Friday, October 21, 2022

Stuart Z. Charmé's "Authentically Jewish"

Stuart Zane Charmé is a professor of religion at Rutgers University–Camden in New Jersey. He is the author of two books on Sartrean existentialism, Meaning and Myth in the Study of Lives and Vulgarity and Authenticity: A Sartrean Approach, as well as numerous articles on questions of Jewish identity and authenticity.

Charmé applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, Authentically Jewish: Identity, Culture, and the Struggle for Recognition, and reported the following:
On page 99, I discuss the case of Shabbatai Zevi, a 17th century Jewish mystic who became widely accepted by Jews around the world as the Messiah. Shabbatai eventually appeared before the Ottoman Sultan and asked him to step down so that Shabbatai could begin his messianic rule. He was promptly arrested, jailed, and given a choice of either death or conversion to Islam. He chose to convert and thereby created the paradoxical situation of an alleged Jewish messiah who was now a Muslim. Most of his followers remained within Judaism and struggled to understand the meaning of Shabbatai’s messianic mission, though they were rejected and persecuted by rabbinic authorities, who saw Shabbatai as a false messiah.

I include the story of Shabbatai Zevi as a contrast to the case of the most famous false messiah in Jewish history—Jesus. In each case, and others that I discuss, there are questions about whether the followers of such figures can be considered authentically Jewish. In the contemporary world, “messianic Jews” claim to be Jewish in every respect, except that they also believe that Jesus is the messiah. Since it’s obvious that Jesus and his original followers were all Jews, present-day messianic Jews want to know why their claims of Jewish authenticity are rejected by almost all mainstream Jews. For mainstream Jews, it’s just as obvious that someone who believes that Jesus is the messiah cannot be a Jew, though Jews who practice Hindu yoga or Buddhist meditation are not such a big problem. Nor does anyone question the Jewish authenticity of the Hasidic Jews who believe that the Lubavitch rebbe was the messiah.

The example on page 99 of Shabbatai Zevi, who died over 500 years ago, is a bit of an outlier in my book, since the rest of the book is mostly concerned with controversies about who and what is authentically within contemporary Jewish life. This includes tensions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, Zionist and diaspora Jews, and questions about what to do with the thousands of people in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere who claim not only to be Jews but also to be direct descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Nonetheless, the example of Shabbatai includes seeds of other controversies about Jewish authenticity that will ripen in later centuries
Learn more about Authentically Jewish at the Rutgers University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue