Leora Batnitzky. How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. 224 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-13072-9.
Reviewed by Mara Benjamin (St. Olaf College)
Published on H-Judaic (April, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
The Persistence of the Theologico-Political Predicament
It has been decades since a broad, synthetic volume addressing the major issues and thinkers in modern Jewish thought has been published. How Judaism Became a Religion fills a lacuna in the field, and this book will no doubt serve as the authoritative secondary source on the topic for some time. Leora Batnitzky offers an eminently readable overview of a large number of complicated, even esoteric thinkers in terms that are manageable, indeed inviting, for nonspecialists and lay readers alike. (Helpfully, she also offers such readers a well-chosen list of suggested readings at the end of each chapter.) In doing so, she renders an invaluable service to the field. Given the importance of her contribution--primarily for undergraduate readers whose understanding of Jewish modernity will be shaped by reading this work--it is all the more important to examine Batnitzky’s choices in how she tells the story of modern Jewish thought. In this review, I will consider these choices and their implications for how Batnitzky would like her readers to evaluate the modern Jewish intellectual project as a whole.
Batnitzky’s narrative follows the course of Jewish self-definition among the intellectual elite from the eighteenth century to the present. The story begins with Baruch Spinoza and traces the contours of what Leo Strauss called the “theologico-political predicament.” This “predicament,” more widely and bluntly spoken of in Strauss’s own era as the Judenfrage, was the (possibly unresolvable) tension between the claims of a particularistic people who affirm the authority of a transcendent God, on the one hand, and the demands of the modern nation-state, on the other. The story unfolds in a tracing of the progression whereby Jewishness, or Judaism, was transformed from a phenomenon at once cultural, social, ethnic, and theological, into a “religion” in the modern nation-state. This transformation was subtly internalized, if not openly embraced, by thinkers in the Central European Jewish communities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here, Batnitzky convincingly demonstrates how these thinkers adopted the very notion of (Protestant) “religion” they denounced, and she shows the role of state power in making this option the only logical one for Jewish elites.
Batnitzky aims to demonstrate the salience of the same “theologico-political predicament” also in Jewish communities beyond the German-speaking lands. For a long time, the only story worth telling, in the scholarly literature, was the one that unfolded in Central Europe. Thus among the most useful contributions of this volume is Batnitzky’s expansion of the field of vision, such that Eastern Europe (and to a lesser extent, America) becomes integrated into a single narrative. Notably, the author’s attention to Eastern Europe goes far beyond treating that terrain simply as the seedbed of Zionism; instead, she argues that the Jewish intellectual leadership there resisted the reduction of Judaism to a “religion,” adopting alternative strategies for self-definition. Batnitzky includes modern Yiddish writers and other makers of modern culture; the rise of such diverse (and usually marginalized) phenomena as Hasidism and Mussar; and Solomon Maimon alongside the usual Central European suspects. By doing so, she enlarges the scope of what is considered “modern Jewish thought” and prods us to move beyond the field’s traditional geographic epicenters and default generic forms.
Batnitzky’s insistence on the Straussian conceptualization is warranted but also limiting. For instance, politics rightly plays a crucial role in Batnitzky’s narrative, particularly in the sections that deal with European thinkers. (The sections on the United States and Israel do not delve into the dynamics of being a minority or majority, respectively, within a democracy to as great an extent as they might.) However, Batnitzky gives short shrift to the place of social life and its role in transforming Jewish communities into ones in which new forms of Jewish identity could be imagined. As Paula Hyman, Marion Kaplan, and numerous others have argued, the shifting boundaries and mores of the social sphere--the semi-public space of the synagogue, the reconfigured domicile, the schoolhouse--led both elite and common actors to envision new forms of being Jewish. This is not to say that Batnitzky should have written a social history; it is, however, to note that her contextualization of the philosophers’ lives and communities is thin. Framing modern Jewish thought within a Straussian paradigm--that is, as responsive to theological and political, but not social, considerations--thus relegates a generative element of intellectual change to the margins.
Other choices Batnitzky makes reveal her own assessment of both the possibilities of Jewish thought in this postmodern period and suggest a verdict on the Jewish modern project as a whole. This reviewer noted in particular some counterintuitive pairings and striking omissions: for instance, A. J. Heschel receives a passing acknowledgement only that his work “fall[s] outside the orbit of this book” (p. 4). Thus instead of juxtaposing Heschel’s contribution to Jewish thought and identity with that of Mordecai Kaplan, Batnitzky reads Kaplan with and against Strauss, ultimately ignoring one of the titans of twentieth-century American Judaism. Likewise, I find it remarkable and problematic that Batnitzky allots feminist Jewish thought only the briefest of mentions. The work of Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler, and other feminist theologians are integral to the movement of Jewish thought as a whole in recent decades. These thinkers further the modern Jewish project by bringing the language of liberalism, rights, and equality to Jewish sources within the political context of American democracy. Batnitzky’s neglect of these contributions to Jewish thought once again suggests that her overarching Straussian paradigm has narrowed her field of vision.
These omissions are less surprising when one arrives at the conclusion of How Judaism Became a Religion. Batnitzky locates the most recent chapter of the modern Jewish intellectual story neither in the contemporary reinvention of ethical monotheism or the renewed interest in traditional piety occurring among the thinkers of the Reform movement; nor in the diffusion of Jewish particularity and the claims of Jewish renewal; nor in recent decades’ tensions between institutional and extra-institutional forms of communal organization and the rethinking of peoplehood. Batnitzky’s story ends, instead, in Kiryas Joel. In her view, the intentionally isolated Satmar Hasidim of upstate New York, and their recourse to U. S. courts to secure this isolation, offer an illustration of both the triumph of Judaism’s definition as a religion in the modern nation-state and, it would seem, the only response to this definition that honors the premodern tradition’s breadth. Batnitzky claims that she is “not suggesting that the ultraorthodox have reclaimed a wholeness that all other Jews have lost” (p. 190). Yet placing the Satmar of Kiryas Joel at the apogee of the course of modern Jewish thought implies that this community has found a more honorable answer to the “theologico-political predicament” than any variety of liberal (or non-ultraorthodox) Jewish thinkers or communities.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Mara Benjamin. Review of Batnitzky, Leora, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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