Mak­ers of Jew­ish Moder­ni­ty: Thinkers, Artists, Lead­ers, and the World They Made

Jacques Picard, Jacques M. Rev­el, Michael P. Stein­berg, Idith Zer­tal, eds.

  • Review
By – December 22, 2016

This essay col­lec­tion presents a series of lit­er­ary por­traits of Jew­ish thinkers, lead­ers, and artists who played a role in cre­at­ing Jew­ish moder­ni­ty. The 43 men and women pro­filed here were cho­sen for their role as crit­i­cal spir­its,” who were cru­cial in cre­at­ing and inter­pret­ing intel­lec­tu­al, cul­tur­al, and polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions of the 20th cen­tu­ry, and who drew on tra­di­tion even as they tore down social and polit­i­cal con­ven­tions with­in and out­side of nor­ma­tive Judaism.

At almost 700 pages, this book is a use­ful ref­er­ence vol­ume that will allow stu­dents and edu­ca­tors access to foun­da­tion­al knowl­edge on key Jew­ish pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als from the past cen­tu­ry. The essays with­in this vol­ume were penned by con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als such as Leon Bot­stein (Bard Col­lege), Peter E. Gor­don (Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty), and Leo­ra Bat­nitzky (Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty) — all of whom con­tribute thought­ful analy­ses, if not fresh takes, on their subjects.

In their intro­duc­tion, the volume’s edi­tors lay out the cri­te­ria they used to clas­si­fy and curate the fig­ures they have select­ed as mak­ers of Jew­ish moder­ni­ty. They define moder­ni­ty as a lim­i­nal space or bor­der zone, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly as a com­plex rela­tion to time that defies lin­ear­i­ty. Accord­ing to this per­spec­tive, Jew­ish moder­ni­ty involves a series of rela­tion­ships held in ten­sion, such as universal/​particular, objective/​subjective, and tradition/​innovation. Think­ing Jew­ish there­fore requires acts of rad­i­cal imag­i­na­tion, draw­ing from the past in order to shape the future.

In order to fur­ther illu­mi­nate their themes, Picard, Rev­el, Stein­berg, and Zer­tal invoke Tunisian-French philoso­pher Albert Mem­mi, who dis­tin­guished between judaïc­ité and judéité, or what we might con­sid­er as the dis­tinc­tion between being Jew­ish” and doing Jew­ish.” Sur­pris­ing­ly, Mem­mi him­self is not fea­tured as a sub­ject of one of the volume’s essays. In fact, the edi­tors admit that Jew­ish moder­ni­ty, as they define it, is large­ly a Euro­pean phe­nom­e­non. Jews from North Africa, the Mid­dle East, and the Sephardic dias­po­ra, it seems, require a vol­ume of their own. Fur­ther­more, the thinkers fea­tured here are almost entire­ly men — only sev­en women are includ­ed. The essays in this book, there­fore, large­ly present well-fash­ioned micro-biogra­phies of famil­iar fig­ures such as Theodor Her­zl, Mar­tin Buber, Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Han­nah Arendt, and Pri­mo Levi. Sev­er­al less­er-known fig­ures are also includ­ed, such as Rab­bi Avra­ham Isaac Kook, a founder of Reli­gious Zion­ism; and the Sovi­et Yid­dish poet, Peretz Mark­ish. The book is most inno­v­a­tive in its last sec­tion, which includes essays focus­ing on late 20th- and 21st-cen­tu­ry pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als, such as Israel-born Hebrew poet Dahlia Ravikovitch, gen­der the­o­rist Judith But­ler, and the film­mak­ers Joel and Ethan Coen. By plac­ing Freud and But­ler as book­ends with­in a con­tin­u­um of Jew­ish moder­ni­ty, the edi­tors pro­voke a larg­er con­ver­sa­tion about how the acts of being, doing, and think­ing Jew­ish” have changed over time.

Discussion Questions