Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry

American Jews have forgotten their letters and words.

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What About American Judaism?

It was not long before the comparative diasporalogists in the seminar room extended our inquiry into the Judaism of the modern world, of the present day. What, we asked, are the defining characteristics and the salient accomplishments of the greatest of the modern diasporas, the Jewish community in America?

An answer suggested itself, and it was not an altogether edifying answer. The achievements of American Jewry, we agreed, have been primarily communal, institutional, political, social, financial,or organizational; but they have not been primarily spiritual, philosophical, artistic, or literary. To be sure, the American Jewish contribution to the thought and the art and the literature of the United States has been extraordinary; but that is not what we were asking.

We were asking what Jews have done for Jews--how we have developed the resources of our tradition internally, for ourselves. Not how we will have mattered to America, but how we will have mattered to Judaism. In this respect, as I say, our answer did not altogether please us.

The history of the American Jewish community offered some pretty clear reasons for this brilliant but stunted trajectory. For a start, the American Jewish community is an immigrant community, and an immigrant community cannot be relied upon to develop an indigenous identity. It prefers instead to depend on the identity that it carried with it; and it will experience what it carried with it as especially vulnerable or especially oppressive.

The objective of a displaced community is always to defend itself against a greater rupture. A transplanted culture will always have a powerful anxiety about authenticity, about demonstrating its fidelity to, and even its subaltern relationship to, its circumstances of origin. In some ways it will seek to reproduce its circumstances of origin, explaining (as the Jews have explained for many centuries) that minhag avotenu b'yadenu, "the customs of our ancestors are in our hands."

This ideal of the reproduction of the past holds even--or especially--in cases in which a community's circumstances of origin may not significantly resemble the circumstances in which it now lives. This disparity may cast a community into a strange sensation of dissonance, which it may then go to great lengths to deny. I believe this to be one of the central dilemmas facing the American Jewish community.

The Spoiled Brats of Jewish History

One of the great challenges to the formulation of an indigenous Judaism in America, an American Judaism, is the magnitude of our good fortune. We are the luckiest Jews who ever lived--indeed, for a reason that I will presently suggest, we are the spoiled brats of Jewish history. To a degree unprecedented in the history of our people, our own experience is discontinuous with the experience of our ancestors: not only our ancient ancestors, but also our recent ones. Their experience, particularly their experience of persecution, is increasingly unrecognizable to us.

We do not possess a natural knowledge of their pains and their pressures. In order to acquire such a knowledge, we rely more and more upon commemorations--so much that we are in danger of transforming American Jewish culture into an essentially commemorative culture. Owing to the magnitude of our good fortune, the third person plural in our prayers gets stretched thinner and thinner, and the leap of imagination that is required for our identification with our ancestors grows harder and harder, until we are left to wonder just how the old resources may fit the new circumstances.  

This is not the only obstacle to the creation of a Jewish tradition of our own that could match, in the rigor of its thinking and the richness of its learning, the Jewish traditions that preceded us. History may have saved the Jews of America, but it also distracted them. There were the great savage mid-century dramas of Jewish destruction and Jewish rebirth, which generations of American Jews kept far away from themselves--the Holocaust and Israel: the near-apocalypse and the pseudo-redemption of the 1940s.

Confronted with events of such enormity, it was inevitable--indeed, it was also ethical--that the Jews of America came to formulate their Jewish feelings in the terms of Jewish existences utterly unlike their own. But that, too, is a reason for the sour conclusion that the comparative diasporologist draws about American Jewry. Until very recently, we lived off of the spiritual and historical resources of other Jews. This is changing, for reasons that are too complicated to go into here. Suffice it to say that, for American Judaism, the moment of truth has finally arrived.

There is still another cause for the relative thinness of Jewish culture in America. This impediment to our taking our rightful place in the chain of our tradition has everything to do with Jewish languages and Jewish books, and with the changing relationship of Jews to Jewish languages and to Jewish books.

Obviously, there are Jewish writers and Jewish writings wherever we look. Jewish culture in America is in some ways thicker than it has ever been. There is no denying it. But thicker compared to what? Surely the standard by which we must judge ourselves as Jews, and by which our children and our historians will judge us, is not an American standard, even if we are also Americans; and it is not even an American Jewish standard. It is a Jewish standard, the Jewish standard, the classical Jewish standard, the standard of our tradition.

I take it to be a fundamental principle of Jewish life that it is by our tradition that we must measure ourselves. So the questions that we must ask ourselves are these: How does what we have created compare to what we inherited? Did we add to our tradition or did we subtract from it? Did we transmit it or did we let it fall away? Did we enrich it or deplete it? Among the great Jewries, what is our distinction?

Measuring ourselves by the standard of our tradition, we should note immediately one distinction of the American Jewish community; and it is with this distinction that I have come here to trouble you. The distinction that I have in mind is the illiteracy of American Jewry. I mean, its Jewish illiteracy.

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Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.