[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Judaic]: Gurevich on Inbari, 'The Making of Modern Jewish Identity: Ideological Change and Religious Conversion'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Mon Jan 6 10:20:39 MST 2020



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Andrew Stewart 
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> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
> Date: January 6, 2020 at 3:52:53 AM EST
> To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-Judaic]:  Gurevich on Inbari, 'The Making of Modern Jewish Identity: Ideological Change and Religious Conversion'
> Reply-To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> 
> Motti Inbari.  The Making of Modern Jewish Identity: Ideological 
> Change and Religious Conversion.  London  Routledge, 2019.  182 pp.  
> $140.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-367-13595-9.
> 
> Reviewed by Eva Gurevich (Brandeis University)
> Published on H-Judaic (January, 2020)
> Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz
> 
> Motti Inbari's new book examines the process of conversion, both 
> religious and political, as a central defining theme in the making of 
> the Jewish identity. _The Making of Modern Jewish Identity: 
> Ideological Change and Religious Conversion _builds on Inbari's 
> expertise in religious studies and political history. Inbari is a 
> leading scholar in the field of Jewish fundamentalism and serves as 
> the associate professor of religion at the University of North 
> Carolina at Pembroke. He has written on a wide range of modern Jewish 
> experiences, spanning from ultra-Orthodox to Jewish messianic 
> movements. 
> 
> Inbari presents six case studies of individuals who underwent drastic 
> ideological change or religious conversions. His subjects are 
> fascinating mavericks in thought and character, who have been largely 
> overlooked in Jewish historical scholarship: novelist Arthur 
> Koestler, editor and columnist Norman Podhoretz, Rabbi Yissachar 
> Shlomo Teichtel, businesswoman Ruth Ben-David, jurist Haim Herman 
> Cohn, and politician Avraham Burg. Despite their vast differences, 
> these historical actors all went through a process of radical 
> transformation, shifting between Zionism and anti-Zionism, or between 
> Orthodoxy and secularism. According to Inbari, these two types of 
> conversion are confluent: "I realized that political change and 
> religious transformations as in the process of conversion are 
> actually very similar" (p. 9). All six were chosen as people who held 
> leadership positions and were influential in shaping the political, 
> theological, or judicial conceptions of the Jewish identity, albeit 
> within Inbari's parameters that measure Jewishness in its 
> relationship to nationalism or religion. 
> 
> The first two chapters tell the stories of secular men who radically 
> changed their political beliefs over the course of their life: the 
> novelist Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) and Norman Podhoretz (b. 1930), 
> the longtime editor-in-chief of _Commentary _magazine. Although for 
> Koestler communism had been akin to a religious faith in his early 
> years, Inbari notes that "Koestler was a 'serial converter,' and 
> communism was only one of his conversions" (p. 39). In fact, Koestler 
> went on to embrace and then reject Zionism, and in his later years, 
> he was a devoted believer in parapsychology. Norman Podhoretz's 
> ideological conversion was more permanent than that of Koestler. 
> Initially a member of the New York intellectuals, a group of 
> Trotskyist thinkers, Podhoretz opposed the rise of the New Left in 
> the 1960s because he felt it was turning against Jewish interests, as 
> he defined them. Podhoretz completely severed his ties to the Left in 
> 1970 and was one of the founding members of neoconservatism. Inbari 
> describes the circumstances that led both men to shift their 
> political allegiances: for Koestler, a disillusionment with Stalinism 
> led to a cognitive dissonance, followed by his "deconversion" from 
> communism; for Podhoretz, a reconsideration of the position of Jews 
> in America led him on the path of neoconservatism. In Inbari's words, 
> "Since Koestler abandoned all the anchors of his identity, he might 
> be viewed as a 'sick soul'; Podhoretz was able to find meaning and 
> thus became a 'twice born'" (p. 64). While Podhoretz's conversion was 
> deemed meaningful because he was invested in his Jewish identity, 
> Koestler's conversion does not lead him to embrace his Jewishness, 
> and thus he stays unhealed in Inbari's analysis.   
> 
> The book's third chapter focuses on Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtel 
> (1885-1945), an anti-Zionist rabbi who came to embrace Zionism in the 
> 1940s after the trauma of the Holocaust. Originally a follower of 
> Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira of Munkácz and a member of the virulently 
> anti-Zionist Hungarian Orthodoxy, Rabbi Teichtel came to reexamine 
> his position. He blamed the Hungarian leadership of forsaking the 
> Jewish people by discouraging emigration to Palestine. His book _Em 
> habanim semekhah_, published in 1943, justified Zionism from a 
> theological perspective. As Inbari points out, "since the 1980s, the 
> book has been a central feature of the Religious Zionist curriculum 
> in Israel" (p. 67). As a result of the suffering he experienced 
> during the Holocaust, Rabbi Teichtel no longer viewed Zionism as a 
> false redemption, but a salvation out of the miseries of exile.   
> 
> The most intriguing figure--and the only woman in the book--appears 
> in the fourth chapter. Ruth Ben-David (1920-2000) became famous for 
> her role as the child-kidnapper in the Yossele Schumacher affair in 
> the 1960s. Born in 1920 as Madeleine Lucette Ferraille, she fought 
> for the French Resistance during the Second World War and converted 
> to ultra-Orthodox Judaism in 1952. In order to gain full acceptance 
> into Neturei Karta--an insular, ultra-Orthodox, and anti-Zionist 
> community--she helped kidnap the little Yossele Schumacher from his 
> Zionist parents living in Israel, hiding the boy in ultra-Orthodox 
> communities around the world away from the hands of the secular 
> Jewish state. Inbari argues that Ben-David's conversion to 
> ultra-Orthodoxy was driven by her traumatic childhood with a violent 
> father. 
> 
> Finally, the last two chapters analyze the religious defection of two 
> men who were brought up Orthodox but left the religious fold and yet 
> continued to explore the possible connections between religion and 
> the state of Israel: the jurist Haim Herman Cohn (1911-2002) and 
> politician Avraham (Avrum) Burg (b. 1955). The former grew up in a 
> German Orthodox family but underwent a "deconversion," which led him 
> to define himself as agnostic and to reject a Halakhic (legal) or 
> racial definition of Jewish identity. For Inbari, Cohn serves as a 
> model of secular religion, as a person who was secular and yet worked 
> to bolster the Jewish identity of the state, including advocating for 
> drawing on Halakhic principles in Israeli jurisprudence: "The paradox 
> epitomizes a figure who remained loyal to Jewish identity while 
> undergoing radical changes" (p. 132). For Inbari, Cohn is celebrated 
> as the figure who could synthesize Jewish identity and modernity. 
> Similarly to Cohn, Avraham Burg grew up in an Orthodox home, defected 
> to agnosticism, and embraced the idea of religious pluralism. Burg's 
> father was the founder of the National Religious Party that worked to 
> implement selected Jewish religious practices in the Israeli public 
> sphere, such as a rabbinical regulation over personal status. Burg 
> came to reexamine the ideas of his upbringing and advocated for a 
> separation of religion and state. Nonetheless, Burg was committed to 
> an alternative model of Jewish identity for Israel. Inbari writes, 
> "[Burg] sees in American Judaism the right model for Israel" (p. 
> 150). Inbari reports that Burg's shifts in religious and political 
> worldviews were shaped by his traumatic experience in the yeshivah 
> (religious high school) and by professional disappointments in the 
> political arena. 
> 
> Throughout the book, Inbari applies several theories borrowed from 
> religious studies and psychology to explain the religious and 
> political transformations that these six figures underwent. Inbari 
> tries to explain what motivates conversion using three theories: 
> William James's concept of the "sick soul" that needs to transform 
> his or her identity in order to heal and reach happiness; Chana 
> Ullman's _The Transformed Self: The Psychology of Religious 
> Conversion_ (1989) to explain how a religious quest can be sparked by 
> emotional distress; and the social psychology theory of "failed 
> prophecy" as a form of cognitive dissonance, which Inbari interprets 
> as a form of intellectual distress that motives a person's 
> ideological or religious change. Inbari also uses Armand Mauss's 
> theory of "religious defection" and a recent concept of 
> "deconversion" to explain the overall process of leaving a particular 
> ideology or religious affiliation. Although Inbari does not 
> synthesize these theories or offer a new perspective on conversion, 
> he does ascertain that religious and political changes are highly 
> individual and are rooted in a person's character and personal 
> experiences. Inbari insightfully notes that once these figures 
> converted, they "saw themselves as leaders who paved ways for others 
> to follow" (p. 155). Inbari is suggesting that conversions are an 
> important element in the making of the modern Jewish identity: 
> modernity has allowed individuals the very freedom to navigate their 
> political and religious affiliations and to reimagine the various 
> possibilities of Jewish identity.   
> 
> Inbari analyzes these six conversions with varying success. The 
> description of Rabbi Teichtel's ideological development is Inbari's 
> most compelling of his case studies: the rabbi held a foundational 
> set of beliefs in the immanent redemption of the Jews, and his change 
> was manifested in the redefinition of Zionism as a possible agent of 
> redemption. By contrast, his explanation of Koestler's and Cohn's 
> ideological and religious journeys is less convincing. Inbari relies 
> on the theory of "deconversion," drawn from the field of religious 
> studies, to describe the novelist's shift from communism, and Cohn's 
> distancing from Orthodox Judaism. The concept of "deconversion" is 
> particularly problematic because it obscures the nature of 
> secularism: as several scholars have suggested in recent decades, the 
> secular is not a "neutral" position but rather an all-encompassing 
> worldview with its own ontology and epistemology.[1] 
> 
> Finally, _The Making of Modern Jewish Identity: Ideological Change 
> and Religious Conversion _would have benefited from incorporating a 
> greater range of Jewish experiences, such as non-Ashkenazi, queer, or 
> women's narratives. Unfortunately, not only is Ben-David the book's 
> only female protagonist, but Inbari analyzes her motivations in 
> relationship to the desires of the men around her instead of taking 
> her own account seriously. Despites these critiques, the book offers 
> interesting glimpses into the relationship between the psychological, 
> religious, and political biographies of noteworthy Jewish figures. 
> Inbari's invitation to consider the experience of conversion, be it 
> political or theological, as an important themewithin the modern 
> Jewish experience is a welcome one, and one can only hope that 
> scholars will further pursue this line of inquiry that promises to 
> challenge common assumptions. 
> 
> Note 
> 
> [1]. Talal Asad, _Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, 
> Modernity_ (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 21, 191. 
> 
> _Eva Gurevich is a doctoral candidate at the Near Eastern and Judaic 
> Studies Department at Brandeis University _ 
> 
> Citation: Eva Gurevich. Review of Inbari, Motti, _The Making of 
> Modern Jewish Identity: Ideological Change and Religious Conversion_. 
> H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54269
> 
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 
> License.
> 
> 



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