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Secularism and Its Discontents

Baruch Spinoza.

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? 

Relevant Links
Is Jewish Secularism Possible?  Rebecca Goldstein, MyJewishLearning/Bronfman Foundation. Secular Jewishness can ground itself in the extraordinary contributions that the Jewish people have made and have yet to make to human flourishing as a whole.
Rethinking Secularism  David N. Myers, University of Pennsylvania Library. An online exhibition devoted to the complex interplay between the religious and the secular in modern Jewish history.
An Incomplete Sketch  Yehouda Shenhav, Haaretz. A new Hebrew encyclopedia of Jewish secularism suffers from intellectual thinness and ideological blinders.

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 Micha Yosef Berdiczewsky, 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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Gary B. on December 17, 2010 at 11:01 am (Reply)
Thank you for an interesting summary of Biale's work. The notion of Jewish secularism is vibrant indeed, as many comments on another JIDaily article attest. Your challenge is most intriguing, "Those are the paradoxical terms of future Jewish thought, if it is to have one." The definitions of the very words themselves are in flux, to the point that one might wonder "how much of Judaism can be removed from Judaism to leave some Judaism there?" Your title suggests discontents, and it seems this is most palpable in our day. The inverse seems true as well, as "how much secularism can include the sacred, yet remain secular?" Kudos to you and JIDaily for broaching this subject.
Rabbi Adam Chalom on December 17, 2010 at 1:33 pm (Reply)
Those interested in Biale's book and looking for a more complete exploration of seminal thinkers in the development of modern Secular Judaism might consider _Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought_ (IISHJ: 1995) - available through or on
Gary B. on December 18, 2010 at 3:14 pm (Reply)
Poking about a bit and certainly being nowhere near as informed as rabbis and many scholars, I find it odd that Jewish secularism is morphing into some kind of Judaism which pretends to have various degrees of enthusiasm for the history and culture of some Jews, while pulling out the props which made the religious identity as tenacious as it has been. Secular humanism is of course its own movement which does not need Judaism's input, and requires neither liturgy nor cultural festivals per se. Is secular humanism driving Judaism therefore to eventually convert to secular humanism? The mid-position being secular humanism using Jewish lingo? As one stretches identity to its breaking point, does not a break occur? And then, if one can let go of God, then let go of Torah, one can finally let go of the self-identification. Little steps make a big journey in time. Ask the Jews-for-Jesus crowd, who play at a similar game with the word "Jew."
Nicholas Green on December 18, 2010 at 3:44 pm (Reply)
A compelling secular argument is presented in what I consider an unjustly neglected book, “The Future Jew”. Little-known Canadian author Michael Carin posits that we Jews have what it takes to put forward (and achieve!) the boldest of ideas. “The Future Jew” argues that in recognition of the Holocaust’s definitive negation of the idea of God, Jews should take up the burden of hoisting humanity from the profound hole of superstition, which in turn will help steer humanity off the behavioral road that has made possible all genocides. Carin suggests that if Jews were able to exert such tremendous impact on history with the “one God” idea, then what is to stop them from transforming the future with a secular “one humanity” idea? In other words Jews should make Reason their bedrock, and then act as an example for everybody else to emulate. A chapter of his book can be read at
J. Rosen on December 20, 2010 at 10:56 am (Reply)
@ Nicholas Green: "... Jews should make Reason their bedrock...?" Really? Wasn't that tried with Ayn Rand? Can one separate the Jewish identity from Torah, which is an established lexicon? Consider something elementary like, "Hear Oh Israel, The Lord thy God, the Lord is One." That idea is Jewish DNA; remove it and whatever the thing is that is left, it is not Jewish. Isn't it simpler just to move on, rather than hurl oneself against a mountain of history?
Nicholas Green on December 22, 2010 at 4:06 pm (Reply)
J. Rosen asks, "Can one separate the Jewish identity from Torah?" Well, of course we can. We need only decide to do so. "The Future Jew" demonstrates that Reason instructs us to do so. The Torah should be regarded for what it is: literature. Some of it is pretty good literature. A frightening part of it, however, concerns the megalomania of a certain character named “God.” May I quote from Carin’s book?

The greatest wonder of [Torah] is not that educated people of the present day regard it as literal truth (although that is a prodigious, inscrutable wonder). No, the greatest wonder is that people in the 21st century still regard the lead character in [Torah], namely the Lord, as an ideal to be worshipped and emulated. Before accepting Him as a model, people ought to audit His integrity. Start with Genesis, chapters six and seven. God abruptly repents that He has created the people of the earth. Apparently almost everybody alive has become wicked and evil, corrupt and violent. God even grieves over the fact that He has made beasts and creeping things and the fowls of the air. So what does God do? At a stage when the story of humanity has barely begun God sees fit to drown His creation. “And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.” Everybody knows the story. It belongs with a few other tales at the heart of global literacy and culture. Astonishingly, however, while people read it with credulity they fail to express any dismay. Here is a story that ought to elicit outrage. . . .

J. Rosen, with all due respect, I prefer to regard such a story not as sacred writing but as imaginative literature, and I have no doubt that once we’re out of the infancy of the human race, it will be universally so regarded.
J. Rosen on December 22, 2010 at 5:33 pm (Reply)
@ Nicholas Green. Before you conclude that reason can elevate yourself above the ancient meanings of the Torah, and what it means to be a Jew, I warmly encourage and recommend Rabbi Aaron Hirsh's (pseudonym H. Moose) 1942 commentary on the first six chapters of Genesis. A paperback edition is in print, titled "In The Beginning: The Bible Unauthorized." As a teaser, it concludes one process by which the universe came into being included the nebular theory and the big bang. Rabbi Hirsh was a close friend of the previous Lubivicher Rebbe. Regardless, it seems we disagree on an important point, that being what defines a Jew; the Torah, as handed down from antiquity. It seems you want to be a Jew without being Jewish, noting the desire to elevate oneself to one's highest potential is profoundly Jewish, at least from the Tanya's perspective. The more one reasons things out, the smaller God is supposed to appear. It seems you have reasoned many things out. Cheers.

p.s. I no longer lend Rabbi Hirsh's book. I have to pry it out of the borrower's hands!
Sam B. on December 22, 2010 at 6:17 pm (Reply)
N. Green, with all due respect, it seems to me that your conception of "sacred writing" is impoverished and slight. You assume that there is a proper stance one must take towards "sacred writing," and that this stance is "approval" of whatever it depicts. These are entirely baseless hermeneutical assumptions. How do you know that the story isn't there precisely to provoke your disapprobation, and that such a purpose isn't precisely a function of its sacredness?
Nicholas Green on December 23, 2010 at 11:35 am (Reply)
Thank you, Sam B. for your remark – a completely creditable argument, but it misses the point of the excerpt from “The Future Jew”. The book (in my reading of it, at any rate) is saying: How, if such a character as the God of Genesis actually existed, could anyone stoop so low as to deify and worship him? The perpetrator of a world-cide!

It utterly astounds me that so many of my fellow Jews still debase their intellectual integrity by bowing down to such a discredited myth. In my place of Reason the only sane conclusion is that God does not and never existed. He is a fiction, as is most of Torah. Let’s celebrate the “holy” book as literature, as we do Homer’s great (and often incomparably greater) tales. We will remain Jews by doing what is ordained by intellectual honesty, and by thereby pursuing tikkun olam.
Gary B. on December 23, 2010 at 2:04 pm (Reply)
I have learned a new word, courtesy of the secular humanist version of Jews-for-Jesus: "worldcide."

Let's be intellectually honest for a moment. When a star explodes as a supernova, this too is "worldcide" for the planet which might orbit it. Shall we then conclude that the star has committed a crime against that world?

"Worldcide" coined to condemn God is at the minimum intellectually dishonest. It is an inflation of language which does not well represent reason, but rather its opposite.

Masking one's secular humanism in Jewish grab is to me not significantly different that masking one's Christianity in Jewish garb. Both seek to affect a conversion of sorts away from traditional Jewish themes, and towards the varying goals of such proselytizing. One urges Jesus as God, and one urges No-God as non-God, a basic atheism. Neither urges the "I am that I am" of the millenia long rabbinic tradition, but one says openly that it is "a discredited myth."

Repair of the world is proposed by many more doctrines than Judaism alone, and many of the twentieth century's many "tikun olam" (but said in other languages) attempts have caused as much bloodshed and destruction as any laid at the feet of "a discredited myth."

Here's another discredited myth which has caused much misery: human reason. The recent history of Europe over two or three centuries demonstrates this nicely. As to stories "that ought to elicit outrage," reason has done rather well to destroy as to build up, to dilute as to distill, and this worship of reason is in fact specious, for it is a worship of the self and self-congratualtory thinking.
Susan Averbach on January 5, 2011 at 10:55 pm (Reply)
Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I was concerned, however, that the author perhaps missed Biale's point about the interaction between secular and orthodox thought when he said, "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." I respectfully disagree that Biale neglects the above point. For example, Biale writes about the secular and religious, "In recent years, the dichotomous break has come under new scrutiny, especially given the persistence of religion in the modern world. the contemporary resurgence of religion is clearly a complex response to secularism, just as secularism was -- and still is -- a response to religion. These two mortal enemies are very much defined by and through the other. And not only does it appear that religion and secularism in modernity are deeply implicated in each other; but it may well be that their contemporary entanglement owes something to the way the secular emerged out of the religious, not so much its polar negation as its dialectical product."
Michael Lerman on February 20, 2013 at 8:28 pm (Reply)
The Jewish People originated in Ancient Sumer and are in fact modern Sumerian. In Sumer religion was science and science was religion; therefore there was no conflict between religion and "secularism". And this should be a norm today too.

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