After Tragedy and Triumph:Essays in Modern Jewish Thought and the American Experience by Michael Berenbaum by Rabbi Neil Gillman
After Tragedy and Triumph:Essays in Modern Jewish Thought and the American Experience by Michael Berenbaum

Volume 4 , Issue 3

Cambridge University Press, 1990, 172pp, Notes and Index. Reviewed by Neil Gillman

These thirteen previously published essays address three central issues: Jewish identity after the Holocaust and the ?triumph? of Israel, the tensions within Jewish tradition between a history of victimization and the assumption of power, and the choices facing free Jewish communities in the wake of decreased antisemitism. In this newly published format, the essays are divided into two parts. Part I is entitled ?The Holocaust in Contemporary American Culture;? Part II, ?Jewish Thought and Modern History.?

The volume is graced by an illuminating Foreword by the distinguished American Jewish theologian, Richard L. Rubenstein who was the author's mentor at Florida State University where he pursued his doctoral studies. Rubenstein draws our attention to Berenbaum's life experience which molds his distinctive perspective on all of these issues. A product of 'a Modern Orthodox yeshiva education, Berenbaum studied at the Hebrew University and in a conservative Protestant setting at Florida State. He has made his home in Washington where he serves on the faculty of Georgetown University and as Project Director of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

For Rubenstein's generation, World War II was ?the war of our lifetime.? In contrast, Berenbaum's wars were Vietnam, the Six Day War of 1967, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and, he writes, ?...the debacle of Lebanon, followed by the Pollard affair and the Palestinian uprisings.?

In short, Berenbaum's sensibility is informed by a series of tensions: between Judaism and Christian America, between the Israeli experience and that of the American Jewish diaspora, between the culture of academia and the demands of a political strategist. Most important, Berenbaum's late 20th century perspective has exposed the inadequacies of ?the mythic saga of death and rebirth? which Rubenstein and the first post-Holocaust generation evolved to structure their experience. ?Our tale is more anguished, less innocent, for now the Jewish people are divided, uncertain about the direction of their future.?

The first set of essays deal with the appropriation of the Holocaust experience in late 20th century America and Israel. The issues have been extensively debated. How has the distinctive American Jewish and Israeli experience shaped each community's historiography? Was the Holocaust unique or was it one more example of inhumanity, or of the centuries-long experience of Jewish victimization? Should the Holocaust be presented as a uniquely Jewish experience or should it be universalized? How should the Holocaust be taught and commemorated?

Berenbaum argues for the centrality and the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and for its universalization. On the first, he echoes the thought of his mentor. the goal of the Holocaust was unprecedented, methodologically it was without parallel, and its results were ? entire world destroyed, a culture uprooted, and all mankind left with new thresholds of inhumanity.?

Berenbaum includes two contrary statements, by the American theologian Arnold Jacob Wolf who argues that ?[I]f everything is Holocaust, nothing is Holocaust,? and by the Israeli scientist David W. Weiss, who insists that the Holocaust must not alter the terms of Jewish religious self-understanding. ?The question to God - Why? - is the same for the first child struck down in human history and for the last to perish in Auschwitz.?

In rebuttal, Berenbaum concedes the legitimacy of Wolf's fear of excessive Holocaust- centrism in American Jewish life, but insists that this has not happened nor should it. Contra Weiss, he argues that the theological/religious issues raised by the Holocaust cannot be denied or avoided, and that the evidence of Jewish intellectual history reveals an ongoing impulse to reinterpret the terms of Jewish thought in light of new historical realities. To this reader, Berenbaum's reply to Weiss is more convincing than is his reply to Wolf.

On the issue of the Judaization or universalization of the Holocaust, Berenbaum writes out of his experience in the American government. His challenge, in these circles, was to translate the Holocaust experience into terms that would be accessible to the American population at large.

On this issue, Berenbaum's perspective as a government insider is particularly fascinating. He is both proud of his contribution to this educational program and poignantly aware of the trade-offs. ?The Holocaust cannot be thrust into the political arena without Jews losing a measure of control over the way in which it is handled.? But, ?[I]f Jews choose to avoid all risks, they cannot bemoan the world's ignorance or indifference.? The major risk is that the Holocaust will be ?Americanized,? that is relocated within the broader context of human injustice and indignity.

Berenbaum is clearly prepared to take that risk as the inevitable price to be paid forsharing the lessons of the Holocaust. The alternative is that it ?...may become a new threshold, a precedent, for what people can do to each other.? On this issue, Berenbaum is convincing.

Part II of this volume provides Berenbaum with a richer and more diverse agenda. The essays here deal with a reconsideration of the respective influence of Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber on American Jewish thinking; with contemporary Orthodoxy's struggle with pluralism or insularity; with Elie Wiesel's religious/theological odyssey; with Jacob Neusner's writings on contemporary issues; with political Zionism's ?would-be? successors in Israel; and finally with the situation of the contemporary American Jew.

There is much to ponder in Berenbaum's treatment of these issues. First, this teacher of modern Jewish theology has contributed to the acclaim lavished on Franz Rosenzweig as the paradigmatic modern Jewish theologian while dismissing Martin Buber's antinomianism as an inauthentic reading of Judaism. Berenbaum cautions us that Rosenzweig's fame rests almost exclusively on his existentialist stance toward halakha. But in his writings on Judaism and Christianity, Rosenzweig propounds a view that takes ?the synagogue? out of history, that accepts exile, powerlessness, landlessness, and isolation as necessary and praiseworthy, and acknowledges the place of the Christian ?mission? as part of God's redemptive plan for humankind.

Berenbaum argues that Rosenzweig's position on these issues hardly helps us deal with the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, both of which post-dated Rosenzweig's untimely death in 1929, and which forcefully pulled the Jewish people back into history.

And on Buber's antinomianism, Berenbaum ? accurately, I believe? cautions us that Buber's goal was to explore the fragile tension between ?...the poles of structured and unstructured existence,? between the I-Thou and the I-It, both of which, Buber felt were endemic to the human condition. A careful re-reading of the celebrated Buber-Rosenzweig correspondence collected by Nahum Glatzer in On Jewish Learning will support Berenbaum's thesis here. My own conclusion is that the two positions are more sharply polarized at the beginning of the correspondence than at its conclusion. Further, Berenbaum's sketch of the Buberian influence on all non-normative forms of Jewish religious expression (e.g. the Havurah movement) is acutely perceived.

On Wiesel's theological journey, Berenbaum captures the paradox that lies at the heart of Wiesel's work. ?Of course, Wiesel speaks of the Holocaust ... [lit is for him the central mystery of the contemporary world ... Despite a schedule that includes scores of lectures..., Wiesel protests that he prefers silence. Seemingly, he protests too much. After all, how can one speak time and again and then ask for silence? How can one write book after book and then insist that words are unequal to the task?? Indeed. But then, how else can a survivor deal with this kind of experience?

Finally, the richest and most satisfying essay in this entire collection is the final one on ?The Situation of the American Jew.?

Berenbaum indicates that ?...the events of the 1980s will slowly bring to an end the Israel-centered period for American Jews ...? He concedes that this will leave in its wake ?...a spiritual and institutional vacuum,? but he proceeds to sketch the rich flowering of American Jewish energy in political life, in the arts and literature, in academia and business. The Jewish community has moved into the mainstream of American culture in ways that could not have been anticipated even a generation ago.

Berenbaum perceptively notes, however, that though the rule of emancipation was ?tobe a Jew in your home and a man in the street,? the opposite seems to be more characteristic of segments of American Jewry. They are unabashedly Jews in public life, yet their private lives are singularly devoid of Jewish content. Berenbaum warns that this incongruence will be difficult to maintain for another generation, and he traces some of the strategies that may be employed for enriching the inner life of the American Jew..

This concluding essay iseven more striking in the light of its (surely deliberate) juxtaposition with the preceding one in this collection, ?Political Zionism's Would-Be Successors.? Here, Berenbaum analyzes ?...political Zionism's failure to realize its dreams ... Forty years after achieving statehood, Jews remain a vulnerable, abnormal, and interdependent people living in the diaspora as well as in their homeland.?

The contrast between die ?turmoil? in late 20th century Israel and the richness of American Jewish life could not be more striking. Clearly the terms, not only of Zionism itself, but also of the Israel/diaspora relationship have to be redefined. There is work to be done, then, and Berenbaum's contribution to the discourse issignificant.

There is something inherently unsatisfying about a collection of this kind. The essay format discourages an extended inquiry and despite the editing and reformulating that, we are told, went into this volume, there is still too much overlapping and repetitiousness, particularly on the Holocaust material.

One longs, then, for a single, extended, book-length inquiry where Berenbaum could deal systematically and carefully with both the challenges that confront us and with his responses. He is a perceptive and challenging thinker and this reader looks forward to his continuing study and writing.

Rabbi Gillman is the Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon 11. Rifkind Associate Professor of Jewish Philosophy at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. His Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew was published recently by The Jewish Publication Society of America.

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