Traditional Alternatives: Orthodoxy and the Future of the Jewish People by Jonathan Sacks by Professor Yoseph Udelson
Traditional Alternatives: Orthodoxy and the Future of the Jewish People by Jonathan Sacks

Volume 3 , Issue 4


Traditional Alternatives: Orthodoxy and the Future of the Jewish People by Jonathan Sacks

London: Jews' College Publications, 1989. Soft cover, 274pp. Bibliography and Index.

The French Revolution of 1789 and its challenging offer of secular national equality subverted the historical unity of the Jewish people. For the first time in its history the very definition of Jewish identity was called into question and variously approached. The resulting divisiveness with respect to the Jewish people's own self‑definition has steadily and acrimoniously intensified in recent decades.

In a lucid and concise narrative, Jonathan Sacks, Principal [Chancellor] of Jews' College, London, traces the history of the rancorous controversy concerning Jewish identity in this age of modernity. His brilliant analysis of the previous century's Jewish responses to this dilemma places these responses within three broad categories: (a) those who accepted the offer of secular equality on its own terms and, in the spirit of Spinoza, sought to reformulate Jewish identity either as that of a diaspora Reform religion or as that of a secular Zionist nationalism; (b) those who accepted the offer of secular equality on the Torah's terms either as S.R. Hirsch's diaspora Torah im derekh eretz or as Abraham Kook's mystical religious Zionism; and (c) the Chatam Sofer's radical rejection of the offer of secular equality on any terms.

Sacks argues that all of the positive responses to modernity have faltered during the twentieth century in the face of the persistent virulence of anti‑Semitism among Western secular cultures and in the continuing inability of people to integrate successfully their Jewish and secular identities. However, Sacks also argues that the Chatam Sofer's charedi response, too, has not remained unscathed by recent historical events, but its adherents have become driven within by intense group rivalries that have dangerously distanced authentic rabbinic Judaism from contact with the daily experiences of the vast majority of the Jewish people. Even the contemporary ?return to tradition,? Sacks claims, is fraught with serious difficulties, for each group defines ?tradition? quite differently, and the ?return? itself is being accompanied by an intensifying secularization of the Jewish people leading it still further away from any familiarity at all with rabbinic tradition.

When he comes to discuss means by which this pervasive divisiveness may be overcome, Sacks falters. In seeking a positive path through which to explore the reintegration of contemporary Jewish identity, he becomes uncomfortably circumspect and his narrative, convoluted. For his delineation of the implacable discord over Jewish identity is so compelling and the lack of any universe of discourse among the various factions so convincing that Sacks seems to search in vain for any sort of thread compatible with rabbinic Judaism with which it might be possible to suture the festering wounds among our people.

Nonetheless, any person interested in grasping the historical record and the contemporary manifestations of modernity's challenge to the unity of the Jewish people and to their continuing survival will find Sacks' work an extraordinarily useful analysis. Only by understanding the sources of the current divisiveness over the issue of the meaning of Jewish identity and by appreciating the urgency of this issue for our very survival as a distinctive people, as well as for the survival of the State of Israel as a sovereign nation, will constructive progress become possible in formulating means to resolve the problem successfully.

Yoseph Udelson is a Professor of History at Tennesee State University.

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