Michael Shurkin
The Gifts of the German Jews: Toward a Postmodern Judaism, p. 2

Before proposing a tradition within Judaism that I think should gain a privileged place among postmoderns, let me briefly give an example of the "wrong" kind of choosing. When I was in yeshiva, I faced the question of which set of minhagim (customs) to adopt, because the minhagim determine a wide range of Jewish ritual behavior. My own family essentially had no minhagim, having assimilated, and so the rabbis at the yeshiva set about determining which regional culture I "really" belonged to, eventually settling on that of Galicia, for the vague reasons that some of my family comes from the Ukraine. Of course, if I were really true to my family's shtetl roots, I would probably buy amulets to ward off the evil eye, and quit yeshiva entirely. But the rabbis wanted to sell me not just an ethnic identity but an entire "re-"constructed past, built from a na´ve, ahistorical image of the pious ghetto Jew.

This way of choosing felt inauthentic, because it elided one hundred years of my family's and community's history. Just as I felt a need to become more serious about Jewish ritual practice for the system to make sense for me, there was no way I could simply pretend as if the chain of tradition ran unbroken from the Pale of Settlement to me. This kind of choosing was a sort of self-delusion, and a contrived continuousness where none actually existed. What I needed was a tradition that recognized the contingency of my embrace of it. Could there not be a source of identity that recognized this ambivalence, that retained its intellectual honesty while still pursuing some form of Jewish traditional observance?

2.    The German Jewish Modernists and the reinvention of "Tradition"

Based on years of coming to know it, I want to argue for the Judaism (and Jewishness) of German-speaking Jewish modernists from the 1890s to the death of Weimar Germany in the 1930s. These artists, philosophers, scholars, and writers are distant from us in many ways, but I believe they stood in relation to their Judaism where we stand now: three to four generations removed from the continuity of tradition, they were highly educated, highly successful, and very much at home in the lands of the their birth. They were conscious of their own modernity and of their distance from Jewish tradition, but they were unwilling to efface that distance by eliding it and "returning" to the ways of Old. They refused to abandon Judaism and spent considerable effort trying to think their way into a productive and meaningful relationship to it.

Drawing on the tradition of German-Jewish modernism offers two distinct advantages for us today. First, we can take directly from their "Torah," their understanding of Judaism, and apply their insights to our own lives to help us find a way "back" to the Law. More specifically, they developed a particular relationship with tradition that we can adopt for ourselves. Second, by identifying with them while treating them as constituting a tradition in and of themselves, we invest in them a certain authority that enables us to find a rare measure of authenticity. Their searching legitimates our own searching, and because they provide a historical precedent -- a tradition -- referencing them and looking up to them validates us.

(For the sake of clarity, a distinction must first be made between 'modern' German-speaking Jews and the 'modernists.' The most visible representatives of the 'moderns' are liberals and secular writers ranging from Abraham Geiger to Stefan Zweig. What makes them 'modern' are the Enlightenment ideas upon which they based their thinking: progress, reason, a positivistic faith in the existence and accessibility of objective truth. They were also smitten by the promises of liberal German culture, making them seem like fools in light of the catastrophes of the 1930s and 1940s, not to mention whatever postmodern skepticism we bring to their Enlightenment ideas. Confusingly, the term 'modernists' denotes artists and intellectuals of the 1900s-1930s who were almost the exact opposite of the moderns. First, they were deeply suspicious of the values proposed to them by liberal bourgeois culture. Second, while they believed that truth existed, they had none of the moderns' epistemological certainty about where it lay and how to obtain it. They were all but overwhelmed by the opacity of the veil they perceived to be obscuring truth from view. They typically responded by experimenting with non-rational, non-positivistic, and intensely subjectivist aesthetics, philosophies, and politics. Yet they also could not shake their regret for the old certainties of the past, not to mention their ambivalence concerning the new truths of the present. Arthur Schnitzler, for example, turned away from science and middle class values to explore sexuality and the subconscious, but his findings were disheartening. The paths chosen by his protagonists in The Road Into the Open and Dreamstory (later the basis for Kubrick's film, Eyes Wide Shut) -- aesthetic, inward, and sexual -- lead only to heightened feelings of emptiness. Similarly, Kafka's fiction prefigures post-modernity by suggesting the impossibility of ever knowing truth at all. His parable "Before the Law" stands as one of German modernism's most poignant expressions of epistemological despair.)

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Image: Arthur Schnitzler

August 2003

The Queer Guy at the Strip Club
Jay Michaelson

The Gifts of the German Jews: Toward a Postmodern Judaism
Michael Shurkin

My first shabbos
Jennifer Waters

Stones of Jerusalem
David Goldstein

Holocaust Video Testimonies: The Other Reality TV
Dan Friedman

Josh Tells a Bedtime Story
Josh Ring

Zeek in Print
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David Stromberg

About Zeek

The Zeek Archive



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