Of Noteworthy Items in the Press
A Certain People: If the Reformation was a giant oyster, were the Jews the irritant around which grew the pearl known as the Enlightenment? One professor seems to think so.
In its February 28 issue, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the “highly anticipated” first book by 33-year-old Adam Sutcliffe, an assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Chronicle’s Danny Postel writes that the book, “Judaism and Enlightenment” (Cambridge University), “makes the bold claim that what has for centuries been referred to as ‘the Jewish question,’ rather than being merely a less-than-admirable aspect of Enlightenment thought, was actually of central importance in shaping it.”
Sutcliffe’s book posits that Enlightenment thinkers were preoccupied with Judaism, which acted as “a stubborn shard of intellectual grit” and contradicted many of their basic assumptions. Fascination with the Old Testament and Christianity’s Jewish roots combined with animosity, so that philo- and antisemitism were “frequently intertwined in the same text and even in the same sentence.” (“To attack Christianity at its roots,” Postel summarizes, “thinkers such as John Toland and Voltaire turned their critical ire on its Jewish foundations.”) Jews also represented, as it were, the irrational Costellos to the cooler Abbotts of reason. “Where the Enlightenment upheld reason, Judaism wallowed in myth,” Postel explains. “The Enlightenment stood for the universal, Judaism for the particular. Enlightenment meant cosmopolitanism, Judaism insularity. The Enlightenment promised progress, Judaism threatened atavism. In short, the Enlightenment came to define itself, Mr. Sutcliffe argues, as the antithesis of all things Jewish.”
But such a definition had a built-in contradiction for a movement dedicated to the principle of tolerance. If, as Sutcliffe asks in his book, Judaism was understood by Enlightenment figures as “intrinsically inimical to any notion of individual intellectual freedom, then how can it be encompassed within the bounds of a toleration that is based on the absolute paramountcy of this ethical value?”
In other words, must one be tolerant toward an intolerant people? But if one is intolerant to such a people, what does that say for one’s commitment to tolerance?
Luckily, we’re not faced with such questions today.
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Goodbye To All This: We’re accustomed to quoting current periodicals in this column, but this being the last of these columns to appear under our — okay, my — byline, it seems as good a time as any to break the mold.
The official histories of this newspaper tend to focus on the role it played in the ideological battles that raged in the immigrant community during the early part of the 20th century, the crusading journalistic standards it set under founding editor Ab. Cahan and the brilliance of the reportage and fiction in its pages by such luminaries as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Morris Rosenfeld. But as Irving Howe reminded readers in his classic “The World of Our Fathers,” what made the Forward great was hardly the stuff of Nobel or Pulitzer prizes. “The single greatest quality of the Forward was the sustained curiosity it brought to the life of its own people,” Howe wrote. “In a later, more portentous age, this would have been called the ‘sociological imagination.’ Were Jewish children starting to take piano lessons? Were East Siders finding new occupations ranging from real estate to gangsterdom? Were lonely immigrant girls succumbing to the lure of suicide? Were yentes (busybodies) moving to West End Avenue and becoming ‘fancy ladies’? The Forward bustled to look into all these matters, for they told something important about the life of the immigrants. Nothing seemed too mundane for the Forward staff, and that may be one reason high-minded Yiddish critics often treated the paper with contempt.”
I’m happy to say that the “sociological imagination” hasn’t dimmed at the Forward, and that its hugely talented staff continues to bustle in search of the trends, serious and mundane, that animate the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those immigrants. It has been an honor to have been part of that tradition, and I hope to bring that “sustained curiosity” to the lives of a new set of readers as I leave to become editor of the New Jersey Jewish News. To my beloved colleagues I can only offer the traditional words that mark the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, “Chazak, Chazak V’nitchazeik!” — Be strong, be strong and be strengthened. If not for my sake, then for Irving’s.