Priests by Birth: The Strange Essentialism of We Jews


Who We Are and What We Should Do
By Rabbi Adin Steinstaltz
224 pages. Jossey-Bass. $24.95.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a rarity in several respects. First, he is undoubtedly a genius; his life's work, a massive compendium and translation of the Talmud which would ordinarily take a team of scholars, is, by his own estimate, only five years away from completion—and this while he finds time to write dozens of other books on the side. Second, he is accepted in traditional circles well beyond the boundaries of Chabad Hasidism, the controversial, messianic, and outreach-centered sect of which he was a member (and which, after the Lubavitcher Rebbe's death, many suggested he should lead); no other Chabad Hasid, not even the Rebbe, is accorded this much respect in the wider Orthodox world. Third, and perhaps least acknowledged, while he is widely read in the secular and progressive Jewish worlds, he remains an exceptionally conservative thinker.

Nowhere is the confluence of all these trends more evident than in We Jews, Steinsaltz's "little book" which purports to explain to his fellow landsmen what the essence of Judaism, and the Jewish people, is all about. We Jews is briskly written, in the style of many contemporary religious best-sellers, and seems intended to position Steinsaltz as, in the words of Arthur Kurzweil's wildly hyperbolic foreword, "one of the great leaders of world Jewry and possibly its most influential rabbi." But it is not, as my fellow reviewer suggests, a simplistic book. It is, in fact, a strange and disturbing one.

The central questions We Jews asks are: who are "we Jews"? And what, if anything, is our essential nature, and our central mission in the world?

The answers: We Jews are a family. Not a religion, not a nation—though embracing both of these—but centrally a family, a tribe, called the "House of Israel." And our essential nature is to be "theocentric," to search for one transcendent, religious meaning in life—which ought to be, Steinsaltz unsurprisingly says, God.

There's something initially appealing about both of these ideas. "Family" does seem to capture the blend of culture and clan which makes Jewishness an identity that is variously religious, ethnic, national, and cultural. It explains why we fight so much, and why we accept, but do not seek, converts. It also, for me if not for Steinsaltz, has an air of predicament about it. You can't choose your parents, the adage goes, and in some sense, you can't choose your Jewishness either.

There's also a refreshing quality to Steinsaltz's emphasis on spirituality. I know he has an Orthodox view of what Jewish spirituality should look like, but at least he's not telling me, as virtually the entire mainstream American Jewish community does, that Jews are worth preserving just because we're Jews.

But both of these "answers" to what "we Jews" are, and are supposed to do, lead to some very disturbing consequences.

First, Steinsaltz has a very rich notion of family. He doesn't mean it as merely a pleasant metaphor. He really means that Jews are a distinct biological-spiritual unit, distinct from non-Jews—although he doesn't pretend to make a scientific argument, it's essentially a genetic definition of Jewishness. Really, although Steinsaltz never says so, he draws his ethnocentric anthropology from the Tanya, the masterpiece of Chabad Hasidism, which posits a distinct "two-souled" nature to Jews which is not present in non-Jews. Steinsaltz knows this theory well; his second volume of commentary on the book, Learning from the Tanya, is being published this month. And he also knows well to disguise it, since, if you stop and think about it, there is a radical, dangerous ethnocentrism implied by an anthropology wherein one group is metaphysically and physically different from all other people on the planet.

He hides it, in We Jews, but the essentialism comes through. Again and again, Steinsaltz insists that there is some essential Jewish nature which is inescapable, and which is not transmitted by culture or ideology. The assimilated Jew, Steinsaltz writes, "can emerge only when he consciously and deliberately decides to stop acting and to try again to be himself, returning to the original essential design of his own being." In one of the short Q&A sections that follow each chapter (by far my favorite parts of the book), Steinsaltz is asked how it is that "Judaism plants in each Jew the unity of all things," when he has specifically stated it does not do so by education, cultural transmission, or other earthly means. Steinsaltz dodges the question, but then shows his cards. "It's very hard to know," he writes. "A person thinks this way because he's geared to think this way, because he is made to think along a certain track."

To a casual reader, this may seem like the banalities of a suburban Yom Kippur sermon. But to a careful reader, it is the "chosen people" idea taken to extremes. By positing an essential Jewish nature, which is just "in the gears," Steinsaltz is able to make several troubling assertions. First, if the Jewish nature is indelible, and theocentric, then any non-religious Judaism is doomed to failure. ("Those individuals who don't pray, don't study, and have children who go on like this, will eventually disappear from the Jewish people.") Second, Jewishness is essentially about tribe, even if Judaism requires more than mere belonging. ("The tie with Jewishness is like any other blood tie.") And most disturbing of all, Jews are irreducibly different from the 99.997 percent of the rest of the world, with our distinct "inner nature," and "uniqueness."

To be sure, nowhere does Steinsaltz claim that Jews' special natures means we should be given more rights, more privileges, more land, or more resources than others. He is also quick to criticize flaws in the Jewish people, as when he notes the irony that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion suppose an organized, cohesive Jewish people (complete with "Elders") which never has existed in the history of the fractious, always-infighting Jews. And the book never utters a prejudiced word. "The assumption about an unchangeable kernel of Jewishness is not necessarily a matter of prejudice or antagonism," Steinsaltz says.

But how can it not be? Steinsaltz dwells on internals, on the need for Jews to live out their Divine mission (more on that in a moment), but a necessary complement of "We Jews" is "Those Goyim." Ideally, Jews could recognize their specialness while in no way denigrating the equally-valuable uniqueness of the Japanese, the Zulus, and the Lakota. But we all know this is not how it works in practice—and one need not look any farther than Chabad's own dehumanization of Palestinian Arabs (not political views, but overt, pseudo-anthropological dehumanization) for an example.

Moreover, Steinsaltz's positing of an essential Jewish nature leads to a fundamentalist recipe for Jewish life. If there is an essential Jewish nature, and it is essentially theocentric, then by definition any deviation from that norm is a doomed alienation from the self. Thus a non-religious, assimilated Jew "knows that in spite of his achievements he remains only an actor." And "you cannot become more Jewish by trying to read all the novels written by Jews." Only religion can actualize the authentic Jewishness imprinted on every Jewish soul. Nor is faith to be interpreted in a multiplicity of ways; in his dismissive remarks about Reform and Conservative Judaism, Steinsaltz telegraphs that there is only one way the authentic spark of the Jewish soul is expressed: through Torah and the authoritative interpretations of it by the rabbinic tradition.

Only rarely does Steinsaltz attempt to give evidence for his assertions that there is an essential theocentrism to every Jewish soul. At one point, he claims that Marx, Freud, and Einstein demonstrate that, even absent a traditional Jewish culture or religiosity, a quintessentially Jewish "search for unifying principles" is inherent in every Jew. Setting aside the close familiarity with Jewish culture which all three thinkers did, in fact, possess, one could obviously ascribe the same "search" to Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant and, Stephen Hawking, none of whom were, or are, Jewish. Elsewhere, Steinsaltz attributes Jewish survival in diaspora to the Jewish aptitude for faith, even though he readily admits that most diaspora Jews assimilate into other cultures. Perhaps it goes without saying, though, that a committed, faithful Jew's analysis of the essence of Jewish identity will be colored less by empiricism than by faith and tradition—even if it pretends to be otherwise.

There are other aspects to the book—refutations of anti-Semitic canards, attempts to adapt Steinsaltz's traditional view of prayer to a "modern" audience—but, again and again, We Jews comes back to its combination of tribalism and determinism. In the end, I agree with Steinsaltz when he demands that we ask, whether we are "contributing to a Jewish heritage in a way that will be remembered ten generations from now." But I fear the narrowness and consequences of his answer.