Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community
by Arnold M. Eisen
Chicago. 339 pp. $35.00

A longstanding critique of Judaism, dating at least from the time of the Christian Bible, is that, as a religion, it is preoccupied with practice as against—or even to the exclusion of—belief. According to this view, the pious Jew is distinguished not by the sincerity of his faith but only by the punctiliousness of his observance. Meeting the ceremonial demands of halakhah, Jewish law, is all that really matters.

For most of Jewish history, responding to this charge was never especially difficult. After all, the self-conscious affirmation of the divine is integral to Jewish worship, beginning with the Shema, Judaism’s central prayer. More profoundly, it is itself the root of traditional Jewish observance, whose fundamental premise is that the rigors of halakhah represent the will of God as revealed at Sinai.

Over the last two centuries, however, as Jews have moved with progressively greater freedom into the wider Gentile world, the relationship between practice and belief has become more problematic. Many modern Jews who have continued to carry forward at least some of the rituals and observances of their fathers are far less certain about theological first principles, and some even reject them altogether. Why, then, do they persist in clinging to the forms?

For Arnold M. Eisen, a professor of religious studies at Stanford University and the author of several respected books on American Jewish life, the continued adherence to Jewish practice on the part of at least a portion of modern Jews—himself included—is a puzzle requiring an explanation. Indeed, the idea for Rethinking Modern Judaism occurred to him, he reports, while watching the elaborate procession for the festival of Sukkot at a Philadelphia synagogue some years ago, a procession that requires one to march around the sanctuary holding palm branches and a citron:

I could not help but wonder, despite my familiarity with the rituals of the holiday, what on earth these people were doing and why they were doing it. A few moments later, no less incredulous than before, I had joined the march.

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As Eisen points out, a number of distinguished Jewish thinkers have attempted to provide a rationale for ritual observance in the modern context. For the German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88), a founder of “modern” Orthodoxy, the challenge was to articulate a rational, universalist basis for old commandments. According to Hirsch, the Jewish dietary laws, for instance, were to be understood as a symbolic expression of the moral difference between human beings and the animals they consume. Addressing a more secular audience, the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) sought to restore authority to the ritual realm by tying its requirements to a more personal, existential relationship to God. Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of the Reconstructionist movement in the United States, promoted rituals as “folkways” that were expressive of an all-embracing Jewish civilization and provided an indispensable tool for building communal solidarity.

For Eisen, however, such theological formulations—or substitutes for theology—are of secondary importance in understanding the shifting attitudes of modern Jews toward ritual, a phenomenon best explained, he believes, in social and psychological terms. Basically, he discerns a dialectical pattern. On the one hand, there are factors that actively discourage observance. Here Eisen focuses on “politics,” a category that for him covers not only discriminatory laws and edicts but also hostile social attitudes.

In the 19th century, Eisen observes, Jews in West European countries were under pressure to conduct themselves in an “enlightened” manner. They quickly become aware that the

retention or attainment of political liberties depended on the demonstration of Bildung or civilization: dressing and eating a certain way, speaking a “pure” form of the reigning language, worshipping with proper decorum.

In examining their own practices, European Jews thus found themselves having to consider the degree to which, by contributing to their own “distinctiveness,” they were drawing an unfriendly Gentile reaction. Today, analogous if much less overt pressures continue to operate even in such an open and tolerant society as the United States.

On the other side of the ledger, Eisen points to nostalgia—the desire to connect, if only fleetingly, with a lost ancestral world—as the leading factor encouraging ritual behavior among modern Jews. Nostalgia allows them to believe that “they ‘remain standing in the door of [the] ancestral house’ despite the manifest distance they have traveled from it.” Though “their daily practices for the most part are not distinctively Jewish, their minds by and large not furnished from Jewish storehouses,” Eisen writes, they nonetheless find “meaning” and “value” in Jewish practice; emotions are “centered and created” there. Of equal importance, he adds, is the fact that nostalgia is not a demanding sentiment. It “places the emphasis on following in ancestral ways,” he remarks, “rather than on the specifics of those ways.”

As Eisen sees it, the desire among Jews for assimilation combines with the strong pull of nostalgia to make certain observances more attractive than others. Today, he suggests, a given ritual is more likely to be followed if its message is “universal” rather than “tribal,” and if it “wraps participants in memories” linking them to their forebears. The popularity of Passover and Hanukkah are thus explained by the twin facts that their themes can be readily broadened and secularized—turning them, respectively, into celebrations of “freedom” and “religious liberty”—and that they have strong associations with family and home.

But Eisen goes further. If a Jewish ritual is to succeed, he argues, it cannot dictate a particular theological view. It must leave “Jews free to search for an ultimate authority which can direct their rituals and their lives.” Indeed, to the extent that observance has come to assume importance in the lives of many modern Jews, he asserts, it has done so precisely because it deflects attention from basic issues of faith. “This latitude,” he writes, “helps to account for the fact that many ‘non-believing’ Jews have continued to hold Passover seders, to fast on Yom Kippur, and to circumcise their newborn sons.”

Far from deprecating this phenomenon, Eisen approves of it—theologically, one might say. Even when Jews do not see themselves as obeying God’s will, he does not hesitate to use the traditional term mitzvah—commandment—in speaking of their ritual observances. For Eisen, commandment simply describes what Jews do in an attempt to express themselves as Jews. “If we ignore this wider definition of mitzvah,” he writes, “we miss a great deal of reflection and activity undertaken in response to the distinctive Jewish identity that such Jews recognize and wish to maintain.”

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Arnold Eisen has certainly chosen an opportune time to “rethink” the place of observance in modern Judaism. Ritual practice is now enjoying a significant flowering on the American Jewish scene, and in every denominational sector. Even the Reform movement is considering a new statement of principles that commends, among other things, keeping kosher and abstaining from work on the Sabbath. Among the Orthodox, ritual observance is at an all-time high, with new religious paraphernalia—like prefabricated “tabernacles” for dwelling out of doors during the week of Sukkot—constantly coming onto the market.

Considering the varied forms that this renewed interest has taken, however, one cannot but be surprised that Eisen has ignored the important differences with respect to ritual that separate the major denominations of contemporary American Judaism. Throughout this book, indeed, his account is strangely flat and abstract, peopled by generic Jewish “actors” rather than distinct Jewish types, and relying more on academic theories of modernization than on observation of lived experience. As a result, not only does he treat the realm of ritual itself as an undifferentiated whole, considering no practice more or less central to Judaism than any other, but he fails to distinguish between the occasional dabbler in observance and the person for whom observance is a constant concern.

In a related vein, Eisen is surely right to argue that nostalgia is a chief motivating factor behind much of the contemporary turn to ritual. Though it is hardly to be derided on that account, what is gained by referring to such observance as a response to “commandment”? After all, a commandment implies a commander—or, in the traditional scheme, a Commander. Who exactly is doing the commanding in the “mitzvah of nostalgia”? And what feeling of obligation is associated with this “commandment”? Most Jews who engage in Jewish ritual out of sentiment for the past are happy to leave matters at that level. Eisen should take their behavior at face value.

If Eisen’s promiscuous use of religious language serves any purpose, it is to remind us what Judaism has lost in the various attempts to modernize it. Now, as in the past, a commonsense formula holds true: the greater the feeling of commandment, the greater the extent of ritual observance. Welcome though the current turn to ritual is, it seems unlikely to endure if it is not accompanied by a revival of a more far-reaching and spiritual sort.

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