An incomplete sketch of secularism
The editors of this pretentious new encyclopedia have undertaken a simplistic project that excludes discussion of ethnic origins, gender and nationality, lacks intellectual coherence, and ignores the complexity of post-modern secular-religious relations in Israeli life.
"Zman yehudi hadash: tarbut yehudit be'idan hiloni, mabat entziklopedi" ("A New Jewish Time: Jewish Culture in a Secular Age, An Encyclopedic Look"), 5 volumes; project manager: Yair Tsaban; chief editor: Yirmiyahu Yovel; Keter;
The encyclopedia under review here includes 10 generous sections, published in five volumes, which try to define secular Jewish culture. But the series' title, "Zman yehudi hadash" ("A New Jewish Time"), already betrays its weaknesses: The concept of "new time" actually corresponds with Christian thinking and is grounded in religious discourse (such as St. Paul's "new Adam"). The encyclopedia's name, then, embodies within it the central problem of the entire project: It fails in its attempt to define secular culture without the help of theology, as though it were a dog chasing its own tail, and the more it is pursued, the harder it is to catch it.
In the past, intellectual discourse defined the concepts "secular" and "religious" as binary opposites. Over the last two decades, however, scholars and intellectuals have generally come to agree that we live in a "post-secular" world. This change is rooted in the understanding that the secularization thesis - which holds that the world, and Europe most definitely, have become more secular since the 18th century - is an illusion; that the past (even in Europe) was not necessarily more religious than the present; and also that secularism is the ideology of a limited part of society.
Although there has been some debate over the precise meaning of "post-secularism," no one disputes the fact that the world now has more religious people than ever before. In recent decades there has been a marked rise in church attendance in the United States and in certain European countries, an eruption of religious movements within Islam, a revival of a new evangelism throughout Latin America, a "return to religion" in Africa and Asia, and an emergence of religious-messianic struggles that shape politics and culture in Iran, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel. More and more studies are showing that modernization does not lead to secularization or democratization per se, and that religion appears in new forms in the public sphere and in the civil politics of the state. International politics have also become theological, and the attack on the World Trade Center in New York accelerated a global discourse that is formulated as a struggle between Christianity and Islam.
None of this means that all religions manifest themselves in the public arena in the same way, or that the relationship between religion and society in different countries is identical. However, comparative data indicate a strong combination of "religion" and "secularism" in modern societies. A "post-secular" world of this kind makes it impossible to retain "secularism" as an independent entity, in the utopian spirit of the European Enlightenment.
True, in many countries in Western Europe there has been a significant decline in churchgoing since the 1950s. One international study (Norris and Inglehart, Harvard University) showed a considerable drop since the 1970s in Ireland (20 percent), Spain (37 percent), Belgium (38 percent), Holland (46 percent), Canada (13 percent), France (36 percent) and Germany (16 percent). At the same time, however, there has been no significant change in the number of persons attending church services in Britain, Denmark and Norway, while elsewhere it has actually been on the rise: for example, in Sweden (17 percent), the United States (7 percent), Italy (25 percent) and Japan (33 percent). Moreover, many scholars believe that church attendance can no longer be used as a measure of "religiosity," and that the drop in it in some European countries points not to secularization, but rather to the privatization of religion (out of a rejection of the religious establishment), which is paradoxically accompanied by its renewed politicization in the public sphere.
This "post-secular" reality poses a serious challenge to anyone who proposes to commission and edit an encyclopedia that aims to present the principles and contents of secular culture, especially when Jewish secularism is involved. In the introduction to the first volume, Yair Tsaban formulates two arguments in favor of the project: on the one hand, to bring different streams of Judaism closer, out of a "concern over the polarization of our society"; and on the other hand, to clarify the differences between the religious and the secular, since "the public that defines itself as secular would do well to understand the meaning of secularism, and how the processes of modernization and secularism have operated among our people and in other peoples."
The sociological motivation for this presumptuous project is the identity crisis of secular Jews in Israel - a crisis that deepened following the murder of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. The two arguments offered by Tsaban are an echo of the contradictory maneuvers that Israel's secular-liberal public performed following the trauma of that assassination.
The first was the "embrace maneuver" initiated by Yossi Beilin in 1996, which was reflected in a lobbying effort that encouraged dialogue with the religious Zionist movement; this move included the recruitment of intellectuals and teachers to the Tzav Piyus reconciliation movement, including many Labor Party figures concerned about polarization among the Jewish public. This led to the ludicrous public-service ads that showed right- and left-wing supporters joyously dancing together, and to TV and radio programs that brought together a "leftist" and a "rightist," a "religious" and a "secular" Jew. The result was a strengthening of the Jewish ethno-national ego, and the sense of exclusion of anyone who is not a Jew. The problematic Kinneret Covenant, which presumed to bring together Jews from different groups for a re-signing of the Declaration of Independence, was also a product of the same phenomenon.
The second maneuver was the opposite: an attempt to define the boundaries and contents of secular culture so as to distinguish it from religious culture and the religious public. This need manifested itself in the establishment of many study groups and colleges of "secular culture" (there are over 100 such organizations in Israel today). Breathing down the necks of those who initiated the projects was, of course, the spirit of the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (1878-1953), who compared secularism to an empty cart that must make way for the full cart of Orthodox Judaism.
The two maneuvers create an inevitable contradiction. On the one hand, they seek to blur the differences between secular (Jews) and religious (Jews), while at the same time trying to bring these differences into high relief, using an assertive, autonomous definition of secular-Jewish culture. The five volumes of the new encyclopedia, a project that was funded by the Posen Foundation, the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Mifal Hapayis National Lottery and other sources, sums up this schizophrenic enterprise.
Although it includes some 380 entries, the result is a simplistic project, lacking in intellectual coherence; above all, it is a project of blunt exclusion on the basis of ethnic origin, gender and nationality. If the editors and authors of the encyclopedia were concerned about "polarization," they would do well to examine the polarized product they have created. The makeup of the editorial board is one indication of this. It consists of 14 members: 13 men and one woman; or 13 Ashkenazim (of Eastern European background) and one Mizrahi (of Middle Eastern origin). Such representation is scandalous even according to the low standards of a society as gendered and racialized as the Israeli one. It seems as though academia has in turn agreed to serve up this project with unbearable ease, and without asking critical questions about its essence.
Aside from being a project of exclusion, the main problem with the encyclopedia is that beyond making unfounded declarations about the dominance of secular culture, it cannot provide a persuasive sketch of its own contents. Secularism is repeatedly defined in contrast to religion and to the religious "other," and the chief editor, philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel, lapses into a simplistic "secularization thesis" of his own when he confidently declares that "the weight of religion in the West has diminished, both in private life and in the public sphere" and that "nowadays the reality of secular culture is no longer in doubt."
These declarations, as explained above, ignore the sociological context of contemporary post-secular reality and recreate the Kantian formula that places at its center the autonomous individual of the Enlightenment. In the spirit of this anachronistic formula, Yovel explains, "The secularization process includes the demand that an individual - a man or a woman, someone capable of saying 'I' - will be able to experience, interpret, validate or reject, and in some way to evaluate, what is presented to him as a normative tradition that is supposed to be binding for him or to serve as his cultural justification."
This outdated position has already been subjected to extensive criticism, not only because it is blind to post-secular reality in Israel and the world, but also because it ignores the two centuries'-worth of insights from sociologists and political economists. These insights refer to the influence of material and cultural elements (such as nationality or class), which restrict to a crucial degree the individual's freedom of choice and action. Yovel's formulation expresses the illusion of freedom among the white bourgeoisie (in the spirit of the now-defunct Shinui movement), which, paradoxically, is more subordinate than any other class to material achievements and restrictive cultural frameworks.
Yovel's formulation takes on an especially reactionary meaning when it is examined vis-a-vis the neoliberal culture and economy that have created in Israel a deeper inequality than exists in of any the countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Let Yovel offer the explanation about individual autonomy and personal responsibility to the members of the "Third Israel," a much broader category than what used to be called the "Second Israel," containing such poor groups as Mizrahim, Russian immigrants, Ethiopians, Arabs, women and migrant laborers.
And let Yovel also explain this position to the pioneering thinkers of Zionism, who considered nationalism a religion, since, as he writes, "a secular person has no rabbinical adjudicator and no pope; his culture is not tied to a canonical book or to uniform articles of faith" - as though "religiosity" and "secularism" existed on two different planets, and as if secular culture did not have its own rebbes and authoritative texts (such as the Declaration of Independence, memorial days for the fallen, myths of bravery, or the myth of man's sacrifice in the service of the state).
Other definitions of secularism to be found in the encyclopedia are as vague as this acrobatic formulation from Yovel: "In light of the weak nature of formal definitions of secular Jewish culture, it seems that the way to obtain a more adequate and richer sense of it is to take a panoramic view of the space in which its galaxy exists, to observe a selection of suns, planets, comets, satellites and forces of attraction and repulsion, which comprise the scattered constellation of this culture, as well as a few black holes on the periphery." But at what and at whom is Yovel hinting when he speaks of "black holes"? The ultra-Orthodox? Non-Europeans?
He leaves this statement unexplained, and continues in an apologetic tone: "Secularism does not have a single 'cart' carrying the great diversity of its contents. Secular culture is densely filled with contents, all of which take their secular meaning not from themselves, but from the way in which they are approached; and there are as many carts as there are approaches." And finally: "The secular stance is above all an attitude, and not necessarily content."
The encyclopedia, as I have said, contains some 380 entries, some excellent and others extremely simplistic. But what the project lacks is precisely the "approach," the methodology, that would explain how the boundaries of secularism might be drawn.
In an essay on "The Modernization and Secularization of Jewish Thought," Hebrew language and literature Prof. Menachem Brinker explains: "Into the category of Jewish thought enter all of the scholarly essays written by Jews especially (although not exclusively) for Jewish audiences, and whose subject is the people of Israel in the past, present and future." This definition, legitimate though it might be, does not define the boundaries that are necessary to clarify if we are to be able to distinguish between "old Jewish time" (religion) and "new Jewish time" (secularism). How do we identify Jewish secularism? Brinker, too, stresses "the gradual triumph of the Enlightenment movement," in the wake of which large parts of the religious-theological agenda have disappeared. But Brinker also has trouble defining the new agenda without contrasting it with religion, and he declares that "the fact [is] that the majority of them [Jewish secular thinkers] are moderate or radical rationalists, who do not endorse the blind acceptance of any religious tradition or social conventions."
Brinker himself admits that beyond this weak definition, "it is difficult to find a perspective shared by Jewish thinkers," and that "only a racist would try to uncover such a [Jewish] perspective 'below' or 'beyond' the explicit contents of any writing by a Jewish thinker."
But Brinker does not answer the question "what is a new Jewish time": Is the belief in the status of Eretz Israel secular or religious? Is Zionism secular or religious? Is the belief in Jerusalem's sanctity secular or religious? And how do the editors wish to categorize the political messianism of the Jewish labor movement? When author Moshe Shamir writes the following lines, for example, is he writing them as a religious man or a secular one? "There, before ancient Jerusalem, I remembered the lines of destruction from [Bialik's] 'The Scroll of Fire.' All night the days of flame burned, and in the morning I was privileged to be among the listeners when the voice came out and said, 'The Temple Mount is in our hands.'" And what about Haim Hefer, a secular writer, who wrote "Hayinu keholmim" based on the verse from Psalms: "When the Lord returned us from the captivity of Zion, we were like dreamers"?
Prof. Anita Shapira, an expert in modern Jewish history, has already discussed the theological leanings of the secular Zionist labor movement when she showed how Labor Zionist thinker Berl Katznelson made use of a series of theological concepts - such as revelation, "true prophets," illuminations, the vision of a people - in one short passage of his writing.
Do these examples pass the liberal test of individual autonomy posed by Yovel, or Brinker's rationalist test of refusal to accept religious tradition blindly?
The reason why the encyclopedia project fails to provide a clear secular approach or to fill secular culture with content is that it ignores the post-secular reality, which makes it impossible to speak of a "secularism" whose causes and roots are not theological, or which is not intertwined with a deep religious reality (and vice versa). The post-secular claim does not deny the secularization process, but it offers the possibility of understanding that process in a more complex way, because it sees "secularism" and "religiosity" not as opposites, but as concepts whose link to each other cannot be severed.
While the European secularization thesis predicted a one-directional process with a clear teleological ending, the post-secular claim is that both religion and secularism keep each other "updated," and are hybridized with each other in a dynamic way. Post-secular research therefore accepts the assumption that the secularization process was never really completed, that theology has always been an inseparable part of secularism, and that there is no pure secularism, only forms of it that are hybridized with different communities of religion (and vice versa).
In Israel the reality is even more complex, because of Judaism's three different faces - ethnicity, religion and culture - and that fact requires secular Israelis to reckon honestly with the liberal pretense regarding the possibility of a secular and secularized Judaism in Israel. This fact is also related to the difficulty of determining the precise proportion of "secular" and "religious" Israelis.
In 2000 Eliezer Schweid, a professor of the history of Jewish thought, defined Israeli society as "post-secular," arguing that, according to self-definition, the secular make up some 10-15 percent of the Jewish population in Israel, Orthodox-religious Jews of various stripes account for 20 percent, and the rest label themselves as "masorti" (observant of Jewish tradition) - a group that includes most Mizrahi Jews and members of the Conservative and Reform movements.
It is true that one can turn the tables and argue that only 20 percent define themselves as Orthodox-religious Jews; but the power of the post-secular argument lies precisely in the fact that it makes it possible to recognize both possibilities at once, along with movement in the space between secularism and religiosity, a space that defies clear distinctions. Also, political scientists Charles Liebman and Yaacov Yadgar have shown in their joint research that "secularism" as a self-definition is a default position, not an independent category of identity. They also showed that the "ideologically secular" account for only about 8 percent of the population.
Understanding Israeli society as post-secular is also related to Jewish historiography and to the conception of Zionism as a religious theology. Amnon Raz- Krakotzkin, an expert in Jewish history, explains in his book "Censorship, Editing, and the Text" (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) that: "Modern Jewish historiography ... accepted the conception that distinguished between the reign of the Catholic Church ... and the modern period, which was ushered in by the Reformation; in practice, it has adopted the Protestant-liberal understanding of history." This thesis proposes a complex possibility, according to which secular Judaism never appears without religion or theology, whether Jewish or Christian.
Other scholars, such as Christoph Schmidt, Haggai Ram, Shlomo Fischer, Adi Ophir, Ariella Azoulay, Yossi Yonah, Yehuda Goodman and so on, have written about Zionism as a theology; Yael Zerubavel has written about the power of the theological myths underlying the supposedly secular Zionist movement; and Eliezer Don-Yehiya has written about the dependence of secular culture on Judaism. Yirmiyahu Yovel pays lip service to all of this scholarly effort in his introduction: "Critical thought may determine that this is a spurious or incomplete secularization, which was not able to extricate itself from the mental world it was supposed to challenge." But this offhand comment does not change the contours of the simplistic secularization thesis underlying the entire project.
The third volume, for example, looks at the world of literature and culture. Ahad Ha'am and Haim Nahman Bialik are presented in it as thinkers whose works are a central part of the so-called secular cart. But post-secular literary scholarship in Israel has already pointed to the theological sources of the national literature that is being renewed, and has shown the secularization of Hebrew literature to be a process that was never completed. This does not mean that Ahad Ha'am or Bialik were religious men, but that their cultural thought was based on a hybridization of the secular and the sacred. Hannan Hever, one of the project's editors, has already shown this about other authors and poets usually perceived as strictly secular, such as Nathan Alterman and Moshe Shamir.
In this context it is worth mentioning the famous petition in support of a Greater Israel signed in 1967 by 57 leading figures of Israeli arts and letters: Alterman was the driving force behind it and obtained the support of such intellectuals and authors as Haim Gouri, Moshe Shamir, S.Y. Agnon, Haim Hazaz and Uri Zvi Greenberg. The latter did not add their signatures out of concern for the country's security. Rather, they wrote a document of a theological nature, in which they claimed that no Israeli government had the right to give up the commitment to Eretz Israel, a commitment that they viewed as historical.
Literary critic Baruch Kurzweil has already argued that the modern-Jewish-secular world is a parasitical heir of theology; he saw the Six-Day War as, in his words, a moment when the secular veil was torn off the face of Zionism. The new conquests, he argued, were a realization of Zionism's undercurrents, which he saw as merely religion in secularized garb.
Jewish secularism, it should be remembered, was always imagined within the framework of a dialogue with and connection to Orthodox Judaism - in many cases in the form of rebellion and resistance; this is why scholar Shlomo Fischer preferred to call it "Jewish heterodoxy" and not "secularism." How else can we explain the fact that Ehud Barak, a "secular" prime minister, mobilized all his political assets at Camp David to argue that the "Holy of Holies" [on the Temple Mount] must remain in Israeli hands?
Elsewhere Hannan Hever has written: "In order to put on a secular face, there is an urgent need for opposition to God, but this contrast requires an additive to cover up something that is missing - the fact that secularism is an absent divinity."
But the additive is missing, and the spirit of the absent/present divinity hovers above the entire project of the secular encyclopedia project and undermines its validity.
Yehouda Shenhav is a professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, and editor of the journal Theory and Criticism (in Hebrew).