Secular Jews and Secular Jewish Culture

Where does secular Jewish culture come from? Can or should we try to preserve it?

Someone wrote to me about last week’s email to say that I was disrespecting “the secular Jewish community.” I replied that I didn’t think that I was, and I certainly didn’t intend to; but the correspondence (and, perhaps ironically, one or two things in this week’s parsha) prompted me to reflect on the nature of contemporary Jewish secularity. It’s an important conversation, and one that, for me, began almost thirty years ago at lunch with Felix Posen in a sushi restaurant in London’s West End. Felix thought you could educate for secular Jewish culture. I was – and remain – skeptical. Yet this skepticism is not the end of the story.

I want to note that when we talk about “secular Jewish community” we actually mean two quite distinct things. One is at the level of theology – people who “don’t believe in G!d.” The other is really about Jewish culture – a sense of Jewish culture deriving from Jewish tradition but independent of, for instance, synagogue or services. These two kinds of secularity are quite distinct. There are many observant (ie “religious”) Jews who, if scratched, are more or less theologically “secular;” and, conversely, Peter Beinart’s point was that it is not merely “secular Jews” whose sense of connection to traditional Jewish food has waned but even, for instance, his own kids – raised in a contemporary observant home, not “secular” in an obvious sense, but also not connected to (for instance) such markers of secular Jewish culture as pastrami or schmaltz.

In one sense today we are all, or nearly all, to some extent theologically “secular.” It is interesting to re-read Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik’s famous “Rupture and Reconstruction”, now more than twenty years old but still a remarkable and fascinating sociology of postwar changes in Jewish life. (It is absolutely worth reading in full; the tiny excerpts below don’t in any way cover its full range.) The most poignant section is this:

In 1959, I came to Israel before the High Holidays. Having grown up in Boston and never having had an opportunity to pray in a haredi yeshivah, I spent the entire High Holiday period – from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur – at a famous yeshiva in Bnei Brak. The prayer there was long, intense, and uplifting, certainly far more powerful than anything I had previously experienced. And yet, there was something missing, something that I had experienced before, something, perhaps, I had taken for granted. … Over the subsequent thirty-five years, I have passed the High holidays generally in the United States or Israel, and occasionally in England, attending services in haredi and non-haredi communities alike. I have yet to find that fear present, to any significant degree, among the native born in either circle…

I grew up in a Jewishly non-observant community, and prayed in a synagogue where most of the older congregants neither observed the Sabbath nor even ate kosher. They all hailed from Eastern Europe, largely from shtetlach, like Shepetovka and Shnipishok. Most of their religious observance, however, had been washed away in the sea-change, and the little left had further eroded in the “new country.” Indeed, the only time the synagogue was ever full was during the High Holidays. Even then the service was hardly edifying. Most didn’t know what they were saying, and bored, wandered in and out. Yet, at the closing service of Yom Kippur, the Ne’ilah, the synagogue filled and a hush set in upon the crowd. The tension was palpable and tears were shed.

What had been instilled in these people in their earliest childhood, and which they never quite shook off, was that every person was judged on Yom Kippur, and, as the sun was setting, the final decision was being rendered (in the words of the famous prayer) “who for life, who for death, / who for tranquility, who for unrest.”… What was absent among the thronged students in Bnei Brak and in their contemporary services and, lest I be thought to be exempting myself from this assessment, absent in my own religious life too – was that primal fear of Divine judgment, simple and direct.

The absence of “that primal fear of Divine judgement” – this is the sense in which very many of us, whether religiously observant or not, are indeed “secular” today. Something that was once organic and inherited has eroded or changed in Jewish life, spurred by the Shoah and by changes in contemporary society. We array ourselves at different points along a range of spectrums of observance or secularity, but none of us is untouched by these changes. The secular Jews of our grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ generation no longer exist, but nor do the orthodox Jews of that era, either.

All this is about secularity in relation to theology – what we believe. But what about secularity in relation to culture – what we do? The food markers – pastrami; schmaltz; bagels and lox on Sunday morning; chopped liver and chicken soup on Friday night – are not important in and of themselves, but rather as indicators of a whole world-view. They went together with a certain kind of instinctual Jewishness, an implied menschlichkeit and a commitment to family and to education; also a tribal sense of shared concern about Jews in danger, shared delight in Jewish success, and shared shame at Jewish misbehavior.

Here I strongly part company – I think – with my correspondent from last week. I am unpersuaded that secular Jewish culture is heritable – certainly not to a third generation. Moses Mendelsohn’s grandkids were not Jewish. Historically, if the first generation are observant and the second secular, then by the third or fourth a sense of Jewishness becomes lost. There are exceptions – there are exceptions – but not many, and not enough to sustain Jewish life or secular Jewish culture.

Does this matter and is there anything we can do about it?

I certainly think it matters. I love Jewish tradition, and I am Jewishly observant – though not fully consistently halachically observant – but separately from my love for Jewish tradition itself, the impact of non-observant Jews in the world is inarguable. If you wanted to find Sigmund Freud or Albert Einstein it wasn’t in shul. I don’t think Woody Allen or Sarah Silverman keep kosher. Mahler and Kurt Weill; Alain de Botton and Daniel Handler; Kafka and Primo Levi and Harold Pinter; Durkheim and Levi-Straus; Saul Alinsky; any dozen twentieth century Nobel laureate physicists; Betty Friedan and Emma Goldman and Nadine Gordimer and Rosa Luxemburg; Ben Gurion and Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin and Shulamit Aloni. They’re not religiously observant – where do they come from?

Where do secular Jews come from? I do not believe that Jewish secularity can be educated for (though I’m aware that people have tried and will continue to try). But secular organizations, in most cases, don’t create secular Jews; they support and foster Jews whose roots lie, directly or indirectly, in religiously fertilized soil. Secular Jews come, at some remove, from religiously observant Jews.

So I do not believe that Jewish secularity can be educated for (though I’m aware that people have tried and will continue to try) but nor do I believe that we will not see many successful secular Jews in generations to come. We will. And, like those in generations gone by, they will trace back to Jewish religious culture, either themselves, or a generation or two down the line. Some of the next generation of secular Jews will be nurtured by Footsteps, smoothing the paths of those who choose to leave the haredi world. Some will be people like Noah Feldman – entirely a product of the Maimonides School that literally airbrushed him out of a photograph. We are already seeing an entire sub-genre of literature from ex-haredi Jews, including Pearl Abraham, Deborah Feldman Leah Vincent, and the remarkable Shulem Deen (whom I first met when he was still a Skverer Hasid – outwardly observant, but already privately bashing down the doors of intellectual constraint).

The boundaries between “secular” and “religious” are thus more porous than we might imagine. I like Lord Sacks’ translation of “emunah” as “faithful.”  Part of the implication is that what matters is not necessarily what we believe but how we act; are we, in this sense, faithful Jews? What kind of a Jew is Lord Rothschild? His mother was not Jewish; his wife is not Jewish; neither he nor his kids are halachically Jewish by orthodox or Conservative standards. I rather doubt that he keeps kosher or attends synagogue. Yet I’m very struck that the people whom he has hired in key positions around him – Sally Berkovic, Arthur Fried, Lord Kestenbaum – are orthodox and traditional. Once is happenstance, twice is a coincidence, but three times is… not coincidental. He is, by Jonathan Sacks standards, a very faithful Jew indeed, and the rare unicorn who demonstrates that one can be a secular Jew after many generations… though perhaps only if one is a Rothschild.

The greatest nominally “secular” Jew of my lifetime was Sir Isaiah Berlin. If you have not read Michael Ignatieff’s superb biography, you absolutely should – a glorious and immensely readable book about one of the great 20th century Jews. I met him only once, when I was speaking at the launch of NIF in the UK – Alice Shalvi, Avrum Burg and me, in that order; a big mistake – and he was this little old man, slightly hunched over, sitting on a couch, wearing his dark three piece suit and a pocket handkerchief and perhaps even a watch-chain. Being introduced to him felt a bit like being introduced to Freud or Einstein. Jonathan Sacks’ eulogy at his memorial service aptly captured the sense in which Isaiah Berlin was neither “religious” nor “secular” but truly a faithful Jew, and an immensely inspiring one.

In the end – in relation to my original questions – I think that we should, as a community, put resource into stewarding secular Jewish culture, of all sorts. But as to where it comes from: whether directly or indirectly, in the first generation or at a couple of generations’ remove, I think it traces back to a broadly religious culture. If, in the end, in a postmodern world, there are more observant Jews there will be, a few years down the line, more secular Jews as well.

For Hazon, I reiterate – whether you agree with me on any of this or not – we remain committed to engaging people across the widest possible spectrum. Our programs are open to people of any religious background or none. Our participants span a wide Jewish range, and happily include many who are not Jewish. The intellectual heart of much of our work is deeply and seriously grounded in Jewish tradition, which is to say Jewish religious tradition. But we do so not from a presumption of denominationalism, or of religiosity narrowly construed, but rather from a sense that Jewish tradition is one of the great wisdom traditions of the world. Shmita – no less than kashrut, Shabbat and a hundred other Jewish teachings – is important not merely (or not even) for the sake of “Jewish continuity” or even “Jewish renewal” but rather because – in my view, at least – the world needs shmita, just as it needs Shabbat, and just as it means kashrut, if by kashrut we mean a self-inducted commitment to restraint in what and how we eat. The interaction between Jewish religious culture and the world around us – back and forth – is one that we seek to foster, in multiple ways, every day of the week.

I end by noting that this week’s parsha is the parsha of shirat hayam, the story that the rabbis see as the quintessential example of G!d’s belief in us, and thus of our belief in G!d. I understand this as a vital part of Jewish tradition, but I relate to it personally in only the most nominal of senses. But this parsha is also the parsha in which Moses begins the journey of taking Joseph’s bones back to the land of Israel. Moses and Joseph are the two Pharaonic Jews – one grows up in Pharaoh’s palace, and one makes his way there. Each has an Egyptian name and an Egyptian spouse. It would be very wrong indeed to ascribe “secularity” to either of them. But I think it legitimate to celebrate the return of Joseph’s bones as being symbolically about those who came before us – whether they were “religious” or “secular” or anything in between.