Highlights from Secular Culture & Ideas

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Highlights from

Secular Culture & Ideas


Association for Jewish Studies


No part of these articles may be reproduced or reprinted by any means, print or electronic, without written permission from the original publisher or author of each article.
Secular Culture & Ideas is sponsored by the Posen Foundation

and edited by the Center for Cultural Judaism.

The Center for Cultural Judaism

80 Eighth Avenue, Suite 206

New York, New York 10011

Tel: 212.564.6711

Fax: 212.564.6721




Assembled by Sephora Markson Hartz

No part of these articles may be reproduced or reprinted by any means, print or electronic, without written permission from the original publisher or author of each article, and Secular Culture & Ideas.
Secular Culture & Ideas is supported by the Posen Foundation

and edited by the Center for Cultural Judaism.

The Center for Cultural Judaism

80 Eighth Avenue, Suite 206

New York, New York 10011

Tel: 212.564.6711

Fax: 212.564.6721




Assembled by Sephora Markson Hartz

Editorial Assistant and Research Assistant

Secular Culture & Ideas

Table of Contents
New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora

Exploring global Judaisms and Jewish homelands.

By Caryn Aviv and David Shneer

Not in the Heavens

The premodern roots of Jewish secularism.

By David Biale

Celebrating Darwin

Jewish secularism celebrates 150 years of Darwinism.

By Shai Cherry

Modernization, Secularization, and the Refashioning of Jewish Identity

The beginnings of secular Jewish life in Europe.

By Shmuel Feiner

Passionate Pioneers

The story of Yiddish secular education in North America, 1910-1960.

By Fradle Pomerantz Freidenreich

The Mystic and the Modern

A review of Rodger Kamenetz’s Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka.

By Sephora Markson Hartz

Queen Esther

My Jewish grandmother spoke Arabic.

By Vanessa Hidary

The Jewish Shakespeare

The tale of my great-grandfather, playwright Jacob Gordin.

By Beth Kaplan


No part of these articles may be reproduced or reprinted by any means, print or electronic, without written permission from Secular Culture & Ideas as well as the original publisher and author of each article.

An Intellectual History of Secularism

A scholar’s notes.

By Gregory Kaplan

The New Order of the Ages

Exploring the modern origins of secularism.

By Barry A. Kosmin

Still Outwitting History

A heimish look at the persistence of Yiddish.

By Aaron Lansky

English as a Jewish Language

The poetic entanglements of language and culture.

By Laura Levitt

Martin Buber’s Secular Religiosity

Two scholars parse the secular aspects of Buber’s theology.

By Ron Margolin and Sarah Pessin

Jewish, Secular, and Popular

Jazz-age Jews not only consumed pop culture, they helped create it.

By Ted Merwin

The Explosion of Jewish Culture in an Age of Mass Media

Posen Library Volume X co-editor explores how Jews make culture

and make it Jewish in various ways.

By Deborah Dash Moore

A Public Course for Interdisciplinary Dialogue

Fostering conversation about secular Jewish culture.

By Sven-Erik Rose

The Anthological Imagination and the “Posen Method”

Our mission was to apply the method to an era seemingly bracketed by catastrophe: 1939-1973.

By David Roskies

Jews and Native Americans

Reflections on insider/outsider Jewish identity.

By Rachel Rubinstein

The Touch of Leah’s Hands

Kadya Molodowsky: Reinventing Jewish tradition in modern poetry.

By Naomi Seidman

Dario Moreno and Sephardic Cosmopolitanism

The life and legacy of Turkish singing legend Dario Moreno, the Mediterranean's "Frank Sinatra."

By Pamela Dorn Sezgin

Gefilte Fish or White Piano?

Perceptions of the shtetl in Jewish life.

By Anna Shternshis

The Columbian Inquisition

A skeptic's lesson on the virtues of secularism.

By Ilan Stavans

An Interview with Tony Kushner

Lessons from the prophets.

By Jesse Tisch

Secular Literary Representations in Judeo-Persian

A survey of Iranian Jewry's rich literary history.

By Dalia Yasharpour

Introducing the Posen Library

Exploring Jewish culture and civilization in all of its rich diversity.

By James E. Young


New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora

By Caryn Aviv and David Shneer

The following essay is written in the alternating1st/3rd person, and paints a complex picture of world Jewry, drawing attention to its vitality and diversity.


So much of Jewish life, thought, and scholarship revolves around the idea that Israel is the center of the Jewish universe.

When David Shneer became director of the University of Denver’s Center for Judaic Studies, a member of the advisory board asked, “What is your commitment to and stance on Israel?”

“We need to support Israel no matter what,” Caryn Aviv is often told by older Jews when she recounts her trips to Israel. “If we don’t, who will?”

These responses are fairly typical in America, where Jewish communal leaders continue to wring their hands over the lack of connection to Israel among large numbers of American Jews. They tend to see Israel as the center of a crisis-ridden Jewish world, and have serious fears that Jewish life is dying in many places. Seldom do we hear positive comments about new forms of Jewishness or the renaissance in American Jewish culture.

And yet: In doing our research on world Jewry, we relied on several facts that suggest a more complicated vision of the Jewish future than most communal leaders believe. For example, in 2003, the year of the most recent migration statistics, more Jews moved to Moscow from Israel than vice-versa. New York, not Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, is the home of the Jewish institutional world and the center of Jewish philanthropy. Jews have migrated to the United States from Iran, the former Soviet Union, and even the “promised land” of Israel itself. (Researchers have found that many Israelis, avowedly secular residents of the “Jewish” state, develop their first meaningful connections to organized Judaism while living in the United States.)

Taken together, these have helped us envision a new Jewish map, one with multiple homelands. Jews are establishing new kinds of roots, not just to particular pieces of land but also to concepts, ideas, and spaces. They are moving because they choose to, and because they’re financially able to. At the same time, they are remaking their sense of home in various places. We suggest that a global politics that recognizes the tensions between rootedness and movement, and the realness of both, should guide our thinking about identities and spaces. As Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett puts it, “we need to theorize how space is being reterritorialized in the contemporary world.”

The place to start is with “diaspora,” a term implying that the Jewish world has a single center. By deemphasizing a bipolar Jewish world—“diaspora,” which connotes powerlessness, and “homeland,” which connotes power—we suggest that power flows in many directions, to and from diverse places. We see Israel as Jacob Blaustein, the former director of the American Jewish Committee, who once debated the first Israeli president, David Ben Gurion, about the relationship between Jews in Israel and Jews in America, once did: as a Jewish home, rather than the Jewish home.


We are interested in how Jews construct something called home—wherever they choose to do it.  So we begin with a simple thesis: The emphasis on “diaspora” and “Israel” has prevented Jews from exploring the diversity of Jewish experience and the ways that Jews craft their identities in the places they live.

In the literal sense, Jews have always had many diasporas and homelands, from Sephardic Jews who were expelled from medieval Spain in 1492, to 19th and 20th century Jews who, before the Holocaust, viewed Germany as their homeland. “Not ‘may we be next year in Jerusalem,’ but ‘next year in America!’” wrote the memoirist Mary Antin. She was speaking for many Eastern European Jewish immigrants who felt that America was their true homeland. (“So there was our promised land,” she continued.)

The concept of diaspora goes even farther back. The word itself means “dispersion.” It originated in the Septuagint, one of the original Greek translations of the Bible, in Deuteronomy 28:25: “thou shalt be a diaspora in all kingdoms of the earth.” The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first English usage from the year 1876; and more recently, dozens of ethnic or national groups have appropriated the term to explain their own geographically scattered communities.

Jews’ understanding of their “diaspora” has often had a more negative connotation than the benign-sounding “dispersion”—sometimes vastly more negative. Za’avah, the word the Greeks translated from the original Hebrew as “dispersion,” means anything from outrage to horror to terror. In Hebrew and Yiddish, the term galut or golus is a closer equivalent, suggesting spiritual diminishment and exile. A common denominator may be the idea of a central place that a (scattered) group of people can identify with and think about, and perhaps yearn to return to.

Even the latter meaning (a place we yearn to return to) can be problematic, though, when applied to Jewish history. For instance, many Hellenistic Jews in the Second Temple period chose to live outside the borders of the holy land. While living throughout the Hellenistic empire, they sent money to Jerusalem and conceived of Jerusalem as the patris, but did not long to return there. While living in exile following the destruction of the Second Temple—which had been the locus of Jewish political and spiritual power and the symbol of Jewish rootedness in Judea—Rabbinic Jews crafted a diaspora that allowed them to be at home where they were, while maintaining cultural differences from the other people with whom they lived.

Over the course of several centuries, Jews added various cultural strategies for remembering the homeland while firmly “rooting” themselves in local places. Jewish communities established cemeteries—a very concrete act of claiming both place and space that meant acquiring land and investing it with cultural and metaphysical power. Jews also established traditional schools (b’tei midrash) and ritual bathhouses (mikva’ot)—private spaces that served as foundations from which to construct communities. Within a more mobile modern American Jewish culture, the symbol of the mezuzah roots Jews to their homes and also creates a sense of community. These acts of marking Jewish space are just several examples of how, from the beginning of mythic Diaspora, Jews have created a sense of home while simultaneously marking themselves as apart from those around them. Jews maintained a connection to the mythic Zion, without yearning to “return” there.


After the Holocaust, and especially after the Cold War, American Jews’ notion of placement and roots changed again. The creation of Israel—the political realization of the mythic Zion—was a watershed, as centuries of history, politics, migration, culture, and religious yearning converged. It’s hardly surprising that for many Jews, Israel evokes particularly resonant, complicated meanings of home.

But for whom is Israel home, and how so? Is “home” the current state of Israel, with its contested borders, complex struggles for political power, and shifting diplomatic alliances? Or is it a polyglot of cultures and languages, a secular democracy?

These questions underscore an important fact about Israel: it is far more complicated than many people want to believe, or would make it seem. For one thing, not all Jews in Israel feel “at home.” Some do not feel at home because of Israel’s struggle with religious diversity and pluralism. Others, particularly recent immigrants, do not feel at home because of persistent stereotyping. Conversely, the majority of Jews in the United States, Russia, Germany, and elsewhere no longer see themselves as “in diaspora,” but instead see themselves at home, not pining for a Promised Land.

There are other problems with seeing Israel as the Jews’ only “home” and, therefore, with the Israel/diaspora dichotomy. For one thing, it presumes that there is a single center of a given community—which the example of contemporary Jewry shows is simply not true. It envisions the Jewish world hierarchically, with Israel on top and “the diaspora” on the bottom or at least scattered on the side. “Diaspora” is, additionally, a term with a homogenizing effect, suggesting that all Jews living outside of Israel have something in common. In fact, Jewish Studies scholars from David Biale to Deborah Dash Moore and S. Ilan Troen have argued the opposite, dismissing the idea of a unified “Jewish people” that can be broken easily into two categories. And indeed, what does an upper-middle-class secular Jew in Los Angeles have in common with a religious, Sephardic, working-class Israeli Jew in Bnei Brak except the fact that each one calls herself a Jew? Lawrence Silberstein argues that Jewish Studies scholars should embrace the concepts and theories of hybrid and fragmented identities that postcolonial theorists have used to describe South Asian, African, and other historically colonized people.

Which points to yet another problem with “diaspora”: The term has become a catch-all phrase to describe any and every imagined community that lives in multiple places. If anyone can consider himself part of a diaspora (since all “imagined communities” live in multiple places), then the word loses its meaning—so why rely on “diaspora” at all?

Politically and intellectually, we want to move beyond diaspora, a term that implies a single center to the Jewish world; a sense of exile on the part of those Jews who live elsewhere; and homogenous Jewish populations within Israel and outside of it. Rather than refer to Jews as “in Israel” or “in the diaspora,” we refer to Jews as “global” and break down the inherent dichotomy that the Israel/diaspora metaphor maintains. In this post-Zionist, post-Soviet, post-American-melting-pot moment, we see a new Jewish map, and the end of the Jewish diaspora.

All over the world, Jews today are rethinking their ideas about Israel and the tensions between exile and home, diaspora and homeland, here and there. They are dismantling the very idea of diaspora in the way they live their lives.


Caryn Aviv and David Shneer are professors at University of Boulder, Colorado. David Shneer is the Director of the Program in Jewish Studies and an Associate Professor of History. Caryn Aviv is a Senior Instructor in Secular Jewish Society and Civilization. They are the editors of Queer Jews (Routledge Press, 2002) and American Queer: Now and Then (Paradigm Publishing, 2006).


This piece was adapted from New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (New York University Press, 2005), by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer. It was published with permission from the authors and the publisher.

Not in the Heavens: The Premodern Roots of

Jewish Secularism

By David Biale

It was Isaac Deutscher, composer of the famous essay “The Non-Jewish Jew,” who argued that those who rejected both their ancestral religion and people in favor of secular universalism had historical precursors. In a paradoxical formulation that captured something of his own identity, Deutscher wrote: “The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition.” The “Jewry” that the heretic transcends is “Judaism,” not only the religion, but all of the traditions built up over nearly three millennia. And yet, in transcending Judaism, the heretic finds herself in a different Jewish tradition, a tradition no less Jewish for being anti-traditional.
It is to that tradition, the secular Jewish “counter-tradition,” that we now turn. Sometimes this tradition is thought to have begun with the Dutch heretic Baruch Spinoza in the 17th century. Indeed, for many Jewish thinkers Spinoza’s God served as the model for an anti-traditional theology. (The story of Jewish secularism is in large part the story of Spinoza’s intellectual children: Heinrich Heine, Moses Hess, Albert Einstein, and Mordecai Kaplan were all Spinozists in one way or another.)
In my book, Not in the Heavens, I pose the question of how far back the roots of Jewish secularism go. And I argue that they go back further than most people—and perhaps most scholars—often think.
I begin with my own family’s evolution from Orthodoxy to staunch secularity. (For a while, the arguments around the Shabbat table of the Bialoglowsky household were quite fierce.) Since my grandparents had taken the first steps toward secularity—steps their children then completed—a complete rupture never took place. My grandmother had been the first woman in her Polish village to doff her sheitel, or head covering. My grandfather joined the Mizrahi, the party of religious Jews who supported the secular Zionist movement. My father, with his sister, joined Hashomer Hatzair, the Zionist youth movement that espoused socialism and a romantic return to nature. His younger brother gravitated to a different Zionist organization, the Revisionist Betar, who were hard-line nationalists who wore military uniforms and rejected social revolution.
A similar transition—only involving ideas rather than practices—occurred among secular Jewish thinkers, including, most famously, Spinoza. In my book I look closely at these modern secular Jewish thinkers, and explore how they used, developed, and advanced ideas, from “religious” thinkers who came before them. Those “religious” thinkers included scraps of secular thought in their philosophies. And I argue that because of those “scraps,” they can be regarded as genuine precursors to Jewish secularism—even if their ideas, in their original contexts, weren’t self-consciously “secular.”
Among those precursors was Moses Maimonides (1138-1204). At first, Maimonides seems like an unlikely candidate for the role of proto-secularist. As the greatest codifier of Jewish law in the Middle Ages, Maimonides was anything but a rebel against tradition. And yet, the great rationalist philosopher became perhaps the medieval model for modern secularists. In fact, Maimonides’ philosophy contains radical ideas that were available for even more radical reinterpretation in the modern age.

An aspect of Maimonides’ thought that seems particularly relevant to later secular appropriation was his rejection of biblical anthropomorphisms. Going further than other philosophers who had also rejected such anthropomorphisms, Maimonides additionally rejected the attribution of any human or earthly characteristics to God. “Anything that entails corporeality ought of necessity to be negated in reference to Him,” he wrote, “...all affections likewise should be negated in reference to Him.” It is inadmissible to attribute to God any human qualities, since God and humans are literally incommensurable. Thus, Maimonides’ God is as far from the God of the Bible as one might imagine.

Like Maimonides, Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092/3-1167) also took a revisionist’s approach to the Bible, and his work played a seminal role in secularizing biblical criticism. He did so by supplying critical, historical readings of the Bible—readings that eventually became canonical but at the time bordered on heresy. Identifying a series of verses that he claimed were interpolations by someone other than Moses (the assumed author, according to tradition, of the whole Torah) was one heresy. But Ibn Ezra also included in his commentary the views of Hiwi al-Balkhi, a 9th century Persian Jew who argued that the Bible—and therefore the Jewish religion—stands at odds with everything taught by reason. Since the commandments lack reason, presumably a philosopher has no need to fulfill them.
Ibn Ezra also rejected the kind of allegorizing of the biblical text that had become standard practice, a practice that resulted from the desire to harmonize the Bible with the conclusions of medieval science and philosophy. In Ibn Ezra’s view, such allegories often demonstrated poor knowledge of both the biblical text and medieval science. Since the Bible is filled with simple, everyday human ways of speaking, and since it expresses them from the perspective of human beings, then it follows that the Bible does not contain any specialized, scientific or philosophical knowledge found in other books. It contains only pedagogy; the purpose of the book’s author was pedagogical. By limiting the knowledge provided by the Bible, Ibn Ezra made the study of nature—or at least, the supra-lunar world—a subject independent of the Bible. By separating science and religion, Ibn Ezra rendered nature a realm autonomous from religion.

Hopefully, by citing these examples—Ibn Ezra and especially Maimonides—I have proven that the roots of Jewish secularism can be found in the premodern era. In doing to, I wish to overturn the idea that Spinoza deserves all the credit for inaugurating this secular counter-tradition. Indeed, aspects of premodern thought not only anticipate their modern successors, but actually furnished arguments that might be appropriated, adapted and transformed to fit a secular agenda. These ideas were not intended for such a purpose, it is true. But the social context of modernity cast them in a new light, making it possible to view them as genuine precursors.

David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History and the Chair of the Department of History at the University of California, Davis. He is the editor of Cultures of the Jews (Schocken, 2002), and author of Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol Between Jews and Christians (University of California Press, 2007) as well as Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought (Princeton University Press, 2010), from which this article is adapted.
A version of this article originally appeared in Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought. It is adapted from David Biale’s Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought (Princeton University Press, 2010). This adaptation is reprinted with permission from the publisher and the author.

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