1981 CSJO Conference Keynote by Jerald Bain
What is the point of entry of the secular Jew into his/her Jewishness? What is the secular Jew's focus in the drama of the Jewish experience? What is the essence of the secular Jewish idea? These questions and ones similar to them are asked of secular Jews by non-secular Jews. The answers to the analogous questions asked of a religious Jew would on the surface appear to be obvious. Included in the answer liven by the religious Jew would be a statement dealing with his/her devotion to God and the Jewish way of expressing that devotion. After all, the basic element of religion is worship of God. What is the basic element of the secular approach to Jewish life? Let's leave that question in abeyance for a few .moments and digress to deal with a broader problem; how is history made? At the outset an event occurs and in some way a record is made of the event. The initial record is made by the participants in the event that the initial form of the record is remembrance of it. This remembrance may be transmitted to others in one of two ways: by work of mouth or by writing it down using either' words or pictures or symbols. Let us for a moment look upon history as simply the recounting of events that have occurred in the past. If we rely on memory to correctly reproduce the exact circumstances of the event, the reasons for the particular situation, the characters involved, the decisions that were made and the action that was taken, we run into the enormous problem of human error - human beings simply do not have the kind of computerized mind that would recorder subtleties, innuendoes, body language, and a host of other happenings that occur each time an event takes place. How can we possibly transmit today's events with such precise accuracy by the oral tradition that it will last interminably into the future? Consider a specific example. You have been visiting your doctor because you have a slightly elevated cholesterol level. He/she has asked you to lose some weight but when you check in today, not only haven’t you lost weight but you've gained a kilogram. The doctor expresses con¬sternation. You insist that you've not deviated from the diet, that you've followed it to the letter. The doctor is not overly impressed because he/she knows that people do not gain weight from breathing in air. He/she asks you to recount exactly What you ate yesterday. (Can you do that. write down exactly what you ate yesterday? The event of eating only happened yesterday and it happened to you - you were there. Can you honestly say you can remember in fine detail all the food and drink that entered your .mouth?) You start listing the foods. Breakfast is easy - it's standard every day. For lunch you had cottage cheese and a salad. But one day this week you had two scoops of cottage cheese. Was it yesterday? Your mind goes blank. (Why did 1 have that extra scoop? Maybe I didn't even have it?) The list continues. You didn't have too much for diner so it's easy to remember. Except you forgot you ate the extra small potato? (Well it was small, and it was the last one left, and who likes to throw out good food?) The doctor asks about dessert. No. never (But you forgot the tiny piece of donut your son left on his plate). And that's oral tradition - we can't even remember hard cold facts about events in which we were personally involved and which happened yesterday. Yesterday's events are now history. How can we accurately pass that history on to succeeding generations?
But why did you forget about these extra little tid-bits you ate yesterday? Did you forget? Or was it an out and out lie? Who knows? Well. if it's a lie, then that's a deli¬berate distortion of history. If you forgot, then that's still a distortion of history ¬but not deliberate. And if you did forget, why did you? Perhaps the pain of remembering was too great. After all, you're supposed to be on a diet, you're supposed to be making an honest effort; if you sabotage that effort it’s painful and you'd rather' forget it. That means that the extra scoop of cheese and the donut tid-bit didn't get counted. Important historical data may be lost forever.
Well, that's the oral tradition - subject to the frailties of human memory and of human design. But what about the written word, surely we can rely on factual data being inscribed correctly and without editorialization? Or can we? To any casual observer of current events the answer is obvious - the "facts" are subject to bias, political Manipulation, ignorance, poor memory and blatant dishonesty. How many times have we read about "conflicting reports?" If we have first-hand knowledge of an event how often have we been disappointed or chagrined at a newspaper or magazine accounting of that happening because of misinformation or a dis¬honest twist of the information or simply lack of adequate research on the part of the re¬porter. Regardless, that written report now becomes a permanent record; it becomes a document of history.
There are two final items to consider - interpretation and selective reporting of a series of connected events. The records of a happening may give an intonation or emphasis that doesn't reflect actuality. And to reinforce that emphasis, the recorder may choose to omit certain aspects of the occurrence which others may feel are significant enough to have put a different slant on the whole sequence of events. Examples abound: those who engage in violent acts for political gains are termed "terrorists" by one set of commentators and "revolutionaries" or "freedom fighters" by another set; according to the Soviet Union, their army was invited into Afghanistan by the government, but according to American sources, the Soviets invaded that country to solidify and increase their sphere of influence; the 1967 war between Israel and her Arab neighbours was started by Israel firing the first shot or started by Arab provocation with implied violent aggression. And on and on and on.
History, then, is a mixture of fact, fiction, legend, ideas, interpretation, emphasis, political intent, remembrances and psychology. The same story may be told from many different perspectives, each perspective focusing on different elements of the event with the result that contradictory versions of the story emerge. We are then faced with the terrible dilemma of trying to decide what is truth? What is extraneous and superfluous? What is important? What really depicts the essence and meaning of the event?
So it is with the Jewish experience to which we can now return. For the first 2000 years or so of the Jewish existence, the focus of recorded Jewish history is the religious focus, i.e., how man viewed his God and how God viewed the world and the Jewish people. But that is only one way of viewing Jewish experience - it's certainly a valid and significant way, but it's still only one way. The bias of those recording Jewish history and writing about the Jewish people of the early eras was clearly religious in orientation. But if the Jews are viewed as more than a religious sect, if they are viewed as a people, as a nation, with worldly needs, hopes, strengths, weaknesses, then another perspective emerges - the secularist perspective. This perspective states that the overriding experience of the Jews is that of a nation shaping its existence and fighting for its survival. Nowhere are we told that the ordinary Biblical Jew on the street was a person searching for the greater meaning of life through his pursuit of knowledge and understanding from God. We can view that man as a person trying to earn his daily bread, trying to build a nation, trying to build a family in safety and security from predators. That view does not deny the Torah but rather accepts it and embraces it as the greatest piece of Jewish literature ever created, as a great historical Jewish document. The difference for the secularist is that Torah is uplifted for its great secular message which carries with it details about Jewish life, which expounds on questions of religion and which promotes the great ethical and moral ideas so fundamental to the Jewish nation.
Over the last several hundred years, Jewish writings have more and more had a secular orientation. Historical documents have become prominent as have Jewish writings on the psychology and sociology of the Jewish people. To be sure, religious writings continue to be produced, but secular writings dealing with the Jews as a nation are much more widely distributed and read.
This is particularly true since the Haskallah, the Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries when Jews broke out of the ghettoes and ventured forth into the world. One of the most significant secular Jewish movements, Zionism, was a direct consequence of Jews emerging from parochialism and embracing a secular perspective of their existence in the world. Since World War Two, the greatest of Jewish reporting has been in the psychological and sociological realm - questions dealing with the Holocaust and its meaning for Jews and mankind, concerns about the State of Israel and its importance for the Jewish people and Jewish survival, novels by great Jewish writers dealing with contemporary Jewish life. Literature dealing with understanding God and the relationship of the Jew to divine intervention has not captured the imagination of the Jewish masses. Today, recording of the Jewish experience has clearly and unequivocally taken on a secular hue.
History, then, is a mixture of fact and the mythological concoction of the person or persons transcribing for the benefit (or detriment) of posterity. We secular Jews have not been effective enough in voicing the notion that Jewish history can be viewed from a secular perspective. In fact, for years, certain elements within the Secular Jewish community re¬coiled in dismay at the thought of embracing the Torah as great Jewish literature. Those elements, mistakenly, viewed it strictly as a religious pronouncement and not as a source of great Jewish learning. We're not in a position to reverse that orientation and show how all of Jewish history can be seen from the secular perspective, as long as we are fair and just in our handling of the religious view and interpretation of Jewish events.
We can now return to our original questions: what is the point of entry of the secular Jew into his/her Jewishness? What is the secular Jew's focus in the drama of the Jewish experience? The point of entry, the focus, can be the entirety of the Jewish panorama from Abraham until today. There is no religious Jewish group that does not extract from Jewish history those elements that are most appropriate for that particular group. Reform Jews extract some items that are different from what Orthodox Jews extract. Why should that only be the province of religious Jews? Secular Jews can extract those facts of Jewish history and celebration that are most appropriate for them. History can be viewed through secular glasses rather than religious ones; holidays can be interpreted according to the original essence of the event with a secular emphasis; the study of the Jewish religion need not be done in conjunction with the worship of a Jewish God. The question is then transformed from what is the point of entry into Jewishness to how can I bring some discipline into my own appreciation of the Jewish experience, what are the most important elements for me and what can I do to enlarge upon ray understanding and appreciation of these elements?
All of Jewishness is fair game for the secular Jew. He/she can withdraw that which is sweet, rich, savoury. There is a bottomless well of history and tradition. Let's drink from it.