The Many Voices of Secular Judaism

This post originally appeared in the online journal “Secular Culture and Ideas.” Judaism in a Secular Age is currently available from the IISHJ or on Amazon.com. 

Secular Jewish thought is a multiplicity of voices, though not always in agreement. Zionists rejected Yiddishists; Yiddish socialists excommunicated Yiddish communists, and vice versa; integrationists and universalists derided both Zionists and Yiddish cultural nationalists. Since the Enlightenment there have been myriad Judaisms, including secular Judaisms; what there has not been is a consensus.

In the 21st century, however, the old divisions seem less relevant than a fundamental question: can the various streams of secular Jewish thought be labeled a “tradition?” That is, do they have enough in common? Assuming they do, could one compile a “canon” of secular Judaism? What would be included, what excluded? And what would be the effect of collecting such a wide variety of perspectives into a single volume?

 In 1995, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (for which I am currently the Dean for North America)  published Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought. It includes writers, poets, scientists and activists who represent various branches in the evolution of secular Jewish thought. There is a wonderful introduction by Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, followed by biographical sketches and reading selections from each secular Jewish thinker organized into four categories. Leaving aside for a moment the inclusion/exclusion dilemma, let us consider what message the completed volume presents.

“The Precursor” is Baruch Spinoza, who some claim was the first secular Jew. Whatever one’s opinion on that question, Spinoza’s personal example and philosophy were clearly “precursors” to modern secular Judaism, so excluding Spinoza from this anthology would have been problematic.

The second group, “Kindred Spirits,” includes Zionists Theodor Herzl and David Ben Gurion; literary figures Sholem Aleichem and H.N. Bialik; and well-known Jews Albert Einstein and Louis Brandeis. Not everyone in this broad category—which even includes “religious” thinkers Martin Buber and Mordecai Kaplan—was a secularist, but their work “forms an essential background to a developing secularist outlook,” as Yehuda Bauer writes in his introduction. Besides, if more conventional religious Judaisms can claim radical thinkers like Buber or Bialik, so too can secular Judaism.

The third group, “Pathbreakers,” includes thinkers who are more clearly in the orbit of a secular Judaism, as their work is focused on either cultural Jewish identity or secular/humanist philosophy. Yiddishists like Shimon Dubnow, Zionists like Max Nordau and Ahad Ha’am, poets Saul Tchernikhowsky and Rahel, philosophers Sidney Hook and Hannah Arendt, and activist Emma Goldman probably could not have shared a stage in real life. Here, though, they are presented as direct antecedents to contemporary secular Judaism.

The last group—“Framers of Secular Judaism”—includes figures actively involved in the movement of Secular Humanistic Judaism. They include Rabbi Sherwin Wine, originator of Humanistic Judaism; Morris Schappes, long-time editor of the secular Jewish magazine Jewish Currents; European intellectuals Albert Memmi and Isaiah Berlin; Israeli figures like Supreme Court justice Haim Cohn, activist Shulamit Aloni, and writers Yehuda Amichai and A.B. Yehoshua.

Clearly, the challenge was to select a list that could fit between hard covers. Claiming everyone Jewish as a “root” of secular Judaism would have been possible but absurd, and not helpful to defining a secular Judaism; everyone claims Hillel, so he is not as clearly connected to secular Judaism as are the figures included. Or consider the medieval philosopher and rabbi Maimonides. Maimonides may have included rational elements in his religious philosophy, but given that he also authored the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” recited daily in Orthodox practice, perhaps he is too distant evolutionarily to be a “kindred spirit” to modern secular Jews. Most important, both Hillel and Maimonides were not Jews responding to a secular age; the title Judaism in a Secular Age thus defines not only a subject but also a time frame.

Even among those who could have been included, many were necessarily left out. Jewish labor movement activists; pioneering feminists (who were also Humanists) like Betty Friedan; even early Reform Jews whose criticisms of traditional Judaism and willingness to change Jewish practice to fit modern ideas could claim a rightful place here. So, too, could more women or non-Ashkenazi Jews—together they comprise only 15% of the contributors.

Laments aside, what does this volume demonstrate about the diversity and evolution of secular Jewish thought? Some of the arguments are no longer relevant (like Yiddish language-based Diaspora cultural autonomy). But even those advocates have something to say to modern secular Jews:

I am talking about conscious poetic expression, where religious images, myths and ceremonies become precious to us not because we believe in their divine origin, but because our spirit is moved by their human beauty. They evoke in us poetic feelings and thoughts; we consider them humanistic sanctities. Only this kind of rebirth can remain free of any metaphysical or theological traces. (JSA, p. 93)

Is Chaim Zhitlowsky’s term “sanctities” entirely appropriate? After all, “Secular Jews do not accept the authority of a supernatural God,” as Sherwin Wine writes in his foreword. “Nor do they seek to ‘rescue’ religious and theistic language for naturalistic purposes. . . .” Wine added three further principles with which almost all of the contributors to Judaism in a Secular Age, in either their lives or their ideas, would agree – the common ground that enables them to be linked together:

Secular Jews do not view Judaism as primarily a religion. They see it as the evolving culture and civilization of a world people….
Secular Jews do not feel any need to be validated by traditional religious texts….
Secular Jews deny that there is only one Jewish tradition. They do not accept the establishment rabbinic tradition as the only example of “Jewish roots.”

For those who also agree, and are seeking a guide to their own intellectual heritage, Judaism in a Secular Age is a good start. As diverse as modern secular Jews are—and always have been—they are likely to find many kindred voices here.

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