Peter Berger discovers Contemporary Judaism

The famous sociologist Peter Berger is retired but still blogs about religious ideas that catch his eye. Berger, in his classic The Sacred Canopy (1967) explained how Eastern European immigrants to the US, lost their shtetl sacred canopy and thereby replaced their old faith with the pluralism of America. Now everyone as moderns is autonomous and makes decisions that create a personal functional sacred canopy. The major thing that one gets from the book is that we are all now conscious of our ability to choose and choose we must. Nothing is destiny or compelling us anymore.
In this blog post, it seems that Berger has just discovered that post 1967 Judaism with its emphasis on Holocaust and Zionism as well as the renewed vigor of Orthodoxy uses the language of destiny, compelled by community and God, and not choice.

I occasionally pick up The Jerusalem Post at the famous out-of-town newspaper kiosk on Harvard Square (for ongoing news about the Middle East I rely on its very informative sister publication The Jerusalem Report). In the current international edition my attention was immediately grabbed by a big advertisement on the very first page of the paper. The headline of the ad reads “Jews in America… Wake Up! Anti-Semitism is Raising its Ugly Head Once Again”

There is an intrinsic tension between destiny and choice in that definition. In traditional Judaism to be a Jew is a destiny grounded in God’s covenant with the people of Israel – the individual does not choose to enter into this covenant, but is bound to it by the fact of birth. The Jews have not chosen God; He has chosen them.

But as more and more Jews entered the mainstream of American society a world of choices opened up to them. Willy-nilly they became part of the turbulent pluralism of this society. Of course they could choose to belong to a traditional Jewish community that continued to affirm the destiny of belonging to the people of the Covenant – but, paradoxically, this affirmation of destiny is itself chosen, no longer to be taken for granted. The individual can certainly choose what kind of Judaism to affiliate with – America has produced the historically unparalleled phenomenon of a whole emporium of Jewish denominations (a profoundly American term). The individual can also choose to be a secular Jew, or choose any number of non-Jewish religious affiliations (not only Christian ones – a surprising number of American Buddhists are of Jewish origin), or for that matter choose to be religiously unaffiliated and ethnically vague. And all these choices are protected by law, understood as rights by the larger culture (“it’s a free country!”), and solemnly legitimated by the democratic ideology of the American republic.

Jewish identity as destiny is also affirmed by reference to the Holocaust and to the state of Israel. There are problems with both references. While remembrance of the Holocaust can be seen as a moral duty (I agree with this), the very horror of these events can have the opposite effect – namely, the effect of wanting to have nothing to do with it. Ruth Wisse, who teaches Yiddish literature at Harvard, expressed her uneasiness with the spread of Holocaust studies in American academia by questioning whether young people should relate to Jewish history by focusing on its most terrible period. As to grounding Jewish identity in solidarity with the state of Israel, the taken-for-granted character of this identity will be most plausibly maintained to the degree that Israel conforms to the idealistic aspirations of the Zionist vision. Many American Jews have had difficulties with this vision in the decades since the triumphant Israeli victory in the 1967 war.

It seems to me that the assertion, that anti-Semitism is inexorable and ubiquitous, occupies a strategic place in any effort to make Jewish identity a matter of destiny rather than choice. If even in America a recurrence of Nazi-like anti-Semitism is likely or unavoidable, Jewish identity is indeed a matter of destiny from which there is no escape.

It is always perilous to anchor an identity in a definition of the situation which goes against the empirical realities. It seems to me that Jewish identity, whether understood in religious or ethnic terms, should not deny the choices made possible by American pluralism – and indeed should affirm the value of freedom by which these choices are legitimated. The long history of Judaism and of Jewish culture provides ample resources for making plausible a choice for Jewish identity. To see America today through the lens of Germany in the 1930s is a delusion – a thoroughly counter-productive one.

Could this change? Of course it could. Every catastrophe is possible. But it would be extremely foolish to pretend that a possible catastrophe is now happening or is about to happen, and even more foolish to act on the pretense. Put differently, hypochondria is not a good method of health care.

Quite a few years ago I was on a panel with a prominent American rabbi. I don’t recall what the panel was about. All I recall is a brief exchange I had with the rabbi. He said that he was telling his children that the Holocaust could happen in America. He turned to me and asked whether I thought that he was paranoid. I replied that, on the contrary, he was not paranoid enough. He could only imagine being killed because he is a Jew. Depending on circumstances, he might be killed because he is an American, or a bourgeois, or white. I did not add that he might well be doing psychological damage to his children. I don’t remember whether or how he responded. Read his entire post here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s