Pride vs. Ambivalence — The Secular Jewish Dilemma


By Lawrence Bush

September 20, 2011 SelmaHeschelMarch.jpg

I spent a good part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend this year at Limmud, a gathering
of some seven hundred Jews at a resort in my neighborhood in New York's Mid-Hudson Valley. Limmud (the word means "learning" or "study") is an informal movement that convenes conferences like this around the world, throughout the year. Driven mostly by young volunteers, it has become the place to go to encounter what is current in Jewish education and, to a lesser extent, Jewish social activism.

I saw some friends, led three workshops, and handed out scores of copies of Jewish Currents — but I also struggled, as a secular Jew, with a familiar feeling of marginalization. I saw no distinctly secular Jewish workshops listed in the program, and the first workshop I led, about the radical essences of Jewish identity, was scheduled as the sole alternative to Friday evening shabes services — as though the organizers had realized, late in the game, that not only did they need to offer a variety of prayer services (egalitarian, sex-separated, etc.), they also might need an alternative to prayer services for some of the participants. They shouldn’t have worried: Only a handful of folks showed up for my workshop, while the several rooms for davening were wall-to-wall with people. These were Jews who want to pray at the start of the sabbath, who bond together that way.

Over the course of the weekend, I found them to be a diverse crowd, interesting and lively, mostly liberal-minded — and filled with young people who were notably enthusiastic about their Jewish identities. By contrast, I felt uneasy about my own alienation from religious practice, a feeling that was mostly self-critical. On Sunday evening, however, the self-criticism became self-righteousness as a gigantic television screen in the hotel lobby was turned on for the Jets football game, and Limmudniks gathered to watch and cheer.

Jews, I thought, is this the best we can do on the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend? Is this the way to celebrte our values in the context of worldliness: Go, Jets, go?

I knew that I would be leaving the conference the next morning to gather with my “Martin Luther King Jr. Brigade” — a small group of friends, Jews and non-Jews, who have been observing the King holiday together for years. We would be watching a new film about the Freedom Riders and then go serve dinner at a nearby food pantry — and for the first time all weekend, I would feel truly fulfilled as a Jew.

My Limmud experience showcased a key dilemma that faces secular Jews: While we are usually proud to identify our ethics, politics, and values with our Jewishness, our passion for Jewish identity is not fueled by belief in a commanding God, or by an authoritative system of ethical behavior, or by an engrossing, even rapturous relationship to ritual, holidays, and texts. To the contrary, many secular Jews are distinctly uncomfortable with, even scornful of, theology, halokhe (religious law) and many of those rituals, holidays, and texts. As a result, we have fewer bonds than our “co-religionists” to the Jewish tradition and to the sense of Jewish “belonging” that it cultivates.

In fact, many secularists are highly ambivalent about that sense of “belonging,” often dismissing it as “tribalism” or “ethnic chauvinism.” After all, our brand of Jewish identity has deep roots in a humanistic, socialistic, brotherhood-and-sisterhood world view. Because of these roots, “Is it good for the Jews?” is not a question you’ll hear from many secular Jews, except as a punchline.

So why bother with it? Why not turn our backs on Jewish particularism altogether and simply devote ourselves to the progressive, universalist politics that our Yiddish-accented ancestors helped to invent? They naturally organized themselves as Jews, since they were organically tied to the identity by language, ethnicity, occupations, neighborhoods, and, of course, the scourge of anti-Semitism — but for us, Jewish identity is something for which we volunteer. Why should we?

Thirty-odd years ago, my central motive for coming to work as a “professional Jew” was political: to help shore up Jewish liberalism as a “natural resource” for social change in America. Jewish “continuity” as an ethnic or religious preservationist project was, by comparison, low on my list of concerns, and if ever we were to reach a point at which all people who call themselves “Jews” were religiously Orthodox and politically conservative — God forbid! — I would probably no longer count myself among them or devote myself to their well-being. Such a politically-motivated identity may seem opportunistic, even “self-hating,” to many in the Jewish community, but it is consistent with the motives of my elders in the secular Jewish world, many of whom saw themselves as socialists and humanists first, Jews second (or, to put it another way, they saw socialist humanism as the heartbeat of Jewish identity).

Still, during my decades of involvement in Jewish life, I have come to appreciate my “tribe” and my tradition more and more. That appreciation is still “political,” as I have found key Jewish teachings, both religious and secular, to be rich sources of progressive ethical philosophy. I am also hugely admiring of the talent some of my people seem to have for progressive political leadership and cultural innovation. Perhaps because of our historically-minded religion, and perhaps because of the limits placed on our ability, in centuries past, to imbed ourselves securely in the private sphere of life, Jews seem more inclined than many others to see themselves as having a role to play in making history and improving the world. We are resistant to complacency and restless in the face of injustice — and this has made Jews a very interesting people to me.

I have even turned out to be more of a “preservationist” than I thought — the object of my preservationist efforts being the radical, secular Jewish tradition, which has been all but erased from most accountings of Jewish history and culture. Young Jews today have depressingly few points of access to that tradition, compared to the points of access they are offered to the religious content of Judaism. Yet it is the anti-establishment, countercultural aspects of Jewish identity that most often excite them — which may account, in part, for why Orthodox Judaism, the most immersive variety of Judaism, is the only variety that is growing. Without a visible, active left in America, we get the Tea Party; without a visible, radical Jewish secularism, we get Orthodoxy.

As immersed as I may be in Jewish identity issues, however, I remain, fundamentally, a universalist Jew. My concern for Jewish survival is rooted most deeply in my belief that Jews and their ethical tradition are an important resource for the larger human race. When I read Torah passages about Abraham’s monotheistic epiphanies, or Jacob’s wrestling match, I think of these characters not really as my tribal ancestors but as representations of all human beings who strive to think, to live the examined life, to achieve a state of mentshlikhkayt (full humanity). When I observe Passover with family and friends, I don’t tune in to some covenantal identity that is special to my tribe, I tune into freedom struggles worldwide. When I recently created a video, “Mountain Day,” to mark Shvues (aka Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai), I featured not only Moses coming down the mountain, but Eleanor Roosevelt with the Declaration of Human Rights, Martin Luther King, Jr. with his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and John Lennon with his song, “Instant Karma” — all latter-day pieces of Torah, and not just for Jews.

Without Shvues on my calendar, however, I would not have created that video and might not have had occasion to think about the Declaration of Human Rights. Without the Passover seder, I might not make it my business to talk about freedom struggle in quite the same focused way with my friends and family. Being tuned into the Jewish tradition helps discipline me to contemplate the world and its cycles and to activate my political soul. Therefore, rather than allowing the ideological evaluations of past generations of secularists to limit my participation in Jewish life, I prefer to be a Jewish “maximalist.” This is how I have sought to shape Jewish Currents, the magazine I edit, during my tenure as editor, to place it on a continuum with what Khayim Zhitlovsky aptly described as “the poetic rebirth of the Jewish religion.” “I remain convinced to this very day,” said Zhitlovsky in 1908, “that not everything is rotten in the old treasures of our people… A critical examination of our cultural heritage will disclose immense treasures… valuable because of the deep generally humanistic elements they contain and not simply because they were developed by our forefathers.”

Today, the “poetic rebirth of the Jewish religion” is by no means monopolized by secular Jews. All of the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism, within the limits of their ideologies, are actively trying to decrease the credibility gap between traditional Judaism and a modern humanistic sensibility. The challenges of cultivating a passionate connection to Jewish identity are also not unique to secular Jews. To the contrary, ambivalence about religion afflicts many synagogue communities; our secular community at least has the virtue of being honest about our lack of religious faith, which spares us some of the ambivalence that other have to endure.

Still, whereas one century ago Jewish secularism simply meant the recognition that there are aspects to Jewish identity besides religion, the phrase “Jewish secularism” today is more often identified with “anti-religionism” than with creative approaches to the Jewish tradition. Our capacity for innovation, continuity, and making a creative contribution to the modern interpretation of Judaism itself has been greatly dampened since earlier generations, and the line between assimilationism and secularism has become very thin for many secular Jews.

As a secularist who has worked for both secular and religious Jewish communities, I want to build bridges among Jews by “secularizing the sacred and sanctifying the secular” (as my friend Billy Yalowitz recently put it). I therefore agitate for fundamental literacy about Jewish religious philosophy, ritual, and the calendar among secular Jews, and for the creation of a synagogue culture in which the Torah and God-worship are moved several feet to the side and secular Jewish culture is truly celebrated. Ultimately, my vision is for our fences to become fringes — and for the creative power of secular skepticism to be mobilized on behalf of an authentic, progressive, universalistic Jewish identity.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents magazine, a 66-year-old secular Jewish journal, and creates the daily blog about progressive Jewish history, JEWDAYO.

This article originally appeared in Jewish Currents, and is reprinted with permission from the author and publisher.
Image credit: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (2nd from right) in the Selma Civil Rights March with Martin Luther King, Jr. (4th from right). Heschel later wrote, "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying."/ Wikipedia

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