You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Is There A Future For Jewish Secularism?

January 5, 1976
by Marc Lowenthal Originally published in the January, 1976 issue of Jewish Currents THERE IS A CRISIS TODAY FACED BY JEWISH SECULARISM. It is not a problem that is going to go away and it may well determine the composition of Jewish progressives in the next generation. If there is going to be a future at all, we must realize there are in fact, two crises: The first is the failure of Jewish secularism to make an impact on the Jewish community; the second is the present inability of Jewish progressives to formulate an identity that will last for more than a single generation. Before I examine what I see as the nature of the problem, allow me a personal digression. Coming from a Jewish-conscious but essentially non-religious home, when I discovered the Jewish progressive movement, I became interested because it provided a synthesis of cultural consciousness with political activism. That synthesis still interests me, but as I see what the movement has yet to accomplish as an alternative to mainstream religious Judaism, I am concerned with the direction, or more particularly, the lack of direction that Jewish secularism has taken. At least one of those concerns is the isolation of the progressive movement from the Jewish community. In his book, A Long Journey, longtime leftist activist George Charney writes about the frustration he felt attempting to do substantive work with a secular Jewish movement. Ironically, he saw Jewish Currents as being a “distant outpost,” though physically it is in the heart of a Jewish community. His hope that he could do constructive work was, he wrote, “totally unreal.” There is no criticism of any particular magazine in Charney’s statements. What he spoke to was one of the widespread basic problems that has hindered the secular Jewish movement. But there are oilier problems, one of which is the difficulty in infusing Jewish identity onto social commitment. In 1970, when Jack Nusan Porter wrote about Jewish student activism in the pages of this magazine, he predicted a new movement based on the fusion of Jewish identity and political activism. There may have been justification for that prediction then, but in many ways it is a cliche of the 60’s. As with Kent State and Vietnam, the dedication that was given to the New Left by Jewish students in the 1960s is today often considered an exercise in superfluous history. Significantly, the majority of progressives I meet who are Jewish, are not Jewish progressives. They see no link between their historical-cultural background and their political awareness. Rarely are they aware of any Jewish group or movement that has combined consciousness of heritage to social activism. And while the failure to help connect these viewpoints is not purely the failure of Jewish secularism, we cannot escape responsibility. ON THE FACE OF IT, THE LACK OF ACCEPTANCE OF JEWISH SECULARISM Is not because of an unattractive ideology. The increasingly obvious failure of capitalism to cope with world problems, and the growing tenuous position of the American Jewish community, provides progressive Jewishness with the opportunity to offer a consistent and realistic approach to problems faced by Jews. But through isolation, lack of media appeal, just plain bad public relations, or any number of a score of reasons, the secular movement is still a marginal phenomenon. I regret that, because I am aware of the potentially positive force on the Jewish community the progressive Jewish philosophy could have. Regret, however, must be tempered. What concerns me now is the seeming inability of progressive Jewishness to continue beyond one generation. I am concerned not so much for my own philosophic inclinations as for those of the future generations. It is a truism in this country that the last vestige of Judaism after religion is progressive political commitment. That commitment itself generally continues for generations after a Jewish consciousness or identity has faded into assimilation. But the inevitable impact of that total secularism is generally destructive to the Jewish psyche. As early as the 1860s, Jewish novelist Perez Smolenskin (1840/42-1885) realized that there was an inherent assimilationist trend in secularism. At one time a strong advocate of secular humanism, Smolenskin recognized that it was a trend that often led to the abandonment of Jewish loyalties altogether. It is this trend, the de-Judaization of Jewish secularism, that is to be fought. I am convinced that political activism when combined with a surface familiarity with Judaism (of the lox and cream cheese syndrome), is not enough to perpetuate the authentic nature of the progressive Jewish movement. If that is to be the case, if we realize the inevitability of the ultimate secularization (i.e., assimilation) of Jewish secularism, then we are just postponing the fate by short generations. The ironic predicament is this: while many less substantive, less progressive ideologies will flourish in their faith without a philosophy, we will be lost because we will not have combined our philosophy with a faith, secular or otherwise. There should be obvious answers to these dilemmas, but I cannot see any at the present. Intellectually of course, I think that Jewish secularism has a right to exist, but how it will exist is another problem. As the Rabbi at my Hillel says, it is probably true that the Jewish people have more questions than answers. Once again that questioning is part of my identity. It does seem to me, however, the responsibility of progressive Jews to begin confronting these problems. Perhaps by asking more questions about the future confronting secularists, we can mold plans where direction goes hand in hand with impact. If the future is to be a futile, dissipated wave with no effect and vague philosophy, then we should step back, assess, and begin work in a new direction. These basic questions should be asked now. At the time of publication, Marc Lowenthal was a student at the School of Journalism of the University of Missouri.