Leora Batnitzky’s How Judaism Became a Religion as reviewed by Jon Levenson

What happens when a professor of Jewish philosophy has to teach the historic survey of Jews in the modern era? They turn it into a semi-philosophic course by posing a philosophic question to examine as they move through the historical narrative. But do you publish the notes of your survey course?

Leora Batnitzky of Princeton University wrote How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to  Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press, 2011) covered the historical narrative of modernity and used the philosophic question of how Judaism became a religion in the modern Protestant sense of the word. For Batnitzky, Mendelssohn removed the coercive body politic from Judaism and she returned to that time bound definition throughout the book even when discussing Eastern European Jewry, Zionism or American Jewry. Jon Levenson reviews the success of the book. I have selected Levenson’s discussion of the political aspects of Graetz and of Reform social action.

Levenson uses the second half of the review to ponder some of the bigger questions. What does it mean to be modern?  It is surely not just the temporality of living in the 19th or 20th centuries. Levenson takes issue with Jacob Katz’s treating Orthodoxy as entirely modern because it is self –consciously orthodox. There is a level where the Catholic church and Orthodoxy are less innovations than Unitarian universals. So he is baffled that Batnitzky calls Hirsch “the most modern of modern Judaisms.” Levenson invites us to begin to think about how traditional thinkers set up part of their thought as authentic, traditional, organic, set up other parts as modern, and in the middle employ a wide range of hermenutical and cultural tools to divide their positions into many parts. For example, Levenson corrected Batnitzky in that Rav Soloveitchik’s thought is dialectical, religion is public, communal, and corporate even as faith is non-communicable, Protestant, and private. Read his section on Hirsch below and answer Ernesto Laclau’s question: Were we ever modern? Why do say that? Would Jose Casenova or Asad see modern religion as privatized?

What Are They?: Modernity and Jewish Self-understanding- Jon Levenson
Commonweal February 24, 2012

Even apart from the thoroughgoing traditionalists (about  whom more later), reactions to Reform came swiftly. Henrich Graetz (1817–91), the greatest Jewish historian of the time (and perhaps ever), believed that traditional law was essential to the identity and survival of the Jews. “Judaism is not a religion of the individual,” he wrote, “but of the community.  That actually means that Judaism, in the strict sense of the word, is not even a religion…but rather a constitution for a body politic.” It cannot therefore be reduced to an abstraction like monotheism or anything so vaporous as morality divorced from history and normative tradition. Indeed, it is the study of history that discloses the spiritual power of Judaism and the Jewish people and the deep continuities between ostensibly diverse periods. In Roman Catholicism, perhaps  an analogy to John Henry Newman, Graetz’s contemporary, would be in order. In Judaism, his continuity lies with what in Germany was called the Positive-Historical School and in America, Conservative Judaism, which has traditionally put great emphasis on history and peoplehood, less on the particularities of observance, and almost none on theology.

Unfortunately, Batnitzky’s use of the term “political” is sometimes problematic. One difficulty with it is that the liberal positions that descend from Mendelssohn are not without a political agenda of their own. In the case of American Reform Judaism, for example, theological liberalism has long correlated with an activist agenda in support of “progressive” causes; more recently,  it has correlated with advocacy of positions on issues like  abortion and homosexual behavior that are at odds with the classical rabbinic teachings. This is not apolitical. It may, rather, be hyperpolitical, for it allows a new sociopolitical vision to displace the traditional religious norm

Sometimes, when Batnitzky writes “political,” she seems to mean “communal” or “corporate.” Whatever one calls it, the frame within which she views the many modern Jewish thinkers she discusses necessarily constricts her vision and requires her to give short shrift to important dimensions of their thought.

At times, I found myself wondering whether Batnitzky’s framework has not led her to judgments that are too quick and too sweeping, as when she claims that Soloveitchik (1903–93), the towering figure in Modern Orthodoxy in the twentieth century, “implicitly affirms a Protestant idea that religion is private and individual.”

Beyond her difficulties with Soloveitchik, Batnitzky seems generally averse to the more traditional religious responses to emancipation and too eager to make the highly dubious claim that Orthodoxy is as much “a modern invention” as the other varieties of Judaism in modern times. Noting, for example, the successful effort of Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–88), leader of the Orthodox community in Frankfurt, “to establish a separate community by seceding from the Jewish community recognized by the state,” she concludes that “Hirsch makes Judaism more like the Christianity of his time…relegating itself to private, confessional status”  and thus “leaves room…for a kind of religious pluralism,  despite his disdain for Jews who are not Orthodox.” But in Hirsch’s mind, the basis for the authentic Jewish community lies in something not private but public, not confessional but objectively historical—the revelation of the Torah and the normativity of its rabbinic interpretation. As he puts it, “the Law of God that Moses brought down to us…is also the only standard for testing a Jewish community to see whether it is truly Jewish.” This is as far from religious pluralism as one can get. That the adherents of the traditional law and theology in Hirsch’s time found themselves in a novel situation with the emergence of organized alternatives, can be readily granted, and so can the fact that some rather untraditional and historically inaccurate notes can be seen in his writing. But none of this justifies Batnitzky’s claim that “Hirsch’s Orthodoxy is…the most modern of modern Judaisms.”

For Batnitzky, the mere fact that a community exist in, and responds to, the modern world makes it “a modern invention” and even “modernity’s child.” Perhaps an analogy to Christianity can clarify the weakness in this way of seeing things. It is obvious that the Roman Catholic Church has changed dramatically over the centuries, especially in the past two. Modernity has clearly altered it—if not in its dogmatic core, then certainly in its apologetic strategies, institutional structures, and political relationships. But would it be reasonable to say that Roman Catholicism is therefore every bit as much a creature of modernity as, say, Unitarian Universalism? The historical reality in both the Christian and the Jewish cases calls for a subtler and more nuanced analysis, one that recognizes that modernization occurs across a spectrum and the past, to one degree or another, lives on in the present.

6 responses to “Leora Batnitzky’s How Judaism Became a Religion as reviewed by Jon Levenson

  1. They’re of course both right in their way, but I’m not impressed by Levenson’s critique. Both Hirsch and Soloveitchik were playing the modern game; to judge them only by their continuities with pre-modern Judaisms is to take them too much at face value. Levenson’s categories are the classic ones: Sinai, Zion, etc. so he sees the continuities there. But on the realms of meaning and purpose, both Soloveitchik and Hirsch are definitively modern. That’s what made them do appealing: they defended Orthodoxy on Modernity’s terms.

  2. I question whether Levenson’s summaries in some cases aren’t guilty of the same quickness that he attributes to Batnitzky’s statements. His explanation that “Conservative Judaism, which has traditionally put great emphasis on history and peoplehood, less on the particularities of observance, and almost none on theology” reflects if anything, troubled feelings about movements that aren’t Orthodox. I doubt that a Conservative rabbi, or a devout Conservative Jew would agree with his statement.

    I think it is important to remember that Hirsch’s position, while it may have been a response to the growing Reform movement of his time, advocated “modern” or unconventional Orthodox practices for the 19th century, such as the concept that secular study would have a place, and in fact a role, in the life of the devout Jew. In this context, Batnitzky’s statement that “Hirsch’s Orthodoxy is…the most modern of modern Judaisms” is totally understandable. I think it would surprise Levenson to discover that Hirsch’s writings are studied by Conservative and – yes – Reform Jews, just as are the earlier writings of Maimonides and Rashi.

  3. I remember when Dick Gephardt was running for the Democratic nomination The New Republic was saying Catholics like Gephardt were social democrats at heart, interested in the welfare of working people many of whom were Catholic and Democrats. I would think such a social democratic church would count as both religious and modern. Here we are a decade later with Santorum-Gingrich representing a new powerful revival of Catholic political leadership with Evangelicals in tow. Their battle against abortion and vice does not come from a social democratic place. It increasingly resembles the pre-war European Catholic right wing political parties, who saw their purpose as defeating Marxism and secular humanism. In favoring a Catholic underpinning to all social and political action, this aspect of the Catholic Church thinking has consistently seen modernism as the enemy to be defeated. In Jewish thinking the Agudah now seems to follow the Catholic activist position on abortion, homosexuality etc. At some point it seems to me it becomes a mistake, an obscurantism of sorts, to talk of non-secular, illiberal approaches to modernity. (Ayala Fader in her study of Bobover women, “Mitzvah Girls”, takes such a position. She is so persuasive the reader ends up with nonsense like “Satmar but not Bobov is anti-modernity.”)

  4. batnitzky also errs in her understanding of solomon maimon. maimon says “I am led to consent entirely to Mendelssohn’s reasoning… The fundamental laws of the Jewish religion are at the same time the fundamental laws of the Jewish state.” batnitzky, p. 120, considers this to be an esoteric criticism of Mendelssohn, who “essentially held the opposite.” however, this is a far-fetched interpretation if you consider Mendelssohn’s assessment of the law in ancient Israel, in which “state and religion were not conjoined but one; not connected but identical.” This is a well-known part of Mendelssohn’s theory, and apparently the one Maimon had in mind.

    On the other hand, it’s clear that Maimon is deviating from Mendelssohn view, and seems to be intentionally obtuse in misunderstanding Mendelssohn. I don’t think this qualifies as coded criticism however.

  5. EJ: You’ve got that backwards. Santorum is in tow, not the evangelicals. Gingrich is a recent convert and an ecclesiological nullity. Suggesting that the two are part and parcel of a sinister Catholic political movement of some kind is worrisome, for reasons that should be obvious to readers of this publication.

  6. bjm…I never used the word “sinister”.
    You find my thesis misguided and unconvincing. Ok. Maybe these links on the Paul Ryan phenomenum will help.

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