Tuesday, March 8, 2016

American Jewish Museums: Celebrating Self Abnegation and the Squishy Universalism of "Tikkun Olam"

With a Toronto Jewish museum now apparently on permanent hold, it is fascinating to read this essay about the contents of some notable Jewish museums in the U.S.:
Neither the Philadelphia museum nor the Skirball [Cultural Center in L.A.] nor the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum is unique. In exhibition after exhibition, at one museum after another, the impression is conveyed that over time, an antique form of particularism—the Jewish religion, and the Jewish people who have been the historic carriers of the Jewish vision—has been evolving into a new, ardently welcomed form of universalism. At the San Francisco museum, designed by the celebrity architect Daniel Libeskind, the Hebrew word pardes, orchard—a term taken by medieval Jewish exegetes as an acronym referring to four types of biblical interpretation (and associated etymologically with the English word “paradise”)—is a crucial symbol, made visible in semi-abstract Hebrew characters. But for the museum, it does not, in any exhibition I have seen, offer a lens into understanding Jewish history or belief or practice. Instead, we are instructed that pardes means “creat[ing] an environment for exploring multiple perspectives, encouraging open-mindedness,” and “acknowledging diverse backgrounds.” 
The Skirball, for its part, approvingly notes that American Jews embrace the message of Passover by “taking active roles in civic life and supporting the global struggle for human rights”—that is, they fulfill their Jewish identity by becoming advocates of other groups and their identity sagas, as if the notion of “healing the world” were now the defining Jewish principle. Near the end of the Skirball exhibition, a video shows faces of varied ethnicities morphing into each other, the obvious implication being that all identity is fluid and that none, or at least the Jewish variety, is to be celebrated in itself. With Americanism fading into multiculturalism, tinged by the remnants of New Age spirituality, nothing is really essential to Jewish American identity other than simply declaring it. In no other setting of which I am aware is group identity defined by the abnegation of one’s own group identity.
These aren't museums devoted to Jewish identity as much as they are shrines to "progressivism" (the religious affiliation/defining principle of most non-Orthodox American Jews).

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