In Defense of the Isolationist Jew

Instead of placing ourselves as the main characters in another mighty civilization’s story, our task remains to plough our own furrow, and reap our own harvest.

Orthodox Jewish children in Borough Park, New York on September 12, 2022. Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Orthodox Jewish children in Borough Park, New York on September 12, 2022. Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Feb. 20 2023
About Eli

Eli Spitzer is a Mosaic columnist and the headmaster of a hasidic boys’ school in London. He blogs and hosts a podcast at

Eric Cohen and Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin have presented a compelling vision for revamping Jewish day-school education in order to produce cultured and sophisticated “Menorah Jews,” able to synthesize fruitfully their Jewish heritage with that of Western culture and lead a wider cultural revival. A Jewish classical education would, I presume, include John Keats’s line “Beauty is Truth, and Truth is Beauty,” and there is much in their bold essay that is true as well as beautiful. Their debunking of the false promise of progressive education cuts to the very heart of the modern educational malaise. They have, too, correctly discerned that the crucial cultural battleground lies not in the media, or even in the universities, but in the schools where plastic young minds are molded and formed. What is more, they hit the nail firmly on the head in their description of the “Isolationist Jew” who “believes that it is better to ignore (or downplay) the West than to open up young, impressionable Jews to its temptations.” I will attempt here to make the case for that circumspect Isolationist Jew and argue that, while the revival of classical education in wider America is to be welcomed, its importation into Jewish schools is unlikely to bear the fruit Cohen and Rocklin promise.

To do so, I will start with perhaps the most elementary of observations: a system of schooling that aims to produce a particular type of Jew, or a Jew groomed for a specific task, must first ensure that it is producing any type of Jew at all. If the last 200 years of Jewish history teach us anything, it is that converting Jewish children into Jewish adults is no mean feat, one that requires an emotionally compelling immersion into a culture and worldview that envelopes the life of the child through his or her development. In the Jewish classical school, however, the focus and purpose of education is to expose pupils to “the past heights of human excellence” scaled by non-Jews—and specifically Christians—based on the premise that “Western history, literature, and culture are the heritage and responsibility of every Jew.” What this means in practice is that these impressionable Jewish children will learn, in great detail and breadth, that another civilization is vastly superior to the one they are being instructed by their teachers to identify with and remain loyal to.

It is absolutely correct to observe that, at an early stage of its formation, the injection of Judaic ideas into Greco-Roman civilization produced a new, and unexpectedly brilliant, hybrid vigor. From that point onwards, however, the Jewish contribution to Western civilization has been marginal. If judged by the standards of art, philosophy, science, or culture, Judaism stands justly condemned, not only as a historical laggard, but as an ongoing shackle on its members. Those Jews who have made contributions to the arts and sciences, be it a Heine or a Kafka, an Einstein or a von Neumann, did so, almost without exception, after they or their parents had left Jewish observance and peoplehood behind.

Cohen and Rocklin mount a convincing criticism of progressive subordination of “intellectual and spiritual benefits . . . in the name of efficiency and utility.” However, whatever vices a progressive education in functional skills for the workplace may have, its very weakness as a tool for inspiring and shaping minds makes it compatible with a successful immersion in Jewish culture. The most logical and natural conclusion, by contrast, of a young graduate who has been blessed with receiving a proper classical education in his formative years will, as likely as not, be the same as that made by so many of our brightest and most idealistic minds over the past 200 years: leave.

I do not mean to imply that Cohen and Rocklin are unaware of this problem, a problem that, as they hint, has plagued historical forerunners of their approach. Rather, if I understand them correctly, they believe that they have solved it by proposing a unique mission for Jews that requires them to recognize Western culture’s unique greatness while maintaining their separate Jewish identity. If, they argue, we explain to young Jews that they are members a chosen people with a unique historical mission to inspire Western civilization, and “correct” it when it goes astray, they will accept their fate as a nation set aside to be the yeast in the Gentile dough, coaching their Christian neighbors to cultural heights they could not reach on their own. The success of a Jewish classical education thus depends on its ability to convince its pupils “that the weight of glory is on their Jewish shoulders.”

Cohen and Rocklin are, of course, far from the first to propose a project for Jewish renewal based on the proposition Jews have a special purpose among the nations. From the Enlightenment onwards, Jewish theology has been preoccupied with the tension, one that goes all the way back to our earliest documents, between ethnic particularism, and the universalism implied by monotheism. A popular resolution of this conundrum has been that the Jews are a particular nation with a universal mission. This special mission, has of course, varied with the prevailing fashion. The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform identified the Jews’ special mission with the rationalist technocracy of fin-de-siècle progressivism, the Columbus Platform of 1937 updated it to match New Deal liberalism, and, in the postwar era, the promotion of whatever form of madness had most recently gripped the American elite came to be identified as Judaism’s special mission under the name tikkun olam.

In Cohen and Rocklin’s version of this story, Jews have not only been chosen to act as role models and inspire Gentiles in general, but have a special and insoluble bond, in particular, with the West. This special bond was created by the marriage of Jewish and Greco-Roman ideas nearly 2,000 years ago in the form of Christianity. What this amounts to, therefore, is the proposition that Judaism has a special and unique responsibility towards Christianity. It may be possible, in a pinch, to conceptualize a Western civilization without Christianity at its core and pervading all aspects of its life, though what you are left with is precisely the kind of stunted, rootless culture that classical education is supposed to combat. Doing so would also remove any special connection between Judaism and Western culture, because it is solely through Christianity that these Jewish ideas became part of the West. If Cohen and Rocklin’s vision comes to pass and these Jewish ideas are revived through an educational renaissance that we help to inspire, Christianity will, again, be the vehicle for spreading that Jewish message.

In order to solve the obvious incongruity involved in depicting our true mission as lying in promoting the revival of Christianity, Cohen and Rocklin depict the two religions as natural partners, with Judaism providing the core covenantal content, and Christianity a way to market it to a universal audience. This commonality of purpose has, on their telling, been obscured by the Christians’ inscrutable decision to persecute us, and our understandable but lamentable inability to see beyond this to the big picture. Now, however, we are in a position to become the allies we were always meant to be. This is a comforting, perhaps even beautiful, picture, but here truth and beauty part company.

The differences between Judaism and Christianity are not about trivial matters, nor are they based on mutual misunderstanding. They concern what are, for religious believers, the most momentous questions imaginable. Did the Creator of the Universe send his only son to redeem all mankind through his death, liberating them from bondage to sin by removing the intolerable burdens of the covenantal law, or not? Upon this question hinges our most fundamental religious beliefs: what is God, what is His relationship to mankind, and what does the life of service to Him consist of?

Let us grant, for the sake of argument that, “the existence of a covenant between God and man, with man as the center of meaning in Creation” is, indeed, “Judaism’s most essential idea,” the fact that our two religions share a common source makes our differences more, not less, profound, because the inescapable conclusion is that either they or we have radically perverted these essential truths into something unrecognizable. True religious dialogue between the two sides of this religious chasm, to the extent that it is even possible, can only be meaningful if it starts with an acknowledgment of these gaping differences, rather than an attempt to collapse them through references to a vague ethical monotheism. To present Christianity as Judaism for mass consumption is an insult to sincere believers in either.

Cohen and Rocklin refer to an impressive range of Jewish scholars and thinkers as precedents for their projects. While some Jewish thinkers have indeed “recognized the importance of Western [or, at any rate, Gentile] ideas for expanding the Jewish imagination,” this has always been a distinctly minority pursuit. Whether it is true, as Cohen and Rocklin daringly write, that Maimonides himself saw the purpose of “codifying Jewish law as a form of resistance to non-Jewish culture,” this is certainly not how Torah study and ritual observance has usually been conceived. Jews do not study the Torah and fulfill its commandments in order to resist assimilation, they resist assimilation in order to study the Torah and fulfill its commandments.

It is notable that, while they write about a number of Jewish thinkers, Cohen and Rocklin only quote one of them, three times and at some length, namely Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch. I do not mean this observation as a criticism: their call to educational arms represents a faithful update of Hirsch’s vision (though with, as we shall see, a crucial, and fatal, modification). However, Rabbi Hirsch’s theology itself has a history and context.

When Hirsch wrote that, “the more devotedly Judaism, without abandoning its own unique characteristics, weds itself to all that is good and true in Western culture, the better will it be able to perform its uniquely Jewish mission,” he undoubtedly anticipated the vision of Jewish classical education advocated by Cohen and Rocklin, but he did so essentially alone. Since then, things have changed in a way that further problematize any revival of the Hirschian vision, and not just because Hirsch’s passionate German nationalism and ferocious anti-Zionism turned out to be the worst of bad bets.

Hirsch lived at a time when Western civilization appeared to have successfully combined ethical and technological progress and married both to a thriving high culture. His belief that Christendom, and in particular his beloved Germany, was progressing steadily towards a realization of the values the Jews had first preached 3,000 years before was consistent with the evidence of his own eyes. He held, not that Christendom was always our natural partner in fulfilling God’s covenant with mankind, but that it might, by continuing to develop and shedding much of its historical content, evolve into such a partner. We, however, live surrounded by the wreckage left in the wake of the utter failure of Hirsch’s dreams, with the dynamic European civilization that captivated him barely more than a memory after the 20th century’s one-two punch of Fascist ultra-Spartanism and American ultra-Athenianism.

Faced with the spiritual chaos and ethical insanity that, as a result, confronts us wherever we turn, it is logical to conclude that a return to real Christianity is the West’s only path to rehabilitation. I agree that Jews, as decent citizens of Western countries, and as human beings with a concern for the wellbeing of others, should not stand in the way of such a development. I can agree, provisionally, that it would be in our self-interest to do so, though it seems to me that a revival of serious Christianity is not possible without a revival of principled theological anti-Judaism. I will even state out loud what Cohen and Rocklin do not, namely that we have a special duty as Jews, to protest the actions of Jews with power and influence who see it as their special responsibility as Jews to obstruct any Christian revival and promote progressivism’s golden calves.

But that is as far as it can go. It isn’t—it cannot be—our special duty as Jews, let alone our very reason for existing, to seek the revival of a rival religion. Our education system, therefore, cannot be based on inculcating an appreciation of Christendom’s achievements, not because they aren’t remarkable, but precisely because they are. Our civilization’s achievements are by comparison modest, our focus narrow, our task, when viewed through human eyes, humble, but they are ours. Instead of placing ourselves as the main characters in another mighty civilization’s story, our task remains to plough our furrow, and reap our harvest, trusting that, in the fullness of time, our yearnings for redemption will be fulfilled. A betting man would, doubtless, not bank on the hopes of the Isolationist Jew’s dreams coming true, but, then, would a betting man 200, let alone 2,000, years ago bank on us being here at all?

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