Culture, Global, Politics, Religion

The Myth of Authenticity

Over at The Forward, Jay Michaelson has a great column on The Myth of Authenticity. As I read it, his basic point is to crack apart any sense of an essential transhistorical Judaism in favor of an outlook that sees Judaism and Jewish culture (like all cultures) as always hybrid. This means that Jewish culture is ours to construct (with recourse to the dizzying variety of historical Jewish forms as well). As Michaelson puts it,

No, Biblical Israelites are not the real Jews. Neither are Hasidim, 20th-century modernists, neurotic New York psychoanalysts, Moroccan saints, angst-ridden intellectuals, High Reformers or anyone else. Real Jews are all of the above — and the rest of us who take Jewishness seriously, in one form or another. Real Jews speak with Southern accents, keep one day of yomtov (the holiday), hike in the wilderness, eat shrimp, intermarry, become ba’alei teshuvah, do karate, are bisexual, are neoconservative. Real Jews are the ones who make Judaism real for themselves.

So Jewschoolers, are we ready for this brave new world where meaning trumps authenticity? I know I am, and I would love to see the mainstream Jewish community wake up to the power of arguments like Michaelson’s.

5 thoughts on “The Myth of Authenticity

  1. wow- so i happened to see this for the first time tonight on the 10th of Tevet- the day on which the Babylonians laid their siege on the old city of jerusalem, and the day of the translation of the Torah into Greek… and the yartzeit of Ezra haSopher- three events entirely related to the issues in Jay’s article…
    Ezra haSopher is credited (in my humble historical knowledge) as the real beginner of the Oral tradition- opening up Jewish learning and halachic innovation beyond the Cohanim/ Levites who had largely just carried the tradition as it was. Empowering wider-spread learning and drash amongst the masses- a real revolution in its time, (an authentic Jewish pursuit) the limits to which are probably described in ChazAl as whether a disagreement/ new direction is “l’shem Shamayim” for the sake of the Most High… maybe the traditions perspective on the innovation and self definition this article pursues.
    The siege on Jerusalem- is a siege upon our walls- our boundary that holds some in and others out… that is a constant necessity for one tradition to survive. Whether that wall is additionally burning those outside of it is another issue and upon us to shine light rather than burn- but the abandoning of our traditions to flavors of the time- like the rampant ultra-individualism that sometimes masquerades as “global citizenship” is worthy of serious evaluation. A quote from Linda Hogan- respected Chickasaw activist/ writer- in the question of can cultures be synthesized:
    “Synthesis is thought of as positive, but that’s not necessarily the case. There is also the possibility of separate culture living side by side, cooperating with each other without being synthesized. Shared, perhaps, but not enmeshed. They don’t have to integrate in that deep structured way. What’s wrong with a love of difference?”
    This point has a lot to be reflected on in American progressive Judaism. I don’t mean to challenge any individuals process and place as a Jew- but I think there is a throwing out the baby with the bath water when we try to build an ideology out of our experiences in this post-ideological discourse. Our little remnants of modernity- though “antiquated” in some circles- can be important points of reference for ourselves. I fully feel the frustration in having an “ultra-orthodox” model of Judaism be regarded as the end all be all, which is even more prevalant here in Israel i think. but if I didn’t have my childhood images of the hasidic Jew in my head, i wouldn’t have broken out crying in being back a part of an incredible chain the first time I danced in a circle of chasidim…
    And then on this day the Torah was translated into Greek- shouldn’t that be a great thing?- the rabbis understand that the Torah was supposed to be shared into all the languages? except that sometimes translation ends up desecrating. Adaptations of judaism can easily turn ourselves into cliches, empty facades of an inner light… provoking the strong zealous responses that jay often attracts…
    I think it’s hard to profess these lines on computer internet forums- it really is part of an oral torah- that which the tradition can share one on one, like what el Otra heard from Jay… tzom kal v’amitz!

  2. yasher koach to jay for stating the obvious. shame on the majority who need this to be said to them. Although, Michaelson’s premise leads to some heavy, heavy conclusions.
    It’s not just Cafeteria Judaism. no, that’s not going far enough. we’ve got to go back through history, we’ve got to pick it all apart and find the kernel in the shells, as the kabbalists (Jewish Gnostics) say.
    Unfortunately, the majority don’t want to go through all the old recipes and make their own. they want a buffet, or even better, someone to feed them (like Chabad!).
    I think the real issue is that progressive Judaism never really got off the ground (or hasn’t yet, you never know). liberal judaism seems to be largely more about laziness, not about beliefs and practices based on an understanding of Jewish history or philosophy. And if it risks failing and disappearing, it’s because of that. It’s because dudes go all out of their way to sling copies of the Tanya and the like, but nobody is working on making the philosophies of Moses Mendelssohn or Joseph Soloveitchik or Abraham Joshua Heschel or Moredechai Kaplan more accesible to the kids. I mean, a teenager can easily get a scholarship to avoid college and learn everything the Lubavitcher Rebbes had to say, but does the progressive community give that kind of help out to a young brother or sister who wants to study Emmanuel Levinas? The liberal Jewish community doesn’t always know the names of their flagship institutions, let alone what’s coming out of them.

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