The book of the people
It is surprising to note the recent release of a highly ambitious project, conceived six years ago, that required the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars: A five-volume encyclopedia entitled, "New Jewish Time: Jewish Culture in the Era of Secularism." The encyclopedia, which examines secular Jewish culture over the last 200 years, may occupy a place of honor on the Jewish library shelf.
In the Internet and digital information age, few publishers are willing to take on major publishing projects, like new encyclopedias. Thus, it is surprising to note the recent release of a highly ambitious project, conceived six years ago, that required the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars: A five-volume encyclopedia entitled, "New Jewish Time: Jewish Culture in the Era of Secularism." The encyclopedia, which examines secular Jewish culture over the last 200 years, may occupy a place of honor on the Jewish library shelf.
Yirmiyahu Yovel is the encyclopedia's executive editor; writer David Shoham is its managing editor, and former MK Yair Tzaban, a member of the Mapam and Meretz parties, is the initiator and director of the project. A total of 230 researchers, from Israel and abroad, wrote articles for the encyclopedia.
Department editors include Yisrael Bartel, Menachem Brinker, Yosef Dan, Shulamit Volkov, Dan Meiron, Hanan Haber and Reuven Rosenthal.
The encyclopedia includes five volumes: The first is devoted to Jewish expression, history and lifestyle; the second to Jewish social movements, Jewish society and Jewish languages; the third to literature and art; the fourth to Jewish/non-Jewish relations, Diaspora and Israel, and the fifth is an index and bibliography. One can find articles on Jewish self-hatred, the Bible in the Israeli experience, Jews and medicine, Yiddish literature, war as reflected in Hebrew literature, the Holocaust in Israeli literature, plastic arts in Israel, the role of music in the secularization of Israeli culture, Israeli film, Israeli songs, and more. Entries about important Jewish figures also appear in the encyclopedia, as well as essays pertaining to literature and the Hebrew language, written by Amos Oz, Haim Gouri, Sami Michael, Shulamit Hareven, Samih Al-Kasem, Gali Dana Singer, Roni Somek, and Ori Bernstein.
The encyclopedia was published by Keter, which also publishes the "Encyclopedia Judaica" in Israel. But many parties were involved in underwriting the project, including the Posen Foundation, which provided the majority of funding. The Posen Foundation was founded by British-Jewish philanthropist Felix Posen, who donates funds to 34 universities and colleges around the world, to facilitate the establishment of academic programs that examine Judaism as culture.
Why has an encyclopedia pertaining to secular culture been released during this period of spiritual and religious searching?
"There is no contradiction between secular culture and spirituality," says Yovel. "Secularism may evoke spiritual transcendence, a sense of well-being, rejoicing, awe inspired by knowledge of truth, love of what is good, appreciation of wondrous characters and other artistic and aesthetic experiences in people. These experiences lend significance to life in this world."
Are we a generation that is returning to religion?
"I doubt it. I see Europe becoming increasingly secular. Spain, once the seat of the Inquisition, is one of the world's secular nations - as are Italy and Ireland. America has remained a religious country, but that derives more from social rather than religious reasons.
"New Age culture undoubtedly contains elements of longing for spiritual experience, but one must not confuse this with religious experience. A large portion of this experience tends to involve tasteless art and superficial, momentary thrills but it derives from real need. That real need comes from the emptiness of life in a capitalistic, consumer society controlled by media that creates images in place of reality. This yearning for spiritual experience is distorted until it becomes superficial, juvenile and naive. But all profound, not-necessarily-religious culture can provide answers to that longing."
How was the need to define Jewish secular culture as a field of study born?
"A new Jewish reality has existed for 200-250 years," Yovel says. "Jewish existence is broader than Jewish religion. We live the secular experience derived from a wealth and variety of artistic creation in language, song, literature, daily life, politics and social institutions. There was no attempt to compile the processes that gave rise to secularism and its cultural products within one body of knowledge. One reason is that secular Jewish culture is a culture with no center, no holy book and no authority in Jewish law. Thus, we are compiling the processes and their products while this evolution continues."
What criteria are used to define secular Jewish culture? What makes a certain work of art Jewish?
"Jewish art is created by Jews, who usually write for other Jews and who are occupied by the question of their Jewishness," Yovel says. "Jewish culture in a secular age is everything that Jews produced that was exposed to the secular experience and created from that experience. What do we do about Jewish artists who operated within general Western culture rather than from Jewish interests? Those were marginal cases, as far as we were concerned. We thought that if the secular Jewish experience was reflected in their work, we should include them in the encyclopedia. Take Woody Allen's films, Franz Kafka's writing, art by Marc Chagall and Chaim Soutine. You see their Jewishness in the fabric of their art.
"Trotsky and Marx also belong to Jewish culture. They may have escaped Jewish religion and nationality, but there was something in their ambition to reform the world and to connect with the modern, Western world only by means of this reformation; their lack of acceptance of the Christian environment, and mainly a certain, Messianic, Jewish vision."
Yovel considers Freud to be part of secular, Jewish culture. "Freud defined himself as a Godless Jew," he says. "Many said that psychoanalysis was a Jewish science, and, indeed, this extreme departure from accepted convention derived from Jewish circumstances - a state of alienation that did not permit them to share those conventions. That situation did permit them to remain true to unconventional discoveries more than others.
"Freud described himself as a Jew with no additional title, a Jew in terms of his existence. He did not want to delude himself and accepted his Jewish existence. I also consider myself an existential Jew, a Jew with no additional title, whom the external world perceives as a Jew, and who perceives himself to be a Jew. One can always add elements to one's existential Jewishness. One can accept religious faith, or the concept of nationality, or a desire to become familiar with Jewish culture, or to lend it political expression by immigrating to Israel."
What elements do you add to your existential Jewishness?
"First, elements of historical, cultural belonging, connection to the Hebrew language, and a certain type of mutual responsibility for other Jews; and I also add the political choice of living in a Jewish state and participating in the project of Jewish sovereignty, which, to my great sorrow, is being ruined before my eyes."
Secular Jewishness is perceived as the opposite of religious Jewishness, but it always contains remnants of Jewish religious observance.
"True. From a historic perspective, [Jewish] religious observance preceded [Jewish] secularism. There was Jewish paganism before there was [Jewish] religious observance. Here, [in Israel] we obscure the existence of paganism, but there were 1,000 years in which the Jewish people refused to accept its religion. Secularism is always secularization of religion, and a trace of religion is expressed in every process of secularization. We all have certain nostalgia. Even the most secular Jews like to eat cholent [stew] on Shabbat, or remember how they went to the synagogue when they were 6 years old. That nostalgia among secular Jews is a natural phenomenon."
Might the need to gather accumulated knowledge of secular Jewish culture derive from a sense of emptiness and lack of values in Western secular society?
"There is no apologetic motivation in this encyclopedia. Ignorance is enjoying a heyday in the secular world and in the religious world. Ignorance in the secular public comes from the fact that no one teaches the tremendous abundance of Jewish secular culture, history, expression, literature and political thought."
For years, Yair Tzaban turned his focus on the "empty wagon" metaphor used to describe secularism in the famous argument between Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, a Talmudic scholar, and the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion. "I cannot ignore the argument," he says. "I found Ben-Gurion's response particularly disturbing. He answered the Hazon Ish [Karelitz] on behalf of secularism. He spoke of the establishment of the state, the economy, the enterprise, settlement, and immigration to Israel, but he did not mention secular culture. Where is the magnificent creation of secular culture that developed from the Enlightenment until the present day?"
Tzaban left the Knesset in 1996, after 45 years of political service. He was 66 years old then and considered playing a political role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or becoming a social activist, and finally decided to shift direction to resume his academic involvement in Judaism. He studied Jewish Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University and later at Tel Aviv University. He was even supposed to teach a course in the wisdom of Jewish sages before he turned to politics. In 1996, he was appointed director general of Meitar - The College of Judaism as Culture. He formulated the concept of an encyclopedia of secular Jewish culture during his nine-year term.
"Education centers like Alma [Hebrew College], Oranim [Academic College], Bina [Center for Jewish Identity and Culture], and Elul [an institution that promotes a joint study of classical and modern Jewish texts by religious and secular participants] consider themselves to be emissaries who bring Jewish culture to secular Jews in a pluralistic manner. But what is lacking is deeper observation of secular identity. Some individuals who engage in this field have a tendency to turn secularism into religion, to create secular yeshivas, to train secular rabbis, a secular synagogue, secular halakha. There are also secular prayer services on a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley. They adopt terms from the religious world, in what appears to be an expression of feelings of inferiority. Instead, they could learn about the evolution of secularization and its significance.
He adds, "A respectable bookshelf that belongs to a Jew in our times should include three groups of books: Books that reflect our ancient heritage, books that reflect our new culture, and books that offer the best contributions of general, human culture. That is the vital trinity."