The Hollowness of Secular Jewish Identity

It is far too early to know what the consequences of 7 October will be or should be. And I am certainly not a prophet to know why God let it happen. But my hope is that it can lead to a movement back towards Judaism. Not that I expect all Jews to become observant, let alone Orthodox. But to engage with Judaism as a system of thought laid out in classic texts and expressed through practices commonly (although perhaps not accurately) termed “religious,” even as we take those things forward for our generation.

This will be controversial, but definitions of Judaism and Jewish identity that don’t engage with religious Judaism are, in my opinion, incredibly weak. Aside from genetics, only Jewish tradition links us to ancestors and each other. Cuisine, culture, politics, humour differ geographically or are relatively recent innovations.

Secular Judaisms usually seem to be based on one of three supports: education, social justice or (so-called) “tikkun olam,” and Jewish humour.

Education is probably the most meaningful and the most grounded in traditional Judaism. Although the idea of secular study has at times been controversial or even forbidden, except to earn a livelihood, there certainly have been other times and other Jewish societies where Jews were, and are, widely educated, often in addition to having strong Jewish education. One thinks of people like Rambam, Rav Hirsch and Rav Soloveitchik. And certainly some secular fields of study have had a wildly disproportionate number of Jewish scholars e.g. psychology, economics and particle physics. Even so, secular study in itself can not be the basis for a Jewish identity or outlook, simply because it is the common heritage of all mankind. There is nothing uniquely Jewish about particle physics or psychology. It can offer new perspectives on an existing Jewish identity, but it can not be a basis for Jewish identity in itself.

Tikkun olam, defined (or mislabelled) as “social justice” seems on the face of it to offer a more rooted form of Jewish identity. However, as Hillel Halkin and Jonathan Neumann have shown that, in practice, it involves source-mining texts for any belief or practice that accords with contemporary left-wing thinking. Sometimes, it does not even involve that, but simply co-opts modish political ideas. Again, this is not to suggest that Jews with strong Jewish identities can not be left-wing, that the left has nothing to offer Jews or Judaism, or that Judaism and Jewish identity are necessarily incompatible with particular left-wing political positions, but that Jewish identity must be based on a meaningful encounter with Jewish texts and practices in their wholeness and complexity, however difficult, not a superficial search for concepts that mirror those already accepted on political grounds. To only accept Jewish ideas that are found in contemporary political thought is to live according to contemporary politics, not Judaism. If we are to have Jewish identities, we must look first to Judaism for our worldview, not to the world for our understanding of Judaism.

Jewish humour is perhaps the weakest form of secular Jewish identity. In his book Jews Don’t Count, David Baddiel says that his Jewish identity is based on Jewish comedians and humourists, like Groucho Marx and Larry David. He mentions some others, but none from more than a hundred years or so ago. Certainly none of the important Yiddish humourists of the nineteenth century, like Shalom Aleichem (his Tevye the Dairyman stories are much darker than Fiddler on the Roof) and Mendele Mocher-Seforim (Mendele the Book-Seller). This is a Judaism that has no real history or depth. Nor is it possible to understand the Yiddish humourists without understanding the religious world they lived in. Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye, for instance, is a much more learned figure than that of Fiddler, with a wide knowledge of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and occasionally Talmud, particularly Pirkei Avot (the section that deals with ethics, better known than much of the Talmud as it is read on Shabbat afternoons in the summer). Baddiel’s twentieth and twenty-first century comic Judaism has none of this history or depth, funny though much of it is. It is a Potemkin Village, fronts with no insides. You can’t live in it, only look at it.

Jewish humour as Jewish identity and, in the way it is usually presented, tikkun olam as Jewish identity are both very weak and ungrounded in anything more than a century or two. They speak of the history of the Jews of twentieth century America more than anything further back or elsewhere. No wonder our enemies think we’re all white Westerners if this is all we present as our culture!

Many of the Yiddish authors of the nineteenth and twentieth century were opposed to religious Judaism; others had nostalgia for it, but regarded it as dying. However, for the most part, they spoke its language and were part of its culture as the culture of Judaism. In Judaism, one can be an apikoros, a heretic, but never an ignoramus. To study Torah is to be part of Jewish culture and vice versa. And studying in a serious way often (not always, but often) leads to practice. After all, why would you learn the rules of the game without playing the game itself? I want to see more Jews taking ownership of their tradition, understanding it, using it. Then perhaps we’ll be able to show the world that we have our own culture, that we aren’t just white Westerners.

About the Author
Daniel Saunders is an office administrator, proofreader and copy editor living in London with his wife. He has a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Library and Information Management. He blogs about Judaism, Israel and antisemitism at Living Jewishly
Related Topics
Related Posts