David Biale is a historian, and the author of Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought (for bio, go here). This book, as one critic observed, is “an investigation of what has come to be known in shorthand as Jewish secularism. In it, the accomplished historian David Biale sets out ‘to investigate the ideas of those who chose an ideological path to the secular.’ Deeply researched and thoughtfully written, the book is a valuable attempt to start rethinking a familiar category. It is also ultimately unsatisfying, and ends by begging the difficult question it has set out to answer."
 

I sent Biale a couple of questions, and here’s the dialogue in full:

1. In a nutshell: What is "Jewish Secularism"?
I define Jewish secularism as the rejection of traditional Jewish belief and practice and the construction of alternative beliefs and practices that are still grounded in categories from the Jewish tradition.

2. How is it different from just "Secularism"?


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Secular Jews are not the same as Jewish secularists.  The former construct their secular identities without any reference to the Jewish tradition.  The latter, who are the subject of my book, 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  For example, a Jewish secularist might read the Bible as a political, cultural or historical document rather than a religious text.

3. When was Jewish secularism invented and by whom?


Although I speak of a “Jewish secular tradition,” traditions in the plural is more accurate.  So, there are many different varieties of Jewish secularism, invented at different times.  However, many Jewish secularists argue that Baruch Spinoza was the first secular Jew (a claim Spinoza himself would probably have rejected).  Spinoza did define his secular position through a radical reading of the Bible.  A major story of Jewish secularism – the redefinition of the traditional categories of God, Torah and Israel – can be traced back to Spinoza, even if later thinkers did not necessarily always attribute their ideas directly to him.

4. Is Jewish secularism the winning concept of Zionism and Israel?

Zionism was originally one product of the tradition of Jewish secularism.  Given the resurgence of religion in Israel –both national religious and haredi – it would be a mistake to say that it was a “winning concept.”  Secularism, which began as a minority tradition contesting the power of the rabbis in Eastern Europe, finds itself once again embattled in the State of Israel.  Whether it will win this battle or not remains very much uncertain.

5. Is it winning in Diaspora communities, notably the US?


A poll of American Jews a decade ago showed that 49% defined themselves as secular.  What they meant by this is not entirely clear.  Some American Jews who belong to synagogues might call themselves secular in belief and practice since their synagogue affiliations are for purposes of community rather than religion.  Outside the Orthodox world, secularism and religion have increasingly become concepts that cannot be easily separated.  One can be a cultural Jew one day and a spiritual Jew the next.  The battle raging in Israel between Orthodox and secular does not rage in America.  But whether Jewish secularism can establish an ongoing tradition of its own in America in the sense I defined it before (that is, as a tradition engaged with the sources of Judaism), also remains uncertain.   The ideological forms of Jewish secularism from the first half of the twentieth century (Zionism, Yiddishism, Bundism, etc) no longer operate in American Jewish culture and what is taking their place is less ideological and less clearly defined.

 


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