Don’t get us wrong. Jewdar has been subscribing to The Forward for a long time. There’s no shortage of good stuff in there that you can’t get anywhere else (apparently, paying your writers a living wage brings results, Josh Neuman). But whether it was the dropping of JJ Goldberg from the masthead or whether there’s something strange in the water down by Maiden Lane, but the last couple of years have seen some turns for the worse.
"The Schmooze" (which we’ve used on occasion) is like what our column would be if it were completely devoid of pizzazz and a sense of irony. Alana Newhouse’s exodus was definitely less beneficial to Jews than Moses’. And someone on the editorial board needs to do a better job of hippy filtering in order to avoid gaffes like this last week’s "Polymath" column.
If you read Jewdar, you know we believe in keeping it real. So when we saw that this past week’s issue of The Forwardfeatured apiece on the subject of Jewish authenticity, we were intrigued. Then we started to read. At first we were in agreement, then we were comically outraged, then a bit understanding, then a little gassy, but then we figured that the latter had to do with this garlic yogurt dip we just ate, so we won’t hold that against the author of the piece, Jay Michaelson. As for the rest of our reactions, Michaelson’s responsible, and here’s why.
Michaelson starts by debunking the notion that many American Jews have that Hasidim live a more "authentic" Jewish life than theirs. This is incorrect, he demonstrates, because Hasidism is a fairly recent phenomenon and the customs and costumes associated with the movement aren’t intrinsically Jewish, but outgrowths of a certain place and time, and hence, no more authentic than other manifestations of Jewish culture from different places and times. So far, so good, but that point only takes up the first quarter or so of a fairly long piece–the rest of which led Jewdar to "African-American horror movie watcher"mode, in which we scream excitedly at the newspaper: "Oh no, don’t go there, don’t you goin there!"
So what set off Jewdar’s refined sensibilities? Michaelson’s main argument, which was that, as far as Jewish culture goes:
" . . . the entire notion of authenticity is a false projection of particular historical quirks on an imagined ideal of ‘realness’ that artificially freezes culture, and thus spells its demise . . . Of course, there are certain core values, myths and cultural traits that remain relatively constant. But bagels, bookishness and bar mitzvahs all evolved historically; none is more ‘really Jewish’ than sushi, sports, or a Sweet 16."
Um, I don’t know about bookishness (though, it should be noted, we are known as "People of the Book," not "People of the Ball."), but is claiming that bagels are more Jewish than sushi and bar mitzvahs are more Jewish than Sweet 16s simply an attempt to "privilege some cultural forms over others"?
Michaelson’s argument ignores that what makes something authentically Jewish is not simply that it’s done by Jews, but that it in some way or another arises out of, or relates to, distinct conditions of Jewish life. Of course, Jews may have Sweet 16 parties and Jews sure eat sushi, but there’s nothing inherently Jewish about those things. Jews also use toilet paper, watch the weather and take trips to Mexico. If Jews develop some sort of special connection to the Sweet 16, if it takes on special meaning for them as Jews, or comes to be used by them in a distinct way, then by all means, that can be "authentically Jewish." Even then, however, we would be hard pressed to say that a bar mitzvah isn’t more authentically Jewish, since, after all, it’s rooted in a Jewish tradition going back a few thousand years.
One of the most frustrating things about Michaelson’s argument is that his broad "one size fits all" view on authenticity ignores some actually interesting questions about what makes something authentically Jewish. To say that sushi is just as Jewish as a bagel is pure nonsense. Bagels have a history with Jews going back at least to the early 17th century. It was not just a bread eaten by Jews, but identified, for whatever reason, as a Jewish food. Sushi . . . not so much.
But let’s take this a step further–which is more "authentically" Jewish: a non-kosher bagel, or kosher sushi? What’s interesting about this approach is that recognizes the evolutionary nature of culture, but also recognizes the role that has to be played by the Jews themselves–not just as a people who are adapting to fit the needs of the world around them, but as a people who adapt the world around them to fit their own needs.
Michaelson wants his "Buddhist Judaism" to be considered the real deal because it gives him meaning. Would he say the same about "Messianic Judaism"? Repugnant as Jewdar may find Jews who believe in the divinity of Jesus, we don’t dispute the sincerity of their belief, including that part of their belief in which they imagine that they are still practicing Judaism. Would Michaelson’s idea of authenticity embrace those adherents as well?
We mentioned above that at some point while reading his piece arrived at a certain understanding. That point came when, in discussing his "Buddhist Jewish" religious beliefs, he compared them with "someone else’s more carefully patrolled boundaries of permissibility." (translation: the Orthodox). The conclusion he draws is not that the two approaches are equally authentic, but that, in fact, his is moreauthentic because, in his words:
"It is more faithful to the truth of my experience. Not preference, not whim–but carefully considered internal coherence."
With that, we presume he’d be able to find the grounds for denying authenticity to Jesus-loving Jews, since doubtlessly, those poor benighted fools are no better than Orthodox dullards who haven’t arrived at their belief through "carefully considered internal coherence" like Michaelson, but only through irrational whim. Once Jewdar read that Michaelson believed his "Buddhist Judaism" is more authentic than "traditional Judaism," everything made sense–for all his talk about openness and change, he’s just another religious absolutist with a new argument for why he’s right and the people with whom he disagrees are wrong. And if that’s the best Michaelson has to offer, Jewdar might as well continue to go to shul–at least when the rabbi’s done waxing self-righteous, we have the prospect of some schnapps and spongecake.
What we find particularly cloying about Michaelson’s argument is its intellectual dishonesty. It’s all well and good–and true, of course–to say that there have been multiple Jewish traditions through the years. For brevity’s sake (we know, we know, it’s too late for that), let’s leave aside the ancient period and the written Torah, something which Sadducees and Pharisees, Judeans and Israelites could all agree on. For well over a thousand years, there was something else that defined Jewish identity, and that was the Talmud. This is not privileging one culture over another–in the Middle Ages, you could have traveledfrom China to Spain and found Jewish communities who in innumerable ways had acculturated to their surroundings, but retained not just a common core of "bedrock values" as Michaelson somewhat disingenuously puts it, but bedrock beliefs and practices. That Talmudic-centered Jewish culture was not simply one choice among many–it was a universally binding system of laws enforced by the legal and political authorities who held power over the Jewish communities. Jewdar can’t say that everyone believed in it, and we know that not everybody followed it scrupulously, but whether you lived in Poland or Provence, Baghdad or Barcelona, you followed it publicly.
Now, Jewdar is glad we no longer live in a world governed by rabbinic authorities–boy, are we glad. And we’re happy for many of the manifestations of Jewish culture which have sprung up in the wake of the collapse of that authority. Wedon’t particularly care what Michaelson chooses to observe or not observe. But don’t be so dishonest as to reduce that rich Jewish culture to something as bland as "change," to say that in Judaism, "change is authenticity." That statement is completely belied by a culture built explicitly on the principle that we are following in the traditions of our forefathers, and if very often the traditions we follow are far from ancient, the very fact that their authority still stems from the belief that they are tells us far more about the true nature of "change" in Jewish culture than anything Michaelson has to say on the subject.
Okay, Jewdar has spent enough time badmouthing someone who we believe means well, so we’ll try to spend some time praising him. We appreciate the sincerity of Michaelson’s efforts to find meaning in the face of his questions about God, and wish him nothing but the best in his efforts to find his place. But sometimes, part of being in a community means doing even the stuff that doesn’t mean anything to you, simply because you’re part of the community.
Some "progressive" Jews have taken to rewriting theAl Chetprayer said on Yom Kippur, in order to make it more personally relevant. Now, Jewdar is normally a member in good standing of the Ashkenazi mumble school of prayer, but the Al Chet we take seriously. What we like about it is that it allows us to individually, internally, go over what we personally have done wrong through the year, while at the same time, taking part in a tradition that links us to our ancestors and our fellow Jews around the world who all perform the same tradition. Adopting a vision of "authenticity" that eliminates those collective traditions may allow one to achieve personal meaning, but "Jewishness" is not, and never has been, just about the personal. It may be that, as individuals, many people would benefit from the approach suggested by Michaelson. But Jewdar can’t help but wondering what collectively we would lose as a result.