From Chasidism to Orthodoxy, from Reform to Jewish Renewal, the Jewish instinct to evolve and renew itself has led scholars and religious leadership to construct a “post-traditional” template for the modern Jew.
Within this template, many are witnessing a blurring of the lines that used to distinguish between Jews and the general culture beyond bagels and blintzes. Paul Mendes-Flohr, professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew University in Jerusalem since 1988, focused on modern Jewry as visiting scholar in the Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectureship. This annual lecture series is part of the Jewish Studies Program of The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. Mendes-Flohr is the author or editor of more than 30 books on the topics of modern Jewish intellectual identity, modern Jewish philosophy and religious thought.
Three public lectures by Mendes-Flohr looked at Jewish cultural memory, modern Jewish identity and Jewish learning and hope. For Mendes-Flohr, also the director of the Franz Rosensweig Center for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History and author of books on Buber and mysticism and his current work on Rosensweig and a Jewish theology, America’s diverse, multicultural society is challenging Jews to further define what makes us Jewish.
“Today,” said Mendes-Flohr, “we choose what we read, we choose what we wear. We have a supermarket of culture. We lay claim to every culture to be a part of our humanity. We download a little of everything. All aspects of human culture essentially nurture us all. How can we choose beyond the culture we’re born in to? The modern Jew needs to have the freedom to develop one’s talents free from the restraints of parents, a free individualism. How can we be eclectic citizens of the world and still be compassionate Jews in the world? How do we remain open and still be respectful of others and be true to one’s distinctive culture and faith? How do we eat from the tree of knowledge and partake of the sweetness of the tree of life?”
Mendes-Flohr articulates the choice between a prescribed, legalistic Judaism and an individualistic and interpretive Judaism. Both tradition and authenticity, he says, are necessary for the Jewish heart, mind and soul to thrive beyond a stereotype of itself.
Martin Jaffee, acting director of the Jackson School of International Studies, expresses his view on the subject: “Jews are so diverse, there’s no overall ideology that Jews can accept anymore. What are the grounds for future Jewish identification? Is there some Jewish essence that Jews share over time? What is Judaism if you accept diversity?”
For Jaffee, who has personally chosen the Orthodox path, the current smorgasbord of identities only serves to dilute the meaning of being a Jew.
“Most Americans don’t have a Jewish culture,” added Jaffee. “What I like about being Orthodox is that it has its grounding in authority. It takes very seriously the notion of authority. Modernity is against religion. Religion is about not being able to make up your own mind.”
Whatever one’s approach to Judaism, Mendes-Flohr believes spirituality and passion must be at the core of the experience and we all must become “builders” in the reconstruction of Judaism.
“We need a Judaism with spiritual reality and transcendence but not a mere return to tradition,” said Mendes-Flohr. “Not a set of creeds or ritual practices but a genuine renewal that must originate from the soul of the Jewish individual, a spiritual process of cultural memory. We need a spiritual reality that is compelling.”