- On Gerson Cohen’s “Blessing of Assimilation” a Half Century LaterEditor’s Introduction
Gerson Cohen, Assimilation
The editors of JQR relish the prospect of adding forums such as this one to the regular mix of articles and review essays. The forum is often an opportunity to identify important new trends in Jewish studies or call attention to paradigm-shifting books in the field. Sometimes the forum serves a different function, though, allowing us to look back to the past for a particularly incisive or consequential piece of work.
It is the latter purpose that animates this forum devoted to Professor Gerson D. Cohen’s memorable essay “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History.” Delivered as a commencement address to the graduating class at Hebrew Teachers College in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1966, this essay takes on a theme of major concern to Jews in Cohen’s day and subsequently—and turns it on its head. As Keren McGinity shows in Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, the 1960s were a period of “rising alarm within the Jewish community,” principally owing to the specter of elevated rates of intermarriage. Jewish communal leaders and social scientists weighed in with a bevy of quantitative and qualitative studies intended to diagnose and forestall the rapid onset of assimilation.
Against the backdrop of that discourse, Gerson Cohen, successor to Salo Baron at Columbia University and soon to become the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, upended convention by declaring to his audience that “assimilation properly channeled and exploited can become a blessing.” It must have made for a singularly unsettling moment for the future Jewish educators who had been trained precisely to guard against assimilation.
Although only forty-two at the time of the address, Cohen was hardly a naïf. He understood that there would always be those Jews who “identify with the majority and have slipped away from the Jewish community.” [End Page 429] This marked an unhealthy version of assimilation, but not the only one. There was another version of assimilation at work in recent centuries that enabled nothing short of “all the great changes and developments that characterize modern Jewish history”—from the rise of critical Jewish scholarship to the advent of Jewish nationalism.
Cohen’s sunny view of the creative potential of assimilation reached its most provocative when he turned his attention to premodern Jewish history. Here he challenged deep-seated wisdoms while attempting to get at the core of the assimilatory process—and by consequence, at Jewish survival itself. Religious traditionalists often declared that Jews survived because of their steadfast resistance to changes to their names, language, and dress (the letters beginning the Hebrew words—shem, leshon, and malbush—created an acronym, ShaLeM, indicating wholeness). In fact, Cohen noted that Jews survived by repeatedly changing their names, languages, and dress, as a result of which they could successfully adapt to their surroundings. While unrestrained absorption into the surrounding world would lead to disappearance, resistance to all forms of adaptation had its own severe consequences: “withdrawal and fossilization.” Cohen marveled at the ability of Jews to adapt to their host societies and thereby permit the ongoing rejuvenation of their cultural habits—without losing all traces of their distinctiveness. He saw this extraordinary balancing act operating in every period of Jewish history—from ancient Alexandria to medieval Baghdad to modern Berlin and Tel Aviv. In capturing this balance, he summoned forth the image of the nineteenth-century Galician thinker Nachman Krochmal, for whom the Torah was “like a path that is beset on one side with freezing cold and on the other with consuming fire.”
The concentrated erudition and pungency of Cohen’s observations call to mind another Galician Jew, his predecessor and teacher at Columbia, Salo Baron. Writing nearly forty years earlier, the thirty-three-year-old Baron produced his own precocious and lapidary judgment in an article in the Menorah Journal, “Ghetto and Emancipation” (1928). There he set out to challenge common depictions of the darkness of medieval Jewish life, which he famously described as overly “lachrymose,” while also questioning the widely assumed beneficence of modernity for the Jews.