When and How Jewishness Adapted to a Secular World.
-- Dr. Paul G. Shane
Too often we think of Jewish life and Judaism only in religious terms and frameworks,
It behooves to educate ourselves to the significant world of secular Jewishness/Judaism
and its place in Jewish community. The article below by Paul Shane is a contribution
to such sophistication.
-- Adena Potok, editor Living Judaism
The Secular Jewish movement is composed of those who, in the words of Saul Goodman
in his book
The Faith of Secular Jews, seek to integrate the “prevalent ideas of
modern Western culture with the historic Jewish heritage.” The movement is focused
on human endeavor and life on earth. Secular Jews believe that the Jewish religion
grew out of Jewish culture, of which that religion is a part.
(or as some prefer, Secular Judaism) is based on three ideas.
- The most important
of these is the survival and continuity of the Jewish people. Secular Jews are an
integral part of the Jewish people and identify with its history and culture.
second central idea is that humans are responsible for what happens on earth, beyond
that which is controlled by natural forces over which humankind (so far) has no
control. They believe that the secular ideals of the Hebrew prophets — a world of
sufficiency for all, with peace and justice — will
not occur without human action.
- The third central idea is that life is the most important focus of human activity
and ideals. Very much part of mainstream Jewish thought is the concept that actions
speak louder than words.
None of these three central concepts are divorced from
Jewish “normative” tradition except for the belief that humans are the only conscious
power. Secularists of today accept no philosophical dogma. Belief in the supernatural
is neither encouraged nor discouraged. It is considered a private matter.
people and their philosophical system — which we identify as Judaism — were from
the very beginning concerned about secular issues: life, relations between people, relations with other peoples, ethics, and morals. The Tanakh and Talmud have much
in them that is secular in concern and content. What one did was thought to be more
important than what one believed.
Several times in Jewish history —particularly
during the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and then again in the late 19th and early
20th Centuries — many Jews shed the “religious” or God-oriented elements of their
Jewishness. Yet they refused to be totally assimilated into their societies or adopt
the religious beliefs of others.
Jews during the great migration of one hundred
and more years ago fled the constrictions and persecution in Europe for a “modern”
life concerned with many of the same secular concerns that had always been present
in Jewish culture. There were many approaches to what Jewish life should look like
in the modern era, but secular Jews agreed that the realization of their ideals
depended on human rather than supernatural intervention. Modern Zionism, for example,
went against the long held belief that the return to our “original” homeland would
only occur when the Messiah came. Zionists were unwilling to wait for heavenly action,
understanding that the return to and the building of a nation would need to be done
through human endeavor. The same response found expression in the various forms
of socialism, cultural autonomy, territorialism, and so forth that became extremely
popular among Jews of the time in the U.S., England, France, Germany, and the heartland
of Jewish life, Eastern Europe. (Tony Michels describes the thinking, ferment and
excitement of this period in his book,
A Fire in Their Hearts.)
In the late 18th
century, Jewish intellectuals began a Jewish Enlightenment, or haskalah, which flourished
in the 19th century. After the French Revolution, Jews in much of Europe were allowed and wanted to join the larger society in which they lived. Unfortunately, Yiddish,
the language of the mass of Jews, was thought by some to be inferior. As a result,
successful joining with the modern world was possible only for those who spoke the
language of the dominant culture.
At the end of the 19th century, Jewish intellectuals
began to lose their disdain for Yiddish — the language of the Jewish masses both
in Eastern Europe and the immigrants to the Americas — (This is set out in detail
in the book
The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture by David Fishman). They began a conscious
building of Yiddish into a modern language of learning, science, the arts, and literature.
Intellectuals like Chaim Zhitlovsky, Simon Dubnow, and others set out to develop
a secular, cultural philosophy of Jewishness. A similar development took place in
the development of modern Hebrew.
Theodore Herzl, usually considered the founder
of modern secular Zionism, set forth the concept of the Jews as a separate people
or nation needing their own land and developing a modern Jewish culture. The dream
of the messianic era was transposed into a dream of a “better and more beautiful
world.” Most of the Jewish religious establishment of the time strongly opposed
these movements and developments. The Orthodox rejected modernization and any changes
in Jewish life without a Messiah. Others preferred the French idea of rejecting
Jewish peoplehood. They opted instead for a purely religious definition of Jewishness
as, for example, “Germans of the Mosaic Faith” (or Russians, Poles, Serbs, French,
Italians, etc., of the Mosaic Faith.) Secularists developed Yiddish theater, literature,
poetry, and art to enhance Jewish self-esteem and help Jews adapt to a “new” world
as Jews. Jews were to engage in science and active participation in the intellectual
life of Western society, as Jews. The newly formed Kehila for Secular Jews in Philadelphia
proudly carries on that tradition. Previously, Jews who wanted to participate in
the larger world had often converted to Christianity, with some notable examples
being Heinrich Heine, Gustav Mahler, and the Mendelssohn children.
As the idea of
cultural Jewishness developed around the turn of the 20th century, Chaim Zhitlovsky
set out guidelines for a network of secular Jewish schools, either as full educational
institutions or to supplement governmental education. They were to teach children
Jewish culture as part of modern civilization. From this grew several systems of
Yiddish-oriented, secular Children’s schools that spread throughout the United States
and Eastern Europe. The most prominent were those of the Workmen’s Circle and the
Labor Zionists. The Philadelphia Jewish Children’s Folkshul is one of these schools,
although instruction is in English today. The philosophical underpinning of these
developments was that Jewish history, experience, and culture — without supernatural
embellishments — were themselves sufficient to sustain Jewish peoplehood in a world
of science and secularism.
The secular ideal was human action, in Jewish formats,
to change society and end the persecution of the Jewish people. The secularists
opposed assimilation in favor of a proud affirmation of being part of the history
and culture of the Jewish People, autonomous and self-directed, equal partners with
all other peoples in the movement of human history and knowledge. Modern-day Secular,
cultural, humanist Jews and Jewish organizations continue that proud heritage and