At Home in Exile

Alan Wolfe is pessimistic about the future of Canadian Jewry. Why? “Forty percent of Canadian Jews are Orthodox and only 20 percent are Reform, twice as many Canadian Jews have visited Israel than their counterparts in the United States, and almost twice as many Canadian children attend Jewish schools.” If this reasoning strikes you as odd, even perverse—if you are inclined to think that the commitment to Jewish tradition implicit in living an Orthodox lifestyle, in visiting Israel, or in sending one’s child to a Jewish day school is the sort of thing that individuals concerned about the future of Judaism ought to celebrate and nurture—then you will likely find much that will raise an eyebrow in Wolfe’s new book.

Wolfe’s topic is not of course Canadian Jewry specifically, but the Jewish diaspora more generally. The argument of his book runs as follows. Jews ought to be universalist rather than particularist. That is, they ought to be concerned with human beings as such, rather than with their own, with other Jews, except to ensure that other Jews, too, are universalist. Why should they be universalist? Wolfe does not articulate an argument for universalism at any length, but presumably his grounds are chiefly moral. He also asserts that there is a prominent universalist strain in Judaism. About the textual and normative foundations of this strain he has little to say, but he does take a definitive position on the historical conditions that gave rise to Jewish universalism. It is the fruit, says Wolfe, of the diaspora, wherein, as an embattled minority, Jews inevitably became sensitive to the vulnerability of other minorities. Diaspora Jews today, Wolfe argues further, ought to remain in the diaspora, rather than make aliyah (emigrate to Israel), because only in the diaspora can Jews cultivate universalism in a robust way. Nor do considerations of physical safety argue for emigration to Israel, because in the parts of the diaspora where Jews are now concentrated—the United States first and foremost, but also France, England, Germany, Sweden, and Argentina, among others—anti-Semitism is now largely a marginal phenomenon. Rather than moving to Israel, diaspora Jews should serve as Israel’s conscience, first and foremost as critics of its entrenched particularism.

Let us first note a certain inconsistency, harmful but not necessarily fatal, in the argument as a whole. Jewish universalism is said to have its origin in the self-consciousness of minority status instilled by diaspora existence. But the purported end to systemic anti-Semitism means that the diaspora will no longer foster such self-consciousness, at least not to anything like the same degree that it has in the past. Hence if Wolfe is right about the end of anti-Semitism, he undermines his own argument for choosing the diaspora over Israel. But is Wolfe right about the end of anti-Semitism, or about the other claims that constitute his argument?

It is certain that much support for universalism can be found in the Jewish tradition. It is equally certain that Jewish universalism, taken to an extreme, becomes an oxymoron. The challenge lies in striking the right balance, but Wolfe does not seriously grapple with this challenge. The opposition between universalism and particularism is in Wolfe’s vision less dialectical than diametric. The result of the reductive opposition between universalism and particularism is a universalism that is ironically narrow. Thus Wolfe denies, in practice if not in principle, the presence of universalism among Israelis and among the Orthodox. (It is for this reason that Wolfe bemoans the popularity of Orthodoxy and Zionism among Canadian Jews.) One cannot but acknowledge that Zionism and Orthodoxy veer closer to the Scylla of ethnocentrism and bigotry than to the Charybdis of radical assimilation and cultural death. (The “price tag” attacks that have blighted Israel in recent years, carried out by some Israeli settlers against Palestinian and Christian targets, among others, represent one very disturbing realization of this threat.)  But it is also important to recognize, first, that the Charybdis that they avoid is a genuine ill, and second, that very many Israelis and Orthodox Jews manage, despite the danger, to steer well clear of the Scylla. Concern for fellow human beings in fact exists in these circles. (Two examples: the organizations Ma’aglei Tzedek and Uri L’Tzedek, the first Israeli and the second a product of diaspora Orthodoxy.) Moreover, the universalism of Israelis and the Orthodox, both in their self-perception and in the perception of others, is arguably more “Jewish”—more a reflection of their Jewish identity—than the universalism of a secular diaspora Jew. 

Wolfe’s universalism is also narrow insofar as it aligns precisely with the policies of the welfare state, so that an individual who endorses libertarian ideas that would “undermine many of the gains achieved by ordinary people who have relied on governmental programs to obtain a certain degree of economic security...is taking leave of his universalism.” I am myself partial toward the safety net, but universalism and political affiliation are both complicated things, and I balk at the assumption that there is only one coherent choice for the Jewish universalist in contemporary American politics. 

We come then to anti-Semitism. Wolfe’s optimism about this ancient hatred cannot but be admired. Gloom and doom is, after all, the safer route, and only the pundit who risks his reputation by predicting peace can, according to Jeremiah, earn the title of prophet. I cannot say whether Wolfe’s book would have looked the same on this score had it been written after the ugly summer of 2014, which brought into the streets of major European cities an intensity of Jew-hatred that shocked even the cynical, or after the still more recent kosher market killings in connection with the Charlie Hebdo attack. But the anti-Semitism question is really a red herring. It may compel some thousands of Jews, especially in Europe, to leave their homes, but not all of them will go to Israel, and in any case, the American Jewish community is staying put, and with it the question of diaspora Judaism.

Despite its shortcomings, the core intuition that animates the book is appealing and, I think, correct. It must be possible to live a fully authentic Jewish life outside Israel, just as it must be possible to live a fully authentic Jewish life outside the embrace of ultra-Orthodoxy. The degree to which one’s Judaism is immersive—in a communitarian or political sense in the choice between Israel and the diaspora, and in a religious sense in the choice between ultra-Orthodoxy and other denominations—cannot per se be the sole or even the most important criterion of authenticity. To limit the authority of the immersiveness criterion is necessarily to embrace something like what Wolfe calls universalism. But for answers to the question of how a Jew in the twenty-first century can construct a life that is both meaningfully Jewish and also outward-looking, Wolfe’s reader must search elsewhere. 

Published in the February 20, 2015 issue: 

Tzvi Novick is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where he occupies the Abrams College Chair of Jewish Thought and Culture.

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