In a larger sense, incessant novelty battled tradition and custom. “Newness and change themselves had become traditional in America,” writes William Leach, commenting on the “cult of the new,” which “readily subverted whatever custom, value, or folk idea came within its reach.”from Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, by Susan Strasser
There are many ways to measure our society’s valuation of the new at the expense of the (not very) “old.” We can all remember using forms of technology that are now completely out of date, whether early computers, dot matrix printers, or manual typewriters. Susan Strasser explores a sea change in American culture, from the preservation and reuse of all materials to the purchase and discarding of disposable products, that took place during the first decades of the 20th century with the rise of modern commercial culture. When I studied comparative literature in graduate school, I recall noticing that, increasingly, there was more interest among literary scholars in studying contemporary authors than earlier ones.
Our society’s “cult of the new” would seem to clash in fundamental ways with Judaism’s emphasis on the old. Where our society says “In with the new, out with the old,” we say “Chadesh yameinu ke-kedem”–renew our days as of old. The old is the gold standard–not because it is old but because we regard it as eternal. We return to study the same texts as our ancestors because they continue to enrich our lives with wisdom, insight, meaning and direction.
At the same time, Jews and Jewish culture have in many ways embraced the “cult of the new” in our material and intellectual culture. A new book, Consumer Culture and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity, a recipient of this year’s National Jewish Book Award in the category of Modern Jewish Thought and Experience, discusses the reciprocal influences of Jewish and commercial culture over the past 2-3 centuries. Jews, including many who are devoted to Jewish traditions and studies, continue to thrive in today’s commercial and financial environment, and a remarkable harvest of new products arrives every year to cater to every aspect of Jewish life.
How do you and your school think about Jewish studies? Does it represent a counterculture and corrective to the excesses of the “cult of the new”? Is it a refuge, a safe harbor in a world of chaos? Or does it instead in some way complement the modern world? And do you discuss this relationship explicitly with your students–and if so, what do they say?