Don't Shoot the Messenger

Bursting with statistics and citations, Prof. Yehouda Shenhav has attacked 'New Jewish Time: Jewish Culture in the Era of Secularism,' a five-volume encyclopedia with nearly 400 entries, in his two-part article.

Bursting with statistics and citations, Prof. Yehouda Shenhav has attacked "New Jewish Time: Jewish Culture in the Era of Secularism," a five-volume encyclopedia with nearly 400 entries, in his two-part article in these pages ("An incomplete sketch of secularism," and "No room for 'misfits,'" published in Haaretz Sept. 12 and Sept. 21). Finding it "a simplistic project, lacking in intellectual coherence," and claiming [in the Hebrew version] that all its achievements boil down to the "reinforcement of the male Ashkenazi segment of Israeli society," Shenhav bases his argument on an examination of the gender and the ethnic identities of the editors and authors, and on the goals that he himself attributes to the encyclopedia. Shenhav believes that the purpose of "New Jewish Time" is to draw religious and secular Jews closer together, despite the article by the chief editor, David Shaham, which makes the encyclopedia's defined goals very clear and does not include that objective (or its opposite).

Since Shenhav attaches supreme importance to the authors' identity, that must be the starting point for the present article. His use of statistics is slipshod. According to Shenhav, female authors constitute only 18 percent of the total, and Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) a mere 4 percent. Anyone who peruses the list of authors in the fifth volume, however, will see that, of the 232 authors of entries, 55 - or 24 percent - are women. Similarly, the number of Mizrahim is nearly double the figure he cites; apparently, his error here is due to Israeli surnames that do not always attest to the author's ethnic group.

Had Shenhav not made gender and ethnicity a central issue, I would have avoided it altogether. Granted, it would have been preferable if the representation of women and Mizrahim was greater among the authors; however, any sociologist must surely admit that the blame cannot be shouldered solely by the encyclopedia's editors.

The argument of ethnic, gender and national exclusion resurfaces in Shenhav's discussion of content. Here as well, his comments could mislead readers. "New Jewish Time" is devoted to only one topic. It is not an encyclopedia in the sense of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, which surveys Jewish life past and present, but rather an encyclopedic collection of articles on the subject of the modernization and secularization of Jewish society over the past two and a half centuries. The relatively detailed discussions of the biblical, Second Temple and medieval periods were written by the leading scholars in these fields; however, they are intended to present a "new angle" on Jewish history, one that has been made possible thanks to the modernization and secularization of the scholarly perspective. Thus, I find it hard to understand why Shenhav criticizes the authors for the fact that only five Arabs were involved in this enterprise. Is there any Arab or Druze scholar specializing in Jewish culture whom we overlooked?

Regarding the "few" entries concerning women and gender issues, Shenhav laments the fact that the first volume features only two articles on the subject. However, even in this volume, the encyclopedia devotes additional pages to that topic and there are articles in the other volumes that include such terms as "women," "gender" and "feminism" in their titles. Furthermore, the writing on these issues is not limited to the titles of the only articles that Shenhav apparently read. The abundance of references to the gender issue under "Women" in the index, with its 33 subtopics (Women in Enlightenment culture, in Israel, in literature, in art; the modern female slave trade, language and gender, personal status in Israel, etc.) exceed anything that I know of in other encyclopedias, in Hebrew or any other language, except for those exclusively concerned with the gender question.

Erasing history

As to the et1hnic issue, Shenhav claims that the encyclopedia is guilty of "casually erasing entire Jewish histories." This is true, but the "erasure" is even more blatant for whole Ashkenazic communities, because we were not directly concerned with pre-modern Jewish life. Our subject was modernization and secularization, and when we decided to illustrate these processes in the description of the centers of Jewish culture in the modern era, we included two "mixed" centers (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv), six Western ones (Odessa, Berlin, Vienna, Vilna, Warsaw and New York), and two Mizrahi, or Oriental, cultural centers (Baghdad and Salonica). Our agenda did not include presenting traditional Jewish cultural centers because that was not our subject, except for the reaction of the religious and traditional world to the processes of modernization and secularization.

It should be recalled here that, for the bulk of the period we focused on (prior to the Holocaust, in effect), Mizrahi Jews constituted less than 10 percent of the world Jewish population, and the involvement of women in the fields of science, art, culture, diplomacy and politics was minimal. As a result, the lion's share of modernization in Jewish life was borne (and this is an unavoidable fact) on the shoulders of Ashkenazi males. We were neither willing nor able to "correct" this fact by an act of retroactive "affirmative discrimination" that would have created a distorted picture of historical processes. These two issues underwent a change for the better in Israel, which explains the prominence of women and Mizrahim in the section on Israel.

Although this discussion might be somewhat wearisome for the reader, it is essential in order to demonstrate how difficult it is to properly assess the character of "New Jewish Time" from Shenhav's long, scholarly articles. A final example should suffice: The title of the second part of his article [in Hebrew] is a partial citation from one line in the encyclopedia: "The important thing is that the 'melting pot' has triumphed." The full citation in the original reads "At least, from this standpoint, the 'melting pot' has triumphed" and it appears after a presentation of all the important areas where it has failed. According to the author, the area where it did succeed was the identification of most citizens with their country and culture, a feeling that is strong among Israelis in general and even stronger among Mizrahim. In all the discussions of the "melting pot" ideal (by Sami Smooha, Ephraim Yaar, Yair Tsaban and other authors), the concept is at least shown to be problematic, if not a complete failure. The discussions present all the criticism both about the ideal and about the extent of its implementation, voiced, for example, by the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow, educators and sociologists. (If, in his article on multiculturalism, Smooha does not mention Mizrahi writers on the subject, the reason is that he also does not mention Ashkenazi writers by name.) Similarly, in the entry "Feminism, Nationalism and Change: A Look at Women in Israel," by Sylvia Fogiel-Bejaoui, no reference is made to female Mizrahi scholars just as no reference is made to female Ashkenazi ones. However, the bibliography does cite at least one publication by Henriette Dahan Kalev, whose absence Shenhav mistakenly laments.

However, Shenhav's article is not only a slanderous, baseless attack on the book, its editors and authors; it also introduces important and interesting issues and articulately presents a consistent, systematic view of the subjects associated with "New Jewish time." With some sense of relief, I would now like to proceed to a discussion of these issues.

I believe that it is impossible to make any progress in a discussion of secularism and religiosity without first distinguishing between soft and hard secularism. Soft secularism has brought religion to the point where it is today in most Western societies and in some Arab ones: Religion and its "priests" no longer have the authority to supervise political decisions, scholarly research or literary and artistic creation, and religious prescriptions no longer provide an exclusive or central inspiration for the "private" values of many members of the general population. In contrast, hard secularism is anti-theological, stubbornly agnostic or even heretical and atheistic.

This distinction clarifies the seeming contradiction between the statistics Shenhav showcases on the percentage of secularists in Israel and the data supplied by all the other scholarly studies. It can be assumed that, not only in Israel but in the entire Western world, the supporters of hard secularism constitute no more than 10 percent of the general population, while the number of supporters of soft secularism exceeds, sometimes by a large margin, the 50-percent mark. (I am convinced that, when Yirmiyahu Yovel speaks of secularism's growth and consolidation, he is referring to soft secularism, and he is not wrong. Shenhav is wasting his time attacking Yovel ad hominem for allegedly forcing the new "post-secular" society to accept an agenda that belongs to a tiny anachronistic group.)

However, when Shenhav and the scholars on whom he bases his arguments say that religion is far from disappearing or weakening even in the Western world, they are referring to the fact that, as was the case two centuries ago, hard secularism is far from capturing the hearts and minds of most people. The thought that rigid secularism will one day achieve a clear victory over what remains of religious faith in the hearts and minds of most people - which is what Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, for instance, did believe - has been shown to be utopian, although I would call it rationalistic and anti-romantic, rather than romantic, utopianism. "New Jewish Time" is not a missionary work proclaiming the cause of rigid secularism. (Were that true, there would not have been such a high percentage of traditional, even observant, Jews among its writers and editors, and the editor of the section on modern Jewish thought would not have allowed Paul Mendes-Flohr to end his entry on Franz Rosenzweig with the statement that Rosenzweig's thought would attract all those who want "to renew their Judaism through a link with a living God.") This is a book that seeks to clarify the state of Jewish culture, in an era when soft secularism has clearly triumphed and when religion has ceased to dictate to most Jews how they should lead their private lives and how everyone should conduct their public ones. This - and this alone - is the meaning of "new Jewish time" and "Jewish culture in the era of secularism,"and no amount of philosophizing about a seemingly post-secularist period will be of any avail here.

s is a new era

In pre-modern times, Judaism could always dictate how Jews must act in their private and public lives. For Judaism and for all Jews, this era is certainly a "new Jewish time." Pre-modern Judaism never had to contend with the attitude that Judaism is solely a religion or a culture that can intermesh with any kind of ethnic or territorial nationalism. (These attitudes were prevalent not only in Germany and other Western countries but also among Jewish intellectuals in Iraq and affluent Jews in Morocco.) Furthermore, pre-modern Judaism never had to contend with the attitude that Judaism is solely a form of nationalism in which religion is only one of its manifestations or from which religion is totally absent. From this standpoint as well, the modern era is definitely a "new Jewish time," prior to which there were never any discussions on the nature of Jewish identity, except for those concerning points of halakha (Jewish law).

The leading creators of modern Jewish culture include several "hard" secularists, such as Ze'ev Jabotinsky, Yosef Haim Brenner, the members of the Bund and even a fair number of Mizrahi Zionist Jews. In contrast, there are also rigidly observant Jews who stubbornly cling to their ways, and there are dozens of variations between these two poles. There are those whose secularism is truly part of an endless struggle with religious traditions and with the world of halakha (not necessarily with theology), and these individuals include some of the leading lights in modern Hebrew literature and Zionist leaders like Max Nordau and Theodor Herzl, whose secularism was not the result of internal conflicts and a struggle with theology but was rather instinctively, easily and naturally adopted (obviously not with the same "naturalness" as that felt by observant Jews when they "naturally" begin their day by laying tefillin). It would be weird to follow Shlomo Fischer's advice and dub the latter heterodox rather than secularists because they do not abandon Orthodox Judaism because of any particular "doxa," if, in fact, they are at all aware of its existence. What holds true for individuals is also valid for entire groups and movements. The litmus test for the success of our encyclopedia will be whether we have been able to address most of these variations in Jewish culture of the past two and a half centuries. The critical reviews of "New Jewish Time" have so far not considered this issue.

Regarding that point, Shenhav demands that we provide a clear, comprehensive definition of "secularism and its limits," something that is missing, in his view, from the encyclopedia. He treats religion, religiosity, secularism and rationalism as if they were territorial entities that can be given boundaries. This is a somewhat bizarre demand because, on one hand, he himself - and justifiably - speaks of the different blends of religiosity and secularism that are, in his view (and not justifiably), the only finding that has been made in this area. He accuses us of being concerned solely with "net secularism," the province of a tiny group. On the other hand, this does not stop him from demanding that the encyclopedia's 232 authors and 13 authors supply him with a "spotless" definition of a single, pure secularism. Now who is guilty here of simplification and lack of coherence?

As editor of the section on modern Jewish thought, I come in for criticism from Shenhav for not providing clearcut answers in the introduction to such questions as: Is Zionism the belief in the unique status of the Land of Yisrael, and is the Labor Zionist movement's political messianism a religious or a secular manifestation? I could, of course, have addressed such questions in the introduction, while providing the terse reply that, for the most part, Zionism and the bulk of the activity of Labor Zionist movement are obvious manifestations of modern secularism, even when their leaders use traditional Jewish terms(while changing and secularizing their conventional meaning). However, had I done so, what would then have been the need for presenting in the body of this section six entries on the founders of socialist Zionism and an additional, and important, entry on "The Status of Eretz Yisrael in Jewish Thought and Awareness," by Muki Tzur, and why would we have needed additional, lengthy and detailed articles in the other volumes on Zionism and the Labor Zionist movement, all of which discuss these issues?

As part of his thesis on the obsolete distinction between "secular" and "religious," Shenhav cites Anita Shapira on the traditional terminology employed by Berl Katznelson (for instance, "redemption") and quotes Baruch Kurzweil, who stated that the "Six-Day War tore off the secular mask from Zionism's face." Had Kurzweil truly believed that Zionism was a religious movement with a secular mask, Zionism would not have been so problematic an issue for him. However, according to the perspective Kurzweil adopted toward Jewish culture, all secular approaches and movements were simply a camouflage for a religious crisis. He considered the use of religiously charged words to further the goals of Zionism or the Labor Zionist movement a profanation of the sacred. However, this sensitivity attested to his profound understanding that these terms can be secularized and charged with new meaning. When, toward the end of his famous speech on Mendele Mocher Sforim, Brenner declared, "We have sinned by being indolent and work will be our repentance," am I obligated to pay attention solely to his use of religious terms such as "sin" and "repentance" or should I also note the new radical, revolutionary meaning he applied to these concepts?

We are all heirs to a language that was molded by many generations of speakers before us and which is the sole instrument at our disposal for expressing our own selfhood. However, we can attempt - novelists and poets might even succeed in the attempt - to inject into that language new meanings, ideas and experiences. The authors of "New Jewish Time" do not believe that every phenomenon in modern Jewish life is simply a degenerative variation of what existed previously. Thus, their efforts are dedicated to describing new things and the new Jewish time with a minimum of preconceived notions.

Mizrahi uniqueness

The most important and provocative issue Shenhav raises in his article is the uniqueness of the Mizrahim. After "proving" that the binary opposition "secular/religious" is extinct and after he contrasts what I have termed "hard secularism" with what I will term "rigid religiosity," he argues that this opposition never existed in Mizrahi Jewish life, where everything was moderate, harmonious, traditional and yet innovative. There were no emotional and social earthquakes, no intergenerational wars, no militant demand for freedom of emotion and thought in the face of intolerant religious fanaticism.

Shenhav's grandmother Farha Mualem never had any doubts about her religious faith when she permitted members of her family to smoke cigarettes on Friday night. (In contrast, I was forced to wear a large skullcap as I walked the two narrow blocks that separated my two grandmothers, Gittel and Tzirel, and their respective Jerusalem neighborhoods, Mea She'arim and Makor Barukh). It is possible that this picture, which can only inspire envy, did - and continues to - exist in certain places. Shalom Ratzabi has already shown us how strictly observant rabbis were the agents of modernization in the world of Mizrahi Jewry. However, based on my reading and my life experiences in Jerusalem, I doubt whether that is the entire picture.

The works of Mizrahi authors, from the classics of Yehuda Burla and Yitzhak Shami to modern Israeli Mizrahi writers, as well as certain films, do not attest to that harmony. Neither does my experience as a teacher of Hebrew literature. Too many of my Mizrahi students - both male and female - were fascinated by Ashkenazic authors who had a bitter agenda vis-a-vis the world of halakha and tradition, or who had an ambivalent attitude toward that world. But, more important, in the reality of life in Israel, with all its internal cultural struggles, are not the separate traditions of "Western" and "Eastern" Jews assimilating into one another? Are not religious fanaticism and secular stubbornness penetrating the Mizrahi world?

It can always be argued, of course, that certain Mizrahim have become "Westernized," but then we are nurturing a Platonic idea of a Mizrahi Jewry whose only connection with the Israeli reality is in memories of a world that no longer exists. In my mind, the matter is much simpler. There are general problems that both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews are forced to deal with. In the past, secularization and modernization - whether they are regarded as a disaster or a sign of progress - were a problem that primarily concerned Ashkenazi Jews. However, they are increasingly becoming an issue that causes soul-searching and provoking thought among Mizrahim as well.

There are two more topics that I will mention briefly and with which I will conclude my remarks. The very act of highlighting the unique identity of Mizrahim and making the point that this identity separates them from the rest can be seen in itself as an act of exclusion. It is the exclusion of Mizrahim from the mainstream Jewish culture that has developed over the past two centuries. Many regard the glorification of the absolute uniqueness of Mizrahim as a source of pride and as a sort of compensation for generations of suppression and discrimination. At the same time, however, there are those who see it as a slandering of Mizrahi Jews. I am not a Mizrahi and I am not qualified to settle such an issue. However the question that troubles even the mind of a leftist Ashkenazi like myself is whether this attitude advances or delays the just struggle of Mizrahim for recognition and equality. I am doubtful whether, even on this decisive issue, Shenhav is right.

Prof. Menachem Brinker, a winner of the Israel Prize, has taught philosophy and literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the University of Chicago. He edited the section on modern Jewish thought in "New Jewish Time."