Archive for November, 2008
In public perception, eastern European Jewish thought is shrouded in mysticism. The intellectuals Martin Buber, Joshua Heschel, and Emmanuel Levinas shared the eastern European Jewish experience, an education in existential philosophy in Germany, and the ordeal of witnessing the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. They share a universalistic ethic aimed at promoting direct human responsibility. Above all, it is Levinas to whom we owe an appreciation of what one could call „eastern European Jewry“.
In public perception, eastern European Jewish thought continues to be surrounded by an almost mystical veil. Particularly after the systematic murder of at least three million Polish Jews by National Socialist Germany, the perception of this culture is accompanied by a justifiable sense of irreparable loss. An outward sign of this melancholy, which is never precisely specified and often borders on kitsch, is the playing of klezmer music at any suitable – or indeed unsuitable – occasion.
„Eastern Jewry“ is itself a culture that is still seen as a mixture of nostalgic perceptions regarding impoverished shtetl life and the sometimes nebulous sayings of miracle-working rabbis. This narrow point of view fails to do justice to the reality of this destroyed culture, to the fact that at least just as many Polish or indeed Russian and Romanian Jews lived in large cities, that – in addition to the largely Hassidic miracle-working rabbis – eastern European Jewish culture also had at its disposal the intellectually demanding philosophy of the misnagdim, a Vilnius-based school of rational, even rationalistic interpretation of the Talmud. Also overlooked is the fact that a part of eastern Europe’s Jews joined reform Judaism, that they created Socialist mass movements – including a Yiddish-speaking trade union, which strove for cultural autonomy, the General Jewish Labour Union (the Bund), and a Zionism that aimed at Socialist self-realisation – and that a large Jewish underworld also existed, as did an entrepreneurial and capitalist class that was anything other than weak.
The colourful spectrum that emerged from the cooperation, coexistence, and competition among these extremely different classes, groups, ideologies, and schools of religious thought has been preserved mainly in the novels and shorter works of the Nobel Prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer. Due to its complexity, this spectrum is ill-suited for simplified views aimed at mystical edification. Judaism, not least in its eastern European forms, was the expression of a profound economic, cultural, and political modernisation process that has provoked some historians to claim somewhat audaciously that the twentieth century was a „Jewish century“.