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The evolution of secular Judaism.

Because religion is usually considered an essential part of Jewish identity, the concept of a secular, humanistic Judaism is puzzling to many people. Briefly put, secular Judaism is an identification with Jewish history and culture as the primary aspect of one's Jewishness, with supernatural belief either downplayed or nonexistent. While a significant number of American Jews have such an outlook, only a relatively small number of them are organized into explicitly secular, humanistic groups.

To best understand the meaning of secular Judaism, it is necessary to look at the phenomenon in historical perspective. Although secular Judaism is generally viewed as having arisen out of the European Enlightenment, some historians go back even further and consider Spinoza to be the first secular Jew. A former yeshiva student, Spinoza's philosophical views on religion caused him to be excommunicated by the Amsterdam rabbinic authorities for "abominable heresies" and "monstrous acts." For Spinoza, the identification of Judaism with religion meant that he was "locked in a paradox, unable either to live positively as a Jew or to shed his basic Jewish identification," according to Hebrew University philosophy professor Yirmiyahu Yovel in his book Spinoza and Other Heretics. Yovel concludes that, while Spinoza prefigured "what later generations would call |Jewish secularism:" he was not actually the first secular Jew because he did not claim "for himself the right to disavow religion yet remain within the congregation"

The changes brought about by the Enlightenment led to a corresponding upheaval in the Jewish world, beginning in Germany. This Jewish enlightenment (called the Haskalah, Hebrew for "knowledge" or "education") led to the notion of a Jewish identity that was not based exclusively upon religion, and thus eventually created the conditions that would allow a self-conscious secular Judaism to resolve the paradox for which Spinoza had no solution.

German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn is generally considered to be the founder of the Haskalah. As both an Enlightenment philosopher and follower of traditional Jewish religious law, Mendelssohn was probably the first to face the question of how to reconcile the new age of reason with the religious tradition of Judaism. An important advocate of Jewish civil rights and the separation of church and state, Mendelssohn endeavored to open up the Jewish communities to German culture and the ideas of reason and rationalism. One of his major accomplishments was the translation of the Torah into German, by which he sought to encourage Jews to learn the German language and thereby give them the chance to be exposed to the outside culture and the new Enlightenment ideas. For this reason, of course, the translation was opposed (with some exceptions) by the rabbis, who feared losing control over their congregants. Mendelssohn and his followers - the Maskilim, or "enlightened ones"-set up schools that taught both secular and Jewish subjects; they disdained Yiddish, which they considered a "ghetto language," and instead promoted Hebrew as the proper vehicle for the discussion of Enlightenment ideas.

Despite the other accomplishments of the Maskilim, their efforts to secure Jewish civil rights met with limited success until the French Revolution and the 1791 proclamation of general emancipation for the Jews, which was extended to the conquered lands, including western Germany. After many years of isolation in the ghettos, Jews were beginning to face the question of how (or whether) to retain their Jewish identity while remaining full citizens of their states. The answer for many was to distance themselves from Jewish culture and opt, in various degrees, for assimilation. Mendelssohn, despite his own deep affection for traditional Jewish law, could not successfully convey a logical argument for its continuation. (Even in his own family, three of his four children converted after his death.) One of the Maskilim, David Friedlander, even petitioned the Berlin Lutheran Church in 1799 for admission on the condition that he and his followers be exempted from a belief in the divinity of Jesus and from practicing Christian rituals. (They were turned down.) For others, all notions of assimilation with a dispersed Jewish nation were discarded; they considered themselves Germans or Frenchmen "of the Mosaic faith." The reform movement, which also started in Germany at this time, similarly downplayed Jewish national identity in favor of a greater identification with Germany, to the point of incorporating the German language into synagogue services.

The Haskalah had only partial success in Eastern Europe, where the Jewish communities maintained more of a distinct and separate national identity. Although Enlightenment ideas influenced some sections of these communities, there was not the same trend toward assimilation, partly due to the repressiveness of the Eastern European governments. The horrendous living conditions in these nations also led many Jews to emigrate, with the result that the influx of Eastern European Jews somewhat slowed the assimilatory trends in Western Europe.

The reign of Czar Alexander II in Russia made possible some limited accomplishments for the Haskalah in Eastern Europe. Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, however, and his death was blamed on the Jews; there followed the infamous pogroms of 1882 and the hated May Laws (restricting where Jews could live and how many could attend school). A high Russian Orthodox Church official predicted that "one,third of the Jews will convert, one, third will die, and one, third will flee the country." Many supporters of the Russian Haskaiah who advocated assimilation during Alexander's reign had a drastic change of mind after these events; among them was Leo Pin, sker, whose pamphlet Auto, emancipation would have a major effect on East European Jews. Pinsker had previously promoted Russian culture among Jews; as he said later, he "believed in the victory of eighteenth, century humanism. I was confident of its triumph and that Europe would freely consent to the granting of equal rights to Jews" Now, however, he argued that Jews constituted a nation, that Jew, hatred ("Judeophobia") would always exist, and that therefore the Jews needed their own territory. Reactionary events in Germany and France led to similar reconsiderations on the part of West European Jews.

This rising Jewish nationalism was not only the result of anti-Semitism; it was also a reaction to the development of other nationalist movements. For example, in 1862, Moses Hess, a German Jewish socialist who had previously collaborated with Marx and Engels, published Rome and Jerusalem, a call for Jewish nationalism whose very title showed the influence of Italian nationalism. So while the successes of the Enlightenment made possible the separation of religious and national identity for Jews, the failures of the Enlightenment ensured the continuation of that national identity. Jews now undertook a process of secularizing Jewish history, recasting it as the result of human endeavor, not supernatural manipulation. They thus confronted the question of what, aside from anti, semitism, held this dispersed Jewish nation together. The attempt to answer this question gave rise to a wide variety of ideologies. Although there was much infighting, both within and between the different movements, they all shared the conviction, as stated by Pinsker, that "we are not a religious sect but rather a people that was once a nation"

One movement was political Zionism, which argued that the binding force could only be a formal Jewish nation. The main proponent of this view was Theodore Herzl, a Hungarian, born journalist and playwright who organized the First Zionist Conference, in 1897. The secularization of Judaism was a necessary precondition for political Zionism, as its adherents were no longer satisfied with waiting for the messiah to come. Although today political Zionism is an overwhelming force in the Jewish community, it was once a minority position, in competition with both non-Zionist positions and other forms of Zionism.

One of these other forms was cultural Zionism, which argued not for an ingathering of exiles but, rather, for a "spiritual center" in Palestine that would revitalize Jewish culture throughout the diaspora. The main proponent of this view was Asher Ginzberg, an agnostic former rabbinic student who wrote under the name Ahad Haam (Hebrew for "one of the people"). Whereas Herzl's political Zionism was a radical change from his previous assimilationist outlook ("only anti, Semitism has made Jews of us:' he wrote in 1895), Ahad Ha'ams cultural Zionism was a direct consequence of his Jewish heritage. Yet, despite the sometimes mystical ring to his talk of "spiritual revival," Ha?am clearly accepted the validity of secular Judaism; he once wrote to his disciple Judah Magnes that "it is possible to be a Jew in the national sense without accepting many things in which religion requires belief." Unlike Herzl, who dismissed the claims of the Palestinians to the same land, Ha'am also argued that Zionism "does not invalidate the right of the rest of the land's inhabitants" and that they have "a genuine right to the land due to generations of residence and work upon it."

A third perspective was that of diaspora nationalism, which argued that a majority of the Jewish people would continue to live in the diaspora and thus should have a "cultural autonomy" that would permit the perpetuation of Jewish life while also allowing them to remain full citizens of the countries in which they lived. Two of the major proponents of this view were historian Simon Dubnow and Russian revolutionary Chaim Zhitiovsky. A significant proponent of diaspora nationalism was the socialist Jewish Labor Bund (officially the General Union of Jewish Workers). The Bund was a major force in Russia and Poland and sought to organize the Jewish working class around Yiddish culture; at the same time, it had many bitter arguments with both the Zionists and the Bolsheviks.

Immigration to the United States carried all of these various Jewish-nationalist ideologies into an American context. Before the massive immigration of the early twentieth century, the U.S. Jewish community, influenced by the Haskalah in Europe, tended toward an assimilatory outlook, although sometimes for completely different reasons. The Reform movement, which became quite strong in the United States, continued to express the viewpoint that Jews were "no longer a nation but a religious community." On the other hand, many young Jewish radicals argued that, with the coming of socialism, there was no need to maintain a separate national identity-for example, a banner, at the 1895 meeting of the Jewish Socialist Society read, "We are not Jews, but Yiddish,speaking proletarians "

The arrival of the Bundists, Labor Zionists, and others with their various concepts of Jewish nationalism had a major effect on American Jewish life. In particular, Chaim Zhitlovsky, who came to the United States in 1908, had a significant impact with his arguments against assimilation and for the Yiddish language as a symbol of national identification. Many different institutions soon arose: Jewish trade unions; Yiddish theater; and Jewish summer camps, cultural clubs, and others, many of them communal, secular organizations. Among the most important of these were the schools; each different ideological group set up its own educational network. For one or two generations, these institutions served the needs of hundreds of thousands of Jews; however, for a variety of reasons, they could not sustain the generational transition. The sociological conditions, of the American Jewish community had changed enough so that tying "the Jewish student to the Jewish working class" (part of the Workmen's Circle 1920 school program) was no longer a sufficient basis for a school. The synagogue had also evolved to become not just a place of worship but also a community center, thus diminishing the need for some of the explicitly secular groups. And, most importantly, any reason, able progression of the various philosophies that had been developed was inconceivable after the Holocaust. Advocating Yiddish-based diaspora nationalism made no sense when the communities that were its foundation had been destroyed.

And so we come to contemporary secular Judaism, which recognizes that, as circumstances have changed, so new definitions and institutions are needed. Among the organizations attempting to provide them are the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations and the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which are based in the United States and Canada. The Israel-based International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews is the umbrella group which includes both of these organizations as well as secular groups in Latin America, Europe, and Israel.

A recent demographic survey of the American Jewish community by the Council of Jewish Federations reported that the category of "born Jews with no religion" consisted of more than a million people. The survey identifies this group as secular Jews, but this is a very vague definition; that total may also include nonreligious Jews with nonhumanistic views or completely assimilated Jews. It is clear, though, that there is a diverse community that is potentially receptive to the ideas of the CSJO and the SHJ but remains unorganized. The challenge of developing new ways to reach out to these potential humanists is one that the CSJO and the SHJ currently confront.

The CSJO, organized about 20 years ago, has its roots in the network of secular Sunday schools remaining in the United States. The former ideological differences between the various schools have diminished over the years, and the shrinking of the organized secular community makes any remaining distinctions seem even less relevant. The CSJO has recognized the need to organize outside the school system as well, and of the various secular groups it is the one with the strongest connection to Yiddish culture. The SHJ, which grew out of the Reform movement, tackles head,on the issue of developing secular Jewish institutions - an issue that the CSJO has only recently begun to address. The SHJ's various groups in the United States are organized in congregations or chavurot, and there are two SHJ synagogues with rabbis. They have developed adaptations of Jewish religious rituals in a secular Jewish context; ironically, the Reform movement, which once advocated the downplaying of Jewish national identity, has now spawned a movement which emphasizes that very aspect.

The CSJO and the SHJ complement each other both geographically and ideologically. With a few exceptions, SHJ groups are organized in cities where CSJO groups are not - and vice versa. Over the past few years, there has been a welcome attempt by the two groups to bridge their differences and foster greater cooperation. For example, in October 1991 the CSJO and the SHJ held simultaneous board meetings for the first time, and in December the CSJO held two regional conferences with SHJ speakers and outreach to the SHJ community.

In some ways, the evolution within the secular Jewish community parallels that of the larger humanist movement. When identity and purpose could be centered around political movements, schools, or Yiddish, there was no need for formal traditions that would parallel religious ritual; in fact, many early secular Jews - like the early "freethought" humanists - delighted in mocking and attacking such rituals. Early in this century, Jewish anarchists in the United States would hold dances on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, the most solemn religious Jewish holiday) and, according to Israeli writer Amos Elon, "In the early 1920s, a group of young atheistic pioneers is said to have marched to the Wailing Wall on the Day of Atonement munching ham sandwiches."

Now, however, the main focus is on developing new ways for secular Jews to connect with each other and provide support and community within a shared outlook. This was well put in a keynote speech by Judith Seid at the 1991 Eastern Regional CSJO conference:

It is no longer obvious to the younger members of our

community ... that our everyday ethical behavior and

choices reflect our Jewishness. Our people do not

recognize their internal Jewishness because we have

no outward Jewish symbols, like the Yiddish language,

Jewish neighborhoods and family circles, to connect

to our inner feelings. We don't speak Yiddish - or Hebrew - and

we dodt live in Jewish neighborhoods.

There are various views about how secular Jews should deal with this dilema. The SHJ supports a congregational structure. The CSJO members to whom I've spoken shy away from that approach - either because of its religious connotations or because of the large diversion of limited resources it would entail. The hot topic at the conference I attended was secular Jewish ritual: how to come up with rituals that can help achieve what Seid called secular spirituality, which she defined as "entering into the larger something that is made up only of its participants" - that is, essentially humanist rituals within a context of Jewish tradition.

Secular Jews are also involved in an ongoing reinterpretation and celebration of the Jewish holidays within a secular context. Passover has always been a favorite for secular Jews, but more recently an attempt has been made to reinterpret and develop ceremonies and programs for those holidays that have traditionally been thought of as purely religious-particularly Rosh Hashona (the Jewish new year) and Yom Kippur. For example, in Philadelphia, the secular Jewish Folkshule Sunday School has sponsored two very successful pro, grams/services on those two holidays. There is also a program sponsored by the IFSHJ to train secular Jewish leaders to perform weddings, funerals, and other services. Participants complete a program of study that concentrates on Jewish history and literature and on developing ceremonies for life-cycle events and holidays.

Of course, secular Jewish groups in other countries face different circumstances than the North American groups. In particular, the secular Jewish humanist movement in Israel has spent much of its time in the struggle against Orthodox control. Ironically, it seems that the Jewish state, which would not have been possible were it not for the secularizing of Jewish life, may possibly return to some form of pre-Enlightenment Judaism. As the late journalist I. F. Stone wrote 25 years ago.

Israel is creating a kind of moral schizophrenia in world Jewry. In

the outside world the welfare of Jewry depends on the maintenance

of secular, non-racial pluralistic societies. In Israel, Jewry finds itself

defending a society ... in which the ideal is racial and exclusionist.

Jews must fight elsewhere for their very security and existence - against

principles and practices they find themselves defending in


Why, some may ask, should secular humanistic Jews not just define them, selves as humanists pure and simple, moving beyond any particular religious ethnic group identification? This remains an individual choice. Perhaps Yiddish dish writer I. L. Peretz put it best when he wrote:

Don't assume that you are fulfilling your obligation by working only

for the greater entity, for so-called humanity at large. Humanity,

at-large is an abstraction. On the world stage today are individual

groups, distinct peoples, differing cultures.... We too hope for a

common humanity, but we shall never achieve it by destroying

unique languages, or by annihilating separate peoples, or by cutting

down cultures.

In this spirit, secular Jews are emphasizing the roots of their own particular brand of humanism to work toward a time when diversity of culture is cause not for hostility but, instead, for celebration.

Seth Kulick is a member of the Congress of Secuiar Jewish Organizations and a graduate student in computer science at the University of Pennsylvania.
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Author:Kulick, Seth
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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