Colloquium ’97: Reclaiming Jewish History, Spring 1998
When Alan Dershowitz spoke at the Birmingham Temple, he announced that he was a secular Jew and that Humanistic Judaism was the closest to what he felt and believed. He volunteered to help us.
The reason for his coming was a book he wrote about the future of American Judaism. He gave the book the disturbing title The Vanishing American Jew. Dershowitz maintains that assimilation, personal freedom, and declining anti-Semitism have created a situation in which Jewish group survival is in danger. Jews are so fully integrated into American culture that their Jewish identity has become an adjunct to their American identity. The liberty and toleration of American society have made Jewishness a personal choice. Neither laws nor bigotry compel Jews to remain Jews.
But Dershowitz, unlike many Jewish commentators on the American Jewish future, does not recommend a return to tradition and Orthodoxy as a counterbalance to the forces of assimilation. He does not call for a return to community segregation and a primary focus on the issue of Jewish survival. He is afraid that such a return will destroy the Jew he admires and resurrect the Jew he does not admire.
The most interesting observation in Dershowitz’s book is his contention that the greatest achievement of Jewish history is the modern secular Jew. The incredible intellectual and artistic achievements of Jews during the past two centuries were produced, not by traditional Jews, but by secular Jews. They are Einstein, Freud, and Durkheim. They are the Nobel Prize winners. They are the movers and shakers of social action and political revolution. They are the voices for universal justice and human rights. In the eighteen centuries of Orthodox Jewish domination, none of this spirit prevailed. The parochial agenda of Orthodoxy kept Jews focused only on the Jewish world.
The implication is clear. A return to Orthodoxy and tradition is a return to Jewish parochialism. It is a negation of everything attractive about Jews in the past two centuries. It is the resurrection of a narrow and fearful vision that saw the Gentile world as the enemy and conformity to tradition as the only guarantee of Jewish salvation. Out of such a theological field, the passion for intellectual, artistic, and ethical adventure cannot grow. If you reject freedom and persuade all Jews to return to Orthodoxy, you will “guarantee” Jewish survival; but you will have a Jew you neither want nor admire. The irony of the Jewish future is that the Jew we want to preserve cannot be separated from the personal freedom and assimilation that seem to threaten Jewish group survival.
This marvelous irony raises the question of what is necessary to create, maintain, and preserve the modern secular Jew. It is clear that Jewish tradition alone cannot produce this phenomenon. It needs a catalyst. The catalyst is the power of modern Western secular culture, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, and the Greco-Roman culture of the classical world. Hellenism and Orthodoxy produced a “child” that was identical to neither of its parents.
The modem Jew is like a good salad dressing. The vinegar is Orthodoxy. By itself it is harsh and uninviting. The oil is Hellenism. By itself it lacks the intensity of Jewish passion. Together, they are a pleasing and attractive experience. The oil of Hellenism provides the reason and openness, the love of humanness and beauty, which the life of intellectual and artistic adventure requires. Orthodoxy provides the intensity and anger that have fueled Jewish ambition and have provoked Jewish thinkers and artists to defy established norms. Reason without intensity is weak. Intensity without reason is blind. But the combination is powerful and benign.
The implications of this reality are clear.
The flowering of Jewish identity was not in the biblical and talmudic past. Neither the cult of Yahveh nor Pharisaic Judaism produced the free spirit that the pursuit of truth and beauty requires. On the contrary, in many cases, it suppressed that spirit in the name of dogmatic conformity. The intensity, passion, and militancy of traditional Judaism could be attractive and productive of universal good only when they could be separated from the theology of the rabbis. In the context of rabbinic Judaism they fostered a narrow fanaticism — a passion that ultra-Orthodox Jews all over the world still exhibit.
Returning to the traditions of the past is like returning to the vinegar without the oil. Repudiating the open society of the modern world does not produce a wise Jew. It produces a parochial Jew, whose only concern is Jewish group survival and whose chief pleasure is making invidious comparisons between Judaism and “inferior” alternatives. The resegregation of Jewish life is the setting for turning the modern Jew into a nostalgic sectarian.
The culture of the Greeks and the Romans, from which so much of our modern secular culture flows, is not the enemy, as traditional rabbis proposed. It is the catalyst that takes Jewish intensity and ambition and transforms it into a vehicle for intellectual achievement and moral improvement. There was a brief time in the ancient world when this combination was attempted. But the wars with the Romans and the triumph of rabbinic Judaism drove Hellenistic Jews into the underground of Jewish life. From time to time a Jewish philosopher would be brave enough to resurrect a pale reflection of that mixture, but the tyranny of the halakha ultimately prevailed.
The greatest period of Jewish history is the modern era, the time in which the “vinegar” and the “oil” came together to produce the secular Jew of the past two centuries. Within a short time, this combination produced the creative intellectual power to transform our views of people and the universe, and the entrepreneurial power to remake the economics of the world. Never before has Jewish talent and creativity been able to reach so many so widely. As Dershowitz points out, to lose the secular Jew is to lose the Jew we admire. It is not the Jewish past we seek to preserve. It is the wonders of the Jewish present.