Remembering Ya’akov Malkin: A non-believer who believed
The scholar, writer and rhetorician Professor Ya’akov Malkin has died at the age of 93. A founding father of the modern state, Malkin is most closely associated with the Secular Humanist Jewish movement in Israel. His legacy of activism in this area made him a leader and lightning rod within in the Jewish community. An avowed atheist, Malkin nonetheless spent much of his creative energy on the subject of Jewish belief and practice, inspiring a generation of rabbinic leaders.
Ya’akov Malkin was born in 1926, moving from Warsaw to pre-State Israel at age 7. His long list of accomplishments includes the founding of the Mateh Yehuda community college, Haifa’s ‘Matnas’ community centers, the Film Studies department at Tel Aviv University and the cinematheque system. His teaching and writing covered a wide spectrum of subjects, including theater and film study, comparative literature, rhetoric and aesthetics.
It is, however, his work as a religious philosopher for which Professor Malkin gained notoriety, including death threats and at attack on his home three years ago. In seminal works that include Judaism Without God and What do Secular Jews Believe?, Malkin posited a set of simple, yet highly controversial arguments. Firstly, he claimed that a majority of Israelis—like most Jews worldwide—have become Secular, largely disinterested in the rules and practices of Judaism, yet highly invested in its culture, ethics and life-cycle events. Malkin stated that this sociological shift is nothing new; that Jews and Jewish practice are ever-evolving, adapting in this era to western ideals of secularism and democracy. Second, he believed that Secular Judaism should be defined less by what it rejects of Orthodoxy and more by how it intends to build alternative models. Lastly, he challenged Secular Jews to take control of and responsibility for their Judaism, to define how they wanted to celebrate holidays, build community, create rituals and live ethically.
In an Israel that was almost exclusively divided between those who accepted or rejected Orthodox Judaism, Malkin’s concept of a Secular Humanistic Judaism was a game-changer. It offered Israeli Jews the freedom to choose a Jewish path, legitimizing personally constructed Jewish meaning and practice. He presented the Torah as a human, rather than divine creation, opening it up to greater scrutiny and interpretation. He challenged the authority of the Rabbinic legal model, placing both the power and responsibility for Jewish life squarely in the hands of the individual.
Though Ya’akov Malkin was cast as the ultimate non-believer (due to his insistence that God was nothing more than a literary character), it is his belief system that truly defines his work and its impact. Malkin deeply believed in Judaism as a culture and tribal constellation, often referring to it as “a family”. An ardent Zionist, he supported and worked toward the creation of a nation-state for the Jewish family to call home. His abiding belief in civil law and democracy were part and parcel of his identity as a human, a Jew and a Zionist.
Above all else, Malkin believed in humanity, in its spirit, strength and creativity. As his student, I was constantly impressed by his deep, unwavering faith in humankind, in its ability to do better, act with greater compassion and justice and live up to its enormous potential. His faith was far from blind, he was critical of the Jewish and human family’s tendency toward xenophobia, racism, sexism and homophobia. He was appalled by acts of human cruelty and it’s almost instinctive desire to subjugate and destroy. Yet, he never lost faith in the capacity of people to achieve humanity, to work as a collective in order to bring out the best in the individual.
Professor Malkin, along with his daughter Rabbi Sivan Maas, decided that Secular Israeli society needed a new breed of rabbis to challenge, teach, lead and facilitate its growth. To this end, they have worked to train leaders, offering them a wealth of information on Jewish history, text and tradition, along with the philosophies of Humanism and secular belief. These rabbis now work in communities all over the country, providing ceremonies, study sessions, Shabbat/holiday celebrations and life-cycle events. All are dedicated to Malkin’s idea that Secular Jewishness should be a conscious choice (and not its absence), defined more by what it believes, rather than what it rejects.
Ya’akov Malkin left much to the Jewish family and its nation-state. Although he did not believe in life after death, his spirit lives on in the theaters, cinemas, classrooms and community centers he helped create. Most of all, he leaves behind a corpus of writing and a set of ideals to which all Humans, most especially Jews and Israelis, can aspire. Regardless of how one chooses to practice one’s faith, it is Malkin’s unwavering belief in humanity that is his greatest gift to us all.