December 17, 2018

What is Judaism in a ‘post-ethnic’ world?

The ongoing public conversation about the future of American Judaism is embodied in a small library of recent books, many of which have been considered here. None of them, however, offers quite the same potent brew of courage, clarity, passion and expertise as Shaul Magid’s “American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society” (Indiana University Press, $40), a scholarly but also visionary book about what it means to be a Jew in America today.

Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University, received his ordination in Israel, completed his Ph.D. at Brandeis University, and later served as the rabbi of Fire Island Synagogue. Along the way, his religious life ranged from Charedi communities in Brooklyn and Jerusalem to a collective founded by students of the charismatic Chasidic Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, all of which means that he is uniquely positioned to perceive and understand the subtleties and complexities of Jewish history and destiny. He focuses on “Jews who happen to live in America,” which is something quite different from “American Jewry,” and he wonders “how much ‘America’ is in American Judaism” and “[h]ow much ‘Jewishness’ [has] changed in contemporary America.”

The cutting edge of his analytic method is the assumption that we live in a “postethnic” era, that is, a time where ethnicity is no longer “the primary anchor of identity.” For American Jews, according to Magid, “post-Judaism” implies more than assimilation and acculturation; rather, it means that “the age-old strategies Jews deployed to meet the challenges of survival of both Jewishness and Judaism become largely inoperative.” Jewishness and Judaism itself, he argues, “have become liquid categories” and he boldly raises the heart-shaking and mind-bending question of “whether Jewishness can exist beyond Judaism.”

What makes “American Post-Judaism” so compelling is Magid’s insistence on digging deeply into his subject and his candor in revealing and examining what he has found. The “Jewish collective” in America is “in a state of collapse,” he writes, but he insists that we can be hopeful about the process if we are only courageous enough: “The Jewish collective in America will survive; it will just look different than before.”

Familiar aspects of contemporary Jewish life are viewed from a fresh perspective. He cites Chabad (which he spells “Habad”) and the Kabbalah Centre of Rabbi Philip Berg as examples of “contemporary Jewish mysticism in North America,” and he singles out the Jewish Renewal movement founded by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi as the third example, but he singles it out as the only truly American innovation: “a Judaism whose theology and metaphysics are born from America’s intellectual spiritual tradition of pragmatism, democracy, and theological pluralism.” Precisely because Jewish Renewal draws on so many sources, he characterizes as “post-monotheistic — an amalgam of nature religions, Far Eastern non- or polytheism, Transcendentalism, Jungean and neo-Jungean psychology combined with a strong reading of the Jewish mystical spiritualism of Kabbala and Hasidism.”

Magid is equipped to write knowledgeably and critically about the many variants of Jewish theology and practice in America, but he also understands how to hot-wire an abstract idea to an artifact of popular culture. Thus, for example, he reminds us of a quip by Schachter-Shalomi, who characterized “The Jewish Catalog” as “the ‘Mishna’ for Jewish Renewal.” According to Magid, “The Jewish Catalog” — a Jewish version of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” a counterculture classic — is that and much more, “a kind of Mishna or, if you will, template for post-halakhic Judaism.”

Similarly, Magid drills deeply into the publications of ArtScroll, which produces not only a line of elegant prayer books and learned commentaries, but also a series of biographies of Jewish sages and heroes. He sees in these titles an unwritten but also unmistakable agenda: “ArtScroll offered an alternative to the dominance of Jewish nationalism that emerged from the widespread influence of Zionism in postwar America,” he explains. “While ArtScroll generally refrains from entering the web of political controversy … it is a fact that many of the sages seen as the inspiration for this project were outspoken critics of Zionism, even openly anti-Zionists.” When ArtScroll refers to “the Nation of Torah,” Magid argues, the phrase “suggests, as many haredi anti-Zionists did, that Israel is a nation only on the merit of the Torah, thus disqualifying any nationalism not founded on the strict adherence to Torah values and Jewish law.”

The marketplace for religion, rather than the marketplace for books, is what’s really at work here. “ArtScroll and Habad filled the vacuum of an American Jewry ready for a ‘useable nostalgic’ Judaism,” the author writes. Yet, ironically, they were innovators, too. “They falsely believed they were protecting something old when, in fact, they were creating something new.” 

If Jewish Renewal seeks to redefine American Jews, he suggests, so does Chabad, Modern Orthodoxy, the ba’al teshuva movement, and other Jewish institutions that regard themselves as guardians of tradition.

Magid is a kind of Jewish futurist. “The Holocaust and Zionism have arguably been the glue that has kept American Judaism intact since the Second World War,” he sums up. “This will not likely be the case in the next few generations.” The whole point of “American Post-Judaism” is to provide us with charts of the troubled waters ahead: “Historians, cultural theorists, anthropologists, sociologists, theologians, philosophers, and text scholars should be paying attention to what is already a fascinating, exhilarating, and yes, frightening turn in the history of the Jewish people.” 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His new book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright).  Kirsch will be featured in conversation with Louise Steinman in the ALOUD public lecture program at the Los Angeles Central Library on Tuesday, June 18, at 7:30 p.m.  For tickets and information, visit