Why No New Judaisms in the Twentieth Century?

Why No New Judaisms in the Twentieth

Jacob Neusner
The Institute for
Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey

Since Professor Hugh Nibley has served
the scholarly community as a scholar of religion through the study of his
specialty, it is appropriate to speak of religions through the study of another
particular specialty. What I wish to explain in his honor is
what conditions favor the formation of religious systems. This I do through
particular attention to the condition of Judaism in the twentieth century, in
which, for a long spell now, there has been no new Judaism. As we face the
onset of a new age of systemopoeia,
of the making of religious systems, in Judaism, with the renaissance of energy
and faith so characteristic of contemporary Judaism, it is well to look back on
the barren age now ended. I do so as an act of esteem and respect for a scholar
of religion who, when he receives his audience, will be seen as one of the
fecund intellects of the study of religion in our century.

The middle of the twentieth
century—until practically our own time—has produced no important
and influential Judaic systems. The well-established Judaisms that flourish
today—Reform, Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism—all took shape in the
nineteenth century, and in Germany. From after the beginning of Reform Judaism
at the start of the nineteenth century to the later twentieth century we
identify three periods of enormous system-building in Judaism, or, to invent a
word, Judaic systemopoeia. At each of
these the manufacture of Judaic systems came into sharp focus: 1850-60 for the
systems of Orthodoxy and the positive Historical School; and, for the secular
Judaisms, 1890-1900 for Jewish Socialism and Zionism. So all of the Judaic
systems came into being in the hundred years from 1800 to 1900: first Reform,
then, some decades later, in the middle of the century, Orthodoxy and the
Historical School; thereafter, again some decades later, at the end of the
century, Zionism and Jewish Socialism. We therefore wonder how it is possible that
one period produced a range of Judaic systems of depth and enormous breadth,
which attracted mass support and persuaded many of the meaning of their lives,
while the next three quarters of a century did not. And, further, what are we
now to expect, on the eve of the twenty-first century? For I think we are on
the threshold of another great age of systemopoeia in Judaism.1


Why no new Judaisms for so long? We may
eliminate answers deriving from the mere accidents of political change; given
the important shifts in the political circumstances of Israel, the Jewish
people, we should have anticipated exercises in symbolic redefinition to
accommodate the social change at hand. That is to say, the stimulus for
system-building surely should have come from the creation of the Jewish state,
an enormous event. Take the state of Israel, for example. The creation of the
first Jewish state in two thousand years yielded nothing more interesting than
a flag and a rather domestic politics, not a worldview and a way of life such
as the founders of the American republic, Madison and Hamilton, enunciated, for
example, and such as their contemporaries, Washington and Jefferson, for
instance, imagined that they constructed. State-building need not yield large
visions and revisioning of everyday life and how it should be lived; in most
cases it has not done so, though in the American case it did. In the Israeli
case, it did not. But no Judaic systems have emerged there, only rehearsals and
re-presentations of European ones. The rise of the state of Israel destroyed a
system, the Zionist one, but replaced it with nothing pertinent to Jewry at

But American Jewry presents the same
picture. Wars and dislocations, migration and relocation—these in the
past stimulated those large-scale reconsiderations that generated and sustained
system-building in Jews’ societies. The political changes affecting Jews in
America, who became Jewish Americans in ways in which Jews did not become
Jewish Germans or Jewish Frenchmen or Englishmen or women, yielded no
encompassing system. The Judaic system of Holocaust and Redemption leaves
unaffected the larger dimensions of human existence of Jewish Americans—and
that is part of its power. When we consider the strength, in the Judaisms of
America, of Reform, Orthodoxy, and Historical or Conservative Judaism, each in
its German formulation, we see the reality.

The Judaic systems of the nineteenth
century have endured in America, none of them—until now—facing
significant competition of scale. That means millions of people moved from one
world to another, changed in language, occupation, and virtually every other
significant social and cultural indicator—and produced nothing more than
a set of recapitulations of three Judaic systems serviceable under utterly
different circumstances. The failure of Israeli Jewry to generate
system-building finds its match in the still more startling unproductivity of
American Jewry. Nothing much has happened in either of the two massive
communities of Israel in the twentieth century.

Political change should have
precipitated fresh thought and experiment, and Judaic systems should have come
forth. So change of an unprecedented order yielded a rehearsal of ideas
familiar only from other contexts. Israeli nationalism as a Jewish version of
third-world nationalism, American Judaism as a Jewish version of a national
cultural malaise on account of a lost war—these set forth a set of stale
notions altogether. Let me now recapitulate the question, before proceeding to
my answer: why no system-building for seventy-five years or so? And we come,
then, to the reason for what is, in my judgment, the simple fact that, beyond
World War I, Judaic system-building (with the possible exception of the system
of Judaic reversion) has come to an end.


I see three pertinent factors to
explain why no Judaic systems have come forth since the end of the nineteenth
century. I do not claim that these factors are sufficient. But I think they are
necessary to answer the question before us.

The Holocaust

The demographic factor comes in two
parts. First, the most productive sector of world Jewry perished. Second, the
conditions that put forth the great systemic creations vanished with the six
million who died. Stated as naked truth, not only too many (one is too many!),
but the wrong Jews died. What I mean is that Judaic systems in all their
variety emerged in Europe, not in America or in what was then Palestine and is
now the state of Israel, and within Europe they came from Central and Eastern
European Jewry. We may account for the systemopoeia of Central and Eastern European Jews in two ways. First, the Jews in the East,
in particular, formed a vast population with enormous learning and diverse
interests. Second, the systems of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries arose
out of a vast population that lived in self-aware circumstances, not scattered
and individual but composed and bonded. The Jews who perished formed enormous
and self-conscious communities of vast intellectual riches.

To them, being Jewish constituted a
collective enterprise, not an individual predilection. In the West, the
prevailing attitude of mind identifies religion with belief to the
near-exclusion of behavior, and religion tends to identify itself with faith;
so religion is understood as a personal state of mind or an individual’s
personal and private attitude. So the Judaic systems that took shape beyond
1900 exhibit that same Western bias not for society but self, not for culture
and community but conscience and character. Under such circumstances systemopoeia hardly flourishes, for
systems speak of communities and create worlds of meaning, answer pressing
public questions, and produce broadly self-evident answers. This can be seen in
the contrast between the circumstance of reversionary systems of Judaisms,
which involves individuals “coming home” one by one, with the context
of the ideological Judaic systems, all of them, in fact, mass movements and
Jewish idiomatic statements of still larger mass movements. The demographic
fact, then, speaks for itself. I do not know whether one can specify a particular
demographic (and not merely intellectual) base necessary for the foundation of
a given Judaic system. As I said, the reversionary systems demand a demographic
base of one person, but Zionist and Socialist systems, millions. Yet everyone
who has traced the history of Judaic systems in modern and contemporary times
has found in the mass populations of Central and Eastern Europe the point of
origin of nearly all systems. That fact then highlights our original
observation that the period of the preparation for, then the mass murder of,
European Jewry from the later 1930s to the mid-1940s, marked the end of Judaic systemopoeia. We cannot, then,
underestimate the impact of the destruction of European Jewry.

One of the as-yet-untallied costs of
the murder of six million Jews in Europe therefore encompasses the matter of
system-building. The destruction of European Jewry in Eastern and Central
Europe brought to an end for a very long time the great age of Judaic system
construction and explains the paralysis of imagination and will that has left
the Jews to forage in the detritus of an earlier age: rehearsing other peoples’
answers to other peoples’ questions. Indeed, I maintain that until Judaic
system-builders come to grips with the full extent of the effects of the
“Holocaust,” they will do little more than recapitulate a world now
done with, for the systems before us answered the questions urgent to European
Jewry in its situation in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth
centuries—those questions, not others.

Yet the demographic issue by itself
cannot suffice. For today’s Jewish populations produce massive communities,
three hundred thousand here, half a million there, and there are, after all,
both American Judaism and Israeli nationalism to testify to the possibilities
of system-building even beyond the mass murder of European Jewry. When we
consider, moreover, the strikingly unproductive character of large populations
of Jews, the inert and passive character of ideology (such as it is) in the
Jewries of France, Britain, South Africa, and the Soviet Union, for instance,
in which, so far as the world knows, no Judaic systems have come forth—no
worldviews joined to definitions of a way of life capable of sustaining an
Israel, a society—the picture becomes clear. Even where there are
populations capable of generating and sustaining distinctive Judaic systems,
none is in sight. So we have to point to yet another factor, which, as a matter
of fact, proves correlative with the first, the loss of European Jewry.

The Demise of Intellect

What we noticed about the Judaic
systems of the twentieth century—their utter indifference to the received
writings of the Judaism of the dual Torah (i.e., oral and written
Torah)—calls our attention to the second explanation for the end of systemopoeia. It is the
as-yet-unappreciated factor of sheer ignorance, the profound pathos of Jews’
illiteracy in all books but the book of the streets and marketplaces of the
day. That second factor, the utter loss of access to that permanent treasury of
the human experience of Jewry preserved and handed on in the canonical Torah,
has already impressed us: the extant raw materials of system-building now
prove barren and leached.

The Judaisms that survive provide ready
access to emotional or political encounters, readily available to all—by
definition. But they offer none to that confrontation of taste and judgment,
intellect and reflection, that takes place in traditional cultures and with
tradition: worlds in which words matter. People presently resort mainly to the
immediately accessible experiences of emotions and of politics. We recall that
the systems of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made constant reference
to the Judaism of the dual Torah, at first intimate, later on merely by way of
allusion and rejection. The nineteenth-century systems drew depth and breadth
of vision from the received Judaism of the dual Torah, out of which they
produced—by their own word—variations and continuations. So the
received system and its continuators realized not only the world of perceived
experience at hand. They also made accessible the alien but interesting human
potentialities of other ages, other encounters altogether with the
potentialities of life in society. The repertoire of human experience in the
Judaism of the dual Torah presents as human options the opposite of the banal,
the one-dimensional, the immediate. Jews received and used the heritage of
human experience captured, as in amber, in the words of the dual Torah. So they
did not have to make things up fresh every morning or rely only on that small
sector of the range of human experience immediately accessible and near at

By contrast, Israeli nationalism and
the American Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption—the two most influential
systems that move Jews to action in the world today—scarcely concern
themselves with that Judaism. They find themselves left only with what is near
at hand. They work with the raw materials made available by contemporary
experience—emotions on the one side, politics on the other. Access to
realms beyond requires learning in literature, the only resource for human
experience beyond the immediate. But the Judaic systems of the twentieth
century, except for the reversionary Judaisms, do not resort to the reading of
books as a principal act of their way of life, in the way in which the Judaism
of the dual Torah and its continuators did and do. The consequence is a
strikingly abbreviated agenda of issues, a remarkably one-dimensional program
of urgent questions.

In this regard the reversionary systems
point toward a renewed engagement with the canon and system of the dual Torah,
but consequently I think those systems prove (quite properly) transitory and
preparatory: ways back to “Sinai.” So their very definitive characteristic
points toward what has not happened:
a systematic exploitation, by system-builders working out an original and
urgent program of questions and answers, of the received Judaism of the dual
Torah. The reason for neglect is the self-evident fact that the Jews of the
world today, especially in France and elsewhere in Western Europe, the Soviet
Union, and the United States, but also in Canada, Australia, South Africa,
Argentina, Brazil, and other areas of sizable demographic consequence, in point
of fact have lost all access to the Judaism of the dual Torah that sustained
fifteen centuries of Jews before now. The appeal to contemporary experience,
whether in emotions or in politics, draws upon not so rich a treasury of
reflection and response to the human condition. And the utter failure of
imagination, the poverty of contemporary system-building where it takes place
at all, shows the result. From a mansion Israel has moved into a hovel. Jews in
the European, African, and Australian worlds no longer regard “being
Jewish” as a matter of intellect at all, and so far as they frame a
worldview for themselves, it bears few points of intersection with the Judaic

One reason that Judaic systems did not
emerge in the American Judaic setting derives from the astounding failure of
education to transmit to the bulk of Jewry in America the received system in
any accessible form. American Jewry denied itself access to the resources on
which other Jewish communities had drawn, that is, the canon of the Judaism of
the dual Torah, and attempted to create a domestic Judaism resting on
experiences no one had undergone or would want to. It has virtually no school
system for fully half of its children, and most of the other half receive an
education of slight consequence. So Jewish Americans have neither studied Torah
nor closely reflected on their own lives in a free society.

They have opted for neither the worst
of one world nor the the best of another. That is, they focused such
imaginative energies as they generated upon “the Holocaust,” and they
centered their eschatological fantasies on “the beginning of our
redemption” in the state of Israel. But they had not gone through the one
nor chosen to participate in the other. Not having lived through the mass
murder of European Jewry, American Jews restated the problem of evil in
unanswerable form and then transformed that problem into an obsession. Not
choosing to settle in the state of Israel, moreover, American Jews further
defined redemption, the resolution of the problem of evil, in terms remote from
their world. One need not look far to find the limitations of the system of
American Judaism: its stress on a world other than the one in which the
devotees in fact were living. As to the reversionary Judaisms of the hour, it
is too soon to tell what they will yield or how they will endure. By nature
transient; by doctrine alien to the canonical system they allege, they merely
recapitulate; and by program of deed separate from the world to which they
allegedly propose to gain access, they have yet to show us how, and whether,
they will last. That is what I mean by failure of intellect.

The Triumph of Large-Scale Organization

Third and distinct from the other two
is the bureaucratization of Jewry in consequence of the tasks it rightly has
identified as urgent. To meet the problems Jews find self-evidently urgent,
they have had to adopt a way of life of building and maintaining and working
through very large organizations and institutions. The contemporary class
structure of Jewry therefore places in positions of influence Jews who place
slight value on matters of intellect and learning and that same system accords
no sustained hearing to Jews who strive to reflect. The tasks, instead, are
those that call forth other gifts than those of heart and mind. The exemplary
experiences of those who exercise influence derives from politics, through law,
from economic activity, through business, from institutional careers, through
government, industry, and the like. As the gifts of establishing routine take
precedence over the endowments of charisma of an intellectual order, the
experiences people know and understand—politics, emotions of ready
access—serve, also, for the raw materials of Judaic system-building.
Experiences that, in a Judaic context, people scarcely know, do not so serve.
This I take to be yet another consequence of the ineluctable tasks of the
twentieth century: to build large-scale organizations to solve large-scale
problems. Organizations, in the nature of things, require specialization. The
difference between the classes that produce systemic change today and those who
created systems in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries then proves
striking. What brought it about, if not the great war conducted against the Jews,
beginning not in 1933 but with the organization of political anti-Semitism
joined to economic exclusion, from the 1880s onward. So in a profound sense the
type of structure now characteristic of Jewry represents one of the uncounted
costs of the Holocaust.

Intellectuals, today no longer needed,
create systems. Administrators do not; and when they need ideas, they call for
propaganda and hire publicists and journalists. When we remember that all of
the Judaic systems of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries derive from
intellectuals, we realize what has changed. Herzl was a journalist, for
instance, and those who organized Jewish Socialism and brought Yiddishism all
wrote books. The founders of the system of Reform Judaism were mainly scholars,
rabbis, writers, and other intellectuals. It is not because they were lawyers
that the framers of the positive Historical School produced the historicistic
system that they made. The emphases of Hirsch and other creators of Orthodoxy
lay on doctrine, and all of them wrote important books and articles of a
reflective and even philosophical character. So much for Reform, Orthodox,
Conservative, Socialist-Yiddishist, and Zionist systems: the work of
intellectuals, one and all.


These three factors—demographic,
cultural, institutional and bureaucratic—scarcely exhaust the potential
explanation for the long span of time in which, it would appear, Jews have
brought forth few Judaic systems, relying instead on those formed in a prior
and different age and circumstance. But I do think all of them will figure in
any rigorous account of what has happened, and has not happened, in the present
century. And they point directly or indirectly to the extraordinary price yet
to be exacted from Jewry on account of the murder of six million Jews in
Europe. The demographic loss requires no comment, and the passage of time from
the age in which the Judaism of the dual Torah predominated has already
impressed us. Those causes are direct and immediate.

But the correlation between mass murder
and an exemplary leadership of lawyers and businessmen and politicians and
generals demands explanation. Administrators, not intellectuals, bureaucrats,
or charismatic thinkers, formed the cadre of the hour. In an age in which, to
survive at all, Jews had to address the issues of politics and economics, build
a state (in the state of Israel) and a massive and effective set of
organizations capable of collective political action (in the United States),
not sages but politicians in the
deepest sense of the word, namely, those able to do the work of the polity,
alone could do what had to be done. And they did come forward. They did their
task, as well as one might have hoped. The time therefore demanded gifts other
than those prized by intellectuals. And the correlation between mass murder and
a culture of organizations proves exact: the war against the Jews called forth
from the Jews people capable of building institutions to protect the
collectivity of Israel, so far as anyone could be saved. Consequently much was
saved. But much was lost.

Celebrating the victory of survival, we
should not lose sight of the cost. Determining the full cost of the murder of
the six million Jews of Europe will require a long time. The end of the
remarkable age of Judaic systemopoeia may prove a more serious charge against the future, a more calamitous cost of
the destruction of European Jewry, than anyone has yet realized. The gas
chambers suffocated not merely Jews, but spirit too.


The banality of survival forms a
counterpoint to the banality of evil: in an age of the common, why look for
distinction in Jewry? People draw upon only their experience of emotions,
inside, and politics, without. They then assign themselves the central position
in the paradigm of humanity, seeing what they are as all they can become. But
we need not find that surprising. Who does otherwise, except for those with
eyes upon a long past, a distant future: a vision? The system-builders, the
intellectuals, book-readers, book-writers, truth-tellers—these are the
ones who appeal to experience of the ages as precedent for the hour. This
characterized all the Judaic systems born in the death of the received one:
whether Reform theologians invoked the precedent of change or Orthodox ones of
Sinai. Today there are no system-builders, so we can scarcely ask for the rich
perspectives, the striking initiatives, that yield compelling systems of life
and thought. But whence the nullities that have taken the place of the
system-builders? And how come the banality of the Judaic systems of the hour?

The twentieth century presented to Jews
the necessity to create large bureaucracies to deal with large problems. In the
nature of things, individuals, participants in systems of belief and behavior,
had sought explanations for what they themselves did. Now the place for the
individual was his or her own place: a part of the task, not the entirety of
it. It is no accident that system-building came to an end in the encounter with
an age of large Jewish organizations: armies and governments in the state of
Israel and enormous instruments of fund-raising and politics in America. The
resentment of intellectuals, no longer needed, should not allow ready rejection
of their observation. The lawyers and administrators and managers who have
succeeded the intellectuals did not build systems, because they built something
else, and what they could build was what the hour required—the last, most
awful charge exacted by the Holocaust from the survivors.

So let us dwell on this matter of the
building by specialists of large organizations. Such specialization in modern
times meant that systems required their elite (the specialists) and relegated
all others to a life essentially at the fringes of the system. Every Judaist in
a Judaic system of the dual Torah said prayers on his own (women were not given
the same task). But Zionists who attended meetings did not do the same thing as
did the Zionists who built the land, for example. Specialization as part of the
construction of a rational system, a calling expressed in a particularity of
work—these characterize organization, that is, collective action, in
modern times. And all the Judaic systems of the twentieth century conformed to
the requirements of organization in that age: all formed, as I said, systems of
organization, meaning specialization for all, but then the doing of the
distinctive work of the system by only a few. The specialized work of
organizations demanded from all their renunciation of a role in the general
scheme of the system.

In so stating, of course, I draw upon
the image of the iron cage of Max Weber.2 Weber alludes to the
“iron cage” in the following famous passage: “The care for
external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the saint like a light
cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment, but fate decreed that the cloak
should become an iron cage.” What he says—in a justly famous passage
of enormous power—about economic action applies equally to the sort of
large-scale systemic, existential behavior to which we refer when we speak of a
Judaism characterized by the following:

Where the fulfillment of the calling
cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, . . .
the individual generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all. . . . No
one knows who will live in this cage in the future. . . . For of the last stage
of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: Specialists without
spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a
level of civilization never before achieved.3

The point of intersection with
organizations in the twentieth century I locate at the reference to
“specialists without spirit.” When we note the division of labor that
has rendered a mockery of the category of a way of life joined to a worldview,
we understand why we cannot define a distinctive way of life associated with a
given worldview.

When I describe the worldview of a
movement, in the nineteenth century I allude to an encompassing theory that
explains a life of actions in a given and very particular pattern. When I speak
of the worldview of a movement of the twentieth century, I refer to the
explanation of why people, in a given, distinctive circumstance, should do
pretty much what everyone is doing somewhere, under some equivalent
circumstance: an army is an army anywhere, but study of the Torah is unique to
Israel. Anyone can join a union, and why invoke a Judaic worldview to explain
why to join a Jewish union? I know only that Judaic worldviews did offer such
an explanation and made a great difference to those to whom that explanation
answered an urgent question. What has changed? I find the answer in the history
of Western civilization. The processes that shaped the Judaic systems of modern
and contemporary times form part of the larger movement of humanity—a
distinctive and therefore exemplary part to be sure. Let me specify what I
think has made all the difference.

The critical Judaic component of the
Christian civilization of the West spoke of God and God’s will for humanity,
what it meant to live in God’s image, after God’s likeness. So said the Judaism
of the dual Torah, so said Christianity in its worship of God made flesh. So
that message of humanity in God’s image, of a people seeking to conform to
God’s will, found resonance in the Christian world as well: both components of
the world, the Christian dough, the Judaic yeast, bore a single message about
humanity. The first century beyond the Christian formulation of the West, that
is, the twentieth century, spoke of class and nation, not one humanity in the
image of one God. Calling for heroes, it demanded sacrifice not for God but for
state. When asked what it meant to live with irreconcilable difference, the
century responded with total war on civilians in their homes, made foxholes.
Asked to celebrate the image of humanity, the twentieth century created an
improbable likeness of humanity: mountains of corpses, the dead of the Somme of
World War I and of Auschwitz of World War II and all the other victims of the
state that took the place of church and synagogue, even up to the third of the
population of the Khmer killed by their own government, and the half of the
world’s Armenians by what, alas, was theirs,—and the Jews, and the Jews,
and the Jews.

The first century found its enduring
memory in one man on a hill, on a cross, the twentieth, six million making up a
Golgotha—a hill of skulls—of their own. No wonder then that the
Judaisms of the age struggled heroically to frame a Judaic system appropriate
to the issues of the age— and failed. Who would want to have succeeded to
frame a worldview congruent to such an age, a way of life to be lived in an age
of death? And no wonder—if I may pass my opinion—that the Judaisms
of the age proved transient and evanescent. For, I like to think no Judaic
system could ever have found an enduring fit with an age such as the one that,
at the turning of the century, draws to a close. The age of reversionary
Judaisms, dawning at the first light of the century beyond, forms the right,
the hopeful epitaph on the Judaisms of the dying century. They had formed
Judaisms that, to Israel, the Jewish people, struggled to speak of hope and of
life in the valley of the darkest shadows. But they had to fail, and their
failure forms their vindication. For the Jews are a people that never could
find a home in the twentieth century. That, in the aspect of eternity, may
prove the highest tribute God will pay to those whom God among humanity first


But I think the impact of the Holocaust
has run its course. While the events will never pass from our hearts, the power
of those events to form a system is pretty well exhausted by the Judaism of
Holocaust and Redemption. And that Judaism, for a variety of reasons, is losing
its hold. First, it stresses negative experiences, on which people find they
cannot raise their children. Second, it focuses upon the world beyond, not the
life within, and people turn to a Judaism to guide their lives together, not
their public policy toward the outside world. Third, the Judaism of Holocaust
and Redemption appeals, for the redemptive myth, to the creation of the state
of Israel. But that event has now lost its power to surprise and enchant. The
state of Israel is an important fact of Jewish existence, which most of us
celebrate every day. It is not the object of wonder and awe that it was forty
years ago, nor should it be. In all, we have outgrown the events of World War
II and its aftermath. And that is as it should be: generations do pass.

But among the five great Judaisms of
the first third of the twentieth century, none retains vitality, and all have
lost nerve. Jewish Socialism cum Yiddishism is a victim of the Holocaust.
Zionism achieved fulfillment and has no important message that Israelism within
the complex of the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption fails to present.
Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox Judaisms all have lost out, Conservatism
because of a failure of purpose, Reform because of a failure of nerve, and
Orthodoxy because of a failure of intellect.

Conservative Judaism struggles to find
room in the vital center that it created, for everyone wants a place there.
Reform Judaism, having sold its soul to the Judaism of Holocaust and
Redemption, has lost the source of its energy and power in the prophetic
tradition of Judaism. Western Orthodoxy answered questions about living by the
Torah in Western society that few seem to wish to ask anymore. Those who want
tradition and also a place in an open society—the question that Hirsch
answered in nineteenth-century Germany—find it in a variety of Judaisms.
The diverse Orthodoxies now concur, with the exception of the minority around Yeshiva
University, that to be Orthodox is to live a life of segregation and scarcely
veiled hostility to the rest of the world of Judaism, not to mention to goyim.
Accordingly, everyone wants a place in the center.

The single most powerful idea in modern
and contemporary Judaic life is the ideal we now identify with Conservative
Judaism. All but a few extremists on the fringes of far-out Reform and
Orthodoxy share that ideal, and, for the Jewish lay people, it is the one thing
on which most concur. That ideal is that we wish to be Judaic in an integrated
society, and that we want our Judaism to infuse our lives as Americans with
meaning. That is a mediating, a healing, a centrist and moderate definition.
Clearly, most Jews in America wish to live like other Americans and not in
conditions of a ghetto. Equally obviously, most Jews in America wish to remain
distinctively Jewish, with traits that join them together and distinguish them
from others. And, the third truism, most Jews in America look to the Judaic religious
tradition for guidance on how to be different—but not too different.

And that is the centrist position. It
defines the tensions and limits of the vital center. We look to tradition for
guidance, but we make up our own minds—that is one way of stating
matters. We want to live by something we call “Judaism,” but we want
to accept the possibility of change and modification where appropriate, where
necessary, where desirable (thus, modern Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reform). The
alternative positions are those of self-segregation, which requires no change
in whatever is perceived to be “the tradition,” and total
assimilation, which permits no point of difference with “everybody
else” (if there is an “everybody else”).

Now that I have outlined what I think is
the basic conviction of the vital center, readers probably recognize two facts.
First of all, in simple terms, I have spelled out the social policy of the
Conservative Movement in Judaism. It is what Conservative Judaism represents to
us. Second, I also have outlined views that equally well characterize much of
Orthodox and most of Reform and Reconstructionist Judaisms as well. And that is
my point: Conservative Judaism is only one of the many center-movements in
contemporary American Judaism, and while its centrist position enjoys enormous
appeal and power (as I believe it should), it is the position that matters, not
the institution.

The institutions of Conservative
Judaism, as distinct from the ideology of the vital center, are weak. They do
not enjoy the financial support of the lay people. Much of the Conservative
rabbinate is alienated. Many of the people in charge treat with disdain and
scorn the movement “out there” and regard as their private park and
personal garden the affairs of the movement and its policies. In consequence
many people wonder what is going to happen to the vital center. They ask
whether Conservative Judaism has a future at all, or will it disintegrate and
divide up among Orthodoxy and Reform (as, rabbis tell me, people now expect).
In institutional terms, I not only do not know the answer to that question, I
also do not care, because I do not think it matters.

If the Jewish Theological Seminary of
America forms a center for the living Judaism of the vital center, if from that
institution and its associated organizations important ideas come forth,
inspiration and leadership, energy and imagination—then the future of the
institutional Conservative movement matters a great deal. But it is bright and
secure (and, by the way, the money will flow). If the Jewish Theological
Seminary of America continues its present attitudes and policies toward its
constituency near at hand and toward Jewry at large (and many of us hope that
the institution will change those attitudes and policies and come back to Jewry
at large with humility and hope), then what difference does it make? We can
have a new Jewish Theological Seminary of America—if for the twenty-first
century that is the best institutional model. Or we can decide to educate our
rabbis and teachers and cantors and other religious figures in different ways.
The institutional model of a private and isolated institution, doing everything
on its own and by itself, certainly competes with alternatives.

No institution can claim a permanent
hold, and none has a mortgage on our future. The vital center—that
religious attitude and position presently represented (but only partially) by
the Jewish Theological Seminary, United Synagogue, Rabbinical
Assembly—will flourish, if not in the presently deeply flawed, paralyzed
institutions and organizations that today represent the center, then in the
many others that now flourish or will come into existence. It is the religious
ideal, the Judaic ideal, that will endure: the ideal of free Jews, freely
choosing to be Judaic and to build a distinctive Judaic religious life in an
integrated and open society. No institution has a monopoly on that ideal: it is
American Judaism for—I would guess—90 percent of American Jews. So
much for the vital center: too crowded for the Judaism that created it. What of
Reform Judaism?

If I had to choose two words to
characterize the contemporary state of Reform Judaism, they would be sloth and
envy. I call Reform Judaism slothful because it has become lazy about
developing its own virtues and so deprives all Judaisms of its invaluable
gifts, its insights, and its powerful ideas. I call it envious because it sees
virtue in others and despises itself. The single greatest and most urgent idea
in the Jewish world today is the one idea that Reform Judaism has made its own
and developed for us all, and that is the idea that God loves all humanity, not
only holy Israel. Today, no single idea is more urgent than that one. Reform
Judaism in the temples and in the schools lacks vitality, even while it
correctly points to enormous growth. Reform Judaism in the United States is the
most numerous Judaism and is growing faster than Conservativism and, in
absolute numbers, much faster than Orthodoxy. The reason is that Reform Judaism
has accurately taken the measure of the condition of American Jewry and has
framed a Judaism that deals with the real and urgent issues of contemporary
American Jewish life.

But that success, for which the lay
people must take credit, since they are the creators of Reform Judaism, has yet
to make its mark on the morale and attitude of the Reform movement. The
movement still regards itself as a second-class and somehow less than fully
legitimate Judaism. By “the movement” I do not mean a few theologians
at Hebrew Union College who have set forth a solid and substantial rationale
for Reform Judaism in both history (Michael A. Meyer) and theology (Jakob J.
Petuchowski). I mean the vast number of pulpit rabbis and lay persons, who see
more observant Jews and think they are somehow inferior, who meet more learned
Jews and think they are in some way less.

Without conceding for one minute that
less observance or less learning are to be treated as unimportant, I think
Reform Judaism has a message to offer to all Jews, including the most Orthodox
of the Orthodox and the most nationalistic of the nationalists, and one that in
importance outweighs not eating lobster and studying the Talmud. It is that
Judaism as Reform Judaism defines Judaism as a religion of respect and love for
the other, as much as for the self. Reform Judaism teaches that God loves all
people, finds and emphasizes those teachings of the received holy books of the
Torah that deliver that message, and rejects bigotry and prejudice when
practiced not only by Gentiles but even by Jews.

And there should be no doubt at all
that the single most urgent moral crisis facing the communities of Judaisms
today is the Jews’ self-indulgent hostility toward the other or the outsider.
The novelist, Norman Mailer,5 in language reminiscent of the prophetic tradition stated what I conceive to be
the great contribution of Reform Judaism to the life of Jewry everywhere:

What made us great as a people is that
we, of all ethnic groups, were the most concerned with the world’s problems. .
. . We understood as no other people how the concerns of the world were our
concerns. The welfare of all the people of the world came before our own
welfare. . . . The imperative to survive at all costs . . . left us smaller,
greedier, narrower, preternaturally touchy and self-seeking. We entered the
true and essentially hopeless world of the politics of self-interest, “is
this good for the Jews?” became, for all too many of us, all of our

Mailer concluded, “The seed of any
vital American future must still break through the century-old hard-pack of
hate, contempt, corruption, guilt, odium, and horror. . . . I am tired of
living in the miasma of our indefinable and ongoing national shame.” I
find in Mailer’s comments that morally vital prophetic tradition that Reform
Judaism—alone among contemporary Judaisms—espouses. But today
Reform Judaism has lost its nerve, and just when Jewry needs precisely that for
which Reform Judaism has always stood, the message is muffled.

The costs to the Jewish people are to
be measured by our incapacity to work out our relationships to the world
beyond. I refer to an address by Professor Yehoshaphat Harkabi, Hebrew
University, to the Council of Reform and Liberal Rabbis at the Liberal Jewish
Synagogue in London last year. Harkabi chose his platform well, the only
religious Judaic platform for his message, that there is a crisis in our
relationships to the Gentiles (“the goyim”). He raised in a stunning
public statement the issue of the divisive power of the Jewish religion within
the Jewish people itself. Harkabi raised the possibility that “the Jewish
religion that hitherto has bolstered Jewish existence may become detrimental to
it.” Harkabi pointed to manifestations of hostility against Gentiles,
formerly repressed, but ascendant in the past decade. In the state of Israel,
in particular, that hostility took such forms as the following: The Chief Rabbi
Mordekhai Eliahu forbade Jews in the state of Israel to sell apartments to
Gentiles. A former Chief Rabbi ruled that a Jew had to burn a copy of the New
Testament. A scholar who has received the Israel Prize in Judaic Studies, Rabbi
Eliezer Waldenberg, declared that a Gentile should not be permitted to live in
Jerusalem. The body of a Gentile woman who lived as a Jew without official
conversion was disinterred from a Jewish cemetery.

Explaining these and many other
expressions of anti-Gentile prejudice, Harkabi pointed to the belief of what
he called “religious radicals” in the imminent coming of the Messiah
as explanation for these developments. They are not limited to the state of
Israel. Harkabi called for “discarding those elements” of Judaism
that instill or express hostility to outsiders. He said, “Demonstrating to
Orthodoxy that some of its rulings are liable to raise general opprobrium may
facilitate the achievement of a modus vivendi between it and the other streams
in contemporary Judaism.”

Where are we to find the corpus of
ideas concerning Gentiles to counter these appalling actions and opinions of
the pseudomessianic Orthodoxy of the state of Israel? I find them these days
mainly in Reform Judaism. And in the state of Israel Reform Judaism has made
its mark. But in our own community, it is, as I said, lazy and envious of
others, insecure and slothful and conciliatory of views it must reject and
abhor. That is not to suggest that only Reform Judaism has a contribution to
make to the moral renaissance of the Jewish people, correctly characterized by
Mailer as now too self-absorbed for their own good. Hebrew Union College-Jewish
Institute of Religion has delivered to Reform Jews a corps of rabbis bearing a
moral concern and—more important—an intellectual system and
structure that form a monument to the capacity of Israel— the Jewish
people—to think both of itself and also of the other, and to love not
only itself but also the outsider. Now, when we need Reform Judaism more than
ever for the moral renewal of all Israel—the Jewish people—what
Reform Jews must find within their hearts are not sloth and envy but the two
opposite virtues: energy and conviction.

And what of Orthodoxy? If Reform
Judaism exhibits a failure of nerve, all Orthodox Judaisms display a failure of
intellect. It is not that they are stupid or wrong or venal, merely that they
are irrelevant to the great issues of the world and the age. Except for
Yeshiva-University Orthodoxy, all of the Orthodox Judaisms of the day (the
“Haredim” in various guises) exhibit the same enormous incapacity to
speak to the Jewish condition. In the various formulations claiming to give us
true-blue Judaism, all of them sailing under the flag of Orthodoxy (a whole
fleet of motley ships, from rowboats to battleships, all of them obsolete), we
find the same failure of mind. And the worst thing a religion can do is fall
silent before the urgent issues of the age. Khomeini is, at least, relevant,
capable of shaping events. Whether in Bnei Braq or among the Lubovitch Hasidim
and at all stations inbetween and around, all Orthodox Judaisms pretend there
is no there there.

That is not to suggest Orthodox
Judaisms are ignorant of the classics of Judaism or misrepresent their content.
To the contrary, the representation of Torah-true Judaism by the Haredim is
sound on every point. Knowledgeable people can quote chapter and verse in
talmudic writings in support of their position on all issues. On issue after
issue they represent the Torah—oral and written—precisely as the
received, classical sources of the Torah portray matters.

And that is precisely why the policies
and program of the Haredim, and therefore of the Judaism of the dual Torah,
oral and written, as they accurately represent those policies, offer no
meaningful option to Jews in the world today—I do not say to “Orthodox”
or “Religious” Jews, but to any Jews. The Haredim appeal, after all,
to the fact that they authentically portray “Judaism,” or the Torah,
more accurately than anyone else, more so than Western or Modern Orthodoxy,
more authentically than the Orthodoxy of the Zionist-Religious parties. And
that appeal, to the spiritual and the romantic in us all, is very real. It is
why the Haredim gain converts to their Judaism from among the
Religious-Zionists and the secular alike: there is a very real choice. So there
is, and the 95 percent of the Jews who by instinct reject the reading of the
Torah, or of Judaism, by the Haredim, make a sound judgment. The claim to
authenticity to “the tradition” or “the Torah” requires us
to ask whether the Torah in its received or authentic or accurate version, as
the Haredim represent it, can serve in the twenty-first century. I think it

The Torah as the Haredim read it
(rightly, as I said) omits all systematic doctrine on the three critical
matters of contemporary life: politics, economics, and science. The Torah in
its authentic version has nothing at all to say about three matters so
fundamental that any Judaism today that authentically realizes the Torah, oral
and written, demands that Jews live only a partial life and, in the case of the
state of Israel, dismantle the Jewish state. Jews living in the Golah or Exile,
for their part, without a position on politics, economics, and science simply
will have to retreat into ghettos, having no way to cope with the formative
forces in the world today. The Haredim want to make us all into Amish, and the
Jews are not going to agree, even though, just now, more than a few would like
to walk out on the world as it is.

The three most powerful and formative
forces in all of human civilization today are democracy, capitalism, and
science, and on those three subjects, the authentic, classical Judaism,
accurately represented by the Haredim, either has nothing at all to say, or
simply says the wrong things. Authentic Judaism, as the Haredim teach it, is
ignorant of the things that matter today. We cannot look to the Haredim for
intelligent public policy. The Haredim can make their extravagant claims on the
rest of us only by relating to the remainder of the Jewish people essentially
as parasites: we do the politics, the economics, and the science, so they can
live out their private lives off in a corner. Abandon the Jewish state, for
Israelis, and give up all public life, for Jews in the Golah; that is the
message of their authentic Judaism, with its stunning silence on democracy,
capitalism, and science and technology.

There are three reasons for this
silence, because of their very valid claim to authenticity to the tradition.
First, we look in vain in the Talmud and related writings for a political
theory that fits together with the politics of a democratic state. Israelis
need no instruction from the Golah on that awful fact. If the Haredim gain in
politics, it will end democracy in the state of Israel, pure and simple.
Second, we find nothing in talmudic and related writings that makes possible
scientific inquiry, that is, systematic formulation of theory and empirical
testing of hypothesis. When philosophy, including science, found a capacious
place within Judaism, it was only because modes of thought deriving not from
talmudic but from Greek-Muslim philosophical sources had found entry. And they
were perceived as alien. The great philosophers and scientists did not come
from the circles who studied only the Torah, and the institutions of the Torah
did not produce philosophy or science, any more than, today, they study those
subjects. The Haredim have nothing to say of interest to, or to learn from, the
world of science and technology. But that is where the world is made today.

Third, systematic thought on economics,
such as the Mishnah assuredly presupposes, by the end of talmudic times had
given way to an essentially magical conception that if one studies Torah,
economic questions will be solved by themselves. Rational decision-making, the
conception of a market and of a market-economy—these and other givens of
economics find no place whatsoever in the (at best) petty entrepreneurial
thinking of the Torah in its authentic mode. Consequently, Judaism as the
Haredim accurately represent it, falls silent on questions of economics. How
can people utterly ignorant of economics pretend to govern a modern state or to
lead the Jewish community overseas?

Modern Orthodoxy in the United States
of America, the Orthodoxy of Bar Ilan University and Yeshiva University, and of
the Israeli Zionist-Religious parties, all have made ample room for science,
democracy, and economic theory in the curriculum in the academy and also in its
formulation of public policy (though here, the Zionist Religious parties seem
to leave such matters to the partners in whatever coalition gives them their
annual prohibition of pork or its counterpart). That Western Orthodoxy is
losing out, so it seems, to the valid claim of authenticity to the true Torah
set forth by the Haredim and by their political instrumentalities. It is pure
romanticism or utter fantasy to opt for the authentic merely because it is true
about the things of which it speaks. Jewish public life, both in the Golah and
in the Jewish state, have also to ask about the ominous silences. The Judaism
of the Talmud accurately represented, so far as the sources portray it, by the
Haredim, simply cannot and will not work, not because it is wrong or humanly
deficient, but because it falls silent when the work of the world has to be done.

No state can work without well-crafted
public policy, without economic policy, without access to science and
technology. Any lingering appeal of the Haredim to that isolationism that makes
us Jews want to turn our backs on the world, any deep impulse in us all to be
only Jewish, always Jewish, and, at last, the right way, the way of the true
Torah of Sinai—any appeal to that profound and natural sense in us all of
our Jewishness as our fate and faith and destiny will have to compete with
another appeal. It is the appeal to the simple fact that, if we are going to
live in the twenty-first century, we require not only the Torah but also
economics, politics, and science and technology, about which the Torah, in the
authentic statement of the Haredim, simply has nothing to say, nothing
whatsoever. World Jewry has no choice but to turn its back on the Haredim, as
they have turned their back on the twenty-first century—and for
precisely the same reason. Would that God had made the world so simple as the
Haredim wish it to be!

They are right, and therefore all of us
have to reject them and their entirely authentic Torah. After all, there were
valid reasons for inventing Reform Judaism and the Orthodoxy of Samson Raphael
Hirsch, the Religious Zionist parties, the secular Jews, Conservative Judaism,
Reconstructionist Judaism, Jewish Socialism, Yiddishism, and all the rest. The
opposition to these movements rightly claimed they were not authentic, and the
opposition was right. But Reform Judaism and Western Orthodoxy and the
Religious Zionists, Yeshiva University and Bar Ilan University—these were
still more right, because they were, and remain, relevant. They do address all
of life as we now know it, and they have something to say about politics,
science, economics, while the Haredim do not.

The Haredim have nothing to say on all
the urgent issues of the hour. We do not solve problems by pretending they are
not there. So the Haredim and all the Orthodox Judaisms that find a place within
that classification do not present an option or a possibility for Jews who do
not live in ghettos and do not pretend the twenty-first century can simply be
ignored, as though it were not going to happen. When the dream is over, the
world will be there, perhaps a nightmare, when we wake up. So, fond farewell to
the fantasy that the authentic Torah of Sinai, as the framers of the Bavli read
it in the seventh century, is, or can ever be, the authentic Torah of Sinai, as
Israel, the Jewish people everywhere, receive and affirm it in the twenty-first
century: we shall do and we shall hear, indeed: today.


Were the story to end with the creation
of the new Judaisms of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we should
face an unhappy ending. But the advent of the twenty-first century, in my view,
marks the beginning of a new age of Judaic systemopoeia.
The vital signs appear round about. I point to the formation of a distinctively
Judaic politics and another among the intellectuals of the Right as well. These
two intellectual formations present two of the three prerequisites of a
Judaism: a worldview and a way of life. Both of them join the everyday and the
here and now to an ideal in which people can find the meaning and purpose of
their life together. Whether these political Judaisms can take root in the
social worlds of numbers of Jews and so constitute of themselves not merely
theologies and life-patterns but “Israels,” that is, social entities,
remains to be seen. Reform, Conservatism, and Western Orthodoxy, as well as
Zionism and Jewish Socialism-Yiddishism, all formed not merely intellectual
positions but social worlds. Their strength lay in transforming organizations
into societies, so to speak. So far what we have in Tikkun and Commentary is
more than a viewpoint, but less than a broad social movement, widely diffused.

I point further to the havurah
movement, the renewal of Reconstructionism with Arthur Waskow and Arthur Green,
the development of an accessible Judaic mysticism by Zalman Schachter, the
intense engagement by feminists of Jewish origin in the framing of a what we
may call a feminist-Judaism, and the like. Each of these extraordinarily vital
religious formations gives promise of establishing a Judaism: a worldview, a
way of life, realized within a social entity that calls itself (not necessarily
exclusively) “Israel.” All of them have identified urgent questions
and presented in response answers that, to the framers, prove self-evidently
valid. And with these five conditions—a worldview, way of life, attained
by an “Israel,” that all together identifies an urgent question and
answers it in a manner self-evidently valid to the engaged persons—we
have a Judaism. So I think the long period in which there were no new Judaisms
in formation is coming to an end, though it is much too soon to tell which
Judaisms in North America at least will inherit the greater part of Jewry and
take over, as Conservative Judaism did in the second and third generations, and
as Reform Judaism has been doing in the third, fourth, and fifth generations.

What accounts for the hopeful future? I
pointed to three factors in accounting for the barren age: the intense
political crisis culminating in the Holocaust with its demographic catastrophe,
the demise of intellect, and the (correlative) formation of large-scale
organizations that reformed Jewry within the corporate model. The new Judaisms
of the acutely contemporary age succeed, I think, because we have pretty well
overcome the demographic and cultural catastrophe of the Holocaust. We have in
North America a vast Jewish population, capable of sustaining the variety of
Judaisms that the vast ocean of Jewry in central and eastern Europe did in the
later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. It is perfectly clear from
the character of the examples of new Judaisms to which I have pointed that the
one source of strength in systemopoeia today is intellect. Jewish intellectual life within Judaism flourishes in North
America in a way that, I think, would have stirred envy in even the proudest
Jews of Germany and Poland between the Wars.

And the corporate model for organized
Jewry has shown its limitations. The decay of Bnai Brith, the demise on the
local scene of organizations such as the American Jewish Congress, the retreat
of Jewish organizational life from the scale of the retail to that of the
wholesale, the retreat of the Federations from the ideal of forming “the
organized Jewish community” and their transformation into mere
fund-raising agencies—these show what is happening. The decline of the
powerful national organizations at the center strongly suggests that, in the
everyday world at home, Jews no longer find interesting a Judaic existence
consisting of going to meetings to talk about something happening somewhere
else. Merely giving money, for instance, to help another Jew help a third Jew
settle in the state of Israel has lost all credibility. People want hands-on
engagement, and the corporate model affords the opposite. Common to all the
hopeful signs of nascent Judaic systems is the immediate engagement of the
individual in achieving the purposes of the social group. The hallmark of the
havurah movement, at least as some of us thought it up thirty years ago,6 was individual
engagement in the ultimate purpose of the group. And that rejection of the
corporate model and affirmation of the place of the individual at the center of
activity now marks the mode of organization of every important new Judaism

To explain why no new Judaisms, I can
therefore account also for why we now see many new and vital Judaisms: we no
longer live in an iron cage, and the fulfillment of our calling to be Israel
comes only through our immediate and complete engagement with our highest
spiritual and cultural values—whatever our Judaism tells us these are. We
have, in other words, survived the twentieth century.


A shorter version of this article
appeared as “Can Judaism Survive the Twentieth Century?” Tikkun 4/4 (July-August 1989): 38-42.

1. My thanks to Michael
Lerner for insisting that I take account of that fact, on which much more

2. My entire
intellectual life has addressed the program of Max Weber, from my dissertation
onward. My entire notion of systemic analysis and the comparison of systems within
Judaism, worked out most fully and in acute detail in the study of the Judaic
systems of late antiquity, simply applies in detail his main perspectives.

3. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of
, tr. Talcott Parsons, with a foreword by R. H. Tawney (New York:
Charles Scribner’s, 1930), 182.

4. I amplify these
matters in my Death and Birth of Judaism (New York: Basic, 1987).

5. New York Times, 18 April 1988.

6. The original idea
of the ancient Jewish havurot as a model for social organization is in Jakob J.
Petuchowski’s article in The
in 1957. There followed my articles on the subject,
collected in my Fellowship in Judaism (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1963), where I proposed the idea of regaining
access to the havurot of antiquity. Other early writings by those active in the
earliest phases of the movement are collected in the book I edited, Contemporary Judaic Fellowship in Theory and
in Practice
(New York: KTAV, 1972).

7. The Tikkun conference in New York City is an
example of that fact. I see no clear counterpart in the political Judaism of
the Right, which seems to me fragmented in social circles, e.g., around Commentary for some, around National Review and Chronicles for others (myself included). Professors of Jewish
origin in the new National Association of Scholars, for example, hardly form
the counterpart to the social formation attained at the Tikkun conference. In this regard the Left has provided the Right
with a model of how to do things.