Non­fic­tion

The New Jew­ish Canon: Ideas and Debates 1980 – 2015

Yehu­da Kurtzer, Claire E. Sufrin (eds.)

  • Review
By – November 16, 2020

It may be plau­si­bly argued that the last half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and the begin­ning of the twen­ty-first have wit­nessed some of the most pro­found trans­for­ma­tions in Jew­ish life since the destruc­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple and the inau­gu­ra­tion of the Rab­binic peri­od in the first cen­turies of the Com­mon Era. From the Holo­caust to the found­ing of the State of Israel to 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture and its impact on Jew­ish renew­al, the Jew­ish world has been teem­ing with both dis­pu­ta­tion and creativity.

Cap­tur­ing this fer­ment between the cov­ers of a book is the daunt­ing chal­lenge that edi­tors Yehu­da Kurtzer and Claire E. Sufrin under­take in The New Jew­ish Canon. Jew­ish life in this age, they assert, is a para­dox­i­cal blend of set­tling down” and agi­ta­tion. And while Jew­ish life is incred­i­bly diverse … it is also increas­ing­ly unsta­ble.” Whether one can estab­lish a canon in those cir­cum­stances is an open ques­tion, and the edi­tors are their own best crit­ics in this regard. In the intro­duc­tion, they out­line the dif­fi­cul­ty of defin­ing a canon. They also include an excerpt from a 2002 essay by his­to­ri­an Paula Hyman that ques­tions the pos­si­bil­i­ty of canon build­ing in an age that, as Hyman wrote, has chal­lenged vir­tu­al­ly all cer­tain­ties and shak­en all canons. No canon is fixed, and guardians of cul­tur­al trans­mis­sion are required to make hard choices.”

The issue of canon­ic­i­ty aside, Kurtzer, Pres­i­dent of the Shalom Hart­man Insti­tute of North Amer­i­ca, and Sufrin, Assis­tant Direc­tor of the Crown Fam­i­ly Cen­ter for Jew­ish and Israel Stud­ies at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty, have assem­bled an exten­sive and provoca­tive anthol­o­gy of writ­ings that range across four major top­ics: Jew­ish Pol­i­tics and the Pub­lic Square,” His­to­ry Mem­o­ry, and Nar­ra­tive,” Reli­gion and Reli­gios­i­ty,” and Iden­ti­ties and Com­mu­ni­ties.” In each sec­tion, brief excerpts from pri­ma­ry sources are com­ple­ment­ed by essays by a vari­ety of aca­d­e­mics and layper­sons that pro­vide con­text and analy­sis. The authors of the excerpt­ed mate­ri­als include a host of well-known names (Hes­chel, Soloveitchik, Oz, Yerushal­mi, Lei­bowitz, Hart­man, Lip­stadt, and Wiesel, to name just a few) and some less well known.

The New Jew­ish Canon address­es impor­tant but famil­iar issues: the debate over Israel as a cen­ter of Jew­ish life, the place of the Holo­caust in con­tem­po­rary thought, and the open­ness of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty to dif­fer­ent sex­u­al iden­ti­ties, to name the most promi­nent. There are also some dis­tinct omis­sions, such as the flight from ultra-Ortho­doxy, the growth of Hasidism, and the return of many sec­u­lar Jews to some form of reli­gious obser­vance. One oth­er quib­ble is that the excerpts from the texts denom­i­nat­ed as canon­i­cal might have been a lit­tle longer and more exten­sive­ly footnoted.

Nonethe­less, this is a rich col­lec­tion that pro­vides a win­dow into many of the key debates that have raged, and still rage, in the Jew­ish world. It rais­es many provoca­tive ques­tions about the nature of con­tem­po­rary Judaism and its future.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions