Sign up for our email newsletter, featuring exclusive original content


Letters to the Editor

Dear Reader,

At Jewish Currents, we take pride in publishing reader responses to our web and print content. Such letters reflect the broad intellectual community that constitutes the backbone of our magazine. Since the 2018 relaunch of Jewish Currents, we’ve included letters to the editor in the opening pages of each issue. You can also find them on the Letters page on our website.

In this newsletter, we’re sending you a number of responses to our recent On the Nose episode, “Religion, Secularism, and the Jewish Left,” which featured a heated exchange between editor-in-chief Arielle Angel, managing editor Nathan Goldman, contributing writer Mitch Abidor, and JC Council member Judee Rosenbaum regarding Jewish Currents’s inclusion of weekly parshah commentary in the Shabbat Reading List. Readers wrote in about the episode’s Ashkenormativity, the Protestant roots of viewing religion and secularism as a strict binary, Torah study as embodied ritual, and more.

As always, we encourage readers to submit letters of about 350 words to with the subject line “Letter,” followed by the title of the article. Please include your name and location. We look forward to hearing from you!

—The Editors

The recent On the Nose episode about religion and secularism reflected an entrenched Ashkenormative approach to Jewishness—that is, the assumption of Ashkenazi culture, history, and religious practice as the “default” in Jewish life as a function of internalized Eurocentrism, and even white supremacy, within Jewish society. I was disappointed that the podcast’s participants showed little awareness or interest in the multiplicity of Jewish cultures. Importantly, the secular/religious dichotomy makes little sense in varied Sephardic and Mizrahi contexts, where Reform and Orthodox Judaism did not emerge. While “secularism” did indeed play a role, the rift with tradition was not necessarily as pronounced. The idea that one must abandon Judaism in order to become a Jewish leftist—an axiomatic belief of the previous generation of Ashkenazi leftists—makes little sense among Sepharadim, at least for Ladino-speakers of an earlier generation. Indeed, two of the main figures in what I term in my research the “Ladino Left” of the early 20th century went to rabbinical seminary in Salonica; one was both a socialist and Talmudic scholar known by the title “haham” (rabbi in the Sephardic tradition), and the other used rabbinic Jewish texts and commentary on the perashá to introduce the masses to principles of socialism and mutual aid. If we want to have a robust conception of the historical antecedents to today’s Jewish (and not merely Ashkenazi or Yiddish) left, room for additional histories and perspectives must be made in the conversation.

This background helps explain why I was disturbed by the endorsement of American exceptionalism that underpinned the older generation’s approach on the podcast. There are many ways of explaining the Protestant-style “city upon a hill” allusions featured in the conversation, an important one of which is the embrace of whiteness. This embrace was made possible not because the US has been a more “just” society than the “old country” but rather because in the US, there have always been other (nonwhite) Others who have received the bulk of the wrath of the state and society. Crucially, the Ashkenazi embrace of whiteness entailed the denigration of other Jews who may have posed a challenge to their being seen as white and European. More than a century ago, a (non-Jewish) sociologist observed that “Levantine Jews” in New York experienced more discrimination from other Jews than they did from non-Jews. The continued exclusion of non-Ashkenazi Jews from the Jewish conversation today—especially on the so-called Jewish left—unfortunately reflects a failure to come to terms with a past of intra-Jewish prejudice that persists today, to everyone’s detriment.

Just as Jewish Currents has worked to combat white supremacy, heteronormativity, Islamophobia, and other loathsome discourses, so too must it strive to raise awareness of, and guard against, the perpetuation of Ashkenormitivity. The Yiddish roots of the magazine need not be severed to make way for additional branches of Jewishness. On the contrary: This exclusivist approach, which emphasizes Yiddishkeit and Ashkenazi leftist forebears alone and perpetuates the sharp dichotomy between religion and secularism, reveals the failure of the magazine to uphold its stated commitment to the “rich tradition of thought, activism, and culture on the Jewish left.” Perhaps the magazine would consider rendering some of these key terms in the plural—”traditions” and “cultures”to reflect a more robust and inclusive vision for the future.

Devin Naar
Seattle, WA

The letter writer is an associate professor of history and Jewish studies and the Isaac Alhadeff Professor in Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington.

As a scholar of religion trained primarily within (implicitly or explicitly Christian) religious studies departments, I found myself wishing to challenge the terms of the discussion in the recent podcast episode on secularism and religion. Secularism in the US has its roots in Protestant Christianity and tends to define “religion” as primarily a matter of private belief—a definition to which Judaism has assimilated uneasily and incompletely. The 20th-century project of “making Judaism safe for America,” in Jessica Cooperman’s words, was never able to fully account for the daily practices of religiously observant Jews or the ethnoreligious sense of peoplehood that persists even among secularly identified Jews. We do the complex concept of “religion” a disservice when we define it narrowly and assume that it can be siloed off from peoplehood, practice, culture, ethnicity, and the many other aspects of Judaism. I suspect we also dishonor the many varieties of secularism when we take for granted the Protestant vision of a public sphere free of overt (non-Protestant) religious practice.

Jews should be aware of the Protestantism of this commonly accepted definition of secularism and should avoid inadvertently reinforcing and reifying the Protestant definition of religion. Scholars of secularism, meanwhile, need to take the role of secular Jewish identity seriously in their accounts—and, often, critiques—of secularism in the US. Perhaps it is time to look beyond the exceedingly simple binary of religious/secular in order to account for the many ways Jewish life exceeds it.

Max Thornton
Jersey City, NJ

The letter writer teaches philosophy and religion at Kean University.

Throughout the recent podcast episode on secularism and religion, I wished I could tell the secular participants in the conversation that there is absolutely no slippery slope leading from religious learning to religious fundamentalism. In our work reviving the International Jewish Labor Bund, we have, for example, many queer and trans members who are interested in the Talmud’s diverse understanding of gender. That doesn’t mean they have started davening daily or keeping kosher; it simply means that they have found deep and directly personal meaning in their ancestral tradition. Alongside Jewish learning, those of us involved in organizing the revival of the Bund have also found a great deal of value in studying the lives and writings of revolutionary thinkers and doers. One does not preclude the other, and I simply do not see why one cannot have both.

Anna Tarkov
Chicago, IL

The recent episode of On the Nose was fascinating and also a striking illustration of Ashkenormativity: In the discussion, Jewish secularism was depicted as a purely Ashkenazi phenomenon, and all the examples the conversation participants provided of secular Jewish culture were forms of Yiddishkeit and their Americanized incarnations. Sephardic experiences in irreligion can provide an important alternate outlook on this matter. In his memoir (the first known Ladino autobiography), Saadi Halevy (1819-1903), a publisher from Salonica, devoted endless pages to describing how he chafed under the control of rabbis who put anyone who stepped out of line into herem (excommunication) and had their minions scour the streets for Shabbat breakers to be beaten. But Saadi was not opposed to Judaism; he simply wanted to read and publish a diverse array of books. His rebellion heralded the rise of secular generations of Sephardim across the Mediterranean. These were Jews who were educated by the French-Jewish Alliance Israélite Universalle (AIU) and for whom the republic and the laïcité of the French Revolution were cultural touchstones. At AIU schools, students engaged with Jewish history on secular terms for the first time. Sephardic laicism was not a poke-in-the-eye minoritarian project—there were no Yom Kippur balls in Izmir or Cairo—as the secularists quickly won the debate. Religion for secular Sepharadim was a private concern: Having dinner with your family on Shabbat, participating in a seder, listening to the shofar once a year inside a synagogue were the means of being a responsible Jew. But intellectual sources were secular and Western, and issues of modern life could not be debated on the basis of religious text. They had no need to “ventriloquize” the perasha (emphasis on the “e”), to borrow Mitch Abidor’s phrase, when they could turn to Rousseau. They did not create freedom seders; they read the agada (the story-cum-guidebook for the seder) that they knew from family life and did not make a big fuss about what it meant.

Hebrew readership declined and Sephardic yeshivas from Rhodes to Salonica to Istanbul continued to close in the first half of the 20th century. The devastation of the Holocaust put the final nail in the coffin of historic Sephardi religious institutions. There were fewer and fewer people who could even challenge the implicit secularist paradigm and argue for religious texts to be taken seriously from a place of knowledge. Where the early Sephardi press mocked superstition, by midcentury there was no superstition left to mock.

Like with Ashkenazi secularism, this implicitly secular Sephardi identity proved too weak to withstand hegemonic Zionism after WWII. Yet it is worth remembering that there has been more than one project of Jewish secularism; the Ashkenazi one need not be our lodestar.

Nesi Altaras
Stanford, CA

I am very grateful for Jewish Currents’s new parshah commentary series, as well as for the recent podcast conversation about it. The critique raised by Mitch Abidor and Judee Rosenbaum in the On the Nose episode helped me articulate some of my own hesitancies about my impulse to deepen my relationship with Jewish text.

One particular moment in the podcast that I found thought provoking was Abidor’s critique of leftist Torah interpretation as “religious ventriloquism—the dummy is Jewish religion, where you are making it say what you want it to say.” I have had this reaction to several of the recent parshah commentaries. Why do so much work to make the text relevant? Injecting a modern political agenda into an ancient text feels unnecessary to me. On the other hand, as Nathan Goldman said, the friction between the text and our own impulses might sharpen, or even change, our own thinking.

One response to this tension between viewing the text as static and irrelevant, as per Abidor, and generative and meaningful, as per Goldman, builds off of something Arielle Angel said: “The practice of reading is more Jewish than the text itself.” This remark brought to mind my own experience of chanting at a Zen center I attend in Brooklyn every Saturday. I used to dislike chanting—I didn’t understand how singing in Japanese could deepen my spiritual practice. When I posed this question to my teacher, she suggested that I use the chanting as “an invitation to presence,” meaning that chanting, like breathwork, is a bounded and specific tool to help us hold our attention. Like many ancient, embodied traditions, commentary is a performance, a practice. We can rely on the act of creating commentary because we know how to do it. Our bodies, like the bodies of so many before ours, have moved just like this—reading and writing, reading and writing. If I approach reading commentary as a ritual practice, then my most important work is to show up, to be present to my reading. I am liberated from the pressure of truth-seeking, and my encounter with the commentary becomes playful, improvisational, and poetic. The material of these forms is not irrelevant, but perhaps meaning doesn’t hold ultimate primacy in a spiritual context. Maybe engaging the weekly parshah is more about reconnecting with Jewish rhythms and rituals of learning, rather than deriving answers from its content.

Ruby Beenhouwer
Queens, NY

The latest On the Nose episode about religion and secularism on the Jewish left reminded me of something the poet Jorie Graham said in a 1996 interview about lineages of poetry. When asked if she saw any trends in the next generation of poets, Graham said that they “seem to be yearning for permission to break past their own remarkably sophisticated understanding of the ideological premises of their enterprise.” She continues:

I think they’re managing a synthesis of the many—oftentimes balkanized—aesthetic devices the generation previous to them developed. I’ll have students simultaneously influenced by Susan Howe and Sharon Olds—or by elements of their styles—students for whom these two poets, for example, don’t seem to embody any prohibitive polarity of purpose or belief. When they learn (or “lift”) stylistic devices from these recent forebears, they don’t seem to lift the ideological or political assumptions that gave rise to those styles—what made them “hard-earned” in other words. And these are by no means people who are in any way naive, or unaware of the implications of what they are choosing to ignore. It fascinates me, worries me, and in many ways delights me—especially as a poet who has witnessed such great antagonisms between differing aesthetic schools—to see them sample and synthesize and invent without feeling the need to be accountable to the beliefs that gave birth to those voices and styles they imitate. I guess it’s always so in the history of how any art form breaks through a period style.

Twenty-five years ago, I found it hard to find Jewish leftist spaces that felt more than nominally Jewish, and likewise found it difficult to find Jewish spiritual spaces where I could fully bring my political self. One of the most hopeful things about the last quarter century for me is that Jewish leftist organizations have built their own institutions with a capacious sense of Jewishness, drawing both from the long history of secular Jewish activism and also pulling from and drawing forward the threads of Jewish spiritual practice and thought.

Writer and activist Adrienne Maree Brown has written about the connection between social justice and science fiction. In both spheres we move forward through the imagination: Will we realize the world we envision, or will we find ourselves living within someone else’s story? Will the options be more than the choice between an essentialized, bunker-mentality Judaism or an increasingly attenuated cultural one? This Jewish futurism, that samples and synthesizes and invents, bringing together Marx and the Torah, Zinn and Buber, The Question of Palestine and the book of Ruth, around an ethics of solidarity and liberation is an imagined home that I want to live in.

David Naimon
Portland, OR

The letter writer is the host of the Between the Covers podcast.