Amer­i­can Jew­ish Thought Since 1934: Writ­ings on Iden­ti­ty, Engage­ment, and Belief

Edit­ed by Michael Mar­mur and David Ellenson 

  • Review
By – February 8, 2021

In Amer­i­can Jew­ish Thought Since 1934: Writ­ings on Iden­ti­ty, Engage­ment & Belief edi­tors Michael Mar­mur and David Ellen­son have assem­bled a diverse array of reflec­tions by Jew­ish Amer­i­can thinkers. A vol­ume in the Bran­deis Library of Mod­ern Jew­ish Thought, it fea­tures over sev­en­ty men and women who have con­tributed to Amer­i­can Jew­ish thought since the 1930s, excerpt­ing their sem­i­nal essays and books on top­ics includ­ing God, rev­e­la­tion, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, pol­i­tics, the Holo­caust, Israel, gen­der, and peoplehood.

Mar­mur, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Thought at Hebrew Union Col­lege-JIR in Jerusalem, and Ellen­son, chan­cel­lor emer­i­tus at HUC-JIR and pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Bran­deis, con­scious­ly chose rel­a­tive­ly brief selec­tions so as to include a larg­er num­ber of thinkers. By the nature of the project, as they admit, cer­tain sig­nif­i­cant voic­es” had to be left out. Nev­er­the­less, the edi­tors have done a com­mend­able job of gath­er­ing writ­ing that is inspir­ing and crit­i­cal, pas­sion­ate and pow­er­ful, insight­ful and humor­ous, and of pro­vid­ing use­ful fram­ing intro­duc­tions to each section.

This array of voic­es is evi­dent from the open­ing sec­tion: Morde­cai Kaplan’s con­cep­tion of God (“What­ev­er a civ­i­liza­tion val­ues high­ly it views as, in some mea­sure, a man­i­fes­ta­tion of God in human life”) sits along­side Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel’s (“God means: What is beyond our soul is beyond our spir­it … He is at the heart of all, eager to receive and eager to give”), as well as numer­ous reflec­tions on the pur­port­ed death of God,” and med­i­ta­tions on the con­cept of Shekhi­nah” as reflect­ing God’s fem­i­nine essence.

Ortho­dox rab­bis, includ­ing Mar­vin Fox, Aharon Licht­en­stein and Joseph B. Soloveitchik (whose sem­i­nal Halakhic Man is excerpt­ed) join lib­er­al thinkers Judith But­ler and Judith Plaskow, result­ing in some — pre­sum­ably pur­pose­ful­ly — jar­ring jux­ta­po­si­tions. For exam­ple, But­ler’s cri­tique of Zion­ism (“My pro­pos­al is that the vast and vio­lent hege­mon­ic struc­ture of polit­i­cal Zion­ism most cede its hold … ) imme­di­ate­ly pre­cedes Ruth Wis­se’s reflec­tion on Jews and Pow­er,” which begins Arab lead­ers cre­at­ed the cri­sis for which they blamed the Jews.” And one imag­ines that Jill Jacobs, the head of T’ru­ah, and the extreme-right wing Meir Kahane are rarely men­tioned in the same con­text, let alone found next to each oth­er in a reader.

In the vol­ume’s final selec­tion, Noam Pianko, author of Jew­ish Peo­ple­hood: An Amer­i­can Inno­va­tion, sug­gests that Jew­ish peo­ple­hood is open to rein­ven­tion and trans­for­ma­tion.” As Mar­mur and Ellen­son have so assid­u­ous­ly demon­strat­ed, defin­ing and argu­ing over what Amer­i­can Judaism can and should be is a tra­di­tion unto itself.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions