Rethinking Jews and Secularism
Ari Joskowicz and Ethan Katz
For much of the twentieth century, most secular and religious thinkers believed that they were living in an age of steady secularization. Many perceived the Enlightenment and Europe as the interlinked chronological and geographical focal points that had given birth to secularization before it began its inevitable march across space and time. Depending on their religious outlooks, they saw their own era as ushering in either a "Golden Age" of secularism or a dark period of godless decadence. It was only in the closing decades of the twentieth century—when scholars and pundits began to speak of the global resurgence of religion—that secularism became the center of heated discussions. Today, the secular is no longer considered the norm; it has become something to be explained and studied.
This broader shift has also occurred among Jews. After the Second World War, Judaism as a religion appeared to be in decline. A major portion of Eastern European Orthodoxy had been annihilated in the Holocaust, a largely secularist brand of left-wing Zionism dominated the political scene among Jews in Palestine (and, later, Israel), while religious observance among Jewish communities in the Americas began to wane. During the 1960s, traditional Jewish settings—much like non-Jewish religious milieus in the United States and Europe—appeared to be fragmenting. Although many viewed Judaism as a resilient and meaningful force in their lives, few would have defined it as a serious challenge to the secularism of the existing political order.
All of this has now changed profoundly. A number of key developments have upended assumptions about the triumph of secularism in Jewish life. These include the strengthening of Orthodox movements and institutions in Israel and the United States; the meteoric rise of the Chabad Lubavitch movement; the growth and radicalization of Religious Zionism since 1967; the increased presence of religious themes in Zionist discourse (emblematized and accelerated by the 1977 rise to power of the Likud Party in Israel); and the emergence of a series of new Jewish movements for spiritual renewal. Liberal Jewish commentators in turn responded by expressing their strong objection to many of these developments, which they considered profoundly disruptive to the progressive, secular consensus they sought to achieve. From attempts to create a new type of "secular Judaism" in the United States to clashes around gender-segregated buses in Israel, we are now witnessing the revival of culture wars that recall similar conflicts fought over the preceding three centuries.
This book probes how these new contestations of secularism force us to rethink a host of questions about Jews and the evolution of Judaism in modern times. Such an undertaking involves bringing together two areas of research that have until recently remained isolated from one another—Jewish studies and the study of secularism and secularization.
A Missed Encounter
Until recently Jewish studies scholars engaged only rarely with the longstanding interdisciplinary conversation about secularism and secularization. By the same token, Jews received scant attention in the extensive scholarship on secularism in the broader humanities and social sciences.
This missed encounter is unfortunate for many reasons. First, many of the key dichotomies underpinning secularist discourse evolved from the oppositions that Christian thinkers historically constructed to juxtapose Christianity and Judaism. Indeed, the idea that a forward-looking Christianity had superseded an archaic Judaism established patterns of thinking about time and meaning in history that shaped notions of progress among religious, non-religious, and anti-religious thinkers alike. Modern conceptions of secularization and its equation with human advancement thus emerged from what Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin and Carlo Ginzburg term the "Christian ambivalence toward the Jews." In assessing the role of Christian understandings of history for secular narratives of progress, Raz-Krakotzkin and others have contended that as the former evolved into the latter, Judaism retained the role of a foil.
As the major non-Christian minority in Western and Central Europe until well into the twentieth century, Jews remained crucial symbolic others who helped to define secularist interpretations of the world, including secularization theory. A revealing passage from one of the seminal texts of secularization theory illustrates the persistent symbolism of Judaism as a primitive and non-productive religion. In Max Weber's lecture "On Science as a Vocation," where he coined the phrase "the disenchantment of the world" to describe what he saw as the gradual withdrawal of magical thinking from various spheres of life, he assigned the Jews an emblematic place in this story. At the end of his text, Weber declares: "Integrity . . . compels us to state that for the many who today tarry for new prophets and saviors, the situation is the same as that which resounds in the beautiful Edomite watchman's song of the period of exile [and] which has been included among Isaiah's oracles." He then cites an enigmatic passage from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 21, wherein the night signifies the darkness before the expected redemption: "A call comes to me from Seir: 'Watchman, what of the night?' . . . The watchman replied, 'Morning came and so did night. If you would inquire, inquire. Come back again.'" Weber concludes: "The people to whom this was said has enquired and tarried for more than two millennia, and we are shaken when we realize its fate. From this we want to draw the lesson that nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone, and we shall act differently." Thus, at the close of this foundational analysis of secularization, Weber presents Jews as the foil for thinking about the "disenchantment of the world." In his depiction, Jews remained entombed in their own enchantment and tied to an ancient set of beliefs out of step with science and reason. He thus implies that both their passivity and otherworldly religiosity constitute the very source of the suffering and persecution they have experienced over the centuries.
Weber's words exemplify how frequently, in discussions of the secular, Jews assume roles that are similar to those they have long played in Christian theology. Even though Catholic and Protestant thought have historically treated Jews differently, in both cases they were important primarily as symbolic actors rather than as an evolving ethnoreligious community. Furthermore, secularist critiques of tradition were often inextricably linked to widespread prejudices against Jews as primitive, obstinate, and incapable of assimilation to European citizenship and values. Reconsidering secularization and secularism thus requires a reconsideration of the position of the Jews therein.
A second set of factors that calls out for a more direct encounter between Jewish and secularism studies lies in the unique evolution of Jewish history, thought, and literature. Having lived for millennia in settings where another faith served as the official state religion, Jews have long had to negotiate between their own laws and practices and those of non-Jewish sovereigns and societies. As early as the Hellenistic period and the Babylonian exile, Jews began to ask how to assign value to non-Jewish realms of knowledge that they considered non-sacred, or to navigate professional and social relationships that often enticed them to venture outside of the Jewish community. Several premodern Jewish responses to the challenges posed to Jewish law, or Halakhah, by life in a non-Jewish state speak to issues that Jews continue to wrestle with today. To take three notable examples: in order to minimize tensions between the observance of Halakhah and respect for the rules of the sovereign government of the land in which they resided, already in late antiquity Jews developed the principle of dina de-malkhuta dina (the law of the land is the law); similarly, the idea that it is necessary both to learn Torah and Talmud and to engage with the wisdom of non-Jews emerged in response to Jews' attempts to balance the study of Jewish and non-religious subjects, first in the Talmud and then more systematically in the medieval writings of Maimonides; finally, the invocation of the command of darkhei shalom, pursuing paths of peace, beginning in the Middle Ages enabled a number of Jewish legal leniencies to govern Jews' relations with their gentile neighbors. As the challenges to traditional Judaism intensified in the era of emancipation, Jewish encounters with the secular allowed a variety of Jewish thinkers and nascent movements to reinforce, rethink, and contest such longstanding principles.
The nineteenth-century European Jewish experience offers a particularly useful case study of the interplay between secularism and Judaism. At the core of debates about secularism are definitions of religion as well as questions such as these: Where and how should religion be practiced? What is its place in politics and in the formation of proper citizens? How do religious, ethnic, national, and racial identities overlap or diverge? Should certain spheres be reserved for the sacred or excluded from it? All these questions became central to Jews in the era of emancipation, as they sought to remake themselves according to new standards of citizenship. In the process, they had to define the role and reach of Jewish law while also proving their loyalty as Jews and citizens of both secular and not-so-secular nations. Modern European Jews also had to position themselves in a matrix of new relationships, whether as one confession among others or as a national group in need of cultural autonomy or minority protections. In each case, Jews' self-definition required that they negotiate competing expectations about religious and national life. As a result, they were forced to articulate their own relationship to secular understandings of statehood, society, and history. To be sure, the Jewish thinkers who faced these questions rarely analyzed the notion of religion in the systematic way that religious studies has done during the past several decades. Yet in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the very era that produced our modern lexicon (including the language of "secularism" and "world religions"), European Jews' literary, philosophical, theological, political, and everyday endeavors challenged the emerging terms of the debate.
Finally, bringing together Jewish studies and the study of secularism and secularization illuminates how different versions of Judaism and Jewishness have repeatedly defied the frameworks and categories of secularization theory. All too often, exponents of theories of secularization and secularism have drawn their assumptions about religious life as well as the binary of secular/religious from Protestant European and American life and only subsequently, with insufficient context or care, applied these as broader paradigms to Jews and other religious groups. Yet, as various essays in this book make clear, secularization theory and the category of secularism both tend to distort or obscure rather than account for many developments in modern Jewish history, thought, and literature. At the same time, Jewish studies is also enriched once we take into account recent approaches to secularization and secularism more broadly. Doing so offers scholars of Jews and Judaism new perspectives on questions of origins, boundaries, and the significance of numerous Jewish texts and experiences. Together, the individual essays included in this volume underscore the need to recognize the multiplicity of Jewish encounters with the secular. They also encourage us to ask how Jewish secularisms have differed, often markedly, from the conventional narratives and categories of scholarly accounts of secularism and secularization.
Secularization and Secularism
In both popular and academic arenas, the meanings of the terms secularism and secularization have been contested. Secularization constitutes a historical process with a number of different meanings and outcomes. These include the transformation of religious symbols, practices, and gatherings into cultural, political, or social ones; the establishment of legal separation between state and religious authority; the broader differentiation of religion from a set of spheres often understood in the West as strictly "secular," such as politics, education, and science; and, relatedly, the increasing privatization of religion through its confinement to nonpublic spaces. The term has also denoted the decline of religious belief or practice among individuals or the interiorization of religion as a personal spiritual development that takes the place of outward physical signs of faith, such as religious attire or ritual.
In reaction to the rise of politicized religious movements during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, scholars such as the sociologist José Casanova and the philosopher Charles Taylor have sought to revise our understanding of the meanings and outcomes of secularization. Casanova and other sociologists have focused primarily on processes of differentiation, in which religion is gradually confined to certain institutions, times, and fields of action. In their attempt to explain new politicized religious movements, scholars such as Casanova have offered ever more complex and nonlinear accounts of the consequences of differentiation for religious faith and practice. Increasingly, their theories offer space for the rise and "de-privatization" of new forms of religiosity and even for political religion. At the same time, the philosopher Charles Taylor has taken greater interest in what he calls "secularity"—a term he uses to describe modernity's transformation of belief in the transcendent from an unquestioned position into simply one choice among many worldviews. This leads Taylor to contend that secularization has entailed the invention of new conceptions of the self.
Although reacting to similar developments in the politics of religion, scholars of secularism have taken a route different from those who focus on secularization. Whereas secularization is usually described as a process, secularism is, in the words of one of its most influential scholars of recent years, "a political and governmental doctrine" regulating the practice of religion. In response to the rise of new movements that challenge secular arrangements, recent scholarship from religious studies, literature, anthropology, and history has questioned our basic understanding both of religion and the secular. Rather than trace the changing place of the religious in the modern world, scholars such as Talal Asad show the political implications of different ways of speaking about and framing religion—by recognizing the imbrication of these discourses in liberal narratives of progress or explaining their complicity in colonial projects. They also explore the unarticulated assumptions about human nature, agency, and power inherent in a secularist worldview.
In this context, secularism takes on different meanings. Some define it as the opposite of religion, as the space evacuated by religion, as an ideology created to suppress religion, or as a political doctrine that demands the separation of church and state. These definitions often align closely with popular usage of the term. Others, like Asad or the literary scholar Gauri Vishvanathan, use the term more broadly to describe negative ideas about religion as unsophisticated, passive, repressive, or anti-modern. These scholars see such depictions as embedded in accounts of modernity and in the work of modern statecraft. In each conception, secularism becomes as much an antecedent as a product of secularization. Some scholars have also started to use the plural "secularisms" to highlight the multiplicity of narratives and forms this construction of the religious can take. Such questions about the meanings of secularism and secularization have considerable resonance beyond the academy. From North America to the Middle East, terms that seem uncomplicated in everyday language such as "religion" and "religious" are now at the center of heated political conflicts over the definition of religious fundamentalisms and the appropriate role of faith and clerics in the public sphere.
This book—which examines an array of historical and contemporary settings in Europe and Israel while also touching upon North American and North African Jewish experiences—brings together a number of traditions of thought on secularism. It yields no single meaning for "secularization," "secularism," the "secular," or "religion." Some authors included in this volume have chosen to engage primarily with secularization theory; they tend to treat religion and the secular as oppositional forces. Others, meanwhile, have sought to question these categories in the tradition of recent secularism debates. Despite these terminological differences, it is crucial to underscore the definitions of the secular that the essays in this volume collectively eschew. For none of the authors featured here is secularism simply the opposite, absence, or nullification of religion; nor do they treat secularization as a linear process of religion's steady retreat from the public sphere or the collective consciousness.
A number of underlying assumptions unite the essays in this book. The first is the authors' shared conviction that historical and contemporary Jewish experiences can be fully understood only if we account for the many secularisms and dimensions of secularization that Jews have envisioned and confronted. The second is that secularism and secularization have occurred for Jews as much through internal Jewish processes and ideas—including those of traditionally observant Jews—as through the developments of wider society. We are similarly convinced that bringing modern Jewish perspectives into a reckoning with the secular complicates both previous approaches to secularism and the historic conflation of Europe, Christianity, and secularization. Such explorations provide us simultaneously with the tools that allow for a reassessment of modern Jewish history, thought, and literature, on the one hand, and of the "secularism debate," on the other.
Jewish Studies and the Secular
From its inception as a field in the 1820s, Jewish history forced its practitioners to reflect on the nature of Judaism and, by extension, the meaning of the secular. Both the pressure to strictly reinterpret Judaism as a religious rather than a national category and Jews' various responses to this pressure inspired a deep narrative engagement with the fundamental issues of modern secularism. These narratives took two principal forms: (1) an embrace of secularism, often without much theoretical debate; and (2) a critique of secularism as part of a critique of assimilation, modernity, or both.
Most nineteenth-century Jewish intellectuals accepted the transformation of Judaism into a religion within a secular nation as either a condition for or a corollary of emancipation. Even the large number of Jewish journalists and pamphleteers who wrote against the excesses of atheism and materialism confirmed secularist expectations about religion, suggesting that it should remain secondary to national identity in political matters. There were, to be sure, Jewish writers, including Moses Mendelssohn, who criticized certain aspects or versions of secularism and thus developed what scholars such as Jonathan Hess and Aamir Mufti have identified as alternative concepts of modernity. Yet, until the 1880s, the majority of Jews in Western and Central Europe, and many elsewhere, embraced secularism as part of the ongoing promise of the French Revolution or of European liberalism more broadly. In this way, most Jewish historians working in the tradition of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (Science of Judaism), grounded in Enlightenment and liberal thought, implicitly accepted the historical narratives that allowed them to conflate the secular and the modern.
It is difficult to date the rise of a Jewish anti-secularist critique or counter-narrative. Important debates over the consequences of Jews' transformation into a purely religious community ensued as early as the 1860s and 1870s with Heinrich Graetz's groundbreaking nationalist history of the Jews. Although Graetz rejected the notion that Jews made up a mere confessional group, he did not elaborate a full criticism of secularism per se. By the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish nationalists and autonomists of different stripes, including the historian Simon Dubnow, made it their central plank that Jews constituted a nation. Although they critiqued the liberal position that had asked Jews to retreat into a purely religious identity in exchange for membership in the nation-states in which they lived, these late nineteenth-century Jewish nationalists and autonomists remained committed to secularist arrangements. What they critiqued in European liberal secularism was how it led Jews to think of themselves as part of a group defined only by religion and to assimilate in increasing numbers. Thinkers like Dubnow could thus be, on the one hand, critics of the secularism of liberal, so-called assimilationist Jews and, on the other hand, avowedly anti-religious. Since Jewish nationalists and territorialists maintained that Jewish self-government was the solution to the Jewish condition, they were ultimately uninterested in a wholesale critique of the secular nation-state.
When Zionism emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, the movement's adherents similarly proved much more concerned with opposing exclusionary non-Jewish nationalism than with challenging the fundamental idea of the state itself; and it was the state, as much as the nation, that had become variously the site, aim, or enforcer of secularism. Jewish liberals in Western Europe as well as many Eastern European Jewish enlighteners, or Maskilim, by contrast, continued to believe in the state's role as keeper of social peace—one of secularism's original and fundamental promises—as well as its right to demand displays of exclusive political loyalty from its citizenry. Such a binary meant that the nascent Zionist school of Jewish historiography, known as the Jerusalem School, was implicitly anti-secular, without, however, questioning the fundamental secularist assumptions that Zionism shared with other contemporary European nationalisms.
A broader critique of the secular nation-state and its demands can be dated to the interwar period and the generation of scholars that grew up around Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Gershom Scholem. For all of their differences, these thinkers shared an abiding opposition to assimilationism and rationalism on the one hand, and a fascination, on the other, with recovering aspects of Jewish tradition. Their conscious decision to break with liberal Jewish outlooks took the form of new historical understandings that challenged many of the assumptions of the Wissenschaft des Judentums. During the same period, Salo Baron's 1928 article "Ghetto and Emancipation" elaborated one of the earliest comprehensive critiques of secularism's effects, arguing against the view that the French Revolution and emancipation should be read as a salvation narrative in which the modern age overcame the endless persecution and suffering endured by medieval Jewry. Critical of Zionists, and even more so of religious reformers of the German Jewish tradition, he wrote: "Now the theory was put forth that the Jewish religion—which the Jew was permitted to keep—must be stripped of all Jewish national elements. For national elements were called secular, and in secular matters the Jew was to avow allegiance to the national ambitions and culture of the land in which he lived. Jewish Reform may be seen as a gigantic effort, partly unconscious, by many of the best minds of Western Jewry to reduce differences between Jew and Gentile to a slight matter of creed, at the same time adopting the Gentile's definition of what was properly a matter of creed."
Baron did not use the term secularism, but if we read his critique in light of recent debates we can understand his counter-narrative as a critique of secularism as "the Gentile's definition of what was properly a matter of creed." Baron's understanding prefigures a flood of critical Jewish approaches to modernity published after the Second World War and the Holocaust. The broad critique of Enlightenment rationalism as intolerant of difference, especially Jewish difference, also inspired greater scrutiny of the Enlightenment's secularist legacy. Works like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), Jacob Talmon's The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1960), and Zygmunt Bauman's The Holocaust and Modernity (1989) either explicitly or implicitly linked the Nazis' genocidal politics to the radicalization of demands for uniformity and utility made by the secular nation-state.
These first two patterns—the embrace of secularism and its selective rejection in nationalist or anti-modernist terms—exerted tremendous influence well into the post-World War II era. In spite of the long history of Jewish intellectual engagement with questions of secularism, as the field of Jewish studies came into its own during the second half of the twentieth century the issue remained more implicit than explicit as a topic of study. Few leading scholars of Jewish history, religion, thought, or literature discussed "secularism" or "secularization" in a systematic fashion. Employing the concepts loosely, most accounts of Jewish modernity located secularization or secularism within larger grand narratives of Western progress, Jewish decline, or both. A key if unspoken assumption of this scholarship was a mistaken equivalency between Jewish secularization and assimilation.
During the formative scholarly period of the 1960s through the 1980s, the influential work of Jacob Katz reinforced the same teleologies. This was the case despite the fact that Katz was well versed in secularization theory. Indeed, in essays specifically addressing secularism and secularization in Jewish history, Katz offered carefully conceptualized ruminations that anticipated the more critical perspectives on Jews and the secular of decades later; yet in the sociological portraits of his two most noted works, Tradition and Crisis and Out of the Ghetto, he largely packaged his own grand narratives in a linear account of steady Jewish secularization.
In this manner, Jewish studies—both due to its own internal ideological struggles and under the influence of outside scholarship—shared many of the assumptions of wider academic culture about the equation of secularism with modernity and of secularization with progress. This meant that, until quite recently, most work in modern Jewish studies was marked by the unspoken supposition that the Jewish experience of the secular developed in a manner roughly correspondent to that of the wider narrative of Western secularization. Scholars thus said little about what secularism or secularization might mean for Jewish history and Jewish culture specifically. Moreover, they generally treated non-Jewish forces as the primary catalysts for Jewish secularization and secularism, with Jewish figures playing a largely reactive role.
Postsecularist Approaches in Jewish Studies
Just as rethinking secularism requires taking full account of the Jewish experience, current attempts in Jewish studies to construct new paradigms must engage seriously with ongoing debates over the meaning of secularism. Since the late 1970s and 1980s, a third set of approaches has emerged that we might deem post-secularist, in that they move beyond debates about secularism's positive or negative impact. This can be seen in a number of major works of Jewish history that have attempted to overcome earlier teleologies, refusing to describe nineteenth-century Jewish history exclusively through the lens of the Holocaust or the State of Israel. As a result, they paved the way for a more fragmented and nuanced image of Jewish encounters with secularism.
Newer work in German Jewish history, for example, offers complex views of both liberalism and secularism, denying that the latter is either simply coercive on the one hand or politically salvific on the other. Scholarship on Germany shows that Jews found creative ways to break with demands to present Judaism as a private religion that stood second to their secular citizenship and their German nationality. What is more, some scholars have begun to challenge the notion that most German liberals—as the self-declared heirs to the Enlightenment legacy—demanded that Jews shed non-religious particularity as a sine qua non of emancipation and integration.
In French history, historians have had to challenge a narrative rooted in the French national rather than Jewish historiography. The French history of secularism has become a model: invoked by Jacobins during the French Revolution, the concept of a total national unity that does not allow for the political representation of interest groups has become a barometer against which other stories are measured. In Jewish history, Michael Marrus's depiction of late nineteenth-century French Jews as willing assimilators is exemplary: state and society demanded that Jews be publicly indistinguishable from other French people—what they did in so-called private spaces was largely their own business—and Jews did their best to comply. Even today, scholars of secularism still cite Marrus to illustrate the unreasonable pressures of liberal modernity on minorities. Yet others, who have challenged Marrus's depiction of French Jews, have started to unravel the history of French secularism and, with it, one of the foundational narratives of European modernity. We now know that—through their literary production and their public activism on behalf of Jewish rights in France and abroad—many French Jews maintained a visible Jewish identity and ethnic solidarity. Moreover, they often described their Judaism as the source of their devotion to the French nation, the liberal values of the French Revolution, and, after 1870, the Republic. In Ronald Schechter's formulation, Jews "assimilated France" as much as France assimilated them.
Scholars working on Eastern European Jewish history have similarly offered fresh approaches to the subject. David Roskies, for example, recounts how in Russia, Poland, and elsewhere, pogroms and eventually the Holocaust provoked crises of faith and new modes of iconoclastic Jewish literature. Yet such changes were hardly absolute ruptures with tradition, he argues; rather, certain modern, secular Yiddish texts retained sacred references from the past, which authors refashioned into sacrilegious parodies or "pogrom poems." As Anna Shternshis shows, even early Soviet Russia created spaces for the transformation of Jewish practices, despite the state's often brutal anti-religious policies.
Since the 1990s, such developments have helped to open the way for the more direct engagement of Jewish studies with secularism and secularization. One of the most exhaustive works of research in this vein has been Shmuel Feiner's The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe (2010), which offers a broad and ambitious narrative of individual Jews' break with traditional Judaism across Europe. Feiner's work engages with, but largely rejects, the recent reassessments of secularism and secularization, reaffirming the conventional boundary between religious and secular endeavors and attempting to reconstruct the advent of secular options in the lives of European Jews. Focusing on those denounced as epicureans and materialists by their Orthodox detractors, Feiner highlights the ruptures between the increasingly polarized camps of traditionalists and progressives.
Ari Joskowicz and Lisa Leff take a different approach, accounting for secularism not only as a political program but also as a rhetorical device available to different segments of European Jewry throughout the long nineteenth century. Both authors show that many Jews defined their role as political actors with a religious identity framed along confessional lines. This meant that groups like the Alliance Israélite Universelle gained credibility by articulating Jewish solidarity in terms of fealty to the burgeoning cause of liberal secularism. By the same token, in France, Germany, and England, secularism could become what Joskowicz terms "a set of contradictory images and narratives about the modernity of Others." This meant that Jews often sought to prove their own modernity and dedication to secularism by rhetorically distancing themselves from other groups, particularly Catholics, whom they portrayed as wedded to a backward religion. Daniel Schwartz's study of the image of Spinoza in modern Jewish history tells yet another story of Jewish appropriations of secularism: certain Jews emphasized the particular Jewishness of key figures and ideas associated with enlightenment and progress in an effort to underscore Judaism's own secular legitimacy.
A different strand of scholarship has concentrated less on liberal Jewish encounters with the secular and more on the struggle of observant Judaism to maintain or reinvent tradition in the modern world. Michael Silber, Menachem Friedman, and others have shown how, rather than being repositories for the seamless continuity of halakhic Judaism, many of the most traditionalist Orthodox movements—such as Hungarian ultra-Orthodoxy in the nineteenth century and Haredi Judaism in the post-World War II period—emerged in part through radical innovations. Seeking to adapt to the challenges posed by the secular to traditional Jewish life, rabbis like the Hatam Sofer in Hungary and the Hazon Ish in Israel set forth novel halakhic rulings and issued new prohibitions in areas previously considered outside the purview of rabbinic authority. Scholarship on this period reveals how Orthodox leaders had to develop new approaches to the growing numbers of "deviant" or secular Jews by erecting new boundaries around their flock as a "sanctified" observant community while also expressing some measure of solidarity with fellow Jews whose practices they deemed inauthentic. The work of Aviezer Ravitzky has detailed how the advent of secular Zionism complicated further the question of Orthodox Jews' relationships with non-Orthodox Jews, producing a range of responses from grudging toleration to Religious Zionism's articulation of a "covenant of fate" that included secular Zionists. While these authors deal only occasionally with secularism per se, they offer crucial insight into how various Orthodox movements were fundamentally products and producers of secular arrangements. Yet because this literature still situates these developments as reactive and posterior to the arrival of larger secularizing forces, it leaves largely intact the binary division of religious and secular.
Different authors have attempted to challenge the secular/religious binary by suggesting that secularism emerges from religious debates and sources. Following the lead of Marcel Gauchet, who dated the beginnings of the separation of religious and secular concerns to the origins of Christianity, certain scholars have recently sought to show how Jewish tradition generated its own path to secularism. Their approach has produced what we might call a neo-internalist turn. This move, still very much underway, has taken a variety of forms. Like Gauchet, David Biale turns to ancient history and the Bible in order to excavate early Jewish sources of modern Jewish secularism. For Biale, Jewish secularism is embodied in the talmudic aphorism that "the Torah is not in the heavens" but that rather the Torah and Judaism are rendered meaningful in the earthly, humanly realm. Biale casts his secular net wide—finding inspiration for modern Jewish secularism in diverse thinkers from Maimonides to Spinoza and from Marx to Ben-Gurion—a fact that has sparked criticism from certain authors. Taking a different approach, David Sorkin has offered a new vision of a vibrant "Religious Enlightenment" in the eighteenth century. In this context, he situates Jewish thinkers like Moses Mendelssohn within a wider network of Protestants and Catholics who sought to establish a rationalist religious philosophy in cooperation and competition with more radical critics of traditional religion. Sorkin's work shows how, for these thinkers, the pursuit of greater secular knowledge was understood not as a threat from the outside, but as a source of insight that had the potential to enhance one's understanding of God and Torah.
Other scholars have found the internal origins of secular Jewish thought elsewhere—in the early modern transformations of Jewish public morality, communal leadership models, legal theories, and modes of text study, or in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century rabbinic and Jewish lay leaders' depictions of Judaism as a religion existing outside the purview of political authority. Still others have begun to posit a Sephardic genealogy of Jewish secularism, tracing its first stirrings to crypto-Jewish critiques of rabbinic law and authority, particularly in early modern Amsterdam. By locating the sources of Jewish secularism and secularization within Judaism itself, such works enable us to see continuities within Jewish history that have long been obscured by the battles between self-proclaimed secularists and traditionalists.
The Secularism Debate and the Jews
New literature emerging out of the broader secularism debate has also gradually begun to take account of the importance of Jews. In part, this reflects several of the same factors that have combined to generate the larger critical reassessments of modern secularism and secularization theory during recent decades, including the influence of post-colonial studies and the legacy of Jewish skepticism about Christian concepts of religion. In a growing number of studies, most notably Aamir Mufti's Enlightenment in the Colony (2007), critiques of modernity, colonialism, secularism, and their interstices have made Jews a central subject of analysis. Scholars such as Mufti, Gil Anidjar, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, and Robert Yelle have all issued different challenges to secularism from a Jewish perspective. Inspired by Talal Asad's interventions into the field, each of these authors seeks to disentangle the association between secularism and Western progress. They also ask the following questions: What is the impact of secularism on minorities? How can we think simultaneously about different groups—particularly Jews and Muslims—who have become the foils of secularist discourse at different moments? In spite of each author's divergent answers to these questions, each sees secularism as inseparable from Orientalism. Their approach has revealed how individual examples of oppression or resistance—ranging from Jewish responses to the efforts of nineteenth-century European liberals to privatize Judaism to the British drive for Muslim "reform" in colonial India—undergird the phenomena of Orientalism, secularism, antisemitism, and minoritization writ large.
Jews also receive ample attention in recent discussions of the "secular" Bible, a term used to describe the transformation of the holiest book of Judaism and Christianity into a central literary and pedagogical text of the modern Western canon. Jonathan Sheehan has traced the emergence of the "Enlightenment Bible" in early modern Germany and England via a stream of projects of translation and scholarship that deconstructed portrayals of the Bible's divine provenance, transforming it into a "cultural" text. Jews' changing images played a key role in this process. Indeed, as Sheehan and others have shown, by the late eighteenth century German thinkers increasingly contrasted the Hebrew Bible, as an oriental text emblematic of an outmoded Judaism, with the Enlightenment Bible, a sign of German culture and modern progress. Eric Nelson reverses the secularization narrative with regard specifically to European political thought, contending that Renaissance humanism gave way to a reawakened interest in sacred scriptures during the sixteenth and especially the seventeenth century. He thus locates the origins of modern Western political thought in Anglo-Dutch political theorists' fascination with the Hebrew Bible as well as rabbinic commentaries, a phenomenon that he dubs a "Hebrew Revival." Both Sheehan's and Nelson's books demonstrate the crucial importance of Jewish texts and images for what Sheehan terms the "transformation and reconstruction" (rather than the disappearance) of religion. This general tendency is also reflected in studies of Jewish literature that have emphasized the reemergence of the Hebrew Bible in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a central and often desacralized text. Perceived as the Jewish people's greatest cultural asset, it became the subject of fierce political contestation in Europe, the United States, Palestine, and, later, Israel. Through its repeated literary transmutations, the "Hebrew Bible" both produced and symbolized many of the contradictions of secular Israeli culture.
Scholars sensitive to the intersections between questions of gender and sexuality, on the one hand, and secularism or secularization, on the other, have similarly begun to intervene into debates in the field. This has been particularly true of the literature that examines the significance of the hijab, or the Islamic veil. Taking the veil as a point of departure, scholars such as Sabba Mahmoud and Joan Scott have recast the relationship between secularism, traditional Islam, and female agency, highlighting the gender-specific aspects of secularism. In their analysis, proponents of secularization have often made assumptions about sexuality and the body that have done as much to repress women as to liberate them.
In Jewish studies, Paula Hyman, Marion Kaplan, and others have illuminated how secularization historically proceeded differently for women than men. In Eastern Europe, secular education was sometimes available sooner for women than for men. This fact, coupled with the limitations that traditional Jewish society placed on women's learning and leadership roles, made the prospects of secular schooling and professional life particularly appealing for women. In Western and Central Europe, Jewish embourgeoisement had a paradoxical effect. Here Jewish women had fewer opportunities than did their husbands to pursue an education (whether secular or religious) or to join the workforce. They were expected instead to maintain a home with strong religious values. This dynamic corresponded to the idea of separate, gendered spheres that lay at the heart of a secular, bourgeois vision of society. Yet the privatization of Judaism did not lead to the decline of observance. Across Central and Western Europe, Jewish women often remained rooted in Jewish traditions longer than their husbands through a set of ritual practices such as upholding Jewish laws around food preparation and consumption (kashrut) and Shabbat.
Drawing upon disciplines ranging from sociology and gender studies to cultural psychology, authors such as Susan Sered, Tova Hartman, and Orit Yafeh suggest that examining contemporary Orthodox Jewish women's lives offers new insights into secularization's multiple meanings as well as its relationship to feminism. Entering the fray of contemporary debates about women and traditional Judaism, these scholars focus particular attention on Orthodox women's agency, their quotidian bodily rituals, and the ways that they operate according to a distinct, gendered Jewish temporal rhythm. Such work thus shows how Orthodox Jewish women have come to articulate new forms of agency through traditional practices long associated by secularist observers with restrictions on women's autonomy.
(Re)writing Histories of Secularism and the Jews
Different approaches to the processes and ideologies of secularization and secularism have developed out of multiple disciplines. Our efforts to remap these discussions through the lens of the Jewish experience are thus, of necessity, interdisciplinary. The various essays featured here comprise aspects of modern Jewish history, religion, thought, and literature, while many authors use approaches, perspectives, or texts drawn from more than one of these areas. A number of authors have undertaken studies meant to achieve greater precision regarding the meaning of the secular in the context of specific themes, movements, thinkers, or texts. Others have sought to "think big" about Jews and the secular and have thus offered more programmatic positions.
Although each essay highlights the multivalent nature of the encounter between Jews and secularism, we find it useful to categorize this encounter according to three overarching themes, which we have classified as narration, transformation, and adaptation. With these terms, we seek to move away from the more familiar terms of the field, such as differentiation (of spheres), decline (of belief and practice), or deterioration (of communal structure and authority), all of which have tended to have unidimensional and unidirectional implications.
The book's first eleven chapters are divided into three sections that correspond to our three analytical categories. Since at least the nineteenth century, competing stories in which secularization liberated, destroyed, transformed, or bypassed Jewish life and Jewish lives shaped Jewish understandings of the secular. Part I shows how three pivotal intellectual figures of modern Jewish history—Benedict Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, and Gershom Scholem—have seen their thought repeatedly narrated by Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors in accounts that seek to describe the Jewish experience of secularization. Daniel Schwartz demonstrates how scholars of the Eastern and Central European Haskalah reclaimed Spinoza as a distinctly Jewish figure and even as a believer. It was in this context that Spinoza became, in the words of one Maskil, "our rabbi Baruch." Jonathan Gribetz examines a little-known manuscript authored by the Palestinian Arab politician and intellectual Muhammad Ruhi al-Khalidi. Here Gribetz interprets al-Khalidi's account as an "Islamic theory of Jewish secularism" centered around the notion of Mendelssohn as a figure of path-breaking importance for the self-definition of Judaism. Finally, Vivian Liska offers a nuanced rereading of Hannah Arendt's secularism through an analysis of Arendt's enthusiastic if idiosyncratic reaction to Scholem's seminal Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Throughout each of these essays, we are reminded how competing narrations can construct "the secular" as a category, defining its expanses and limitations as well as which types of thought, action, speech, and persons it should include and exclude.
In Part II the focus turns from "narration" to the "transformation" of phenomena traditionally construed as religious into categories framed as secular. By this, we mean the often self-conscious refashioning of symbols, tropes, objects, practices, concepts, or institutional arrangements that were originally understood as sacred and traditional. This transformation has often involved the unmooring and differentiation of particular elements from the larger body of religious observances, teachings, or texts of which they long formed a part. Christoph Schulte shows how Jewish secularization entailed the remaking of messianism—one of traditional Judaism's most central and sacred ideas. In the next chapter, Galili Shahar undertakes a close textual reading of Walter Benjamin, one of Schulte's "messianists without messiah." Shahar explains how Benjamin sought simultaneously to recover and remake the "sacred sparks" of Jewish tradition that had been shattered by the forces of modernity. Chapter 6 presents a similar pattern on a wider scale, as it returns us to Palestine and, later, Israel. Here Michal Ben-Horin examines how Jewish musical figurations—of biblical origin and traditional significance—underwent processes of transfiguration, mutation, subversion, and retrenchment in modern Hebrew literature. Chapters 7 and 8 explore political rather than literary contexts for transformation. Scott Ury draws out the meaning of secularization for Polish Jewry, examining the emergence of a Jewish public sphere in early twentieth-century Warsaw. A burgeoning Jewish associational life, he tells us, at once imitated larger patterns of the Eastern European public sphere and constituted a Jewish subculture built in part on formerly religious ties and conceptions. In Chapter 8, Ethan Katz traces a parallel shift in the meaning of public Jewishness in a very different setting—Vichy and Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War. Katz focuses on the numerous Jews from North Africa and the Middle East who tried to evade persecution by "passing" as Muslim, seeing this as a choice that at once mimicked and sought to circumvent the period's larger racialization of religion.
Part III, entitled "Adaptations," addresses several settings in which religious Jewish thinkers and societies sought to adapt new ideas emerging out of the debates on secularism and secularization, both in order to reconfigure and to strengthen traditional Judaism. Most broadly this has meant adjusting to a changing world that calls for the theorizing of theological approaches in response to secularization, including the incorporation of secular concepts and developments into religious theology and practice. Rachel Manekin examines a striking instance of this pattern: the role that the wider contemporary discourse of Schwärmerei, or religious enthusiasm, assumed among proponents of the Galician Haskalah during their early nineteenth-century struggles with Hasidism. An altogether different adaptation to secularization occurred among the writers examined by Eva Lezzi. She discusses how the modern Orthodox fiction that developed in Germany during the second half of the nineteenth century at once attempted to account for the traditional messages of the Orthodox community and the processes of secularization occurring around and within it. In Chapter 11, Arye Edrei elucidates how the emergence of modern Zionism, and the founding of the Jewish state in particular, presented unprecedented challenges to traditional halakhic views regarding the place of Jewish "transgressors" (what we now call secular Jews) within Jewish life.
Despite their placement into one of three categories of narration, transformation, and adaptation, most of these essays treat issues that straddle the boundaries of at least two of these themes. Competing Jewish narrations of secularization proved crucial to efforts to transform tradition or incorporate secular ideas within it; likewise, what we have termed adaptation and transformation frequently occurred simultaneously in the same society, movement, or even text. Thus our efforts to categorize a series of developments should not be understood as seeking to erect fixed boundaries but rather as an attempt to theorize the shared patterns within the fluidity of religious-secular definitions and encounters.
The book's final section, a forum entitled "New Conceptions," steps back from the focused studies of the preceding chapters to propose new directions in the field. David Myers, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, and Andrea Schatz have written three pieces, all in conversation with each other, that ask us to rethink secularism both as a force and a concept in the Jewish past and present. These three scholars, who initiated the year-long research group "Secularism and Its Discontents: The View from Jewish Studies" that laid the groundwork for this book, offer reflections that are at once empirical and programmatic. Myers focuses on the example of an "American shtetl" that has grown up in the state of New York—the homogeneous Satmar Hasidic town of Kiryas Joel. In this essay Myers proposes that the self-declared defenders of traditional Judaism who live in this Hasidic enclave are not merely reacting to secularism and secularization but rather constructing new interpretations of secular arrangements. The "neo-secularist propositions" he suggests ultimately highlight the mutability—both historical and ongoing—of religion as well as the secular. Raz-Krakotzkin's essay exhumes neglected continuities between Christian millenarian, secularist, and antisemitic ideas about Jews, ultimately calling for a reassessment of secularism in contemporary Israeli society. In the final chapter, Schatz shows how, in the late eighteenth century, leading Jewish enlighteners and their traditionalist detractors alike sought historical antecedents that helped them to situate their proposed innovations within longstanding notions of Jewish sacred time. Schatz suggests that in order to overcome the hegemony of secular conceptions of time, we must recognize the continued relevance of Jewish temporalities.
The programmatic components of these final essays speak to this book's effort to sound a call for new terms and conversations about Jews and secularism. The book's findings and arguments provide multivalent assessments of the roles that secularism and secularization have played in the modern Jewish experience. They remind us that both historically and today, Jews have acted not only as subjects, imitators, or resisters but also as agents of broader secularizing developments, at once responding to wider forces and charting their own distinctively Jewish encounters with the secular. Moreover, by illustrating how permeable "religious" and "secular" boundaries and categories have so often been, the essays included here repeatedly raise the possibility that the opposition between these two categories is ill conceived and false. In short, we hope that our efforts to rethink the meaning of secular and religious in a variety of contexts—from Zionism and Haredi Judaism to Jewish literature and Jewish-Muslim relations—allow for a rethinking of the very terms that animate many of the most contentious debates in contemporary Jewish life.