Secular Jewishness; what's Jewish about it?

An excerpt from Sholom Aleichem Club News & Comment - By Max Rosenfeld

(The following is excerpted from a talk given at the Center Island Jewish School, Freeport, L.I., on April 18, 1975) In the Book of Exodus, which tells the story of the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery, God tells Moses to go down to Egypt and lead the children of Israel out. Moses protests, "Why me?" And God says, "Never mind why you. I will be with you and you will lead them out." Moses tries again. "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them 'the God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is His name?' what shall I tell them?"

Well, that's where the trouble started, because God was caught by surprise. He didn't have a name. Only finite things like idols have names. So finally He said (or maybe She said, because we can't tell the gender from the structure of the words): "Ehiye asher ehiye. I am who I am. Tell the children of Israel that 'I Am' sent you to them. I am who I am, and that's all the definition you're going to get from me."

I wish I could say - what God said: "Secular Jewishness is what it is and don't try to define it." But then God didn't have to write statements of philosophy for conferences or preambles for Jewish organizations.

So, I'll try to answer it as well as I know how, but let me note that the question already assumes a couple of things. First, I prefer the term secular Jewishness, not secular Judaism. The way I understand the words, "secular Judaism' is a contradiction. Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people. Secularism is an absence of religious orientation. (This idea should be simple enough to explain; just as simple as trying to define who is a Jew, and you know how uncomplicated that has gotten to be in recent years.)

For some people, however, even the words "secular Jewishness" are mutually exclusive; for them, Jewishness (Yiddishkeit) is inconceivable without the idea of the divine origin of the Torah and the worship of the divinity who gave it. Well, they are entitled to their opinion, and they can try to convince the world, just so long as they don't try to exclude me out of the Jewish people by their definition. It's a waste of energy (which we all know nowadays is not an unlimited resource) to try to con¬vince a person who sees the world that way that I also am Jewish. My purpose is only to tell those people who are looking for an alternative to "religious Jewishness" that there is one, and that this alternative has a history and a tradition which, although it may not go all the way back to Mt. Sinai, still has strong roots in Jewish life and thought.

The word "secularism" is not new in American Jewish life. I remember reading authors, in the 1950s, who argued that secularism in American Jewish life had proved to be a failure. They were also entitled to their opinion, but they didn't deny the legitimacy of secularism as a stream in Jewish life. They merely said it had no future in the U.S. because of the structure of American society. We had a flourishing secularist Jewish culture here for at least fifty years (1890-1940), a variegated culture, parts of which were even in conflict with each other — a luxury which proved disastrous. But the common denominator of the earlier secular groups was the Yiddish language, and how could anything Yiddish not be Jewish?

Secondly, to me there is a difference even between the concepts of "Jewish secularism" and "secular Jewishness." Jewish secularism is a broad idea that stands for the separation of religious authority from the private lives of members of the Jewish community. There are religious Jews who believe that Jewish community organization should be on a secular basis. (Professor Horace Kallen once wrote a book called "Secularism Is The Will Of God"!) Back in 1949, Mordecai Kaplan wrote, "The majority of Jews today do not identify their Jewishness with any positive religious convictions. And this applies not only to the very considerable number of Jews who are avowed secularists." Secular Jewishness more specifically describes the kind of Jewishness we're talking about. There is a religious Jewishness, and there is a secular Jewishness.

I mentioned that secular Jewishness may not go all the way back to the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. But even here we can draw a secular parable. To the secularist the primary fact is that there was a group of people to whom Moses gave the Torah. The people were there first. They produced their culture, their religion, their Torah, out of their own experience and their collective creative genius. Some scholars maintain that even the Torah itself — or the study of it — did not assume the im¬portance it did in Jewish life until after the Jews were exiled to Baby¬lonia and found themselves in need of a spiritual substitute for a homeland. In other words, the seemingly ageless reverence for Torah arose from a need to hold the Jews together as an entity, as a people.

In the 1920s and the 1930s, when the congregation was not yet the social and communal institute it later became, secular Jewishness was a commonly recognized form of affiliation with the Jewish collective. Lest there be any doubt about that, let me quote from a leading American philosopher, who does not use words lightly. Horace Kallen wrote this in 19UO: "To many, Jew is a synonym for Judaist; they cry aloud in the forums that what is not Judaism is not Jewish. To others, Jew has a secular, not a religious core of meaning. With some such secularists the whole of Jewishness is the Zionist enterprise; with others the ways and works of Yiddish; with still others the combination of Yiddishism and socialism. With still other secular¬ists, it is a compound of sentiment about the word Jew and philanthropic enterprise and social work."

But then came World War II and everything changed. There are half a dozen books which go into the sociological reasons for the change. There is some evidence, however, that the pendulum is beginning to swing back the other way.

The fact of the matter is that secular Jewishness calls on the same folk traditions and learns from the same traumas in Jewish history as does Judaism. If it doesn't, it's not Jewish.

Those who wish to explain the victory of the Macabees as a miracle, let them do so; those who wish to explain it as a natural event, they, too, have a right to do so. But I think even more important for us today than that kind of anti-deist controversy is the knowledge that the modern cele¬bration of Hanuka is a direct result of the secularist influence in Jewish life since the 1880s. Up to that time Hanuka was a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. It wasn't until after the first pogroms in Russia, when the Jews in Eastern Europe began to organize their various movements for social and national liberation (Zionist and socialist) that Hanuka began to become important in Jewish life and Judah Macabee became a national hero again. And it didn't happen without resistance from certain sections of the Jewish community, including its leadership (a point we should develop in future studies).

The first organized modern Jewish secularists were a group who called themselves Lovers of Zion (Chov'vey Tsion). Despite their name, they were not yet Zionists. These young intellectuals in Eastern Europe in the 1860s believed that it was necessary to reform the cultural life of the Jews before one could hope to reform it politically. They said there had been a hardening of the arteries of Jewish cultural life and that in order to get the blood flowing again it was necessary to secularize the holy tongue, Hebrew, to give it a life apart from religious ritual.

They didn't work out a political program until the l880s, when the pogroms forced them to translate their ideas into practical goals, and then they coined a new slogan which they took from Isaiah: Beyt yakov l'chu v'neylkho (BILU) (Jews, let's get up and go). But they were proceeding on a frankly secular idea: that the Jews were a nationality and that all they needed was a territory in order to become like all the other nations. And nobody questioned the Jewishness of their program, because they were living in a milieu where both nationalism and Jewishness were a "natural" phenomenon.

Now, you don't have to study very widely or deeply in Jewish matters to come across the argument that Jewish culture and Jewish religion are so interlocked, interpenetrated and crisscrossed that it's not always possible to separate the two elements out. And the more you study this, the better you will appreciate the -complexity of it. S. Zeitlin, Professor of Rabbinics at Drops! College, wrote in "A Halakhic-Historic Study of Who Is A Jew," (1965): "What really saved the Jews from extinction after the destruction of their state was their religion. The survival of the Jews lies only in their religion ... However, it is futile to ignore history. The term Jew, like Christian, has a religious connotation. But unlike Christianity, Judaism is the creation of one people. That is a result of history. And since Judaism represents the genius of one people, there is also the ethnic element which unites the members of this people." That's a complex matter. But secularists should understand it and be able to take advantage of it.

And then there's the more simplistic kind of attack on the concept of secular Jewishness. The Sholom Aleichem Club once invited a rabbi to speak to its members, and at the end of a spirited discussion he said: "You are a highly ethical people, and you are deeply concerned about other human beings, and what's more, you do something practical about it, so you are more re¬ligious than some members of my congregation. In fact, I'd love to have you come into my congregation and show them how it's done. I could use your support. We can discuss the theology some other time."

Well now, that was very flattering, but it didn't seem to us to be very illuminating. Not that the rabbi was being dishonest. To him the essence of Judaism lay in its professed ethical values. And there is a long tradition in Judaism for ethical life. The best book I know which explains the sources of this tradition is Eric Fromm's "You Shall Be As Gods," a fascinating work for anyone interested in Jewish tradition. In fact, I'd say the two indis¬pensable works for an understanding of secular Jewishness are Fromm's book and the essays of Chaim Zhitlovsky (which were written in Yiddish and have not yet been translated into English). Zhitlovsky's definition of secular Jewishness included Yiddish as an essential component, and regardless of how one feels about that (there are differences on that point, for instance, among organizations in the Conference for Jewish Secular Education), there is no question that the values reflected in Yiddish literature do have an indispensable place in secular Jewish culture. If anything, Yiddish litera¬ture has been accused of being overladen with "outmoded" positive and human¬istic values.

The interesting thing about Eric Fromm's thesis is that he goes even further than most Jewish secularists today care to go. He says that Judaism itself is essentially a secularist tradition. His major argument is that the acknowledgement of God in Judaism is fundamentally a negation of idols, rather than a positive belief in a supreme being. And then he tries to show that Jews have developed their system of thought to the point where ethical living takes the place of theology. In Fromm's terminology the Old Testament is a radical humanist book. By radical humanism he means a philosophy which emphasizes the oneness of the human race, the capacity of man to develop his own powers, and to arrive at inner harmony and the estab¬lishment of a peaceful world. He adds that radical humanism also implies a full awareness of reality and a skeptical attitude toward the use of force. He says that since ideas have their roots in the real life of society, one must assume that basic conditions existed throughout the history of the Jews which gave rise to this humanistic tendency in their teachings. Also, that throughout most of their history Jews have suffered from those who were able to use force, which in turn could not help but give rise to national resentment, clannishness, even arrogance among Jews, which is the basis for another, opposite trend in Jewish life and society. After further evidence, Fromm concludes, "The logical consequence of Jewish mono¬theism is the absurdity of theology."

Whether you accept this analysis or not, it is important that a serious scholar like Eric Fromm finds the secular idea in Jewish is not a Yankl-come-lately in Jewish history. It also points up the fact that secularists too need to master the tools for Jewish research and reinterpretation and that for this, a basic Jewish education is still needed. We need a reasonably literate Jewish population, but we also need specialists, and they don't have to be rabbis. American Jewry has plenty of scholars who could use their professional expertise to tackle some of the problems and get some of the pleasures of "adult Jewish learning."

The current movement toward adult secular Jewish programming seems to indicate that the secular Jew needs a community Just as much as the religious Jew needs a congregation. Jewish is something people have in common, and it means most when people find a way to give it group expression. In the Jewish religious tradition a prayer offered in congregation has more clout than one offered by the solitary individual. Some of the forms by which secular Jews can do this already exist. But there's still plenty of room for creati¬vity. And I believe the path toward this effort will be made easier by accepting secular Jewishness as an approach, rather than a category.