WATER IN THE WINE: JEWS, GOD, AND A MODERN CRISIS OF IDENTITY
By Alan Behr
NEW YORK, 15 SEPTEMBER 2008 — When Les Misérables was made into a musical in Paris, it started late in the story because French audiences were presumed to know the plot of the Victor Hugo novel. When the musical was translated into English for its international run, part of that missing backstory needed to be restored.
A non-Jewish reader coming to Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (St. Martin’s Press, 240 pages) may feel like an American in Paris attending a performance of Les Misérables. Before discussing the book, here, vastly oversimplified, is the backstory that the author presumes his Jewish readers to know:
With the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70, Judaism evolved from religion communicated by priests through rituals (that relied heavy on animal sacrifice) to one communicated by rabbis — the word rabbi means "teacher" — through scholarship and study. Judaism was thereby reworked, of necessity, into a faith so direct in its relationship to its God that any ten men could form themselves into an ad hoc synagogue and pray without clerical intermediation. (The more progressive trend is to count women too.) Judaism gave the West its single, omniscient and omnipotent God and its most famous rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth.
The destruction of the Second Temple was followed by the Diaspora — the purposeful scattering of Jews, and their newly portable, text-based faith, throughout the Roman Empire. That was how Jews ended up all over what became Christian Europe, where they endured anti-Semitic acts ranging from exclusion from trades (almost everywhere) to expulsion (England), to forced conversion (Spain), to riot (Russia), to genocide (Germany).
North America has walked the walk of equality, and after a rocky start, Jews at last find themselves accepted as full citizens. They can easily intermarry, and they do: over half of all marriages of Jews in North America are to non-Jews. That single fact triggers the lead "fear" addressed by Hope, Not Fear: the conventional wisdom that the continent’s Jews, perhaps save the very Orthodox, may intermarry themselves out of existence. The "renaissance" is a series of proposals to refresh and perpetuate Judaism through education, an embrace of modernity, and an understanding of the expectations and the predilections of its youth.
The book is credited to Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff. Bronfman is the former CEO of Seagram Ltd. of Canada, and Zasloff is an alumna of The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel — a travel and study program for promising Jewish talents sponsored by Bronfman. That Zasloff gets co-authorship credit shows Bronfman to be a gentleman, but it’s really his book, written in the first person singular.
Bronfman follows the conventions of Canadian writing by absorbing Canada into that collective entity with the United States referred to figuratively as "North America," and he follows the conventions of secular and humanistic authors on Judaism by mercifully abjuring quirks such as the use of "G-d" for God (a device employed by the Orthodox due to the Jewish prohibition against uttering the proper name God). Most of all, he deliberately avoids the "they’re still after us" mode of fear mongering that hampers some writing for the Jewish popular market. Indeed, Bronfman sensibly asks that funds drained by fights against lapsed anti-Semites be rechanneled to support the renaissance he advocates.
As for intermarriage, Bronfman notes that, in an open society, people of different confessions will fall in love, however devoted they might be to their respective faiths and backgrounds. He advocates a light, embracing touch: non-Jewish spouses should be invited to synagogues and welcomed there — and encouraged, as respectfully as possible, to raise their children as Jews.
As harmless and obvious as that seems, it is actually a call for a kind of radicalism. By Christian standards, Judaism is a hard fraternity to rush: there is no proselytizing, conversion is commonly made difficult and even discouraged, and Jewish law (if followed to the letter) declares that the children of Jewish men and non-Jewish women aren’t Jewish. Bronfman is calling for nothing less than a breaking down of the cultural insularity and legal requirements that may well have preserved Jewish faith and identity in the past but that now have become obsolete — even dangerous.
Bronfman takes another somewhat radical position when considering whether Judaism, which is more often debated than understood, is primarily a religion, an ethnicity or civilization. He takes sides with those secularists who see Judaism as a civilization (with theistic underpinnings). He notes that his own Judaism depends more heavily on study and discussion about texts than spirituality or prayer. Advocates favoring that enlightened position believe that it is more constructive to reflect on the questions of law, community and perseverance raised by the story of Exodus than to reach for the seven heavens or to memorize what each of the foodstuffs on the Seder plate symbolizes.
That perspective, which is quite in harmony with the way the faith has been transmitted since the late first century, is contrary to the common practices that Bronfman has observed in North American Judaism. In his respectful tone, he is mildly scolding of the generations of the twentieth century that never learned the demanding texts of the religion well enough to pass on either their particularity to Judaism or their universality to the human experience. They opted instead to instill the faith by emphasizing its few rituals (which do not include animal sacrifice). Trying to transmit by ritual a religion that was significantly deritualized two millennia ago has proven a theological blunder worthy of that of the pharaoh of Exodus in failing to heed the powers of the Jewish God.
The result is faith-based ignorance, which does no ill to those fundamentalist Christians who believe the Earth was formed one day five thousand years ago and that early farmers practiced dinosaur husbandry. A more mature religion, such as Catholicism, with its ceremonies, pageantry, music and stained glass, is probably not at much risk, if only, in that instance, because priests, nuns and monks have long kept the light of scholarship blazing. For a religion such as Judaism, so dependent on the individual’s knowledge of text and law, the result is that sense of panic and frustration Bronfman addresses in his book.
For a people that prides itself on both mental horsepower and education, it can get quite embarrassing. Back when, for one brief shining moment, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel had the most literary travel section in the USA, it published my report on a visit to Jerusalem. In the piece, I confessed my ignorance that the emotionally charged "Wailing Wall" was part of a prosaic retaining wall built around the Temple Mount by King Herod the Great. I’d foolishly thought it was a fragment of the façade of the Second Temple. That led to a reader in Boca Raton snidely writing in that the Wailing Wall surely isn’t a retaining wall, which brought on to a gentle rebuttal from a retired architect from Ft. Lauderdale, who said that it very much is a retaining wall, without which "the Dome of the Rock would come crashing down." Among the many jokes about Jews, one never heard before that it takes three Jews to get one fact right, but that's what we've come to — one of the problems that Bronfman seeks to remedy in his plan for a renaissance.
The failure in North America of the intergenerational transmission of cultural knowledge is a twentieth-century development that remains to be adequately explored and goes far beyond the experiences of a single religion. It was during the same period that people who knew the great operas by title and composer had children who might recognize an aria or two; they, in turn, had children who collectively determined, without need of investigation, that all opera was a waste of their precious time.
Bronfman offers further solutions ranging from study in Israel to greater cooperation among Jewish organizations at home, but his main contribution to the debate is to identify the problem succinctly, without the fear against which his argument is framed and always with a sense of optimism.