Under construction: Modern Jewish culture as understood by Alan Brill

The Iyyar issue of Edah includes an important article by Rabbi (and Dr.) Alan Brill which tries to navigate the relationship between Judaism and culture.

Its point of departure is the modern Orthodox concept of Torah u-Madda (Torah and science, where "science" is used its older sense of general knowledge). According to Brill, this ideology is predicated on nineteenth-century notions of culture as something external to religion. But in reality, according to modern theorists, culture is by definition the substratum in which all life, the life of Jews included, is embedded. Jews have always been creators and consumers of culture - asking whether the Jewish community should be "engaged" or "distant" from non-Jewish culture misses the point entirely. The question is: what sort of culture should be sought by American Jews? More specifically, Brill asks: how should one understand the Judaism of the lay, suburban Jew in America?

Simply put: what sort of culture do we, American Jews, want? (Note that Brill uses "Orthodoxy" throughout his essay, but I think his line of thinking is relevant to many American Jews. In fact, this is exactly the sort of topic which should be the bread-and-butter of, say, Conservative Judaism, both the movement and the journal. But stop me before I complain again . . .)

Brill's essay is more devoted to the problem than its solutions, but he does, near the end, advance a certain approach. Other religious communities in America, he says, have "reconstructed" various fields of intellectual thought (physics, literature, philosophy, psychology) in their own image. Just as we construct our religious approach ("there is no given of Torah," says Brill), so we construct our intellectual sphere in concert with the spiritual.

There is much to think about here, but two difficulties come to mind.

1. What criteria are to be used in "rewriting" those parts of "liberal culture" which do not conform to Judaism? What does it mean to say, as Brill does, that "[w]e can criticize Romanticism as having values against the Torah"? Which part of Romanticism, Don Juan or "Ozymandias"? And which values? Certainly some views of divine inspiration (to take one example) held by the Romantics are not wholly alien to Jewish notions, I would think. To say the following is very bold indeed, and I wonder how it is to be done:

Jews need the creation of Jewish psychology, education, philosophy, political science, and sociology similar to the works produced by Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims.

The problem with such a "rewriting" is that it requires criteria for what a "Jewish psychology" is. I have my own ideas - which I hope to post about in the future - but this leads me to the second difficulty, viz.:

2. Brill understands the creation of Jewish religious culture as, in essence, a rabbinic project - not only for rabbis, that is, but based on rabbinic literature. His examples of the broad spectrum of Jewish culture are thus drawn from the many rabbis and religious leaders who have written works of literature and science. But Brill overlooks a fruitful source for the construction of a (sub)urban Jewish culture which is both religious and modern: our predecessors and contemporaries, who have created, and are engaged in creating, precisely that! In an important sense, Jewish modernity as an embedded cultural endeavor began in Eastern Europe and continued in the State of Israel, while American Jewry has become afflicted by what Brill points out is the Protestant, nineteenth-century view of culture as opposed to, or a seducer of, the religious tendency.

Unfortunately, in what I think might be an overreaction to ultra-Orthodoxy, Brill tends to characterize Eastern European Judaism as "narrow" or "simple." I find this imprecision perplexing in what is otherwise a thoughtful and important essay. Even the rabbinic culture of Eastern Europe, it should go without saying, is not faithfully represented by the minimally thin cross-section that has survived and thrived as modern-day Haredism.

The project of Jewish cultural construction must draw on a number of sources, both rabbinic and non-rabbinic. Medieval sources seem far afield when one can look deeply into the Jewish culture of Vilna, Warsaw, and Berlin, not to mention modern-day Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

What is Jewish culture? How will we know we're constructing it? I'll get to that in my next post - not to solve the matter but to tilt at it.


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