Diasporas and Exiles: Varieties of Jewish Identity

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Diaspora, considered as a context for insights into Jewish identity, brings together a lively, interdisciplinary group of scholars in this innovative volume. Readers needn't expect, however, to find easy agreement on what those insights are. The concept "diaspora" itself has proved controversial; galut, the traditional Hebrew expression for the Jews' perennial condition, is better translated as "exile." The very distinction between diaspora and exile, although difficult to analyze, is important enough to form the basis of several essays in this fine collection.

"Identity" is an even more elusive concept. The contributors to Diasporas and Exiles explore Jewish identity—or, more accurately, Jewish identities—from the mutually illuminating perspectives of anthropology, art history, comparative literature, cultural studies, German history, philosophy, political theory, and sociology. These contributors bring exciting new emphases to Jewish and cultural studies, as well as the emerging field of diaspora studies. Diasporas and Exiles mirrors the richness of experience and the attendant virtual impossibility of definition that constitute the challenge of understanding Jewish identity.

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Editorial Reviews

Hillel J. Kieval
Rarely have I encountered a collection of essays that coheres so well around an overarching theme. This will be an important resource.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520228641
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 10/7/2002
  • Pages: 300
  • Lexile: 1460L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Howard Wettstein is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. Author of Has Semantics Rested on a Mistake?, and Other Essays (1991), and of the forthcoming The Magic Prism: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (2003), he is an editor of the philosophical annual, Midwest Studies in Philosophy.
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Read an Excerpt

Diasporas and Exiles

Varieties of Jewish Identity

University of California

Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-22864-2


This volume represents and extends the work of a fall 1997 University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) residential research group on Jewish identity in the diaspora. The group was multidisciplinary; members represented anthropology, art history, comparative literature, cultural studies, German, history, philosophy, political theory, and sociology. General agreement within the group was rare, even on the nature of our topic. The disagreements, however, proved to be a source of great stimulation. This introduction will be something of a roadmap of the terrain covered by our papers.

Our topic was Jewish identity, which one can hardly mention without reference to diaspora. Jews, whatever else they have been, have been wandering. Early in our discussions, however, it emerged that the term exile rather than the more modern diaspora better translates galut, the traditional Hebrew expression for the Jews' perennial condition. The distinction between diaspora and exile proved controversial, difficult to analyze, but focal to our discussions.

The original galut, as Arnold Eisen points out in his seminal work, Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming, was the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Turning from mythology to history, the paradigmatic galut is the dispersion of Israel after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 c.e. The destruction of the first Temple-in 587 b.c.e.-and the subsequent Babylonian exile was calamitous, of course, but that exile lasted only half a century. As Eisen notes, at that time exile could still seem unusual, an exception to the order of things. With the events of 70 c.e. and the subsequent defeat of Bar Kochba in 135, galut became not an exception, but the rule for Jewish life.

To be in galut is to be in the wrong place; it is to be dislocated, like a limb out of socket. Indeed, it is tempting to suppose that exile suggests, in Erich Gruen's words, "a bitter and doleful image, offering a bleak vision that issues either in despair or in a remote reverie of restoration." Or, as Bluma Goldstein puts it, it is "a condition of forced homelessness and an anguished longing to return to the homeland." However, whether a view of Jewish identity that emphasizes exile, galut, is necessarily so negative is controversial. What is not controversial is that the term exile, as opposed to diaspora, suggests anguish, forced homelessness, and the sense of things being not as they should be.

Diaspora, on the other hand, although it suggests absence from some center-political or religious or cultural-does not connote anything so hauntingly negative. Indeed, it is possible to view diaspora in a positive light. Gruen discusses the view that Jews and Judaism requires no "territorial sanctuary or legitimation"; as "the people of the Book, their homeland resides in the text." Diaspora would then impose no special burden. It might even facilitate the spread of the word.

Let us turn from the diaspora/exile distinction to the concept of identity proper. If the former is controversial and resistant to analysis, the latter is even more so. As for the controversy, this volume presents the reader with a wide variety of perspectives on Jewish identity. This raises a general question about this controversy, about the multiplicity of views. Are these genuinely competing answers to a single question, about the nature of Jewish identity? Is there such a phenomenon, Jewish identity, about which different theorists proffer competing accounts?

Another possibility exists. We might see the "competing accounts" to be expressions of alternative Jewish identities. Such a possibility is suggested by the fact that questions about Jewish identity-like questions about other ethnic, religious, or cultural identities-seem to be largely concerned with the meaning or significance of one's Jewishness. Seen this way, it no longer is tempting to suppose that there is a right answer to the question of Jewish identity, that something or other actually constitutes Jewish identity. Who is to say, after all, that there is only one way in which Jewishness can matter, or legitimately matter? Who wants to get into the business of limiting the ways in which Jewishness might matter.

In philosophical language, questions about Jewish identity are not questions of metaphysics-of the constitution of Jewishness. Instead, they are in the domain of the theory of human values. This contrasts with classical philosophical questions about "personal identity," which are easy to confuse with our concern. Those classical questions are not about significance but about constitution, for example, John Locke's time-honored view that a person is constituted by temporal stages-time-slices, as it were-linked by memory. Even if Locke is on the right track, we would still have no help with the questions of significance that are our concern. We would not be a lick closer to understanding the character of Jewish identity. Questions of religious/cultural/ethnic identity, as Cora Diamond writes, are "hardly visible to the philosophical tradition."

Our roadmap begins with the historian Erich Gruen. It may be tempting to suppose that a positive conception of diaspora comes into its own with modernity and Jewish Emancipation, that until modern times, Jews lived under the cloud of galut. Gruen, in Diaspora and Homeland," challenges this presumption.

Gruen distinguishes what he calls the gloomy approach to Jewish dispersion, which is more common, from a positive approach. The former resolves diaspora into galut and sees salvation exclusively in terms of homecoming, the reacquisition of a homeland. The latter sees Jews as "the people of the Book," the text as a "portable temple," and restoration to a homeland as superfluous. In the end Gruen suggests that both approaches are too simple, too stark. "The whole idea of privileging homeland over diaspora, or diaspora over homeland, derives from a modern, rather than an ancient, obsession." If we attend closely to the ancient world, another conception emerges.

Jewish dispersion, Gruen emphasizes did not begin with the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e. What Gruen has in mind is not only the destruction of the First Temple and its attendant diaspora. Rather he means to stress that for a host of reasons, largely including voluntary migration, Jews lived outside the Center. Indeed, there was a vibrant diaspora of some three to five million. Jews in the roughly four centuries from Alexäander the Great to Titus. Jerusalem was no more a home for them than it is for many diaspora Jews today. Diaspora communities were stable and had opportunities for residents to take part in the social, economic, and political life of their adopted lands, and often even to gain citizenship.

Few of these Jews ever saw Jerusalem, yet it was still their spiritual Center. Never was the sanctity of Jerusalem in question. Indeed, Jerusalem was, in Gruen's words, "the principal emblem of their faith," and "a critical piece of their identity." The tithe to Jerusalem was a ritual that bonded the far-flung diaspora. And they felt great solidarity with fellow Jews, both in the homeland and abroad.

If Jerusalem was critical to the Hellenistic diaspora Jews' sense of themselves, what becomes of Jewish identity when Jerusalem is no more? Here galut arguably comes into its own as a touchstone, at least until modern times. In "Coming to Terms with Exile," my own paper in this volume, I explore a Jewish identity for which galut is one central pillar. My contention is that even in modern times, galut cannot and should not be avoided. Rather than steering clear of the almost inbred Jewish sense of dislocation-one that we cannot quite lose even in our own Western diasporic setting-galut must be reckoned with. But such a reckoning does not necessarily issue in a bleak outlook. An ultimately positive take on the human and Jewish conditions requires that we give substantial weight to unpleasant, stubborn facts about human and Jewish dislocation.

I distinguish two galut phenomena. First there is in the human condition that I call "normal dislocation." Being the sorts of all-too-human creatures that we are, living in the sort of world we find ourselves in, has always meant big trouble. The second and specifically Jewish galut phenomenon is not normal; it is extraordinary. I have in mind the cataclysmic sequence of events mentioned above: the churban, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e., the defeat of Bar Kochba in 135, and the attendant dispersion. The prospect of living without the foci of national and religious life must have been experienced as threatening, if not destroying, the very conception of a partnership between God and Israel. The churban, by contrast with normal dislocation, constituted a cosmic jolt.

My paper sketches aspects of the Rabbinic response to the cosmic jolt and explores how a tradition smitten by and obsessed with galut develops practices and an outlook to cope. My focus is on a crucial theological aspect of the rabbinic response, specifically the super-anthropomorphizing tendency one sees so clearly in the commentary, Midrash Rabbah, on the Book of Lamentations. This tendency culminates in an anthropomorphic quantum leap, the idea that after the churban, God Himself is in exile; dislocation is cosmic. The outcome is a religious sensibility better equipped not only for history's great catastrophes, but also for the normal travails of the human condition.

We turn now to Bluma Goldstein's "A Politics and Poetics of Diaspora: Heine's "Hebräische Melodien." During the first half of the nineteenth century, Central European Jews struggled both to free themselves from the constrictions of the halakha and to become fully integrated citizens. The golden age of Spain-perhaps somewhat idealized in the nineteenth century-served Jewish critics of the oppressive exilic life as the basis of a much more palatable model of Jewish identity. In this context, Goldstein sees in Heine's work an inviting positive conception of diaspora as well as a critique of the devastating consequences of an oppressive exilic life."

Negative images of galut, of exilic life, inhabit the three poems that constitute "Hebräische Melodien." In the first poem, "Prinzessin Sabbat," Heine portrays the miserable situation of the "weekday Jew" imprisoned by traditional ritual. In the second, "Jehuda ben Halevy," the narrator-poet feels the stirrings of the ancient Babylonian exile. The final poem, "Disputation," dramatizes, as Goldstein writes, a kind of exilic "intellectual and cultural immobility." The rabbi and Jews are forced, on pain of death, to defend sterile traditional dogma, though they knew that successful defense of Jewish doctrine may also issue in death.

Goldstein's view, however, is that the specter of galut in these poems serves to highlight Heine's suggestion-most fully developed in the middle poem, "Jehuda ben Halevy"-of a different model, that of "an integrative diaspora that promotes interactive dialogue across borders." Heine thus makes available to us the prospect of "integrating substantive aspects of Jewish tradition and secular culture." The result is a picture of diasporic life in which the modern Jew might thrive as a Jew and as a European.

One who emphasizes a positive conception of diaspora, as does Goldstein, can readily agree that throughout Jewish history there has been exile, dislocation, and homelessness. But how central to contemporary Jewish self-perception is the sense of ourselves as in exile? By contrast with, for example, my own emphasis on galut, Goldstein directs our attention to an attractive and very different way of construing Jewish identity.

In "Dancing at Two Weddings: Mazel between Exile and Diaspora," Murray Baumgarten comes at our subject as does Bluma Goldstein, from a literary direction. His focus is Rebecca Goldstein's 1995 novel, Mazel. To a certain point, Baumgarten's treatment of galut and diaspora parallels that of Bluma Goldstein and to some extent Erich Gruen. Galut is characterized by powerlessness, halachic constriction, dislocation, and anguish, in contrast with the diaspora's possibility of empowerment and integration. Baumgarten reads Mazel as identifying the movement from galut to diaspora with the Emancipation movement from the shtetl to the city.

But here is the twist: Mazel goes farther than the movement from shtetl to city. It is the story of four generations of Jewish women, beginning in the shtetl (Shluftchev), proceeding to the city (Warsaw), winding its way through Israel to New York, and ending in the suburbs (Lipton, New Jersey). This suburb, largely populated by the traditionally religious, is no more than "Shluftchev with a designer label," as Sasha, the central character, puts it.

Baumgarten sees this movement to the suburbs-it involves both Jews and, if Baumgarten is correct, a new direction in Jewish writing-as subtle and complicated. The city promises a newfound and heady freedom, spontaneity, and meaning born of enjoying the prizes of modernity-in Warsaw "there were so many ideas in the air you could get an education simply by breathing deeply"-but it is incapable of providing salvation. So Baumgarten reads Mazel. Warsaw is, as Baumgarten says, "but another stop in the long Jewish journey of homelessness."

This is, of course, not to say that the life of the shtetl provided salvation. As noted above, its shortcomings are legend. But Baumgarten emphasizes the complexity of the shtetl: It was a bounded and constricting world, but at the same time dream-like (as suggested by the name Shluftchev, which roughly means "Sleepy Hollow"), possessing the "completeness of meaning of a classical work of art." Think here of a Mozart symphony as opposed to a twentieth-century atonal work of striking spontaneity. The world of Warsaw was more open and as Baumgarten says, "clangorous," with subtle but blaring meanings. Another aspect of the shtetl was that it was "a world desperately trying to articulate and safeguard, in a polluted, corrupt environment, a space of sacredness even at the cost of obsessive behavior." Thus Baumgarten locates the power of the shtetl, deadening as it may be.

The ultimate destination-ultimate for now-is the suburb, a context that appropriates values of both shtetl and city. Not that the suburb represents a smooth assimilation of those values and virtues; there is no Hegelian synthesis, as it were.


Excerpted from Diasporas and Exiles Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. Diaspora and Homeland
2. Coming to Terms with Exile
3. A Politics and Poetics of Diaspora: Heine's "Hebraische Medodien"
4. Dancing at Two Weddings: Mazel between Exile and Diaspora
5. Portraiture and Assimilation in Vienna: The Case of Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat
6. A Different Road to Modernity: Jewish Identity in the Arab World
7. Remaking Jewish Identity in France
8. "This is Not What I Want": Holocaust Testimony, Postmemory, and Jewish Identity
9. The Ideology of Affliction: Reconsidering the Adversity Thesis
10. Jewish Identity Writ Small: The Everyday Experience of Baalot Teshuvah
11. Contesting Identities in Jewish Philanthropy

List of Contributors


Contributors: Murray Baumgarten, Bluma Goldstein, Eric S. Gruen, Daniel J. Schroeter, Catherine M. Soussloff, Kerri Steinberg, Bernard Susser, Louise Tallen, Irwin Wall, Howard Wettstein, Diane L. Wolf

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