Jewish Life at the Crossroads
Every #metoo scandal is different, but most are alike in at least one way: Whether among Hollywood moguls or Southern Baptists, congressmen or Catholic bishops, the fall of prominent men usually accelerates some pre-existing debate about where the larger institution or culture should be going, and which side of its internal arguments deserves to gain.Posted — Updated
Every #metoo scandal is different, but most are alike in at least one way: Whether among Hollywood moguls or Southern Baptists, congressmen or Catholic bishops, the fall of prominent men usually accelerates some pre-existing debate about where the larger institution or culture should be going, and which side of its internal arguments deserves to gain.
Lately the American Jewish community has presented an interesting case study, with the series of accusations against Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist who has spent much of his career studying the demography of American Jewish life, and linking trends in Jewish intermarriage and fertility to his people’s cultural continuity.
In answering his accusers Cohen has embraced the clichés of male big shot contrition — promising a “consultation with clergy, therapists and professional experts” and “a process of education, recognition, remorse and repair.” But meanwhile, his fall has inspired a critique not only of his behavior but also his life’s work, with three female historians writing in The Forward that his sexual sins should prompt a larger reappraisal of “the troubling gender and sexual politics long embedded in communal discussions of Jewish continuity and survival.”
What Cohen’s critics have in mind, specifically, is the way that the long-standing angst within the American Jewish community around assimilation, intermarriage and fertility tends to sustain a kind of soft traditionalist pressure even in liberal Jewish life — one that defines Jewish identity in exclusionist terms, they complain, while marginalizing “single women, queer people, unwed parents, and childless individuals or couples.”
That spirit, seeking ideological consistency and opposing (to quote Cohen’s critics) “patriarchal, misogynistic, and anachronist assumptions about what is good for the Jews,” may not be able to tolerate the mix of cosmopolitanism and tribalism, liberalism and traditionalism, that has defined American Judaism for years.
At the same time, there is a different pressure from Israel itself. As the Jewish state’s political and cultural debate has shifted to the right, Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced the view that European Jewry’s old enemy, Christian nationalism, is less dangerous to the Jewish future than the dissolving effects of liberal cosmopolitanism and the threat posed by Islamist anti-Semitism. Thus you have the striking phenomenon of the Netanyahu government cultivating friends like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, on the grounds that joining an alliance of conservative nationalisms actually offers a surer ground for the Jewish state’s survival than sticking with the secularism and anti-nationalism of the present liberal project.
These centrifugal forces, pulling leftward and rightward, have already alienated younger liberal Jews in the United States from the uncomplicated pro-Israel sentiments of their grandparents. And they may portend a future where the “liberal politics with a dose of cultural conservatism” combination gives way to a sharper choice for many Jews: a more consistently conservative Judaism bound to Israeli nationalism, and a liberal Judaism that’s more consistently liberal and less identitarian — and perhaps ultimately more secularized and assimilated.
Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.