Channeling the Power of Memory

Judaism Musical and Unmusical
By Michael P. Steinberg
*University of Chicago Press, 270 pages. $21. *

When Michael Meyer published his classic book, “The Origins of the Modern Jew,” more than 40 years ago, that Jew turned out to be German. Because of the fitful and disastrously unsuccessful nature of Jewish emancipation, German Jews confronted modernity with an existential and intellectual intensity perhaps unequalled in the West. In order to enjoy the promised fruits of progress, they had to become citizens of an increasingly secular state and learn to identify with that odd mystical entity, the German nation. They needed to give up their communal ties. In short, they had to figure out new ways of being Jewish.

In his new book, “Judaism Musical and Unmusical” Michael P. Steinberg, a professor of history and music at Brown University, sums up their problem quite concisely: Modernity “wants particularity without isolation from the past or from the world at large.” How can one be true to centuries of Jewish thought and practice and yet also true to that secular world “at large”? There has been no single response to this question, of course, and that is precisely Steinberg’s point. In this dense and provocative collection of scholarly essays, he presents Judentum — a word that really cannot be translated into English — as varied, conflicted and constituted by the rigors of specific times and places. But in each case, memory is key.

In detailed studies that range widely from Sigmund Freud and Leonard Bernstein to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Steinberg argues against what he calls “commemoration” — that is, the uncritical acceptance of a collective sense of the past. He makes a pitch for a fluid conception of memory where “an acknowledgement and indeed an incorporation of the past allows for at least a degree of emancipation from its intimidating effects.” He is driven by the Enlightenment ideal that all traditions must be sifted. Human events should not be granted a belated aura of the holy. Memory, once liberated, has to become history. Steinberg attacks the notion of nationalism and rejects the idea that there is some basic Jewish essence, that the Jews constitute a nation unto themselves. In his view, nationalism is an unforgivable form of violence. He chooses as his models secular diasporists like himself. He writes about people who lived in a state of exile, but not in the galut. He is quick to note that they faced the world “according to principles of access and justice, without exclusion.” They were what the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah calls “rooted cosmopolitans.” More often than not, they were émigrés.

The tutelary spirits of “Judaism Musical and Unmusical” are controversial thinkers, such as Leo Strauss and Theodor W. Adorno. The author also has a soft spot for Edward Said, who, as Steinberg reminds us, once called himself “the last Jewish intellectual.” (Steinberg goes on to try to make good on Said’s surprising claim.) But in the end, Steinberg seems closest to Hannah Arendt, whom he respects for her intellectual and emotional rigor as well as her principled defense of very, very unpopular positions. “Judaism Musical and Unmusical” is, at heart, polemical. Steinberg’s deep distrust of the exclusionary force of nationalism leads him to pay very little attention to Zionism, even though it was an important ideology in the German-speaking world. He doesn’t seem all that curious about religious thought or practices either, even though Jews were as creative in religion as they were in everything else. After all, the Reform movement and neo-Orthodoxy were both products of Jewish emancipation. In the end, Steinberg’s lack of interest in religion leads to take secularism at its word. There is no reason to suppose that secularization necessarily entails a decline in faith. As we know all too well in the United States, freeing government and civil institutions from religion does not always mean banishing them from private life. It just means that religion has to behave itself in new and different ways.

Fair enough. Polemics thrive on disagreement, and “Judaism Musical and Unmusical” provides plenty to argue about. That is one of its strengths, along with its wide reach and its broad culture. Although it is made up of essays that were written for different occasions, it is a coherent book. It does not ask “What is a Jew?” — an ultimately fruitless and dangerously divisive question. Instead, it discusses something by far more interesting: What it means to be a Jew, no matter how worldly one might be

David Kaufmann, cultural critic for the Forward, teaches English literature at George Mason University.

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