Comments on the Topic of Jews and American Freedom

Tony Michels

No theme has loomed larger in the scholarship on American Jews than freedom. Historians generally agree that freedoms established by the Constitution, starting with that of religion, have enabled Jews to flourish in the United States like nowhere else. "Diversity, voluntarism, equality, and democracy—these were the products of three centuries of experience in America," Oscar Handlin concluded in Adventure in Freedom: Three Hundred Years of Jewish Life in America (1954). "In their attainment, the Jews shattered the closed ghettoes of the Old World and replaced them with voluntary communities of free men, governing themselves in accord with their own interests." Handlin's unabashed tone sounds outdated today, but his summation of American Jewish history remains current with much scholarship in the field. With varying degrees of emphasis and nuance, historians generally consider freedom the defining condition of American Jewish life since the founding of the republic.

Yet historians have devoted little attention to freedom as a subject in itself. What has freedom meant as an ideal and in reality? How have Jews been affected by its limits, as well as benefitted from its possibilities? How have Jews worked to expand the contours of American freedom? What, in other words, might a history of the Jewish encounter with freedom look like at the theoretical and empirical levels?

We know that Jews, no less than Americans generally, have understood freedom in diverse ways. In the nineteenth century, Reform Jews hailed religious freedom, which is to say, freedom from coercion by government and Jewish communal authority, as the best means to liberate Judaism's true essence from the stultifying weight of tradition. Some Orthodox Jews regretted the separation of church and state because it granted individuals freedom to choose whether or not to observe Jewish laws and customs. Secular nationalists, similarly, worried about the ability of Jews to maintain themselves as a cohesive community in a country where they could affiliate or disaffiliate as they saw fit. The theoretician of Yiddish culture, Chaim Zhitlovsky, advocated for the "free development of peoples" or the right of minority groups to perpetuate themselves using whichever languages they wished. Some Jews viewed freedom as a blessing, others as a threat, still others as something elastic, open to wide interpretation.

Arguably, the most probing considerations were written in the 1940s and 1950s within the context of an extended public discussion of Jewish identity and communal belonging. Some participants, especially, but not only, Zionists and Communists (who had, during the Second World War, initiated a "Jewish people's movement") implored unaffiliated intellectuals to join the communal fold, help build Jewish culture, assist in the struggle for a Jewish homeland, and come to the aid of European Jewry. In response, self-described "rootless" Jews, such as the art and literary critic, Harold Rosenberg, insisted on their independence, not out of indifference or callousness, but because they viewed themselves as cosmopolitans whose Jewishness formed no more than a small part of their identities. If they wished to stay true to themselves, unaffiliated intellectuals could not proclaim to be who they were not. But who exactly were they? Rosenberg and like-minded intellectuals (Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, others) had grown cognizant of their Jewishness against the backdrop of the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel, but felt removed from their parents' immigrant culture. Jewishness was, for them, a quandary.

Rosenberg's essays on Jewish identity, published in Commentary, were among the richest contributions to the discussion. They contained two divergent thrusts. Rosenberg criticized "ideologists of positive Judaism" who regarded alienated intellectuals as "defeatist and destructive people who need to be called to order." At the same time, he asserted the vitality of Jewish consciousness in reaction to those who counseled assimilation. His 1950 essay, "Jewish Identity in a Free Society," represented the culmination of his thinking. In the modern era, stated Rosenberg, individuals "possess a kind of freedom never known before," the freedom of self-definition. "In this ability to choose who we shall be . . . we replace nature and tradition and, like the First Maker, create a man in the image we desire." This meant that one did not have to be Jewish simply because of an accident of birth. Rosenberg wrote:

Being born a Jew does not save us from—or, if you prefer, deprive us of— the modern condition of freedom to make ourselves according to an image we choose. Jewish birth may confer an identity upon us that is quite empty of content, a mere external title applied by others. Perhaps American Jews, to the discomfiture of assimilationists, are born with less group anonymity than most other Americans. Still it must be granted that they tend to be born with at least as much anonymity as Jewishness. And this anonymity goes along with them as a constant possibility of ceasing to be Jewish to a greater or lesser degree.

Rosenberg's claim that Jewish identity "may" lack content and be a mere "title" imposed by others echoed Jean-Paul Sartre's Anti-Semite and Jew, a work that provoked much debate among intellectuals in the late 1940s. Rosenberg, however, added an important dimension that distinguished his perspective from Sartre's.

Sartre had argued that Jews existed because of hostility toward them. "It is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew," he contended. The Jew is merely "one whom other men consider a Jew." In response, Rosenberg insisted on the independent reality of Jewish identity. Everyday rituals and beliefs grounded in Judaism had served, since antiquity, to connect generations until the present day. "The Jews have shown," Rosenberg wrote in a 1949 critique of Anti-Semite and Jew, "that without being a race, a nation, or a religion, it is possible for people to remain together in a net of memory and expectation." Sartre claimed Jews lacked an inner history; Rosenberg maintained otherwise.

Rosenberg did not deny that prejudice, discrimination, and persecution constrained the ability of Jews to define themselves in relation to others. Jews never enjoyed full freedom, not even in the United States, but made do with "partial freedom" in societies of "partial enlightenment." What Rosenberg rejected was Sartre's notion of the Jews as a people constituted entirely by their enemies.

Rosenberg argued on two fronts. He defended those who refused "to make being a Jew the central fact of their lives," even as he challenged those who would deny Jews a future. The perspective he adopted was that of "the semi-outsider." This type, according to Rosenberg, is someone who does not artificially "will" his Jewishness into being in order to fulfill external expectations, but rather recognizes Jewishness as an aspect—perhaps significant, perhaps minor—of a multifaceted identity. The semi-outsider "is only a Jew in whatever respect and to whatever depth he finds that he is a Jew." This statement was not meant to justify complacency. As far as Rosenberg was concerned, a shift from rootlessness to partial Jewishness required difficult self-examination. One had to be willing to grapple with "one's confusions and negations" and prepare to accept the "risk" of discovering the "hidden content" of Jewish identity. The burden of freedom required introspection from thinking individuals.

The crucial question, for Rosenberg, was this: why had people who "despised nationalist values" suddenly turned "toward Palestine" during the 1940s? This could not be explained as an inevitable reaction to the destruction of European Jewry, for the Holocaust could have elicited any number of responses. What, then, caused the "surge of identification" with the Yishuv?

Rosenberg put forward a historicalpsychological explanation. Emotions stirred by the birth of the State of Israel were the latest manifestation of an ancient historical dynamic. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews had lived "within a cycle of repetition that time after time brought Jews to re-enact, individually and collectively, certain characteristic events of their history, such as the return to the Land of the Fathers." Not all Jews felt this "sense of collective repetition" in equal measure. For some it was a "passion for the past that completely dominated their lives," for others it was but a faint echo. This historical consciousness, nonetheless, always remained embedded in the Jewish collective psyche, to a greater or lesser extent, until activated by some upheaval or cataclysmic event. (A decade earlier, the Yiddish literary critic, Borukh Rivkin, advanced a similar argument about the persistence of messianism in Jewish consciousness, but identified Soviet Communism as the political catalyst.) Rosenberg did not convert to Zionism or any Jewish doctrine, ideology, or belief. He had no intention of becoming religious or joining a Jewish organization. He wished, rather, to understand "the presence of the Jewish past within him," a past Rosenberg previously believed he had escaped, but now, in a terrifying decade, had come to recognize the claim it made on him.

While Rosenberg made no specific recommendation for Jewish activity, he believed the semi-outsider had an important role to play in Jewish life. An exponent of modernist culture and a former Trotskyist with an abiding respect for Marxism, Rosenberg grasped the potential of an avant-garde. "The Jew whom the Jewish past has ceased to stir, whom every collective anguish or battle for salvation passes by, may tomorrow find himself in the very center of the movement toward the future," Rosenberg stated by way of conclusion. The unpredictability of Jewish consciousness, its capacity to arise unexpectedly among assimilated and disaffected Jews, had a way of yielding surprising results. Ideas, forms of cultural expression, and movements of one kind or another might arouse communal disapproval, but might also prove invigorating, even profound.

For historians, Rosenberg's essays may be considered of interest not only as fascinating examples of how Jews have thought about freedom, but also because his ideas are suggestive of how we might conceptualize the past in a new way. One notices that Rosenberg, unlike Handlin a few years later, couched his discussion of freedom in the context of modernity rather than American nationality. This is not to imply that Rosenberg disregarded America's specificities; indeed, Rosenberg viewed the United States as the most modern of modern societies. But by underscoring modernity Rosenberg added a dimension to the discussion of freedom that most historians of American Jews have, until recently, ignored. This is the role of capitalism in Jewish life. Without saying so directly, Rosenberg considered capitalism a force at least equal in importance to the Constitution in shaping American Jewry's encounter with freedom.

Rosenberg explained the connection between capitalism and freedom (in the modernist sense he meant) in a 1949 essay on Karl Marx published in The Kenyon Review. The piece explored Marx's conception of the proletariat and its role in history. Marx had identified the proletariat as the first thoroughly modern human collectivity. Workers had existed in previous epochs, of course, but the factory proletariat, as a social class bearing a revolutionary consciousness, was a modern phenomenon brought into existence by industrial capitalism. Characterized by relentless technological innovation and expansion of trade, capitalism overhauled social relationships and dissolved traditional values, thus setting the stage for revolution. Rosenberg, in his description of capitalist modernity, quoted a now-famous passage from The Communist Manifesto:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into the air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.

In this social cauldron, individuals attained a new freedom, freedom from the past resulting in the freedom of self-definition. For Marx, the proletariat embodied this new freedom. "[C]ompelled to face with sober senses" the reality of their exploitation, proletarians would necessarily develop class consciousness, a form of intellectual liberation that would lead eventually to their emancipation from capitalism. By the time Rosenberg published his essay in The Kenyon Review, he had lost faith in Marxism's teleology, but he upheld the possibility of the proletariat's return to history as a revolutionary force at some future point. His desire ran parallel to or perhaps in correlation with his newfound belief in the survival of the Jewish people. Most Marxists had, before the Second World War, relegated the Jews—that supposedly moribund holdover—to the dustbin of history, but the Jews persisted and, in Palestine, underwent a national rebirth. On the other hand, the proletariat—that quintessentially modern human creation— had yet to fulfill its designated mission and was nowhere close to doing so. The irony of it all could not have escaped Rosenberg. Jewish history had something to teach, evidently. It taught, by example, that the working class should not be written off, that it could rise again.

Without mentioning Marx by name Rosenberg applied to the Jews Marx's insights into capitalism's creative-destructive powers. "Jewish Identity in a Free Society" thus concludes:

[T]he past is a varying and oscillating presence, sometimes occupying a man entirely and becoming his veritable self-consciousness, sometimes diminishing to a vague sentiment or receding from his awareness altogether. For the modern individual his history is not a solid continuous plane upon which he firmly stands but a moving mass full of holes and vacuums which may envelope and carry him forward or veer away and let him fall.

Rosenberg's vision of modern history is not especially comforting, but it is not bleak either. It is scary in its emphasis on endemic instability yet somewhat hopeful in its allowance for free thought and conscious action. It contains dangers and possibilities, but not in any sort of balance.

Historians of American Jews are accustomed to a different conceptualization of the past, one that depicts the broad sweep of American Jewish experience as a steady process of voluntary adaptation to a free, democratic, and prosperous society. The regnant view is basically linear and progressive: Jews immigrated to the United States, struggled to earn a living, achieved affluence, adjusted to social norms in ways consistent with Jewish traditions, values, and interests, and thereby built a variegated but stable ethnic subcommunity. It is a soothing narrative, but unconvincing from the vantage point of the twenty-first century. In our time, the Jewish community's "functional consensus" (to use Arthur Goren's term), forged in the mid-twentieth century, has nearly unraveled; previously marginal trends, such as ultra-Orthodoxy, have enjoyed surprising growth; and economic security eludes growing numbers of people. American Jewish history appears, in retrospect, to lack clear direction. It seems driven by extremes and contrasts: creative upsurges and cultural dissolution, communal solidarity and social assimilation, secularization and fervent religiosity, alienation and return, and other divergent and contradictory trends reflective of a society characterized by "constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions," and "everlasting uncertainty."

In 1909, a Yiddish writer in New York contemplated American Jewish life in a manner Marx and Rosenberg might have appreciated. "What is actually happening here?" the writer asked. "A renaissance or an agonizing moment of death?" With the benefit of hindsight, one may answer, "Both."