Dear Haredim, While You Were Sleeping, Secular Jewish Culture Was Thriving

A response to Aryeh Deri's claim that secular Judaism has given us education but no culture.

At the Herzliya Conference, former Shas leader Aryeh Deri took part in a panel on education toward Jewish identity, and two of his points made it into the headlines. He said that until two centuries ago, religion simply was the Jewish culture. Since then, he says, secular Jewry has given us education but no culture, and he basically equated Jewish secular culture with reality TV. As a result, he thinks that the only common denominator for a dialogue on Jewish identity needs to be that God created the world and that the Torah was given to us by God. Everything else for him is barren.

I have thought for a long time that Deri is one of the most gifted politicians Israel has produced, tragically replaced by very mediocre men (women are out of the question in a Haredi party). And I was looking forward to his return to the political scene. Quite unfortunately, Deri's remarks betray a characteristic of weakness in the Haredi camp: They simply haven't realized that in the last 200 years new Jewish identities, including secular Jewry, have emerged, that culturally these ways of being Jewish have been enormously creative, that secular Jews are the largest sub-group of world Jewry and in Israel (around 40 percent), and that none of us even considers accepting his precepts about how to be Jewish.

I wonder what Deri would say if somebody told him that all religious Judaism has brought about in the last two centuries is a backward way of life that hasn't contributed anything to the world at large, or that the yeshiva world has produced nothing but parasites living on others' hard work.

He would, correctly, argue that this is extremely offensive and shows indefensible ignorance. It is offensive because it lumps the entire religious world into two negative phenomena; it shows ignorance of the richness of the yeshiva world, of the variety of orthodox forms of life ranging from the intellectualist Lithuanian tradition to Hasidism to the rich German tradition of Torah im Derekh Eretz.

Deri's statements equating secular Jewry with "Big Brother" are more or less on such a level. They betray a mind-boggling ignorance of the truly phenomenal achievements of secular Jewry in the last 200 years, ranging from 160 Nobel laureates to the incredibly rich traditions of Jewish-American literature and music, as well as the enormously vital Israeli cultural scene.

Deri continues the myth initiated by the Chazon Ish that secular Judaism is an "empty cart," that it has produced nothing that can compare to the thousands of years of the religious Jewish heritage. It is time for Deri - and many others who think like him - to wake up: 200 years may not sound much to them, but the world has changed dramatically in these centuries. Secular Jews have emerged as a major cultural force, and, among others, have built the country that the Haredim are now trying to teach how to be Jewish.

Moreover, if Deri were to bother picking up some secular knowledge, he might learn that modernity has brought about new identities everywhere, and that all cultures needed to deal with secularization. In particular he would notice that the Haredi movement is itself a quintessentially modern movement that is only 200 years old and in no way represents "authentic" Judaism. Its raison d'etre, to this day, is to be a reaction against the power of the Enlightenment - a phenomenon to be found in the other monotheistic religions, too. Before that, from Maimonides and Ibn Ezra to the Gaon of Vilna, the greatest Jewish thinkers were open to knowledge from other sources and thus injected Jewish thought with ever new stimuli and materials.

The only positive note I can pick up in Deri's remarks is that he favors the integration of Haredim into Israel's higher education system - predicting, quite arrogantly, that they would soon take it over. It would be much appreciated if he were to see this system, of which he has preciously little knowledge, as one of the many major cultural achievements of secular Jewry.

If Deri wants to play a constructive and unifying role in Israel, he might do well to gain some minimal knowledge of the culture he wants to communicate with - he might find a lot to respect there - in the same way he expects secular Jews to have some knowledge about earlier Jewish tradition. While we are willing to respect his desire to stick to his beliefs and way of life, he needs to understand that we secular Jews feel no need whatsoever to be lectured by him on what it means to be Jewish, and that he better learn to accept viewpoints different from his own.

Along the way he would do well to study the history of secularization. He might then understand why the European Enlightenment, dear to most secular Jews, has come to the conclusion that involving religion in politics is a recipe for catastrophe.