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.
In the following chapters, Batnitzky takes up the efforts of later Jewish thinkers to square this circle. Abraham Geiger, the founder of the Reform movement, would double down on the idea of Judaism as a “religion,” a private ethical creed, and would jettison almost all of traditional Jewish practice. In response, Samson Raphael Hirsch would insist on the continuing urgency of Jewish law—“To be a Jew is not a mere part, it is the sum total of our task in life”—and thereby found the Orthodox movement. Batnitzky usefully reminds us that Orthodoxy itself, as we now understand it, is a modern phenomenon, a response to exactly the same cultural fissures that produced Reform and Conservative Judaism. Later thinkers, including Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, would find their own, often idiosyncratic solutions to the problem of what remains of Judaism once it is reduced to a religion.
In the second half of How Judaism Became a Religion, Batnitzky leaves behind the rather rarefied precincts of German Jewish philosophy and theology and turns to the experience of modern Eastern European Jews. German Jewry tends to loom large in modern Jewish history, because it was in many ways the laboratory for Jewish assimilation and because it produced a sophisticated, highly self-conscious literary and intellectual response to assimilation’s problems. (Its tragic end, of course, only heightens the ironic power of those responses.)
But in numerical terms, the Jews of Eastern Europe vastly outweighed the Jews of Western Europe; and their situation was much different from that faced by Mendelssohn’s heirs. In the West, the problem was how to maintain a Jewish identity in the face of the temptation to assimilate. In the East, the problem was how to survive in an environment of increasing poverty and persecution. Historically, the two great answers to that question were Zionism and emigration to the United States. Those were the only solutions that survived the Holocaust, which annihilated the Jewish heartland in Eastern Europe.
But Batnitzky is more interested in the solutions that emerged in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust—experiments in Jewish identity that never permanently succeeded or failed, because they were violently cut short. What these solutions have in common is suggested by the heading of the second part of her book: “Detaching Judaism from Religion.” By this, she means detaching it from the narrow, Protestant definition of religion that predominated in Germany—not rejecting religious belief and practice altogether. On the contrary, Batnitzky devotes one chapter to 19th-century Jewish revival movements like Hasidism and the ethically strenuous Mussar school. Though these movements were historical antagonists, Batnitzky argues that they had in common a new emphasis on the individual. They attempted to enrich the believer’s experience of Jewishness in ways that were foreign to traditional rabbinical Judaism.
For other Eastern European Jews, the way forward led not through religion but through culture. In a chapter on modern Yiddish literature, Batnitzky shows how writers like Mendele Mokher Sforim and Sholem Aleichem tried to create a new, essentially secular Jewish culture on the foundation of traditional Judaism: “Modern Yiddish literature both creatively described eastern European Jewish life as its denizens experienced it and … transforms what had formerly been theological categories into cultural ones.” Yiddishism often went hand in hand with militant socialism and atheism, and Batnitzky raises the question of whether a Jewish culture could have long survived after being cut off from its religious roots. But the experiment was a brave one, and it left behind a major body of imaginative literature that is practically all that survives of Eastern European Jewish life.
Finally, and most momentously, there was Zionism. Zionism can be seen as a response to the failure of both Western and Eastern European attempts to adjust Judaism to modernity. In the West, the promise of assimilation had proved a false one, as anti-Semitism seemed to grow, rather than shrink, with time. Theodor Herzl, the Viennese journalist who became the unlikely founder of the Zionist movement, was radicalized by his experience reporting on the Dreyfus Affair in France. After seeing mobs of Parisians shouting “death to the Jews”—this in the city that was the capital of the European Enlightenment, in the country that was the first to emancipate the Jews—Herzl decided that the only solution for Jews in Europe was to escape and start over in Palestine. Meanwhile, the increasing pressure on Russian Jews after 1881, as the tsar ramped up economic and political persecution, led to both a mass emigration to America and an increasing enthusiasm for Zionism.
Batnitzky treats all this in a chapter titled “The Rejection of Jewish Religion and the Birth of Jewish Nationalism.” This rather combative title points to an ambiguity at the heart of Zionism, which she formulates simply: “What is Jewish about the Jewish state?” To Herzl, who was completely assimilated and knew next to nothing about Judaism, Zionism was a national liberation movement in the 19th-century style, not a return to the Holy Land or a renaissance of Jewish culture. To Ahad Ha’am, the great theorist of cultural Zionism, it was the reverse: The achievement of Jewish statehood meant less to him than a revival of Jewish spirit and mind. Yet even Ahad Ha’am was a post-religious thinker, and he wrestled with the problem of how to relate Jewish culture to Jewish religion. Zionism, no less than Reform Judaism and Yiddish culture, was an attempt to give Jewishness a new meaning in a world where its old, comprehensive, unproblematic meaning had collapsed.
All of the figures we meet in How Judaism Became a Religion are philosophers, writers, and political theorists. Yet as Mitchell B. Hart points out in the introduction to Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference, 1880-1940 (Brandeis), to define “modern Jewish thought” in this way is to omit a great deal. “Are philosophy and theology necessarily more important and of more lasting interest and value than anthropological, biological, or social scientific thought?” Hart asks. When modern Jews thought about Jewishness, were they always thinking in terms of religion and culture—or were they thinking, often enough, about race?
Brooklyn-born photographer Julius Shulman, the subject of two recent books, captured Los Angeles’ development into a center of modernism