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Last modified: Wednesday, June 5, 2013

‘American Post-Judaism’ explores Jewish identity in post-ethnic era

June 5, 2013

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- What will it mean to be Jewish in America as ethnicity and religion lose their primacy for creating a sense of identity? Shaul Magid, professor of Jewish studies and religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington, grapples with the question in his new book, "American Post-Judaism."

Magid argues that we live in a "post-ethnic" time in which traditional signifiers of identity no longer apply for many if not most American Jews. But he finds the seeds for a new paradigm of Jewishness in contemporary movements that draw on ideas from a variety of faith and philosophical traditions.

"There is a broad foundation here for rethinking what it means to be Jewish in America," Magid said. "It's not just moving the pieces around. Something much more profound is going on, a shift in how people think about this topic."

Magid, the associate director of the Borns Jewish Studies Program and the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Chair in Jewish studies at IU Bloomington, is a scholar of medieval and modern Jewish thought and the author of books focusing on Jewish mysticism, Hasidism and the Kabbala.

In "American Post-Judaism," published by Indiana University Press, he writes that the era of multiculturalism is ending and group identity is becoming fluid and flexible. For Jews, increasing intermarriage, religious conversion, adoption of children, multiracialism and globalization have made being Jewish a matter less of destiny than of choice.

At the same time, Israel and even the Holocaust are developing different meanings for a new generation. Magid says Zionism is a "complicated story" for Jews under age 45, who know Israel only as the established state that took control of neighboring territories in the Six-Day War of 1967. And with children born today unlikely to ever know a Holocaust survivor, he said, the Holocaust is quickly becoming a historical event as opposed to something for which there are living witnesses. The multiple implications of this inevitable march of time are only now beginning to be examined.

"American Post-Judaism" grew out of a series of articles that Magid wrote for the magazine Tikkun about Jewish Renewal, a counterculture movement that incorporated yoga, meditation and other New Age concepts and traditions into the practice of Judaism in the 1960s and 1970s. He contends Jewish Renewal, broadly conceived, represents one of the best intellectual responses to the post-ethnic turn now challenging the meaning of being Jewish in America.

The book, he says, is not a historical study or a formal work of sociology but a contribution to the field of cultural studies. Yet it draws deeply on history and philosophy, situating American Jewish thought within the context of American religious and philosophical history, including the Great Awakening, the 19th-century Transcendentalists and the pragmatism of William James.

Drawing on historical American Jewish thinkers such as Felix Adler and Mordecai Kaplan and on the contemporary New Age rabbi and prolific writer Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a key figure in Jewish Renewal, "American Post-Judaism" explores a range of topics including Jewish engagement with Jesus, "post-monotheism" in Jewish metaphysics and questions of leadership and authority.

Magid said the book was in a sense made possible by his coming to Indiana in 2004 and joining a broad-based religious studies faculty, giving him the perspective to write critically about a world that shaped and surrounded his own intellectual journey.

He grew up in a secular Jewish household in the New York suburbs, then became serious about religion at age 20 and immersed himself in the world of Hasidism. He lived for nearly a decade in Israel and later was on the faculty at Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. He says he remains fascinated by and invested in the "complex nexus of Judaism and American counterculture" of his youth and approaches the topic as a scholar but not an impartial observer.

"Proximity does not by definition produce bias," he writes in the introduction. "Investment does not necessarily yield apologetics. The best critic, perhaps, is one who is open ... about what is at stake, collectively and personally, in his or her scholarly projects."