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‘Judaism is highly politicized in Israel and highly depoliticized in the diaspora’

by Shmuel Rosner

January 29, 2012 | 7:10 am

Dr. Leora F. Batnitzky

Dr. Leora F. Batnitzky, Chair of the Department of Religion at Princeton University and author of How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought, discusses the evolution of Judaism and its role in today’s world. 

Your book starts - and maybe also ends - with the Mendelssohnian revolution. Can you explain why Mendelssohn is so important - and was he able to revolutionize Judaism?

Mendelssohn is so important because he invents the very category of Jewish religion by separating Judaism from politics.  In a premodern context, it simply was not possible to conceive of Jewish religion, nationality, and what we now call culture as distinct from one another, because a Jew’s religious life was defined by, though not limited to, Jewish law, which was simultaneously religious, political, and cultural in nature. 

Mendelssohn moved Judaism into the modern world by contending that politically, though not theologically, the individual Jew is separate from the Jewish community.  In doing so, he anticipated a time when Judaism, however defined, is a matter of voluntary association.  I wouldn’t say that he himself revolutionized Judaism but rather that his claims give voice to what became and remains a major conundrum of modern Jewish identity and thought, which is that Judaism, as a religion of practice and adherence to law, does not really fit a modern conception of religion as a matter of belief or faith.  But as I argue in the book, definitions of Judaism in terms nationality or a culture are also modern inventions that have their own internal tensions and contradictions.

The book mostly deals with what one might call “Jewish thought” and “Jewish thinkers”. But is it really the thinkers who make Judaism what it is - or maybe thinkers only follow the “people” and only provide explanation to what Judaism had become?

I don’t think that Jewish thinkers (or thought) define what Judaism is.  What we call Judaism is something that has changed historically over time, and different definitions of Judaism do reflect in large part what Jewish people do and have done.  But I would also resist the idea that Jewish thinkers, as you put it, “follow the ‘people’ and only provide explanation to what Judaism” has become.  Jewish thinkers (like thinkers generally) attempt to articulate answers to perceived problems. 

When reading Jewish thinkers (as well as thinkers more generally), I think it is helpful to ask: “What is bothering this person?  Why is he or she writing?”  While many of the Jewish thinkers and writers I discuss in my book are very different from one another, they all are attempting to answer a similarly vexing question about what it means to be Jewish in the modern world in which the organic structures of premodern Jewish communities have in different ways come apart.  In this sense, Jewish thinkers give conscious voice to a set of problems that define modern Jewish life.

How does the Jewish State change the relations between religion, nationality and culture in the Jewish world? Are we witnessing two contradictory interpretations of Judaism - namely, Israeli Judaism and Diasporic Judaism?

I do think we are witnessing two different, though perhaps not entirely contradictory, forms of Judaism in Israel and the diaspora.  I’d say they are two sides of the same spectrum.  Put far too simply, Judaism is highly politicized in Israel and highly depoliticized in the diaspora.  In Israel, Judaism is matter of public, national concern, while in the diaspora Judaism is largely relegated to the private sphere.  However, these two forms of modern Judaism do share important features with one another (which is why they remain on the same spectrum). 

First, Israel is a modern nation state.  Arguments about the role of Judaism in Israeli public life as well as controversies over the power of religious authorities in Israel take place within the framework the modern state which, in theory at least, protects individual rights as well as the rights of minorities.  So long as Israel remains a democratic state, there will always be a productive tension between highly politicized forms of Judaism and the political reality of the state. 

Second, the largest diaspora community in the world today exists in the United States, which is different from the modern European context that gave birth to the idea of depoliticized Jewish religion.  In the U.S., religion enters public discourse in many messy ways.  This can make some forms of American Judaism less private, and more public. 

In your description of Buber and Rosenzweig you point to the fact that even though these two German Jewish thinkers resisted the idea of Judaism as religion, both could hardly “overcome the category”. Other scholars had similar difficulties in trying to pinpoint the essence of Judaism. Is this because Judaism is too broad for any such attempt to define it - or is it maybe because Judaism is a religion, nationality and culture all at once, and all attempts to separate or eliminate one of these elements must fail?

Historically understood, Judaism is too broad for any attempt to define it in terms of the categories religion, culture, or nationality.  Conceptually, definitions of Judaism in terms of one category as opposed to others contain at the very least internal tensions if not contradictions.  Different people choose which tensions they are more comfortable living with than others.  Existentially, different forms of modern Judaism, defined by each of these categories, do thrive to greater and lesser extents.  What this tells us, I think, is that we live in a time in which there is not one Judaism but many Judaisms, and these Judaisms are very different from one another.  (In this way, our age is not unlike the first century in which there were also many Judaisms.) 

While pluralism remains a contested value amongst these different Judaisms, the pluralism of Judaism in our age is, for better or for worse, simply a fact.  Anyone who cares about the future of Judaism and the Jewish people needs to think very hard about this. 

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