British and American Jewries
by Jacob Neusner
The Jewish Heritage. Edited by Ephraim Levine. Vallentine, Mitchell (London). 225 pp. 18 shillings.
Midcentury. Edited by Harold U. Ribalow. Beechhurst. 600 pp. $6.00.
Jewish Life In America. Edited by Theodore Friedman and Robert Gordis. Horizon Press. 352 pp. $4.00.
These three anthologies, two American and one British, contrast strikingly. The British volume, The Jewish Heritage, is well organized, well mannered, and well tempered by a tone of apology and reasonableness; it is an effort to convince indirectly, in mellow voice and precise diction, that Judaism is a Good Thing. The two American anthologies, though of varying quality—Midcentury being formless and pointless, and Jewish Life in America serious and thoughtful—are intense books, full of self-criticism and soul-searching. On the whole, they are more deeply concerned with examining the meaning of “Jewishness” than with representing Judaism to the non-Jewish world—which is to say that they tend to be decidedly less apologetic than the British book.
While in America Jewish apologetics tend to be very sharply divorced from Jewish scholarship, in England it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two. Like Aristeas of Alexandria, the “best minds” of British Jewry never tire of demonstrating that the Jews are more Greek than the Greeks. Thus the Jewish Heritage’s eight essays propose to “show the various forms of the heritage and to prove that their value for our modern civilization has enhanced our responsibility to cherish them and in turn to imbue posterity with appreciation of a similar sense of duty.”
The writers in Heritage employ English attitudes to justify Jewish practices. In the English mind, for example, submitting to a discipline is a fine and sporting gesture which excuses all manner of absurd behavior; hence dietary laws are “a form of discipline . . . invaluable in the training of a holy people.” Nothing much is said about commandments or the Biblical claim of divine authority. Indeed, the commandments are regarded here as “a ceremonial code . . . the casket designed to enclose and protect a jewel.” Kashrut, in this view of things, becomes a kind of ground rule.
The pitfall of apology is contrivedness, and the Judaism of Jewish Heritage is jerry-built. Revelation is explained away: “If universalism be the matter of any faith worth having, it cannot find expression in religious form without some positive doctrine of revelation.” The treatment of prayer leaves the impression that the “ceremonial and liturgy” of the Jews is to be debated in the context of High or Low Church ritual; there is no notion that such ceremonial derives from obedience to the Divine Will. Like all other commitments, the commitment to apologize has its cost, and the price of the Heritage is the sacrifice of a sense of the objective truth of Judaism.
And finally, there is the ultimate absurdity of apologia, the effort to prove that the soundest institutions of the host civilization have direct antecedents in Judaism; a parade of the Jewish influences on English common law is one example. True or not, such triviality costs Judaism too high a price, in England or elsewhere.
As Against the Jewish Heritage’s sober gentility, Midcentury and Jewish Life in America (though very different books) have in common an uninhibited vitality that seems to say: Never mind what the world will think!
The work of a journeyman anthologist, Midcentury portrays American Jewry vividly and with more than a touch of vulgarity, through every conceivable shade of disagreement. There are essays on “I Changed My Name” and “I’ve Kept My Name” (two pieces which have been quite over-anthologized). Four essays in the vein of a rather out-dated intellectual melancholia are included (“The Lost Young Intellectual,” “The Plight of the Jewish Intellectual,” “To the Young Jewish Intellectual,” and “Troubled Intellectuals”), and these are followed by nine short essays on “Why I Wrote a Jewish Novel,” and then “The Dilemma of the Jewish Writer.” By this time, Irving Kristol’s charming piece, “Is Jewish Humor Dead?” leads to certain obvious conclusions, if a sense for the ridiculous is an element of Jewish humor.
What sort of book emerges? Surely not an “anthology of Jewish life and culture in our times.” An anthology is properly the work of a thoughtful artist who seeks through the sensitive selection, arrangement, and introduction of individual pieces to portray a given situation or set of ideas. No less than an essay, an anthology ought to be an expression of taste and opinion. What kind of taste is revealed in an anthology on “Culture” which juxtaposes “The Problem of Ernest Bloch” with “Why Jews Stay Sober”?
The almost total absence of critical standards in Midcentury recalls the words of Milton Himmelfarb (“Jews and Philistines,” the Jewish Frontier, September 1954): “If we are to believe what we read in the critical works of the experts, supreme excellence is as widely distributed among our contemporaries as long life was among Noah’s predecessors.” Yet the irony of Midcentury is that, unwittingly, it does provide a very true picture of “Jewish life and culture in our time”—in its very lack of discrimination, in its undefined commitment to an unknown something which is called Jewishness. Jews somehow remain Jews and are concerned with Jewishness. This tautology is what Midcentury has to tell us about mid-century American Jewry; all the rest is commentary.
In contrast to the hodge-podge character of Midcentury, Jewish Life in America (an expanded edition of the Tercentenary issue of the quarterly journal Judaism, containing thorough and careful studies of everything from Orthodoxy to secularism, from visual arts to inter-faith relations) is unified by a pervasive sense of self-criticism, a feeling that Judaism is a cause to be saved or lost in a single generation. For the contributors to this volume, the American Jewish community stands in judgment to the future and the past. The indictment is specified (“American Jewry is commonly charged with materialism”; “Jewish music in America before the First World War has little to recommend it”); the excuses are listed (“There are only a handful of rabbis who manage to fight off the demands of daily duties to devote some hours to study and perhaps even to creative scholarship”); the accomplishments are urged (“Jewish education in recent years has been meeting its challenges with newer responses”); and in the end, when a plea is entered (“They are all begging to be portrayed in short and long fiction—and also in poetry and drama, two departments wherein American Jewry has not yet produced anything truly noteworthy”), it is “Guilty,” not “Nolo contendere.” And always the promise, which recurs in every essay: it may well be that the next hundred years will indeed see the flowering. . . .
The case for American Jewry closes with the thought expressed in Dr. Gordis’s introduction: “The instruments for a renaissance of Judaism in the days to come are at hand.” Whatever the subject—the rabbinate, litterateurs, musicians, the synagogues—the conclusion is always the same: we have failed, but we can succeed.
Nothing could be further from the unobtrusive Judaism and the ultimate timidity of the British anthology than the vigorous assertion made in different ways by Midcentury and Jewish Life in America that we belong here and that we shall count in the sum of all Israel; that what Jews in America create, or destroy, is of consequence to the ages. The two great English-speaking Jewries are mirrored in these anthologies, and perhaps, by indirection, also the nations of which they are respectively part.