One Final Word on Jew: A Response

Cynthia M. Baker reflects on the Jew Forum

Cynthia Baker. Jew. Rutgers, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-9954946-0-2. $90.00
Cynthia Baker. Jew. Rutgers, 2017. ISBN: 978-0813563022. $29.95

The introduction to my book, Jew, concludes as follows:

One final word on Jew: there is, of course, no final word on Jew—much less is one to be found in the pages of this book. The volume is a decidedly partial and intentionally slender one. What I do not know or have not said here about Jew (including about those aspects I have engaged) could obviously fill numberless volumes (and, indeed, has done and will do so). But if I contribute to any useful formulations or insights, or if my work provokes any questions about this key word, Jew, that others take up and fruitfully pursue, then I will have done here what I set out to do.

It is a great pleasure, and deeply gratifying, to find my expressed desires coming, so soon, to the rich and varied fruition represented in this Forum. Insofar as my book has provided the impetus for this wonderful collection and has, indeed, provoked many compelling questions (seventeen, by my count, in Naomi Seidman’s essay alone), my labors of research and writing have already been abundantly rewarded.

First, some expressions of sheer delight: I love the fact that Susannah Heschel begins her essay, “Once upon a time . . .”; that Daniel Boyarin begins his with family storytelling (as does my book); and that Michael Pregill ends his with a similarly “telling” story of Jew from a modern, but now quite remote-feeling, past. I love that Annette Yoshiko Reed prods at the troubled category of ancient “Jewish-Christians” while Shaul Magid does the same with the modern coinage “Judeo-Christian.” I love that my ruminations draw from Seidman an account of Max Weinreich’s work on anti-Semitism crystallized through his reading of W. E. B. DuBois, and from Heschel a multidimensional interrogation of Jew through diverse lenses provided by James Baldwin—and that both Heschel and Seidman address questions of gender as well. I love that both Matthew Chalmers and Pregill read my book with still other proximate, significant Others in mind, and that all the essayists find in my book provocation, invitation, and the occasional useful tool with which to pursue their own scholarly passions and queries. All in all, I love nothing more than such good stories and great conversation as are distilled in this Forum. I am grateful to Annette and Shaul for having convened it, to Marginalia for hosting it, and, most especially, to the colleagues whose generous contributions provide so much food for thought.

Among the particular gifts of this collection of essays are the many unplanned and unanticipated, but wonderfully enlightening and vital, conversations that one can hear resonating back and forth among these pieces. There are far too many to enumerate here, but perhaps brief attention to one or two suggestive strands can amplify the presence and promise of still more.

In her essay whose title is, itself, a question, Seidman asks,

What does it mean that Weinreich’s theory of the trauma of Jewishness (as he called it) emerged, by his own account, from his study of American blackness, while the writers described in this book, and Baker as the author of the book, focus almost exclusively on the Jew? The apparent counter-examples . . . only serve to underline the exceptional power of the Jew, the non-interchangeability of the term, the privileged status of the Jew as victim and signifier, as the emblem of what Europe or the nation state cannot abide. These troubling literary, political, and philosophical mobilizations of the Jew amount to a kind of fetishizing, as Baker and others point out.

It is true, as Seidman suggests, that an entire book devoted to Jew risks contributing to the very “fetishizing” that it, in part, explores and that such a book might also be read as playing the tired game of Jewish exceptionalism. Seidman intimates that a “comparative” approach, such as that taken by Weinreich, could forestall such potential pitfalls—although comparisons can present dangers of their own. The essays by Pregill and Chalmers in this Forum point toward some of the fascinating insights to be gained through comparisons drawn by those with expertise in fields outside my own. Both authors go well beyond mere comparison in, as Chalmers puts it, illuminating the “simultaneous, often interwoven” stories that link Jew with/to particular others.

Similarly intriguing is a productive symmetry/asymmetry that arises in the juxtaposition of Seidman’s reflections on comparison with Heschel’s intertextual reading strategy. Heschel writes:

Reading Baker with James Baldwin might enhance and expand Baker’s approach by leading us to consider the interior, subjective experience of Jews. Both Baker and Baldwin emphasize that the racism constructing Jew and Black is profound and close to immutable. Constructing “Jew” as a signifier that can be appropriated by Muslims, Palestinians, Christians, and African-Americans, as well as by Jews, also indicates that “Jew” is a hermeneutical lens constructed by society.

I am struck by a number of elements here. For Heschel, reading with Baldwin invites us to consider “the interior, subjective experience of Jews,” much as Weinreich, in Seidman’s account, comes to understand the inner psychic trauma of Jewish youth through reading W. E. B. DuBois and conversing with African American adolescents. But instead of then wondering about the narrowness of a focus on Jew, Heschel remarks on the broad range of imagined communities whose appeal to Jew serves to render this term of identity an effective “hermeneutical lens” for a wide variety of strategic interrogations. Is Jew, then, an “exceptional” lens in this regard or merely a powerful one? (And/or is it a soon-to-be-meaningless one, as Magid wonders at the end of his piece?) Heschel continues: “Baldwin often refers to Jewish experience: ‘To ask oneself, “What is a Jew?” is also, for me, to ask myself, “What is a black man?” And what, in the name of heaven, is an American Negro?’” Weinreich’s thinking Jew with Black finds a call and response in Baldwin’s thinking Black and American Negro with Jew.

Unnamed, yet very much present in these acts of thinking-with, are whiteness and Christian. “What did the Christian making of Jew, as abject and exonym, also make of the Christian? And what was lost, erased, constrained, or forgotten in the process?” asks Reed. “This is . . . all the more pressing to ponder now,” she insists, “since it is part of the story of how whiteness came to be constructed as invisible—part of the Western making of a mirage of neutrality whereby white/Christian has been framed as a human norm rather than a marked ‘identity,’ [a dynamic that is visibly shifting, as Reed notes, with the current rising power of “white identity” rhetoric]. Baker’s book may open up a new window onto this story too.”

One of Baldwin’s more pointed and poignant insights arising from thinking Black with Jew in white/Christian America is found in his April 1967 New York Times essay “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” He writes, “In the American context, the most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man—for having become, in effect, a Christian.” Here, Baldwin, in addition to marking the now-become-white, American Jew as masculine, presents “him,” startlingly, as “having become, in effect, Christian”—that is, more precisely, having become the hyphenated “Judeo-Christian” critiqued by Magid through Arthur Cohen and Trude Weiss-Rosmarin. Magid, like Baldwin, finds no singular exceptionalism in this American Jew but finds, rather, a kind of masturbatory “reiteration of the exceptionalism of both [Jew and Christian] through the prism of the other” that serves, in turn, to secure a myth of “American exceptionalism” at inestimable cost to myriad others on multiple fronts.

Magid’s observations about the term “Judeo-Christian” highlight yet further dimensions in Reed’s important questions: “Who gets to construct [and, perhaps, “absorb”] an Other, and with what consequences to the Self? And which of these constructions of difference [or sameness] do and do not get to inform those systems of classification that we treat as neutral and natural, not least through the questions and categories that we use in our scholarship?” Jew, “Judeo-Christian,” and “Jewish-Christian,” then, provide scholars, as well, with a variety of “hermeneutical lenses” through which we might see ways to begin (or continue) to untangle the theopolitical knot by which racism binds each to all. This, according to Heschel, is precisely the call to action she hears from Baldwin:

Baldwin urges that “Jew” become not only an identity but a perspective exploring the meaning of whiteness and perhaps also of blackness. Jews are both white and not-white [Judeo-Christian and non-Christian?], and racism may well emerge from the theological constructs of Christian supersessionism, as [J. Kameron] Carter argues. If the two signifiers of Jew and Black would bring together their gazes, we might create a new theological-political history.

The vision is a powerful one. In imagining the undoing of racism as a reversal of Christian supersessionism and the creation of a new theological-political history, Heschel presents, to my ear, yet one more resonant counterpoint along the strand I am tracing—this time with Daniel Boyarin.

In critiquing my analysis of the race/ethnicity/nation-versus-religion dichotomy, Boyarin avers that

This analysis does not leave quite enough room, however, for the operation of a deconstruction of the opposition, an operation in which flesh becomes the valued term over spirit, in which “Carnal Israel” is read as approbative with the spiritual Israel marked pejoratively. Indeed, one could imagine a scholar accepting precisely the terms of this shift and arguing (implicitly or explicitly) for a reversal, for a return to a so-called ethnic/national conception of Jewry jettisoning the later accretion of or degeneration into a “religion.”

Boyarin articulates here a vision of the undoing of Christian supersessionism in rather different terms from Heschel’s but with, as I understand it, a similar transformative end in view. Regarding that choice of terms, however, I can only reiterate that it seems to me that the oppositional dualism ethnic/national versus religion—regardless of which pole one champions or valorizes—is, itself, misleading and obscuring, as Boyarin, among others, has soundly demonstrated. Indeed, I take the claim for an “ethnic/national” origin of Jews as Judeans on the part of many Jewish Studies scholars as intimating just such a countervaluation as Boyarin invites us to imagine; it is a claim upon which secular Zionism (with different aims) insists in its call for all Jews to “return”—not to God, but to the ethno-nation of their singular “origin.” Pregill’s counterexample, that “Muslim identity has long been presumed to primarily be a matter of religion [rather than] . . . an effect or expression of other logics, including the ethnic or ‘racial,’” leaves me only more inclined to affirm what Denise Buell (Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity), Gil Anidjar (Semites: Race, Religion, Literature), and others in this Forum intimate—that, far from separable, “‘religion’ and ‘ethnicity’ or ‘race’ are mutually constituting” (Buell).

In the present context, then, what I find most provocative are Boyarin’s proposals to mark the “spiritual” “pejoratively” and to imagine “Jewry jettisoning the later accretion of or degeneration into a ‘religion.’” Despite the assertion that I do “not leave quite enough room” for such a move in my analysis, I cannot help but wonder if a similar deep-seated discomfort with the category “religion” on my part helps to account for still another of Heschel’s incisive observations—namely, that “Religious faith and practice seem strangely absent from [Baker’s] articulation of ‘Jew’ . . . [even] the revival of Jewish religiosity in recent decades, especially of Hasidism, is not discussed.” Reasonable as my discomfort may be, given the weaponization of “religion” historically and so vividly in our current era, I take Heschel’s observation as a call for reflection.

Theologies and religiosities are undoubtedly powerful forces—for good as well as harm. And as urgent and constant is the need to critique them and to curtail their abuses (a need highlighted in much of my work), it must also be wise to acknowledge and harness their positive potential: whether for the grounding homeostasis and embodied materiality, prophetic passion, and powerful demands of “soul, sin, and justice” valued by Heschel; for the healing expressions of self-respect and beauty affirmed by Seidman; or merely as a counterforce to the “imperialistic shell” of a dominant secular Judeo-Christianity as described by Magid. In my published work, to this point, I have largely shied away from treating Jewish traditional practices in terms of “faith,” “religion,” or “religiosity.” I wonder what insights or opportunities might open up should I choose to do otherwise.

The foregoing is but a brief outline of a couple of the many luminous strands I find running through this Forum. I look forward to teasing out still others in the coming days and weeks. Readers of these small gems of essays may not be aware of the debt I already owed to many of these same scholars for the generative work each has done on related subjects, which provided me with essential materials to weave together into my book. That debt has now only increased.

I find it worth noting that I am writing this response during Passover, which, this year, coincides with Western Christianity’s Holy Week—both holidays in which the embodied performance of identity through received narratives of tribulation and liberation serves to bind together and separate, enliven and threaten those who identify as Jews and those who identify as Christians. As it happens, this week is also the deadline for Fellowship applications to the National Endowment for the Humanities, an institution—among so many other humanistic and humanitarian institutions—under attack by the current U.S. administration. An NEH Fellowship helped to fund the research for this book, Jew, and I had hoped to find similar support to push further on the complicated questions and interdependencies of race, gender, and religion that, as this Forum makes abundantly clear, demand ever more of our skilled focus and attention.

I close, for now, by repeating the evocative sentence with which Chalmers concludes his essay. It seems a fitting summation and encouragement to all of us—readers and writers—engaged with this rich and lively Forum. Chalmers writes: “. . . in its exemplary play with limits, the book highlights the spaces and places where more is yet to come, where the past yawns as void, and where the limits of identity mark the edges of our attention—not just for Jews, but for Europe, America, and all of us paying attention to the consequences of historically-narrated identities.” It is an honor and privilege to be part of this conversation and to be spurred on to further labor—in scholarship and activism—by the insights, admonitions, and support of such brilliant companions.

This is the eighth and final essay in the Marginalia Forum on Cynthia Baker’s Jew.

Cynthia M. Baker is Professor and Department Chair in the Department of Religious Studies at Bates College.