Secularism and its variants are terms much bandied about today. This situation poses a number of questions.
First, a definitional question: What are the spheres of secularity and secularism today? Second, has the world has gone further in creating an autonomous existence for the secular?
The terms “secular,” “secularism,” and “secularization” have a range of meanings. The words derive from the Latin, saeculum, which means both “this age” and “this world,” and combines a spatial sense and a temporal sense. In the Middle Ages, “secular” referred to priests who worked out in the world of local parishes, as opposed to priests who took vows of poverty and secluded themselves in monastic communities. These latter priests were called “religious.” During the Reformation, “secularization” denoted the seizure of Catholic ecclesiastical properties by the state and their conversion to non-religious use. In all of these instances, the “secular” indicates a distancing from the sacred, the eternal, and the otherworldly. According to our understanding, “secularity” refers to the individuals and their social and psychological characteristics while “secularism” refers to the realm of social institutions.
With definition in hand, we move to our second question: has the world created a broader space for the secular?
To answer it helps to know a bit of history. Since the 1780s, on the reverse of the U.S. national seal, and since the 1930s, on the reverse of the one-dollar bill, the phrase Novus Ordo Seclorum has appeared. My interpretation of the adoption of that Latin phrase is that the founders of the American Republic viewed the “new order of the ages” quite deliberately as a new era in which the old order of King and Church was to be displaced from authority over public life by a secular republican order.
The two revolutions of the 18th century, the American and the French, produced two intellectual and constitutional traditions of secularism. One, associated with the French Jacobin tradition, was unreservedly antagonistic to religion, and promoted atheism. This situation arose from the historical reality of the revolutionary experience, which involved a joint struggle against despotism and religion, the monarchy, and the Roman Catholic Church. This tradition has only a marginal place in American public life. The reason, of course, is that the United States was heir to the Protestant heritage of the Reformation, whereby religious individualism and autonomy predated any concept of political autonomy. The result was that, since the early republic, Americans adopted a more moderate approach, characterized by indifference towards religion or encouragement of religious pluralism.
Since the end of the 19th century, there has been a growing recognition among students of religion that the theologies and institutions embodying religion have been transformed by the process of secularization. Sociologist Max Weber, described secularization as the “disenchantment of the world”—a characterization of the process of rationalization he adopted from the poet Friedrich Schiller. By this process, Weber sought to capture the psychic and cultural transformation in which magical elements of thought and symbolism are progressively displaced by empiricism and rationality.
In the 20th century, Harvey Cox and Peter Berger further developed theories of secularism and secularization. Cox described secularization as the “deliverance of man ‘first from religious and then from metaphysical control over his reasons and language’… the dispelling of all closed worldviews, the breaking of all supernatural myths and sacred symbols.” On the wider societal level, Berger defined secularization as “the process by which sectors of society are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.”
It is now widely recognized that the process of secularization is dialectic: the more that hearts and minds become “disenchanted,” the more institutions that have specialized in the promotion of the “enchantment” process lose plausibility and authority. The more such institutions lose plausibility and authority, the less psycho-emotional processes of “enchantment” are inculcated in the hearts and minds of individuals. How far the process of secularization has progressed in different societies since the end of the 19th century, whether the process is unidirectional or not, and what its consequences are for social and political organization and human welfare, is the subject of ongoing debate.
Today, most Americans, regardless of whether they are liberal or conservative, Christian or Jew or other, are pluralists. They accept at a fundamental level that law, politics, art, and learning should not be controlled by religious institutions or clergy, but rather have their own traditions, spheres and dynamics. Although there are evident strains, America remains a secular republic.
Dr. Barry A. Kosmin is Director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC), and research professor in public policy and law at Trinity College. He was a principal investigator of the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, and is co-author of One Nation Under God and Religion in a Free Market, and co-editor of Secularism & Science in the 21st Century (ISSSC 2008) and Secularism, Women, & the State: The Mediterranean World in the 21st Century (ISSSC 2009). This excerpt, from Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives (ISSSC, September 2007), is printed with permission of the author.
Still Outwitting History
By Aaron Lansky
This essay was written in 2000 by Aaron Lansky. A longer version appeared in Pakn Treger magazine. Max Weinreich, arguably the greatest cultural historian of the Yiddish language, was delivering a lecture in Finland on September 1, 1939, the day the Nazis invaded Poland. That lecture saved his life. Weinreich made his way to New York, where he began training a new generation of Yiddish linguistic and literary scholars.
Many thought Weinreich’s task in America was hopeless: How could one possibly re-establish Yiddish or engage in serious Jewish scholarship here in the new land? Once, when a student asked him why he persisted, he answered simply: “Because Yiddish has magic—it will outwit history.” I think he was right: Yiddish continues to outwit history, although it does so in ways very different then those Weinreich might have imagined.
For example, among mainstream Jews Klezmer music has won unprecedented popularity. But the best Klezmer musicians are not just reprising Aaron Lebedeff’s “Rumania, Rumania” and turning somersaults on the stage. Instead, they’re creating modern music authentically derived from old-world roots. Yiddish theater is also undergoing a revival, not only the Folksbiene, but through artists like Tony Kushner, who produced a new, English-language version of The Dybbuk, and visionaries like the late Joseph Papp, who founded a whole new Yiddish theater.
There’s more. Old Yiddish movies are being restored. Yiddish is taught as a credit course in at least 40 universities around the country. There are hundreds of adult education courses. And you can now study Yiddish intensively in the summer at Columbia and Oxford, in Israel, Paris, and even Vilna. Look at our own success at the Yiddish Book Center, where almost 30,000 members make us one of the largest and fastest growing Jewish cultural organizations in the country.
It’s easy to dismiss all this as a passing fad: nostalgia, sentimentality, a lachrymose connection to the past, or a superficial search for roots. I don’t doubt that these are motives for some. Nor am I complaining, because I’m confident that no matter why people are attracted to Yiddish culture initially, once they get there they’ll find out what’s really inside. But clearly nostalgia alone is not enough of an explanation for all that’s going on. Look at me and my colleagues and many others studying Yiddish today—we’re far too young to be nostalgic about Yiddish culture!
I think there are several obvious—and several complex—reasons for what’s happening. I’ll start with the obvious: Yiddish produced an amazing literature. Especially since 1978, when Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize in literature, more and more people have begun to recognize that fact. Inherently modern, Yiddish literature gives voice to the great themes of human experience: the emergence of the individual from a collective society, generational conflict against a backdrop of social upheaval, war and peace, power and powerlessness. As Bashevis Singer once said when asked by a New York Times reporter to account for his own popularity: “It is because I give Jews what they want most: sex, Torah, and revolution.”
Of course, an important factor behind the growing appreciation of Yiddish literature is that more Yiddish books are becoming available in English translation. Still not enough, of course: even now we estimate that only one-half of one percent of Yiddish literature— one out of every 200 Yiddish titles—has been translated. There’s a Yiddish expression that says, “Ale kales zenen sheyn, ale toyte zenen frum”—“All brides are beautiful and all dead people are pious.” In the years after the War there was a natural tendency to eulogize the world that had been destroyed, and therefore to translate only those books which showed that world in a softer light. The Yiddish titles most full of conflict and contradiction – that is to say, the best of the literature—were often overlooked. It’s only now that the selection criteria are changing, and although we still have only a forshpayz, the slightest inkling of what’s there, there are enough new translations to whet the appetite for more.
I think the second reason for the increase of interest in Yiddish culture is historiographical. The field of Jewish Studies has changed radically in recent years. Just 20 years ago it was still called Judaic Studies, the legacy of an assimilationist model born in 19th-century Germany. Judaic Studies meant the study of Judaism: religion and theology. Today the field is called Jewish Studies, which means not only the study of Judaism but of Jews, in the full constellation of their experience. Once Jewish scholars, following the lead of those in other fields, began expanding their horizons to include social and cultural history—the story of how Jews actually lived their lives—the use of Yiddish sources became imperative. We see evidence of this transformation every day at the Yiddish Book Center: when we began in 1980 there were only a handful of significant Yiddish library collections in all of North America. Today we have established or strengthened collections of Yiddish literature at 450 major libraries in 26 countries around the world. And, as if collecting 1.5 million books were not enough, we are now investing $5 million to digitize Yiddish literature, to ensure its availability forever.
Literature and historiography are two obvious reasons for embracing Yiddish culture. But for young people, for people who are not scholars, there’s something more compelling still: a growing sense that Yiddish is “cool.” In downtown New York right now, for example, there are new clubs where young people in their twenties get together and try to replicate or invent a rollicking Yiddish atmosphere.
This ongoing growth of Yiddish appeal is complex—it is the result of crucial changes within Jewish culture. I believe there is a growing sense on the part of many Jews that something is missing from modern Jewish life. We’d have a hard time coming up with an exact list of what we’ve lost. Try intellectuality, social consciousness, historical awareness, dialectical thinking—in truth the list will always be inadequate because what’s missing is very hard to define. It’s something quintessentially Jewish, and its gaping absence is a critical reason why so many are reaching out to Yiddish.
Yiddish is a repository of a thousand years of Jewish sensibility and experience. It’s axiomatic: if you want to know who you are, you have to remember where you’ve come from. But even more than providing a portrait of its own time and place, the potential of Yiddish, and of Yiddish literature in particular, is that it elucidates a process, a dialectical formula through which Jews have adapted throughout history, and a key to our continuing evolution. I believe Jews are instinctively drawn to Yiddish: not to indulge in nostalgia, but to reclaim the dialectical totality that’s missing from modern Jewish life. How do we live our lives as Jews in a modern world? In authentic Jewish fashion, Yiddish offers no absolute answer. But it gives us a profound way to ask the question, and I think that’s exactly what we need to assure our survival and continuing evolution. It’s in that sense that I believe Yiddish does have magic, and that with a little luck it just may outwit history after all.
Aaron Lansky is the author of Outwitting History (Souvenir Press, 2005) and the founder of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.
English as a Jewish Language
By Laura Levitt
“Have you ever made a just man?”
“Oh, I have made three,” answered God,
“But two of them are dead
And the third—
And you will hear the thud of his defeat.”
For me, English is how I communicate all that matters most to me. Although I have some facility in Hebrew, German, and French, I am not good with languages. I am awkward, tentative, and mostly inarticulate. This is frustrating because I live in words as a writer, scholar, and teacher of Jewish Studies. Like a large percentage of the world’s Jews, my first and most powerful language is English. English is a thriving contemporary Jewish language, one of many Jewish tongues. Although Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic carry strong histories within their very structure and memory, Jews live in lots of other languages. Sometime they bring traces of these other tongues into the dominant languages of the communities in which they live, but these languages become Jewish not by the influx of “Jewish” words, but rather as Jews become fluent in addressing the concerns of its minority Jewish populations. Jews nuance and complicate the language of the dominant culture to make it speak to their specific needs, desires, and experiences. In this way English is a Jewish language. Perhaps it might be considered English in a minor key.
There is something profoundly poetic about these engagements. My partner, a scholar of American civilization, reminds me that English, perhaps more than any other modern language, carries a large number of Hebraisms within itself. The translation of the Bible into English brought with it a large number of words that had no English equivalents, making Hebrew terms simply English. In this way, “amen” became an English word. And yet, this very construction of a modern biblical language, a vocabulary built powerfully on the translation of this sacred text, comes with its own challenges for Jews. After all, that text is already an amalgam of translations and tongues, including not only Hebrew, but also Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. And all of these traditions leave traces, not to mention the thorny issue of to whom any translation might belong. Whose authority informs these efforts at crossing so many borders and boundaries, the shared and the contested spaces among and between various Christians, much less the various Jewish communities that became English speakers? This is not to mention our Muslim neighbors who also share in these books and stories, the narratives, poetry, and laws that constitute these texts. And there's the fact that many of us come to these texts no longer bound by any religious authority. We lay claim to these texts as secular readers and writers and thinkers who, nevertheless, remain haunted by these formative biblical legacies. For Jews, this is complicated by our desires for both a seemingly shared, but also a uniquely Jewish, legacy. We want both the particular inflections that mark our specific cultural memory as Jewish, as well as some stake in the shared dominant culture, and the role of our text in that story as it continues to shape the dominant culture. In this way, we lay claim to our rightful place in English, its grammar, lexicon, and ongoing cultural production. And, for someone like me who does not want to be just an American scholar or writer—but rather a scholar of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism primarily in the United States—this means doing specifically Jewish work in English.
I am fascinated by how American Jews negotiate place through language. For me, it is the places where these legacies touch—not where they overlap—that interest me. These are places of imaginative engagement that make visible the connections and the differences all at once. They allow us to unravel the layers of desire that continue to animate both our efforts to be included as well as our pride in our distinctiveness.
With this in mind, I turn to the poem at the opening of this essay—to tell a story about its circulation in my own family as an example of this cultural touching and transformation. The poem, by Steven Crane, was given to me by my father. It is part of War isKind, published at the turn of the last century. It speaks to a kind of desolate hope against hope. In a bleak world, God responds to the narrator’s desire for justice, sort of. God says he has created three just men and two are dead, and when pushed further about the third, the narrator is told, to listen carefully for the sound of his defeat. My father—a child of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, the first generation of English speakers in his family—used this poem as the basis of his one and only silent amateur film, The Thud of his Defeat. In his visual translation, this strangely Christian text became Jewish.
As I recalled the poem from memory, I confused the text. I had never read it; I only knew it in my father’s voice at the showing of his film. I remembered the question and the final response, but confused the number of just men. I thought there were only two, and not the Trinitarian three. It had never occurred to me that the poem was Christian until I read the words in print outside of the bounds of my family. At first it was jarring, but as I have lived with this knowledge, I realized that both are true. The poem is both Jewish and not Jewish. For me, this characterizes the way that English is Jewish—shared and distinctive, ours and not ours, all at the same time. Because Crane’s poem touched my father deeply, it sparked his imagination allowing him to say something about his own complicated place in America and share that with me.
By translating the poem into film, a film without words, my father took something deeply marked by a Christian theological tradition and remade it into something Jewish without, in fact, erasing these other resonances. All remain present, echoing back and forth. In this instance, Stephen Crane and Irving Levitt speak together and it is for us to listen carefully for the sound of that defeat which we have yet to hear.
 For more on the many tongues and cultures of contemporary global Jews, see Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (New York: NYU Press, 2006).
 On the legacy of translation between Jews and Christians, see Naomi Seidman, Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Laura Levitt is author of American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust (2007). She directs the Jewish Studies Program at Temple University and teaches in the Religion department and the Women's Studies program. Her new project looks at the objects in police storage rooms and their relationship to archives, preservation, and collected memories. She is a member of the Academic Advisory Committee of the Posen Foundation.
Martin Buber’s Secular Religiosity
By Ron Margolin and Sarah Pessin
The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) is best known for introducing the I-Thou, I-It philosophy. Buber explains that achieving an I-Thou relationship, a relationship in which an encounter is between equals, allows us to relate to our world and to others in a just manner. Conversely, an I-It relationship is one in which we relate to our world and others as things, and in terms of the self. Writing at the dawn of the 20th century in a world filled with exploitation, racism, and discrimination, Buber’s ideology and philosophy resonated with many of the century’s greatest minds. One of them, Martin Luther King Jr., quoting Buber in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, wrote, “To use the words of Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes and ‘I-it’ relationship for an ‘I-thou’ relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful.” On the occasion of Dr. King’s birthday, we are reminded of the universal humanitarian ethics and values of these two 20th-century thinkers. The following brief essays, reprinted from Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought, by scholars Sarah Pessin and Ron Margolin, introduce us to Martin Buber’s influential philosophy. _____
By Ron Margolin Martin Buber became one of the most renowned Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, thanks largely to his influential work of dialogical philosophy, I and Thou. Born in Vienna, Buber lived with his paternal grandparents in Lvov (East Galicia) until the age of 14. When he returned to Vienna for his secondary and university education, he became estranged from Judaism. Buber’s interest was rekindled later on, however, through his encounters with Theodore Herzl and the nascent Zionist movement.
Yet it was not to traditional religion that he returned. Buber rejected the halachic way of life and the traditional, heteronomic belief in the divine transmission of the law. For Buber, true religiosity exists within social frameworks, where relationships are based not on utility, but on deep and authentic interactions—what he called a life of dialog, or I–Thou. It didn’t matter to him whether the biblical commandments were divinely inspired. What mattered was that they were formulated by the Jewish people and their leaders. As long as they inspired communities in which I–Thou relations prevailed, they served a valuable purpose.
It’s no surprise that Buber devoted much of his time to the revivification of Judaism and the Jewish renaissance. He translated the Hasidic tales. He translated the entire Bible into German (a project he began with Franz Rosenzweig), because he thought it was crucial for modern Judaism to draw cultural inspiration from the Bible. And he wrote numerous articles and books pertaining to the Bible and Hasidism, which he considered the earliest and latest forms of Jewish renewal prior to the modern age. Thus did Martin Buber remain faithful to his “Believing Humanism,” as he put it. Without abandoning Judaism, he remained committed to the Jewish people, religious feeling (if not religion, per se), and the Kantian idea—a wholly secular idea—that the human mind is the source of all our perceptions and conceptions, including those of religion.
By Sarah Pessin In his subtle dance between the sacred and the everyday, Martin Buber occupies the wonderfully complex space of a religious thinker who is not religious, and a secular thinker who is not secular. For Buber, discovering God—and with this, the notions of Revelation and Creation—are to be understood in terms of what he calls the “I-Thou” encounter. But this encounter, in all its capacity to unveil the sacred, is contained within the simple everyday encounters that you have with any person (or thing) in the world around you. The “I-Thou” way of being, for Buber, describes a certain kind of open, receptive attitude on your part; it is an attitude which opens you up to charged reciprocal encounters in which your own being comes alive to the particular here-and-now of a unique moment. Thus, for Buber, the act of “searching for God” is dramatically reenvisioned as a search for the world of people and things around you, and for your own authentic self.
Within this context, nothing upsets Buber more than unexplored religious orthodoxies. For Buber, calcified religious law is simply not the path to God, and can in fact even block that path. Along with other existentialist thinkers, Buber sees unengaging religious rules and rituals not only as doing little to open the human spirit, but as actually robbing us of our human capacity to authentic self-expression, and in this way deadening our capacity for sacred encounter. In Buber’s vision, finding God is all about how you live in the world, and not at all about finding or serving a big Invisible Man in the heavens.
Ron Margolin is a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University, where he teaches as part of the OFAKIM program for the study of Judaism as Culture. He is also a research fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Dr. Margolin earned his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of The Human Temple: Religious Interiorization and the Structuring of Inner Life in Early Hasidism (The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2005). Sarah Pessin is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Hecht Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Denver. She is the author of numerous essays on medieval Jewish philosophy, and also works on the theme of anxiety and humor in Jewish theology and culture. Dr. Pessin directs the Jewish Multicultural Initiative at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, where she taught a popular course in Jewish secularization, "Where is God?: Medieval and Modern Jewish Thought in Conversation." She earned her Ph.D. from Ohio State University. These essays are reprinted from Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought (Center for Cultural Judaism, 2007). For further reading please visit http://culturaljudaism.org/ccj/articles/new