6/14/04

Constructing Jewish culture, II

I forwarded the article by Brill to two friends of mine, and we've been back-and-forthing about it over e-mail. Today's comments are from Marc Caplan, now a faculty member at Indiana University, soon to be a post-doc at Penn. His dissertation compared Yiddish and African literatures. Also relevant is that he (and his wife) are both modern Orthodox, and were members of KOE, a modern Orthodox synagogue, when they lived in New York. Oh: we correspond in Yiddish, so any spelling errors are due to my translation.

Thanks to you both for involving me in this imprtant and interesting discussion.

Let me begin by saying that I'm not a disinterested party, since Edah is ideologically connected to the shuls I davened at in New York [. . .]

I believe the first thinker who first truly considered these questions is the rock critic Robert Christigau, who at the beginning of his career, about thirty years ago, wrote that we must create a theory of modern esthetics which includes both Marcel Proust and Chuck Berry—culture with a big C and culture with a small c (though Christigau would never say that Berry represents small-c culture!).

But to create such a concept of culture for (or among) Jews, one must overcome quite a few conceptual difficulties:

1) The divisions between frum and non-frum, tradition and modernity, and even Jewish and non-Jewish are imaginary. The Rambam derives from Aristotle no less than he derives
from Saadia Gaon; Samson Raphael Hirsch probably took more from Schiller than from the Rambam, and so on. Both "the Rav" and A.J. Heschel read philosophy in Berlin (!)
while the Lubavitcher rebbe studied science in Paris. Ovadia Yosef demonstrates his North African roots no less than his Sefardic and Kabbalistic influences, and the fact that he never studied in Berlin or Paris is the first sign not of an "authentic" Sefardic Judaism, but rather of the political situation of the North African populace in his generation . . . Admitting that we're all connected to the eternity of human civilization is no mystical fantasy, it's just a fact of living in the world [. . .]

2) Although there's no authentic culture in the world - though all cultures are a sum of purposeful decisions by people, and so don't develop organically in nature - the problem of "authenticity" for modern Jews is even sharper because both frum and Yiddishist cultures are both separated not from their "natural" roots, but their historical roots, which were torn out by immigration to America and Israel and by the Holocaust.

3) Since our culture is particularly unauthentic, we must deal with ideological and historical influences which come between us and the culture which we would like to reconstruct. Therefore there is no true reconstruction which we could accomplish. Everything is starting from square one, both for modern Orthodox Jews and for the so-called secular Yiddishistrs. Considering how underdeveloped both cultures are to this very day, this "beginning" must begin more or less with our own generation.

If we understand the liberating possibilities of our inauthenticity, we can recognize that modern Jewish culture can really be what we make of it, and say that the purpose of building such a culture is not either on the foundation of Torah u-mitzvot, nor on Yiddish language or humanism, that is, a parallel development, but that the two are connected goals. As the rabbi said to the "weak man": everything is in the Torah. If so, the question for us is no different than for Christigau: creating a Jewish culture which comprises both Rabbi Soloveitchik and Lou Reed - with Barnett Newman, Irving Howe, and
Malke Heifetz-Tussman somewhere in the middle. What would we call this? I suggest "utopia"...

This is all by way of introduction [. . .]

By the way, it's very ironic that Brill writes in his article: "Modern Orthodoxy has adopted a Protestant division between faith and culture” (apparently on the side of Faith against Culture). Reform Jews also adopted a Protestant differentiation between Faith and Culture, mostly on the side of Culture! This reminds me precisely of what my professor Arthur Hertzberg once said about Yeshiva University itself - it's not a true Orthodox institution, but the radical-right wing of the Reform movement!

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