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Why I’m Not a Jewish Secularist: A Response to the Responses

Mitchell Abidor
January 26, 2013
by Mitchell Abidor My January 21, 2012 posting at Blog-Shmog,"Why I’m Not a Secular Jew," clearly struck a nerve in some readers, and the thoughtful and measured responses deserve a response in their turn. A point must be made clear from the beginning: Several readers seem to assume, despite my characterization of myself as primarily an atheist Brooklyn Jew, that I reject the very label of “Jew” and reject involvement in any Jewish undertaking. My article, however, is an attack not on Jewishness but on the tying of Jewishness to what I consider a fabricated version of Judaism. I am not throwing any babies out with any bathwater; to think I’m doing so means conflating being a Jew with believing in God and the Jewish religion, an odd position to defend in a magazine that’s "a progressive, secular voice." "'Jew' is a word laden with history and baggage that isn’t easy to carry around or discard," Gerry Kane writes (though many hundreds of thousands of Jews have quite lightly thrown off the burden), and I assume this burden happily, as I wrote. My Jewishness is based on a history and a situation that that history places me in, and I'm proud of both. That this vision mightn't be to everyone's taste is really not my concern: I don't need to apologize for how I experience my Jewishness and what I do with it. Which is why I see no contradiction in my writing for JC: Jewish topics are an interest of mine— a particular interest of mine — as are French revolutionary history, the Montoneros of Argentina, Marcel Proust, and the films of Robert Bresson. I am a Jew, so my connection to Jewish topics is more visceral than my connection to my other interests, but it is not my only interest, nor does it mold my morality and ethics or provide me with a specific worldview. And so Larry Bush's characterization of my position as "national nihilism" is off the mark: I don't deny there is a Jewish people with Jewish interests, though I believe the construction of our people is a perfect example of what the great historian of nationalism Benedict Anderson calls an "imagined community," but delving further into that would take us too far afield. There is thus nothing contradictory in my thinking that, to answer Jacob P., yes, it's perfectly legitimate for Jews to make space "specifically to speak with other Jews." Esther Goodman says that an educated Jew should "know about and understand Jewish history and culture," and there is absolutely nothing to take exception to in this, or her general point about world culture: but there's a difference between knowing ideas and adopting them. I am a voracious reader, and am currently translating the letters of the brilliant writer and insane anti-Semite Louis Ferdinand Céline, writings every literate person should know. That doesn't mean they should adopt his ideas. Larry Bush's exordium, where he says that "Judaism contains the seed of a countercultural world view," and that "it is a view that values community, that sees rugged individualism as an illusion, that sees economics in a socialistic mode, that sees masculinity being about mentshlikhkayt and strength of character rather than macho, that sees poverty as a collective problem, that sees global unity as a goal," is almost a perfect distillation of what I criticized. Let's say all this can be found in Judaism. In the first place, it's buried so deeply that centuries of Jewish life failed to find any of it, and it's only when a certain generation with certain progressive ideas gleaned from secular society sought to take those ideas back to the religion that they saw the light of day. And secondly, even if these ideas were truly there, so what? Why not a simply human view that values community, that sees economics in a socialistic mode, etc. in fact, Larry movingly restates the socialist ideal, so let's stick with that and leave God out of the equation. In fact, the danger of locating all these things within a specifically Jewish context can be found in Blog-Shmog in the post, "Anti-Semitism and the New Jim Crow," in which the author, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, explains why this is a Jewish issue. He expounds on the problem's connections to Jewish history, taking us back to Egypt and the pharaoh. But to have to do so is almost cause for shame. Racism is a Jewish issue not because of a mythic past, but because it's an issue that all of us as Americans should be exercised about. To have to explain to a synagogue group why it relates specifically to us is, again, a retreat to selfish particularism. Interestingly, just a day after my posting the great magician and moral philosopher Penn Jillette addressed many of the same issues I did, minus the specifically Jewish trappings, in the New York Times online edition of January 22, 2012. He first looks at the matter of morality and its need for a religious basis: "Religion is not morality. Theists ask me, 'If there’s no god, what would stop me from raping and killing everyone I want to.' My answer is always: 'I, myself, have raped and killed everyone I want to . . . and the number for both is zero.' Behaving morally because of a hope of reward or a fear of punishment is not morality. Morality is not bribery or threats. Religion is bribery and threats. Humans have morality. We don't need religion." He then goes a logical step further than I: if one is going to attempt to found ones ethics and morals in a religion, why, in this case, the Jewish one? Why not go shopping and secularize another religious belief: "Religion is often just tribalism: pride in a group one was born into, a group that is often believed to have 'God' on its side. We don't need to replace tribalism with anything other than love for all humanity. Let's do that, okay?" And finally, he addresses what I refer to as the "superfluity" of Judaism: "Religion also includes fellowship, joy, compassion, service and great music, and those can be replaced by . . . fellowship, joy, compassion, service and great music." To which I can only respond, Amen. 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.