The Jewish Uncertainty Principle

by Stanley N. Rosenbaum

Dr. Rosenbaum is chairman of the religious department and director of Judaic studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 9, 1984, p. 490. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It is impossible to specify or determine simultaneously both the position and velocity of a particle (from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle).   To Jews, however, history is like a railroad train; It lurches forward as we sit in the observation car, facing backward. We do not know where the train is going, but see only where it has been. We have no control over its destination because the engine, and even the club car, are off-limits. Hence is born the Jewish Uncertainty Principle.

To outsiders it must often appear that through the centuries Israel has been the tail that wags the dog of history.

With the future so obviously in the hands of others, Jews have taken chunks of the Jewish heritage and fashioned new modes of self-expression at the various stops the train has made. In a forthcoming book, Marxism and Judaism (Cornell University Press), George Friedman identifies five such stops in modern Jewish history. In chronological order they are Hasidism (ca. 1740), Reform (ca. 1780), Zionism (ca. 1860), Marxism (Ca. 1880) and psychoanalysis (ca. 1900). The dates are approximate, and I do not intend my version of Friedman’s thesis to delimit his.

These five movements are not exactly denominations of Judaism, though two of them can make that claim. Rather, each is a kind of pseudopod into which the Jewish energies of their adherents have flowed. Like Christian heresies, the error of each is the error of all: an attempt at simplifying, by seizing upon one aspect of the whole, a complex system of counterweights that has kept Judaism In balance. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that each is like a blind person feeling one part of the elephant that is Judaism.

Hasidism, a branch of Jewish orthodoxy, was an Eastern European reaction to the Enlightenment and to the age-old Jewish notion that scholarship was the high road to piety. The Hasidim more or less substituted joyful prayer for pilpul (involuted Talmudic exegesis), but they had good historical precedent. Did not David dance before the ark (to his wife’s dismay) and compose many Psalms? The style of dress they adopted (kaftan and fur-brimmed streiml) was current in 18th century Poland, but it made them more and more identifiable as the fashions changed.

Not so the Reform Jews. When the fashions changed they shaved their beards, learned to speak German (instead of Yiddish), and expected their neighbors to accept them. If Jews could argue with God (Gen. 18:25) -- ”Shall not the Judge of all the earth judge justly?” --  could we not reason with humans as well? The idea that all people are rational has a kosher pedigree. Solomon is renowned for his ability to reason with people. Wise he was, but what is less known is that he wasn’t very smart -- for one thing he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. More to the point, one of his wives was an Egyptian princess whose pharaoh father, to cement friendly relations, gave to Solomon as a wedding present the town of Gezer. I have always hoped this young woman is responsible for some of Song of Songs: “I am dark but comely, ye daughters of Jerusalem.” In any case, the liaison didn’t help. Her father’s dynasty was replaced by another, and Israel was once again invaded.

Later on in the 19th century, when European nationalism could find no room for Jews, modern Zionism was born. Of course, there had been “Zionist” Jews since the Babylonian captivity of 586 B.C.E., but in the 19th century it became even more urgent to have a Jewish state wherein we could elect our own pharaohs.

At almost the same time, Marx proclaimed a classless, religionless society with room enough for everybody. Friedman points out that a near uncle of young Karl was the rabbi in Trier. It will be debated how important this uncle was to Marx, but the message of social justice is written in the prophets on almost every page. Marx’s attitude toward religion, by the way, is often misunderstood. His most-quoted remark on the subject is, of course, that religion is “the opium of the masses.” But the passage containing that statement also says this:

The wretchedness of religion is at once an expression of and a protest against real wretchedness. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions.

In the following paragraph he calls religion the “halo” in this “vale of tears.” Really. I seem to remember Gertrude Berg of the old Molly Goldberg Show saying something of the sort, but I’m not certain.

Some 20 years after Marx’s death, Sigmund Freud published his cure for human souls. At this point the objection may be raised that Marx wasn’t really Jewish and Freud even less so, but Freud was far more forthcoming about his Jewish connections than Marx was about his. Freud had a key insight that proper therapy for human problems involved the analysis of dreams. So did two other Jewish boys, named Joseph and Daniel. Of course, these biblical “analysts” thought of dreams as communications from God, while Freud found internal sources for them. But like the early rabbis, Freud also connected the “evil impulse” to birth and childhood.

To summarize: we see that in a period of 150 or so years Judaism produced five major hypertrophies, each of which has legitimate connections with rabbinic or even biblical Judaism. Why were we so prolific? Part of the answer is that after the French Revolution Jews were freer to dream up new theories of Judaism or humanity and to institutionalize them. But to say that is to see only the part of the iceberg that sticks up above the surface. New forms become necessary when people lose confidence in the older ones, and Judaism, by anyone’s count, is very old.

The revelation to Abraham, if it happened at all, occurred some 4,000 years ago; even the Sinai event took place at least 3,300 years ago. Jewish tradition reckons it that God stopped communicating to individuals, to the prophets, 450 years before Jesus and a whole millennium before Muhammad. (Since we are so much further from our source-revelation, the other monotheistic faiths may learn something from us about the morphology of religions.) Muslims bridge their gap by elevating ayatollahs (the word means “hand of God”) or descendants of the Prophet like King Hassan of Morocco. Muslims and Christians also have gathered a fine store of relics of Muhammad or Jesus, and some Christians have almost regular visions of the Virgin to renew their faith. Jews generally avoid this sort of thing. It is true that the chair belonging to Nachman of Bratslav (1772-181 I), a beloved Hasidic leader, is now to be found at the Bratislaver Yeshiva in Jerusalem, but Moses’ grave is lost to Jewish tradition. How can modern Jews renew and regain intimate contact with the source?

Our problem is particularly acute now because, as Walter Cronkite observed:

The Sixties Generation . . . learned falsely, in many cases, to expect a progression through life that included education, a good job, a house, a car, a family, and eventually retirement. Suddenly they saw the whole world turned topsy-turvy . . . the leaders we were once led to believe were trustworthy people . . . were still inadequate to handle the great problems of our day [Saturday Review, December 1983, p. 20].

Since he is speaking of the 60s, he can avoid mentioning Richard Nixon, but we can’t. A lot of Jews are Republicans. And if Mr. Nixon’s attempt to steal the 1972 election did not shake them, it certainly shook their children, the people born since World War II.

Just here another factor comes into play. Cronkite may or may not know it, but his words have a special poignancy for American Jews. Where ‘‘future shock’’ is concerned, consider the situation of Jews born in the U.S. in, say, 1927, the year Heisenberg published his theory of the “uncertainty principle.” Eastern European Jews (who constitute some 90 per cent of America’s Jewish population) born here in the ‘20s have children who grew to maturity in the ‘60s. But their parents probably -- and their grandparents certainly --  remember the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 that precipitated their headlong flight from Czarist Russia. In 1903 there were few Jews attending Russian universities. At one point sending a Jewish student to a Russian university meant that his or her parents had to pay to send three non-Jews as well In this country Jewish professors are now commonplace, and many have become university presidents -- two Jewish women among them.

In 1924 large-scale Jewish immigration to the United States was curtailed by Congress. That didn’t matter much to the older, German Jewish community that had come in the 1840s and 1850s, and it would not matter to those Jews who became communists in the 1930s. But actually it did matter more than either group could foresee. Even before the fountains of Yiddishkeit (Jewish culture) in Europe were blocked, the rich Jewish culture of America had already begun to dry up. We were progressively cut off from the wellsprings of European Judaism as we had been from the initial source of revelation so many centuries before. We became Republicans and communists and a lot of things in between: movie producers, labor leaders, concert violinists.

Jewish history here since the ‘20s is a bit like trying to walk down a sidewalk with one’s eyes closed. Having once seen the path ahead, we could take our first few steps swiftly and surely, but after that each succeeding step becomes more hesitant until, finally, we deviate to the right hand or to the left. Under the circumstances it is not all that surprising that many Jews have veered into left- or right-wing positions -- or, in the case of Norman Podhoretz (editor of Commentary) and Paul Cowan (author of An Orphan in History), both. Marxism and Hasidism give Jews a structure, a culture, something or somebody to believe in.

So does Zionism. When Yigal Yadin informed Israel’s then-president, Yitzhak Ben Zvi, of the discovery of the Bar-Kokhba letters, he put it this way:

Your Excellency, I am honored to be able to tell you that we have discovered fifteen despatches written or dictated by the last President of ancient Israel 1800 years ago [Bar-Kokhba (Random House, 1971), p. 15].

I am not sure how attractive psychoanalysis and Reform are today. The Reform rabbinate’s decision to allow children of one Jewish parent, father or mother, to consider themselves Jewish stems in part from the realization that Reform ranks are no longer swelling. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is expensive; yet there have always been Jews on both ends of the couch. To understand why, we have to look again at the Jewish generation gap.

Certainly the first native-born Jewish generation vastly outstripped the accomplishments of its parents; was it not for just this reason that so many of that generation came to the U.S.? If some expected the streets to be paved with gold, most simply resolved to plow themselves in as fertilizer for the next generation. Those of the second native-born generation crashed previously restricted professions as they did the previously closed neighborhoods. Jews can now be found at Ford Motor Company (the Naismith Motors of Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentlemen’s Agreement), and one Irving Shapiro was president of Dupont. Henry Kissinger’s Jewish-refugee background, like Joseph’s, did not prevent his attaining high (if nonelected) office. The question now is, what do their children do for an encore?

Rabbi Maurice Davis of White Plains, New York, points out that the present generation of Jewish young people, those born here in the ‘60s, is the first one that cannot reasonably expect to surpass its parents’ achievements, as those parents did their parents’. Still, the pressure to do so is enormous. Young people who, as adults, merely retain the same level of upper-middle-class success that their parents have can regard themselves as standing still or coasting on the momentum acquired by their forebears. But what else is there to do?

We play pretty good games of golf and tennis at our own clubs, and in 1972 Mark Spitz became the first Jew, as the joke goes, ever to win seven gold medals at the Olympic Games. (Of course, no one of any persuasion had done so before.) If Waspiola Country Club still doesn’t want to have Jewish members, that’s their problem. We don’t have to climb anymore; we’re at the top. And that’s the real problem, isn’t it?

In order to get there, we had first to take off our heavy religious clothes and throw our more cumbersome customs into convenient crevasses. We shaved our beards, learned English -- some of the best American novelists are Jews -- and assumed we could rely on the enlightened self-interest of our government to protect us. In the ‘60s and ‘70s that foothold failed everyone, Jews included. We are at the top, but it’s awfully cold up here with no clothes on.

Some of my Boston friends got together in 1968 to start the first havurah, “association of friends,” to practice a fairly conservative brand of Judaism away from the Jewish institutions they had grown to distrust. A few individuals moved farther right and found a home among the Hasidim, especially the proselytizing Lubavitcher movement. But the entire Jewish community is experiencing a rightward shift these days. The Reform movement now sends all of its first-year rabbinical students to Jerusalem -- a move that will certainly have a profound effect upon its laity. Not only has Reform turned 180 degrees on Zionism since 1885, but the Union of American Hebrew Congregations also enjoins its rabbis to refuse to marry mixed couples.

Will this trend last? Like Heisenberg, I’m uncertain. Better to say that even if it does not, such a shift to the right will happen again and again because the one good thing about being in the observation car is that you can see with some clarity where you have been.

Our Jewish uncertainty is unsettling, but it’s nothing new. Only shortly after Sinai, when Moses was barely cold in his grave, Joshua had to bully and cajole the Israelites into worshiping God (see Joshua 24). And it was not until Hezekiah’s time (ca. 700 B.C.E.) that Israelites gave up the practice of burning incense to Moses’s bronze serpent (II Kings 18:4). If we couldn’t be certain way back then, how much more will we be uncertain today?

The re-creation of Israel has been a big help, even to those who object to some of the present government’s ideas. The numerous archaeological finds made there since 1948 have given us renewed contact with the deep past of Judaism and a new appreciation of the Bible’s overall accuracy in depicting it. The point here is that any religious people needs a means of returning to its past. If we cannot do that through relics of Ruth, descendants of David, or sightings of Solomon, we must find some other path. There is, in fact, a Hasidic story about that sect’s charismatic founder which points the way.

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, when confronted with a serious problem, used to retire to a certain spot in the woods, light a fire, and say a special prayer -- and God always answered him. His disciple and successor, Dov Baer of Mezhirech, did the same, except that for fear of Cossacks he did not light the fire. Still, it was enough. In the third generation, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak lost the spot in the woods, so he stayed home and only recited the prayer. Nevertheless, it sufficed. Finally, in the fourth generation they complained, “We have lost the spot in the woods and we cannot light the fire. We have forgotten the prayer even. All we can do is tell the story.” Even so, God answered them.

In Hasidic/Orthodox thought each generation accounts itself less worthy than the one before. Not a bad system, really. The opposite tack, taken by many moderns, is that each succeeding generation is ever so much more enlightened than its predecessors and can dispense with what passed for wisdom among the ancestors. Perhaps that is why the past 150 years witnessed so many varieties of Jewish experience. On balance, my sympathies are with the Hasidim, but there is one problem.

Besides being “less worthy,” we are fewer in number now than we were in 1939. One Jewish sociologist has estimated that if we extrapolate from present trends, by the year 2076 there will be only 10,240 Jews in the United States.

How can he be so certain?