In the intense preoccupation with Jewish survival prevalent in many quarters, partisan ideologists have been having a field day. The simple statement, acceptable for centuries, “I am a Jew,” is no longer felt to be enough: unless one can testify to a “total commitment” or a firm affiliation with this or that set of principles or this or that program or organization, one may find one’s right to call oneself a Jew questioned—and one’s right to speak or write as a Jew challenged. To Harold Rosenberg this new trend in Jewish life seems as unsatisfactory as it is arbitrary, and in this essay he suggests that in a free society each man’s own sense of his Jewishness as he experiences it and voluntarily expresses it may be both more authentic for himself, and more fruitful for the future of Judaism and the Jews, than a prescribed article of faith, pledges of loyalty, or enforced subservience of the individual personality to the group.
What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself.
Few of us are duplicates of our grandfathers, in either thought, feeling, speech, or appearance. Very often we even differ from our fathers, too, in most of these respects. We are, to a large extent, new people—as everything in America, and in many other parts of the world, tends, for better or worse, to be new.
To be new means to lack a given identity, to be, in the deepest sense, anonymous. We can “make a name for ourselves.” But until we have done so we are “nobody,” atoms of that featureless mass which certain journalists condescendingly term “the little people.” Quite a different matter from being born labeled with the name of a ready-made entity, like the ancient family or the aristocrat’s estate.
Our anonymity has gone so far that it often seems complete. Thus certain contemporary philosophers have boldly asserted that man is not but makes himself. And to the degree that modern man begins without a given identity, it is true that he becomes somebody only through the act by which he projects himself into the future. Whatever he is to be, will be the result of his self-creation or his choice—whether he defines himself as something unique through original activity or in terms of the collective self of some group or tradition to which he elects to adhere. One might say that in our time man has a naturalized ego; it is not native to him; he has acquired it as an immigrant acquires citizenship in the country of his option.
In this ability to choose who we shall be, we possess a kind of freedom never known before. Not only have we the freedom to decide and to act; by making the very self who is to decide for us, we replace nature and tradition and, like the First Maker, create man in the image we desire.
If this new, modern anonymity, and the freedom that accompanies it, were actually brought to fulfillment, all fixed differences in people would be dissolved. There would be no Jews, no Frenchmen, no Catholics, except insofar as individuals elected to make themselves Jews, Frenchmen, or Catholics. Even racial identifications, such as kinky hair or a long nose, would be eliminated as an insufferable obstacle to free decision. Humanity would appear as a raw material, physical and mental—from which individuals would be constantly fabricating selves according to their tastes. A fantasy? Perhaps. But the curl of the hair and dimensions of the nose already offer no insuperable problem to our power over nature and our will to make ourselves what we wish to be. As for national and religious colorations, more than one has during the past century in America ebbed into a common gray.
Yet, though full anonymity may be man’s ultimate fate, we have not yet arrived at it—and perhaps, despite apparent trends, we never shall. It may even be that, for all the difficulty (and the “absurdity”) of being something we have not chosen, we do not want to arrive at it. Not everyone would, like Bernard in André Gide’s The Counterfeiters, react with enthusiasm to the discovery that he is illegitimate, hence born with a clean slate.
But even those who do want a clean slate usually find that some particular form has been rather heavily, if not ineradicably, engraved upon them. Be it preferred or not, we are not altogether Nobody. Nevertheless, we are not altogether Somebody either. We are anonymous enough to have to make ourselves; yet we are, too, and cannot make ourselves in utter freedom. Thus the problem of the voluntary aspect of modern identity is definitely upon us, even if we lack its solution.
As is usual with metaphysical problems, this issue of what we are and what we shall choose to be presents itself among Jews in an immediately practical, not to say painful, form. Almost every shade of Jewish opinion recognizes that being a Jew is no longer settled in any positive sense by the fact that one was born a Jew—as it was in those times and in those circumstances when being born a Jew meant being a scarcely alterable copy of one’s father, and through him a member of a series of replicas extending backwards into the past as far as one could imagine. Today, Jewish origin does not necessarily establish anything definite in common with other Jews, either past or present. There are still Jews, though probably fewer than there were before the crisis of the past decade, to whom all other Jews are strangers. More important—even when Jewish parenthood does give us something in common, that something is not all there is to us, nor even, often, a very large part of us. In most of us there is an area, frequently much larger than our Jewishness, in which we go our own anonymous ways or along a common road with non-Jews. Being born a Jew does not save us from—or, if you prefer, deprive us of—the modern condition of freedom to make ourselves according to an image we choose. Jewish birth may confer an identity upon us that is quite empty of content, a mere external title applied by others. Perhaps American Jews, to the discomfiture of assimilationists, are born with less group anonymity than most other Americans. Still it must be granted that they tend to be born with at least as much anonymity as Jewishness. And this anonymity goes along with them as a constant possibility of ceasing to be Jewish to a greater or lesser degree.
The new anonymity of the human being, whether as a fact or as a possibility, puts an enormous emphasis on the act of defining oneself. To a man who feels himself to be nothing in particular, it may come to seem highly desirable, especially in those crises where the meaning of his life is put into question, to be able to say decisively and once for all, I am this. By assuming himself to be a single thing, he will have overcome the porousness of modern personality. His enlistment in a given ego promises him clarity of outline and fullness of purpose. By his conscious act, provided it has committed him completely, he seems to have achieved that firm inner coherence which men of former times derived from a lifetime of largely automatic responses to tradition and code.
Is not the basic attraction in our time of orthodoxy and totalitarian philosophies, including nationalism, to be found in the relief they offer from anonymity and multiple identity? Not only do they supply to the individual a super-personal collective “I” and a role in a continuing enterprise; by assigning him his place within a whole they eliminate in him the gnawing recognition of the free man that by a new act he can change himself into something else. People freely choose to subject themselves to totalitarian disciplines in order to be something—perhaps even more, however, in order to quiet the anguish of possibility. As T. S. Eliot testified when he made himself an Anglo-Catholic: “Because I do not hope to turn again.” Did he mean to reveal in that “because” that it was not so much the Church that drew him as the desire to be irrevocably fixed and no longer tempted to turn? To close the question of identity brings rest to the soul.
Isn’t it the presence of the same modern impulse to be one who is one-hundred-percent-something that makes Jews so uncomfortable when they debate whether one can be both an American and a Jew? In comparison with the apparently single identification of others, being twice identified seems embarrassingly ambiguous. It is not the fact that counts here, the fact that there is “room” in the contemporary human being to be many things and nothing, and that being an American means being free precisely in that the American possesses that room, and can keep multiplying and transforming himself without regarding his deepest “I” as set by his nationality. What creates the embarrassment is not any actual, greater singleness among non-Jewish Americans than among Jews but the prevalent ideology of total choice with its exclusion of the possibility of being anything else.
Those who have committed themselves feel morally superior to those who remain more or less undefined. The party member feels morally superior to the fellow-traveler or liberal, the practicing Catholic to the person who is simply religious. Moral systems have grown up in the past century in which attachment to some corporate entity is the entire basis of judgment—the individual is measured not by his personal character but by the temperature of his allegiance. In the kind of moral universe thus created, he who has not attached himself to some floating body of value has no recognizable moral status. He is an outsider. And since he does not assume any obligation to plan for the community as a whole, he has no right, it is claimed, to speak concerning the human situation of those who belong to it, including himself.
This declaration of no rights for the non-committed individual was illustrated in recent criticisms of certain Jewish writers-in-English made by the Yiddish press and various institutional leaders. It is of primary significance that, though varying in tone and aim, the criticism of these writers rested in every case on one point: that they were on the wrong side in a conflict that exists between the individual as individual and what one rabbi referred to as “the organized group.” Specific works of the writers under attack were not analyzed. It seemed enough to charge that they were isolated intellectuals writing about their own thoughts and feelings as Jews and without community aspirations. From this it followed that they were detached from the Jewish mass, ignorant of its hopes and values, callous to its sentiments, and unconcerned about its future. Their “negativity” toward the group could only result, it was asserted, in dislike and contempt (stimulated by self-contempt) for Jewish character and custom. Hence these Jews who have ventured to write about themselves as Jews, but who have only chosen to make themselves into Jews to the extent that they are Jews, were disqualified to speak of the Jewish situation. One eminent rabbi summed up the case by pointing out that while criticism of Jewish life and tradition is always welcome, such criticism ought to be constructive criticism—but that constructive criticism could not come from the detached individual, since he is “rootless” and without commitment to “the Jewish enterprise.” Needless to add, the rabbi concluded by urging a turn toward such a commitment.
Now it is undeniable that there are individual Jews, even Jews who write about their experience of Jewishness, whose tastes, sense of humor, ideas of what is important, are vastly different from those of the Yiddish-speaking mass or of any organized group of Jews in America. Such Jews may even find themselves amused or attracted by what offends other Jews. And a “cultural” separation of individuals from the mass of this magnitude is an extremely serious matter. It indicates that the collective identity has been disintegrating into its component parts, or perhaps changing into something else. Who knows under such circumstances where the decomposition will disclose itself next? Any family may suddenly discover that it is harboring a stranger.
But is the morality of commitment the best way of meeting the crisis of disintegrating modern collective identities? If the “rootless” intellectuals are not interested in the Yiddish press and the rabbis, is it necessarily because they are defeatist and destructive people who need to be called to order? Isn’t it possible that they are not interested because those other intellectuals (and, after all, the Yiddish writers and the American rabbis, however much they may pretend to be the very body of Judaism, are today only professionals representing particular points of view) are simply not interesting? The fact is that a tremendous number of young Jews cease to listen to these voices and that they separate themselves as quickly as they can from Jewish life. Experience would hardly indicate that continuing to insist that the Jewish collective “I” ought to be considered, as a matter of duty, as the basic reality of the life of the individual, will reverse this trend. On the other hand, some of those same young Jews have arrested their flight from Judaism at least long enough to read the studies written by the rootless ones, and to that extent at any rate have accepted themselves as Jews. Of course, nobody knows what value this has. But it does suggest that the morality of commitment may not be as constructive, nor the self-examination and doubts of the isolated intellectual as destructive, as might seem at first glance. At any rate, the test of programs of commitment is not to be found in the presumed low moral character of the “individualists” but in the long-range effect of these programs on the mass of American Jews.
If there were a Jewish community in the old sense, and with Jewish identity established beyond question by one’s membership in that community, to be anything less than a total Jew would be an individual aberration. Such, however, is plainly not the case with us, when Jewish identity is so much a matter of acts of the will and intellect. Since it is a matter of seeking one’s identity within an open community, the perspective of the semi-outsider also has its validity, and it might be a great loss to exclude him more than he has excluded himself. It is easy enough to tell him: you may criticize, but make sure your criticism is constructive criticism, that it contributes toward building the Jewish community. But that is begging the question, which is: given the present condition of the Jewish community, is it always known what will be constructive and what destructive?
There is the story of the Hasidic rabbi who said to another Hasid, I have more learning than you and more righteousness—how is it that so many come to you and so few to me? Said the other, Perhaps they come to me because I am surprised that they come, and they don’t come to you because you are surprised that they don’t come.
If attraction to the Jewish community is absent, no amount of scholarship and righteousness will take its place. And at times attraction has come from the most unexpected sources. For instance, few Orthodox Jews of two generations ago would have expected that the ideas of the “goy” Herzl would become a center of Jewish feeling.
There is therefore much to be said for seeking the truth of our actual inner situation without attempting to judge in advance whether that truth will be constructive or destructive. To pretend that by an act of the will the crumbling of a tradition can be reversed and a direct equivalent of past relations be brought into being seems a very dubious, not to say dangerous, procedure. The loss of innocence carries with it certain consequences—it becomes necessary to look deeper in order to discover virtue. After all, the reprehensible rootlessness of the intellectuals was not brought about by them but by the present situation in which Jewish identity is rooted. The most extreme acts of “affirmation” do not change that condition so much as reveal it. It is difficult to believe that the young Jewish religious fanatics in Israel who attack Sabbath violators and girls in shorts, and those who demand legislation designed to keep Jewish blood pure and Jewish culture intact, are moved by the ancient holiness. Today, it is not God who inspires such aggressiveness concerning sexual matters. It seems more likely that the 20th-century Sadducees wish to treat as an absolute something which they sense to be quite relative—relative, for example, to a supra-national ecclesiastical solidarity, which, noble though it may be, is something rather different from loving the Torah. They wish the Sabbath and modesty to be for them what they were for their grandfathers, and, recognizing that such is not the case, are determined to make it so by force.
In terms of my theme, those wildly traditional young Jews, too, are modern men who, having had to choose, have chosen to be Jews in the old style. Even those who come from older communities of Europe and the Near East are within our contemporary predicament in that their communal springs have been too disrupted by change any longer to feed them a pure unquestioned identity. They could have chosen to be something else than their fathers; in choosing to be Jews they chose to define the Jew in terms of his religious beliefs and practices. Apart from their violence and orthodoxy, their position is similar to that of Jews in America who see in the practice of the Jewish religion—in one form or another—the essential and exclusive content of Jewish existence. In this country the display of identity tends to be subdued. Here the most orthodox Jews hesitate to imitate those interesting strangers one sees on the street who seem to hold that only a costume consisting of caftan, round hat, earlocks, beard, is appropriate to Jews. But whether or not a uniform of Jewishness is adopted, Jewish religion takes on the character of a modern ideology rather than of a traditional faith, when it declares that its main purpose is to serve as the identifying sign of a descendant of Abraham. The style of the choice is less important than the fact that a conscious choice is demanded.
By setting up a measure of who is a proper Jew and who isn’t, ideologists of positive Judaism no doubt hope to bind American Jews more closely together. They risk, however, producing an exactly opposite effect. To define is to exclude. Spontaneous fidelity to tradition, or the awakening of collective passion in the manner of the prophets, also excludes persons on the periphery of the community; but the loss in numbers is compensated for by the increased solidarity at the core. When the East European Jew with the payes and round hat dismisses us American Jews with his abstraction that a Jew is one who looks and speaks thus and so, we know that our estrangement is the result of his immersion in one historic aspect of the Jewish self and that he and the others will remain together in it until the end. Not so when some of us are wiped off the books as rootless by leaders of American congregations who thunder the word “constructive” in book reviews delivered as sermons. The process of denominating and excluding by an ideology that has the authority neither of a lived tradition nor of the supernatural does not necessarily have any binding influence. One knows how this machinery works in contemporary politics and social life—it creates pseudo-communions which quickly disintegrate unless force is available to rivet them together. The Jew who has chosen to be a Jew and thereupon defines the Jew by the image of him he has created, may he not provoke other Jews, especially the youngest and the newest, to seek, in dislike or despair of being that, to choose not to be a Jew at all? The “constructive” moralist may, under certain conditions, drive away more than he marshals together. It would seem to be wider—and more useful, too—to apply the principle of the Hasid: Each man is indispensable; and in the spirit of that humanism to reject the “Jewish” Jew’s rejection of the others.
Against the excluding impulse of those who have chosen to make being a Jew the central fact of their lives, I therefore support the value of the perspective of the semi-outsider who has not willed his Jewishness and is only a Jew in whatever respect and to whatever depth he finds that he is a Jew. Admittedly, this perspective imposes no conditions upon history. But perhaps precisely in that lies its worth. Instead of willing what the Jew shall be, the outsider may cast light on what the Jew is—including whatever indifference and ignorance of their own past is found among individuals.
And, after all, isn’t it true that the Jew is something, even before he has willed to be something? Something that preserves itself? Something that in being communicated from man to man builds its own solidarity, without appeals to duty?
The individual who seeks in himself the hidden content of his Jewishness must accept the risk of what he may find. Like all serious adventures in self-discovery, such a search is an affirmation of a faith in value and demands moral courage as well as a certain inner stability; his daring implies a sense of being secure in his worth. This the ideologist of commitment cannot comprehend. To him exposing oneself to the research of one’s confusion and negations appears as both immoral and painful. For his own part, he tries to evade the perils of discovery by formulating in advance a content for Jewishness that will by-pass or overcome his fears and doubts and guide him to psychological security. But these external values created without regard to his own inner condition or that of other Jews must be kept constantly inflated by pretended certainty and induced enthusiasm. So that at length his defense of a program in which he does not wholly believe tends to breed in him a concealed Nihilism and a desperate awareness of aimlessness and ultimate defeat,
In an article in COMMENTARY some years ago,1 I objected to the notion that Judaism was a rational ethical or social ideology and tried to point to a basic element that bound Jews together. Underneath the separation of individual Jews, I thought I discerned the form of a certain emotion—an emotion which was actually present, not one that had to be simulated or brought into being by laudable intentions. This emotion which I seemed to find in the Jewish course arose from the sense of living within a cycle of repetitions that time after time brought Jews to re-enact collectively certain characteristic events of their history, such as the return to the Land of the Fathers.
With some Jews this sense of collective repetition produced a passion for the past that completely dominated their lives; in others, of course, it was extremely faint. But even where it was faint it seemed to me to exist—indeed to be so definite a characteristic that it could even be denied or hidden, or take the form of apparently unrelated desires and hopes, and still be recognized.
Jewish feeling regarding the recurrence of the folk past in the future, assuming that it was present (for could one speak of it except as a speculation?), evidently reached beyond the Jewish religion, of which I took it to be the essence, since it appeared also among Zionists who were not religious at all, who were indeed anti-religious. At the same time, it appeared also in Jews who were not Zionists. As an emotion it was present among Orthodox Jews who had never known Zionism and among mystics who had re-interpreted Orthodoxy.
It was only such a sentiment, deeper than religion considered as an ideology, and deeper than political and social ideology, that could explain for me the surprising surge of identification during the recent events in Palestine among Jews who had not chosen their Jewishness and who had been content with their whole or partial anonymity or with a non-Jewish identity and who despised nationalist values.
It has been said that all that recent passion was only a reflex of the terror against the Jews of Europe. Perhaps it was something in the nature of a reaction to anti-Semitic violence. But suppose it be granted that the sudden turn toward Palestine did take place in response to the crisis in Europe. Ought it not be asked, why that reaction instead of some other? Just that reaction was the Jewish reaction. In his crisis the Jew showed that Jewishness had a historical content for him by turning toward his history instead of toward the history or the ideas of others.
So the Jew may be identified by his history, by the presence of the Jewish past within him. He is a Jew in that his experience contains the possibility of linking itself with the collective and individual experiences of earlier Jews. Through him the dead ancestors can take their place in the present. And this occurs not through his revival of the forms which they created—their doctrines, rituals, institutions—but through his own creative acts which they inspire. A drawing by Picasso brings the ancient world infinitely closer to us than all the reconstructions of the academicians, and a canvas of Chagall unites us once for all with the Jews of Vitebsk, as well as with ourselves as modern men.
The identification of the Jew by his history will, however, also exclude too many unless it be recognized that today the past is a varying and oscillating presence, sometimes occupying a man entirely and becoming his veritable self-consciousness, sometimes diminishing to a vague sentiment or receding from his awareness altogether. For the modern individual his history is not a solid continuous plane upon which he firmly stands but a moving mass full of holes and vacuums which may envelop and carry him forward or veer away and let him fall. The area covered by the Jewish history-mass cannot be delineated by any static concept of Judaism nor represented monopolistically by any “organized group.” Does it not also comprise those who at any given moment refuse to take responsibility for themselves as Jews, as well as those who recognize themselves as Jews only under certain circumstances? The Jew whom the Jewish past has ceased to stir, whom every collective anguish or battle for salvation passes by, may tomorrow find himself in the very center of the movement toward the future. Like the reputation of the zaddik, a community is often built by surprise. Perhaps it is just those Jews who arrive from nowhere who will come to resemble most closely their remotest and most venerable grandfathers.
1 “Pledged to the Marvelous,” February 1947.