Magazine article Tikkun

Multicultural Judaism?

Magazine article Tikkun

Multicultural Judaism?

Article excerpt

When Allen Ginsberg died, the obituary reflections tended to contain two surprises. One was the extent to which his passing became a definitive farewell to the time, four decades ago, when the rhetoric of revolution was a form of everyday parlance, and when the complete overthrow of antecedent reality was a common rhetorical starting-point for even the most innocuous proposal.

A second surprise was made up of all the comments, very placid in tone, that took note of Ginsberg's synoptic religious views. As the poem on his mother's death, titled Kaddish, implies, he never let go of his Jewish identity, which remained somewhere near the core of his being. That fact was reinforced by his continuing to live on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Meanwhile, his long excursion into Buddhism seemed to coincide with his origins in what the obituaries seemed to regard, at least implicitly, as an unforced symbiosis.

Critics may feel tempted to observe that Ginsberg's Buddhism belongs in the same category as what the Chinese restaurant came to represent, half a century ago, for New York Jews who didn't insist on eating kosher food when they weren't at home. Chinese cooking simply became "de facto kosher."

For a Jew who had abandoned the vast bulk of the Shulchan Aruch, why should Buddhism pose any problems? It certainly didn't matter that the poem that made him famous-Howl-seemed to approve a string of human practices regarded with extreme disfavor by the Torah. And Buddhism's breadth and tolerance, and the still unresolved question of whether it is a "religion" at all, can easily accommodate a few last whiffs of "Jewish identity," with Ginsberg serving as a case in point.

Since the obituaries took Ginsberg's religious melange so casually for granted, they were relieved from the task of facing a serious question, namely, to what extent was Ginsberg typical of his Jewish generational cohort, and to what extent might he even have represented the Judaism of the future? A discussion of this polemical hornet's nest, had it occurred, would soon have formed a prelude to yet another controversy, initiated after Ginsberg's passing by events in both Israel and the United States. Once again the media launched into the quest for a definition of who is and who is not officially a Jew, a subject that pops up consistently in our newspapers and on our television screens.

The possibility raised by figures like Ginsberg is that we are moving toward a time when the varieties of Judaism will take an infinite number of forms. Whether they start from a clearly Jewish background or not, those who have moved through the varieties of belief now so widely available in the United States and other countries may decide, finally, that Judaism is "for them." Together with congregants who have been on similar pilgrimages, they will form groups running into the dozens or the hundreds or the thousands, until at last they will reach their defining moment: particular rabbis in Israel or Europe or the United States will denounce them as renegades and apostates who threaten the very essence of Judaism as well as its historical survival.

The practitioners of this or that form of "multicultural Judaism" will reply that it is their critics who threaten Judaism rather than themselves. Haven't those critics read the Book of Ruth, which praises a woman of Moab, no less, as an ancestor of no less a figure than King David? And the media will have yet another field day, ranging from the front pages and the six o'clock news to a horde of columnists and commentators.

The really significant thing that Allen Ginsberg never did was to incorporate into his vision a solid dose of Christianity. In one sense this was an obvious omission; in another, less so. A Jew with roots as visible as Ginsberg's, when he or she crosses the line into admiration for or worship of Jesus, seems to most of us to be engaged in an act that is as much anti-Jewish as it is pro-Christian. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.