Seeds of Subversion

More than fifty years ago, in a famous lecture entitled “The Non-Jewish Jew,” Isaac Deutscher acclaimed the sort of Jewish intellectual who relinquished his or her heritage and proceeded to make vital contributions to the improvement of the world at large. A Polish-born Talmudic prodigy who exchanged Judaism for Marxism in his youth and ultimately attained renown as a biographer of Trotsky and Stalin, Deutscher singled out individual Communists as well as non-Communists as representative figures. Before mentioning any of them, however, he reflected briefly on the significance of the heretic he had known about since his childhood, the 2nd-century renegade from rabbinic Judaism, Elisha ben Abuyah (the teacher of Rabbi Meir also known as “Akher,” or Other):

The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition. You may, if you like, view Akher as a prototype of those great revolutionaries of modern thought about whom I am going to speak this evening—you may do so, if you necessarily wish to place them within any Jewish tradition.

In his introduction to Not in the Heavens, David Biale analyzes what Deutscher says and eagerly accepts his invitation:

By raising the question of the relationship of the orthodox Rabbi Meir and the heretic Elisha, Deutscher implied that even the heretic remains somehow connected to that which he rejects, for the source of his heresy may lie within that tradition. For Deutscher, Elisha was the prototype of “those great revolutionaries of modern thought: Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and Freud.” They were all heretics, yet their heresy might be understood as a rejection that grew out of the Jewish tradition itself.

Biale may or may not be right about Deutscher’s assessment of Elisha ben Abuya’s relationship to Jewish tradition, but he is probably reading too much into what he says about that of the other people on his list. There is, in fact, next to nothing in Deutscher’s lecture that links the substance of Jewish tradition with the welcome heresies of his modern “non-Jewish Jews.” The closest he comes to espousing the views that Biale attributes to him is an acknowledgment that “Spinoza’s God and ethics were still Jewish, only that his was the Jewish monotheism carried to its logical conclusion and the Jewish universal God thought out to the end . . .” But this is a rather isolated statement in a lecture that makes no other connection between the substance of Jewish tradition and the grand ideas of Deutscher’s heroes.

Deutscher Image

Deutscher does indeed say that the “non-Jewish Jews” had “in themselves something of the quintessence of Jewish life and of the Jewish intellect.” But by this he means only that they “lived in the borderlines of various civilizations,” and “in the nooks and crannies of their respective nations.” Not some residue of their distinctive Jewish heritage but the experience of marginality is what “enabled them to rise in thought above their societies . . . and to strike out mentally into wide new horizons and far into the future.” Biale may believe that he is emulating Deutscher when he argues “that Jewish secularism was a revolt grounded in the tradition it rejected,” but he is really making a rather different type of claim.

Biale himself, to be sure, stresses the dissimilarity between his enterprise and Deutscher’s much more than the resemblance. The intellectual tradition he wishes to construct in his book “is distinctively different from Deutscher’s ‘Non-Jewish Jews,'” he tells us, “since it rests on those whose writings engage with the metaphysical, textual, political and cultural dimensions of the Jewish experience.” Whether they intended to do so or not, the authors of these works created “a tradition of secular Jewish thought counter to the religious tradition called ‘Judaism.'”

Biale is of course far from the first to describe such a secular tradition or stream of Jewish thought. Among those who have preceded him in this endeavor is Yaakov Malkin, a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University. The author of such works as Judaism Without God?: Judaism as Culture, Bible as Literature, Malkin is connected with the Posen Foundation, an organization that, as its website reports, “works internationally as a service provider to support secular Jewish education and educational initiatives on modern Jewish culture and the process of Jewish secularization.” Biale too is actively involved with this foundation, which he thanks in his preface for having provided the grant that set his book in motion. Unlike Malkin, however, Biale—in this book, at least—writes as an analyst, not an advocate, of the secular Jewish tradition. Anyone who doubts the validity of this distinction need only compare this book to those of Malkin, whose name is not mentioned anywhere in Not in the Heavens.

Among the names that do occur are half of the ones on Deutscher’s short list. Karl Marx drops out of the picture, since he “was not really interested in the Jews as real people.” But Spinoza, Heine, and Freud, all of whom are exempted by Biale from the category of “non-Jewish Jew,” receive ample attention, along with a host of unmistakably Jewish Jews, ranging from Simon Dubnow to Gershom Scholem to David Ben-Gurion. A versatile and prolific scholar, Biale has dealt with many of these thinkers before, usually in a much more thoroughgoing way. In this book, his intention is not to present comprehensive new readings of their work but to sketch their general outlooks and to show how they fit together in a counter-tradition. This modern tradition, Biale takes pains to demonstrate, may be heretical but it is nonetheless closely tied to the tradition that came before it. “Jewish secularism is a tradition that has its own unique characteristics grounded in part in its premodern sources.”

Biale is somewhat inclined, it seems to me, to go even further and to depict the secular Jewish tradition as one toward which the pre-modern tradition had been tending all along. He is very impressed by what he describes as the “challenging” and “magisterial” work of Marcel Gauchet, who sought to show how the monotheistic religions inevitably “produced their own secular subversions.” Biale himself is ready to contend that “the Bible contains the seeds of its own subversion,” and that medieval Jewish philosophy “prepared the ground for the radical subversion of the biblical God.” In the end, however, he stops short of arguing that Jewish secularism is essentially an indigenous product. “It was specifically where the Jews had contact with European modernization,” he writes, “that Jewish secularism developed. The historical tradition may have provided the kindling, but the European Enlightenment lit the match.”

Biale’s survey of the ensuing conflagration is not exhaustive but it is a highly judicious one, informed by a lifetime of learning as well as close familiarity with the best of the most recent scholarship on a host of different thinkers. Like all of Biale’s many books, it is very clearly written and renders its subject accessible to the general reader and, for that matter, the undergraduate. It will no doubt become a mainstay of many of the courses on Jewish secularism funded by the Posen Foundation at dozens of American universities and other academic programs as well.

Biale is particularly good at describing how Spinoza transformed Maimonides’ negative theology “into its precise opposite,” and thus “radical transcendence begat pure immanence.” With equal adeptness he traces the impact of Spinoza’s philosophy on late 18th– and 19th-century Jewish luminaries as diverse as Solomon Maimon, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Leo Strauss. Biale does not confine himself to rationalists, but also describes the ways in which mystical strains of medieval Judaism reverberated in the writings of Franz Kafka and Gershom Scholem. More controversially, he proceeds to depict even the revolt against the biblical God in the name of ancient pagan gods launched by the Eastern European writers Micha Yosef Berdichevsky and Saul Tchernikovsky as yet another manifestation of the way in which modern Jewish secularists revamped “traditional theology so as to bring the divine down to earth.”

Less radical re-readings of the Bible also receive Biale’s attention. He follows up a detailed analysis of Spinoza’s secular debunking of the Bible with a review of the way in which diverse Jewish thinkers sought to make a de-theologized Bible the basis for a godless Jewish culture. One of them is Ahad Ha’am, who was primarily interested in a secular appropriation of “the ethical spirit of the Bible.” But Biale also focuses on David Ben-Gurion, who, “like Spinoza,” saw the Bible as “primarily a nationalist book,” one “that gave a political identity to the ancient nation of Israel, an identity that transcended mere religion.” He shows how Israel’s first prime minister fostered “a kind of ‘bibliomania,'” and thereby “played a major role in the elevation of the Bible to the status of national myth” in the new State of Israel.

As determined as Biale is to highlight the dialectical relationship between ancient and medieval Judaism and developments in modern times, he recognizes that some important modern Jewish secularists wanted to turn their backs on the past and to make as fresh a start as possible. Berdichevsky’s famous call to his contemporaries to choose to be either the last Jews or the first Hebrews was still bound up with the resuscitation of what he conceived to be the biblical “religion of nature and martial vitality preceding Moses’ antinatural Torah,” but others, as Biale shows, went much further afield. The early 20th-century Hebrew writer Joseph Hayim Brenner, for instance, took “to heart Spinoza’s teaching” and reduced “the Bible to biblia, books like any other—and not necessarily the best of them.” The “new Hebrew culture he struggled to create had to be founded on the modern condition of the Jews and not on their ancient literature.” For the political theorist Hannah Arendt, what was of lasting significance was not Jewish religion or culture in any sense but the mere fact of “Jewishness, the identity into which one was irreducibly born.”

Biale’s vast cast of characters includes many people whose names I have not cited here, including such predictable figures as Theodore Herzl and Mordecai Kaplan, as well as nearly forgotten men like Chaim Zhitlowsky. In a book of only three hundred pages it would be impossible to do justice to all of them. If Biale has in any respect fallen short of doing so, he cannot be faulted on this score but should rather be congratulated for having done no major injustice to any of them while providing his readers with a richly informative panoramic overview of one of the most significant dimensions of modern Jewish thought. Even readers who know a great deal about the subject are likely to learn a lot from Not in the Heavens.

Considered solely in the light of the goals he has set himself, Biale’s book is a notable success. He has demonstrated the heavy dependency of the secular Jewish thinkers of modern times on pre-modern Jewish sources and has also shown how these thinkers have over the centuries constructed a tradition of their own, encompassing a wide variety of redefinitions of Jewish identity on the basis of non-religious foundations. But he has not restricted himself to these tasks alone. At the very end of his last chapter, he asks a critically important question which he devotes his epilogue to answering.

Over the twentieth century, Jewish secularism mutated in response to the differing environments of Jewish life. What can we say about the legacy of these varied forms of the secular in the early twenty-first century and what future directions might they take?

It would not be too much to say that it is concern with these issues that accounts for the very existence of this book. Not in the Heavens is, as I noted at the outset, a work of analysis, not advocacy, but it clearly owes its origins at least in part to the interest of the Posen Foundation not merely in documenting but above all in sustaining Jewish secularism through education. How, then, does the author of this book size up the overall situation that it is meant to affect both in the Diaspora, through its English-language edition, and in Israel, where it has been simultaneously published in Hebrew translation?

Curiously enough, Biale has very little to say in the main body of his book about how things have developed in Israel since the state’s early years. What became of the “bibliomania,” for instance, that Ben-Gurion so carefully nurtured in the 1950s is something his readers can only wonder about—unless they consult an essay like the one that he cites in the footnotes, Anita Shapira’s “The Bible and Israeli Identity.” After describing how “the Bible exerted a palpable presence” in Israeli cultural life in the Ben-Gurion era, Shapira relates at length how the “combination of religious-nationalism’s appropriation of the Bible, the teaching of the Bible as a religious text, and the end of the ideological era together tolled the knell for the Bible’s centrality in Israeli identity.” Biale’s story would have been more complete if he had made it clear that Ben-Gurion’s vision, powerful as it was for a time, was merely ephemeral.

Biale does note that contemporary “Israeli culture still owes much to Brenner and his secularist colleagues.” In the epilogue, he adduces the godless celebration of the everyday and the individual in Yehuda Amichai’s work as evidence that this poet “has realized the promise for Hebrew culture set forth by Brenner.” Yet Amichai, like Brenner before him, “cannot divorce himself from the religious tradition that gives his secularity its language.” After discussing Amichai, Biale provides us with an example of someone who seems, at first glance, as if he is capable of effecting a more complete separation from the past, the leading light of post-Zionism, Adi Ophir. Ophir severely criticizes secular Zionists for having, as Biale puts it, “unconsciously taken over cardinal categories from Judaism” such as hatred of the goy, “and dressed them in secular, nationalist garb.” His consequent rejection of both Judaism and Zionism seems strong enough to land him in the same camp as the “non-Jewish Jews.” But Biale sees reason to consider him as someone who, unlike, say, Karl Marx, still belongs within the secular Jewish fold. One “might say that just as the Jew requires the existence of the goy, so Ophir’s secularism requires the existence of Judaism, either in its religious or secular Zionist forms.” This is a debatable assertion, but it in any case shows that Biale’s definition of secular Jewishness is broad enough to encompass someone whose Jewish identity is essentially negative. “Exactly what positive content it has on its own,” Biale acknowledges, “remains unclear.”

But “secularism in Israel,” Biale goes on to observe, “is not always driven by Brenner’s renunciation of anything smacking of the religious tradition.” Since the 1990s, increasing numbers of young Israelis, he tells us, have been engaging in the study of traditional texts in secular houses of study. Although this is “a relatively small phenomenon,” it is evidence that not everyone is ready to cede the Bible and the rest of Jewish tradition to the rabbis.

If secular Jewish thought in different shapes and sizes remains alive in Israel, its condition in North America is more ambiguous. In chapter four, Biale relates how secular and often socialist Yiddish culture once flourished in the United States but eventually came to be perceived by a new generation of Jews as a roadblock on the way to the attainment of a fully American identity. This did not prevent the “dominant secularism incubated in Yiddish” from being “continued in new forms among American Jews.” These new forms include American Jews’ generally liberal political orientation as well as their “ethnically inflected” English, which “may therefore be said to be a Jewish language.”

In the epilogue, Biale identifies other important manifestations of secular Jewishness in 21st-century America, including literary works that mine the historical associations of the religious tradition for non-religious ends and the strong presence of Jewish studies in the academic world. He does not, however, mention the name of even a single living American Jew worthy of being regarded as an heir and upholder of the tradition of secular Jewish thought that his book is devoted to documenting. This is not surprising, for he holds that “the secularism of American Jews today is not ideological” like that of the previous century. As a consequence, “it is writers of fiction and memoirists rather than ideologues who are giving it expression.”

American Jewish secularism not only lacks theorists; it lacks independence. In an era like ours, Biale says, “the old categories of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ are . . . no longer fixed.” The “fine line between religion and secularism . . . has often become fuzzy in the recent history of American Jewish culture,” and it has become increasingly difficult to tell secular and religious expressions of Jewish culture apart. Where, then, are we headed? All that one can say is that in the future things will certainly look very different than they did in the past. “Secularism can make no promise of continuity or survival, but it does guarantee the freedom to experiment without which neither continuity nor survival is possible.”

This is certainly not the note on which one would expect a book like Biale’s to end. In a volume on the history of secular Jewishness underwritten at least in part by the Posen Foundation and composed by someone closely associated with its activities, one has reason to anticipate a heartier defense of secularism as the wave of the Jewish future. Viewed in the appropriate context, however, Biale does not seem overly pessimistic.

Irving Howe, the author of World of our Fathers and a staunchly secular Jew, was convinced by the end of his life that “those of us committed to the secular Jewish outlook must admit that we are reaching a dead-end.” Similarly, Stephen Whitfield, a prominent historian of American Jewish culture, has written (in Cultures of the Jews, a series edited by David Biale) that it is now “closing time” for a viable secular Jewish identity in the United States. Lawrence Bush, the editor of Jewish Currents, one of the oldest secular Jewish periodicals in the US, strikes a similar note. “Certainly,” he writes, “there are some thriving pockets of secular Jewish life and even new ventures (most notably, the growth of secular Jewish studies programs at college and universities, thanks to funding by the Posen Foundation through the Center for Cultural Judaism).” Nevertheless, “overall,” the “challenge of generational continuity has not been well met by Jewish secularists in America.”

Looking back at Biale again, after considering these other perspectives, he seems like a relatively optimistic observer, or rather observer-participant. He does not, to be sure, mention all the bright spots noted by the others (and modestly refrains from referring to the above-mentioned programs that Biale himself helps to coordinate and in which I too have been happy to participate). But neither does he sound as demoralized as they do.

This is mostly, I think, because he does not draw the lines in the same place that they draw them. By collapsing the barrier between religious phenomena and secular ones, Biale expands the range of territory within view and provides himself with ample justification for not falling into despair. For however well or poorly the Jewish religion is now doing in this country, it is on the whole in far better shape than secular Jewishness. Biale recognizes, it seems to me, that only through the continued association with religious Jews can secularists hope to sustain their enterprise in the future. If this is the case, he is, I believe, correct.

I say this not as a religious person, but because I have a healthy appreciation of religion’s strengths, especially its unparalleled capacity—even in its more attenuated versions—to endow its adherents with a sense of purpose and to inspire them to transmit their beliefs to their descendants. It has its weaknesses too, of course. As Biale has shown, the Jewish religion has long carried within itself many “seeds of its own subversion.” But as he has not made equally clear, this is even truer of secular Jewishness. The transfer of the rationale for remaining Jewish from the heavenly realm to the earthly one is a very risky business. This may not be so apparent when there are external pressures that hold the Jews together, whatever they believe or think. It may not be fully clear in a Jewish state surrounded by countries that are more or less inimical, even if they are not at the moment enemies. But in a hospitable, liberal democratic society like that of the United States, the (almost always) humanistic and ethical core of modern secular Jewishness is liable to break through and shatter its parochial shell.

This point was recently made quite well by Jonathan Sarna, a prominent professor of American Jewish history and, one might note, an observant Jew, in an article published in Contemplate, a magazine put out by the Posen-sponsored Center for Cultural Judaism. After acknowledging that “Jewish secularist culture” had collapsed in the United States in the second half of the 20th century, Sarna points to the many signs that it is now making “something of a comeback.” But even though he is prepared to go so far as to label this development “a rebirth of Jewish secularism,” Sarna remains dubious about its prospects:

I, for one, wonder: In the absence of a collective Jewish language, a shared Jewish neighborhood, and a common antisemitic enemy, will Jewish secularism prove viable in the long term? Can Jewish secularism, with its universalistic ethic, meet the challenge of intermarriage and keep Jews Jewish? Will secular Jews and religious Jews remain tethered to one another, each continuing to view the other as part of the totality of the Jewish people?

No committed secular Jew can take such questions lightly. Far from having proved itself as an ideology and a way of life in the Diaspora, secular Jewishness has since its inception shown itself to be poorly equipped to withstand the processes of erosion endemic to liberal democratic societies. Things are very different in Israel, of course—but not for secular Jews born there who have subsequently chosen to live elsewhere. In this case, too, the evidence is discouraging. Some of it is on display in Krovim Rekhokim, a new book about Israeli parenting in America by Udi Sommer, an Israeli-born academic teaching at SUNY-Albany. Sommer reports on the pathetic, often clueless efforts of secular Israeli émigrés to transmit something of what makes them Jewish or even Israeli to their American-born children , and in some cases, to their halakhically non-Jewish grandchildren.

David Biale, for his part, is no doubt aware of the dangers confronting secular Jewishness in America and elsewhere in the Diaspora. One of the most notable things about his admirable history of secular Jewish thought is his reluctance to venture a confident answer to the question of what the future holds in store. Another is the conciliatory stance that he takes toward religion at the end of his book. It seems reasonable to conclude that the former is in some measure the cause of the latter.

But maybe I am reading too much into this book. Not in the Heavens is meant, after all, to be a celebration of secular Jewish thought, not an obituary for it. Rather than see his narrative as one that concludes with something like a secularist’s confession of defeat, one should perhaps simply regard it as yet another phenomenon that contains within itself the seeds of its own subversion.


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