Judaics scholar Leora Batnitzky has a warning for her students and readers.
“Often, we just assume the way things are is the way things have always been,” said the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Princeton University. “But we cannot understand the unique challenges we face today without understanding how they differ from the past.”
For example, Judaism was never considered a “religion” until the Enlightenment, when Moses Mendelssohn changed the way people would think about Judaism forever.
Batnitzky added that were a Jew of any stripe dropped into a Jewish community from 1,000 years ago, “it would all look very strange to everyone. We in the modern world have very different assumptions about individuality, even that there is a separation among the different spheres of life — religion, politics, culture, economics.”
“On the other hand, there is a body of literature common to Jewish tradition, and perhaps having these shared texts would be one commonality,” she said.
On Shabbat, April 19-20, Batnitzky will serve as scholar-in-residence at Temple Sinai in Summit. Her talks are all free and open to the public.
On a recent Friday, she spoke with NJJN about her thesis and why Jewish history matters.
In her 2011 book, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought, Batnitzky offers a detailed account of the political, historical, and cultural context for this seismic shift.
The book traces Judaism from 18th-century Germany through today, with side trips to Eastern Europe and, later, the United States and Israel. Her journey includes visits with Immanuel Kant, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Theodor Herzl, Ahad Haam, Sholem Aleichem, Mordecai Kaplan, and Leo Strauss.
She finds that Mendelssohn and modern Jews grapple with the same question, namely: What does it mean to be Jewish?
“One of the things we see today is that there is not just one Judaism. There are many Judaisms. One question for the Jewish world is what unites these different forms of Judaism?”
The question also applies to Israel. “What is often not discussed when we talk about having a Jewish state,” she said, “is what do we mean by ‘Jewish’?”
Mendelssohn was a prominent intellectual of the Enlightenment, but as a Jew had no civil rights. As a public figure, anything he said as an individual could result in collective punishment for the Jews. So when Swiss theologian John Caspar Lavater challenged Mendelssohn to refute Christianity or convert, he had to walk a fine line.
Mendelssohn “had to defend the rationality of Judaism and hence Judaism’s compatibility with the German Enlightenment without offending his Christian interlocutors,” Batnitzky writes. “He had to defend Judaism without refuting Christianity.”
His response was to advance the idea of the separation of church and state. If Judaism were to be accepted as just a religion, Jews would cease to be a political threat to the German state.
“It was in this context,” writes Batnitzky, “that he claimed that Judaism was a religion — a proposition that would provide the framework for all German-Jewish thought to follow.”
Through Mendelssohn, Jews were eventually given individual civil rights, although Judaism itself was still sneered at by German society.
Jews who internalized this attitude were often eager to distinguish themselves from fellow Jews in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe.
“German Jews were nervous that for all their hard work at improving themselves and acquiring German culture, they would nonetheless be associated with their unrefined brethren,” Batnitzky said, “and they sought to deemphasize any national aspect of the Jewish religion.… The attempt to rid Judaism of any notion of collective politics was at the core of the invention of Jewish religion.”
Later, early 20th-century German-Jewish thinkers rebelled against this idea. According to Batnitzky, Franz Kafka, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig “believed that it was German Jewry that could learn from Eastern European Jewry and not the other way around.”
Ultimately, Batnitzky arrives in the United States, reflecting on the ways Mordecai Kaplan takes the conversation full circle, creating Reconstructionism to return to the idea of Judaism as a civilization. She concludes her work mulling over the ways today’s fervently Orthodox Jews refuse to embrace and struggle with modernity, choosing isolationism instead.
“What we are witnessing is the way in which different forms of Judaism are moving further and further apart, and the question is really how isolationist ultra-Orthodoxy will become,” said Batnitzky. “The dividing line is not where most people think it is — between religious versus non-religious. Really, it is whether Jewish communities will be isolationist or not.”
What the study of history provides, she said, is a reminder of the varieties of Jewish experience.
“It’s important to be aware that there are always many paths one can take Jewishly, and every path brings different benefits and costs. The more we can be clear about the costs and benefits, the better choice we will make.”