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Are Books All We Have Left?

A masterful encyclopedia sums up our history and culture but raises the question of where Jewishness lies today

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Michael David, A Jew in Germany, 1993. Photograph by John Parnell, courtesy of Bill Lowe Gallery, Atlanta. (Image courtesy of The Jewish Museum, NY/Art Resource, NY.)

On the contrary, if there is one thing they are sure about, it is that contemporary Jewishness does not reside where it has always lived before, in religious law and practice. Only a small fraction of Volume 10 is made up of texts on religious subjects; the section on “Spiritual and Religious Culture” occupies just the last 100 of the book’s 1,100 pages. Here and elsewhere in the volume there are fascinating items on how Judaism itself is practiced today; one of the most illuminating things I’ve read on contemporary Orthodoxy is Haym Soloveitchik’s essay “Rapture and Reconstruction,” in which he describes the decline of traditional practice and the rise of text-based knowledge among the Orthodox. (There are also some fairly dreary, but historically significant, denominational mission statements.)

Contemporary Jewishness does not reside where it has always lived before, in religious law and practice.

It will be interesting to see how, and whether, this emphasis on secular Jewish culture is maintained in the earlier volumes of the Posen Library. When it comes to the period 1973–2005, the emphasis is quite understandable, even if only in demographic terms. Today, more Jews define themselves as Jews through “culture and civilization” than through Orthodox practice. Yet a culture, like a song, is made up of words and a tune; you can write down the words, but without the tune, it is impossible to know how to perform it. Likewise, it is impossible for any collection of texts, even one as superlative as the Posen Library, to recreate the experience of Jewishness in our time.

Indeed, the structure of the book acknowledges this; for as much as it includes, it is conscious of excluding a hundred times more. An anthology that includes one page of Humboldt’s Gift is effectively an invitation to read all 500 pages of Humboldt’s Gift. So too with all the single poems by prolific poets, the one scene from five-act plays, the one essay by a major intellectual. Long as it is, Volume 10 of the Posen Library is a kind of ideal reading list, pointing the way to more Jewish reading and looking and thinking than any one person could manage in a lifetime.

Mitch Epstein, Dad III
Mitch Epstein, Dad III, 2000. (© Black River Productions, Ltd./Mitch Epstein. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.)

And even if you read it all, you would still be missing the melody, what Lionel Trilling called “the culture’s hum and buzz of implication,” which is constituted by the whole experience of living in a certain place and time. For example, most Americans, including American Jews, would surely say that comedy is one of the most important forms of Jewish expression; yet the names of Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld don’t appear in the index to Volume 10. In other words, there is a permanent gap between text and life, text and practice.

This gap, too, is a very familiar part of Jewish history: It is the gap that the Gemara (literally, “completion”) tried to fill for the Mishnah, as the civilization that produced the oral law grew more distant and harder to comprehend. It is tempting, then, to imagine the legions of commentary that might grow up around the Posen Library. Future readers will have to gloss words and references, and point out omissions, and explain historical background, and draw comparisons to their new world—just as the Amoraim did for the Tannaim.

The difference, of course, is that the Talmud was fuelled by the deepest kind of religious commitment—the certainty that, in expanding and exploring the Torah, the rabbis were doing God’s will. The terms in which the Posen Library is conceived are almost the opposite of this. Here we are dealing with human artifacts, with a Jewishness that is not legal and precise but cultural and diffuse. Can such a Jewishness compel the attention, and sacrifice, needed to sustain it? The Ozes, and implicitly the editors of the Posen Library, say yes; the future of more than our books depends on the answer.


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If Volume 10, 1975-2005, does not contain any major Jewish works from the Orthodox or even Conservative religious writings, of which there is an enormous amount and which population represents a quarter to a third of world Jewry, then Volume 10 (and maybe the whole series) does not truly cover Jews but only the secular world and perspective of liberal Jews – which is the narrow portion of Jews that Oz, father and daughter, represent and seek to privilege because of their ideological biases.

In Jews and Words, the Ozes do cite Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld as paragons of Jewish humor.

Digital books and comments like this one on the web are, in my opinion, the vital edge of Jewish and all other communication. I love books and I will always love books. But I know that Orthodox teenagers are texting each other on Shabbos, and that’s a picture of the future forming before our very eyes.

SiegelAcevedo says:

It will be interesting to see if and how a work like this addresses Jews-by-choice. While the immediate context of conversion is of course religious, adopting/adapting-to a peoplehood does go far beyond rule and letter of law. The tension between text and experience, the coming to grips with the ethical applications and existential implications of the traditional literature outside of a literal reading– the centrality of books and words, and the sense of it all as a contemporaneous ongoing dialog, is part and parcel of this convert’s life— as this article maintains it’s been for all Jews, religious and secular, through the millennia. Which of course means in any case that I look forward to adding all this new/old material to my already sagging bookshelf!

Volume 10 certainly does contain a range of works from all denominations of Judaism. In addition to the section on liturgy, there are selections from Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Adin Steinsaltz, Esther Jungreis, J. David Bleich, Nisson Wolpin, Shlomo Carlebach, David Feldman, David Golinkin, Norman Lamm, Immanuel Jakobovits, and Ovadia Yosef . . . and this just brings us to 1989 (I can add more info, as executive editor of the series).

Thank you Joyce Rappaport for your response. The article implied that it was primarily focused on “fiction” and literature – and not having the book itself, that was the only information about it that I had.

9Athena says:

There are Jews, other Jews and Jews in the mists of time. Persian Jews, Armenian Jews, Yemenite Jews (Himyarite Jews), Siberian Jews in the Oblasts, Ethiopian Jews, Greek Jews-Jews of every time and clime. Hebrew was forbidden to write or speak in ordinary living. The language was recreated (or reinvented) with the advent of modern Israel. In enforcing the strictures of ordinary communication Hebrew meanings and comprehension were blurred and lost. Yet the Jews knew they were Jews , even when they voluntarily converted or chose other beliefs. Each disparate segment came up with unique customs and traditions. But they were Jews. The unifying principle? They knew they were Jews.
American Jews? Another blip on the scope of Jewish history. Israel? We had it before and lost it. The tribes themselves decided to break away from Judea. Why? Another opportunity and again another loss. And again. But here we are; fragmented in Israel and without- as we pursue or are pushed to our ongoing history. Still we are Jews forged in a greater bond than man attempts to devise or explain or rationalize. Write your books, read your books, and the truth is greater than the dicta and petty pronouncements of self- appointed agents of the Almighty. Let’s discuss this again in the year 3500 CE.

Being a lefty looney like A. Oz means being loved by the world of the elites and the feminists the abortionists, the journos and the rest of the Obama-worshipping destroyers.

Kevin_in_Chicago says:


The recognition of Judaism being a civilization and a culture needs differentiation between culture and civilization. A culture is the fruit of a civilization, but a civilization is not the same as a culture. Included in Jewish civilization should begin with the first scholar to bring civilization into the definition of Judaism, Dr. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan who defined Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Most American Jews view Yiddish as a defining aspect of their Jewish culture, but cetainly Ladino was conveyed by the Sephardic culture. And both are part of the Jewish civilization.

When Jews had to leave Judea, they were not Hebrew-speaking. Most spoke Aramaic, many spoke Greek, and some spoke Latin and other languages. Many Jews became Arabophones and took Arab names. Some adopted Islam so their intellectual acceptance could become complete. Each Jewish culture assimilated to some degree into another civilization but succeeded more often to create their own cultures. This phenomenon has continued through Jewish history as the Jewish people contended with a history that was more the exception than the rule of peoples.

The question remains as to what will happen in places like the U.S. where, as a nation of immigrants, groups tend to be absorbed. In the 1950s, Jewish professionals including rabbis decided to define and identify Jews as a religion because the U.S. did privilege religion but ethnicity was a concept in contention with American identification. Since then, ethnicity has gained more “respectability” as a conceptual identity, and there are many Jews who do not involve themselves in religion, but are Jewish. There is a statement prevalent that there are more Jewish atheists than there are atheists in other groups. First, the statement has not been tested for veracity, but all of us know Jews who are “very Jewish” and very unreligious. So can atheism be a Jewish culture? I cannot answer that question. However, we certainly know that these Jews are a part of the Jewish civilization.

Nevertheless, Hebrew is not just another language. When the Zionist movement wanted to “pick up” where the Jews left off when they were forced to leave their homeland, shouldn’t they have picked Aramaic? After all, so much of the religious discussions and decisions was in Aramaic.

The Zionists knew that Aramaic was not their “Ur-language.” Hebrew was the language that we spoke before we were Jews, before we were influenced by Persians, Greeks and Romans. It is a Jewish “jahiliyyah” — a term I take from Arabic to describe the pre-Islamic period, and means, a period of ignorance or innocence. In a sense, Hebrew being spoken today in Israel is a language unincumbered by the paradoxically non-Jewish influences that made Israelites into Jews.

A great article about an important topic. However, the anthology
described above – a project I strongly support – seems to privilege a
specifically American (and perhaps also partly Israeli) perspective on
secular Jewish culture. That’s understandable given the editors’
background, the presumed audience and the relative importance of
Jewish-American culture vis-à-vis other diasporas. But I would appreciate to see more European and Soviet/Russian – Jewish voices being included in the “canon”.

Interesting article. I just have one point to make and wish the editors had caught this. If I didn’t know otherwise, after reading “Today, most Jewish children are still circumcised” I would wonder if there are any girls among Jewish children.


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Are Books All We Have Left?

A masterful encyclopedia sums up our history and culture but raises the question of where Jewishness lies today

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