- Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal
It is rare for a book review to begin by examining the blurbs on the back of the book. Nonetheless, two of the blurbs that festoon the back cover of Dana Kaplan’s Contemporary American Judaism deserve note, less for their content (most blurbs follow the same script) and more for their authors: Nathan Glazer, a sociologist at Harvard University, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founding father, if I may, of Jewish renewal. Both men appear in the book and truly bookend the project.
Kaplan’s “contemporary” Judaism starts in 1945, and for the immediate postwar period, Glazer is his guide. Readers are introduced to the banal solidity of Glazer’s postwar Judaism that he so memorably described in American Judaism (1957). Pulling in Herbert Gans, Will Herberg, and Marshall Sklare, Kaplan takes 1950s Jewish social criticism at face value. Thus, the reader learns, Jews in 1950s America cared about “keeping the Jewish people unified and providing a framework for the maintenance of Jewish ritual,” but they gave little attention to the ways in which religion could “embody universal truths that could help people build a closer relationship with God and live more ethical lives” (18).
From such unhallowed ground Kaplan sets out, yet the map he draws from there (the 1950s) to here (the early twenty-first century) shows possible routes toward redemption: feminism and the gay movement; declining denominationalism; Chabad; and Jewish Renewal. In his description of each pathway, Kaplan offers readers lucid portraits of modern Jewish life. An astute participant in and observer of American Jewish life, Kaplan writes his way through complicated subjects, such as debates about intermarriage or feminist politics, with skill. His rabbinic training, perhaps, provides him with the skills to see the multiple interpretations of various modern problems and to set them in their proper contexts. For example, although Kaplan views denominationalism as on the wane in American Jewish life, he is not in the least dismissive of the denominational institutions and provides a historically sound portrait of their struggles. Likewise, his portrayal of Chabad, while not pathbreaking, honestly explores the attraction and repulsion that many American Jews feel toward the salesman-like tactics that Chabadniks employ.
Yet while offering these various routes toward modern-day American Judaism, Kaplan steers the reader on a course defined by the word “renewal.” Even if Reb Zalman, as he is affectionately known, did not literally have the last word (he has written the afterword), his call for a Jewish revolution would remain the final destination of Kaplan’s book. [End Page 91] To be fair, Kaplan is not suggesting that all American Jews make for the hills of Colorado, where Schachter-Shalomi resides. In fact, he argues that Schachter-Shalomi has had less influence on American Jewish life than other spiritual leaders, such as Shlomo Carlebach, or other movements, such as Chabad or the ba’al teshuvah phenomenon of relatively secular Jews becoming strictly observant. Yet the word that Kaplan returns to again and again is “renewal.” In part, his point is that Judaism is undergoing massive social transformations that will either end in demise or renewal. But he also believes in “renewal” as a religious framework for individuals and the Jewish collective. The “overeducated secularists” of today, in Kaplan’s words, may be the lone progeny of the Jewish instrumentalists of the 1950s, who loved Judaism for what it did and not what it meant (300).
To read Kaplan’s assessment is to learn that most American Jews are searching for ways to be spiritually renewed and most haven’t a clue about “normative” Judaism (384). And finally we arrive at the central modern-day tension between the Jew as seeker and the Jew as clueless about Judaism. Renewal carries the possibility for resolving that tension by answering the needs of the seeker through a re-articulated Judaism, whether by Schachter-Shalomi, Chabad, or a Synaplex Shabbat program (one synagogue, lots of Friday night programs), that is popular and graspable whether or not...