Letters / On “The Sanitizing of Conservative Judaism”

Allen Lipson’s article thoughtfully charts how Conservative synagogues were used as tools for the deradicalization of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in America. Partly as a result of this push to assimilate, for generations many left-wing Jews have found their political and spiritual home outside religious Judaism and its institutions. We can see this in the history of Jewish Currents itself, which was founded in 1946 as a secular magazine affiliated with the Communist Party USA, and later evolved into “a democratic socialist, secular Jewish publication.” Jewish Currents still maintains an explicit commitment to this secular identity: Each print issue includes the tagline “A progressive, secular voice,” and the magazine is published by a nonprofit called the Association for the Promotion of Jewish Secularism.

I recognize that this language is somewhat anachronistic, and that the magazine has published excellent pieces engaging with left-wing religious Judaism (like Eli Rubin’s “The Soul of the Worker”). Still, in light of the magazine’s affiliation with secularism and the rarity with which it features religious topics and authors, its stated commitment “to the rich tradition of thought, activism, and culture of the Jewish left” suggests that this tradition includes nothing religious. Jewish Currents thus implies that there is a hard line between religious Judaism and left-wing Jewish activism.

In reality, the two have always been intertwined: Jews have long been brought to activism by their religion (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s theology leading him to a prominent role in the civil rights movement) and vice versa (Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s work with Jews for Urban Justice bringing him to the Jewish Renewal movement).

As Marc Tracy wrote in The New York Times Magazine last November, while historically “Jewish leftists have usually been secular . . . the new Jewish left is distinguished by the degree to which it embraces Jewish law and ritual and draws on Jewish texts to articulate its politics.” (Tracy goes on to identify Jewish Currents as a documenter of this movement as well as a part of it, overlooking its secularist editorial line.) Today, a sizable contingent of clergy and future clergy have used their positions to agitate for human rights within the Jewish community. As Lipson mentions briefly, last year 93 rabbinical and cantorial students signed an open letter criticizing the dominant American Jewish stance toward Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The most prominent institutional expression of this association between religious Judaism and progressive politics is T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Anecdotally, progressive synagogues like New York’s Kolot Chayeinu often overlap in membership with nominally non-religious Jewish activist organizations like IfNotNow, Jews For Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), and Jewish Voice for Peace. These organizations, in turn, sometimes collaborate with religious counterparts: For example, JFREJ recently partnered with T’ruah to form Tirdof: New York Jewish Clergy for Justice. There are also vibrant activist struggles for social change within religious Jewish communities: For example, many Jewish feminists belong to Women of the Wall, an organization aimed at granting women the same right to pray at the Western Wall that men have, or join calls on social media to address the crisis of agunot (women who are trapped in broken marriages because their husbands refuse to grant them a get, the halachically required bill of divorce). Elsewhere, we’ve seen religious organizations advancing new progressive Jewish practices and pedagogies, like the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva.

All of these organizations and struggles should be natural subjects for the flagship publication of the Jewish left. However, Jewish Currents addresses most of them rarely, if at all. It is long past time that Jewish Currents fully embrace its role in documenting and giving voice to the entire range of the Jewish left by casting off the vestigial commitment to secularism present in its institutional language and expanding its scope of coverage.

Guy Tabachnick
New York, NY

We appreciate your response to Lipson’s article and your generous critique of the magazine’s relationship to both secularism and religious Judaism; we’re grateful for the opportunity to reflect on our perspective on these issues in the context of the long history of Jewish Currents.

As you correctly note, the magazine began as a proudly secular publication. For editors and readers of early Jewish Currents, “secular” was a word that situated them in a particular context and community—opposed to the strictures of religion and aligned with the anti-religious Communist Party, but still in possession of a rich Jewish identity and cultural heritage. Though this lineage is reflected in some of the language still associated with the magazine, “secular” has ceased to signal for us as it did for our forebears: As you highlight, this language is more of an anachronistic remnant than a conscious re-commitment to their particular values. In fact, our board of directors recently voted unanimously to rename the nonprofit that publishes the magazine from the Association for the Promotion of Jewish Secularism to Jewish Currents, in recognition of the fact that the old name no longer describes a core mission of the organization, even cheekily. While we have no immediate plans to remove the magazine’s tagline (“A progressive, secular voice”) from print issues, we see this as a tip of the hat to our magazine’s history, rather than an expression of an exclusionary editorial philosophy.

As for the question of our coverage, while we appreciate the acknowledgment that we have done good work on religious subjects, these contributions are more significant and frequent than your description suggests. Since the 2018 revival of Jewish Currents, we have published many pieces engaging with religious ideas and figures from a leftist perspective, ranging from a trans reading of the story of Jacob and Esau, to reviews of Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible and an anthology of Neo-Hasidic writings, to a reflection on Heschel’s radical legacy, an argument that leftist Jews should trade social justice haggadahs for the traditional text, an extensive oral history of the Yom Kippur service at Occupy Wall Street (which shows up in Tracy’s New York Times Magazine article), and an entire series of essays reckoning with the Book of Exodus in the context of the pandemic and the George Floyd uprising.

Certain recurring forms also engage explicitly with religion. We call our editorial column Responsa as a tongue-in-cheek allusion to rabbinic legal decisions, but it has also become a site of real wrestling with religious subjects—for instance, justice and mourning and messianic time—which often appear there as a means of exploring contemporary, “secular” questions. (One piece dealt directly with the question of solidarity between secular and Orthodox Jews.) And in our forthcoming print issue, we’re debuting our new Chevruta column, named for the traditional method of Jewish textual study, in which we match leftist thinkers and organizers with a rabbi or Torah scholar to study a pressing political question.

As these examples from our coverage make clear, we value the resources of religious Judaism in a way that distinguishes us from our forebears, many of whom are far more dismissive or distrustful of religion, in part for the reasons discussed in Lipson’s piece and recognized in your letter. (We hear not infrequently from longtime readers of Jewish Currents who are frustrated by our engagements with religion.) While we may not regularly cover religious political organizing directly, this is not out of some specific disinterest in religion, but a blanket aversion to friendly, human-interest style reporting on organizations in our sphere. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that most of the specifically political organizations you named in your letter are not explicitly religious ones, but instead hold complex and multifaceted relationships with religious practice and communities. We see ourselves in a similar position.

For the current stewards of the magazine, our explicit acknowledgement of Jewish Currents’ relationship to secularism names an important lineage, as we carry forward aspects of our forebears’ tradition while also finding new ways to interrogate the boundaries between secularism and religion under the vexed banner of Jewishness. This includes questioning the categories themselves: As Talal Asad and many other scholars have argued, modern conceptions of “religious” and “secular” are inextricably bound to a Protestant worldview, in which religion is understood principally as a matter of personal belief, and therefore divisible from ritual, communal affiliation, and other aspects of life. Our goal is to undermine this division—not to identify primarily as secular or religious, but to rigorously explore leftist Jewishness in all its irreducible multiplicity.

The Editors