Creating A Judaism without Religion: A Postmodern Jewish Possibility, by S. Daniel Breslauer

Article excerpt

Lanham: University Press of America, 2001. 274 pp. $48.00.

Daniel Breslauer continues his project of articulating a postmodern Judaism, but his latest book is focused neither on one thinker (as was his 1994 book on Mordecai Kaplan), nor strictly on Jewish ethics (as was his 1998 Toward a Jewish (M)orality). Breslauer has cast his net wider, folding analyses of Jewish literature and poetry -- along with an all-too-brief discussion of Israeli transgendered singer Dana International! -- into studies of theology and ethics in this portrayal of "a liberated Jewish life that goes beyond the boundaries delimited by religious claims."

Breslauer's distance from religion is indebted to Jacques Derrida's and John D. Caputo's recent writings on religion. Therefore, the "without religion" of Breslauer's title does not refer to a purely secular stance, but rather to a nondogmatic, multifaceted, and organic Judaism in which revelation develops over the course of history through a community's creative selection of elements from the Jewish past as the narratives in which it wishes to see itself reflected. In short, Breslauer is offering the reader an account of the discipline of Jewish studies as a substitute for a Judaism which he perceives (following the early writings of Martin Buber) as having lost its religiosity. Jewish studies, through its offering of many different eras of Jewish history from a diversity of perspectives, allows Jews to assert themselves, interrupt traditional discourses of Judaism, and liberate themselves from the deleterious effects of dogma. But along with this autonomous moment is a heteronomous moment: the Jew who begins to explore Jewish studies recognizes that the texts under study make a claim on the student. Breslauer aligns this give-and-take of the student with Eugene Borowitz's account of covenant theology.

In addition, Breslauer claims that the community's covenantal work is one which is embedded in a distinct historical situation, and that the explicit halakhot or customs by which a community lives are supplemented by the principle of lifnim mishurat ha-din, going beyond the letter of the law. Breslauer makes the familiar liberal Jewish claim that sacred meaning is not eternal and natural, but rather embedded in the everyday vagaries of history. But he admirably performs this claim by focusing on Jewish literature and poetry in the latter half of his book. From the novels of David Grossman, Breslauer concludes that literature can expand our horizons in ways that may be off-limits to theology and philosophy. In a nuanced reading of Bialik's poetry and essays, Breslauer finds that even someone like Bialik, who insists on the connection between a people and its language, actually exemplifies an "artificial creation" of this supposedly natural connection. …