One on One with Felix Posen: Secular scholarship

'Cultural Judaism' promoter Felix Posen: "It's as though we don't exist."

Felix Posen 248.88 courtesy (photo credit: Courtesy / Center of Cultural Judaism )
Felix Posen 248.88 courtesy
(photo credit: Courtesy / Center of Cultural Judaism )
Secular Judaism - or Jewish secularism - is a huge field, not fully developed," explains Britain based philanthropist Felix Posen. "So you won't even find the term in the Encyclopedia Judaica." Indeed, bemoans Posen - here earlier this month to attend the 15th World Congress of Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem - "it's as though we don't exist." And that, says Posen, who retired in 1992 from the oil, metal, minerals and coal business, "is in spite of the fact that we are the the majority." Still, he admits to having made international headway in the endeavor that has been a key passion for close to two decades. Through his Posen Foundation www.posenfoundation. - a main supporter of the International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at HU - he has seen to it that secular Jewish thought and culture has been introduced into the curricula of several institutes of higher learning in the United States and Israel. This he continues to pursue through his foundation's Program for the Study of Secular Jewish History and Cultures. And he considers his invitation to the congress - in which his organization was included in several sessions, as well as a plenary - as indicative of his field's finally being acknowledged as an integral part of the complex fabric of Jewish life. What caused you to focus your philanthropic efforts on cultural Judaism? Where did your passion for this particular subject come from? I was born and grew up as an Orthodox Jew in Germany. When I was 10, my family emigrated to the United States - just before World War II broke out - and I attended a Talmud Torah school. And all during my youth, the whole concept of religious Judaism was something that I thought about: seeing so many other types of Jews, particularly in America, not only nonreligious Jews, but also different kinds of religious ones, such as Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist - which were considered completely treif where I was born. But wasn't it in Germany that the Reform movement began? Yes. In fact, all forms of Judaism which exist today - with the exception maybe of the very Orthodox, not the haredim, but the others - were creatures of the Enlightenment in the 19th century. None of them existed prior to that. Was it difficult for you to decide to stop observing Shabbat and keeping kosher? Or was it simply a gradual process you underwent as part of your Americanization? Well, the thinking was gradual, but the actual act of biting into the first nonkosher hamburger was a bit emotional, because, you know, one doesn't know whether lightening is going to strike [he laughs]. The other problem, of course, was that, like most religious Jews in the Diaspora, what we were taught was, in a sense, what is now known as "pediatric Judaism." This is to say that we were taught to say prayers in a language we didn't understand; it could have been Japanese or Sanskrit for all it mattered. This practice continues to this day in many religious schools throughout the world - not in Israel, of course, but only because Hebrew happens to be the native language here. But very few religious Jewish kids who attend Talmud Torah schools really know what they're doing. From this, you could have reached the opposite conclusion: not that what is lacking is the teaching of cultural Judaism, but rather that what is needed is a more stringent comprehensive Jewish education - more Hebrew, more serious study of the religious texts and traditions... Of course, but along with my own Torah studies, I also went to a regular high school, and eventually university, and I learned an awful lot of other things - other philosophies and other histories. And from this, one starts thinking about the whole idea of religion. At that particular moment in time, I knew nothing whatsoever about any form of Judaism other than the strictly yekke [German-Jewish] Talmud Torah kind of schooling. How did Zionism fit into your upbringing, and to your development where Judaism was concerned? In our family, we had haredis who were anti-Zionist; we also had pro-Zionist Mizrahi people, like me, who was part of Junior Mizrahi - and some of our family actually emigrated to what was then Palestine; we had an awful lot of family members who got wiped out by the Nazis; and some of us went to different parts of the world. What, in your view is Judaism - a race, a religion or a culture? It most definitely is not a race. But it depends on whom you ask. If you ask the religious, they will say that Judaism is a religion. Most secular Jews will tell you they don't know what it is. Those of us who are interested in the field define Judaism as a culture, which includes religion. Most certainly, religion is part of our culture. Nobody can say anything against that. But whether one emphasizes the cultural part or the religious is personal. Not everybody understands this. It's a relatively new development, in terms of discussion. If more and more Jews begin to see Judaism as a culture - only part of which is religion - are Jews not in danger of greater levels of intermarriage, with Jewish households moving farther away from both the religion and the culture? The defection from religious ranks - whether from religious Judaism to nonreligious, or from Judaism to conversion to another religion - has been going on since time immemorial, but gained pace with modernity. So, I'm not concerned with what you asked in relation to the work that I'm doing. I am, of course, concerned about fewer and fewer people referring to themselves as Jewish, religiously or culturally. If they just give the whole thing up, I think it's a great pity, even a tragedy. The reason I went into what I'm doing, basically, is when I started talking to students at universities - friends of my grandchildren, for example - who called themselves Jewish, and I asked them what that means, the vast majority said, "I don't really know; my parents are Jewish; I went to Sunday school and learned prayers, but I don't remember a thing." And I thought: This is ridiculous. It's a needless strategy. Some of these people are going to be Nobel Prize winners, yet they talk about Judaism in kindergarten form. There must be something that can be done on a different level. Why is this particular to Jews? Aren't many, say, Americans ignorant of their history and culture? Shouldn't all people be as educated as possible about who they are and where they came from, whether they're Jews or not? I haven't read enough statistics about Americans' ignorance, but essentially, if somebody calls himself an American, he will know something about American history, about the Constitution, about American politics, what goes on in voting and so forth. The same thing applies to the Chinese, Japanese, French, whoever. Most people, if they have a relatively decent education, will have learned these things in their schools. But secular Jews have no place to learn about their Judaism, other than from a religious point of view, which they or their parents reject. As a result, we have a phenomenon today that the majority of the Jews, who self-define as nonreligious, have no place to turn to understand that form of Judaism at any level - and essentially opt out. One could argue that the State of Israel does exactly what you're promoting. The children who attend state nonreligious schools in this country learn a bit about Judaism, the Bible, history - and they all speak Hebrew. They learn about their heritage and holidays in a very secular way. Is Israel, then, a successful example of what you're hoping that Jews in the Diaspora will be able to accomplish? No. Because the average secular Israeli child is as ignorant as his counterpart in the Diaspora, even though he speaks and reads Hebrew and probably knows the Jewish calendar. He will know that there is a Yom Kippur - mainly because he can go bike riding in the middle of the street on that day. That doesn't mean he's going to do anything culturally or religiously about it. There is a commonality of ignorance on the part of all nonreligious Jews, no matter where they live. As someone who is neither ignorant nor religious, how do you commemorate Yom Kippur? I no longer celebrate Yom Kippur or attend Kol Nidre. However, I have extracted from the prayers some things that are completely secular - for instance, the part about the sins we've committed. Nearly all - except five - are secular sins. If one feels like it, one can take those prayers and think about what one has or has not done over the course of the year, to be an ethically correct or incorrect person. But if you don't know the prayers, you don't do that. You go bike riding. In the Diaspora, those who don't know anything don't even go bike riding. They basically do nothing. And people who know little mix things up, like those who eat ham on matza during Pessah. So, I ask myself: If you do not practice religion, what is left in Judaism? Why bother to call yourself a Jew? And that's how the whole concept of teaching Judaism as a culture got started. And it is absolutely not an anti-religious thing; it's only pro, pro, pro - pro-understanding what it means to be a Jew. Isn't it possible for a nonobservant Jew to feel that Judaism goes way beyond culture? Is there no pull that goes deeper than rationality? Isn't there a difference, for example, between a Jew who studies Jewish culture and a non-Jew who does the same? I would say no. In fact, the courses we are now teaching in the United States in over 30 universities often have between one-third and one-half non-Jews. They want to understand Judaism as a culture, the way they might want to understand Hinduism as a culture or Chinese as a culture and so on. There is a very interesting and rich way of understanding Judaism from a pure cultural point of view. There is a way of understanding it from a pure religious point of view. Some people like to marry the two. And that's perfectly all right, as well. You know, one might call himself a Jew because he is born to a Jewish mother. But the Jewish-mother concept was created in talmudic times by the rabbis. Prior to that, in biblical times, it was patrilineal descent, as it is to this day for the kohanim [priests]. In the 19th century, with the development of Reform Judaism, there was what we call bilineality - paternal or maternal descent. And then, of course, the Nazis defined a Jew as someone with a Jewish grandparent. So, who is a Jew? What does it mean to be a Jew? It depends whom you ask. From my point of view, and from that of most people who call themselves secular, they say anyone who considers himself or herself a Jew is a Jew. Why do we specify and keep track of the number of Jews who win Nobel Prizes? It's an un-understandable phenomenon why - percentage-wise - so many Jews have won Nobel Prizes. I certainly do not have the answer to that. However, an equally important statistic is that all but two of the Jewish Nobel Prize winners were nonreligious. Do you conclude from this that religion hinders scientific research and open-mindedness? Not hinders, but if you are involved very much in religion, and spend an inordinate amount of time on the Talmud, Gemara and prayer, you simply don't have as much time to devote to scientific or other kinds of research. This a theory I cannot prove, but it makes sense and probably is the main reason why so many more nonreligious Jews than religious ones win Nobel Prizes. What is certain is that there can be no genetic explanation. We're all made of the same stuff. Yet you consider yourself a proud Jew, correct? Absolutely. I feel very positive about Jewish culture. It is an immensely rich, creative culture, that has done so much for humanity, and has suffered so much for its successes. I feel completely comfortable to call myself a Jew. I feel completely comfortable studying Judaism, and I have no problem studying religious Judaism - I just don't believe in it. It's part of our culture. Anyone who denies that doesn't want to look at historical truths. Again, I have to stress that I will have nothing to do with anyone who is anti-religious. I'm only interested in the positive aspects of our culture. This is essentially what we have pioneered. And within a period of 10 years, we now have courses in many universities in America, Israel and some in Europe. And we've begun establishing junior high and high schools in Israel - I have not been successful in any such school in the Diaspora, not a one. There, they have what they call "pluralistic" schools, but those are religiously pluralistic. In Israel, we're now in 60 schools, mainly in the greater Tel Aviv area and surroundings. But we're now discussing it on a much larger scale, and we may get another 120 schools that are prepared to adopt our syllabus. Isn't it somewhat paradoxical that in the Diaspora - where there is greater Jewish pluralism than there is in Israel, due to the political power of the rabbinical establishment here - your programs do not flourish, while in Israel they do? How do you explain that? Ignorance. Secular Jews in the Diaspora are ignorant of Jewish things. This is also why there are all kinds of secular Jewish billionaires in the Diaspora who only give money to religious institutions - part of it under the rubric: You pray, I pay. Now, everybody has the right to give money to anybody or any cause he or she likes. The tragedy, however, is that the majority of people who self-define as nonreligious or secular Jews have no place to send their kids to school to learn something about Jewish culture. And that ought to be corrected. We hope we're on the way. But I think it will take decades to get it done.