The Religious Ecstasy of Alfred Kazin

The Religious Ecstasy of Alfred Kazin

Fifty years ago, one of the most influential literary critics around was Alfred Kazin. Everyone knew he was Jewish — a famed member of the City College New York Intellectual set of the 1930s — but few probably thought much of it. Kazin seemed to like it that way, never distancing himself from his identity, but also only occasionally allowing his thoughts on Jewishness to seep into print.

That may have changed later in his life — he titled the third volume of his revered memoir trilogy "New York Jew" (1978) — but that fact remains that his lasting importance is a literary scholar, not a Jewish thinker. But a newly released collection of his private journals suggest otherwise: that Judaism was not only central to his private life, but critical to his view of literature as well.

In his detailed review of the "Alfred Kazin’s Journals" (Yale University Press, ed. by Richard Cook), Edward Mendelson writes that "from adolescence onward, Kazin was engrossed in a spiritual and sometimes mystical inner life that he never talked about." He adds, "Much of what he had to say in his essays about other people’s religion was secretly about his own, especially when he described an inner faith that rebelled against all churches and doctrines."

The religious ecstasy of Kazin is nothing if not intriguing: in no way predictable, especially of what you’d expect from an unabashedly liberal intellectual. Kazin was above all, Mendelson shows, enthralled with God: "I do not believe in the new God of Communism or the old God of the synagogue–I believe in God. I cannot live without the belief that there is a purposeful connection that I may yet understand which I can serve."

Perhaps more interesting, Kazin’s criticism was guided by his sense of the writer’s moral judgment, and Kazin felt that moral values could only be understood as emanating from an all encompassing deity. "Values are our only home in the universe," Kazin wrote, and it was through his Judaism he accessed this universal God: "For what is it I draw my basic values from if not from the Jews!"

His Jewish beliefs, however, will give cold comfort to rabbis. He is an idiosyncratic mystic, a lover of the Jewish tradition and yet a most defiant critic of it. On the matter of theology–what God actually is–he’s essential a Spinozist. "God is only a name for our wonder,” he wrote. “We know that supernaturalism is a lie, and therefore miss its truth as myth—as the theory of human correspondences."

Elsewhere he writes that a God-like ecstasy consumes him most fervently in the company of other human beings. To connect God, in other words, is to connect with people. You might call this a strange kind of humanism.

And what of his ideas on Jewish peoplehood, and of that cynosure of modern Jewish identity, Israel? No luck. Kazin appears to have viewed contemporary manifestations of Zionism as a crude kind of seclusion, as Jews turning inward and escaping their God-given mission: to be a light onto nations. God chose the Jews “to teach all around them the inexpungeable memory of the divine source from which our lives come.”

"That mission," Mendelson summarizes, "could be carried out ‘only in the diaspora, for among the nations they served to remind the world of the transcendent source and meaning of this experience.’"Kazin goes on: "As a state they can only misuse, exploit, and even kill this mission…. It becomes increasingly clear, as ‘Israel’ ceases to be a faith and becomes an ideology, that Christianity alone does justice to the historic mission of the Jews—that it is only as Christians that Jews can remain Jews."

No question conservative Jews will write all this off as typical liberal hokum. But even liberal Jews might be taken aback: this isn’t even post-Zionism, but damn near anti-Zionism. Kazin seems to be saying that Jews can only serve God in the Diaspora, as sort of moral missionaries. And certainly the emphasis on chosen-ness will give liberal Reform Jews pause as well–that’s something they’ve done away with years ago.

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