Highlights from Secular Culture & Ideas

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Celebrating Darwin

By Shai Cherry

The western world is celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of his paradigm shifting On the Origin of Species. Perhaps I overstate the case. Given that 2/3 of Americans remain unconvinced by Darwin’s theory, according to a 2007 USA Today/Gallop poll, allow me to modify my lead: Many Americans continue to reject the truths of Darwinism even after 150 years of universal scientific corroboration.
Although for Secular Culture & Ideas, the lead may just as well be: Jewish secularism celebrates 150 years of Darwinism. Within the Jewish community, there is near unanimous desire for our children to be taught evolution in science class, an evolution that excludes divine intervention. American Jews, in large part, have given up on childish notions of the God in the heavens who bellows out his will against a backdrop of shock and awe, a God who intervenes as savior against the biblical Egyptians or the modern Nazis, or a God who choreographs the details of nature.
By the time Darwin included human beings in his account of evolution by natural selection (1871), Jews in America and across Europe were primed for a secular account of natural history. Jewish emancipation in western Europe and the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) in eastern Europe had exposed many Jews to secular studies, including science and history. In 1860, the year following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, German biblical criticism came to the attention of scholars in the English-speaking world. Just as divine authorship of the Word was being challenged, the disciplines of geology, paleontology and biology conspired to challenge divine authorship of the world.
Jews had high hopes that political emancipation in the West would translate into Jewish acculturation and gentile acceptance. Darwin’s hypothesis of the transmutation of species seemed to be another step in the direction of removing the biblical God from the public square, thus increasing the domain of a secular weltanschauung that could be shared by all citizens irrespective of religion. Thus, for the Jews there was political motivation to accept this secular account of natural history because it seemed to cohere with a secular approach toward governance in human history.
Acceptance of evolution came in two flavors. Some Jews accepted the transmutation of species, which itself overthrew the long held conviction of the fixity of species, but insisted on a role for God’s guiding hand; while other Jews found that Darwinism superseded traditional religion altogether. (The secular Zionist, Max Nordau, for example, attributed his loss of faith to his exposure to Darwinism.) Darwinism’s three challenges to traditional religion are: 1) evolution conflicts with Genesis One, 2) natural selection has no telos toward which natural history leads, and 3) our world has been the graveyard to 99% of all species ever extant.
The textual conflicts were the easiest to resolve for those who sought to do so. Judaism has never maintained a literal hermeneutic vis-à-vis the Torah. Many 19th century theologians read a long earth history and evolution into the Torah’s first account of creation. Even today, there are those, like Gerald Schroeder, who argue that Genesis One anticipated the scientific discoveries of Einstein and Darwin.
Far more troubling to traditional religiosity was the challenge to divine providence. Darwin described nature as a battlefield with the fittest surviving in the competition for scarce resources and mates. Although Darwin himself never advocated what came to be called “Social Darwinism,” there were those who applied Darwin’s description of nature as a prescription for public policy. Isaac Mayer Wise, the father of American Reform Judaism, rejected Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection in part because it turned all of nature into a battleground and seemed to advocate the position that might makes right. Wise termed Darwin’s hypothesis “homo-brutalism” and lamented the attacks on the prophetic values of social justice.
Regardless of one’s acceptance of evolution, paleontologists kept digging up trouble in the form of fossils of extinct animals. How does one square the massive decimation of species with a wise, benevolent, and powerful God? Why would God create a species, let alone almost every species, only to become extinct? What sort of intelligent design is that? Ultimately, issues of providence and theodicy have proven most devastating to the simple faith of Tevye the Dairyman.
By 2001, nearly one-half of those who identified as Jews described their outlook as secular or somewhat secular compared to only 16% among non-Jewish adults. The challenge for those committed to the Jewish project and who believe that Jewish secularism fails to ensure commitment to that project, is to articulate a theology that does not contradict the scientific facts on the ground and draws from Judaism’s mature theological insights. The rejection of traditional theism guarantees neither the embrace of atheism nor the retreat to secularism. Between the youthful ardor of Song of Songs and the wizened cynicism of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon is reputed to have penned Proverbs; and the truth of proverbs is not to be found on the surface, but in the deep.
Shai Cherry teaches “Judaism and Darwinism” at UCLA and was ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in May 2009. He is the author of Torah Through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period to Modern Times and is the featured professor for The Teaching Company’s “Introduction to Judaism.”

Modernization, Secularization, and the Refashioning of Jewish Identity

By Shmuel Feiner

Translated from the Hebrew by Chaya Naor


This article is adapted from Shmuel Feiner’s The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) and offers a glimpse into a longer, more complicated history of Jewish secularization. Newly translated into English by Chaya Naor, the original Hebrew publication was the recipient of the Shazar Prize in 2010.
The secular age, the philosopher Charles Taylor recently claimed, changed us dramatically: “from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” This was certainly true in the Jewish case. Since the eighteenth century, Jewish self-definition has not automatically been based on the beliefs and practices of “Torah and commandments.” Other alternatives emerged—national, cultural, and ethnic ones—and a long, circuitous search for identity began.
These searches took on various forms in eighteenth century Europe, and were attended by severe cultural struggles. Aspirations for liberation clashed with the anxiety of those who were faithful to tradition. The distinction sharpened between Jews of the “old world” and Jews of the “new world.” On the one hand, there were the great majority of observant Jews, who accepted the authority of the rabbinical leadership; on the other, the gradually more conspicuous minority of “freethinking” Jews. At this early stage, the boundaries of the internal split were already drawn and gave the members of the two camps a new identity.

This identity marked each individual, his worldview and lifestyle according to his place on the spectrum between faith and heresy, devotion to religious practices and the rabbinical leadership, and permissiveness and indifference. The “crisis of Jewish identity” caused by secularization was driven by a host of questions: Could religious criticism exist within the boundaries of the Jewish group? Was there room in it for freethinking Jews and deists?

Two women at the intersection of modernity and tradition provide striking illustrations of Jewry’s secularization. Henriette de Lemos (1764-1847) was one. She was the daughter of Berlin physician Benjamin de Lemos, would later become the wife of Marcus Herz and a prominent hostess in the salon circles of the city. Her parents led the fashionable lifestyle of the haute bourgeoisie, but they also meticulously adhered to the Jewish customs. Her father’s modern acculturation was part of his Jewish identity, but in his daughter’s case, it led to secular conversion. Henriette’s education in music, dance, and theater nurtured her taste for high European culture. And though she was taught to read the Bible, Henriette grew up feeling totally alienated from the Jewish religion—especially when it concerned her personal appearance. “I dressed,” she wrote, “but was not pleased with myself. The reason was that, according to Jewish custom, as a married woman I had to cover my hair completely.” In the end, Henriette chose to rebel against traditional custom and religious supervision over her appearance. Showing her natural black hair, she declared that from then on, her independent will would defeat the requirements of religion.
This was not the only case in which acculturated young women demanded release of their bodies from religious supervision. In those years, an incident occurred in the home of Adam Arnstein, a wealthy Jew with connections to the Habsburg court. Beginning in 1776, Adam’s son Nathan and his wife, Fanny (1758-1818), lived in an apartment in the Arnstein mansion on the elegant street Auf dem Graben in Vienna. On the eve of Passover, a rabbi and his student were staying at the mansion on Auf dem Graben. As the student walked about, he mistakenly opened the door of Fanny’s room and found her head uncovered while a hairdresser combed and arranged her long black hair.
In a fit of religious zeal, the student commented to Fanny that her behavior was contrary to the religious requirement that married women cover their hair. Fanny, who, like Henriette Herz, had abandoned commitment to religious norms and who would later become an outstanding figure in the glittering high society of Vienna, was deeply offended. Furious, she demanded that the student and rabbi be immediately ousted from the house. Fanny Arnstein thus proclaimed the rebellion of the Jews of the new, modern world against religious norms and demanded her natural right over her body.
In the cultural context of the secularization of eighteenth century Europe, that defiant act of loosening female hair symbolizes the rebellion of individuals against religious supervision. Indeed, in the eyes of Henriette Herz and Fanny Arnstein, this supervision and the other religious norms stood in total contradiction to their lives. In the eighteenth century, contemporary European Jews had not yet conceived of a secular Jewish society in its modern sense—a society in which Jews faithful to the religion live side by side with Jews who are religiously lax, are indifferent to or reject religion, and whose Jewish identity is not based specifically on the obligations of the religion. And yet the experiences of Henriette and Fanny, as those of so many others, would soon populate the landscape of modern Jewry. Secularization was the expression of a dramatic change in Jewish life, a change that signaled heresy as the “new normal,” and questioned—even as it crafted anew—the meaning of Jewish identity.
Shmuel Feiner is Professor of Modern Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University and Chairman of the Jerusalem Leo Baeck Institute. Among his many books is The Jewish Enlightenment, winner of the Koret Jewish Book Award in History and also published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
This article is adapted from Shmuel Feiner’s The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), which has been newly translated into English from the Hebrew by Chaya Naor. Please note that as an adaptation, this article represents only a small portion of a much longer, more complicated history of Jewish secularization in Europe in the eighteenth century. This piece was originally published as SHORSHEI HAHILUN by the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, (c) 2010 The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History. English translation (c) 2011 University of Pennsylvania Press. Translation by Chaya Naor.
Printed with permission from the publisher and the author.

Passionate Pioneers: The Story of Yiddish Secular Education in North America, 1910-1960

By Fradle Pomerantz Freidenreich

Fifty years is but a blink on the radar screen of time. Yet in 50 years, Jewish education in America changed dramatically. This is the story of the Yiddish secular education movement in North America, a movement led by idealists and visionaries who, in just five decades, achieved the seemingly impossible: They founded, nurtured, and honed close to 1,000 schools and 39 summer camps in at least 160 communities. In these institutions, tens of thousands of children, youth, and adults enjoyed a rich Jewish cultural life replete with serious learning and enjoyment of being Jewish. They experienced living Jewishly; felt connected to a Jewish past; were imbued with a concern for Jews; and made plans for a thriving Jewish future.
When I began researching secular Yiddish education, no complete, comprehensive history of the movement existed—in any language. But, as I soon learned, the North American Yiddish schools movement was a phenomenon without precedent in Jewish history. At first I believed that there were no more than two-dozen cities where such schools existed. It just didn’t seem possible. Yet after I had found 50, then 100, and finally 160 such communities, I realized that this material warranted publication in a full-length book. What began as an inquiry driven by personal and professional curiosity evolved into a long, fascinating journey. After ten years and countless hours of archival digging across North America, I finally finished a 530-page book, Passionate Pioneers: The Story of Yiddish Secular Education in North America, 1910–1960.
Those five decades were the heyday of the secular Yiddish education movement, which included schools, camps, and a variety of sponsoring groups. The schools (or shuln) began opening around 1910, soon after the first Survey of Jewish Education was conducted in New York. In those early years, many of the students and campers were, like their parents, primarily recent European immigrants who did not necessarily know that their new country was not di goldene medineh—the Golden Land. But the leaders of secular yiddishkayt did know what mattered to them: fostering a particular kind of Jewish identity in future generations. Their predicament was aptly described years later by educator Avrom Golomb:
Without nurturing youth in the culture and traditions of its own people, [Jews] will not have any future as a nation. The tragedy of not receiving a Jewish education is that it leads to a cultural void, one without language, without secular or religious culture, without a way of life, without customs, without roots—all this leads to demoralization and degeneration; to physical and spiritual death.
These Jewish immigrants believed strongly in the vitality of Jewish culture. Many were ardent Socialists, Zionists, Bundists, Territorialists, Communists, Diaspora Nationalists, or were otherwise fellow travelers. They cared about democracy, brotherhood, and social justice, and they cared deeply about Yiddish. It was the language in which they lived, socially, culturally and often in their work places. It was their primary form of Jewish identity, the primary medium for expressing their Jewishness. They believed that their type of yiddishkayt was the best way to ensure hemshekh—Jewish continuity.
And so, yiddishkayt became the cornerstone of secular Yiddish education. Yiddish was the language of instruction. The curriculum of all the schools included Yiddish language and literature. All the shuln believed that learning Yiddish would introduce students to the rich world of Jewish culture, connecting them to their heritage and to the world of their parents. Furthermore, the shuln sought to foster strong identification with Yiddish secular values such as social justice and equality for workers, both in the Jewish community and the larger society.
But what exactly did yiddishkayt mean to the founders of these camps and schools? Definitions of yiddishkayt vary widely: the concept is interpreted differently by different Jews. Similarly, Yiddish secularism has multiple interpretations. Generally speaking, though, the Yiddish schools were secularist in their rejection of supernaturalism and religious doctrine. Some groups, like the Communists and Bundists, rejected anything they considered religious, including Hebrew and the celebration of some Jewish holidays. But the more centrist, Zionist, and apolitical networks were not anti-religious; they simply omitted “religious” commitments, while continuing to address spiritual needs and a myriad of Jewish interests by developing their own Jewish traditions.
Differences aside, the shuln all agreed that secular yiddishkayt called for a radically different approach to Jewish schooling. Until then, Jewish education had been totally intertwined with religion and religious practice: almost all the religion-centered schools based their programs on the classical Jewish sources: Bible, siddur, Rabbinic literature, customs, and the Hebrew language as a holy tongue. But the Yiddish secular schools included contemporary Jewish history, Jewish culture, Jewish secular values, modern Yiddish, and, in the Labor Zionist and the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute schools, some Hebrew and Hebrew literature. “The school must prepare its pupils for the individual and national existence,” wrote the great historian Simon Dubnow. Psychologist and educator Leibush Lehrer envisioned a Jewish school “that sees great national and educational possibilities in language, literature, [and] history…though without the limitations of purely religious ritual.”
With that, the foundation for secular Yiddish shuln was set. In the years prior to and immediately following World War I, shuln were founded wherever nationally and radically-oriented Jews settled. Among the founders were groups such as the Farband, the Arbeter Ring, and the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute. Shuln were established in large and intermediate cities, and even in tiny Jewish communities like Macon, Georgia, and Hurleyville, New York. Agrarian communities such as Edenbridge, Saskatchewan, and Sainte-Sophie, Quebec, were also home to shuln. In 1916, the Yiddish secular schools joined the list of schools in the Survey of Jewish Education.
Not everyone approved, however. Some secularists, along with some radical associations, considered the Yiddish secularists anti-American for refusing to dissolve into the melting pot. Many Jewish groups viewed the shuln as competitors, maintaining that yiddishkayt could only be expressed within the realm of religious affiliation and observance. (However, in Canada, where Yiddish secular day schools flourished, multiculturalism was much more accepted and recognized. In the U.S., the normative shule format supplemented the public school day—albeit with an intensive program of study and activities.)

Nevertheless, the years between 1910 and 1940 represented the most important developmental phase of the Yiddish secular schools in North America. Hundreds of schools, under various sponsorships, proliferated all across the continent. The formation of the network of Ordn shuln, in 1930, initiated a large number of Yiddish schools for several years under the umbrella of the Communist IWO, or International Workers Order. Camps, too, proliferated: After the first Yiddish secular summer camp, Boiberik, opened in 1918 in New York, it was soon followed by 38 others. Fun shul in kemp un fun kemp in shul” (from school to camp and from camp to school) was the slogan of all the sponsoring groups, championing year-round education—a pioneering idea at the time, which drove the founders of the shuln to establish summer environments where shule learning could continue in more relaxed and flexible settings.

Every one of the camps, regardless of its political affiliation, kept Yiddish central in all activities, while creating new models of intensive Jewish education. Indeed, throughout the 1930s, the movement appeared promising to those within it. For a while, it seemed possible that native Jewish children might create, contribute to, and enjoy a Yiddish cultural life on North American soil. Throughout the years, the schools’ and camps’ founders, the parents, and the educators remained committed to transmitting the Yiddish language and its cultural riches to future generations.
* * *
But no movement can last forever. Due to a variety of complex external and internal factors—the Holocaust; the post-World War II exodus to the suburbs; the establishment of the State of Israel and the subsequent flowering and appeal of the renewed Hebrew language; the acculturation of second and third generation North-American born Jews—vibrant secular yiddishkayt began to decline.
Over the years, the schools tried hard to adapt to changing times: They tempered their political leanings; they gradually, if grudgingly, introduced more and more English. Those shuln that had been non-Zionist or anti-Zionist even became supportive of the State of Israel, introducing Hebrew at various levels, and celebrating all holidays, not only the “freedom” holidays of Channukah, Purim, and Pesach.
Despite these efforts, their numbers ultimately dwindled. The demise of these institutions parallels the decline of Yiddish as a language and culture in the United States, beginning with the serious drop in the number of Yiddish speakers from 1920 to 1940. “In 1920, over 924,000 foreign-born Americans claimed Yiddish as their mother language, as did almost 744,000 of their children,” the U.S. Census reported. By 1960, however, “the number of Yiddish speakers fell dramatically….” The creative and educationally advanced accomplishments of the shuln and camps began to fade, and their institutional life had all but vanished by the 1960s.
Nevertheless, it is inarguable that these schools and camps made a difference. They played a crucial role in Jewish education between the 1920s and late 1940s. They established new forms of Jewish education in North America. Their influence on personal values was significant, and they succeeded in instilling a love and appreciation for the rich and historic Yiddish culture and its contributions to Jewish life.
Most importantly, the shuln had a strong impact on the developing Jewish identity of their students, who, by virtue of their shule and camp education, experienced personal Jewish growth, both emotionally and intellectually. Their educational experiences gave them the tools—and the desire—to become actively involved in the larger Jewish community.

My book Passionate Pioneers is a tribute to everyone involved with the Yiddish secular schools and camps, but especially the visionaries who achieved what seemed impossible. Theirs is a legacy worthy of serious examination, appreciation, and respect.

Fradle Pomerantz Freidenreich is a graduate of Yiddish secular schools and summer camps. She is a noted professional in formal and informal education, has been a teacher, principal, curriculum developer, consultant, camp director, and university lecturer. Prior to moving to Israel in 1989, Freidenreich was Associate Director of JESNA (Jewish Education Service of North America) where, for 18 years, she held a variety of positions.
This adaptation of Passionate Pioneers: The Story of Yiddish Secular Education in North America, 1910-1960 (Holmes and Meier, 2010) is published with permission from the publisher and author.

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