1980 Yiddishkeit/Mentshlichkeit: What's so new about that? by
Hershl Hartman

We're getting close to completing a century of a conscious, defined secular Jewish movement — and, in some ways, we are still at the very beginning of defining Jewish secularism. Which might imply that Jewish secularists are either very lazy or very dull. However, neither conclusion is justified.

The "problem" is that secularism, though it seems to be very intellectual, cannot be understood nor defined simply by intellectual means: to be understood, secularism must be experienced. Even more complicating, or frustrating, is that one set of Jewish secular ex¬periences does not necessarily translate into understanding another, new set of circumstances.

All of which results in the fact that Jewish secularists are constantly redefining themselves and redefining secularism. It's our own fault, of course. It's what we get for rejecting dogma.

It would have been easy if we had just rejected a dogma: orthodox Judaism, for example. Then we could have adopted another dogma and have lived with it, as the children's books say, happily ever after. Unhappily for us, however, we chose to reject all dogma. So here we are again, trying again to define and redefine ourselves. Serves us right.

On the other hand, we self-proclaimed (perhaps, self-righteously proclaimed) anti-dogmatists are quite capable of giving a pretty good imitation of dogmatic behavior. We are quite capable of quib¬bling over a comma, let alone of having long, drawn-out debates over the choice of a single word. Do you doubt it? If so, start a discussion over lunch today about whether our holiday observances are ritual or ceremony. And, when the discussion starts to get warm, ask the participants to define ritual and ceremony.

The planning committee for this Conference had such a non-dogmatic debate. It was well that we knew it was non-dogmatic, since a stranger passing by might have concluded it was a Talmudic Academy in full cry. The debate was over a very critical word in the theme of this Conference; a word on which hung the very essence of secular¬ism, according to some of the participants. (Since I was not present, I am able to speak objectively.)

Recall our theme: "Yiddishkeit/Mentshlichkeit—Through Our Roots... Into The Future." Which word in that formulation could shake the very foundations of secularism? Don't bother searching: the word isn't there. By omitting that word, we saved secularism from the ravages of a California earthquake, or worse.

The word was "and." It reared its ugly, divisive head (you didn't think a conjunction could be divisive? you don't know secularists) between the first two words: Yiddishkeit and Mentshlichkeit.

There was no significant difference on the meaning of the terms linked — or divided, depending on one's point of view in the great 'and' debate — on either side of the 'and.' There was, in fact, general agreement that Yiddishkeit meant "folk-Jewishness" and that Mentshlichkeit approximated "humanism." For the more literary in the debate, the terms were defined by Irving Howe. Yiddishkeit, Howe wrote, was "all that vitality, that raucous emotionalism and lively intellectuality — all that surging human energy generated by hundreds of peddlers and seamstresses and gangsters and rabbis and whores, by radical visionaries who crafted socialist manifestos-; in ringing Yiddish, and delicate artists who drew poetry out of the horrors of the sweatshops and the grinding poverty of the streets; all that pathos and suffering and vulgarity and dignity and glory which was Jewish life in the teeming ghettos of this land half a century ago..." (That Howe's paean to Yiddishkeit appears in the midst of his eulogy for it did not disturb us; Irving Howe's path¬etic drive to escape the bounds of Yiddishkeit by burying it is very much his own problem, not ours.)

Both sides in the debate also accepted Howe's definition of Mentsh¬lichkeit: "...a readiness to live for ideals beyond the clamor of self."

The debate, therefore, was not over definitions, but over the single word: and. The 'party of Hillel' held that using the word 'and' would show our concept that Yiddishkeit goes hand-in-hand with Mentshlichkeit; that, for secularists, the two go together like bagels and cream cheese or like herring and potatoes. The 'party of Shammai' argued that the use of 'and' implied that the two were separate entities... that if Yiddishkeit could be joined to Mentshlichkeit, it could also be separated from it.

Beis Hillel, the pro-and'ites, replied that, whether we like it or not, many in the Jewish community do make a distinction between Yiddishkeit and Mentshlichkeit; that by linking the two with 'and in our theme, we would be saying to the community that the two must be rejoined into one concept.

Beis Shammai, the anti-and'eans, countered with the argument that won the day. "True," they said, "some in the Jewish community have separated Yiddishkeit from Mentshlichkeit. There are those who, in the name of Yiddishkeit, urge Jews to be concerned only with Jewish survival: to desert the public schools in favor of yeshivas, to cast votes for politicians who promise the most arms for Israel and nevermind his stand on the environment or nuclear weapons or human rights and services."

And true, they said, "there are those who insist that human issues transcend 'Jewish concerns': that destruction of the environment threatens all people, including Jews, and that the first priority must be defense of the land, the air, the water. There are those who say Jewish awareness, a concern with Yiddishkeit, divides Jews from their natural allies in the working class, in the third world, among the poor and the powerless. Mentshlichkeit, they say, is the first priority: if we achieve a society of Mentshlichkeit, 'Jewish concerns' will be automatically solved, too."

"But," said the anti-and'eans, "our experience as secularists has taught us that choosing a first priority between Yiddishkeit and Mentshlichkeit always leads — even if not deliberately — to a negation of one by the other. Sooner or later, the priority-choosers wind up with one priority: Yiddishkeit or Mentshlichkeit."

And so, after much debate, our theme reads, "Yiddishkeit slash Mentshlichkeit." The significance of the slash is its intent to demonstrate that secularists do not distinguish between Yiddishkeit/ Mentshlichkeit; that, for us, they are part of the same atom, the same nucleus, the same proton. They are truly, profoundly, ever¬lastingly, eternally and forever: one, inseparable, inextricable.

So...what's so new about that? Nothing. It has been stated by secularists for almost a century. Except...saying it is not enough. Writing it, studying it, repeating it gives no assurance that it will be acted upon in a specific situation. Secularism, remember, cannot be understood simply by intellectual means: to be understood, secularism must be experienced.

So it is with this Conference. Simply because our anti-dogmatic planning committee replaced the 'and' with a slash — Yiddishkeit/ Mentshlichkeit — doesn't really settle the question. It merely underscores the questions we will be grappling with at this Conference,

Will the social concerns and issues we discuss in some workshops be rooted in our commitment to the perpetuation and development of folk-Jewishness? Will our workshops on Jewish education and the struggle for Yiddish encompass the real world in which we live and tremble on the brink of universal holocaust?

Where does the agony of El Salvador impinge on the question of creating materials for secular Jewish classrooms? How does the presentation by Menachem Begin of the Jabotinsky medal to Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority affect relations with Israel within the Jewish community and within our countries of North America? Where does Yiddishkeit come to expression in the great debates on school busing and nuclear power?

These are some of the questions we will be facing this weekend. We've got to examine them without the aid of dogma...because we have no dogma. Except, perhaps, just one: Yiddishkeit/Mentshlichkeit.

Come to think of it, that's not such a bad dogma to have.