Book review: The Making of Modern Jewish Identity

The holiday of Rosh HaShana is less than two months away. Its names can be loosely translated as the commencement of change. In The Making of Modern Jewish Identity: Ideological Change and Religious Conversion (Routledge 9780367135959), Motti Inbari (associate professor of religion at the University of North Carolina) has written a fascinating and engaging monograph that explores the process of transformational change.

Focusing on religious and political change, Inbari profiles 6 personalities from the last 80 years, namely:

  • Arthur Koestler, a novelist who went from being a Communist to an anti-Communist
  • Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, who went from being a far leftist to a neo-conservative
  • Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal, martyred in the holocaust, who transformed from the Hungarian school of anti-Zionism, to penning one of the literary masterpieces of religious Zionism
  • Ruth Ben-David, a convert to Judaism after World War II who later married Rabbi Amram Blau, head of the virulently anti-Zionist Neturi Karta
  • Haim Cohn, Israeli Supreme Court justice, who grew up as a non-Zionist Orthodox Jewish home in Germany, later renouncing his belief in God due to the events of the Holocaust
  • Avrum Burg, prominent centrist Israeli politician who served as the Speaker of the Knesset and head of the Jewish Agency, who later became a post-Zionist.

All 6 of these people had significant ideological changes, to which Inbari attempts to understand the processes that led them to make these radical changes. While some of those profiled were involved in the political realm, the book observes that scholars and political theorists have long ago noted the similarities between secular political ideologies and religious ideologies.

The Holocaust played in a major part in the transformation of Rabbi Teichtal.  He was a follower of Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira of Munkacz (Minchas Elazar), one of the preeminent leaders in pre-war Europe, Rabbi Shapira, like many Hungarian rabbis viewed Zionism as akin to idolatry.

Teichtal’s awakening during the Holocaust was that the political passivity of the Minchas Elazar was incorrect, and that by neglecting the land of Israel and not returning to their homeland, was a grave error for Hungarian Jewry.

A term Inbari uses throughout the book is deconversion – which refers to the loss or deprivation of religious faith, and is the product of intellectual doubts, moral criticism, emotional suffering and disaffiliation from the community. Research into deconversion suggests that it is seldom a rapid or sudden event. And in most cases, is a slow and gradual process.

Haim Cohn was born into a German orthodox family and his grandfather, whom he learned with extensively in his youth, received rabbinic ordination from the noted Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary.

Cohn’s deconversion started with the death of his beloved brother in the Holocaust. But his deconversion was also combined with other elements that were typical of many young religious men of his generation.

As to Cohn, Inbari references the three models of Jewish secularity developed by Yuval Jobani, assistant Professor in Jewish Philosophy and Education at Tel Aviv University. To which Cohn fits into the third model – that of the religious model of Jewish secularity. That model, which Cohn fit well into, substitutes secularism for religion in order to relocate the religious experiences from conventional religious object to secular objects and ideals.

The story of Avrum Burg is somewhat of a tragic one. Born into a family of religious Zionist royalty, his father, Rabbi Yosef Burg was one of the founders of the National Religious Party and served in the Knesset for 40 years.

But Avrum Burg was a rambunctious child in a school that far from a fit for him. Combined with the fact that the teachers in his national religious school were in fact Haredi, a worldview he didn’t subscribe to, certainly accelerated his deconversion. The problem at the time was that the national religious schools could not find enough teacher who belonged to that party, so they had to bring in outsiders. This led to an entire generation who were taught by those who didn’t share their ideology.

A similar issue occurred within the German community in Washington Heights. While the school professed the ideology of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the faculty didn’t teach according to that philosophy. This in part lead to the overall demise of the Hirschian philosophy in the United States.

Inbari has written a fascinating and highly engaging work. My only criticism is that it is far too brief, with each profile at 20-30 pages each, that is simply not enough to fully encapsulate the particulars of each person. Fortunately, his bibliography provides able resources for those who want to read more to capture the full narrative,

It would have been nice had there been others profiled, as there is certainly no shortage of additional personalities that Inbari could write about, who have had transformational experiences. Some of them include Herman Wouk, Uri Zohar, Linor Abargil, Matthew Miller (Matisyahu) and others. Perhaps they will be found in a further edition.

The nature of deconversion Is a complex topic which encompasses many areas. Be in religious, sociological, philosophical and more. In Perkei Avot, Ben Zoma said “Who is wise? He who learns from every person”. In The Making of Modern Jewish Identity, there are six stories, all of which have a lot to learn from.

About the Author
Senior information security and risk management professional. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. Here for Times of Israel, book reviews on religion and philosophy.
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