Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
Religion, Secularism, and the Jewish Left
0:00 / 46:30
June 6, 2024

On March 29th, Jewish Currents began publishing a short commentary on the parshah—the portion of the Torah that Jews traditionally read each week—in the Shabbat Reading List newsletter. A note introducing this new feature situated it in the context of mainstream Jewish communal support for Israel’s war on Gaza: “While it might seem strange for a historically secular magazine to embark on such a project . . . we are trying this now because many in our community have expressed an unprecedented alienation from most Jewish institutions, alongside an urgent need for spiritual fortification.” While many readers have written in to express their gratitude and enthusiasm for the series, some people with long histories of close involvement with Jewish Currents have been upset by the inclusion of religious content. The range of reactions highlights an enduring dispute over the place of religion at Jewish Currents. The magazine was founded by a stridently secularist American Jewish left, which was forged in opposition to the reactionary constraints of religion and in alignment with the Communist Party. But this has given way to a movement that’s more interested in religious texts and ritual as generative elements of Jewish identity, and as politically meaningful tools.

On this episode of On the Nose, editor-in-chief Arielle Angel, managing editor Nathan Goldman, JC councilmember Judee Rosenbaum, and contributing writer Mitch Abidor argue about the parshah commentaries, the meaning of secularism at Jewish Currents, and the evolving role of religion on the Jewish left.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Articles Mentioned and Further Reading:

Complex Inheritances,” Joy Ladin, Jewish Currents

Yiddish Anarchists’ Break Over Palestine,” introduced and translated by Eyshe Beirich, Jewish Currents

Camp Kinderland at 100,” On the Nose, Jewish Currents

Zhitlovsky: Philosopher of Jewish Secularism,” Max Rosenfeld, Cultural and Secular Jewish Organization (previously in Jewish Currents)

Secularism,” Daniel May, Sources

Letter to the editor on religious coverage at Jewish Currents, with editors’ response

Secular Jewish Education, A Critique,” Bennett Muraskin, Jewish Currents

Why I’m Not a Jewish Secularist,” Mitch Abidor, Jewish Currents

Why I’m Not a Jewish Secularist: A Response to the Responses,” Mitch Abidor, Jewish Currents

The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude,” Étienne de la Boétie


Nathan Goldman: Welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. I’m Nathan Goldman, the managing editor of Jewish Currents, and I’ll be your host for today. On March 29, we began including a short commentary on the parshah, the portion of the Torah that Jews traditionally study each week, and the Shabbat Reading List newsletter. In a note introducing this new feature, we situated it in the context of mainstream Jewish support for Israel’s war on Gaza. We wrote: “While it might seem strange for a historically secular magazine to embark on such a project, we are trying this now because many in our community have expressed an unprecedented alienation from most Jewish institutions, alongside an urgent need for spiritual fortification.”

NG: We invited readers to send us their thoughts on this experiment, and we’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response: about 70 emails of support over the past two months. One reader wrote: “It’s been so hard to do Torah study at my synagogue or even listen to our Rabbi’s sermons since October 7, so this opportunity for Jewish learning is much appreciated.” Another called the commentaries quote, “An important claim to Jewish teachings and, honestly, for Jewish community.” Some of the readers who wrote to express their gratitude identified themselves as religious, others as secular, and some spoke to the value of undermining this binary. One longtime reader wrote: “I’ve been a reader and subscriber to JC from the days of Morris Schappes,” who served on the editorial board beginning in 1946 and became editor in 1958, quote, “as an independent communist magazine. One of the true blessings of the recent JC is an appreciation, rather than an acceptance, of our being fully Jewish. So, for someone like me, the inclusion of parshah interpretation is the completion of a circle.”

NG: But some others with long histories of close involvement with Jewish Currents have not felt this way at all. For instance, we received a thoughtful critical letter from Tamar Zinn, who was a member of the Jewish Currents editorial board for 15 years and is now a member of the JC Council, a group of advisors that grew out of the editorial board under the magazine’s previous leadership, and who is part of a third generation of a deeply secular Jewish family with roots in both the Farband and Bundist Jewish socialist movements. She wrote to express that she was, quote, “deeply distressed by the parshah commentaries. Since it was founded in 1946,” she wrote, “JC has held Jewish secularism as a core value, and by sending out a weekly commentary on a religious text, you are undermining that commitment. Throughout its long history, JC has been a forum for rigorous discussion of issues of interest to the progressive Jewish community as it intersects with a larger world. Its commitment to secularism was intentional, and its editors steered clear of religious texts and mysticism. JC provided a rare forum where those of us who had no interest in religious Jewish perspectives could nonetheless experience a sense of community as Jews.”

NG: The range of reactions highlights an enduring dispute over the role of religion at Jewish Currents as a stridently secularist American Jewish left, forged in opposition to the reactionary constraints of religion and in alignment with the Communist Party, has given way to a movement that’s much more interested in religious texts and ritual as generative elements of Jewish identity and as politically meaningful tools. So we wanted to convene a conversation between a few of us with some opposing views on this question. Joining me today on the pro-parshah side is Arielle Angel, editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents

Arielle Angel: Hi

NG: And representing those opposed to the encroachment of religion, we’re joined by two wonderful guests who have been involved with Jewish Currents for many, many years. I’m excited to welcome Judee Rosenbaum back to the podcast.

Judee Rosenbaum: Hi

NG: And for his first ever appearance on the podcast, we have longtime contributing writer and our most consistent contributor to the Shabbat Reading List, Mitch Abidor.

Mitch Abidor: Hi, all.

NG: Thank you all so much for being part of this conversation. So, Arielle, I wonder if you could start us off by giving everyone a sense of how you thought about the role of religion in Jewish Currents coverage for the six years that you’ve been at the magazine? Why this moment has made us shift our strategy, somewhat, and what you hope that might make possible.

AA: When we started six years ago, our main funding came from the Puffin Foundation, who was involved with Jewish Currents before, and secularism was a core value for Puffin (as it had been in the magazine for a long time), and that’s where a lot of our conversations about secularism entered in. And I have to admit, I didn’t really understand the commitment to this idea of quote, “secularism,” I didn’t really understand what it meant to some of these old timers. And it’s actually been a learning experience for me to understand how freighted this term is with identity, almost in the same way that many Jews today freight Jewish identity with Zionism—like that becomes a form of Jewish identity. Secularism definitely holds that role for many people in the older Jewish Currents community. And so I was kind of ignorant of this, I have to admit. But even still, I was sort of like: Cool, we’ll do secularism, I’m not orthodox, I’m not observant. And, though I’ve personally been enriched in the past by my own dalliances with Torah study and look fondly on my experience of learning Torah as a younger person in Jewish Day School and middle school, I didn’t really see the need to incorporate that into the work of the magazine.

AA: And in fact, a few times in the past couple of years, we did some work that strayed in that direction, like we did Joy Ladin and talking about reading the story of Esau and Jacob as like a trans allegory. And I have to say, I liked that piece, but I wasn’t really clear that it was Jewish Currents’ role to do that kind of work. I saw Tikkun, the magazine Tikkun, doing that work and engaging in spiritual questions. And those forms didn’t really feel compelling to me, or I didn’t see a good reason to do that. That has changed a lot over the last couple of years, as people are being drawn into an engagement with their Jewish identity and are trying to understand what Jewishness is made of in this moment—not just as a reaction to Zionism but as an inhabited identity.

AA: And also, just as things get harder, as people’s lives get harder in the present moment, as people feel a sense of futurelessness around climate change, around American imperialism, around the American economy and grinding capitalism, there are ways in which ethical questions have emerged that don’t seem to have answers in just straight conversations about tactics, or that there’s a spiritual element to all of these issues. I’ve started to feel so much more present and in the needs of our readership, and that I feel myself. And I think that to ignore that, and to ignore the political utility of that, in this moment, seems strange—because it would mean that we were not responding to the ways that people’s needs are changing, and to the ways that the political moment is changing, and to the ways that spirituality and Jewish text is playing into that. So I think I’ll just leave it there for now, because I know we’re going to challenge all of the terms that I just laid out. But, suffice to say, it has felt extremely important for us to start exploring what the basis of Judaism is now, without it being a simply oppositional kind of identity. And this seems like one way among many that the magazine is hoping to explore that.

MA: That was really interesting stuff, Arielle, and this is straight from the heart. You know how much I love you, Arielle, and how much I love you, Nathan.

AA: Here it comes

MA: Here it comes. Here it comes. I really—from the first moment that I saw the parshahs, I was sickened. There’s no other word for it. And reading them made me even sicker. Because they’re a betrayal of absolutely everything that I’ve spent my whole life believing and participating in. So the first thing is, you’re now encouraging the root of all evil. I mean, I hate to sound like an old fogy, but I’ll go back to 1729, when the first great modern atheist, and the first great communist (although it’s often attributed to Devoe, it was not him. It was Jean Meslier), who said, “and all the great of the earth, and all the nobles, should be hung and strangled with the guts of priests.” That is the basis of radicalism. Might sound juvenile, but it’s been the basis for radical activity—for revolutionary activity—since the 18th century. So I’m not even going to talk about whether it’s a betrayal of Jewish Currents’ historic role; you guys have the right to change it however you want.

AA: As you once said to me, Mitch: “Jewish Currents is dead, long live Jewish Currents.”

MA: Exactly. And I love that the magazine people pay attention to it. But what you said here, Arielle, however eloquent and heartfelt it was about, you know, we have to provide people something positive—what about history, for God’s sake? What was the founding values of the left, and then of the Jewish left, was escaping the dead hand of the rabbis. And now you’re quoting Rabbi Ishkabibble Megibegeheimer—in parentheses, known as the Ishkaplow—who the fuck are these people?

AA: I think, in the way that this younger generation has torn down a lot of binaries (like the gender binary, for example), we don’t feel oppressed by the weight of the dead hand of the rabbis or whatever the way that your generation did—and, therefore, we don’t have to rebel against them. We are in no danger of becoming religious fundamentalists. We quote them as participants in a certain textual conversation, not as authorities.

NG: Yeah, I’ll add to what Arielle said, I was talking with Rafi Magarik, telling him we were going to have this conversation. He’s one of the people who’s been writing some of the parshah commentaries and is a contributing writer and involved in various forays into religion at Currents. And one of the things that he said about this conversation is that he felt like, often, when secular Jews he’s talked to who are more critical of engaging in religious stuff, ascribe this idea of authority that for him—and he, this is someone who’s observant—but for him, there’s no inherent authority in dealing with interpreting and playing with these texts. That, much the same way that we do interpretation of other kinds of texts, that there’s nothing inherently submissive to that authority to engage with them. Now, obviously, these texts emerge from a certain context and have relationships to structures of power. But I really agree with this sense that it’s not a slippery slope of engaging with them, and then suddenly, you’re stuck in all of those political commitments. I do think there are ways of participating in them as this conversation and this tradition of interpretation. I would also just add, I think it really oversimplifies to think about this strict binary between the liberatory possibilities of secularism and atheism and the reactionary possibilities of religion. I think we’ve clearly seen, in many different contexts, people who arrive at quite radical and liberatory politics through religious commitments, and people who arrive at quite reactionary politics through opposition to religious commitments. But maybe we could, Judee, bring you into the conversation so you could speak to some to your experience and how you are thinking about this question.

JR: Before I say anything else about theory and secularism, I want to correct what I think is an understandable misapprehension on the part of all three of you. I work with young people through Camp Kinderland, and through the Kinder Schul, and through Encore, the political activist group. I’ve spoken to a number of them about this issue. They’re all like: What? Why would we want to do that? It’s not an old people’s involvement. It’s not an old people’s concern. These are young people who have been arrested in the demonstrations. They’re extremely active. They’re extremely committed. They’re thoughtful. They are—I mean, we have lots of arguments. It’s not a monolith. But all of them are like: No, we have nothing against religion. We’re not saying that. We welcome the ultra-ultra-orthodox Jewish men who stand at the pro-Palestinian rallies if their sign’s saying “Yes, yes,” you know, “Palestine must be free”—but religion has nothing to do with us. We don’t find solace in it. Religious teachings have nothing to do with us. So I just wanted to get that out of the way. It’s not just “You old people are so sad that Currents isn’t secular anymore.”

AA: Sure, Judee, I hear that. I’m not trying to reinforce the generational aspect of this. But I don’t think you can deny that it has a very strong generational bent. Even if there are people who are saying, “Well, we are not interested in this” who are in our generation, they are not upset about it in the way that the older generation is upset about it.

JR: Yes, they are, actually—some of them are. The current cultural director of our camp, who is 26 years old, is like, “They did what? Oh, I have to read that. I can’t believe it. Why? Why are they doing that?” they said, “Why are they doing that when they could be using many texts?” But I want to clarify a few things. Secularism is not a rejection of religion or a denial of religion. If you’re secular in practice, in the way you function in the world, you can be religious in your private practice; you can be anti-religious in your private practice. Neither of them is going to affect the way you work in this world. But culturally and educationally, you’re not going to bring obedience to (or regard to) a higher authority or a sacred text into your arguments. Your belief in—whether it’s a text or an authority or whatever—is not going to be part of the Jewish secular culture that we’re trying to carry on. That’s one; the other thing—look, you mentioned it, many people draw inspiration and courage from their religion. There’s no debating that to me, but other people draw inspiration from Jewish history, literature and tradition that is non-religious. Jewish Currents, in the last six years, has paid no attention to that heritage. If you want to have discussion, you can counterpose a historical text, a biblical text.

AA: But Judee, can I just butt in here? I think the idea that we’re not already doing that is not true. I mean, we have a reading list where people are spending time dissecting three different texts of all different kinds. I mean, Mitch is bringing whatever he’s bringing, historical or literary, and other people are doing the same. And then Rafi is doing the same thing with a religious text. And last week, we had, for example, a Yiddish translation of anarchists having an argument about Zionism from after the Hebron massacre. And so it’s not like we’re not doing that—we are doing that, and we’re also integrating these other texts into the frame.

JR: There’s been no discussion about what is secularism in the pages of the magazine itself. August Bundy, who came from the 1848 wars in Europe, came to the United States and became an abolitionist (he fought with John Brown), and one of his famous quotations is, “My mother said that as a Yehudah, I must fight against all forms of bondage and enslavement.” I haven’t seen anything like that. Ernestine Rose, the daughter of a rabbi who was involved in—again, in abolition, in women’s suffrage—a million, million, things. You do not give a voice to the ideas of secular literary or historic figures.

MA: This is where I differ completely from Judee. So even though we come to this same objection to the religious turn, we do it from different starting points, because Judee thinks it’s a community of secularism. I’m with Kafka; you know, what do I have in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself. What makes me a Jew is not secularism, because anything that gloms onto the Jewish religion is just anathema to me (using a religious term). And my relationship to Jewishness has got two things: One, I’m a Jew, because I’m a Jew.

AA: That’s just not enough. I’m sorry. It’s enough for a mid-century Jew.

MA: No—over 50% of American Jews have nothing to do with religion

AA: And everything to do with Zionism. That’s what they’ve replaced religion with.

MA: Okay, but let me finish. I loved the previous podcast that Judee did, because there were names in it that were the things that got me interested in Jewish Currents, in the Morgen Freiheit and the whole Jewish left, fifty-some years ago. You know that there’s a whole tradition of Jewish leftists that no longer appear to—that have no place in Jewish Currents now, while religious figures now do. Now, as for Nathan, what you said: For me, when I when I read all the parshahs (as I said, with increasing nausea), I really looked at it as a kind of gimmick, as an act of intellectual ventriloquism. And the dummy is the Jewish religion, which is being made to say exactly what you want it to say. And I don’t know if you guys know about the Sortes Vergilianae, where you open a volume of Virgil at random, and then you point it at passage, and then you interpret it. And of course, you’re always gonna get what you want.

AA: Which, by the way, the chabadniks do that too, as a way of divining. They open a book of the rebbes letters, and they ask a question, and then find a passage at random

MA: Because everything—and this is, for your purposes anyway, the beauty of the Talmud, because everything is in it, and its opposite. So it’s like going to a Chinese restaurant when I was little; you’re taking one from column A, two from column B, and to hell with the rest of it, I’m not going to have the chop suey. But the other thing that struck me was, and where I think the training in some of this stuff, and your willingness to accept it (and this is a generational thing), is French theory. French theory, which was the great poison that my generation first started inflicting on the world. When I read some of the stuff in the parshahs—where something says something and you interpret it exactly the opposite way of what it’s saying—all I keep thinking of is Derrida defending Paul de Man. When it was discovered that he wrote antisemitic articles for a collaborationist newspaper, Derrida writes: It’s actually a critique of antisemitism. And so you can’t lose in your analysis, because since nothing is what it is, it can always be exactly what you want it to be.

NG: Well, isn’t this exactly like the inverse concern of the authority argument? It’s like, is religion too authoritative for you, or is it too flexible for you? To me, part of the power of the tradition that we have is it exactly this malleability and ability for interpretation and reinterpretation that—on the one hand, yes, I think it’s true that the tradition and the practice of reading the Jews makes it possible to get completely divergent interpretations and values out of the texts. This is why I think, when people speak about Jewish values, there’s a political efficacy to that, but there’s also a way in which it’s always an oversimplification. Of course, there’s no one set of Jewish values that are coherent with the politics that we want to have. On the other hand, I think that the particular convergence of the structure, and constructions, and restrictions that the textual tradition has (and that hermeneutic openness) are a perfect site for a kind of generative interpretation and play that is not just a complete freewheeling thing.

NG: What I think happens in the best kind of confrontations with tradition and with text is a collision between: Who am I?; What are my values?; Where am I coming from?; What questions do I have in this text?; and a history of interpreting it, that in the best circumstances, yes, there’s going to be an interplay and there are going to be things that I’m going to encounter and reject or think are a problem that have to be resolved—because there’s things that I won’t accept. But that should produce the kind of friction that things can come out of that are surprising. And obviously, that doesn’t happen in every case. It’s a kind of best-case scenario. But I think that’s really the goal, is to have the chance to surprise ourselves and get somewhere that is both in line with our values and our politics, but that also is going to surprise us and might sharpen or shift aspects of those values and those politics

AA: I want to bring us back to a few different things, because a few things came up. One thing was the, “I’m a Jew, because I’m a Jew,” and I really find this problematic, because I think that actually, this is where the generational difference is very wide, in the sense that we just don’t have the luxury to say that. We did not grow up in a world where that meant something. That’s just the truth. And, as I’ve pointed out to Judee many times now, the secularist world that tried to impart something else did not socially reproduce itself sufficiently to be meaningful. It just didn’t. And it has to reckon with why it was not able to do that. Instead, what we received was a world where Jewishness and Jewish social uplift, especially for white Jews, meant, essentially, whiteness and assimilation into an American power structure. There was no religious basis for what it meant to be a Jew, there was no othering, there was no othering or otherness.

AA: I mean, this is the problem. You want to look at the literary tradition—in the mid-century, you had a bunch of writers who said, “Well, we’re not Jewish writers” but who were coming from such a deep—you know, their parents spoke Yiddish, and they were first generation, and they were already part of a social milieu (that, actually, in some ways, they had to rebel against). We just didn’t get that; we don’t have our own Roth or Bellow or anything like that. That subject position is gone. And that’s why now, Jewish literature actually doesn’t mean anything. It would have to reroot in something in order to mean something again. And so we don’t actually have the luxury to say we’re Jewish because we’re Jewish—it just, basically what that actually means is “We are nothing.“

JR: Okay. There is a secular Jewish community in this country, and in other countries. They exist. Speaking as a member of such a community, what Currents has done, by neglecting to discuss secular issues in its issues over the last six years—and by now introducing the parshah—is you have abandoned us. And even a couple of years ago—I mean, of course, everybody, all the young people I know are wild about Currents right now because they’re all involved in Gaza protests, and Currents has done this incredible job, but they don’t see Currents speaking to their Jewish secularism at all. And secularism needs that community just as much as the religious do. Jewish Currents was once one piece of that community, it now no longer is (except when we’re fighting Zionism).

AA: When you say, like, “the tenets of secularism,” what does that encompass for you?

JR: I’ll give you a classical definition. This is from Zhitlovsky: “With many of our people secularism has become a symbol for anti-religion; it is nothing of this sort. In general public life, secularism simply means that religion is a private matter for each individual, and anti-religion is also a private matter. In the educational and cultural sphere, secularism means that we exclude anything which comes in the name of supernatural revelation,” and it goes on. But the basis is that secularism doesn’t say, “You can’t believe this, you have to believe that.” It’s a way of being in the world that starts with the real world, where it is, what that means, who is of importance—the working class is of primary importance. The whole secular movement was a socialist movement initially, led by socialist Bundist communists, who all fought about different interpretations and meanings, was definitely class-based. And that’s what Jewish Currents has abandoned. At one point, when I was reading one of the parshahs, I thought: This is ridiculous. Why are they doing this rote thing? You say it’s not obedience to a higher authority? Well, who’s the authority that said: Start at the beginning, and each week we read the book, this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one?

AA: Wait a minute, Judee, you’re the one talking about community. This is what Jewish communities do. Who’s the authority of that? Like, Jewish religious practice! That didn’t come from God, that came from Jewish communities.

JR: That came from Jewish religious communities. Where’s our secular community?

MA: Right? It’s a communal thing that only includes those who are already in the community. You exclude me, for example,

AA: But Mitch, you’re not excluded anywhere else in the sphere of the magazine. Like, this is what I’m really struggling to understand.

MA: Right, but I wrote this to you guys, after we discussed this over dinner a few weeks ago, when you said that your secularism was unable to reproduce or whatever. And I said that analysis is totally ahistorical. Because in the same way that my parents, who were the children of immigrants, didn’t speak any Yiddish (other than like curse words, and like the usual stuff, the “oy gevalts” of the world), and then when my generation comes along we’re that much further away from the immigrant experience, and now my son is that much further along—we’ve all become increasingly American. The best story that sums this whole thing up (and why I think your analysis is so wrong about our failure to reproduce something) is, in 1974, I decided I was moving to Israel; I was going to the furthest-left kibbutz I could find. My plans were to spend time on the communist kibbutz. And I told my immigrant Grandma: “Grandma, I’m going to Israel, I’m moving to Israel,” and she said to me, “Mitchell, you’re an American,” and she got it exactly right. I’m an American, my son’s even more American, my granddaughter is even more American, and you’re still a Jew through all this. And it’s something that I always tried to teach my son: That we’re Jews, and so will always be different.

AA: I’m not different than most of my peers in my age group who are not Jewish.

NG: I just think this is really at the heart of the question. To me, that vision of Jewishness is very appealing. And also, I think there’s a real (I put it lightly) question about its indefinite reproducibility. And maybe it’s fine that it dies out. But if you have any investment in the possibility that it would not, I think it’s clear that the further the Jewishness gets from the source in which it has a different grounding—texturally or historically—it can feel like a performance or put on. And I think for those of us who are white, especially, and who are fully-assimilated, I think there is a real element of the reclamation of religious practice and religious texts that has to do with an interest in undoing an assimilation, of recovering some of that alterity, and to thinking: What are the ways that are available to us to do that? You know, I think, just what you were saying Mitch, the idea of “We’re Americans,” for those of us on the Jewish left, I think we see that, and feel that, and that’s not what we want for ourselves, seeing the way in which that identification (that our ancestors strove toward) has made us complicit in a project whose politics we don’t agree with. And I think, just on the other side, as Arielle was talking about earlier, the way in which Zionism has come to stand in, those have been kind of like the twin nationalisms that have been at the heart of what American Jewishness has become. And the interest in religion is one key way, I think, of exploring a way out of that, toward this sense of Jewishness as alterity. I don’t think it’s the only way, but I think, left to our own devices, there will be no Jewishness that is not Americanist or Zionism.

JR: There’s no reason on this Earth for you not to be who you are, follow what you want, find sustenance in what gives you sustenance. Once again, the whole point of secularism is not to persuade people out of what they believe in or what nourishes them. Everything you said, Nathan, makes perfect sense to me, for you and for Arielle. I have no argument with that. My son, he is in his 40s, and his friends are in their 40s. They’re Jewish. They’re secular. They know Yiddish songs and they sing them. The songs are not—you know, somebody sent me, recently, some Jewish songs that I thought I would throw up, you know, the “My Yiddishe Momme” kind of songs—they are songs of struggle, they are songs of labor. They know some Jewish history, secular, historic. They know Jewish stories. That is a culture, it’s a real culture, it’s a culture that is just as real, just as present as left-wing religious culture is. That culture exists.

AA: Yeah, I mean, Judee, I have no argument with anything that you’ve just said, just so you know. I agree with you, I would want more of those things in Currents. I think that the reason why you don’t see it in the way that you would want to see it is because there isn’t a good format for it. We’re not just going to send out a song that people should know, or whatever. I think what is interesting about a parshah is that it’s like an ancient technology of Jewish teaching that has a format that’s very easy to adopt, in the sense of: Okay, every week, there’s a parshah, and we study this text, and then we can find a way to try to get somewhere with how we’re thinking about things. But I would argue that everything else that we do (except for this parshah) is secular culture. And it’s not just Jewish culture, it’s secular culture. We are bringing in the abolitionist voices that we are reading and thinking about in the present in everything else that we do. So the specificity that we have different cultural touchstones than a specific, Yiddish-oriented and also Communist Party-oriented community? Yeah, you’re right, we do. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not reproducing secular culture elsewhere. We’re just not commemorating the Rosenbergs every year in June. And it doesn’t mean we don’t care about the Rosenbergs, it just means that there isn’t a format for us regurgitating that every year on the date.

MA: But you know, if you’re trying to promote a culture of resistance, then why not talk more about people who resisted? There could be more that could be learned from people who are on the left than from Rabbi Ishkabibble. And, you know, Nathan, we were talking about alterity, becoming American, and all that. And in my honest opinion, America is the promised land; we’ve never had it so good, and this is the argument that runs most counter to Zionism. Because every country in the diaspora has to be a living hell in order to make the whole Zionist undertaking valid.

AA: Yes. And that’s a good argument for being American, but it’s not a good argument for being Jewish.

MA: I don’t know. I don’t know. But also, I wanted to go to something else, though. People in the past have tried the same thing that you guys are doing now. You know, if we’re gonna say secularism failed, so did the attempt to have a left-wing Jewish religion. I mean, they’ve been Freedom Seders since the 60s.

AA: Yeah, I don’t think we’re inventing the wheel here.

MA: Right. But the issue of the slippery slope is really not one that can be dismissed so easily. Even though I know you’ll object to this, I’ll say it anyway: At some point, people will get tired of the partial version that you have of Judaism and move on to another Judaism—one a whole lot less attractive. And it did happen with people in my generation, and you shouldn’t think that your generation is going to be immune to it.

JR: Again, I’m gonna say: Unlike Mitch, I don’t have a problem with Currents addressing the Torah; I have a problem with the way you are doing it. Unlike Mitch, I like Freedom Seders.

AA: Wait, Judee. I want to drill down on this: What is the difference between a Freedom Seder and what we’re doing with the parshah? I don’t see the difference.

JR: Oh, a lot of difference. First of all, which Freedom Seder did you have in mind?

AA: Let’s just take Waskow’s Freedom Seder.

JR: No, no, no, that’s not my Freedom Seder. The Seder we do in the Kinder Schul? There’s no prayers. There’s no God. The candles we light, our six candles (actually seven) to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during the Holocaust, which was held on the first night of Passover, 1943, etc. That’s what we say. No prayers.

AA: But, just to say: I hate those Freedoms Seders, because they feel not rooted in anything. Like the thing that you’re accusing us of doing, where it’s all loosey-goosey, and it all ends up in the right place? All of this sounds like that. And actually, the thing that I like about doing the parshah is the fact that it’s not actually about, like, “We’re just choosing the thing that we like out of air.” We are actually looking at a calendar; that there’s a Jewish timescale that’s being performed. Because that connects me to something larger, communally. And because it means that we’re not always looking at the same exact texts, and it means we have to read deeply and differently in a way that isn’t just “we’re choosing this over here versus this over here.” It means that we’re actually just in a process of reading, continually, that isn’t predetermined.

JR: Though it is predetermined. It’s predetermined because it’s seriatim. You’re taking it at the beginning and you’re going step-by-step towards the end. And the beginning is preordained, and the end is preordained. It’s already been written.

NG: But that’s the structure that provides the possibility to do something new; without that, it’s just aimless.

MA: But is it really not preordained? Because, as you know, you always either come up with the answer that you wanted, or if we haven’t been able to prove that the parshah backs our case, there’s still room for doubt or whatever. So the conclusions are foreordained

JR: No, the progression is foreordained

AA: The progression is foreordained. But if we are just saying “we’re just grabbing from whatever,” like you’re saying, Judee: It’s fine to sometimes grab from Jewish texts as you want, as it relates to what’s happening, you know, that’s not a problem. But I’m like: Okay, then you’re always going for the same text in the same moment and applying them in the same ways. And the thing that allows for something new to appear is the process of reading a certain text that may not have anything to do with what’s going on, and trying to think about: How does this relate? It’s a practice of reading. And that practice of reading is more Jewish than the text itself. That practice of reading, that technology of reading, which can be applied to many different texts—you could read Capital in that way, I don’t care what you read in that way—is a Jewish technology that itself creates something.

JR: It’s a distortion of the written word. I’m not saying that the texts are not subject to interpretation and argument and discussion. Of course they are, there’s no question about that. But it’s like saying “Now is the winter of our discontent; made radiant summer by this glorious sun of York” means that Richard III really loves his brother. That’s what you’re doing with parshahs, I think. Words have meaning.

AA: I know. And this technology is actually very involved in what the meaning of those words is. I mean, you can’t be any more interested in the meaning of words than what it means to look at a root, and then break down that root, and see other places where that root word was used, and all of these kinds of things.

JR: No, no, no, because that’s fakery. That really is fakery. If you go to the roots, you can make the word that the speaker spoke mean the opposite of what the speaker meant.

MA: Right, which is I’ve been saying all along.

NG: Look, I obviously don’t agree that the entire procedure of Talmudic exegesis is just fakery.

MA: Oh, no—it’s your use of it that’s fakery.

NG: I think it would apply to what all of the rabbis have been doing for thousands of years: disagreeing with each other about the exact same texts. I mean, it seems to me that there’s a disagreement here about what—I think Arielle and I are finding a generativity and a space of possibility in the relationship between the structures of the text (and I think this applies for ritual, also) on the one hand, and the tradition of its reinterpretation and the openness on the other. I hear both of you being resistant to both sides of that, to saying it’s either an objection to the structure and authority on the one hand, and to the infinite play within that as being just relativistic. And I would just say, to me, this has stakes for the possibility of the reinvention of Jewishness and the continuation. It seems to me that we’re facing, hegemonically, forms of Jewishness that are heading either in the direction of completely abandoning any generativity of the identity or the most ethnically identified and reactionary forces. And to me, what we’re pointing to, in terms of the relationship between the structure and the openness, feels like the best site for the possibility of a reinvention. And, just to say a little more about this in a personal way (or one way in which I think this has some stakes), my wife is someone who was not raised Jewish but who did convert, and we have twin toddlers who we’re raising Jewish. But there’s a real concern to me that going in that secularist direction creates a form of Jewishness that is ultimately an ethnicity, and that circumscribes the possibility for people who can be a part of it. And I think there’s real questions and limitations there as well.

AA: In other words, Jewishness is blood. Like when you say “I’m Jewish, because I’m Jewish,” it basically is essentially a blood relation. It’s a thing that you’re born into, it isn’t pinned to other ways of entering. And that creates issues, also, for people joining the community, and also for people who are in it if there isn’t any content to it. Or, if as we’re saying, that content has been attenuated over time, then the question of what the content is becomes reduced to ethnic identity. And that becomes limiting in its own way,

MA: But religion doesn’t? I mean, to define Judaism as religion, you’ve now, again, rejoined the Zionists.

AA: Mitch, all of the original Zionists were secularists.

MA: I mean, I’m just flabbergasted, though, and saddened—maybe I’ll just leave it at that. I’m saddened that young left-wing Jews could say that religion is what gives Jewishness its meaning.

NG: I don’t think any of us have said that.

AA: No, we are saying that it is a possible single site among many sites. If the magazine was becoming a religious magazine, I would understand this. But the reason that this comes off to me as an enormous amount of rigidity is because it’s just one parshah at the end of a reading list.

MA: But it’s such an enormous step into the past. You know, we, my generation, we did become sentimental about Yiddish. Those of us who weren’t secularists, we became sentimental about Yiddish once we knew that we’d lost it all. And now you’ve gone a generation further back and become sentimental for religion. It’s just inconceivable to me that, on the left, this should now become the way.

AA: Not the way, a way.

MA: One that you’re all taking very seriously.

AA: We take everything seriously. We’re Jewish Currents.

MA: And let me just tell you something, let me just tell you something. I finally found the first article that I’ve written 10 years ago about Jewish secularism. And what did I discover, but there was somebody writing for Jewish Currents who said, “We need to start giving more content, more Jewish content by re-engaging with Jewish texts.” It was Bennett Muraskin.

JR: Ugh

MA: You can “Ugh” all you want. But I’m saying that that was already there, and it already frightened me.

AA: I want to say one more thing: I feel an enormous amount of rigidity in this conversation. I just want to name that I feel that, because I know that I’m being very intense in this conversation. And some of the rigidity is something I recognize. So for example, the place where I recognize it from is when friends of mine started to become trans, and particularly, when friends of mine became trans women, I started to feel like: Okay, why are you reclaiming parts of, quote, unquote, “femininity” that I have worked so hard to free myself from? I was threatened initially, because for me, I was like: Okay, I feel oppressed by these boxes. There is nothing I’d rather do than break out of this, and you are rushing back into that box. And it took me a really long time to recognize that people, for example, who were raised in a masculine orientation, and with those expectations, did not feel oppressed by the strictures of femininity. And therefore, femininity could be a place of play and discovery, and a place where they could actually do things that were not available to them in other modes. And I feel some of that in this conversation, where we are trying to say, basically, we understand the thing that felt oppressive to you in this context—but we are not oppressed by those things. We are finding freedom in that, because the fact that this has been denied from us, and that we never had to engage with the oppressive pieces of it in our own lives, means that this has become a site of possibility and play. But I do feel some of that, in this conversation.

JR: I just want to say one thing. My main thing has been that you’ve left secularism out, and you’ve excluded the secular community. I don’t think that’s being rigid.

AA: No, but it seems to require leaving the parshah out, for example, which is one feature of one thing that we’re doing. I consider the rest of the magazine to be a secular enterprise.

JR: You’re providing provocative readings—if you want to call the parshah that—the discussion and exploration that are religious. You are not providing provocative readings that encourage discussion and exploration that are secular. Progressive secular, by the way. I need to make that distinction, which I didn’t make all along but I should have.

AA: And Judee, I’m just saying, like in the same week last week, the anarchist conversation after the Hebron massacre, does that qualify? Does a discussion of the history of dissent around Zionism in American Jewish communities. Does that qualify?

JR: That does qualify, that does qualify.

AA: Okay, so I’m saying we’re doing that all the time.

MA: But you know, even on that one, Arielle, because this goes back to our discussion; when you say that you guys don’t have the same experience of religion, and of it being the dead hand of the rabbis and all that, a text that doesn’t get talked about enough, is Montaigne’s friend, Étienne de La Boétie, his essay on voluntary servitude. That’s what I would suggest that everybody read. It’s a very short text. And I thank you both for this, and Judee.

NG: Thank you all for being part of this conversation. It’s been interesting and fun. Thanks to our producer Jesse Brennaman, and to our listeners. Please rate, review, and subscribe to On the Nose, and subscribe to Jewish Currents, and find us online at JewishCurrents.org. And you can go there to sign up for the newsletter that will get you the reading list and parshah, so you can read along with this whole debate—

AA: —and decide for yourself.

MA: Where’s my grogger?

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