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Book Notes: The Jewish Renaissance and Some of its Discontents, Lionel Kochan

John D. Rayner

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The Jewish Renaissance and Some of its Discontents, Lionel Kochan (Manchester University Press 1992) x + 125 pp. ?45. This slim, outrageously priced but important volume, based on the Sherman Lectures of 1990-1, distils the mature reflections of a distinguished scholar in the field of modern Jewish and general European history, and a former President of this Society, on the significance of contemporary trends in Jewish life and thought. What Dr Kochan chiefly perceives in these is a second 'emancipation' or 'renaissance' superseding that of the Mendelsohnian era. By that he means the renewal of Jewish self-confidence, self-assertion and self-expression that has manifested itself in the last four or five decades in response to the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, as well as the emergence of a Gentile world more 'congenial to Jewish aspirations'. To what extent there really has been such a renaissance, whether it is destined to endure, and what it portends, are questions to which, as he recognizes, there are no easy answers; but to have raised the issue, and even to have coined the term, is itself a contribution to the understanding of modern Jewish history which is likely to influence future studies. Among the evidences Dr Kochan adduces, he gives pride of place, as regards the British scene, to the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies (now the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies) and the Jewish Law Associ? ation, which he describes as 'the two major Anglo-Jewish components of the renaissance'. To single them out in that way is, however, strangely myopic since other initiatives, such as Yakar, the Spiro Institute and the Sternberg Centre, have at least as good a claim. The last-named is now arguably Europe's greatest Jewish cultural centre, and Leo Baeck College, which it houses, has trained some 120 rabbis who are surely destined to exert a great influence on Jewish life in Britain, Europe and beyond. It could furthermore be argued that the term 'renaissance' suggests something more than a revival of learning (even when accompanied by increased ritual 249</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes observance). It also suggests creativity, and in the contemporary world Jewish theological and liturgical innovation is to be found chiefly in Progressive Judaism - which receives barely a mention in the book under review, revealing the author's blind spot in that regard. Nevertheless, the expansion of Jewish scholarship both in Israel and in the Diaspora, including the spectacular growth of Jewish studies in the USA, is impressive. No less remarkable is the revival of traditional (i.e., medieval-scholastic) Jewish learning. Unfortunately there is little contact between the two worlds, for the yeshivot are dominated by an Orthodoxy that spurns the kind of Jewish scholarship pursued in the universities. This dichotomy is much regretted by Dr Kochan, who sees in it one of the causes of the 'alienation' of the Jewish intellectual. He is sharply critical of current trends in Orthodoxy, especially of the Lubavitch variety. 'Intellectually', he writes, 'Judaism of this type cannot be considered healthy and that is why respect and admiration at its capacity to survive . . . must be heavily qualified'. For having become 'impervious to critical scholarship', it has 'forfeited not only its intellectual appeal but also much of its integrity'. Dr Kochan goes a little too far, though, when he remarks: 'It may be the case, therefore, that only on the ruins of contemporary orthodoxy with its hostility to philosophy can Judaism be retrieved'. Similarly he questions the value of the explosive growth of Jewish day schools, remarking that 'the results, accruing from efforts made over a quarter of a century, do not seem to have justified the exercise'. But his deeper criticisms are directed at Zionism, in which he sees a dangerous preoccupation with 'space' at the expense of'time'. As a historian, he particularly regrets the way in which 'the success of Zionism . . . has alienated Jews from their past'. Thus Dr Kochan is far from sanguine about the Jewish future. 'Shadows lie over the renaissance': most obviously the demographic decline of the Diaspora, so that the question remains open whether there is 'enough positive energy in the post-Emancipation community for it finally to solve the problem of continuing as a discrete entity.' Hence the 'discontents'. Nevertheless, 'optimism is imperative', and to its vindication history has a vital contribution to make, which is not indeed to 'act as a substitute for religion' but to support it by renewing 'the bond between past and present'. This is an elegantly written book, marred only by a few lapses into turgidity and inconsistent transliterations of Hebrew terms. Above all, it is a feast of per? ceptive and thought-provoking reflections. John D. Rayner 250</page></plain_text>

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