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Secularism and Its Discontents

In an essay first published December 17, 2010, Yehudah Mirsky examines a defense of Jewish secularism and finds it—and Jewish secularism itself—wanting.—The Editors 


The transformations of Jewish life in the last two-and-a-half centuries still boggle the mind. Deep ruptures opened to separate the present from the past, modernity from tradition, setting terms that have defined the contours of Jewish life until today. How did people try to think their way through the change? 

That vital question is central to a new book, Not in the Heavens, an investigation of what has come to be known in shorthand as Jewish secularism. In it, the accomplished historian David Biale sets out "to investigate the ideas of those who chose an ideological path to the secular." Deeply researched and thoughtfully written, the book is a valuable attempt to start rethinking a familiar category. It is also ultimately unsatisfying, and ends by begging the difficult question it has set out to answer.

In his preface, Biale writes movingly of the secular Jewish revolutionaries of Eastern Europe, whose "generational revolt against a world in which Jewish religion, economic plight, political impotence, and cultural backwardness seemed wrapped up together in one unsavory package" was accompanied—and this is crucial—by a powerful desire to remain within and even to renovate Jewish life. Writing less a definitive history of Jewish secularization than an inquiry into a number of interesting and important thinkers, he proceeds to walk us through their relationship to Judaism and the Jews in order to discern, as his subtitle puts it, "The Tradition of Secular Jewish Thought."

The word "tradition" is key to Biale's project. For him, a major narrative thread is the observation that many modern secularists have wittingly or unwittingly reworked ideas drawn from the traditional Jewish canon, which itself contains important elements of proto-secular thinking—above all in the more radical speculations of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). This was very much the case with Baruch Spinoza, the enigmatic and alluring converso heretic with whom Biale's story naturally begins and perhaps the first thinker to fuse God with nature, redefine religion as ethics and subjugate it to the state, and make a life for himself outside the bounds of any religious community. Since a slew of modern Jewish figures have looked to Spinoza as their touchstone and culture hero, we find ourselves savoring the irony of generations of secular Jews who, in Biale's reading, are also inheritors of a set of ideas refracted from the towering mind of the greatest Jewish medieval religious philosopher.

Following the classic triad of "God, Torah, Israel," Biale divides his book into three sections devoted to modern secular Jewish thinking on, respectively, the divine; the Bible; and the cluster made up of nation, state, language, and culture. After Spinoza, he re-visits a roster of mainly familiar figures, offering focused discussions of, among others, Moses Mendelssohn, Solomon Maimon, Ahad Ha'am, Heinrich Heine, Moses Hess, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, and Mordecai Kaplan. Also making an appearance are certain political figures (Theodor Herzl, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, David Ben-Gurion), whom Biale reads, interestingly, for their conceptions of Jewish identity. While most of his choices are obvious, some (like Albert Einstein) are peculiar, while some of his omissions are truly perplexing. Among the latter are Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, perhaps the first to put forward a unified conception of secular Jewish linguistic and political nationalism, and A. D. Gordon, who more than any other fused the ideas of kabbalah and Hasidism with a vitalistic philosophy of ethical Zionism in which God simply disappears. Few novelists and poets feature in Biale's pages, and, aside from Scholem and Simon Dubnow, he scarcely mentions the historians who labored to provide secular understandings of Jewish religion and experience. For the most part, his survey pre-dates the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

But what sort of tradition is Biale trying to construct here? In fact, and contrary to his subtitle with its definite article—the tradition—there is no one tradition of Jewish secular thought, as there is no one tradition of Jewish thought, period. Above all, the very terms "religious" and "secular" are far more complicated than is allowed by the volume's framing and Biale's own narrative. In what way, for example, can many of the thinkers he discusses truly be called secular? Take Bialik: can one really think of the man behind Sefer Ha'aggadah ("The Book of Jewish Legends"), a monumental work of cultural retrieval and reconstruction, as a genuinely secular figure?  And what of Scholem, who said that "I consider religion the center of everything—more so than, say, the social sciences"?

Of course, there is such a thing as Jewish secularism, and one key element in it is the abandonment of halakhah (traditional Jewish law) and rabbinic authority. This is a point of radical division between Maimonides, who saw himself as renovating and ultimately strengthening Jewish law, and Spinoza, who deliberately aimed to dissolve it. But Biale largely ignores this element, as becomes painfully clear in his chapter on Torah. There he largely devotes himself to biblical criticism (and yet another discussion of Freud's Moses and Monotheism) rather than to the lived reality of religious practice and study in which so many of the thinkers he discusses grew up and which they were seeking to refashion, less to find substitutes for Jewish belief than to create new grounds for Jewish obligation. Throughout, Biale also neglects the foundational insight of the late Jacob Katz that the religious ideology we call Orthodoxy is in its own way no less a product of modernity than the secularism it sought to oppose. In other words, secularism and Orthodoxy can hardly be understood apart from one another, and both are more dynamic and internally more nuanced than simple antinomies suggest.

When it comes to the crucial question alluded to at the beginning, Biale punts. "[O]ne might legitimately ask," he writes at one point, "whether the search for a [secular] Jewish culture in the past was an optical illusion of those in the present or whether it was a real object that required modernity in order to reveal it." Well, which is it? He continues: "Either way, secular Jewish thinkers found reflections of themselves in the past, even as they blazed new trails." Therefore?  

This equivocation on the very heart of the matter may be admirable as historical circumspection, but it undermines the existential stakes of Biale's enterprise.  To argue that the search for a usable secular past was and is an optical illusion is to open an unbridgeable gap between past and present, and to mark an end to Jewish experience as anything but one more set of tiles in the mosaic of contemporary multiculturalism. To explore the second possibility—that a secular past "was a real object that required modernity to reveal it"—is to force oneself to think of certain large ideas and sensibilities exerting and expressing themselves in and through history but ultimately free of the confines of time and space. It is, in other words, to jettison materialistic versions of secularism and to reengage with the search for the deepest structures of reality, with theology, and thus perhaps with God.

In his introduction, Biale rightly criticizes the clichéd assumption that "secularism" represents a simple, triumphal march of reason and goodness over stupidity and injustice. But that recognition scarcely shapes his work as a whole, and neither does the necessarily paired awareness of how very Western are the terms in which "secularism" is conventionally understood. Totally absent from Biale's book are any figures from the Sephardi world.

Western secularism has several dimensions: political (entailing the subordination of traditional religion to state authority); epistemological (defining knowledge as what we can derive solely from our senses and from reason); and cultural or spiritual (captured in the sociologist Max Weber's phrase, "the disenchantment of the world"). Like the term "religion," "secularism" in the modern sense is the product of a period in which the truths of various traditions came to be viewed as no longer self-evident but rather as historically contingent and as sharing the stage with those of other traditions. Varying in form and content according to time and place, secularism—as a growing body of scholarship asserts—was not a transparent alternative to traditional theological understandings but a reworking of religious ideas of salvation, transcendence, and the sacred into a new key, and just one of the multiple forms of modernity.

And Jewish secularism? What is that? Some purchase might be gained by asking: how do you say "secular" in Hebrew? The current term is hiloni. (Roughly 45 percent of Israelis characterize themselves as hiloni, while another 25 percent call themselves, intriguingly, masorti/lo-dati, traditional/nonreligious.) The term appears to have been first used by Micah Yosef Berdichevsky, the enfant terrible of modern Hebrew letters, and was intimately connected with the rise of Zionism. Yet it didn't become part of Israel's lingua franca until the 1950s; for decades, the reigning term had been hofshi, free—free, that is, of the law.

The shift is significant. As the historian Yochi Fisher points out, the "free" person is still tied to the law from which he is trying to liberate himself; the hiloni is one for whom that struggle is over. The latter word suggests, literally, an empty space: the space of disenchantment.

In a suggestive and muted Epilogue, Biale notes that most Jews today define themselves as secular, but less in the ideological than in the sociological meaning of the word. "In one sense," he observes, "this means that the ideologues of Jewish secularism won their battle, but in another sense, they did not, since the secular culture that they had in mind was one intentionally chosen."

And yet perhaps it seems that way to him because "secular" is too narrow and dimly-lit a category for the galaxy of fascinating and creative thinkers who populate his volume.  Or perhaps it is because of the very palpable failures of the project of disenchantment. After all, the most compelling figures discussed by Biale were not hiloniim but hofshiim, struggling to articulate (in terms made famous by Isaiah Berlin in another context) both a "negative" freedom from traditional authority and a "positive" freedom to realize their deepest aspirations as Jews and human beings. This is a struggle they shared with many self-described "religious" thinkers; and the two camps together, in the dynamics of their disagreement, constitute the Jewish meanings disclosed by modernity. 

Can Judaism endure in a world in which, as Spinoza might have said and Wallace Stevens did, God, if He exists at all, "must dwell quietly. He must be incapable of speaking"? No.  Can it endure without accepting the precious and perilous freedoms awakened in modernity? No.  Can it endure without a commitment to the Jewish people? No. Those are the paradoxical terms of future Jewish thought, if it is to have one.

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