Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Not in the Heavens"

I mentioned recently that I have been reading historical and theoretical treatments of secular Judaism. One recent book -- published this year -- is David Biale, Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought.

Biale’s book is a historical and social study of Jews who rejected Judaism, who engaged with Jewish ideas “if for no other reason than to reject them.” He chose such individuals throughout history who made a contribution to a more universal culture. His view is that these secular Jews were “able to create their original theories because they stood at a conscious distance from the conventions of society.” The distance came both from their Jewish background and from their chosen ideas. (p. xii - xiii)

For Biale, secular universalism becomes a Jewish identity. Historically, Jews made a distinction between that which is holy and that which is for every-day use, while Christians contrasted a holy world beyond their lives to a secular world in which they lived. This colored the development of secular Jewish thought, leaving a different space for secularism than their Christian counterparts experienced. Biale explicitly contrasts his view with that of Isaac Deutscher in “The Non-Jewish Jew.”

Modern secular Judaism has roots in thinkers who were reacting to medievalism, especially Maimonides and Spinoza. Biale explores each of their contributions, and continues by explaining how Enlightenment and 19th century thinkers reacted to them and incorporated their ideas. Two main examples: Moses Mendelssohn and Heinrich Heine. In particular, Heine’s writings on the Jews “constitute the first coherent statement of Jewish secularism in a language that clearly resonated with his contemporaries.” (p. 36)

Biale discusses many of the important secular Jewish intellectuals of the early 20th century. He describes various secular Jewish accomplishments and trends: the beginnings of secular Zionism, writers like Kafka, and other thinkers. Freud, he says recognized Spinoza as a “founder of the congregation of unbelievers.” Einstein specifically studied Spinoza. Not brought up in a religious home, he constructed his own secular Jewish identity, and said he believed in “Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world.” (p. 42)

Secular views and interpretations of the Torah and the Bible are the subject of one chapter of Biale’s book. Abraham Ibn Ezra and other medieval interpreters were at times secular in their approach. In the recent past, the Zionists, including Ben Gurion, created their own interpretations.

Nineteenth-century theories about race influenced both Zionists and other secular Jews. These made an important contribution to their views of Jewish identity. Zangwill and Ze'ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky are two examples. Jabotinsky, “founder of right-wing Revisionist Zionism,” also borrowed from other popular European theories such as positivism and social Darwinism, creating the idea of Jews as a race and a nation, not so much a religious group. (p. 92)

Languages also played a role in secular Jewish thought of that era. Not only the well-known question -- Hebrew or Yiddish? – but more nuanced ideas also emerged. Zamenhof, inventor of Esperanto, wrote a work on Yiddish linguistics – and created the ultimate in a universalist language. (p. 137)

One interesting figure that Biale often invokes is Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg, 1856-1927) – sometimes called the ‘secular rabbi’ of Zionism. He was “the idealogical leader of ‘cultural Zionism,’ the strand of Jewish nationalism that saw in Zionism primarily a movement of cultural renewal rooted in a spiritual center in Palestine. …, Ahad Ha’am sought a nonreligious foundation for the Jewish national spirit.” Perhaps “the most important theoretician of secular Jewish culture,” he was also the first Zionist of importance to emphasize the darker side of the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Turkish Palestine.” (pp. 40 & 82)

Wrapping up the threads of his many and fascinating chapters, Biale provides an interesting observation about creative American Jewish secularists: the way that they often use the Kaddish as a theme in their works, in particular poets Charles Reznikoff and Allen Ginsberg and composer Leonard Bernstein. He says “since a secular culture may not provide the tools with which to confront death … even the most secular Jews turn to this quintessential expression or religious tradition to mine its historical associations for nonreligious ends.” (p. 189)

Finally, Biale mentions the “explosion of interest in academic Jewish studies” in recent years, with offerings at most major universities. The postmodern definition is that everyone is a “Jew by choice” and also most American Jews are secular, with a fluid identity not limited to their Jewishness. The categories of religious and secular are no longer fixed as they may have been in the past. (p. 190-191)

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