Welcoming the Jewish Review of Books onto the scene
October 25, 2010
In our PO box recently I found a copy of the new Jewish Review of Books, a tabloid-sized quarterly chock-full of exactly what you'd expect. Two articles in the current issue are especially relevant to my interests, and while not all of the JRB's content is available online, these two articles happen to be online in full.
I turned first to The Chabad Paradox, Abraham Socher's article about Chabad Hasidism which doubles as a review of two recent books. "While mainstream Orthodox Judaism has seen extraordinary growth through the ba'al teshuvah movement of 'returners' to religious observance, the foundations were laid by Chabad," Socher writes. "And while Orthodox Jews often express disdain for Chabad and its fervent shluchim (emissaries), they also rely on them for prayer services, Torah study, and kosher accommodations in out-of-the-way places from Jackson, Wyoming to Bangkok, Thailand, not to speak of college campuses around the world."
(Indeed, on a recent visit to Litchfield, Connecticut, I saw a clapboard house with a sign on the front which said "Future home of Chabad of Litchfield," which led me to quip to my friends "Chabad is here, Chabad is there, Chabad is truly everywhere!" That said, a bit of digging led me to discover that the story may be a bit more complex. But I digress...)
Socher notes, too, that "the charismatic founders of the groovy Judaism that arose in the 1960s, from the liberal Renewal movement to Neo-Hasidic Orthodoxy, were Rabbis Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi," both of whom were originally shluchim of the Lubavitcher rebbe. After offering a fairly comprehensive introduction to Chabad, Socher delves deep into two recent books about Chabad and messianism, exploring the question of whether the messianism at Chabad's heart is responsible for its success -- and yet might eventually be its undoing.
First Socher writes about Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman's new biography, The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He finds fault with Heilman and Friedman's "failure of biographical research and imagination," chastising them for not having "critically culled Schneerson's correspondence and journals to give a sense of his inner life in all of its fluidity. He was an aspiring engineer and a kabbalist, but since Heilman and Friedman take an extremely selective approach to the letters and journals of this period of his life, they fail to portray the second half of the equation." Ouch. But Socher does note that Heilman and Friedman were correct that "Menachem Mendel Schneerson was not predestined to become the seventh Rebbe, let alone the Messiah."
Then Socher moves on to Elliot Wolfson's recent book, Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson. "Wolfson has little interest in court politics or the externals of Schneerson's biography, but he has read his mystical writings very closely," Socher says. His admiration for Wolfson's ability to navigate Schneerson's mystical prose is obvious. (I remember reading Elliot Wolfson's writings on mysticism when I was an undergraduate writing a thesis on Jewish mysticism and language; I'm not surprised that he's able to synthesize the rebbe's mystical work.)
Ultimately, Socher rejects Wolfson's reading of Schneerson's writings. But what really interests me at the end of this article are Socher's observations about the impact of Schneerson's death on the Chabad world. "Gershom Scholem once described messianism as an anarchic breeze that throws the well-ordered house of Judaism into disarray," Socher writes. "Although the official position of the Chabad movement is that Menachem Mendel Schneerson did in fact pass away and is not (or at least not so far) the Messiah, its house remains disordered." If this kind of thing interests you, this review is well worth reading; I'm not sure I'm going to run out and buy either of the books Socher's describing, but I'm glad to have encountered his descriptions and analyses of them.
Also worth reading in this issue of the JRB is Hidden Master, Daniel Landes' exploration of Rabbi Art Green's theology. "In recent years," Landes begins, "the movement variously known as Jewish Spirituality, Jewish Renewal, and Neo-Hasidism has surged forth from independent prayer groups and study-based communities into the mainstream liberal synagogues. Along the way, it has helped pry the Holocaust and Israel from their central place in American Jewish identity..." I have the sense that Landes regrets the shift of American Jewish focus away from the Shoah and the land of Israel. For my part, I'm not convinced that American Jews really are more focused on experiences of connection with God than on the Shoah and on Israel -- though I think it might be good for us if we were! -- but I think Landes is right that this shift in focus has been central for Art Green.
Arthur Green's theology, Landes argues, is more far-out than most casual readers may realize. "Green treasures moments when the 'mask of ordinariness falls away, our consciousness is left with a moment of nakedness, a confrontation with a reality that we do not know how to put into language,'" Landes writes. "In Radical Judaism, [Green] aims to provide a theology that makes sense of such experiences without trying to express them." Green redefines the three standard pillars of God, Torah, and Israel, understanding each in new ways. This seems to push Landes' boundaries, which in turn makes me even more curious about Green's book (I just downloaded the first chapter onto my Kindle, and look forward to reading it, maybe after the baby goes to bed tonight.)
Anyway: I'm glad to see this new journal on the Jewish literary scene. I suspect I'm right in the middle of their target demographic (I'm a future rabbi, an avid reader, and hold an MFA in writing and literature -- books and book reviews and Jewish texts are a few of my favorite things!) But chances are good that if you enjoy this blog, you might enjoy The Jewish Review of Books, too.