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Why This and Not That?

Building canons is thorny, complicated, messy—and necessary

Yehuda Kurtzer and Claire Sufrin
September 22, 2020
Free Stocks/Flickr
Free Stocks/Flickr
Free Stocks/Flickr
Free Stocks/Flickr

If periods in Jewish history can be described in reference to major themes, then contemporary Judaism deserves its own place in the timeline, and we are bidden to characterize and understand its defining ideas. Contemporary Judaism constitutes something of a paradox. On the one hand, the late 20th and early 21st centuries witness a great Jewish “settling down” after the ruptures, revolutions, disruptions, and dislocations of the mid-20th century. The majority of Jews in the world are found now split between Israel and North America and experiencing a new Jewish economic and political stability based in remarkable social, economic, and political conditions. Patterns of migration over the last three centuries, the destruction of Eastern European Jewry in the Holocaust, and the mass exodus of Middle Eastern Jewry to Israel since its founding, have resulted in the overwhelming majority of world Jewry now living between these twin poles. One dominant story of contemporary Jewishness is thus a story of at-home-ness both in Israel and America.

On the other hand, this very stability—in demographics, geography, and relative security—has enabled the flourishing of new diversities in ideological and political foments within these two primary sites of Jewish community. Stability generates entropy. And as a result, Jewish life in North America and Israel is witnessing large-scale and fast-moving change in the realms of identity (who is a Jew?), ideology (what is Jewishness?), and infrastructure (what are the institutions of Jewish life in and through which Judaism is lived, studied, and practiced?).

In short: We are living in a period of the mass production and proliferation of Jewish ideas. Even while Jewish life is incredibly diverse, it is also increasingly unstable. While it can be frightening for some, mass instability in the structures of Jewish community and identity enables and exhibits new forms of Jewish expression: some that are entirely new, and many that constitute the remaking of the textual and ideological traditions inherited from the past. In this process, the nature of Jewish authority is being transformed, both within the formal power structures of established institutions as well as in less formally structured communities that can also produce (and control) what constitutes authoritative Jewish knowledge.

Meantime, the modes and means of the production of ideas are changing dramatically as well. The digital revolution has created new and cluttered public squares: American, Israeli, and Jewish. The mass culture of blogging has a democratizing quality to it, as it shortens the distance between writer and reader and the time between the inception or incubation of an idea and its publication. The same culture also risks diminishing the quality and meaning of the written word, and certainly eliminates the implication that publication necessarily grants or recognizes authority. And the possibility for misrepresentation and falsehood—either deliberate or accidental—has dramatically increased. This means that the structures of authority and authenticity are teetering at the same time as there are many new claimants to authority and authenticity, and this contributes to both the calcification and reification of structures of authority in some parts of the Jewish world, and the total collapse of authority structures in others.

The New Jewish Canon is an effort both to acknowledge the revolutionary times in which we are living and to offer a conceptual roadmap to make sense of all these changes. It combines some of the best writing from the late 20th and early 21st centuries with perspectives drawn from some of the best scholars of Jewish thought today. Together, these writings continue an ages-old conversation on what it might mean to be Jewish, to live a Jewish life, to be part of a Jewish community, or to identify with the Jewish people.

In studying the Jewish past, we often seek to identify the tension between continuity, on the one hand, and change, on the other. The discipline of studying Jewish ideological and behavioral trends is also pulled in two directions, between what “Judaism” is said to be and what Jewish people actually do. But the central story of contemporary Jewish life appears to be one of fast-moving change, which departs from the past both in its relationship to time and the pace of change, and in challenging our attempts to understand Jewish life holistically. This contrast between the past and the present helps shape some of what we see as dominant contemporary ideas, as Jews struggle with how the pace of change is influencing the production of ideas and the evolution of communities; and as we witness implicit contests between the sociologists, the historians, and the philosophers on the authority and capacity to best describe and understand the present moment.

From the standpoint of Jewish intellectual history, it is also hard to classify and understand the most recent period. Are we still in the period known as modernity? Have we entered postmodernity? Or perhaps we are further still, in a post-postmodernity? Do any of these terms help us to make sense of what we see before us? Older anthologies of modern Jewish thought—whether focused on post-Holocaust Jewish thought, the Jewish political tradition, the history of Halacha, or other themes—often end in the 1970s. They tend to focus on the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel, and in so doing they confine the story of Jewish thought to the mid-20th century and its particular challenges. The ideas of the late 20th and early 21st centuries still entail a rethinking of Judaism prompted by these twin massive historical events, to be sure, and they thus represent a form of continuity with the thematic centerpieces of the recent past; but they also demonstrate a shift to wider theaters of politics, law, theology, and religious practice that imply some rupture and some opening of new conceptual possibilities for Israel and the Jewish people. The canon of Jewish ideas continues to develop and grow relative to new challenges faced by the Jewish people. Enough time has elapsed—enough new ideas have been articulated—that it is time to expand the canon more formally with a volume like this.

A canon project represents a kind of search for order in chaos. Like all other forms of boundary-drawing, it bears witness to an underlying culture of complexity and anxiety. It is hegemonic, to be sure, but maybe—if conducted with transparency—it can still be useful. Forming and naming a canon is also an act of authority, imposing a false superstructure atop a set of disparate ideas and disconnected written pieces, and of course also drawing exclusionary lines that separate—whether intentionally or more arbitrarily—between what counts as “in” and what counts as “out.” The process of canon formation combines the descriptive and the prescriptive: Some pieces find themselves in the canon because they are already known to be “canonical,” having acquired value from their widespread familiarity or because they are considered foundational to the emergence of later ideas and/or to shaping the discourse. Other texts find their way into the canon because the canon-formers, whether consciously or not, are making explicit decisions to elevate their status, to hold them alongside those texts that are more universally acknowledged as canonical, and in doing so to change the arc of an intellectual history. The postmodern canon-former differs from the canon-formers of the past only in the self-awareness and transparency through which this unscientific exercise is undertaken. And as with any such exercise, we completely anticipate the most obvious criticism of this project: why this and not that?

Canon formation has been a surprisingly common activity in recent Jewish publishing. There are many such books that reflect efforts to make sense of how “contemporary” Judaism had come to manifest its complexity and diversity through a study of the modern Jewish experience up to the recent past. In fact, one could even construct a canon of late 20th-century canons, each with its own ideological underpinnings and implied boundaries within the larger body of Jewish literature from which they are making their selections. These include Jehuda Reinharz and Paul Mendes-Flohr’s magisterial The Jew in the Modern World, a chronologically and thematically organized survey of major texts of Jewish modernity (with an emphasis on the religious and the political); the multivolume Jewish Political Tradition collection, which uses categories from political theory and thought to organize ancient, classical, premodern, and modern Jewish writings, together with analytical essays by contemporary philosophers and legal theorists, into an effort toward a comprehensive thematic survey; Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea and now Gil Troy’s revamping of Hertzberg into The Zionist Ideas; David Roskies’ The Literature of Destruction; and Ruth Wisse’s The Modern Jewish Canon, with its emphasis on 20th-century literature. There are also countless collections of major papers and academic essays in all fields of Jewish studies, as well as meta-analyses of trends in Jewish studies that help us understand trends in the field of how scholars in the present understand the Jewish people’s history and its present realities.

Though the term “canonization” has religious connotations, our choice to include the work of any particular scholar or writer in the selection of primary texts is not an endorsement, morally or otherwise, of them, their ideas, or their actions. Our goal in this book is to capture the dominant ideas and debates of the period 1980-2015. At times this has meant including the work of individuals who are known to have committed bad acts in their personal and/or professional lives or whose ideas we personally find offensive or even dangerous. In some cases, these opinions or actions are plainly essential to why the ideas were important enough to merit inclusion, as with authors who promoted violence or advanced radical or polarizing ideas that had major ramifications for Jewish and/or Israeli society. In other cases, there is probative value in juxtaposing the bad acts of the author with their ideas, and some of our commentators do just this. In yet other instances, it is more challenging to draw a direct line between the bad acts of individuals and the substance of their ideas or their popularity as authors with lay and scholarly audiences. In all cases, we struggled with the impossibility of separating the artist from the work. This “tarnished legacy” problem is not unique to us but beguiles the history of literature, art, philosophy, and more. For our book, the stakes of this debate are intensified by the fact that we are working with living subjects, whose legacies are not fully established; and in a political and ideological climate where the stakes of these choices are ripe for contention.

But beyond the behaviors of our authors, the choices to include—to “canonize” this text or that—was a loaded exercise. To take a previous moment in Jewish history as a point of comparison: The creation of the biblical canon by the early rabbis, and then the rabbinic canon by later rabbis, constituted careful sets of choices from within a vast sea of biblical forebears, Second Temple literature, and the literary output of these rabbis themselves. The rabbis were making choices, sometimes self-evidently and with unapologetic self-awareness (as in Mishnah Yadayim 3:5). We can speculate as to the political circumstances or ideological dispositions animating certain choices made by the rabbis about what belonged in the Bible or in the Talmud, though we are not fully privy to the larger cultural context in which they worked and how it might have circumscribed the range of their own canonizing power. At the same time, as several historians have demonstrated, rabbinic power was not entirely the product of their own making, but emerged as a result of their positioning within their particular societies, which was enabled by imperial structures. That is, the rabbis were also aided in the forming of their canons by history and political circumstances beyond their own control.

Canon formation is always an interplay of hegemonic decisions made by the canonizers with purpose and intent, and forces beyond the canonizers that they themselves might not even be able to see. To think that we can escape such forces in our own time would be an act of foolish hubris. But to refuse to canonize would be to submit entirely to these forces. And so we proceeded in our task with both humility and confidence. We are humble because we anticipate that readers of later generations will see things in our choices that we cannot ourselves see; we are confident because we believe our work will be meaningful even to its very first readers. While there is only one Bible and only two Talmuds, perhaps this book might in some small way shape the Jewish identities and ideologies of Jews who will follow us. Time will tell.

The material gathered in the New Jewish Canon is organized chronologically within a few major themes that characterize the zeitgeist: Jewish Politics and the Public Square; History, Memory, and Narrative; Religion and Religiosity; and Identities and Communities. By organizing Jewish thought into these categories, we seek to enable the reader to trace the conceptual evolution of specific issues that continue to matter in our own time.

The central theme in Jewish Politics and the Public Square is the shift, as has become clear in the past decade, of the State of Israel functioning as an organizing force in American Jewish life toward it becoming the most powerful disorganizing force, as demonstrated today in both the widespread narrative of the “distancing” of American Jews from Israel, as well as in the ways that Israel serves as the site for intracommunal conflict in the American Jewish community. At the same time, politics have long served as the dominant discourse of the Israeli public square, with prevailing questions about the character of its democracy, the fight for religious pluralism, and the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. The new rise of nationalism, especially as it is mapped onto religion, is an essential theme of the contemporary State of Israel for both its ideological adherents and its critics. Violence and the threat of violence—both corollaries of power—course throughout this section, whether in the costs of occupation, in the acts and ideologies of internecine zealotry, or even in the emergence of a drumbeat hostility that now characterizes public discourse on Israel. And Israeli law also emerges as a critical instrument to understand contemporary debates about the nature of Israeli democracy and its applicability to questions of enabling or choosing between different visions of Jewishness in the Israeli public square, and the applicability of Israeli and international law as part of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank. Our volume includes several examples and critical analysis of the enormous legacy of Chief Justice Aharon Barak of Israel’s Supreme Court, a tenure which raised significant enduring controversy in Israeli society around the question of judicial activism.

The Jewish conversation about History, Memory, and Narrative has been heavily informed by Yosef Yerushalmi’s articulation of a distinction between the first two terms in his book Zakhor and has played out in the unfolding interpretation of the meaning of recent history for contemporary Jews. Here we find major developments in the culture of preservation of the legacy of the Holocaust. This includes analysis of the principal architects and exhibits of this culture as well as their discontents, and the emerging awareness of all the ways that contemporary Judaism shatters the legacy of the inherited and mimetic past even as it desperately tries to preserve it. Here too we encounter the twin legacies of the emergence of the American and Israeli experiences from the precariousness of the previous century, and the efforts—some still nascent—to try to define some coherent narratives and leitmotifs that tell its story most effectively.

In the section on Religion and Religiosity, using Martin Buber’s terms differentiating between the lived experience of the holy (religiosity) and the instantiation of the holy in fixed forms (religion), we witness the end of the great first phase of postwar theology and its attempts to grasp with a rapidly unfolding pace of change, and the emergence of new forms of theology, prayer, and ritual that situate themselves squarely in the late modern and postmodern turn. It can be argued that both Israeli and American Jewish societies are in the midst of a religious revival, as American Jews shift away from the “peoplehood” identification that dominated Jewish life in the 20th century and seek new forms of identifications and affiliations that privilege sincerity and experience, and as Israeli Jews wrestle with the politics of hadatah—a phenomenon that often appears in the news to describe charged efforts to lead toward a religious awakening in Israeli society. Throughout the global Jewish world, the rise of ultra-Orthodoxy also bears witness to a reclassification of the place of religion and its dominant expressions within the broader sector of Jewish identity.

The Identities and Communities section bears witness most explicitly to the entropic shifts in Jewish identity in both North America and Israel, and in particular the aftereffects of the widespread embrace of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, the intermixing (especially in Israel) of Jewish ethnicities, the demise of the idea of a single shared Jewish language and culture, the influence of major shifts in the understanding of gender and sexuality, and the emergence of a desperate search by American Jews for content and frameworks through which to understand and transmit Jewishness to its next generation, often perceived as being increasingly disinterested. Coursing through these two sections is also a reckoning with the continued force that Halacha, Jewish law, continues to have for a growing percentage of the Jewish public, even as its defining questions exhibit a distinctly contemporary set of interests, and even as the nature of Jewish legal authority in the modern world is contested and affirmed differently in different communities.

Each section is organized chronologically based on the publication date of the primary texts. This allows for fluid understanding of the evolution of certain ideas, but also can be a bit confusing as there are multiple overlapping intellectual histories between the different sections. In some cases, we have also grouped together several independent primary texts if they reflect similar themes, so that they might be analyzed together. This emphasis on chronology also helps us understand the influence of the new forms of media and publication vehicles on the proliferation of ideas, as in some cases the internet-based publications near the end of the chapters will make implicit and explicit use of the earlier material. The internet often stretches the applicability and visibility of earlier ideas to radically new audiences. The transformation in how ideas are disseminated is one of the major new ideas itself in the history of Jewish knowledge that is being written about the present moment, and this collection captures merely the earliest phase of this ideological revolution.

As in any act of canonization, there is a lot left out. This collection privileges the American Jewish and Israeli experiences, and the reality of contemporary Jewish life as defined primarily by these two poles, as its own idea, and as a departure from the previous history of more diverse diasporas. If these contemporary conditions were once merely the product of population migrations in the 20th century, they are now a defining characteristic of contemporary Jewry. We have thus focused on Israeli and American ideas, and we have privileged the relationship between these two poles in our volume. The collection leaves out “culture,” broadly construed, and also remains intentionally lean on academic Jewish scholarship, including a few such books and essays but leaving out even those works of scholarship in Jewish studies that have represented paradigm shifts in their subfields. The works in this collection largely present a direct line between their ideas and their impact on the Jewish general public; and while new research in rabbinics, for instance, may travel through rabbinical school education and inform thousands of Jews who encounter Talmud through their rabbis, with only few exceptions do such works of scholarship travel directly to end users or course quickly into Jewish sensibilities. Our book also includes excerpts from works that are already broadly understood to be canonical and ones whose canonical status is yet to be tested by the arc of history. In this respect, as throughout, we acknowledge that we are not passive chroniclers of this moment, but making active, if sometimes contentious, choices.

The boldest claim of the book, however, is its underlying case for itself, in the attempt to capture and analyze a moment in progress whose ramifications cannot be fully known; and to do so in print, despite the elastic opportunity offered by publishing it online. The claims of the book about what is important and what is not are so easily contestable, and intellectual history actual moves pretty fast and may ultimately make its own autonomous choices about what “mattered.” Our book will have a companion website where we invite others to suggest pieces that we missed; like any authors, we have had many moments since the book went to press where we realized something we missed, or when we regretted this inclusion or that exclusion. But we believe that these lacunae are also part of the story, and that the finality of print is part of the story as well. Again, the classical rabbis provide a powerful analogy. At the heart of the rabbinic project is the “oral tradition”; at a critical moment in history, for reasons debated by the sages and historians, that oral tradition became a written tradition as well. This was likely motivated by a wide set of anxieties and transitions—a sense of loss, the emergence of new technologies, adaptations in identity. It also came with its own losses, as can be seen in the fear of codification, and within the editorial choices that would inevitably come with the transformation of the oral into the written.

But the emergence of the Mishnah—the first codified rabbinic “document”—did not erase the traditions with which its components had lived as part of the oral tradition. All serious commentators and scholars who have engaged with the ideas of the Mishnah and with its literary and legal choices have done so together with the peer texts of its time, the beraitot that appear in the Talmud or the later compilation, the Tosefta. In fact, the very existence of these alternate texts helps us to make sense of the Mishnah and to interrogate its choices. No canon, especially an open one like ours, really closes debate; it merely provides a useful framework for those who follow to investigate its boundaries, a heuristic for readers of the present and future to make sense of the past.

Ours is also a moment of uncertainties—about which ideas dominate our societies and communities, about how ideas are expressed, and about who is empowered to lead. Our canon, now in print, does not resolve these uncertainties. But perhaps its very publication attests to them; and hopefully, it provides a starting point to understand how we got here, and where we go next.

Yehuda Kurtzer and Claire Sufrin are editors of The New Jewish Canon. Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and the host of the Institute’s Identity/Crisis podcast. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Claire Sufrin is Associate Professor of Instruction and Assistant Director of Jewish Studies in the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies at Northwestern University. Her research and teaching focus on modern Jewish thought, religion and literature, Judaism and gender, and post-Holocaust theology.