Book review: What Are Jews For?

If there was a prize for Best Book Title of the Year, Adam Sutcliffe’s latest work would surely walk off with it.


What Are Jews For? History, Peoplehood, and Purpose by Adam Sutcliffe (Princeton University Press, £30)

If there was a prize for Best Book Title of the Year, Adam Sutcliffe’s latest work would surely walk off with it. And, indeed, the author of What Are Jews For? — a professor of European History at King’s College, London — more than delivers on the chutzpadik promise of his bravura title. The book is a dynamic, erudite-yet-accessible exploration of his tongue-in-cheek question that contains within it many weighty political, theological and sociological issues.   

In a triumph of rigorous and subtle scholarship, Sutcliffe uses his book’s title — which could, as he frankly acknowledges, seem to some an “impertinent” or “invidious” question — as a springboard to open up complex insights into key socio-political concerns of our times: What does it mean for ethnic groups to claim a special status or role in a society? What happens when self-protective nationalism comes into conflict with a wider vision of internationalism? How might an inward-looking sense of belonging to a specific group or people intersect with hopes of a shared, common humanity that transcends differences? 

So, one of the things that Jews are “for”, it turns out, is that they are good at provoking thought. Questions about Jewish purpose — which have been asked since the Bible onwards and have penetrated Jewish, Christian, political and social thought ever since  — provide, under Professor Sutcliffe’s skilled tutelage, a matrix for thinking about a host of societal issues in which Jews themselves may not be directly involved.  

The multiple ways Jews have thought about themselves over the millennia — their moral and educative role in the world, their “chosenness”, the role of suffering within their religious “mission”, their distinctive cultural identity, their integrationist/diasporic or nationalist/Zionist aspirations — and the way non-Jews have correspondingly thought about them, act as a starting point, a historical test-case for thinking about any collective social identity.  

American “exceptionalism”, for example, is rooted in the Bible-saturated Puritanism of its founders, who were consciously emulating the nation-building ethos of their Hebraic antecedents. Twentieth-century civil rights and liberation theology movements drew their inspiration from the Exodus narrative. Post-Holocaust human-rights legislation emerged from strands of Jewish secular internationalism that preceded the Shoah.   

Part of the brilliance of the author’s analysis of these trends is how he illustrates the innate tensions between Jews seeing themselves as a “light to the nations” or bearing a messianic hopefulness about society’s transformation, and their wish for assimilation, integration or “normalisation”. Sutcliffe shows how each historic period staged its own intra-Jewish debate around these often polarised positions, and how these were taken up by non-Jewish religious and secular commentators, irresistibly pulled towards an engagement with Jews trying to work out their own destiny.  

The journey is dazzling, crossing continents and eras, and offering an A-Z of writers, historians, theologians, philosophers, economists and sociologists who have contributed to this conversation. From Abraham, Augustine and Hannah Arendt to Zangwill, Leopold Zunz and Stefan Zweig, the reader is engaged in a tour de force.   

Howard Cooper is a rabbi and therapist

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