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Footprints: Pride vs. Ambivalence — The Secular Jewish Dilemma

September 21, 2011

Jewish Currents Has Always Promoted a Non-Religious Outlook. What Kind of American Jewish Identity Has This Produced?

by Lawrence Bush From the Autumn, 2011 issue of Jewish Currents. This article is one of a series reflecting on the history of Jewish Currents on the occasion of our 65th anniversary. You can find the other entries here. I SPENT A GOOD PART of the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend this year at Limmud, a gathering of some seven hundred Jews at a resort in my neighborhood in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley. Limmud (the word means “learning” or “study”) is an informal movement that convenes conferences like this around the world, throughout the year. Driven mostly by young volunteers, it has become the place to go to encounter what is current in Jewish education and, to a lesser extent, Jewish social activism. I saw some friends, led three workshops and handed out scores of copies of Jewish Currents — but I also struggled, as a secular Jew, with a familiar feeling of marginalization. I saw no distinctly secular Jewish workshops listed in the program, and the first workshop I led, about the radical essences of Jewish identity, was scheduled as the sole alternative to Friday evening shabes services — as though the organizers had realized, late in the game, that not only did they need to offer a variety of prayer services (egalitarian, sex-separated, etc.), they also might need an alternative to prayer services for some of the participants. They shouldn’t have worried: Only a handful of folks showed up for my workshop, while the several rooms for davening were wall-to-wall with people. These were Jews who want to pray at the start of the sabbath, who bond together that way. Over the course of the weekend, I found them to be a diverse crowd, interesting and lively, mostly liberal-minded — and filled with young people who were notably enthusiastic about their Jewish identities. By contrast, I felt uneasy about my own alienation from religious practice, a feeling that was mostly self-critical. On Sunday evening, however, the self-criticism became self-righteousness as a gigantic television screen in the hotel lobby was turned on for the Jets football game, and Limmudniks gathered to watch and cheer. Jews, I thought, is this the best we can do on the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend? Is this the way to celebrate our values in the context of worldliness: Go, Jets, go? I KNEW THAT I would be leaving the conference the next morning to gather with my “Martin Luther King Jr. Brigade” — a small group of friends, Jews and non-Jews, who have been observing the King holiday together for years. We would be watching a new film about the Freedom Riders and then go serve dinner at a nearby food pantry — and for the first time all weekend, I would feel truly fulfilled as a Jew. My Limmud experience showcased a key dilemma that faces secular Jews: While we are usually proud to identify our ethics, politics, and values with our Jewishness, our passion for Jewish identity is not fueled by belief in a commanding God, or by an authoritative system of ethical behavior, or by an engrossing, even rapturous relationship to ritual, holidays, and texts. To the contrary, many secular Jews are distinctly uncomfortable with, even scornful of, theology, halokhe (religious law) and many of those rituals, holidays, and texts. As a result, we have fewer bonds than our “co-religionists” to the Jewish tradition and to the sense of Jewish “belonging” that it cultivates. In fact, many secularists are highly ambivalent about that sense of “belonging,” often dismissing it as “tribalism” or “ethnic chauvinism.” After all, our brand of Jewish identity has deep roots in a humanistic, socialistic, brotherhood-and-sisterhood world view. Because of these roots, “Is it good for the Jews?” is not a question you’ll hear from many secular Jews, except as a punchline. These issues of discomfort and commitment go way back in our community, judging from an article written fifty years ago by long-time JC editor Morris U. Schappes. There is “a certain uneasiness felt by many Jewish progressives in the face of the very term, ‘Jewish values,’” he noted (“A Secular View of Jewish Life,” June, 1961):
Knowing the phrase is often used... in a mystical sense that ‘Jewish values’ are derived from God and... in the sense that Jewish values are somehow superior to those of other peoples, Jewish progressives have disdained the concept of Jewish values altogether. By doing so, however, they have merely abandoned the field to the religionists and the chauvinists...
Ever the Marxist, Schappes went on to suggest that Jewish class struggle had, in fact, given rise to “two historic traditions, two sets of values.” The progressive set was “best known in ancient Jewish history in terms of the Hebrew prophets, who denounced those Jews who grind the face of the poor, [and] fought for social good, social equality and social justice.” Schappes then offered a handsome summation of “the most obvious” of those progressive Jewish values (it’s worth reading slowly): “social justice; the need for peace; the right to be different; moral idealism; self-sacrifice for the common good; group solidarity in the face of the anti-Semitic enemy; the social responsibility of art and the artist; the desire for group continuity.” Such values, Schappes argued, “are a part of ‘universal,’ ‘international’ values, but they are a Jewish part, born of Jewish historic experience.... No one,” after all, he continued, “lives in The Universe.... Universal history is the sum total of group... histories, seen in their interconnections.” Schappes did not offer Jewish textual derivations for the values he outlined. In the five years I worked as his assistant editor (1978-1983), he never quoted Torah or Talmud to me, and he never referenced a Jewish ritual or holiday as exemplifying those values he considered to be quintessentially Jewish. Schappes did know Jewish history and Yiddish literature, however, and those were sufficient to sustain his viewpoint about the progressive essences of Jewish identity. INDEED, THROUGHOUT his decades with JC, the magazine always sought to cultivate appreciation for what the eloquent literary critic Itche Goldberg called “the essence of the values which were created in Yiddish.” Those values, said Goldberg (in “Our Yiddish Literary Heritage,” November, 1960), were fundamentally progressive, “expressing sharp moral judgments upon the evils of the world... refusing to compromise with indignities... [and] keeping faith with the little man.” For Goldberg’s mentor, Khayim Zhitlovsky, it was not only the values but the language itself that was essential: “We absolutely cannot expect a progressive Jewish mass culture” in English alone, he said in the 1930s (“Zhitlovsky: Philosopher of Jewish Secularism,” by Max Rosenfeld, June, 1965). Of course, JC’s very existence as an English-language, progressive Jewish journal would eventually contradict Zhitlovsky’s view, as would the reality of American Jewish culture as left-leaning and mostly constructed in English. Nevertheless, Zhitlovsky was right in a broader sense: Yiddish did serve even English-speaking secular Jews of Schappes’ and Goldberg’s generation the way halokhe serves observant Jews, as a Jewish touchstone for daily living and a Jewish ethical sensibility. The loss of that touchstone has certainly slackened the passion and connectedness of subsequent generations of secular Jews. Other factors have slackened that passion even more. Probably the leading culprit is the refusal of “the leading institutions of American Jewry to foster... a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and towards its own Arab citizens,”as Zionist activist and scholar Peter Beinart wrote last year in the New York Review of Books. In fact, even while the emergence of J Street and other alternatives to the “pro-Israel” establishment has opened doors wide for progressive Jewish participation in Jewish communal life, the very centrality of Israel as the number one focus of the American Jewish community has been a turn-off for many in our circles who were never particularly devoted to Zionism to begin with. Although Jewish Currents, from its founding, embraced Israel as a post-Holocaust “affirmative action” for our tortured people, the broader Zionist goal of Jewish “normalization” has always seemed to contradict the commitment to dissent, conscience, internationalism, and creative “otherness” that defines our radical Jewish sensibility. (That said, I will defer further discussion of our magazine’s historical perspective on Israel and on Israeli Jewish identity to the fourth and final installment of this “Footprints” series.) ANOTHER FACTOR that has dampened secular Jewish passion is that many of us are stuck with an impression of Judaism and synagogue life, dating from the 1950s or earlier, as a crashing bore, polluted by sexism, silly superstition, embarrassing materialism, and excessive tribalism. Only a minority of us have paid attention to progressive developments in contemporary synagogue life — and few have followed Zhitlovsky’s advice to separate the “products” of Judaism from their “theological raiment” and immerse ourselves, atheism notwithstanding, in Jewish texts, the Jewish calendar, and “the individual-moral and social-ethical ideals” of the Jewish tradition (“Zhitlovsky: Philosopher of Jewish Secularism”). That task of immersion is not easy, after all. As Mark Mlotek of the Workmen’s Circle has written in Secular Jewishness for Our Time (a very interesting anthology published by the Forward Association in 2006 and edited by our own Barnett Zumoff along with Karl D. Zukerman):
[S]ecular Jews have to deal with the basic issue that there is no good primer on how to live one’s life as a secular Jew. Because there is no good formal secular Jewish educational process, such as exists in the religious Jewish community, a secular Jew must work hard at it, must study on his or her own, must develop his or her own practices, and must initiate his or her own traditions. As secular Jews, we do not have a prayer book to fall back on for rote recitation — we must develop and constantly redevelop our own lifestyle materials to fit our own individual beliefs...
Well, why should we? Why not turn our backs on Jewish particularism altogether and simply devote ourselves to the progressive, universalist politics that our Yiddish-accented ancestors helped to invent? They naturally organized themselves as Jews, since they were organically tied to the identity by language, ethnicity, occupations, neighborhoods, and, of course, the scourge of anti-Semitism — but for us, Jewish identity is something for which we volunteer. Why should we? IN THE FORUM, “Is There a Future for Jewish Secularism,” which I organized for this magazine’s May-June and Autumn, 2009 issues, I admitted in my own essay that thirty-odd years ago, my central motive for coming to work as a “professional Jew” was political: to help shore up Jewish liberalism as a “natural resource” for social change in America. Jewish “continuity” as an ethnic or religious preservationist project was, by comparison, low on my list of concerns, and if ever we were to reach a point at which all people who call themselves “Jews” were religiously Orthodox and politically conservative — God forbid! — I would probably no longer count myself among them or devote myself to their well-being. Such a politically-motivated Jewish identity may seem opportunistic, even “self-hating,” to many in the Jewish community, but it is consistent with the motives of my elders in the secular Jewish world, many of whom saw themselves as socialists and humanists first, Jews second (or, to put it another way, they saw socialist humanism as the heartbeat of Jewish identity). Still, during my decades of involvement in Jewish life, I have come to appreciate my “tribe” and my tradition more and more. That appreciation is still “political,” as I have found key Jewish teachings, both religious and secular, to be rich sources of progressive ethical philosophy. I am also hugely admiring of the talent some of my people seem to have for progressive political leadership and cultural innovation. Perhaps because of our historically-minded religion, and perhaps because of the limits placed on our ability, in centuries past, to imbed ourselves securely in the private sphere of life, Jews seem more inclined than many others to see themselves as having a role to play in making history and improving the world. We are resistant to complacency and restless in the face of injustice — and this has made Jews a very interesting people to me. I have even turned out to be more of a “preservationist” than I thought — the object of my preservationist efforts being the radical, secular Jewish tradition, which has been all but erased from most accountings of Jewish history and culture. Young Jews today have depressingly few points of access to that tradition, compared to the points of access they are offered to the religious content of Judaism. Yet it is the anti-establishment, countercultural aspects of Jewish identity that most often excite them — which may account, in part, for why Orthodox Judaism, the most immersive variety of Judaism, is the only variety that is growing. Without a visible, active left in America, we get the Tea Party; without a visible, radical Jewish secularism, we get Orthodoxy. As immersed as I may be in Jewish identity issues, I remain, fundamentally, a universalist Jew. My concern for Jewish survival is rooted most deeply in my belief that Jews and their ethical tradition are an important resource for the larger human race. When I read Torah passages about Abraham’s monotheistic epiphanies, or Jacob’s wrestling match, I think of these characters not really as my tribal ancestors but as representations of all human beings who strive to think, to live the examined life, to achieve a state of mentshlikhkayt (full humanity). When I observe Passover with family and friends, I don’t tune in to some covenantal identity that is special to my tribe, I tune into freedom struggles worldwide. When I recently created a video, “Mountain Day,” to mark Shvues (aka Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai), I featured not only Moses coming down the mountain, but Eleanor Roosevelt with the Declaration of Human Rights, Martin Luther King, Jr. with his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and John Lennon with his song, “Instant Karma” — all latter-day pieces of Torah, and not just for Jews. Without Shvues on my calendar, however, I would not have created that video and might not have had occasion to think about the Declaration of Human Rights. Without the Passover seder, I might not make it my business to talk about freedom struggle in quite the same focused way with my friends and family. Being tuned into the Jewish tradition helps discipline me to contemplate the world and its cycles and to activate my political soul. Therefore, rather than allowing the ideological evaluations of past generations of secularists to limit my participation in Jewish life, I prefer to be a Jewish “maximalist.” This is how I have sought to shape Jewish Currents during my tenure as editor, to place it on a continuum with what Khayim Zhitlovsky aptly described as “the poetic rebirth of the Jewish religion.” “I remain convinced to this very day,” said Zhitlovsky in 1908, “that not everything is rotten in the old treasures of our people... A critical examination of our cultural heritage will disclose immense treasures... valuable because of the deep generally humanistic elements they contain and not simply because they were developed by our forefathers” (as reported by Yankl Stillman in his November-December, 2006 article, “Itche Goldberg on Khayim Zhitlovsky”). TODAY, THE “poetic rebirth of the Jewish religion” is by no means monopolized by secular Jews. All of the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism, within the limits of their ideologies, are actively trying to decrease the credibility gap between traditional Judaism and a modern humanistic sensibility. The challenges of cultivating a passionate connection to Jewish identity are also not unique to secular Jews. To the contrary, ambivalence about religion afflicts many synagogue communities; our secular community at least has the virtue of being honest about our lack of religious faith, which spares us some of the ambivalence that other have to endure. Still, whereas one century ago Jewish secularism simply “meant the recognition that there are aspects to Judaism besides religion,” as Rabbi Emanuel S. Goldsmith said when JC interviewed him in July-August, 2008 (“The Contemporary Meaning of the Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference”), the phrase “Jewish secularism” today is more identified with what he called “anti-religionism” than with creative approaches to the Jewish tradition. Our capacity for innovation, continuity, and making a creative contribution to the modern interpretation of Judaism itself has been greatly dampened since earlier generations, and the line between assimilationism and secularism has become very thin for many secular Jews. As a secularist who has worked for both secular and religious Jewish communities, I want to see Jewish Currents building bridges among Jews by “secularizing the sacred and sanctifying the secular” (as my friend Billy Yalowitz recently put it). I therefore agitate for fundamental literacy about Jewish religious philosophy, ritual, and the calendar among secular Jews, and for the creation of a synagogue culture in which the Torah and God-worship are moved several feet to the side and secular Jewish culture is truly celebrated. Ultimately, my vision is for our fences to become fringes — and for the creative power of secular skepticism to be mobilized on behalf of an authentic, progressive, universalistic Jewish identity. Lawrence Bush is the editor of Jewish Currents.