Book Review

05.24.13

Shaul Magid's Post-Ethnic Judaism

I don’t usually recommend academic books to “the general public,” but I’ll make an exception in this case for American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society. Its author, Shaul Magid, is a specialist in Lurianic Kabbalah and Hasidism who has just happened to write one of the most important books on American Judaism written of late. A veteran contributor here at Open Zion and at Times of Israel, Magid has a keen eye on the politics of change and renewal as they impact Israel and the American Jewish community.

In a nutshell, Magid’s bold thesis is very simple. Its starting point is the old paradigm that defined the American Jewish scene for pretty much most of the 20th century. Once upon a time what defined American Judaism and American Jewish identity was an ethnic notion of Jewishness, based on a common notion of shared ethnic origins, purpose, and destiny. It was a secular model of Jewishness and Judaism, ethnicity being the common glue that held the Jews together as a people, regardless of what they thought about God and the mitzvoth that they either observed or did not observe. It was commonly understood by just about everyone—liberal Jews, Orthodox Jews, atheist Jews, left-wing Jews and right-wing Jews—that Judaism and Jewish culture were steeped in the group life of a people and its particularities.

According to Magid, American Judaism today is “post-ethnic.” To be clear, the claim is not the more radical one made by Israeli historian Shlomo Sand that there is no such thing as a Jewish people or Jewish identity. Magid argues instead that the group life of a shared and common ethnic community no longer by itself constitutes the center of American Jewish life the way it once did. In a globalized world, even Jewish identities are trans-ethnic, trans-national, and multi-racial. “Multi-culturalism” and “pluralism” are not even the right words, if by that one means the sitting side by side of separate and discrete identities. It’s back to “the melting pot” because today these once separate identity formations fuse into each other down to the root. 

It’s most likely true that ethnic origin no longer animates Jewishness and Judaism for the vast majority of American Jews today. This has a lot to do with the integration of the Jews into and onto the larger American scene, with acculturation and assimilation, with intermarriage, with globalization, with the fact that American Jews might actually come from places like Syria or Iran, not just Poland or the Ukraine, with the realization that Jews are black, brown, Asian, and Latino, not just white, gay and transsexual, not just straight. There’s a floating quality to this mystical model of Jewish identities, which is very appealing.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Shaul Magid feels fine. Sociologists of American Judaism like Jack Werthheimer and Steven Cohen have observed the same dynamics. Responding with alarm, they seek to buttress the idea of Jewish ethnicity qua Jewish peoplehood. Magid argues that this is a rearguard action, proposing instead to see in the loosening up of ethnic ties the challenge and promise of more cosmopolitan, less insular and parochial forms of Jewish identity, in which “everything is possible.”

If not the ethnicity of social Judaism, then what? Magid turns to religion, to Judaism, not to the old modern paradigms of Jewish religion, but rather the Jewish Renewal of Zalman Shachter-Shlomi and Shlomo Carlebach, a Judaism no longer moored in Jewishness, a Judaism not only for Jews. At the end of the day, Magid is an old hippie sharing new ideas. For cultural vitality, he turns to world religions, especially Christianity to which a chapter is devoted, to Jewish social justice traditions, to eco-Judaism and “cosmo-theism,” to a post-monotheist, post-halakhic, neo-mystical model that does not insist on radical separations, not between Jews and gentiles, and not between God and Gaia.

About Jewish Renewal upon which Magid built his model, I have serious reservations. Mostly these have to do with the suspicion that Jewish Renewal is too narrow, idiosyncratic, and even peculiar a basis upon which to remodel post-ethnic Jewish identities. I also don’t trust the combination of academic post-secularism and political theology with charisma and the rebbe-centered mystical religion advanced by Magid.

But what Magid’s book excites are more fundamental arguments bearing upon the American Jewish community, and also Israel and Palestine. Magid wants loosen the ties that bind up Jewish life together in reactive formations. Judith Butler could have written a book like this had she herself known more about the Judaism and Jewishness she seeks to separate from Israel and Zionism. While Magid is not unsympathetic to Butler, his vision of Jewish Renewal more closely resembles that of the recently deceased Rabbi Menachem Froman from the West Bank settlement of Tekoa. Froman, a spiritual giant who struggled courageously against the Israeli consensus to undo the dividing lines separating Jews and Muslims, including the lines between Israel and Hamas, and whose Judaism, I daresay, was probably post-ethnic, post-national, and post-Apartheid in the very ways intended by Magid in this most timely of utopian books.