Judaism Unbound Episode 75: The Myth of Apolitical Judaism - Lila Corwin Berman


Is it possible for Judaism, or its institutions, to ever be apolitical? Is it even desirable? Lila Corwin Berman, the Murray Friedman Chair of American Jewish History and Director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University, joins Dan and Lex to engage with those questions, as well as questions about Jewish peoplehood, intermarriage, and the funding of Jewish institutions.

Image Credit: Lila Corwin Berman

Image Credit: Lila Corwin Berman

(0:01 - 15:34): To begin the episode, Corwin Berman outlines one of the major theses of her book Speaking of Jews--the influence of the language of sociology on understandings of Judaism in the 20th century. She discusses key terms that gained prominence as a result of this trend, including "the Jewish community" and "Jewish peoplehood," [2] [3] and she examines why increasing rates of intermarriage posed a challenge to sociological definitions of Jewishness and Judaism. 

(15:35 - 31:25): Are there ways in which the early 20th century, as it was experienced by American Jews, may be ripe for renewed conversation and exploration today? [4] Corwin Berman examines that question, along with the question of whether the post-war period of American Jewish life was or was not a particularly exceptional one. She then introduces the issue of Jewish institutional funding, questioning the premise, claimed by many organizations, that they can ever truly be "apolitical." [5] 

(31:26 - 48:00): After explaining why an "apolitical" Judaism may not be possible, Corwin Berman discusses why, even if it were possible, it would not be particularly desirable. [6] She critiques the tendency of many who advocate for Jewish spaces that do not actively participate in the realm of politics. [7] To close, she brings attention to the increasing prevalence and importance of endowment funds in the Jewish community, along with the ramifications of that shift. 

[1] Lila Corwin Berman's bio can be accessed by clicking here. To purchase a copy of Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity, click here. To purchase a copy of Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit, click here.

Image Credit: Wrestling with Jewish Peoplehood Conference

Image Credit: Wrestling with Jewish Peoplehood Conference

[2] Corwin Berman helped organize a 2016 conference entitled "Wrestling with Jewish Peoplehood," which took place in Philadelphia. For video of many of the conference's sessions, click here.

[3] Click here to purchase the book Jew by Cynthia Baker, and click here to purchase Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation by Noam Pianko (each were referenced by Corwin Berman during this episode).

[4] Jefferson Cowie's The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics is a work mentioned by Corwin Berman that expands further on these questions. Purchase it by clicking here.

Image Credit: The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

Image Credit: The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

[5] Corwin Berman published two pieces in The Forward about Jewish institutions, their funding, and their expressed desire to exist as apolitical actors, in the first months after Donald Trump's election. Click the following links to access each of them: "Donors Beware: Jewish Organizations Can Spend Your Money Pretty Much However They Please" and "The Cowardly Reasons Jewish Organizations Won't Speak Out Against Trump Appointees: And Why We Must Demand That They Do"

[6] In discussing many Jewish leaders' desire for apolitical Jewish institutions, Corwin Berman references a February 2017 article by Jane Eisner, entitled "Be Careful How You Offer Sanctuary." Access it by clicking here.

[7] Lex references a 2015 piece he co-wrote with Lonnie Kleinman, regarding the movie Selma and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Entitled "'Selma': It's Not About the Jews and That's Okay," you can access it by clicking here.