American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society

American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society

American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society

American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society


How do American Jews identify as both Jewish and American? American Post-Judaism argues that Zionism and the Holocaust, two anchors of contemporary American Jewish identity, will no longer be centers of identity formation for future generations of American Jews. Shaul Magid articulates a new, post-ethnic American Jewishness. He discusses pragmatism and spirituality, monotheism and post-monotheism, Jesus, Jewish law, sainthood and self-realization, and the meaning of the Holocaust for those who have never known survivors. Magid presents Jewish Renewal as a movement that takes this radical cultural transition seriously in its strivings for a new era in Jewish thought and practice.


Shaul Magid’s new book is groundbreaking. Building on David Hollinger’s concept of a “postethnic” America, Magid turns the postethnic lens on American Judaism to reveal an emergent form of the received tradition that represents a new interpretive turn. in Magid’s reading, Judaism is becoming postethnic, and that is a very good thing. Whereas traditional academic tropes regarding Judaism merge into Jewishness and ask searching questions about whether both are better seen as ethnicity or religion, Magid stands this concern on its head. Jews—the people and their faith—have been changing. in so doing they risk dissolving the boundaries of their thick identity as a people in favor of spreading abroad their spirituality and culture in a quasi-universalist gesture.

This will surely be a provocative thesis for many. As Magid presents it, however, it is hardly a completely new development. With readings that encompass a wide-ranging cast of characters and phenomena, Magid looks to earlier American Jewish figures like Felix Adler and Mordecai Kaplan even as, with his complex knowledge of the European Jewish mystical tradition, he lifts out themes regarding Kabbalism and Hasidism and other cultural manifestations. All of this comes into focus for Magid in the American Jewish Renewal movement and its founder and charismatic leader Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Magid’s sympathies for Schachter-Shalomi are no secret here, and they form the basis for a hermeneutic that re-centers American Judaism even as it de-centers it from convention scholarship and received understandings.

In the midst of this, Magid’s book combines historical materials, cultural analysis, and theological exegesis in a blended methodology. the result is a tour de force to argue for the Jewish Renewal movement of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century as a major cultural force. Here Jewish Renewal, with its “new paradigm” Judaism, represents an engine generating a radical change in Jewish thought and practice as well as identity in the present-day United States. According to Magid, Schachter-Shalomi combines the Hasidic tradition with a strong infusion of New Age spirituality to deliver a combinative form of religiosity unlike any Judaisms of the past. At the core of this new creation is a move from the particularism of the traditional Jewish ideology of chosenness to a new universalism—a global consciousness on the part of American Jewry that prompts Jews to offer their spiritual insights to the world.

As the Hollinger allusion already suggests, the backdrop for all of this is a discussion that Magid situates within general cultural studies scholarship. Here the emergence of a postethnic America signals a social world in which multi-

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