Quo vadis, Judaism?
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.
MICHAEL CHABON at a book signing at in 2006.
A FIRST-EDITION cover of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ by Philip Roth.