Michael Shurkin
The Gifts of the German Jews: Toward a Postmodern Judaism, p. 4

How? One key, according to Eisen, is the value of searching itself. After first describing a "metaphor of unending search," in the works of Buber, Rosenzweig, and others, Eisen asserts that the metaphor's "proponents…believed themselves forced by intellectual integrity to distrust any surer resolution of their doubts and to rebel against any less equivocal directive of their actions." Unwilling to resolve their doubts and accept any conclusions from their investigations, the modernists preferred to adopt searching as a permanent identity. That way they could engage with tradition while still maintaining a distance from it. Eisen sees this as a model. "The self-identity of the searcher for authority," Eisen observes,

has become crucial to modern Jewish practice. It has conferred and protected a precious sense of authenticity and truth that is ideally suited for voluntarist observance in a democratic and highly individualist social context. "Searching" assists believers mightily in withstanding the very challenges to faith that have made the other sort of authority so difficult to affirm. That authority remains absent-but, as I have suggested, one doubts in many cases that it is really missed.

In the last sentence Eisen refers to another key, which can be found in Rosenzweig's essay, "The Builders." Rosenzweig's essay explores and does not resolve the tension between our refusal to submit to the authority of tradition and our desire to do just that. In a sense Rosenzweig was trying to reassure Kafka (the essay is actually addressed to Buber) about the possibility of practicing Judaism in the absence of certainty, primarily by arguing that there is no reason to look for authority in the first place. He explained that previous generations had always wasted their time trying either to construct a rational reason for being Jewish or deny modernity and appeal to an almost fundamentalist faith in Torah's Divinity. "From Mendelssohn on," Rosenzweig noted, "our entire people have suffered the torture of truly embarrassing questions, and the Jewishness of each danced on the needle point of why."

Why be Jewish? Why keep the Law? Liberal Judaism's answer was to divide the "essential" from the "inessential" and present the religion as nothing more or less than Liberalism itself. Orthodoxy, (Rosenzweig had Samson Raphael Hirsch in mind) fell back on an appeal to faith in the hope that that alone could compel adherence to the Law. The problem was, Rosenzweig insisted, that neither philosophical formulas nor faith alone had the sufficient authority to make people Jewish. But -- and this is Rosenzweig's most daring argument -- such authority had never really existed in the past. Can we really believe that our ancestors kept the Law because of any specific fact, belief, or miracle? Should our own practice be blocked by our lack of faith in that fact, belief, or miracle? The answer, for Rosenzweig, was no. The reason to bother with Judaism was the desire to do so and the conviction that it could satisfy our souls while connecting us to important truths. Those truths, moreover, were only to be encountered through experience. Only by doing would we be able to feel the law as commandment.

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Image: Jay Michaelson

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

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