For some decades, American Jews have made sense of the relation between their Americanness and their Jewishness through the concept of cultural pluralism. This concept allowed a flexible but expansive Jewish ethnic and religious identity to coexist with an equally normative American identity. The content of both Jewishness and Americanness may have been somewhat protean, but both mattered. Most Jews did not consider their Americanness to be simply a matter of citizenship, of what sort of passport they carried. Being an American implied a set of identity-shaping commitments. Citizenship in a liberal democracy, such as America, bore with it its own myths, history, and fellowship. Pluralism reconciled this complex American identity with an equally complex Jewishness.

Within the last several decades, however, the concept of cultural pluralism has given way to another concept, which, if only superficially, appears to derive from and improve upon it: multiculturalism. But this concept is fundamentally distinct from the pluralism that has well served American Jews. Multiculturalism, if it were to succeed pluralism altogether, would be inimical to American Jews.

The term pluralism was popularized by a Jewish professor of philosophy, Horace Meyer Kallen (1882“1974), shortly after the First World War. Kallen, like most Jews of his day, was extraordinarily proud to be an American, but was troubled by the idea of the American Melting Pot. He did not believe that it was ethical or wise to insist that different peoples entirely efface their differences. He imagined that the various immigrant groups could hold on to some significant portion of their heritage and, precisely because of that distinctive identity, offer a unique contribution to America.

On the one hand, Kallen envisioned Americanness as a substantive, normative cultural identity. America was more than just a place of opportunity. America and its civil faith (which he called “the American Idea”) stood for a distinctive set of moral and political values. Values such as optimism, progress, democracy, individualism, and freedom could and should unite the nation. Yet precisely because America stands or falls on its ideas, we can come to its ideas or articulate its ideas in our own distinctive ways. To be united by the values of America, one did not need to shed one’s ethnic identity. Indeed, one ought not to. Kallen’s favorite metaphor was the orchestra. Distinctive ethnicities, like different instruments, could contribute harmoniously to the whole.

Kallen’s notion of cultural pluralism was an adaptation of the metaphysical philosophy of his Harvard teacher and mentor, the famous American philosopher William James. In 1909, James published his Hibbert Lectures at Oxford under the title, A Pluralistic Universe . James meant by pluralism a philosophical vision that opposed Hegelian absolute idealism. Pluralism was meant to account for reality as we actually experience it in its individuality, vitality, and empirical concreteness. James hoped to refute the modern forms of idealism and monism, stemming from Spinoza and Hegel and their Anglo-American imitators, and return us to the pre-philosophic world of actuality, a “turbid, muddled, gothic sort of an affair, without a sweeping outline and with little pictorial nobility.” James prized the individual, the particular, the personal. He rejected, no less than Kierkegaard or Rosenzweig, philosophy’s effort to subsume the part in the whole.

Kallen’s contribution was to take the metaphysical mood of Jamesian pragmatism and apply it to culture. And who better than a Jew striving to be an American to do so? America was founded in an environment of religious pluralism. Religious pluralism, which generally implied the considerable variety of Protestant denominations as well as the Catholics and some few Jews, was a fact that most Americans had come to accept as relatively benign. But cultural or ethnic pluralism, aggravated by the great migrations after the Civil War, was far more challenging and difficult for the older American stock to accept. America had two answers. The first was nativism”the view that only the older American stock could properly understand and maintain distinctive American values. The second answer was the melting pot: the cauldron in which out of many cultures would come one. Kallen rejected both.

Like most Jews of his day, Kallen found an uncanny agreement between the core values of Judaism (or “Hebraism,” as he preferred to call it) and those of America. This, of course, was not surprising, since America was settled, if not founded, by people who took the Bible rather seriously. Furthermore, the way they took the Bible seriously was significantly similar to the way Jews took the Bible. That is, both Calvinists and Jews read the Bible, with its pervasive theme of covenantalism, as (in part at least) a political text.

Covenant was not just a theological idea for the Puritans; it was an eminently political one. They founded their towns and commonwealths as covenantal republics: voluntary societies bound together by the laws of God and the desire to serve Him in freedom. These covenants were later transformed by political theory and practice into the somewhat more secular compacts and social contracts of eighteenth-century thought.

The basic idea remained the same however: societies are originated by free men in order to enable persons to have a common life directed toward the fulfillment of a noble end. Participation in the society requires consent to the founding principles. Liberty within the society is not absolute or negative. It is liberty to work within and to promote the common good.

It is this basically biblical and rather secular vision that Jews such as Kallen found intrinsic to America. Proud of his Jewish heritage and convinced of its affinity with American ideals, Kallen thought it reasonable that the more Jews cultivated their heritage, the more they would contribute to the American whole. Similiarly, the more they discerned the true values (however imperfectly realized) of America, the better they would refine and live their Judaism. Assuming then that the Jewish difference was real and valuable, Kallen also believed that ethnic differences on the whole were real and valuable. At the same time, however, ethnic differences should be negotiable and malleable. They must be directed to or ordered by a concern for an American common good.

To put it somewhat abstractly, primordial identity and the citizenship identity of the liberal society must condition one another. Civil society is not just a blank page on which the ethnic communities write their own stories for their own readership. Civil society has its own demands and requirements. It will and ought to have a transformative effect on primordial groups. The groups must have their liberty, however, and will, in turn, have a transformative effect on the civil society.

It is easy to see how cultural pluralism served as a useful ideology for generations of American Jews who wanted to retain their Jewishness while uninhibitedly affirming their Americanness. But it is easy to forget that this perspective worked only because Americanness and Judaism were conceived to a significant degree as ideals, indeed, as mutually compatible ideals. If we allow ourselves no coherent formulation of what America means or of what Judaism means, then we can obviously claim no link or essential likeness between them. And this is apparently precisely what has happened. Serious thought about the relationship of Judaism to Americanness no longer occurs. It seems terribly old-fashioned now, a relic of Kallen’s time inappropriate to our own. Rabbinic sermons, a good guide to popular Jewish thinking, dealt frequently with the relationship of Judaism to America in the 1950s. But this theme is nonexistent today.

One might explain this absence as caused by a normal coming of age. The theme was crucial for the immigrant and second generations, but taken for granted by the third and subsequent generations. Undoubtedly there is some truth to this. But I think another issue is at stake: the hollowing out of Americanness”the loss of any consensus, however minimal, of what being an American means. Against this background, cultural pluralism is increasingly superseded by the ideology of multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism, I would suggest, is a mode of decoupling ethnic and religious communities from some imagined, normative Americanness. Multiculturalism celebrates or affirms difference for its own sake and as its own terminus. The multiculturalist does not see a need to order difference in relation to a common good. If there is a common good, it is a good common only to members of a given group. The common good is a tribal good.

Of the factors that contributed to the rise of this ideology, the most salient one is that America no longer holds any radical or unique meaning for many Americans. After the assassinations and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, after the debacles of Vietnam and Watergate, we are left with no innocence and much reticence about ourselves. We no longer believe that we have a monopoly on the export of ideas. We are no longer certain that we have any distinctive ideas. Nor do we any longer believe that belief in ourselves is the panacea for our own ills. Even the Reagan revolution, for all its cheery boosterism, failed to restore the old confidence in America.

Reaganism replaced Americanness, it seems to me, with a stirring, but not a soul-stirring, ideal: the American Dream. We still talk much in America about this American Dream. We argue about whether it is possible to achieve it, and about who can achieve it. We even argue about what, precisely, it is. Of course, almost everyone agrees it has to do with money, with employment, with security. But beyond the basics of economic opportunity, there is no coherent or accepted vision of the American dream. It is for this reason that the American dream is not a substitute for the bygone ideals of America. Its vision is too narrow. It is the vision of homo oeconomicus , of the consumer, of the private person. It is not really the dream of the citizen, of the defender of a culture, of the aspirant for a good society. It is not a bad dream, but it is not the stuff that great dreams are made of.

Americanness as a civil religion is, to all intents and purposes, dead. There is thus a vacuum where our belief in our own exceptionalism used to be. As the poet Robert Bly once wrote, “The world will break up into small communities of the saved.” This eerie eschatological premonition seems to me increasingly to describe our present. A vacuum has sucked all the pieces of stained glass out of the window of American pluralism. Multiculturalism is the attempt to reassemble them without, as it were, a surrounding frame.

Multiculturalism should not be confused with pluralism or the tolerant and empathetic cosmopolitanism that often accompanies pluralism. Critics of multiculturalism are often mistaken for old-fashioned chauvinists, nativists, or know-nothing advocates of a nasty melting pot, as if they were rejecting pluralism or cosmopolitanism per se. Could any serious intellectual really argue that students at a serious university not study Chinese poetry or African art or Jewish literature, for that matter? This is unthinkable. What critics of multiculturalism criticize is not the cosmopolitan breadth to which educated persons have always aspired, but a certain dogmatic dismissiveness toward the Western tradition.

The Western tradition, as conceived by contemporary academic multiculturalists, is little more than the aesthetic and religious false consciousness of various types of oppressors: the racist, the classist, the heterosexist, the misogynist. Far from being a source of moral guidance, the Western tradition seems more and more like a roadmap of destinations to avoid. It shows you what not to emulate, what not to hope for, how not to live, what not to be. It is this attitude of scorn”which is as little justified in the university as an attitude of boosterism”to which the critics of multiculturalism call attention.

While pluralism affirmed cultural difference on account of its service to a common good, multiculturalism, as noted above, denies the integrity of a common good. It cannot or will not see beyond a tribal good. This disposition is born, it seems to me, less of pride or satisfaction in what is one’s own than in despair of or rage toward the public world. The ideas of the public world, formerly constitutive of Americanness, were not, multiculturalism tells us, truly public, truly shared. They were actually the intellectual property of the reigning elite. The ideal of an open, pluralistic society was a sham.

Consider a typical case, in which American Jews had a considerable role and investment. American Jews, good pluralists that they were, generally endorsed the policy of racial integration. They certainly believed that blacks had a right to their culture, that they had a right to be proud of their culture, both American and African, and that they had a right to a fuller share of economic and social goods. American Jews worked to dismantle racial barriers, to open up greater educational opportunities, to end discrimination in the work place. They imagined that they were acting out of the deepest convictions of the Jewish tradition and in accordance with the high, if as yet imperfectly realized, ideals of America. This was cultural pluralism at its best.

But as the black civil rights movement turned increasingly toward nationalism and black separatism, Jews found that the values they thought were constitutive of the public world, such as equality of opportunity and merit, were now thought parochial and pernicious. Integration was rejected by black nationalists as a malevolent strategy of assimilation. Nationalists such as Stokely Carmichael called it “the final solution to the Negro problem” and “a subterfuge for white supremacy.” Robert Browne, echoing Carmichael’s Nazi allusion, called integration “a form of painless genocide.”

The idea of merit, once considered by liberal pluralists to be a neutral rule for allocating goods, was now assigned a strictly demonic, oppressive character. In fact, an essayist in the leftist Jewish journal Tikkun argued, the entire “rhetoric of reason, neutrality, and objectivity actually constitutes the particular discourse of power that white Europeans employed in order to justify their own privileged status.” When confidence in a morally substantive public world is lost, there are no ideas that rise above race, above primordial loyalties, above the war of all against all.

When the black nationalists of the sixties and seventies rejected the ameliorative agenda of the Great Society, they spoke from the far edge of a radical fringe. But today the political and theoretical assumptions from which they spoke have become a kind of orthodoxy, at least in much of American academia. Our professors of humanities assure us that reason has no universal form, but is merely a set of social practices that ensure one group’s domination over others. Knowledge is not only power, it is nothing but power. This equation of knowledge and power, of truth and politics is deeply entrenched in the academy. But is it not especially malign for a nation constituted by its ideas, such as the United States, and for a people which has lived for its ideas, such as the Jews?

Jews have been able to flourish in the United States because the primary American form of identity is that of citizenship. Jews and others have had the best of both worlds: they have enjoyed a citizenship identity in the national polity and have, without contradiction, enjoyed a more primordial identity conferred by their own historic tradition. Other modern states, of course (or at least the liberal elements in them), tried to base participation in the polity upon citizenship as well. But, in practice, the primordial identity of ethnicity, race, or religion often imposed severe limits on the possibilities of citizenship. In America, by contrast, citizenship has proved more normative than it has in European countries. One obvious reason for this is that America is an immigrant society, without any organic national base. But another reason is that America, the “first new nation,” was built on ideas. Citizenship meant subscription or consent to the ideals and principles of the founding national covenant. Primordial loyalties and identities were in some significant way irrelevant to participation in that covenant.

Multiculturalism seeks to attenuate citizenship identity and to substitute primordial identity as a more radically satisfying, self-sufficient framework. But this can only be done at the cost of forfeiting any shared moral language, any meaningful public discourse, any thick concept of what it means to be an American. The erosion of cultural pluralism and the drift toward the new ideal of multiculturalism pose real hazards for American Jews, because they weaken the citizenship on which Jewish participation in modern society is based.

Multiculturalism also seems to offer some attractions, however, and it has its defenders, both on the right and on the left. As a consciously formulated ideology, it appeals to Jews on the left because it offers a new rationale for solidarity with oppressed and colonialized people around the world. In this version of multiculturalism, what I have called primordial identity must not be thought of as a fixed or stable property. Jewish identity becomes a matter of millennial otherness, of historical marginalization. Devoid of essentialistic or substantive criteria of identity, “Jewishness” becomes another “otherized” (and “otherizing”) social construct, a product of the exclusionary practices by which dominant groups define themselves.

Jewishness is what is left to the losers after the dominant groups distribute the spoils of social conflict. Jewishness is not fundamentally different from blackness, femaleness, gayness, etc. These have no essence, no inner life. They are but names we assign to complex, shifting indices of the power dynamics of social life. The multiculturalist Jews of the left would link the Jew to every marginal and disempowered “other” at the cost of letting nothing but some elusive “otherness” remain.

But multiculturalism also describes an attitude found among those who would normally not speak its name, the Jews on the right. Sociologists of American Jewry have long noted both the resurgence of Orthodoxy and the enfeeblement of that same Orthodoxy’s moderate center. Orthodoxy survived in the modern world in two forms: a sectarian, separatist hard core that resisted modernization and a modernist wing that accommodated itself to secular society. The latter group gave Orthodoxy its public face in America. Associated with Yeshiva University and the teaching of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, “modern Orthodoxy” prized both traditional piety and practice and the values and cognitive norms of modern culture. This modernist Orthodoxy has been severely eroded. The more insular sectarian Orthodoxy, far less concerned with accommodation to the contemporary world, is today far more confident than centrist Orthodoxy. The children of Orthodox Ph.D.s, raised in American suburbia, now spurn their parents’ universities and hope to spend their lives in right-wing Jerusalem yeshivot. Where Orthodox congregants once followed the Torah reading in the Hertz Pentateuch, with its vigorous polemic against the documentary hypothesis, they now read the Art Scroll edition, a volume that has not the slightest interest in establishing any links between Torah and secular consciousness.

To a certain extent, the motivation here is the same as that of the left. The Enlightenment and the values of modernity are thought a kind of sham, an idol. They seduce Jews away from their own primordiality, from their overwhelming intimacy with God. The hyper-Orthodox want to live in an integral, sacred cosmos. The political realm, if it cannot be assimilated to that cosmos (which of course it cannot in the Diaspora), is of marginal significance. The national polity is not an object of care or concern for its own sake. It must simply be dealt with in terms of the crassest interest politics as the need arises. There is no distinctive or normative significance in an American identity.

These Jewish variations on the multicultural theme are born, like their gentile counterparts, out of the conviction that citizenship no longer constitutes a significant or distinctive identity. The balance between the public and the primordial has tilted. Without a renewal of our conviction that being an American implies meaning and confers a distinctive worth, the consensus, however minimal, upon which a free society rests can only weaken. If people revert to more primordial forms of belonging, civil society will dissolve and American Jews might find themselves in what the prophet Ezekiel called a midbar ha-ammim , a wilderness of the peoples. This would be a nightmarish denouement to Kallen’s once admired American Idea.


Alan L. Mittleman is Associate Professor of Religion at Muhlenberg College.

Articles by Alan L. Mittleman

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