Monday, September 19, 2011

Two Books on Secular Judaism

I have been reading two books on the history and philosophy of secular Judaism. One, David Biale's Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought, is a recent scholarly history of ideas, exploring many traditions within Judaism and outside the religion but within the Jewish people. I will have more to say about it later.

The other is a much more personal set of essays by Isaac Deutscher: The Non-Jewish Jew and other essays (published 1968). Deutscher was a committed Marxist, best known for his 3 volume biography of Leon Trotsky. Understanding his exact stand on Soviet history and the details of the rivalries and philosophies of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky is outside my area of interest, though knowing his bias is very important for understanding his point of view. A review of a reissue of the biography put it this way "In Deutscher’s time, it seemed incontrovertible that the most significant event in the 20th century was the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Now it is highly controvertible." *

In The Non-Jewish Jew Deutscher tackles the question of Jewish identity after the Holocaust. The tragic reversion to antisemitism in its rawest form had made universalism -- the pre-war position of many intellectuals, especially Marxists -- irrelevant or worse. In these essays (originally published in various journals, and collected posthumously) Deutscher tries to come to terms with his universalist ideals in the light of reality, and in the later ones, to understand postwar events in Russia and the development of the state of Israel.

Deutscher felt that for him, the Jewish community was “only negative.” To consider himself racially Jewish, he thought, would be a victory for Hitler. He summarized his identity thus:
“If it is not race, what then makes a Jew? Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense, am I, therefore, a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated. I am a Jew because I feel the Jewish tragedy as my tragedy; because I feel the pulse of Jewish history; because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not supurious, security and self-respect of the Jews.” (p. 51)
I have never been a Marxist or a socialist, but I feel the conflict between universalist hopes and the realities of the modern world -- which hasn't become any more promising that way in the years since Deutscher wrote. I find his formulation very interesting, and in many ways I think he could sense the future when he was writing half a century ago. The world that was imagined then by thinkers from many philosophic and political perspectives never happened.

Maybe it seems silly, but here's a summary of what I can't imagine:
"Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace" -- John Lennon

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