By Rabbi Jack Riemer/

Click photo to download. Caption: The cover of “American Post-Judaism,” by Shaul Magid. Credit: Indiana University Press.

Let the general reader be warned: Shaul Magid’s new book, “American
Post-Judaism,” is not easy to read. The writing is dense, and the argument is
complex. But the book is worth the effort, for it deals with the reality of
American Jewish life with realism and with insight.

Magid begins with the proposition that we now live in a post-halachic,
post-Holocaust, post-ethnic, post-Judaism, and even post-monotheistic world. He
claims that the liberal movements within Judaism have had their day, that the
focus on peoplehood will not endure much longer outside of Israel, and that
only an uncompromising Orthodoxy and an innovative Jewish renewal movement will

The book is partly sociology and history, and partly religious
conviction. It studies the thought of Felix Adler, who formed the Ethical
Cultural Movement, and of his contemporary Mordecai Kaplan, who founded
Reconstructionist Judaism, and sets both of them within the context of the
American culture of their time. It studies the ArtScroll phenomenon, in which
books that had never needed to be translated before are now published in
English translation for the sake of a new kind of reader–uneducated and
illiterate, but hungry for some kind of piety. It studies the way that the
Sephardic Jews in Israel brought with them an attachment, and even an
adoration, for the saints of their community, and how this has helped them
maintain their dignity and sense of self in the secular modern state of Israel.

Magid shows the roots within American
culture for the panentheism (the
belief that the world is part, but not all of God)
that characterizes the thinking of Rabbis Zalman
Schachter-Shlomi and Arthur Green, and that he sees as the core of “new age”
Judaism. He studies the effect of the Holocaust on American Jewry, which could
not understand it within the context of the classic Jewish religious
explanation for suffering, and therefore strove to instead understand it within
the framework of destruction and renewal. But Magid argues that this American
Jewish belief system could not ultimately survive, because when it came to both
the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel, American Jews could
only relate to those events as vicarious observers. A community cannot exist on
vicarious achievements for long, Magid believes.

The most moving chapter in the book is on the inspiring yet tragic life
of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who together with his friend, Rabbi Zalman
Schachter-Shlomi, was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to campuses around the U.S.
to reach college students. It was probably the first of the outreach programs
that have made Chabad-Lubavitch the widespread movement that it is. But neither
Carlebach nor Schachter-Shlomi remained within the Hassidic fold. As
Schachter-Shlomi tactfully put it, “I graduated from Chabad.”

Carlebach became, and in some sense still is, one of the most influential
voices in American Jewish life. He spent his life traveling from one campus to
another, one synagogue to another, and one stage to another. He brought music and
stories and Torah …read more


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