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Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought, by David Biale. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2011. 229 pp. $35.00.
Two lines from one of Tchernikhovsky’s poems, a poet referred to in Biale’s book, state that a man is no more than a small piece of land, that a man is nothing but a form of the landscape of his homeland. Taken figuratively, the poet implies that our identity is molded in the pattern of our cultures. The landscape which Biale’s profound text looks at is the origin of Jewish secular thought, its developments, varieties and outlook. While Josephus Flavius (Against Apion, book II, §17) states that theocracy is the appropriate rule for the Jews, Biale examines the intellectual roots of Jewish secular statehood and identity. Although looking at some pre-modern sources, Biale’s argument is that largely secular Judaism crystallized at the turn of the twentieth century, and in some significant aspects most Jews living today are secular. I gladly confess that I enjoyed reading this enlightening book. Very much so.
Judaism presents a diversity of alternatives: ultra orthodoxy, orthodoxy, reform, conservative, liberal and, of course, secular. Each of these types hides an impressive variability. While Biale’s book tends to reduce this continuum into contrasting secular vs. religious Judaism, he is also aware of the complexity and does not forget to note it where relevant. For example, there are many Jews who view themselves as secular and yet believe in the existence of God (p. 10). In fact, the attitude of Israeli Jewish seculars toward religion is complicated by their view of religion as forming the basis of the state’s culture.
Not in the Heavens examines a dazzling selection of figures, presenting their ideas, sometimes critically, and charting the way Jewish secularism developed. Going from some biblical and Talmudic references, it ends up focusing on a few key intellectuals, past and present.
Biale’s characterization of secularism follows Talal Asad’s emphasis on rejection of the supernatural in favor of a materialistic view and the separation of state from religion. He notes that secular Judaism tends to adopt a constructivist position—that is, rejecting essentialism (p. 12)—but insists, following Kant, that removing religion from the state leaves humans “in full command of their political fate” (p. 10). However, from a constructivist perspective, religion and politics are both socially constructed. The book begins with a lengthy discussion about beliefs in God, a natural path if one is to deal with secularism that—for some—may mean the negation of God. Chapter One traces impressively, persuasively, and in detail the many formulations, twistings, and turnings of such an amazing group of intellectuals as Maimonides, Spinoza, Graetz, Mendelssohn, Heine, Freud, Einstein, Bialik, Nachman from Breslav, Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Tchernikhovsky (my preferred poet, together with Rachel . . .). This chapter classifies this group of launchers of secularist thought into Pantheists, Kabbalists, and Pagans. While in the first chapter Biale shows how the biblical God was first stripped of personality and transformed into nature before He vanished into nothingness and was replaced by an alternative, the second chapter focuses on secular readings of the Bible (e.g., Ben-Gurion) that transformed this sacred text into something cultural, historical, or political (national). Chapter Three delves into a captivating discussion of how some secular intellectuals envisioned the state of the Jews—Israel, concentrating on such concepts as a state, race, and nationalism. The following chapter attempts to construct Israel in a narrative that uses culture, language, and history. The last chapters focus on both Israel and the U.S.A.
As a sociologist, a few critical comments come to mind. Much of this book is about the nature and formation of Jewish identities. The history of Jewish secular thought is thus only part of the picture. For secular Judaism to become popular, accepted, and practiced, both cultural and political processes must be at work. Biale’s characterization of “culture” is somehow ambiguous. One gets the impression that he tends to equate it with history. But culture is the sum total of the materialistic and non-materialistic products created by a group of people, as well as its history. Or, as Howard Becker characterized it, “things we do together.” Collective (or cultural) memory is one of the hottest contemporary topics in social sciences (e.g., see Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi and Levy’s 2011 reader). Given the vast number of works in this area, including on Jewish collective memory, Biale’s relying on Halbwach’s old work (p. 11) is regrettable. Moreover, cultural memory (many times invented—e.g., see the Masada myth) is a crucial element in forging personal and national identities. If for religion-based identities Jews have such sacred texts as the Bible, Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, etc., secular Judaism had to construct texts and mythologies and create cultural memories that would provide a basis for this new identity, or in Anderson’s rhetoric, an invented community. Likewise, language and history are part of culture (p. 135). Research on nationalism and nation building has blossomed, but not much of it is contextualized in this book (e.g., p. 142). Biale’s tendency to rely on authors, intellectuals and poets tends to bypass the impact of politicians and movements. Biale’s book discusses the intellectual roots of Jewish secularism in the U.S.A. and Israel. However, no culture, either general or national, is based exclusively on intellectuals’ texts. Nowhere—to my Israeli mind—was this clearer than in the discussion about the country where I grew up and live, Israel. Biale points out—and rightly so—that the religious element in Israel grew in strength, but that has much to do with the peculiar political structure of Israel. For example, while the ultra-orthodox comprise about 7–12 percent of the Jewish population in Israel, their relatively high political impact is disproportional to their size. I was also puzzled as to why the ideas of prominent secular Israeli politicians were bypassed (e.g., Shulamit Aloni) as well as the impact of such explicitly secular political movements/parties as Meretz or Shinui (not to mention the Canaanites), as well as the relevant writings on the secular-religious abyss by such authors as Aviezer Ravitzky, Eliezer Schwaid, Yoseph Dan, Moshe Samet, Yedidya Stern, Gershon Weiler, and others. Unfortunately, the secular-religious kulturkampf that has taken place in Israel escaped Biale’s text. Forging a relatively new and modern secular Jewish identity was accomplished through harsh, sometimes violent, clashes between world views, and the rise of this identity has significant fingerprints in the political, everyday life and practices of Jews. It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the major political assassinations in Israel—that of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a secular Jew—was by a religious Jew.
Biale points out that cultural deviants were sometimes engines for cultural changes (p. 152). Indeed, following secular Jewish sociologist Emile Durkheim, formulations in the sociology of deviance have pointed out repeatedly that deviance lies at the root of both social change and social stability.
Overall, my impression is that secular Jews compose two main variants. One, the practitioners who simply live a secular lifestyle without thinking too much about it. Two, those who developed a secular consciousness. While for the practitioners most information in this book may probably seem irrelevant, for the conscious secular this book will certainly provide a most significant and cherished building block.
Undoubtedly, Biale has written an impressive and admirable book, one that is indispensable for anyone interested in the development of secular Judaism and secularism generally. Moreover, Biale deserves a genuine commendation for an engaging text that is written in a way that makes reading and understanding his arguments a pleasurable, rewarding, and absorbing experience. I warm-heartedly, and with much enthusiasm, recommend Biale’s fascinating and thought-provoking tour de force into the roots of Jewish secular thought.