‘New Jewish Canon’ Provides Much Food for Thought

Some of the very best Jewish learning does not happen in seminar rooms, synagogues or online, but at home, on the couch.
July 16, 2020

Whether applied to movies, songs, restaurants or presidents, any list of “bests” is a highly subjective exercise that serves mostly as a conversation starter and sometimes as a “cause de guerre” in the culture wars.

If we style the list as a “canon,” however, the discourse is considerably more consequential. Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon,” for example, sparked an ongoing and often bitter debate about the range of books that deserve to be singled out for their enduring influences in defining a civilization. Just look at the winners of the Nobel Prize for literature since the publication of Bloom’s book in 1994, and you will see what I mean.

That’s the subtext of “The New Jewish Canon: Ideas & Debates 1980-2015,” edited by Yehuda Kurtzer and Claire E. Sufrin (Academic Studies Press). The editors have proposed a total of 70 works by Jewish authors for inclusion in the canon, and each of the works is the subject of a spirited commentary by one of the scholars who contributed to the book. The result is a colloquium-in-print that is extraordinarily rich, lively and illuminating.

The key word in the title of the book is “new.” The sacred and rabbinical literature of the Jewish people and the great Jewish books of the 19th and early 20th century are not among the titles proposed for inclusion in “The New Canon.” The reason for their omission speaks volumes about the ever-changing nature of Jewish identity, a phenomenon that has always shaped Jewish identity, but never more so than in our own troubled times.

“[W]e are living in a period of the mass production and proliferation of Jewish ideas,” the co-editors write in their introduction. “Even while Jewish life is incredibly diverse, it is also increasingly unstable.” Indeed, they remind us we are living during nothing less than a revolution, and they concede that for some, the velocity of change is frightening. But the hard fact is that “the nature of Jewish authority is being transformed.” For that reason, they offer “The Jewish Canon” as “a conceptual roadmap to make sense of all these changes.”

Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and Sufrin is an associate professor at Northwestern University and the assistant director of its Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies. The book is the latest title in a series from Academic Studies Press titled “Emunot: Jewish Philosophy and Kaballah,” edited by Dov Schwartz.

The whole point of “The New Jewish Canon” is to prompt such musings and provoke conversation among its readers.

The first book in the proposed new canon is “Exodus and Revolution” by Michael Walzer, a book published in 1985, and the last book is “The Genesis of Our Future” by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, a book about Reform Judaism published in 2013. For each of the 70 entries, readers are given a short thematic quotation, then a commentary by a contributor.

Walzer, for example, is a noted public intellectual and political theorist who edited Dissent magazine and held an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study. The section quoted from Walzer’s book makes the argument that “[t]he Exodus may or may not be what many of its commentators thought it to be, the first revolution,” but he insists that the Book of Exodus “is the first description of revolutionary politics.” His commentator, William Galston, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, argues that “[n]o American scholar has done more than Michael Walzer to bring the classic texts of Judaism into the mainstream of contemporary thought.” While pointing out that Walzer was denounced at the time by critics ranging from Jacob Neusner to Edward Said, Galson argues that “[t]his criticism only elevated Walzer’s stature within the American Jewish community. … most of which identified with his brand of liberal, social democratic Zionism.”

Many of the books singled out for consideration and commentary in “The New Jewish Canon” will be broadly familiar to its readers, and some will be entirely new and even surprising. If I had been offered a vote, I certainly would have agreed with the inclusion of Benny Morris’ “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem” and the writings it engendered: “Auschwitz or Sinai?” by David Hartman, “In the Land of Israel” by Amos Oz, Deborah Lipstadt’s “Denying the Holocaust,” and David Biale’s “Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History.”

More surprising is the transcript of a debate between Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and Meir Kahane at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in 1988, an event Rabbi Avi Weiss moderated. “Democracy is not Judaism,” Kahane taunted Greenberg. “Should I read you the Rambam?” But the commentator, Shaul Magid, Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, puts the debate into its moral, intellectual and historical context. Magid points outs that Kahane put Greenberg at a tactical disadvantage by forcing him to debate points of religious law rather than the values of Jewish menshlikhayt, and he reminds us that the debate took place shortly before the Supreme Court of Israel issued a ruling that effectively criminalized the hateful message of Kahane’s radical political party. “By the spring of 1988, he would be an outcast.”

I might not have included a few titles if given a vote, if only because a few of them are less compelling than the others. But it hardly matters. The whole point of “The New Jewish Canon” is to prompt such musings and provoke conversation among its readers. “Some of the very best Jewish learning does not happen in seminar rooms, synagogues or online, but at home, around the kitchen table or sitting on the couch,” insist the co-editors in the introduction to their book. “It is intended to start, not close, the conversation.” And they have succeeded magnificently in achieving their goal.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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