Reading Russian-American Jewish writer Gary Steyngart’s search for a safe cultural space in the celebration of New Year’s reminded me of my own associations with this rather content-less day. Of course, contentlessness is not all bad. Seriously. The very lack of content that is New Year’s is what gives the alienated Jew a sense that at long last he gets a day where can finally celebrate along with “everyone else.” And while I confess that my childhood memories of New Year’s are far from negative, it is hard for me to watch this symbol of secularism take hold in Israel, a country to which I immigrated with the hope of finding a culture more transcendent.
Upon more thoughtful consideration, however, it becomes difficult to get too upset about the symbolic encroachment of foreign culture that New Year’s celebrations represent. (I am not talking about drunken binges here, reprehensible no matter what the circumstance, but rather about the celebrations that accompany this day more generally.) After all, how can I get overly excited about people celebrating New Year’s when I too will be inscribing 1/1/14 on my checks and not 29 Tevet (and yes, I know that the names of Jewish months are of foreign origin as well) 5774?
Granted, one can say that general disuse of the Jewish calendar is more symbolic than anything else. Moreover, if the worst thing that comes out of New Year’s is that people find another excuse for merrymaking, there are certainly worse things. Truthfully, were it to stop there, I don’t think I would have much of a problem with it. But the reality is actually much more insidious.
The late comedian Lenny Bruce would quip that if you’re from New York City, it doesn’t matter if you’re an Italian Catholic, you’re still Jewish. On the other hand, if you live in Iowa, you can come from the most Jewish family imaginable, but that won’t prevent you from being ”goyish.” Though I wouldn’t have gone to Bruce for advice on who is a Jew, his observation wasn’t completely off.
Like it or not, identity is largely defined by culture, and as independent as many of us would like to think we are, we are all heavily influenced by the culture that surrounds us. American sociologist Robert Bellah echoes this when he writes that “[American] culture has always been Protestant to the bone and still is. Catholics and Jews…have been Protestantized for a long time.” What Bellah means is that many ideas and types of behavior that we take for granted have their roots in the Protestant tradition. Take, for example, the American embrace of capitalism – even today, there are few scholars that dispute Max Weber’s view that capitalism is rooted in the Protestant worldview. And if the new Pope accordingly asserts his Catholicism by challenging parts of the dominant economic order, we Jews seem not to realize to what extent Judaism is at odds with many of the exact same things that irk the Pope. We also don’t realize to what extent almost all sectors of our community have embraced a consumerism that is not only at odds with Judaism, but highly corrosive of it as well.
But it is not just the marketplace that should concern us. The liberal political structures that form our unquestioned definitions of what a modern state should look like also come from a largely Christian worldview. I have rarely read something that hits the nail on the head as well as Jonathan Cohen’s discussion of how Judaism would evaluate the teachings of John Locke. In his 2006 Some Jewish Reflections on Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, Cohen shows how Locke’s approach is heavily based upon a “rigid distinction between body and soul” quite foreign to Judaism.
Even in our inner sanctum of Torah study, we are far from free of Christian influences. It is no secret that something as basic as the division of biblical chapters was taken wholesale from the Christian church many centuries ago. This alone cannot but have had impact on how we divide the sections in our own minds even as we delve into our own people’s most basic writings.
Not to be misunderstood, I am not against symbiotic exposure and influence of different cultures upon one another. Not only is it inevitable, it is often enriching. But in the case of a Jewish culture that has spent so many centuries in exile, we haven’t yet left the ground, let alone flourished as was once the case. In the recent past, great thinkers as diverse as Rav Kook and Achad Ha’am discussed and attempted to effect a revitalized, unique Jewish culture that would once again shine its own light unto the nations. It is increasingly rare to hear such a call today.
The big question regarding Jewish culture is raised by Samuel Huntington in his seminal Clash of Civilizations. In enumerating the important civilizations of the world, he seems ambivalent about skipping over the Jews and points out that “with the creation of Israel, Jews have all the accoutrements of a civilization…. But what about [their] subjective identification?” What about it, indeed?