Jewish America's Cultural Vitality

A response to Leon Wieseltier.

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This article was written in response to Leon Wieseltier's working paper, Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry, which was presented at the Bronfman Vision Forum's Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Writing at the turn of the 20th century, Moses Weinberger, a disgruntled rabbi who hailed originally from Hungary, limned a scathing portrait of America's Jews. By his lights, they were an empty-headed, foolish bunch, given to strutting and preening and not much else. If Weinberger had his druthers, European Jews would not make the same mistake he did. They would think twice before crossing the high seas to throw in their lot with this community of dunderheads.

Though Leon Wieseltier's prose is far more nimble, his range of sources far more encyclopedic, and his sensibility far more knowing and canny than Weinberger's, the celebrated New Republic literary editor and cultural critic is at one with the good rabbi in his unabashed disdain for American Jewry.  

Abraham Geiger

Abraham Geiger believed Hebrew
to be dead in the 19th Century.

In his "Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry," Wieseltier, like Weinberger before him, cannot find a kind word to say about his American coreligionists, whom he dubs the "spoiled brats of Jewish history." That America's Jews have created an unparalleled network of Jewish institutions of higher learning, dramatically expanded the range of opportunities for Jewish women, and in things large and small display enormous cultural vitality and originality at the grass roots is, for him, of paltry, glancing significance when compared with what he takes to be the community's wanton disregard of its textual and linguistic patrimonies.

Alternately saddened by and infuriated at American Jewry's putative failure to hold on tight to Hebrew and Yiddish, Wieseltier acts as if his fellow American Jews have let him down.

Back in Germany

Perhaps they have. But then, American Jewry is hardly the first modern Jewish community to turn its back on Hebrew. In its rejection of that language, German Jewry had its New World counterparts beat by a mile--and a century. 

The "Hebrew language has ceased to be alive for the people," Abraham Geiger categorically declared in 1845. "A German prayer strikes a deeper chord than a Hebrew prayer." To those who would argue that without Hebrew, Judaism would simply wither away, he gave no quarter, declaring that "anyone who imagines Judaism to be walking on the crutches of a language deeply offends it."

Wieseltier's indictment of America's Jews sidesteps the Geigers of Jewish history. He makes it seem as if the Jews of America are the first and only Jews ever to barter away their linguistic rights. I suspect that's because he views German Jewry's wholesale abandonment of Jewish languages as programmatic, deliberate, purposeful, and even noble--part of a national project of redefinition.

Not so American Jewry. Its abandonment of Hebrew, Wieseltier would argue, is casual, heedless, inadvertent: the result of anomie, of hefker, rather than of thought and deliberation. And in his book, that's the graver sin.

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Jenna Weissman Joselit

Jenna Weissman Joselit holds the Charles E. Smith Chair in Judaic Studies at the George Washington University. The author of the prize-winning book, The Wonders of America, she is also a monthly columnist for The Forward as well as a frequent contributor to the New Republic. Professor Weissman Joselit is currently at work on a book about America's relationship to the Ten Commandments.