Whole in One
Two recent books consider whether Jewishness is a religion, a culture, a race, or some combination of the three. The answer may be none of the above.
Fantasies of lost wholeness are one of the symptoms of modernity. The 19th century saw the rise of an epidemic of nostalgia, in which the dislocations of the modern world—capitalism, industrialism, secularism, urbanization—produced a longing to return to a vanished moment when there were no divisions, when society and human life were still whole. Many different pasts seized the imagination of the homesick present. For the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it was the state of nature, before civilization even began; for the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, it was ancient Greece, whose art spoke of a lost simplicity and calm; for the English reformer John Ruskin, it was the Middle Ages, whose Gothic cathedrals were monuments to a time when labor was unalienated. The details mattered less than the belief that sometime, somewhere in the past, human beings were happier and more complete than they are today.
Modern Jews are not immune to this kind of nostalgia; but as so often happens, the Jewish case is different and more complicated. At the beginning of her superb and thought-provoking new book, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton), Leora Batnitzky explains that modern definitions of Jewishness are inescapably divided and partial. She begins: “Is Judaism a religion? Is Jewishness a matter of culture? Are the Jews a nation? These are modern questions.” But there was a time, “prior to modernity,” she continues, when “Judaism and Jewishness were all these at once: religion, culture and nationality.” Until the 18th century, the question of how to define Jewishness never arose, because Jews lived in a wholly Jewish world. A Jewish community was made up exclusively of Jews, lived by Jewish law, prayed according to Jewish ritual, and even had a large degree of political autonomy—it could levy its own taxes, appoint its own officials, and punish lawbreakers. Each community, Batnitzky writes, enjoyed this wholeness, and together they formed an even larger whole: “Premodern Jews imagined themselves as one united people, as klal Yisrael, ‘the collective people of Israel.’ ”
For Batnitzky, too, modernity is the age of fracture, when this ostensible wholeness and unity began to come apart. This began in Western Europe with the French Revolution, which introduced the principle that Jews should not be viewed as members of an autonomous community but as individual citizens in a secular nation-state. As one French statesman put it: “One must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation but one must give them everything as individuals.” This principle spread with Napoleon’s rule to Germany, where the substantial Jewish population became a test case for the possibility of true emancipation in an anti-Semitic society.
For these German Jews, who make up the focus of the first half of Batnitzky’s book, the age of lost wholeness was too close to be the source of comfortable nostalgia. It was too close in time—the most assimilated German Jewish families were only a generation or two removed from the ghetto—and too close in space: Just over the German border to the east lay Poland and Russia, the Jewish heartland, where millions of Jews lived traditional lives and labored under bitter government persecution. The only way out, for these emancipated Jews, was forward. But if Jewishness was no longer an all-encompassing identity, no longer the name of a world, what could it be?
Batnitzky’s answer is given in her title. Judaism became a religion, she argues, when it stopped being a civic and political identity. Religion was the name of the shrunken sphere of life that Jewishness was allowed to occupy in the modern world. In particular, Batnitzky argues, German Jews began to think about Judaism in terms borrowed from Protestantism, as a private faith whose most important dimensions were emotional and ethical.
The problem, of course, is that this understanding of religion manifestly clashes with rabbinic Judaism as it had evolved over the centuries. Rabbinic Judaism, as expressed in the Talmud and many later commentaries and codes of law, was above all a religion of practice, of public and communal life. Every area of a Jewish life was regulated Jewishly, from sexual relations to diet to tort law. Yet these were exactly the things that, in the modern world, were meant to be governed by the nation-state and by a common, secular culture. How could Judaism’s all-encompassing legacy be squeezed into the small compartment designated for religion?
The first four chapters of How Judaism Became a Religion are devoted to the ways major German Jewish thinkers tried—and, in Batnitzky’s view, largely failed—to answer that question. She begins, inevitably, with Moses Mendelssohn, the 18th-century philosopher who is remembered as the first modern Jew, in large part because he was accepted as an equal by Gentile thinkers such as Lessing and Kant. In his 1783 book Jerusalem: Or on Religious Power and Judaism, Mendelssohn, an Orthodox Jew, argued that—in Batnitzky’s words—“Judaism … is not concerned with power and therefore does not conflict with the possibility of the Jewish integration into the modern nation state.” Equally important, as Batnitzky writes of Mendelssohn’s case, Judaism does not possess a creed to which every believer must adhere, the way Christianity does. Instead, it possesses “divine legislation—laws, commandments, ordinances, rules of life,” which the Jew can follow without prejudice to his citizenship in the German state.
There is, however, a fairly obvious contradiction between the two premises of Mendelssohn’s argument. If Judaism is a religion of legislation, of behavior rather than belief, how could it not conflict with the legislation and custom of the wider Christian society? Or, to put the question another way: What compels the Jew to keep practicing Jewish law, living a Jewish life, once the possibility of assimilation opens up? “Mendelssohn offers no philosophical or theological justification for why Jews should obey the [Jewish] law,” Batnitzky writes. Personally, he would find it possible to be at the same time an enlightened philosopher and an observant Jew; but all of his grandchildren would end up converting to Christianity.
Brooklyn-born photographer Julius Shulman, the subject of two recent books, captured Los Angeles’ development into a center of modernism