and Nordau found their way back through political Zionism. For them, Zionism was a solution to the problem of antisemitism in Western Europe as well as to their personal dilemmas.

In Eastern Europe, Zionism grew out of the problem of Judaism rather than the problem of the Jews. Its leaders had not risen from the depths of assimilationism but had come from the opposite direction, from the yeshivot of Russia and Lithuania. The fusion of the influence of the Haskalah and a yeshiva education was essentially responsible for the flowering of the Hebrew literature and language, which ultimately gave birth to the Zionist movement. Ahad Ha’am struggled throughout his life to create a synthesis between traditional Judaism and modernity. His definition of Judaism as a part—not the entirety—of Jewish civilisation led critics to create the religious Zionist movement Mizrachi. Yet his criticism of former assimilationists such as Herzl led others to label him an anti-orthodox defender of orthodoxy. The cultural Zionism which emerged from a changing interpretation of Judaism effectively took root in Israel with Hebrew as the national language.

There is no doubt that Ahad Ha’am’s concept of a Jewish state as a spiritual magnet has succeeded. The vast majority of Jews today feel a deep emotional attachment to Israel despite all its flaws and foibles even if they do not wish to settle there. Yet is this attraction strong enough to form the core of Jewish identity in a Diaspora modelled on the West European paradigm? For the generation of 1948, the answer is probably in the affirmative, but for the non-ideological succeeding generations it is questionable. Ironically, at a time when it is proposed to provide the gift of a trip to Israel to Diaspora youth, Zionism is being laid to rest. Israelism, however, is alive and well. The Zionism of Eastern Europe effectively became the -bedrock of Jewish cultural and literary endeavour in Israel. Any remnant that it left in the Diaspora was engulfed by the Holocaust.

There is in Western Europe no such focal point of non-religious attachment which could be defined by an indigenous and blooming culture. While Jewish intellectuals can write ‘Jewish’ books, study Jewish history and even discuss the Jewish questions of our time, the absence of a separate self-defining language and culture makes Jewish continuity very difficult. The other great structures for Jewish identity, such as the many variants of Jewish socialism, were destroyed when East European

Jewry was exterminated. While today some Jews would still call themselves socialists, even fewer would call themselves Jewish socialists in the pre-war sense.

Can the Jewishness of one generation, no matter how intense, be transferred to the succeeding generation? Maybe. It depends on several factors, not least the individuals involved. But clearly the societal factor is paramount. In Eastern Europe, several choices of Jewish culture existed. A Jew could choose to be a Bundist, a Hassid or a Zionist. In Britain in the new millennium, no such choice exists for the succeeding generation. In essence, all that is available is to adopt a religious culture, to assimilate or emigrate to Israel.

Moreover, those who utilise Judaism as a structure to live in British society are more susceptible to outside influences than those who decide to use it as a container to remain separate from the host society. The ultra-orthodox argument has always been to warn against the evils of the world. Today, given the dropout rate, this bears some resemblance to reality. Global capitalism has forged a new society based on vulgarity and vaudeville through the exploitation of new technologies. Governments regard this as unstoppable progress. Many young Jews know that Western Europe is ailing spiritually and look for something better. Some find it in the traditional Jewish espousal of Western causes such as environmentalism and thereby transcend religious observance and Judaism. Others discover meaning in Jewishness and thus in a religious culture. In an uncertain age, certainty matters—regardless of whether rationality prevails. As in Herzl’s time, there are many young Jews who do not wish to take the easy way out in choosing either assimilation or ultra-orthodoxy but wish to be both Jewish and a member of the society in which they live.

Zionism attempted to solve the problem of Judaism in Eastern Europe. In the post-war absence of virulent antisemitism, the problem of Judaism in Western Europe has followed in its wake. Without the traditional alternatives of a rooted Jewish culture and language, it is highly unlikely that Jewish secularists will be able to pass on a sense of Jewishness to future generations.

So what can the future hold? We can, of course, but speculate. Returning Jews will affiliate to one of the many judaisms on offer. Even if the attraction to ultra-orthodoxy is strong, zealotry may serve to wash away the past and previous persona, but backgrounds are ultimately influential and it is possible that a diversity of views will emerge. All—even those who remove themselves from the outside world—are moulded by the time and society in which they live. Therefore if global capitalism and its progeny evolve into something of value, then Judaism will not be defined by the ideological conformity of the nineteenth century and the narrowness of twentieth-century survivalism, but by an understanding that all Israel are brothers. This is wishful thinking but perhaps the only thinking: our hope for Judaism with a human face.

Judaism Today Winter 1999-2000


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