Social Gospel or Prosperity Gospel?: At the Crossroads (‘Al Parshat Derakhim) of American Judaism
by Shaul Magid
There is popular quip, allegedly said by Nachum Goldman (1895-1982), longtime president of the World Jewish Congress, that what is good for the Jews is bad for Judaism. While made as an observation about contemporary Jewish life, this comment has roots that go much deeper. In his Beit Rebbe, Habad historian Hayyim Heilman writes about the founder of Habad R. Shneur Zalman of Liady, “On the first day of Rosh Ha-Shana, [the rebbe] said to me; ‘If Bonaparte is victorious, Israel will become wealthy and its material status will rise but they will become distant in their hearts from their Father in Heaven. But if [Czar] Alexander wins, Israel will be poorer and its material status will decline but their hearts will be closer to their Father in Heaven” (Heilman, Beit Rebbe, Berditchev, 1902, 93, 94). The founder of Habad Hasidism knew of the preciousness of wealth and material comfort in regards to religion. On the cusp of the infiltration of the Jewish Enlightenment and emancipation to the Jews of Eastern Europe, R. Shneur Zalman knew the role economics would play in the cohesiveness of his community and its fidelity to tradition.
There is little doubt that America has been good to, and for, the Jews. Jews are certainly one of the most integrated and successful minorities in U.S. history. As Tisa Wenger shows in her marvelous new book Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, Jews have successfully navigated religious freedom in ways that has enabled them to survive and thrive while avoiding significant instances of anti-Semitism that had plagued Jews for millennia. Anti-Semitism still exists in America, as we all saw in Charlottesville. But there is little doubt that the success as Jews of late in this country has not been hampered by anti-Semitism. There are certainly anti-Semites in America but America is not an anti-Semitic country; anti-Semitism remains deviant social behavior.
Thus Nachum Goldman and R. Shneur Zalman of Liady’s challenge remains very relevant for the present. The success of Jews is empirically undeniable. The success of Judaism, less so. What I mean here is not only the classic canard; how will Jews survive secularism, assimilation, and disaffiliation? In some way, I think that is the wrong question. Jews have survived all those things. Yet when Jews, like other minorities, are embraced by the society in which they live, many will take full advantage of that invitation; they will become prosperous, they will assimilate, and as we have seen from the 2013 Pew study, they will intermarry in increasing numbers. But they will survive. In some way, this is the covenant Jews forged in America. In his 1791 letter to the Jews of Newport Rhode Island, George Washington made it very clear: I will give you the rights as a people to worship freely, but you must become fully a part of the American project. And we can conjecture that being part of that project will result in many who will honor the rights of religious freedom by choosing not to use it. I do not think we can fault, or blame, those Jews who chose to live otherwise because both choices are equally valid in the eyes of America. That is the mixed blessing America has bequeathed to the Jews. The more Jews succeed, the more American they become, regardless of their religious beliefs, and while being American does not require abandoning religion, it certainly does include the freedom to do so.
The story I tell below is one that has not quite happened yet. And thus it is nether true nor false. It is a story of the dangers and challenges of the proximate future as I see them, looking at contemporary trends and surmising the direction they may likely take. Michel Foucault famously said that all history is about the present. I would add that all discussions about the present are really about the future.
If we look back at the American Jewish project, which really began with the large German Jewish immigration after 1848, what we find is a project of Judaism forged from a place of freedom. Jews never had to fight to be emancipated in America, and its Judaism shows that sense of confidence, rootedness, and a sense of belonging. What will, or can, or should, Judaism look like in this “New World” that enables Jews to remain identifiably Jewish while living more and more like their non-Jewish neighbors. This remains the ongoing American Jewish question. What emerged from this American project is a variety of Jewish forms that looked very much like American religion—and American Christianity in particular. Jews divided themselves into denominations, restructured its liturgy to fit an American framework and idiom, built synagogues to resemble other places of worship, and taught their children the values of success that mirrored others in their social class.
Even when the counter-culture arose and challenged the bourgeois values of their parents, Jews reacted as Americans. The counter-cultural Jewish Catalogue in 1972 looked a whole lot like the Whole Earth Catalogue of 1968. The revival of a forgotten holiday of Tu Bishvat—mentioned in the Mishna as the “New Year of the Trees” that was mostly ignored by most Jews for millennia (except in some small kabbalistic circles)—tacked on nicely to the rising ecological movement in the 1960s. And now it is celebrated widely on American shores. And the rise of interest in Hasidism and Kabbalah squared with the rise of New Ageism, which itself was a re-reading of Emersonian Trascendentalism and Jamesean mysticism. So even when the Jewish radicals of the New Left morphed into the Radical Jews of the late 1960s, it was Americanism that still dominated the Jewish psyche. American Jews can’t shed themselves of their Americianness, nor should they. Judaism in America will always be an American project. The question is: what kind of Judaism will it be? And in addition, how will the economic status of the Jew have an impact on the Judaism he or she chooses to practice?
I want to argue here that American Judaism is being pulled in two different directions—not conservative or liberal, not religious or secular, not Israel advocates or Israel critics. Rather, the two camps are the American Jewish Social Gospel and the American Jewish Prosperity Gospel.
In her excellent new book Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America Rachel Kranson argues that the question of Jews in America is no longer a class issue the way it was 60 years ago when Jewish poverty was still very much a pressing issue. As early as 1955 Look Magazine claimed that “The Jewish working class has all but vanished.” By the 21st century most American Jews have entered the upper middle class, many the wealthy class. The immigrant population of the early 20th century, from about 1880-1920, has yielded a generation who have successfully figured out the American economic system.
This success, of course, has its own challenges. For example, meritocracy, which used to benefit Jews, no longer does. Jewish children don’t work as hard because they don’t have to. The old adage (I think it was said by William F. Buckley) that if you want find the Jews on Saturday night on a college campus, go to the library, is no longer true. If you wander into a university library on a Saturday night you won’t find Jews, you will find Asians—and, increasingly, African Americans and Latinos.
This is not because Jewish children today are lazy; it is because they and their parents know the system enough that they don’t have to work as hard to get to the same place their grandparents did. Jews have become a privileged American class. There was an essay some months ago in The Forward using Jared Kushner as an example. If we look at his story we find a quintessentially American story. Jared was raised in an affluent traditional home and went to an expensive private school (in his case, a Modern Orthodox Jewish Day School). With slightly above average grades he got into Harvard after his father donated two million dollars to the university. Is that a story that mirrors the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Henry Kissinger, or Phillip Roth, or the thousands of Jewish kids at City College in the 40s and 50s that were in the library on a Saturday night? No, Jared’s story more closely mirrors the story of George W. Bush, the quintessential product of the WASP American dream. Without that privilege, Bush would very likely never have become president. And Kushner would not have gotten into Harvard. Like him or not, Jared is an American Jewish success story, not through hard work and sweat but through privilege. Today Jewish kids generally do not bag groceries or deliver newspapers to make extra money. They don’t take menial summer jobs, sweating in the hot sun or a dusty factory. They don’t have to. They can take non-paying prestigious internships that will look good on their college resumes.
I don’t say this judgmentally as much as descriptively. This is one part of the American Jewish success story. Am I arguing that Jews should Jews be poor? Of course not. No one wants to be poor. But if Jews remain unaware of the consequences and challenges of wealth, as R. Shneur Zalman of Liady knew well back in the late 18th century, they too easily take that status for granted. And then Jews indeed we become part the WASP class many of them looked at with a mixture of scorn and jealousy a few generations ago, as depicted so vividly and disturbingly in Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Privilege is not corrosive per se; it becomes corrosive when it is taken for granted.
So what do I mean by the Social Gospel vs. the Gospel of Prosperity? The Social Gospel was a product of early 20th century Protestantism (actually from about 1870-1940) led by thinkers such as Walter Rauschenbusch, author of Christianity and the Social Crisis, and pacifist Jane Addams, founder of the socialist settlement Hull-House. In American Catholicism figures such as Dorothy Day, founder of The Christian Worker, led American Catholics in a movement of social reform and equality. The Social Gospel was built loosely on the foundations of what is called postmillennialism, that is, the idea that the salvation will come about through human acts to better the world through charity and social justice. It was a Protestantism of humanitarianism and humanism, one that felt responsibility for the poor as a redemptive act.
Was there a Jewish Social Gospel? Not formally, the Social Gospel Movement was a product of Protestantism, but to some degree, at least in spirit, until mid the 20th century, it was socialism. That is where I came from. My paternal grandfather was a proud socialist, a Bundist, and my parents, also lifetime members of the Workman’s Circle, sent us to the socialist Workman’s Circle summer camp Kinder Ring where, of course, we hated the Jewish communist camp across the lake Kinder Land (founded by a left-wing break off of the Workman Circle, which became anti-communist)—although I don’t think any of us knew the differences between socialism and communism. Many of us were, of course, already middle class but the camp had a large contingency of poor Jews from the Amalgamated housing project in the Bronx who came basically for free. In any event, we did imbibe a kind of Jewish secular socialist Social Gospel. We learned that religion void of a social ethic was useless and Yiddish culture was meant to bind Jews together to serve the universal good. We were taught that Jewishness (or Yiddishkeit) was culturally specific but politically universal. I no longer remember if we sang The International in Yiddish but I do remember not singing Ha-Tikva. For a few generations, socialism was the default Social Gospel of the Jews. In the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights began to occupy that space as well. I always felt that in a way that I experienced the last gasp of that phenomenon. But now, as we see, it is rising again in a new form today sparked in part by the 2016 election. Democratic Socialism is a new form of a secular Social Gospel, and many young Jews are signing on.
In large part, however, the socialist ethos of a prewar generation did not survive the upward mobility of most Jews in America in the postwar period. The counter culture in the 1960s may have re-introduced Marx through people like Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, and into the streets with Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman (Hoffman studied with Marcuse at Brandeis), but for the most part, postwar American Jews were raised in a capitalist society and pushed to work hard and become wealthier than their parents, and certainly their grandparents. Yet most of the counter-cultural radicals were for the most part already middle class and recipients of certain aspects of privilege, many attending elite universities. The context of these new sparks of socialism in that period, however, is precisely a decline in the Jewish Social Gospel more generally whose last great stand was arguably civil rights. I argue that the upward mobility and slow distancing from a Social Gospel comes at a price that may only now be emerging. Becoming rich often changes one’s priorities and, over time one’s politics. And one’s religion.
It is possible, albeit very hard, to retain a commitment to the Social Gospel when one enters into a social class where such activism may indeed work against one’s self interest. But with each generation it becomes harder, as Rachel Kranson shows in her book Ambivalent Embrace.
But as Jewish fortunes rose and anti-Semitism declined in the postwar years, it seemed that the material and social interests of American Jews might have been better served by a more conservative political stance. For all the significant differences between liberal and leftist Jewish leaders, they held in common a belief that American Jews were obligated to continue upholding the politics that supported the poor and disenfranchised. The increased economic profile of American Jews seemed to threaten that commitment. (Ambivalent Embrace, 66).
Kranson, whose study focuses more on the transition from the 1950s to the 1960s claims the liberalism of most American Jews had survived the initial stages of upward mobility. But that was over half a century ago. Milton Himmelfarb’s quip in 1973 that “Jews live like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans” will likely not hold firm after several more generations of Jewish affluence. While a 2012 Pew poll shows that American Jews still by and large believe that the government unfairly favors the wealthy at a higher rate than non-Jews in their social class, some of that is the result of historical memory including memory of one’s prewar grandparents and memories of the Holocaust. For the next generation, however, and certainly the ones to follow, those memories will no longer be proximate.
As Jews moved to the suburbs or upwardly mobile urban neighborhoods and began living with members of their own economic and social class albeit not their religion, the political shift to the right may have been put off for an extra generation or two (the New Left and Radical Jews of the 1960s reacted critically to the first stage of upward mobility) but that shift will likely take hold over time. This is not true across the board of course; many children of upwardly mobile Jews retain a liberal ethos, but Kranson shows the shift away from liberalism among Jews, while it did not occur in her time period of her study, is a phenomenon worth paying attention to.
My interest here is not about political affiliation per se but rather religious reconceptualization. How has, or will, Judaism change as American Jewry’s upward mobility becomes an integral part of the American Jewish experience after a number of generations? And this is where the Prosperity Gospel enters. In her book Blessed: The History of the American Prosperity Gospel, Kate Bowler maps out the transformation of Christianity from a religion of the poor to a religion that sanctifies wealth and success. Nondenominational churches with names like Victorious Faith Center, Destiny Church, World Overcomers, or Victory International have sprung up across America. The recent film First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader, depicts the tensions between a Prosperity Gospel church and a poor Dutch Reformed church with a dwindling congregation that was a historical landmark in upstate New York (a stop on the Underground Railroad). The Dutch Reformed church is run by a solitary and troubled pastor Reverend Ernst Toller – played superbly by Ethan Hawke – depicting the stark contrast between the old American Christianity of poverty, austerity, and a deep commitment to morality and the new Prosperity Gospel church called Abundant Life that celebrates wealth and the joys of success and whose moral compass is balanced by its commitment to increasing prosperity.
These Prosperity Gospel churches are not small churches. In Houston Texas a prosperity church led by pastor Joel Osteen has in excess of 38,000 members. The Prosperity Gospel gives back to the community but it does so under the auspices of its continued wealth. Money, health, and good fortune are viewed as divine favor and the more wealth one accrues the more one dwells in the bosom of God. This is certainly a far cry from Jesus overturning the tables of the money-changers in the Temple but it shows that wealth and success will slowly make its way into one’s sense of religious life and obligation. Early Christian doctrine that Jesus was godly because he suffered – a classical Jewish teaching about Jewish oppression adopted to an incarnate being – has now been reversed. It is wealth, prosperity, and power that is a sign of divine favor. This may have something to do with the evangelical support of this secular Prosperity Gospel president, even as his morality counters any Christian ethic. He is rich; God must love him.
If American Jewry has traditionally followed in the wake of dominant Christian social and religious trends, and if American Jews have indeed become a privileged class, one where Jewish wealth, and zip codes, are beginning to define them, is American Judaism then vulnerable to the Prosperity Gospel turn? Many rabbinic heroes were paupers and for some, that material poverty helped define their spiritual prowess. And there were reasons why R. Shneur Zalman of Liady was skeptical of material success if Napoleon should be victorious over Czar Alexander. Kranson writes about the valorization of poverty in the first half of the 20th century in chapter called, “materially poor, spiritually rich.” In addition, there is a good reason why many Jews who lived deep inside the tradition and then abandoned it were attracted to socialism and communism. There is a link between poverty, religiosity, and belief in social equality that extends far beyond Jewish history. As Hannah Arendt suggested, oppressed peoples will naturally identify with the oppressed. Wealthy peoples, less so.
In the later decades of the 20th century, scholars argued that the biggest challenge to Jews was the acquisition of power in the State of Israel. How can a religion built on powerlessness conform to the powers of a state? While that challenge remains an ongoing project, in America I think the biggest challenge for the next generation won’t be Israel, or assimilation, or intermarriage. It will be figuring out how to retain a Social Gospel ethos while living as part of the wealthy class of Americans. How do Jews of this class avoid the pitfalls of privilege that already enables Jewish children not to work so hard because their parents have mastered the system and have become its beneficiaries? Many of us in our 50s and older may still remember our grandparent’s modest lives, pious or secular. But our children and their children will not.
Eliyahu Stern, an associate professor of Jewish Studies at Yale University, just published a compelling and provocative book entitled Jewish Materialism about the relationship between economics, religion, and Zionism in the 1870s. Looping his analysis to our time, he recently published an essay in Haaretz entitled, “Donald Trumps’ Orthodox Grandchildren Aren’t the Future of American Jewish Life.” In this essay Stern argues that Modern Orthodoxy, now experiencing solid growth, may very well eventually collapse, or certainly diminish, under the economic burden of how much it costs to be Orthodox in America. That is, while today Modern Orthodox Jews are generally wealthy enough to afford a Modern Orthodox lifestyle, the price of real estate and day schools will eventually lock some of their children out of the market of Orthodoxy.
Another aspect of the rising wealth of Modern Orthodox Jews is their turn rightward politically. Many attribute this to its basic right-leaning position on Israel, but I think it extends beyond that. Modern Orthodoxy’s move away from liberalism (27% of Orthodox Jews support Trump) is also a product of the social class it occupies as wealthy Americans. How will Modern Orthodoxy’s recent economic privilege affect its commitment to social justice, for example, on questions of immigration, living wage debates, tax reform, etc? Wealthy Modern Orthodox, and non-Orthodox, Jews need a tax break for the rich to help support educating their children in elite Jewish schools so that they will have a leg up on elite colleges. And will a theological justification arise within its thinking, a Prosperity Gospel, that valorizes wealth as a religious value, as a sign of divine favor, as a way to perpetuate its own economic burden that it places on its constituents?
The bulk of American Jewry that is non-Orthodox face similar, albeit not identical, challenges. Many American Jews are upper middle class and wealthy yet still committed to liberal causes; they are often confronted with a conflict of values, between voting with their pocketbooks or voting with their consciences, between sacrificing some of their privileged for the betterment of society. Will the next generation of wealthy Jews continue to support public schools their children do not attend (either because they send them to Jewish Day Schools or private schools)? There are numerous issues I could list here. But most important, will American Judaism subtly become a justification of wealth rather than a critique of it? And this includes the extent to which Judaism will be subtly deployed to service, or at least affirm, the wealthy donors who support Jewish educational institutions. When Jews, like other groups, stop feeling guilty about their wealth, when their children no longer have any memory of anything but the privilege bequeathed to them, what will prevent the Social Gospel from becoming a Prosperity Gospel? As Kranson argues, remaining liberal is harder when such a commitment forces one to sacrifice some aspect of privilege. What will prevent the slow turn from caring for the poor to caring to maintain a wealthy lifestyle or making sure one’s children are at least as comfortable as their parents? Or, caring for the poor as long as my upper-class lifestyle is not diminished.
No community wants their children to have to work the night shift in supermarkets to pay their own tuition. But it was that kind of work that generations of Jews did that contributed to their fortitude and, ultimately their success. And, just as important, their perspective. And what happens when those two values conflict, that is, when supporting social justice causes diminishes one’s privileged status? Because that in the end may be part of the calculus.
In retrospect, R. Shneur Zalman of Liady was right. In the countries where Napoleon was successful, in Central and Western Europe, Jews became wealthier and abandoned religion in greater numbers. In Eastern Europe, Jews were poorer and many continued to live traditional Jewish lives. As Stern argued in his Jewish Materialism, in the mid-19th century Zionist thinkers like Moshe Lilienbum tried to convince many to abandon their traditional ways so that they could afford to feed their families. Of course, we want both. And why wouldn’t we? The adage that Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans was a one or two generation phenomena. Sociologists in the 1970s liked to suggest the continued liberalism of Jews despite their economic and social climbing shows them to be a distinct minority. Kranson argues in Ambivalent Embrace that liberalism continues to be “a persistent means through which Jews understand their position in the United States.” And yet we are also seeing cracks in the dam. The rise in Jewish conservatism, especially among affluent traditional Jews, may be an indicator that wealth will ultimately have a social and political impact in a few generations. The more Jews become part of the system and know to manipulate it to their benefit, the less hard Jewish children will have to work, and the more they will be the beneficiaries of privilege. For Millennials, Jared Kushner’s story is already more common than Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s. And yet we also see a swing in the opposition direction, away from the small “c” conservatism and toward a new political radicalism that questions the foundation upon which privilege is constructed. That may continue but it will arguably remain marginal, at least for the time being. And if Jewish progressivism is dependent upon children rebelling against their parents, what happens when they reach middle age, have families, and seek the comforts they experienced as children and want for their children?
One thing that can help American Jews from the pitfalls of the mixed blessing of wealth, or perhaps slow the slide toward a Prosperity Gospel in any case, is its Judaism. Will Judaism in America become a justification for affluence or a critique of it? Will a new Jewish Social Gospel—the likes of which we see in many young groups founded by young men and women of affluent families, Democratic Socialists who are critical of the neo-capitalist system (even as they do not want to undermine it completely) as well as the polices of an Israel increasingly becoming less democratic—gain the support of their parent’s generation? In a recent poll, nationwide 57% of Democrats have a positive view of socialism while only 42% have a positive view of capitalism. While we don’t have Jewish numbers on this question, I think it is safe to say that Jewish Millennials who are mostly still Democrats probably bolster these numbers. The question, however, is whether they do so as an expression of their Jewishness or their American identity severed from their Jewish one. The results will of course will be mixed but attention to this trend toward a new socialism among Jewish Millennials is worth interrogating as we look toward the next quarter century.
But let us not fool ourselves. The inclination to make Judaism conform to our social status, and not serve to criticize it, is strong. The Prosperity Gospel that has taken root in American Protestantism is a powerful and influential force. We want to feel as if God blesses our success. And that our success does not stand in conflict with the values of our forbearers. Most Jews, I think, still want to retain the Episcopalian-Puerto Rican equation to illustrate that we are the exception and not the rule. But Jews are not really that different from any other group and when the impetus and need to work hard is replaced by the privilege to cut corners, many will take that route.
The work then, as I see it, is not only for American Jews to continue fighting for liberal and progressive causes; that is valuable but that is not sufficient. The work is to construct a new Jewish Social Gospel that will check Jews against our privilege, that will fight against the natural tendency to use religion to justify, and not criticize, our lives.
America has given Jews a golden opportunity and many Jews are beneficiaries of what America has offered. Jews in the early part of the 20th century worked extra hard, against many odds including discrimination and quotas, to climb the economic ladder. Having arrived at the social status of WASP America, their progeny are now producing children more like Jared Kushner than RBG. It is time for the American Jewish community to confront the dangerous edge of this success. We think someone like Stephen Miller is a Jewish anomaly. Today he may be. But in the long term, perhaps less so. Perhaps he is one iteration of a future generation who, affluent and cut off from the memories of an immigrant past and alienated from a Judaism that criticizes wealth and material success, he is what more and more what Jews will become. The rabbi of the synagogue where Miller’s parents belonged in Santa Monica recently wrote that Stephen had not learned what he was taught at the synagogue. Perhaps that is true. But the rabbi also may not have considered that preaching a Jewish Social Gospel in the belly of southern California affluence does not adequately take into consideration the countervailing forces that make that Social Gospel dissonant to many of his young congregants.
Jewish children growing up in America today will not know their great great grandparents who had a fruit cart on the Lower East Side, or escaped the Nazi terror, or the Pale of Settlement, or Khomeini’s Iran. They will grow up as part of affluent white America, knowing how to work the system to get what their grandparents had to achieve by sitting in the City College library on a Saturday night. American Jews are fighting an uphill battle against privilege at the same time many are devoted to maintaining it. We are fighting an uphill battle against values while living lives that are founded on many of those values. Some of our children will rebel against their parents, espouse socialism, calling their parents hypocrites. Rather than defend ourselves against those accusations, protecting our social status by calling them impractical, perhaps we should listen. In some way, those rebels are right, there is a hypocrisy in ostensibly fighting against a system one uses to maintain one’s status. Like Modern Orthodoxy’s fragile hold on the gold ring of tradition and wealth, much of liberal American Jewry is also challenged to maintain liberal values (informed by the tradition) while living lives of privilege that in some way depend on the illiberalism we claim to detest. Perhaps one barrier against sliding from liberalism to a Prosperity Gospel is by reconstructing a new Jewish Social Gospel. But that work will also require sacrifice, not only of our time or money, but of our privilege.
Social Gospel or Prosperity Gospel, Bernie Sanders or Michael Bloomberg; the former may be what many American Jews believe, but the latter is often how many of us live. Figuring this out may be the biggest and most important challenge to Jews, and Judaism, in America in the next quarter century.
- An abbreviated version of this essay was delivered as a sermon on the first day of Rosh ha-Shana 2018 at the Fire Island Synagogue, Seaview, NY.
Wealth is a curse on many cultures. The rich resource wealth of Africa became its undoing as empire after empire, to this day, invades, corrupts and uplifts its worst citizens, all in order to take what is there. It is complicated to trace the effects of wealth on Jewish life and Judaism, however. I want to argue that it cannot be separated from the effects of power, powerlessness, and most importantly minority/majority states of being. The last has a massive effect on just what is done with wealth and what is done with power. Shaul Magid, as his natural talent, uncovers fascinating resources that stimulate our obligation to ponder and deepen the living breathing reality of Judaism as it evolves.
The new period of wealth of American Jews is different than any other period of our history, and the new period of wealth and power in Israel is unprecedented for 3000 years at least. In some ways, a Jewish majority state has never been this wealthy and militarily powerful in the Middle East, ever. It cannot be overestimated what effect this has had on world Jewry and Judaism. We tend to focus on Israel and the Holocaust as traumatic tropes of survival and existential threat. But that ignores just how much concentration of power and wealth in Israel has had such an overwhelming effect on world Jewry, on its leadership, on secular political systems in each host country.
The Social Gospel and the Prosperity Gospel are competing trends of Protestantism that have always been there, and it is true that Jews and Judaism are deeply affected by the religious trends of the majority. But there are some other unique trends of Judaism due to our positionality as a tiny minority in the world, and simultaneously a vigorous all-powerful majority in Israel. The Prosperity Gospel of Norman Vincent Peale, as it has been interpreted by Donald Trump and the Evangelical Movement, is perhaps the most dangerous philosophy to have ever evolved on American soil. It is indeed having a shocking effect on Jews most prone to obedience to authoritarian leaders and most prone to racial separatism.
That said, I think that the real choice facing American Judaism and Jews is not between the Prosperity Gospel and the Social Gospel. Here is my reasoning. The massive difference between the course and evolution of American Judaism and Israeli Judaism, especially among the youth, is not about money. It is about a 2000 year-old consciousness of spirituality emanating from two diametrically opposed persona: the Abrahamic Jew as Ger (refugee) and as Ohev Ger (lover of the refugee), the psychological and ethical consciousness of the quintessential minority, the vulnerable refugee seeking righteousness and justice for all, versus the new/ancient Joshuan Jew as Conqueror, seeking to create a pure majority space of invincible power and wealth. The reason why most Western Jews, now wealthy or middle class, still vote as if we are poor, is that most of us are the Abrahamic Jew, keenly aware of our minority identity as a fundamental part of our DNA our spiritual essence.
Many immigrants come to the United States from Latin America and other parts, and quickly vote against their own vulnerable landsman as they adopt the language and psychology of the majority, and this has shocked me as I have interviewed and probed them. That is because for many they never stopped being a majority in their consciousness. They did not have 2000 years of travel, of vulnerability. They had 30 years of that perhaps, and then they revert to identifying with the majority for closed borders and survival of the fittest. That just doesn’t fit with even the wealthiest and most successful Jews, at least in their majority. Of course there are significant exceptions like Sheldon Adelson, among others.
Their exceptionalism is for a simple reason: their flag is the Israeli flag, their army is the IDF, and they act and feel as if they are the majority in Israel. Some American Jewish schools have become mostly outposts of Israel recruitment, some even hiring Israeli ex-generals as principals. In other words, these Jews are acting as if they are the majority because they are in Israel in their minds, one plane ride and they are the alpha group and they can prevail over every neighbor and crush every threat.
A majority status has a magical, irresistible effect on the human consciousness, and once tasted it is hard to return to the Gallus Abrahamic schlep Jew, the Yefeh Nefesh, the snowflake. It feels good and right to be invincible, and that is why Jared Kushner makes sense to them, why Ivanka inaugurating the Jerusalem embassy is the ultimate triumph of history, proffered by the Queen Esther of the psychodrama of Purim-based historical consciousness.
We know, however, as we can see from campuses to protests in the streets, that what Dr. Magid calls Social Gospel Judaism, or I call Abrahamic Ger Judaism, is very much alive and revived, that it is well, that it is being renewed in a deep way. It is not dying with Heschel or Cohen or Lazarus or Hertz or Luzzatto, but that it is here to stay as a deep and abiding Jewish essence. This Abrahamic path is, however, facing a very painful separation from the Joshuan Jew. History is very fickle and Joshuans often survive physically very well, but ultimately their power eats away at them like a cancer, and Shaul and R. Shneur Zalman and Nachum Goldman, are right that money can do that too.
I think we in the West must simply invest in the Abrahamic Jew with full force and full resources, that we must love and welcome any Israeli Jews who want to participate in the Abrahamic minority identity, even if in part. This is loving, inclusive, strong and has withstood the challenges of 2000 years of majoritarian hatreds, arrogance, and intolerance. It is good to be a minority. Minorities, or Gerim, see more than one worldview in their DNA. It makes them wiser, more enduring, and paradoxically embeds them more securely in the permanent history of humanity.
At stake today is not simply the valorization of “prosperity,” but the erosion of the ethical mandate of Judaism in favor of a mandate of power. Demand for justice runs through
Judaism like blood through our bodies. Take it out and you have a corpse. The great danger to Jews today is the corrupt notion that wealth is the goal and the wealthy deserve leadership of the community. Shaul Magid is rightly outraged, but while he blames the desire for wealth, he is really upset about the absence of moral commitment, about selfishness and narcissism, and he is angered that America offers easy success to money and power without education or moral principles.
Shaul warns that we Jews stand in a crisis of values. This is not about assimilation or secularism; those are old concepts that are too vague to be meaningful. And our crisis today comes not from outside, but from within. We Jews are responsible for the paths we choose to take, for the ways we define Judaism.
If Jews in the past wanted a Social Gospel Judaism, Shaul argues, today they want a Prosperity Gospel Judaism. Social Gospel means helping the poor, protecting the environment, seeking justice for all people, whereas Prosperity Gospel is about wanting and acquiring wealth: violating the tenth commandment, the sin of coveting. The passion for money is never-ending; no one ever feels rich enough; it is like an addiction. Wealth is not only a goal for one’s family and children, as Shaul writes, but is the key to political power, both within the Jewish world and in the United States. Wealthy Jews determine the agenda – of philanthropy, politics, ideology. And that is sheer corruption.
Just to clarify: the Prosperity Gospel developed in the United States out of the “New Thought” movement of the nineteenth century that believed in the power of the mind to control one’s life, from economic circumstances to health; Christian Science is one of its outgrowths. Easy to exploit, preachers tell their followers that they have to think the right way and they will acquire money and conquer disease. They promise that giving money to preachers creates “showers of blessing,” a miraculous downpour of affluence from heaven. Jews have not gotten as far as that sort of magical nonsense, but the ethos of coveting money has led some Jews to think of affluence as a sign of divine blessing, an idea also promoted in some Baptist churches, and too many segments of the Jewish community defer to the wealthy as if wealth ordains leadership.
So much has changed since Jews started arriving in the United States, starting with our values. Once we admired rich Jews who helped impoverished people; think of Julius Rosenwald, who established schools throughout the South for African-American children, and Kivie Kaplan, president of the NAACP. We felt pride in young Jews and rabbis who marched for Civil Rights for African-Americans, for Jewish women who have been in the forefront of the feminist movement, we admired intellectuals, writers, scholars. Standing up for someone else’s community was biblical, prophetic, and viewed as noble. Today, communal values have shifted. Standing up for justice for another group of people is seen as foolish or even dangerous, especially if those people are Mexicans, African-Americans, Muslims or Palestinians. We are a people who produced Stephen Miller and Sheldon Adelson, after all.
In Hillel Halkin’s 1975 Zionist polemic, Letters to an American Jewish Friend, he wrote with contempt for Jews involved in the Civil Rights movement. Jews should be concerned with their own problems, not with the problems facing black people. American Jews should move to Israel and take care of their own people. But is there still a “Jewish people” today? We have increasingly become divided and siloed. We are divided by wealth, politics, religious observance – and not simply divided, we are at each other’s throats in ways that are shocking and destructive.
American Jews recapitulate an old biblical motif. Our arrival here from Europe in the nineteenth century was described by rabbis and lay leaders as our Exodus from Egypt, the confining Egypt of Europe, our Exodus to the freedom of America. And freedom, as we know from the Bible, can be dangerous, leading us into suffering – not the suffering of physical slavery, but the recognition that happiness cannot be easily achieved; the search for meaning is our struggle in freedom, and we are not succeeding very well. The German-Jewish writer Alexander Döblin ends his masterpiece novel of the Weimar Republic, Berlin Alexanderplatz, “The road is into freedom, into freedom, the old world is doomed, wake up, dawn air.” But freedom is no guarantee of freedom; it is simply a freedom to choose. How have we American Jews made our choices?
Our situation in America is shockingly different from Europe, where wealth brought culture and cultivation: access to books, museums, opera, symphony. Think of what Edmund de Waal describes in his extraordinary family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes: the Ephrussis, one of the wealthiest banking families in Vienna, living in an enormous palace in the heart of the city, socialized with the great writers, poets, and musicians of the day. To study was to be a cultivated human being, wealthy or poor. Even the most impoverished Jews of Europe studied because learning brings dignity: think of the books at the YIVO library stamped by the “Woodchopper’s Society of Berdichev.” By contrast, American wealth brings – what? Private jets, vacations, sports, a presumed right to ecological indifference? Imagine: the Ephrussis versus the Kushners.
Shaul writes, “No community wants their children to have to work the night shift in supermarkets to pay their own tuition.” Yet he is aware of the earlier generation that worked hard in order to study hard, in contrast to Jared Kushner’s father making a two million dollar donation for his son to be admitted to Harvard. What characterized earlier generations of Jewish immigrants was not simply the hard labor to pay tuition, but the commitment to learning. Today, universities are no longer places where history and literature can be devoured and the inner life cultivated but stepping stones to high paying jobs. Indeed, college is today is not viewed as preparation for life, but preparation for a well-paid career.
Yet Shaul’s pessimism, which I share, perhaps clouds our recognition that we are also living in an era of a great moral revolution: the feminist movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Democratic Socialist demand for free health care and college education as basic rights for all citizens. Moral Monday with Rev. William Barber has become a time for national redefinition: to live the demands of prophetic justice means eradicating racism. How can I be proud to be a Jew if members of my community’s leadership stand in alliance with a president who mocks the disabled, winks at the anti-Semites, applauds the racists, rips children from their parents’ arms, and proclaims his love for dictators?
Beware, my fellow Jews, of negotiating with the devil. Goethe’s Faust was beloved of German Jews; let us beware of selling our souls. Moving an American embassy to Jerusalem is not worth the price of our conscience and our reputation. Remember that Zion is God’s gift, not Trump’s. There are no bargains in which we sell our Jewish values for a pot of porridge.
Many of us recognize the seductive trap that has led some Jews into corruption, but there are plenty of us who are keeping Jewish faith alive. We live in the prophetic spirit, knowing that justice is not simply an idea or a principle, but our challenge and obligation, a manifestation of God in this world. The very future survival of Judaism depends upon it.
Shaul Magid has brilliantly illuminated the economic and spiritual terrain of contemporary American Jewry. Magid’s trenchant analysis places American Jews at a crossroads between the ideals associated with redistributive economic policies and government sponsored social welfare and a form of religiosity based on highly capitalistic forms of private education and government deregulation.
Magid identifies both ideologies under the rubric of a Christian economic imaginary. His provocative use of the social gospel and the prosperity gospel highlights the American-Protestant context to understanding the current political divides tearing apart American Jewry. However, it is also important to note that the ideas associated with Jewish economic justice were first formulated in Eastern Europe and in opposition to Protestantism and Capitalism. In other words, I would caution against seeing the situation in strictly American socio-economic terms. There are various forces that animate Jewish identity in the United States, many that transcend national boundaries.
Magid’s general point and historical insight cannot be overstated. For over a century and a half, Jewish politics in Russia and the United States were synonymous with economic justice. There was hardly a major figure among the founders of Zionism or the Jewish labor movements that did not explicitly or implicitly issue blistering critiques against Orthodoxy’s economic and political proclivities. For their part, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Orthodox Jewish leaders depicted America as a “treifa medina” (a profane country) where gold made everything kosher.
There are serious implications for American Jews forgetting about or not identifying with the legacy of economic justice. While the majority of American Jews continue to identify with liberal and Left-wing political and economic movements, they more frequently do so not as Jews but as Americans. Recognizing this development major Jewish organizations have begun shifting toward the political and economic model proffered by the Orthodox is uncontestable. Instead of organizations focusing on promoting a progressive economic agenda that reflects the majority of American Jews, Jewish organizations increasingly cater to right-wing Israeli politicians and the needs of day school education. These developments have led Judaism to become more publicly identified with the nationalist wing of the Republican party and the Tea Party movement.
While progressives may want to run away from a Judaism colored by Orthodoxy, larger political forces may stymie their exit strategy. Orthodoxy’s repeated allegations that the Left is a bastion of anti-Semitism might very well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The projection of Jews as recipients of white privilege, proponents of economic inequality, and oppressors of the Palestinians might all be smears that apply to only a small minority of Jews. But if that minority continues to speak for the majority and becomes the public face of American Jewry, progressives will increasingly find it difficult to sit comfortably as Jews among oppressed and discriminated groups.
It is not farfetched to imagine Jewish progressives being pinched by the Left and turning inward and outward through Jewish politics. Just as Lenin at the turn of the twentieth century squeezed the Bund out of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party and the American Left in the late 1960s rebuffed the overtures of those that would eventually call themselves New Jews, a similar chain of events may occur once again, creating a third way.
While currently there has yet to emerge a serious challenge to the Orthodox, larger political forces make it imprudent to discount the possibility of there being another iteration of the Jewish Left. In other words, Magid describes a crossroads where in fact we might be at a fork; their could very well be another version of a Jewish economic justice movement that is in the process of being formed.
This third way will have to challenge Orthodoxy’s impending take over of Jewish institutions and organizational agendas. They will need to follow the example of grassroots groups like IfNotNow that openly target those who incredulously use the mantle of “American Jewry” to promote right-wing Israeli settler policies and the defunding of public institutions. Though this will certainly be the path of greatest resistance, it might be the only route to avoid American Judaism being swallowed by the nationalist wing of the Republican party.
Jewish progressives could eventually find support in a group that once filled out the ranks of the American Jewish Left, the rebellious children of the Orthodox.
In Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America, I tried to understand what struck me as a strange quirk of American Jewish life in the 1950s and early 1960s. The immediate postwar decades were a time of rapid upward mobility for American Jews, when many moved from childhoods of economic insecurity to adulthoods safely ensconced within the American middle class. And yet, while this would seem to be cause for communal celebration, American Jewish leaders also expressed a good deal of anxiety over the ways that Jewish upward mobility might compromise Jewish life in America. They feared that affluence would strip the commitment and purpose from Jewish political engagement and religious practice, that it would damage the integrity of the Jewish home. Why, I wondered, were postwar American Jews so ambivalent about their upward mobility – why couldn’t they just relax and enjoy their new status? And how did these anxieties affect American Jewish life, in the postwar decades and beyond?
I argued that these communal critiques of Jewish upward mobility emerged out of the dissonance between American Jews’ postwar economic success and their deeply-felt histories of insecurity and want. Even as their fortunes grew, postwar American Jews continued to write, talk, and sermonize about moments in which Jews had little money, power or privilege. Sometimes they romanticized this history. Often, they used it to justify their continued commitment to political causes that fought for the poor and disenfranchised, even when those perspectives were not in step with those of other white, middle-class Americans.
In essence, then, my conclusions in Ambivalent Embrace were as much about the power of Jewish historical memory as they were about Jewish upward mobility. And – though most American Jews grow increasingly farther away from their ancestors’ histories of vulnerability and poverty — I still believe in the power of historical memory to shape Jewish politics, and American Judaism.
In this forum, we are tasked with thinking of ways to help ensure that future iterations of American Judaism can inspire us towards social justice, and to work against forms of American Judaism that would serve to justify and sacralize the privileges enjoyed by many American Jews. While I am not entirely comfortable using the Protestant categories of “social gospel” and “prosperity gospel” as a means of understanding American Judaism (more on that later), I am deeply invested in a continued American Jewish commitment to social justice and progressive political engagement. And perhaps unsurprisingly considering my scholarly interests, I also believe in the continued power of Jewish historical memory to inspire us toward progressive political action.
Of course one may doubt – as Shaul Magid very reasonably does – whether Jewish histories of poverty and vulnerability can possibly continue to inspire progressive activism once those experiences of being refugees, survivors of genocide, or impoverished workers recede ever farther into the distant past. However, historical memory does not have to be proximate to be powerful. Certainly, American Jews (and not just Jews) continue to conceptualize their political engagements in response to the Holocaust, and this has not even begun to abate as the years separating us from the genocide increase. In the many vigils, demonstrations, and rallies I have attended since 2016, progressive Jews consistently frame their political commitments through the lens of their ancestors’ poverty, victimization, and activism. I hear these comments from Jews older than me (generationally closer to that history) and younger than me (generationally farther away). I cannot portend the future, but I don’t see why these historical narratives should inevitably lose their power.
Moreover, American Jews play – and can continue to play — an active role in ensuring that communal histories of vulnerability continue to resonate and inspire, both inside and outside of religious frameworks. Clergy, teachers, authors, public intellectuals, and artists continue to write, educate, and create art, liturgy and ritual around Jewish histories of poverty and vulnerability. American Judaism – and not only liberal American Judaism – is already replete with rituals commemorating this history, most universal being the section of the Yizkor service devoted to victims of the Holocaust. We Jews are really very good at commemorating our past, even the symbolic past that our religious/communal memory tells us happened thousands of years ago. We break a glass at weddings to commemorate the destruction of the temple. We welcome the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
I am, of course, aware that a continued communal awareness of Jewish history may not be enough to inspire the kind of humanism that animated the social gospel. When combined with power and privilege, communal memory of Jewish trauma can, and too often does, lead to a kind of tribalism, to cries of Never Again that mean Never Again to the Jews. I am confident – with as much confidence that a historian with no psychic powers can muster – that the historical memory of Jewish vulnerability will continue to shape the Jewish future. However I cannot guarantee that most American Jews will conclude that it is their responsibility to ensure that the injustices their ancestors faced must never happen to anyone else, even if (especially if) they are happening under the guise of protecting Jewish national or material interests. This is the specter that haunts me, much as the specter of the prosperity gospel haunts Shaul Magid’s stimulating speculations on the future of American Judaism.
My preoccupation with the impact of Jewish historical memory is precisely why I am not perfectly comfortable using the Protestant categories of social gospel and prosperity gospel as a means of understanding the political trajectories of American Judaism. This is not because I imagine that American Judaism has not been tremendously influenced by American Protestantism; on the contrary I know that it has. But rather, what gives me pause is the way that these categories are mired in the idea of religious revelation. To my mind, they leave little room for the way that Jewish historical memory, expressions of antisemitism of the sort that surfaced in Charlottesville, and other factors that Jews do not experience as particularly religious, have shaped and will continue to shape American Judaism and American Jews.
Shaul Magid is the editor of Jewish Thought and Culture at Tikkun. He is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University, the Brownstone Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, a Kogod Senior Research fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue in Seaview, Fire Island, NY. His forthcoming book is The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.
Marc Gopin is the James Laue Professor and Director of CRDC at George Mason University’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and author most recently of Compassionate Judaism, and Healing the Heart of Conflict.
Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. Her scholarship focuses on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of biblical scholarship, and the history of anti-Semitism. Her numerous publications include Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus which won a National Jewish Book Award, and The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany.
Eliyahu Stern is Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Intellectual and Cultural History at Yale University. He is the author of Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism and Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s.
Rachel Kranson is the Associate professor of Religious Studies at The University of Pittsburgh and author of Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America.
Slideshow image courtesy of Library of Congress.