Quo vadis, Ju­daism?

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIO­NS - DANIEL GORDIS

Two Amer­i­can Jewish lit­er­ary giants have been much in the news in re­cent week. Each was, or is, one of the pre­dom­i­nant Jewish voices of his Amer­i­can gen­er­a­tion. Each won the No­bel Prize. Each used or uses Jews, the Jewish peo­ple and Jewish dys­func­tion as one of the foci of his enor­mously cre­ative work. Each, in his own way, demon­strated such a deep am­biva­lence about and in­deed, an­tipa­thy to, the Jewish world that it is worth paus­ing to ask whether this says any­thing about the di­rec­tion in which Amer­i­can Ju­daism may be head­ing.

Philip Roth’s death on May 22 was head­line news in both Amer­i­can and Is­raeli news­pa­pers. Roth loved to hold a mir­ror up to the dys­func­tion and cul­tural am­biva­lences of Amer­i­can Jews. Not all his nov­els were as laser fo­cused on the ills of Amer­i­can Jewish subur­ban so­ci­ety as was Good­bye Colum­bus, and to be sure, only one pointed to the sort of (Jewish?) sex­ual de­prav­ity which is front and cen­ter in Port­noy’s Com­plaint. But Jews fig­ured cen­trally through­out his work – crit­i­cal though he may have seemed, at times, the Jewish world mat­tered to him. Deeply so.

In­ter­est­ingly, though, Roth left ex­plicit in­struc­tions that he wanted no Jewish rit­u­als at his fu­neral. No kad­dish, noth­ing else. Nor did he choose to be buried in a Jewish ceme­tery. Though he had ap­par­ently looked into be­ing buried near his par­ents a decade or some ago, he gave up on the idea and chose to be buried in the ceme­tery of Bard Col­lege (where Han­nah Arendt, in­ci­den­tally, is also buried).

It is true that Roth may merely have had no pa­tience for Jewish rit­ual and its al­lu­sions to the su­per­nat­u­ral. But pub­lic state­ments such as these, which are es­sen­tially the very last pub­lic state­ment of a ge­nius like Roth, speak vol­umes to the Jews who re­main in the land of the liv­ing. Roth had to know that his burial de­ci­sions would sound a lot like some­one whose fi­nal state­ment was an aban­don­ment of the Jewish peo­ple – and he ei­ther didn’t care, or ac­tu­ally sought that. Why?

A week be­fore Roth’s death, Michael Chabon spoke at the grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony of He­brew Union Col­lege in Los An­ge­les. (HUC had no idea what Chabon was go­ing to say, and one can­not ex­actly vet the re­marks of a Pulitzer Prize lau­re­ate; this speech thus has noth­ing what­so­ever to do with HUC.) Michael Chabon is, in many re­spects, the Philip Roth of this gen­er­a­tion. Other Jews have won the Pulitzer, of course, but since Bernard Mala­mud and Saul Bel­low, none have been seen as “the” voice of Amer­i­can Ju­daism the way that Roth and Chabon are.

Chabon’s speech has been as­sailed for its “one-sided” view of the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict and for his (in) fa­mous com­ments that “any religion that re­lies on com­pul­sory en­dogamy [ Jews mar­ry­ing Jews, in our case] to sur­vive has… ceased to make the case for its con­tin­ued va­lid­ity in the ev­ery­day lives of hu­man be­ings” and that “an en­dog­a­mous mar­riage is a ghetto of two.” I ob­vi­ously dis­agree with both his stance on Is­rael and his po­si­tion on in­ter­mar­riage, but what I found most dis­turb­ing were not those com­ments, but rather his an­swer to his own ques­tion of what would hap­pen if the in­ter­mar­riage that he en­dorses led to the end of the Jewish peo­ple.

Though Chabon does not be­lieve that will hap­pen, he ac­knowl­edges that it might.

“We will grieve that loss, you and I, if we’re still around to wit­ness it,” Chabon notes. “But we prob­a­bly won’t be, and any­way the his­tory of the Jews, like the his­tory of hu­man­ity and ev­ery in­di­vid­ual hu­man who has ever lived, is just one long story of grief, loss and fad­ing away.”

Chabon may or may not be cor­rect about the his­tory of hu­man­ity at large, but he mis-char­ac­ter­izes the way that Jews have long thought about their his­tory. Not for naught did Ernst Si­mon call the Jews the “ever-dy­ing peo­ple.” A pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with sur­vival has been a char­ac­ter­is­tic of Jewish life since the Bi­ble (see the warn­ings of what will hap­pen if the Is­raelites sin). Iron­i­cally, it may well be that pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with dis­ap­pear­ing that con­trib­uted to our sur­vival. Chabon’s non­cha­lance about Jewish sur­vival is a rad­i­cal de­par­ture from how the Jews have long seen them­selves. Tellingly, it was an or­di­na­tion of rab­bis and a grad­u­a­tion of stu­dents who will de­vote their lives to the Jewish com­mu­nity that he chose to say that Jewish sur­vival ac­tu­ally does not mat­ter very much.

Keep your ear close to the tracks and you can feel it – there is a bub­bling, seething re­sent­ment not only of Is­rael, but of Jewish tra­di­tion and unique­ness, even Jewish sur­vival, al­most ev­ery­where one turns. Amer­ica’s Jewish pop­u­la­tion is de­clin­ing. Syn­a­gogues are clos­ing. Amer­i­can Jewish col­lege stu­dents’ hos­til­ity has be­come in­stinct, not pri­mar­ily a re­sult of Is­rael’s ac­tions or in­ac­tions.

There are lots of great things hap­pen­ing, too, of course, but they shouldn’t blind us to the sim­mer­ing anger at Ju­daism per­co­lat­ing among many Amer­i­can Jews. Roth’s fu­neral and Chabon’s speech are two pos­si­bly mi­nor data points, but per­haps they ought to spur to ask what went wrong, and if there any­thing we can still change – and save.

A pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with sur­vival has been a char­ac­ter­is­tic of Jewish life since the Bi­ble... Iron­i­cally, it may well be that pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with dis­ap­pear­ing that con­trib­uted to our sur­vival

The writer is the Koret Dis­tin­guished Fel­low at Shalem Col­lege in Jerusalem. His lat­est book, Is­rael: A Con­cise His­tory of a Na­tion Re­born, re­ceived the Na­tional Jewish Book Award as the 2016 “Book of the Year.” He is now writ­ing a book on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Amer­i­can Jews and Is­rael.

(Photos: Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

MICHAEL CHABON at a book sign­ing at in 2006.

A FIRST-EDI­TION cover of ‘Port­noy’s Com­plaint’ by Philip Roth.

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