Thursday, January 13, 2011

Does Jewish Secularism Have a Future?

Does Jewish Secularism Have a Future? is the theme of the May-June 2009 issue of Jewish Currents. There is first the editor's Introduction (pp. 1-3), and here is the rest of the contents:

"Offers We Couldn’t Refuse: What Happened to Secular Jewish Identity?" An Analysis by April Rosenblum (8-28)
"My Dinosaur Days: Does Jewish Secularism Have a Future?" An Illustrated Memoir by Lawrence Bush (29-50)
"Humanistic Judaism and Sherwin Wine: The “Other Wing” of the Jewish Secular Movement" An Appreciation by Rabbi Adam Chalom (51-55)
Responses from Readers and Activists (56-69) Barnett Zumoff, Linda Gritz, Ross Perlin, Marie Parham, Rabbi Shai Gluskin, Ira Mintz, Lyber Katz, Joel Schechter, Dorothy Zellner, Brian Klug, Michael Prival, Jack Nusan Porter, Rokhl Kafrissen, Michael Gould-Wartofsky, Billy Yalowitz

Rosenbaum provides an historical account of how secular Jewish (Yiddish) culture was once in the mainstream of American Jewish life and how various social pressures virtually eliminated it in the 1950s and beyond.

Lawrence Bush recounts his own experience in the secular Jewish milieu and his engagement with Jewish Currents, of which he is now the editor. Contrary to Irving Howe, he maintains that Yiddish culture is not doomed after all.

From being the lone humanistic rabbi in the 1960s, at the time of this writing (Wine died in 2007) Sherwin Wine engendered over 30 congregations and over 50 leaders. 

Interestingly, even secularists, in trying to demythologize their religious tradition, didn't make it quite that far:
For example, from Mayn Folk, a 1962 Workmen’s Circle children’s history book (my translation from the Yiddish):
When the Jews lived in the wilderness, their leader was Moses. He was the leader of all the Jewish tribes. All Jews obeyed him. Moses taught the Jews how to live properly and well. He gave the Jewish people wise and good laws. He gave Jews the Torah.
God is edited out of this book, which instead focuses on the “organizer” Moses. However, despite all the evidence of archaeology and Biblical criticism that the Torah was compiled centuries after Moses (if he existed), the traditional teaching of the siddur (prayerbook) that “this is the Torah that Moses placed before the Children of Israel” persists.
Turning Moses into a left-winger is a miracle in itself, but I heard the same line some years ago when attending a Labor Seder, replete with heavy-handed didactic politicization of the traditional ritual in the service of the cause of the day. I was quite amazed to see a number of young people present, as I expected nobody under 80 would be found there. I don't know what denomination the labor seders are held under; it was not Humanistic Judaism as far as I know, but it may as well have been. I liked the people, and especially the participation of African-American, Ethiopian, and Latino union activists, but I found the ceremonial aspect rather lame.

I have also known some of the members of the Washington DC branch of Humanistic Judaism, Machar, but in settings far removed from any semblance of a religious service. Hence I remain mystified what religious services of Jewish atheists could possibly look like and what an atheist rabbi is supposed to do. I suppose this article attempts to answer that question.

Wine attempted to combine both the congregational and secular dimensions of Jewish life, and both the particular tradition and universalism, incorporating non-Jewish intellectual sources. Wine also incorporated intermarriage into his denomination and even gay commitment ceremonies. Wine was willing to question even the cultural survival of the Jewish people. He rejected the Bible and Torah as below the standard of real intellectualism. His philosophy can be found in Judaism Beyond God (1985, revised 1995). His liturgical innovations can be found in Celebration: A Ceremonial and Philosophic Guide for Humanists and Humanistic Jews (1988). His final statement can be found in the festschrift A Life of Courage: Sherwin Wine and Humanistic Judaism (2004).

Given my limited exposure, all I can say is that people have to do the best they can from where they find themselves. If I had to go this route, I would probably prefer Ethical Culture, which I'd also prefer to the even more vapid Unitarians, but I find it all a bloody bore and essentially a palliative for the upper middle class. (Though in fairness I must concede that the traditional clerical institution provides a base for charitable work and social action.) Still, Humanistic Judaism is the next best thing to Jewish humanism, that is, humanism ex officio.

Barnett Zumoff supplements Rosenblum's analysis with a couple of internal factors and adds that "secular Jewishness is currently maintained in America only by a tiny group of determined individuals, through heroic effort and in a very diluted form." Linda Gritz recounts her own efforts in preserving secular Jewish culture. Ross Perlin addresses the problems endemic to this endeavor. Marie Parham recounts her upbringing in the Jim Crow South. The civil rights Freedom Rides and the African art her father brought home from his travels inspired her. She did not realize there was a tradition behind her impulses until she visited Camp Kinderland and heard Miriam Makeba broadcast over the PA system. Rabbi Shai Gluskin thinks that secular ideologies like Stalinism are far worse than theism, so he prefers liberal Judaism. Ira Mintz claims that "Secular Judaism is alive and well and living in Central New Jersey." Lyber Katz estimates that half of the American Jewish population is secular. He also sees a rise in an interest in spirituality among the baby-boom generation. He agrees with Rosenbaum about the devastating effect of McCarthyism. Joel Schechter is an enthusiastic latecomer to Yiddishkeit. Dorothy Zellner blames the red scare and Zionism for the destruction of secular Jewish culture. Brian Klug describes Jewdas ( a fairly new Jewish group in Britain that characterizes itself as “radical voices for the alternative diaspora.” He describes an event in London, a "Rootless Cosmopolitan Yeshiva". (I like the sound of that.)

Michael Prival recounts his own formative experience in the Jewish milieu of the Bronx. But there is no reason that younger people, who are entirely removed from this experience, should bother with it. Here he hits the nub:
In my family, secular Jewish identity survived to my children’s generation largely because of our participation in the Humanistic Judaism movement described by Rabbi Adam Chalom. Although Humanistic Judaism is totally accepting of those from non-Jewish backgrounds, secular Jewish identity continues to be rooted in ethnicity. We live in a society so welcoming that the ethnic ties of all groups weaken over time. We may regret the gradual loss of identity, but we can only celebrate the openness of the society that causes it.

A distinct secular Jewish culture cannot survive through the generations in the United States without ghettoization of housing and education that limits exposure of the young to the broader culture and, more importantly, to non-Jewish potential mates. Fortunately, these conditions do not exist for most of us, so our ancestral culture is disappearing.
Now this I can relate to.

Jack Nusan Porter was raised Orthodox, but learned to incorporate secularism? Why not the reverse?
Secular Judaism is not “marginalized,” it simply does not give Jews the nurture and “soul” that religious ritual gives. That’s why I always felt, even back in Morris Schappes’ time, that secular Judaism would decline if it did not acquire some kind of spirituality — and why not a Hebrew prayer-language, and not just a Yiddish spirituality?

Rokhl Kafrissen recounts her disillusionment with Hadar and encounter with Jewish Currents. She is not "secular"; she wants to lead an "integrated Jewish life". Oy.

Michael Gould-Wartofsky is the son of philosopher Marx Wartofsky (who knew?). He grew up in a secular socialist environment but found this at odds with mainstream Jewish identity, i.e. religiosity + nationalism. He could only find like-minded Jews in social movements not specifically Jewish, which he terms the "inner diaspora". (My kind of people.)  He enumerates the ideological parameters of the Jewish mainstream and calls for a radical rupture with it.
Such a secular revival could be global, with the help of new media and the Internet. It could embrace all forms of Jewish culture, not only those that speak Yiddish or Hebrew, and open itself up to the Latino, Arab, and Black Jewish traditions.
Billy Yalowitz starts off by mentioning his presence at two seders, one with the Reconstrucions, the other with is secular left-wing family. Coming from a heritage of communists and Yiddish speaking socialist, he inherited a contempt for Judaism and religion in general, but finds inspiration in the combination of Yiddish literature, left-wing political culture, and Judaism which is also part of his family history.

It should not be too difficult to discern my own sympathies. One area to pursue that was only touched on by a couple of the participants: how to non-Jews associated with Jews, most notably in mixed families or intimate relationships, relate to secular Jewish culture under discussion? Prival and Gould-Wartofsky skirt this question from opposite angles. I don't see any future for any culture in the USA that is not open to everyone. In addition to the factors adumbrated by Prival, the communications revolution—the enculturation of children via media technology from birth—has permanently altered the nature of culture and established a permanent discontinuity with the cultural past. On the other hand, it has also created options for recombinant appropriations of the flotsam of all cultures that never previously existed. So there is now a question of what any individual from one ethnic group experiences, related to a question of what individuals from different groups experience in association. This, as well in differentials in the experience of or need for belonging, are factors to consider. I personally can only stand so much of belonging, and so total immersion in anything is too much for me to take, but others will make their way as suits them, hopefully without getting stuck in a rut.

1 comment:

Michael Havlin Witkin said...

Thanks for putting information about this issue of Currents up in cyberspace.