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American Jews Must Stop Obsessing Over the Holocaust

Jacob Neusner shows how an identity founded on oppression and persecution limits the potential of the Diaspora

Shaul Magid
January 26, 2015
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Jewish youths who have voluntarily tattooed their relative's Nazi concentration camp numbers on their forearms.Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Jewish youths who have voluntarily tattooed their relative's Nazi concentration camp numbers on their forearms.Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
This article is part of In the Shadow of the Shoah.
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One of the more striking, and to my mind surprising, results of the recent 2013 Pew Research Poll “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” is that in response to the question “What’s Essential to Being Jewish?” the No. 1 “essential” was “remembering the Holocaust.” Seventy-three percent of respondents listed the Holocaust as the primary essential of Jewish identity as opposed to, for example, “Leading an Ethical and Moral Life” (69 percent), “Caring about Israel” (43 percent) and “Observing Jewish law” (19 percent). In other words, most American Jews, living in an incredibly tolerant, open, and accepting society in which they are free to practice their faith, still identify with something that did not happen to them nor did it happen in the country in which they live (and in many cases, did not happen to any members of their family). This negative imagination of Judaism has produced what Jacob Neusner considered a state of arrested development that can only have a negative impact on the future of Jewish life.

Jacob Neusner has been deemed the most published human being alive, writing, co-authoring, editing, or translating over 1,000 books in a literary career that has spanned over half a century. A historian of religion, he trained at Harvard, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Oxford, and Yale and taught for many years at Brown University before moving to the University of South Florida and then Bard College, where he is presently employed. His massive oeuvre on rabbinic literature re-conceptualized ancient Judaism. Some of his most seminal works include, Development of a Legend: Studies on the Traditions Concerning Yohanan ben Zakkai, Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah, and A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (the last of these was a favorite of Pope Benedict XVI who used it in writing his own work on Jesus). He also published translations of the entire Babylonian Talmud and the Talmud of the Land of Israel (known as the Yerushalmi). His work has also explored the impact of the Holocaust and Zionism on an American Jewish community he believes is bereft of a sense of its own history and, by extension, a sense of itself.

Neusner alludes in numerous places to what I think is his central thesis on American Judaism: The reception and in some cases mythicization of the Holocaust in American Jewry prevents American Jews from actualizing the distinct potential that exists for them to move beyond an identity founded on oppression and persecution, or “negative Judaism,” and toward a new identity that trusts the world enough to view itself as an integral part of an open society. In short, Neusner advocates a full sense of intellectual and spiritual acculturation based on incorporating a new engagement with the Jewish tradition that changes the trajectory of Jewish identity from insularity and separation to one of expansiveness and belonging. He is not advocating marginalizing the Holocaust so much as normalizing it, viewing it in what he determines is its proper perspective.

Neusner begins with the common adage that Judaism has always played a dual function for Jews. On the one hand it served as a set of behaviors and beliefs that constitute a “life-world” founded on the principle of covenant. On the other hand, it served as the foundation for ethnic cohesion and identity, enabling a tribal society cum people cum nation to maintain a sense of distinction and affiliation with a common past.

Neusner argues that America has provided its Jews with a situation that has produced a distinct challenge. First, American Jewry has successfully assimilated, yet it has not abandoned its desire to maintain a distinct identity. However, to a large extent its “religious” knowledge has all but disappeared. By religious knowledge Neusner does not refer to Orthodoxy or any particular form of institutional religious practice. He means, I think, one who lives inside a covenantal framework, however it is understood or manifest, with an informed sense of Jewish history. The American Jewish abandonment of what Joseph Soloveitchik called “covenantal destiny” is not unique to American Jews but arguably existed, in different forms and under very different conditions, in ancient Alexandrian Jewry, in medieval Spain, and in parts of post-emancipated Western Europe. What is perhaps more distinctive to American Jewry is the second condition: the way the disappearance of anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism as an imminent threat has obviated the need for a parochial social structure (I do not speak of the diminution of anti-Semitism worldwide, but only in America). When the need for social cohesion is removed, the perpetuation of collective identity must be generated from within. The link between continued adherence to “religion (or “law”) and persecution was made by Spinoza in an oft-cited passage in his Theologico-Political Treatise: “That they [the Jews] are preserved largely through the hatred of other nations is demonstrated by historical fact.” This is not Sartre’s notion that anti-Semitism defines the “Jew” but rather that persecution assures the continuity of Judaism. Traditional opponents of the emancipation of Jews in Europe made similar arguments. Neusner argues that contemporary America, a society not plagued by anti-Semitism, is a new landscape that Jews must navigate in order to find resources other than pure ethnicity (ethnos) or negativity (the Holocaust) so as to construct a lasting sense of Jewish identity.

Given these two conditions, Jews in America have not abandoned the need, or desire, for a Jewish identity or “survival”; in fact, ironically, the notion of survival has arguably become an American Jewish obsession, as we can see by the collective Jewish hand-wringing that followed the 2013 Pew Poll. That is to say, survival becomes the primary concern, and even a dogma, of a collective void of any positive raison d’etre. As Neusner writes:

The major issues within Judaism seem mostly to emerge from the debates of half a century ago, and the major concerns of the Jews retain the obsolete qualities of the siege-mentality. Both focus on the question of survival, and within the debates on Judaism the court of final appeal is frequently not truth or reality but the given notion for preservation of the faith. … And for the average [American] Jew, the chief Jewish issue is phrased in wholly ethnic terms: whether children marry Jews is more important than whether they build Jewish homes, whether people live in Jewish neighborhoods matters more than whether the neighborhood in which they do live are places of dignity and commonplace justice. … Thus the sociological issues of Jewish life as well as theological ones deal less with the content of Jewish teaching and Jewish living than its form, more with “survival” than the spiritual prosperity of the Jew and Judaism. … I wonder whether Jewish history can provide an example of a Jewish community more ethnocentric, and less religiously concerned, than our own [emphasis added].


The visceral obsession of many American Jews with Jewish survival is one consequence of assimilation. But it is also arguably an inevitable byproduct of assimilation. The American Jewish obsession with “survival” (see the Pew Poll and its aftermath) is thus a secular obsession. Religious Jews arguably rely on the covenantal notion of nezah Yisrael (the “Eternity of Israel”) as part of the divine promise. Assimilation succeeds in emptying the content needed for survival but not the desire for difference, and thus the pure desire for survival is an exercise in assimilation. In such a case, the aspiration toward survival becomes a purely ethnic drive, but the content that traditionally generated that desire, justified it, and also offered the necessary means toward achieving it, in Neusner’s estimation, has all but vanished: “One may well suspect, therefore, that the reasons American Jews who are actively engaged in Jewish community affairs lay such heavy emphasis on Jewish ethnicism is that they have left little other than a visceral ethnic consciousness (and a diminishing one at that)” [emphasis added].

For Neusner, psychologically, American Jews need new content to drive their empty desire for survival as a distinct community in a world where they have largely abandoned the content of survival but not the desire to survive. And yet, the bargain Jews made to assimilate and subsequently become as successful as they have comes with a price, and the price is precisely what Neusner claims contemporary Jew are paying: the loss of a content-driven sense of identity to bolster the desire for ethnic survival. Here is where the “Holocaust,” or more accurately the myth of “Holocaust-Israel,” enters the American Jewish psyche. By the “Holocaust” Neusner does not refer not to the events themselves (here he is not functioning as a historian of the Holocaust) but the mythic construction of the “Holocaust” in America. He strongly resists the argument of “uniqueness” as regards the Holocaust, not from a theological or even historical perspective, but from a psychological one.

For Neusner it is not that the Holocaust objectively stands outside any covenantal framework. Rather, it is that the process of secularization has made that framework inoperative and thus unable to absorb an event of such magnitude. And it is the need for the Holocaust to fill the vacuum of a Judaism void of content and not its unique status that drives the American Jewish obsession. In some sense the Holocaust takes on religious meaning because there is no religious meaning to supplant it.

Here I think Neusner’s position might come close to Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s provocative claim that the Holocaust has no religious meaning for Jews whatsoever: “The Holocaust of our generation is religiously meaningless. The Holocaust belonged to the course of the world, it merely exemplified the lot of the helpless who fall prey to the wicked.” For Neusner, the Holocaust can have religious meaning but only as a part of the covenantal experience of the Jews more generally, not as a sui generis event that becomes a religion in and of itself. As evidence of this claim, it is arguably the case that the more “religious” a Jewish community is, the less the Holocaust plays a central role in its expression of identity.

The Holocaust for Neusner becomes an example of negative election that has its own exceptionalist consequences. Sociologist John Murray Cuddihy argues that divine election in a secularized form becomes an “ideology of Jewish moralism.” Jews see themselves as different and what happens historically (not theologically) to them as “different.” Ismar Schorsch, borrowing from Cuddihy, called this use of the Holocaust “a distasteful secular version of chosenness.” As a result, to the extent to which it does play a role in the religious lives of many American Jews, it does so as a foundational event and not part of a larger complex narrative.

It is not insignificant that the more religious a Jewish community, the less it seems obsessed with the uniqueness of the Holocaust or with the Holocaust more generally. For Neusner the very act of viewing the Holocaust outside the framework of the covenant, or as shattering the covenant, is a secular move. Neusner writes quite unequivocally: “Jews find in the Holocaust no new definition of Jewish identity because we need none. Nothing has changed. The tradition endures.” Of course, this is only true if there is a tradition, which is not the case for the majority of American Jews. If there is no tradition, there is nothing to endure, and if there is nothing to endure, the Holocaust becomes that which reflects, and refracts, everything.

Within a “religious” context, Neusner implies, the Holocaust could be recognized for what it was, a tragedy just like other Jewish tragedies, without it becoming the center of Jewish identity. “In such a setting, ‘Auschwitz’ profanes Auschwitz; the dead are forcibly resurrected to dance in a circus; the survivors made into freaks. It is enough. Let the dead lie in peace and the living honor them in silent reverence.” Neusner makes the startling, yet also true, claim that while European Jewry was utterly destroyed, the Jews survived. Those who survived, in the broadest sense, cannot simply function as mourners or celebrants of another country (Israel) as much as that country may be a source of pride. They must move through the Holocaust to reach beyond it in order to reinstate a sense of purpose and destiny that was lost in the decades of assimilation. While such thinking is now not remarkable, albeit still uncommon, the fact that Neusner was writing this in the 1980s is startling. Few Jewish intellectuals were thinking in these categories at that time.

Neusner’s suggestion also raises a thorny issue in that this new negative Judaism, a Judaism not only founded on the principle of anti-Semitism but void of any substantive way of attenuating such negativity, undermines the very fabric of the American Jewish experience, an experience founded on integration and acceptance. He calls this negative Judaism “dysfunctional.”

Here is where Neusner gestures toward the future. American Jews, he implies (at least in the early 1980s when much of Neusner’s work on this topic was written), are stuck in the whirlpool of a perfect storm. On the one hand the process of secularization and assimilation has stripped most American Jews of any solid foundation of identity informed by tradition and history. Yet assimilation also has enabled them to become a highly successful, perhaps the most successful, ethnic minority in America. They survive and even thrive as individuals as a sort of loose collective (or collectives), but their foundations are more informed by liberalism and democracy than anything directly rooted in Jewish particularity. For Neusner the dilemma of American Jews is that they want to maintain their assimilated status and remain Jewish, but they increasingly do not know what that means. After 1967 the “Holocaust myth” (the Holocaust-and-Redemption theology that includes the State of Israel) emerges to become the driving force behind American Jewish identity. But this force, based on the continued reality of, and in some pathological way, need for, low-grade anti-Semitism as a source of Jewish exceptionalism (American Jews seeing themselves as victims of a unique event) arguably contradicts the entire trajectory of American Jewish history and surely contradicts what Jews had achieved in America by the late 20th century


After 1967 American Jews in many ways adopted the Holocaust myth procured in Israel, a myth of shoah u’gevurah (catastrophe and redemption). Neusner rightly notes that while this myth might cohere with the Israeli experience, especially given Israel’s proximate enemies and the ostensibly miraculous nature of its existence, it does not represent the American Jewish experience. Once Zionism became a veritable dogma of American Jewry after 1967, American Jews became more removed from the “American” narrative of the Holocaust and felt a closer affinity to its Israeli counterpart. This worked in part because the American narrative of the Holocaust, created immediately after the war, suffered its own demise (for reasons having nothing to do with the Jews), and many Americans began to adapt the Israeli myth refracted through American Jewish lenses. Neusner holds this to be both “inappropriate” and unhealthy for American Jews and Judaism.

One should not read Neusner here as discounting the crucial importance the Holocaust does play, and should play, in American Jewish life. Rather, his position is that since American Jewry, unlike much of Israeli Jewry, has lost this “vast context of the history of the Jewish people,” it enabled the Holocaust to dominate its civil religion in an unhealthy and unproductive way.

Holocaust-and-redemption theology is easy and appeals to people with no access to Jewish piety, learning, tradition. … Wanting intuitively, instinctively, to be Jewish, without knowing what that might mean, … We become Jewish “because” of “the Holocaust”; we act out our Jewishness by way of Redemption that is, by commitment to the State of Israel, that place which gives meaning and significance to a remission from the terror.” (The War Against the Jews, pp. 62, 71).

Neusner’s position occupies an interesting place in the American responses to the Holocaust. Some argue that the American Jewish response should be one of universalizing the event to serve as a moral argument against what President Jimmy Carter preferred to call “man’s inhumanity to man,” or to posit some kind of uniqueness argument that does not result in Jewish exceptionalism. Others suggest that the uniqueness of the Holocaust makes it such that we cannot, and should not, learn any “lessons” and that attention to the Holocaust should either be historical or focused on memorializing the dead (or both). The lesson of the Holocaust for them is simple: The Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews, period.

Neusner’s diagnosis is that American Jews have largely lost a sense of their attachment to their past (via religion and history) and, combined with successful assimilation and even the return of the third and fourth generations, have a desire to be “Jewish” but no foundation on which to construct that identity. The Holocaust and Israel provide suitable foundations in part because of their emotional and sentimental capital and in part because they do not require much prior knowledge, which makes them easy-to-wear badges of identity for an ignorant people.


The damaging consequence of this Holocaust-Israel nexus for Neusner has three components. First, it largely constructs a “negative Judaism” that is generated by anti-Semitism precisely at a time when the American Jewish community is perhaps the least threatened by anti-Semitism in comparison to any Jewish community in history. For Neusner this “negative Judaism” subverts the entire American Jewish project, cultivating constitutive mistrust in a society that has proven its commitment to religious freedom. Second, it creates a Judaism whose foundations lie elsewhere (prewar Europe or Israel) making American Judaism “a spectator sport … spectators at someone else’s drama.” Here he would agree with the diagnosis, albeit not in any positive way, of Israeli author and activist Amos Oz, who said to a group of Jewish leaders at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in 1983, “[Israel is alone on stage.] You are the audience.” Yet he disagrees with Oz’s “negation of the Diaspora” solution. Finally, third, a Judaism whose central focus is lamenting someone else’s past (prewar European Jewry) and celebrating someone else’s future (Israel) can never produce something that can be compelling to a future generation of Jews who choose to live in the Diaspora.

Neusner’s analysis is founded on a premise that remains largely unspoken: American Jewry is its own autonomous society, more a part of a larger American civilization than prewar European or Israel. This is not to discount the connection between these three components (prewar Europe, America, Israel); it is only to acknowledge that the American Jewish experience is distinctive and has its own challenges and contributions to make to Jewish history. The Holocaust and Israel are part of that American Jewish fabric, but when they become its epicenter they undermine the potential of American Judaism to make a contribution to its own future and to the future of Judaism more generally. And by “future” Neusner does not mean only a Jewish future. Rather, American Jewry’s unique status in America and thus the world enables it to construct a Judaism that can contribute to the world—an opportunity that has rarely, if ever, existed before on this level.

In Neusner we have one specific call to normalize the Holocaust, not by drawing universal “lessons” from it but by integrating it into the warp and woof of Jewish (and world) history (he claims Israel has been much more successful at doing that). One way to do that would be to make the Holocaust a focus of memorialization rather than universalization. That is, to refrain from making it “meaningful” beyond being one more tragedy in Jewish history. Neusner’s concern is that the centrality of the Holocaust as a source of identity for American Jews arrests Judaism’s development in America. For him normalizing the Holocaust means marginalizing it. This can be done by concentrating on memorializing its victims as Judaism memorializes the many other victims of Jewish tragedies throughout history.

On the Israel question, Neusner is not espousing an anti-Zionist position, at least not in any conventional way. He is not calling for the erasure of the State of Israel nor that Jews would be better off without it. Rather, he is suggesting Israel remain an important part of the American Jewish psyche but that it be viewed for what it is: a society of Jews who are living out their Jewishness in a unique, autonomous way. However, he writes to American Jews, it is not our way, and it is not here (he urges American Jews to own up to their choice to remain in America as a positive choice and not a compromise). American Jews acquiescing to a kind of second-class status vis-à-vis Israeli Jewry are simply buying into a “Holocaust-Israel” myth that is not only unproductive, it is stifling to American Jewish progress.

Marginalizing the Holocaust and Israel from American Jewish civil religion would create a gaping hole in American Jewish identity, a hole Neusner wants American Jews to confront. Through assimilating, American Jews have accomplished what few diasporic communities have achieved; they have succeeded in becoming deeply integrated into a society without disappearing. The price they paid, however, was a loss of their own distinctive identity informed by an understanding of their history and religion. By marginalizing the Holocaust and Israel, American Jews will have to confront that lacuna and develop ways of resolving its negative consequences. In America, he argues, the Holocaust (and the obsession with Israel) serves as a pallid and destructive substitute for the real work that needs to be done—the re-education of American Jewry about their past and the ideals that can serve both Jews and humankind in the future.


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Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible The Talmud and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.