Joshua Shanes responds to Eliyahu Stern on Jewish Materialism

Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. He received his B.A. from the University of Illinois and his Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin. Professor Shanes’s research interests focus on Central and East European Jewry in the 19th and 20th centuries, specifically turn-of-the-century Galicia and the rise of Zionism as a counter-movement to the traditional Jewish establishment. Dr. Shanes became the Associate Director of Jewish Studies in Fall 2017. He is the author of Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Habsburg Galicia (Cambridge University Press, 2014).



Response to Eliyahu Stern

Thank you for the invitation to respond to Eli Stern’s important new book and his interview on your blog. Following your prompt, rather than offering a comprehensive book review, I’ll highlight what I think constitute the most salient contributions of the project, point to some pitfalls that need to be avoided in assessing its value, and then offer some personal reflections on the contemporary implications that Stern raises in his interview.

Non-Territorial Zionism

Historians are particularly prone to choose subjects whose absence from contemporary discourse distorts our understanding of a particularly personal contemporary issue. To this end, for example, frustrated at prevalent myths about Jewish national uniqueness, my first book (Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Habsburg Galicia) documented how early Zionists engaged in precisely the same national project as their non-Jewish peers, with whom they closely interacted. I traced how Zionists at the end of the last century pursued a radical and secular project to nationalize Jewish identity. The concept of Jews constituting a modern nation that warranted national rights – not a territorial state, but rather national minority rights in Europe – was a tough sell, but eventually won the day.

Stern’s book likewise seems to be countering a contemporary narrative that Zionism has always been a project focused on that particular land and political statehood. Stern is revisionist in this sense, though he acknowledges there are others, such as the Israeli scholar Dimitry Shumsky. I have likewise documented how few early Zionists cared about the actual land of Israel, beyond the mythic value it worked in propaganda. I argued that Zionism is best understood as one of the many innovative models (denominations) of Jewishness competing on the Jewish street following the disintegration of the autonomous community and pre-modern traditional Judaism.

Stern’s new work significantly deepens this story. The key intellectual transformation for Stern was the impact of materialist philosophy discovered by Russian Jews in the 1860s and 1870s, who then blended this worldview with Judaism itself, drawing upon biblical, kabbalistic and Hasidic sources, especially Chabad monism. Their categories, Stern repeats often, were above all “land, labor and bodies.” He contrasts this theology with Western denominations that transformed Judaism into a Protestant model focused on spiritual ideals.

By going back to the materialism that was critical for some Zionists – but not all – we also rediscover the centrality of Diaspora for Zionism itself! The point of “land” was not mythic, but rather practical; where could a healthy Jewish economic existence be assured? Thus it is no surprise that Zionists could support even emigration to the United States, where they saw the material structure to support Jewish national life.

Stern dutifully acknowledges scholars into whose work he is integrating his own contribution, but I notice a tendency of his to claim greater innovation than is warranted. To be sure, this is a critical piece of the puzzle that has been ignored for too long. I believe the argument would be strengthened, not weakened, though by narrowing the claim of his innovation. In a sense, Stern is less discovering something new – although I am not familiar with any work that traces this intellectual pedigree so thoroughly – then returning us to the materialist interests of some early Zionist historians themselves.

Post-war scholarship has trended against such materialist focus, and Stern’s work brings us back to this fundamental transformation of those early decades. He’s telling us that we have overreacted and are missing something important thereby.

When understood this way, it actually opens up new avenues of thinking. For example, my own work proved that Zionists were far more interested in building Jewish national consciousness and securing national minority rights in Diaspora than they were in any state building project in Palestine. This was an inherently secular project, focused above all on this world, not the world to come. Materialism lets us focus on land as a physical space.

Indeed, one of Smolenskin’s most remarkable comments noted the sand quality in Palestine for glass manufacturing, emphasizing it was not the Garden of Eden but an actual place on Earth. Focused on economic viability and healthy bodies. Smolenskin is a great figure to include, as he exemplifies the bridge between the Haskalah and its successor movements in the East, what Israel Bartal and others call the “National Haskalah.” Indeed, I think Stern’s distinction between post-maskilic Jewish materialism and the ideals of the Haskalah itself is overstated at times.

Limits on these Claims

First, any intellectual history bears the challenge of proving influence, both within the intellectual biography of an historical figure, and beyond that elite circle into a broad social movement. In some cases, this can be easily solved by intellectual genealogy. For example, Mordechai Kaplan was clearly quite influenced by his teacher, Joseph Sossnitz, and thus Stern’s argument for connection between the latter and the development of American Jewish notions of peoplehood is quite strong.

Actually, this book serves as a terrific prolegomenon to Noam Pianko’s Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation, perhaps suggesting it wasn’t quite so American after all, as well as Pianko’s earlier work on Kaplan in Zionism and the Roads Not Taken. I note that Stern intends to continue to pursue this line in his future work, which I eagerly await.

But other connections are more tenuous. I don’t recall a single leading Zionist – or Orthodox figure – in my own study of Galicia whose political philosophy connects to Jewish materialism in this way. Their attraction to Zionism came from other influences, although I imagine with this new perspective I will find evidence of it in some cases when I return to look for it. More fundamentally, proving the connection between an intellectual elite and a broad social movement is virtually impossible, even if intellectually exciting to consider.

I will leave it to specialists in Russian intellectual history to evaluate the accuracy of his portrayal of his pantheon, although the book was meticulously documented and is quite persuasive. However, his comments in the book and especially in the interview expanding beyond that elite group to explain the entire spectrum of modern Jewish politics – indeed even just to explain Zionism itself – overreaches to my mind. For example, Stern’s description of Ahad Ha’am as focused on “spiritualizing the idea of Jewish land, labor, and bodies” strikes me as a problematic reading of Ahad Ha’am.

Stern’s work should be used to enrich our understanding of the variant paths of Zionist leaders, rather than seeking to fit them into a single mold. For example, Gideon Shimoni famously distinguished between “disillusioned integrationists” – highly acculturated Jews who came to Zionism after experiencing anti-Semitism – and “modernizing ethnicists,” Jews who came out of a thickly Jewish cultural milieu but sought in Zionism a form of Jewishness that was modern, secular and still felt authentically Jewish. The latter category tended towards models of cultural Zionism that were far more interested in Jewish cultural questions than material existence, while the former tended towards precisely those material issues.

This is the distinction famously made between Theodor Herzl and Ahad Haam, but I found precisely this dichotomy in almost the entire leadership of Galician Zionism in its first decades. So stark was the distinction that a century before Gideon Shimoni ever noticed it, they were already discussing the phenomenon. Modernizing ethnicists were not especially interesting in Jewish materialism, in the Jewish body, and even less so in the Jewish land.

Perhaps the classic Zionist leader from the “disillusioned integrationist” category is Max Nordau, Herzl’s number two, but far more famous in his own day. No discussion of the Zionist obsession with remaking the Jewish body can avoid addressing Nordau and the Zionist Turnbewegung, or gymnastics movement. But even here, I personally don’t see how Nordau and the Jewish Turnbewegung comes out of the Jewish materialists of the 1860s and 70s, rather than the zeitgeist of nationalist sports clubs. In any event, it’s an elephant in the room that needs discussion.

I don’t imagine most of the non-academic readers excited by the implications of Stern’s ideas from the interview will find in the book the exploration that they seek. It is a hardcore technical intellectual history, closely and comprehensively tracing the intellectual development of a dozen key figures and following another dozen slightly less comprehensively. It will be required reading for all specialists. That said, the interview – and to a lesser extent the book itself – does raise some exciting questions:

American Jewry and Modern Orthodoxy

Stern argues that his research proves the “deep spiritual background to [American Jewry’s] progressive character.” The question of the anomalousness of American Jewish political behavior continues to vex specialists. This was immortalized in Milton Himmelfarb’s quip that Jews “earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans”, that is, they maintain a liberal politics despite achieving economic success. Certainly, Stern’s research suggests that the intellectual legacy of Judaism as demanding “fair distribution of the social surplus” and the protection of laborers warrants serious attention. But there are many other factors at play, and this pedigree alone hardly suffices to explain it all.

I am especially interested in Stern’s musing on contemporary Modern Orthodoxy. He cautions us to focus on the economic implications of religious life, as his subjects did 150 years ago. That wealth or the willingness to live off charity are critical aspects of choosing a modern Orthodox life in America is incontrovertible and warrants serious discussion. And this does have political consequences, above all in regards to the endless struggle for private school tuition vouchers.

But Stern’s penchant for broad statements misses the mark. He declared that Orthodox, “vote for Trump for the same reasons that they support school vouchers and day schools; it advances the reproduction of their wealth.” No, this explanation of recent Orthodox voting patterns is avoiding the critical role of Modern Orthodox culture and ideology, and there are many signs that point to this.

First of all, non-Orthodox Jews are not poorer than their Orthodox counterparts. Indeed, with more disposable income they should be even more inclined towards conservative candidates. But they are not. Non-Orthodox Jews voted against Trump in higher numbers than any demographic, besides African-Americans. Moreover, poorer Haredim were more likely to vote for Trump than their modern counterparts.

The economic argument only goes so far. People vote and act against their economic interests all the time. Countless studies have emerged since 2016 documenting that race and racial identity was the most consistent marker of voting patterns in 2016. To ignore Trump’s white nationalist politics – and the studies that demonstrate its effectiveness – is to repeat the mistake of Marxists a century ago who confidently predicted no world war could break out because socialists would prevent it. Instead, even the socialist parties themselves voted for war. Nationalism – tribalism – cannot be reduced merely to economic motivations.

I have written at length elsewhere about the crisis in Orthodoxy today in its embrace of Trump; evidence is widespread, and not just in dark red islands like Boro Park, Flatbush and West Rogers Park.

Thus the Orthodox Union, for example, swooned over Trump – a hate-mongering demagogue – for withdrawing from the Iran agreement. But they had nothing to say about the erosion of CHIP funding; about the deliberate separation of children from their parents *legally* seeking asylum in America; about Mike Pence praising Joe Arpaio as a man of law; or about countless examples of Trump’s hate-mongering, dehumanizing rhetoric, just to name a few examples in the week prior to the Iran decision. The exaltation crested in America and Israel during and after the opening of the embassy office in Jerusalem, a christening ceremony blessed by purveyors of hatred and even anti-Semitism John Hagee and Robert Jeffress.

“Political tribalism has trumped decency,” I wrote at the time of the inauguration, “as Orthodox Jews turned out in droves for a man who ran on xenophobic hatred, gross misogyny, race baiting, calls for violence, ignorance and conspiracy paranoia, an alliance with neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and a narcissistic cult of personality unlike anything in American history.” In the 18 months since that appeared, the situation has sharply deteriorated. And Orthodox support for Trump has sharply increased. It is not an economic issue, even less so than it is for the country as a whole.

Without minimizing the need to address the economic crisis, I believe instead that this moral crisis in Orthodoxy is far more essential to the meaning of Orthodoxy and its future. Our relationship to Trump and Trumpism is the single most important moral issue of our generation, and Orthodoxy is largely failing it. This will have a lasting impact on the meaning of Orthodoxy, as it will on Evangelical Christianity as well. We can’t escape ideology, identity and, yes, racism by focusing on economics and materialism.


I likewise reject explanations focused on Israel, per se, because it too is based on cultural assumptions and selective memory. President Obama, flaws and all, was a solidly pro-Israel president. On a personal level, he was almost certainly the most believing Zionist. (I urge anyone who has not yet seen it to watch his eulogy for Peres, which he personally wrote on the plane to the funeral.) His widespread rejection by the Orthodox reflects a broader American trend of Evangelical politics, to which Orthodoxy is increasingly connected, as well as racialized space of discourse that at least passively believed this black man could not have Israel’s interests at heart.

It also reflects the fact that he was a believing liberal Zionist, and even Jews who profess such ideals are often attacked as anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic. What I wrote last year remains true today: personal attacks, comparisons of the president to Antiochus (and calls for both to be blotted out), explosive vitriol totally divorced from reality, racist attacks, “stab in the back” rhetoric and horrific iconography remain widespread today in many Orthodox circles. This is not about economics; derision of Obama and slavish praise of Trump have become integrated into much of Orthodox religious culture.

Finally, returning briefly to Stern’s reflections on Israel and Zionism. Stern’s observations that the religious fetishization of the land is relatively new are spot on. However, I think he exaggerates the extent to which Zionism was focused on achieving greater economic equality, although that was a goal of the Labor Zionists most responsible for founding the state. The key ultimately was Jewish self-realization, understood in starkly secular terms.

But there is a broader connection between contemporary Zionism and its earliest decades in the nineteenth century, and Stern points to it in demonstrating how his thinkers reconfigure Judaism itself to reflect their materialist ethos. Zionism has always constituted a range of “religious” denominations, forms of Jewishness.

Zionism answers the same basic questions as its Liberal, Haredi, and other competitors: What are a Jew’s essential obligations? What are its most important “holy” days and rituals? Who is a member of the community in good standing and who, by their actions or beliefs, has moved beyond the pale? What texts and traditions are most important and how do you interpret them? What texts and traditions are ancillary and can be discarded? Contemporary rhetoric that outs anti-Zionists – and that term has become quite elastic in the hands of the current Israeli government and its supporters – as “heretics” and “enemies of the Jewish people” reflects this reality.

In any event, I applaud Stern’s call to recognize the economic consequences of a modern religious life and to create spaces, and forms of Judaism, that break this pattern. I would hope that the search for new models of Orthodoxy would consider the moral crises outlined above.

As a religious denomination, Orthodoxy should easily be able to separate from this Judaism of right-wing politics. We supposedly have a world of Torah depth – notions of God’s presence, or at least daily prayer, study and mitzvot – on which to base our Jewish communities and identities. And yet in many communities, the “heresy” of supporting Liberal Zionism – or God forbid advocating for a binational democratic state — brings greater social consequence than outspoken atheism or even openly violating Shabbat. We should be able to build a religious community as committed to the prophets as it is to the Code of Jewish Law Orach Chayim, as committed (as Jewish values) to condemning racism and hate-mongering as it is to learning, as committed to legislation and social policy that protects the vulnerable as it is to shabbes and kashrus observance.

And, finally, a community that does all of this without setting those values aside when it comes to Israel, and without replacing any of those core pillars of Judaism with the civic religion of nationalism, which so easily becomes a form of idol worship, elevating land and stones over people and God. For myself, in any event, it should avoid confusing our relationship to Torah and God from the political goal of Jewish democratic sovereignty. It can recognize the importance of Israel and its legitimacy and avoid demonizing language against Jews that privileges Palestinian sacred narratives over Jewish ones. At the same time, it can understand that project as a secular enterprise without exploiting Jewish symbols and eschatological language out of their original context for secular purposes. And can recognize the validity of competing Palestinian narratives, their right to equal treatment, and the immorality of the occupation.

Scattered communities of Jews approaching this model do exist, although they tend to blend progressive opposition to racism and social injustice with a messianic Zionist theology – and a commitment to Israel’s presence in the West Bank – even more radical than most.

Perhaps academic research such as Eliyahu Stern’s can help us challenge the myths, the sacred narratives, that block us from seeing these possibilities, assuming the community can accept its findings.

I’ll conclude with my final thoughts on why these matters on not just economic but also cultural with a quote from an op-ed that I wrote 18 months ago:

Recently, the iconic Orthodox superstar Mordechai ben David – performing in Jerusalem – shared his joy that the “kushi” would leave the White House, a Hebrew term that in this context best translates as the n-word. The audience cheered, comfortable with the racist slur and blending their rightwing Israeli and American political agendas with their identity as “Orthodox” Jews. The singer assumed (safely) that his audience agreed with the sentiment and with his manner of expressing it. We have work to do.

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