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Why I’m Not a Jewish Secularist

Mitchell Abidor
January 21, 2013

THREE THINGS ARE CONSTITUTIVE OF MY BEING: being a Brooklynite, being a Jew, and being an atheist. The first gives me a place, my family having been in Brooklyn for over a century; the second gives me a history and an existential situation in society, an alterity that I happily assume; and the third a morality and ethics.

And yet, not only am I not a Jewish secularist, but I find Jewish secularism opposed to most of the values I hold dear—for by its valorization of Judaism, it both encourages particularism and contributes to the validation and spread of religious ideas. If Bundists were Zionists with seasickness, Jewish secularists are believers lacking in the zitzfleisch needed to sit in shul.

For Jewish secularists, the central core of Judaism is good. The historian David Biale, in a 2011 interview in the Jerusalem Post, defined the players in this way: “Secular Jews are not the same as Jewish secularists. The former construct their secular identities without any reference to the Jewish tradition. The latter . . . engage the Jewish religious tradition, if only to replace it by secular content. For example, a Jewish secularist might read the Bible as a political, cultural or historical document rather than a religious text.” Thus, for a Jewish secularist Judaism is a religion of social responsibility, one that values education, that resists oppression, and that serves as the basis for an enlightened world-view that needs only be brought out and divorced from its obscurantist setting. It provides an ethics of brotherhood and cooperation, a history of rebellion against oppression. For a Jewish secularist Judaism – the ideas without the religion – can serve as a guide to life, a philosophy of good and evil, a path to secular righteousness.

A STRIKING EXAMPLE OF THE ATTEMPT TO GROUND ETHICS IN DENATURED RELIGION can be found in the pages of Jewish Currents itself. Lawrence Bush, the magazine’s editor, interviewed Randy Cohen, the New York Times’ former ethicist, and at various points in the interview Bush attempted to tie Cohen’s attitudes and responses to a specifically Jewish idea; Cohen, however, was having none of it. And he was having none of it not (or not only) from ignorance of the Jewish sources cited, but because these Jewish sources were superfluous. When Bush tells Cohen that: “You’re expressing a very Jewish view of the human being. Judaism makes a fairly big deal out of the role of the yetzer hara, the evil urge, and seeks to establish a system of mitzvot, actual deeds meant to channel our urges towards the good,” Cohen simply answers, “The urges are the urges.” Bush’s references in the interview to the Talmud, Hillel, and the Pirkei Avot are gratuitous, since they clearly had in no way influenced Cohen’s thought or point of view. If Cohen arrived at positions that resembled those in Jewish texts it could only have been the fruit of coincidence, proving their superfluity. Secularists who refer to story lines in Jewish writings to justify their positions are simply adding an unnecessary step. Does a progressive idea gain validity because you cite Rabbi Hillel? Or does Rabbi Hillel gain more from the bargain, being granted a patina of modernity, and so set us back?

Emmanuel Lévinas, one of the most important French philosophers of the 20th Century, wrote five volumes of Talmudic readings, readings that were certainly eccentric and which he employed to elaborate on and to provide a foundation for his philosophy of responsibility to the Other. His specifically Jewish writings are fascinating and provocative. But why bother? Does an ethics that stresses our responsibility to others require a God or references to ancient Babylonian sages? Do the thoughts of the ancients add anything to our ethics or do they not, instead, gain a luster from being used for secular ends?

It is this that is a primary sin of Jewish secularism: by focusing on the usable elements of Jewish traditions, religion, and history, it places these specifically Jewish factors at the center, however selectively they are used, in fact, precisely by using them selectively.

And in so doing they serve as a kind of gateway drug to religion pure and simple. If Jewish secularism is a dying movement it’s because its attempt to live in two worlds has shown itself to be so shaky that people have simply moved on to one or the other alternative: into an abandonment of a specifically Jewish secularism, because it offers nothing you can’t find in the simply secular, or into the world of the Jewish religion, since if what secularists have found good in the religion is truly there, then why content oneself with half-measures? The case of Benny Lévy, who went from being the leader of the most uncompromising of French Maoist groups, la Gauche Prolétarienne, to being Jean-Paul Sartre’s secretary, and then to haredi life in Jerusalem — with the above-mentioned Lévinas the connecting tie among the three — is perhaps an extreme example (and not peculiar to him in his family: his brother converted to Islam to be closer to the reality of life for the common folk in their native Egypt), but serves as a cautionary tale.

JEWISH SECULARISTS' FONDNESS FOR JEWISH HOLIDAYS — certain of them at any rate — also works in a selective fashion. Passover is particular favorite of secularists, who put it forward as a universally applicable story of liberation from slavery and hold Freedom Seders. Chanukah, too, is a favorite, again as a story of liberation from foreign oppression.

But there is more than a bit of disingenuousness in these uses. Passover — treated of course as simply a symbolic event, since it has no historical veracity — is, in fact, a celebration of the end of Jewish slavery; the Bible is otherwise full of praise for and defense of slavery, which allowed rabbis to join in the use of the Bible in the war against abolitionism prior to and during the Civil War. In reality, marking Passover means falling into the most repulsive aspect of Judaism: a celebration of Jewish interests above all others.

Similarly, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out, Jewish secularists get Chanukah all wrong. His explanation, found in “God is Not Great” is worth quoting in extenso:

The Maccabees, who founded the Hasmonean dynasty, were forcibly restoring Mosaic fundamentalism against the many Jews of Palestine and elsewhere who had become attracted to Hellenism. These true early multiculturalists had become bored by ‘the law,’ offended by circumcision, interested by Greek literature, drawn by the physical and intellectual exercises of the gymnasium, and rather adept at philosophy. They could feel the pull exerted by Athens, even if it only by way of Rome... and were impatient with the stark fear and superstition mandated by the Pentateuch... [W]hen the father of Judas Maccabeus saw a Jew about to make a Hellenic offering on the old altar, he lost no time in murdering him. Over the next few years of the Maccabean ‘revolt,’ many more assimilated Jews were slain, or forcibly circumcised, or both, and the women who had flirted with the new Hellenic dispensation suffered even worse. Since the Romans eventually preferred the violent and dogmatic Maccabees to the less militarized and fanatical Jews who had shown in their togas in the Mediterranean light, the scene was set for an uneasy collusion between the old-garb Ultra-Orthodox Sanhedrin and the imperial governate. This lugubrious relationship eventually to lead to Christianity (yet another Jewish heresy) and thus ineluctably to the birth of Islam. We could have been spared the whole thing.

The Maccabees were the black hats of their time, clinging to tradition and Judaism as a closed-off sect. The Hellenizers reviled during the holiday were the actual forerunners of all we moderns hold dear. Secularists should be commemorating Chanukah as a historic defeat of their values; instead, by focusing on what are simply the surface elements of the holiday and then conflating them with contemporary struggles, Jewish secularists have produced a dishonest syncretism.

In his thought-provoking January 7th post on Blog-Shmog, Bennet Muraskin speaks of his Jewish secular education, of its purely yiddishist and left-wing basis, decrying what he didn’t learn about there, i.e, the Jewish religion. He maintains that Jewish secularists “have to go beyond empty invocations to a genuine, critical engagement with Jewish texts and traditions — and we have to equip our students to be literate Jews who do not feel like strangers in a synagogue and know how to celebrate a secular shabes.” But secularists have fought for centuries to be free of the synagogue and all it represents, so it’s all to the good to feel a stranger there. And if anyone entertains any doubts of progressives’ responsibility to abandon any ties to the synagogue, let them meditate upon the fate of the rabbis at the “progressive” synagogue B’nai Jeshurun and the campaign against them for praising the Palestinians’ being granted observer status — not membership — at the UN. Our ancestors fought to leave behind the shul, which bound them to a physical, intellectual, and moral ghetto; it provides nothing that can’t be found elsewhere without the religion’s noxious baggage.

Jewish secularists are not alone in all this intellectual legerdemain: secularists come in all sizes and have carried out a détournement of all sorts of religious ideas to justify their beliefs and actions. Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and tutti quanti have all been put to the service of the secular. But as in the case of Judaism, none of this is necessary. On the subject of the good we should take as a starting point not the Decalogue, but rather the words of G.E. Moore in his “Principa Ethica”: “My point is that good is a simple notion, just as yellow is a simple notion; that, just as you cannot, by any manner of means, explain to anyone who does not already know it, what yellow is, so you cannot explain what good is.” Ideas and ethics that have no religious basis, borrowed from Hume, from Kant, from Nietzsche, from Rorty, or even, as Moore’s quote implies, from simple common sense, suffice. It is enough to be a secularist. Adding “Jewish” is a retrograde step.

Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. He is author of Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.