- Creating A Judaism Without Religion: A Postmodern Jewish Possibility
Daniel Breslauer continues his project of articulating a postmodern Judaism, but his latest book is focused neither on one thinker (as was his 1994 book on Mordecai Kaplan), nor strictly on Jewish ethics (as was his 1998 Toward a Jewish (M)orality). Breslauer has cast his net wider, folding analyses of Jewish literature and poetry—along with an all-too-brief discussion of Israeli transgendered singer Dana International!—into studies of theology and ethics in this portrayal of “a liberated Jewish life that goes beyond the boundaries delimited by religious claims.”
Breslauer’s distance from religion is indebted to Jacques Derrida’s and John D. Caputo’s recent writings on religion. Therefore, the “without religion” of Breslauer’s title does not refer to a purely secular stance, but rather to a nondogmatic, multifaceted, and organic Judaism in which revelation develops over the course of history through a community’s creative selection of elements from the Jewish past as the narratives in which it wishes to see itself reflected. In short, Breslauer is offering the reader an account of the discipline of Jewish studies as a substitute for a Judaism which he [End Page 174] perceives (following the early writings of Martin Buber) as having lost its religiosity. Jewish studies, through its offering of many different eras of Jewish history from a diversity of perspectives, allows Jews to assert themselves, interrupt traditional discourses of Judaism, and liberate themselves from the deleterious effects of dogma. But along with this autonomous moment is a heteronomous moment: the Jew who begins to explore Jewish studies recognizes that the texts under study make a claim on the student. Breslauer aligns this give-and-take of the student with Eugene Borowitz’s account of covenant theology.
In addition, Breslauer claims that the community’s covenantal work is one which is embedded in a distinct historical situation, and that the explicit halakhot or customs by which a community lives are supplemented by the principle of lifnim mishurat ha-din, going beyond the letter of the law. Breslauer makes the familiar liberal Jewish claim that sacred meaning is not eternal and natural, but rather embedded in the everyday vagaries of history. But he admirably performs this claim by focusing on Jewish literature and poetry in the latter half of his book. From the novels of David Grossman, Breslauer concludes that literature can expand our horizons in ways that may be off-limits to theology and philosophy. In a nuanced reading of Bialik’s poetry and essays, Breslauer finds that even someone like Bialik, who insists on the connection between a people and its language, actually exemplifies an “artificial creation” of this supposedly natural connection.
Most importantly, in the format of Bialik’s edition of Sefer ha-Aggada, Breslauer finds a plurality of voices, a heteroglossia, that can potentially liberate Jewish culture. In the closing chapters of the book, Breslauer applies this heteroglossia to several stories of I. L. Peretz (“Domestic Tranquility,” “Self-Sacrifice,” “The Reader,” and “The Three Gifts”), Agnon’s “The Tale of Azriel Moshe,” Buber’s For The Sake of Heaven, and the writings of the Israeli gay poet Ilan Sheinfeld. There are multiple modes of destabilization: Yiddish interrupting Hebrew, Hasidism interrupting rabbinism, women interrupting the masculinism of Jewish culture, and gays interrupting Israeli heterosexism. Even in cases where the author whom Breslauer analyzes is not explicitly seeking to argue for an end to certain prejudices in Jewish culture, it is the tragic predicament of these characters that impels Breslauer to seek a resolution by imagining a world in which Jewish identity “expands to include the excluded Other,” and a Judaism in which all Jews can recognize themselves.
Creating a Judaism without Religion is a necessary and helpful corrective to the bias toward theory that is prevalent in modern Jewish thought. Yet, in the end, Breslauer does not go as far away from theory as he might. The hero of Breslauer’s narrative is Sheinfeld, from whom Breslauer learns that...