Is Chicken Soup Enough?
It is undeniable that secular and religious Judaism have benefited from the existence of the other, but they can exist independently of each other remains to be seen.
Philip Roth, Carl Reiner and Julia Pascal are just three names from a long list of today’s Jewish treasures. Despite being a novelist, entertainer and playwright respectively, all three are bound by one thing; they are chicken soup Jews.
Roth’s novels encapsulate New Jersey’s Jewish community and its traditions in a way that no history book could hope to, Reiner’s films and stage shows are the absolute archetype of modern American-Jewish humor and Pascal’s plays bring the classic Jewish folk-tales of Golems and Dybbuks to life for new audiences.
Yet, despite this, all three are atheists; they are self-confessed ‘chicken soup Jews’ whose Judaism is based in a cultural, not religious grounds.
The formative power of these artists’ heritage on their identities and work is testimony to their connection to Judaism, flying in the face of the widely-held Jewish convention that cultural Judaism cannot survive without its religious counterpart.
But is chicken soup enough?
Before the Jewish enlightenment of the 18th Century (The Haskalah), Judaism was an exclusively religious concept. For centuries, ethnicity and nationality were seen as one inseparable idea in Judaism, with entire Jewish communities adhering to the precepts and religious practices of the faith. Rabbis were the most influential members of the Jewish community, not only offering spiritual guidance, but often acting as judge and council in civil matters.
The Haskalah, however, changed all of this. Jews started to venture outside of their communities in Europe, seeking out secular education and assimilating into modern European ideals.
This was turning point in which secular Jewish culture was created; the Big Bang of the chicken soup Jews. The emphasis of Judaism shifted, moving from the traditional concepts of religion to an emphasis on a shared history and social identity.
These Jews felt just as strongly about their Judaism as their more observant brethren, they simply identified with it differently.
Since their lives were no longer totally bound and dictated by Jewish Law, the Haskalah allowed these self-discovered ‘chicken soup Jews’ to interact and participate in the societies around them to a much greater degree and, in turn, compete with that society.
It is this competition that gave rise to the struggle for Jewish emancipation and civil rights as well as the creation of Jewish political movements.
These Jews absorbed many European ideals, including arguably the most impactful of all – nationalism – that gave birth to the Zionist movement.
The longevity and strength of cultural Judaism without religious practice remains to be seen; secular Judaism is a new entity, only three hundred years old, and it is still finding its feet.
While Jews like Roth, Reiner and Pascal have managed to maintain their Jewish identity without adherence to Jewish religious law, this is not sufficient evidence that secular Judaism can survive without religion.
What is certain, however, is that the religion would have met a much grimmer fate were it not for the Haskalah and the rise of these secular Jews.
All of the Jewish people’s great modern achievements have been a direct product of secularism. Literature, academia, entertainment and politics would have lacked Jewish influence entirely were it not for those who shucked the religious Ghetto and created modern Jewish culture. And, conversely, traditional Judaism would never have been exposed to the moral aggregation of society were it not for those same people.
Zionism, the doctrine of secular Jews, was the light that gave hope to Jewish communities in Eastern Europe during pogroms as emancipation struggled to break out of the Central European countries. The state of Israel, world Jewry’s crown jewel, could never have happened without secularization nor would the Hebrew language have been revived as the language of the Jewish state.
It is undeniable that secular and religious Judaism have benefited from the existence of the other, but whether chicken soup can exist without the schmaltz – and vice versa – remains to be seen.
Josh Mintz is completing his degree in International Relations and Middle Eastern studies and is the communications director at Friend a Soldier, an NGO that encourages dialogue with IDF soldiers.