Post-Traditional Jewish Identities
Paul Mendes-Flohr / University of Chicago Press 2021
Reviewed by Rabbi Barry Gelman
In Cultural Disjunctions, Paul Mendes-Flohr examines the reality that Modern Jews mix their Judaism with a wide range of other identities, or as Wendy Doniger puts it, (quoted by Mendes Flohr on page 22), adopted “other people’s myths”. His essential question is how can Jews create a robust identity that is fully engaged in the Jewish experiment but not exclusively Jewish?
Mendes Flohr is not talking about marginal Jews who dabble in cultural concerns. He is interested in mapping out a strategy for a Jewish life that is fully committed to the particular elements of Judaism while at the same time being immersed in the cultural, political and social components of the general culture.
Paul Mendes Flohr taught at the University of Chicago, where he is Dorothy Grant Maclear Professor Emeritus of Modern Jewish History and Thought. He is also Professor Emeritus of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In chapter three, Jewish Learning, Jewish Hope, Mendes Flohr , building on the ideas of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzwieg, discusses text study outside the context of the synagogue as one path to create deep Jewish involvement in a cosmopolitan setting.
“In its post-traditional institution, Talmud Torah need not be located only in the synagogue as a compliment to the prayer service, but it nonetheless remains a sine qua non for Jewish spiritual life.”
He cites Buber who uses a Midrash to make the point: “ Concerning the words of Isaaac, the patriarch, ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau’ (Gen. 27:22), The Midrash tells this story. ‘Delegates of the other nations were once dispatched to a Greek sage to ask him how the Jews could be subjugated. This is what he said to them: ‘Go and walk past their houses of prayer and study...So long as the voice of Jacob rings from their houses of prayer and study, they will not be surrendered into the hand of Esau. But if not, the hands are Esau’s and you will overcome them.’ ”
Mendes - Flohr analyzes the message of this Midrash: “...without a Jewish house of study,” the reconstruction of Jewihs life...in the diaspora would lead to the spiritual demise of the Jewish people.”
Traditional Judaism has always connected study to action:
“Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nithza’s house, in Lod, when this question was posed to them: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater. All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action.” (Talmud Kiddushin 40b)
In the hands of Mendes- Flohr study is submitted as a stand alone practice that can root the cosmopolitan universal Jew with universal concerns in their Jewishness.
Another topic that Mendes Flohr takes up is the Israeli - Palestinian conflict. He sees it as an example of traditionalism and loyalty to one’s people colliding with universal corners for human rights. This may be one of the most fraught topics as far as maintaining deep Jewish connections while exhibiting concern for the “other” is concerned and Mendes Flohr calls for deep introspection on the part of those who would refuse the Palestinians their human rights.
I found this book engaging and thought provoking. Anyone engaged or interested in how modern Jews build a Jewish life in a non-traditional age would gain much from reading it.
Rabbi Gelman's book reviews are a joint project of the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC and the Jewish Herald-Voice.
Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the ERJCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism.