The newsmagazine Jerusalem Report is a very informative source for events in Israel and in the Middle East in general. One surmises that its editors are not great fans of the Netanyahu government, but they give space to different views along the spectrum of Israeli political opinion.
In the June 13, 2016 issue, there is an article titled “Turning on to Talmud”. It describes a growing movement of decidedly secular Israelis engaging in serious Talmudic studies. There now exists a network of so-called “secular yeshivas” which, unlike the Orthodox ones, receive no funding from the government. The author of the article visited one such place located in a Jerusalem neighborhood. A small group of young men and women discussed a section from Tractate Brachot, a Talmudic text dealing with the law of blessings in meticulous technical detail—the same text that would be studied in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva a few blocks away, with similar attention to detail, but of course by a vastly different group of students and with a very different attitude. The group visited by the Jerusalem Report author is described as “co-ed, with tattooed women in shorts and revealing tops studying next to bare-headed young men who have never even considered wearing ritual fringes”. Some of the students said that they do not believe in God and none feel obligated to behave in accordance with the requirements of Jewish law. Why are these young people attracted to such a scene? One young man put it this way: “I was born into secularism… This is all very foreign to me… In one of our classes we talked about prayer… One of our teachers… defined prayer and opened up a totally new direction”. Namely: “As a quiet moment to think, to reflect, or perhaps connect with some sort of higher power, not necessarily ‘God’… Whatever it is, I look at the way the ancient sages took the Torah and made laws, they were incredibly smart, and it all leaves me thinking about my connection to it all.” Of course there are political implications to this in Israel, where the Orthodox Rabbinate has much power politically and over the private lives of people legally defined as Jews. One of the young women in the group said: “The Talmud doesn’t belong only to the religious world. It can also be part of our secular identity, if only in order to understand who we are, rather than defining ourselves as what we are not.”
Ilan Troen, who teaches at Brandeis and at Ben Gurion University in Israel, has alerted me not to overlook the continuing pull of Judaism in the lives of secular Israelis. Quite apart from anything else, the Hebrew language carries this effect—after a lapse of two millennia during which it was limited to the realm of the sacred, the Zionist movement transformed it into a vernacular. I read somewhere: When this transformation was very new, two elderly scholars who were leaders of this linguistic invention were walking in Tel Aviv, then not much more than a sandy extension of Jaffa. A couple of louts taunted them for some reason (perhaps because of their awkward language). One of the men said: “How wonderful! Look, now one can even be obscene in Hebrew!” I can only ask: Is it possible to utter obscenities in Hebrew without evoking some ancient curses associated with divine wrath?
From the founding of the modern state of Israel there has been a distinctive problem for individual as well as collective identity: Who am I? Who are we? The secular Talmud students in our story illustrate the former. But there is also an important political aspect to the problem, which is very acute right now. The Netanyahu government insists that Israel must be recognized by everyone, especially the Palestinians, as the “nation state of the Jewish people”, which very understandably enrages the sizable Arab minority of Israeli citizens—just where does it leave them? But it also divides those Jewish Israelis who see peoplehood inextricably linked to the religion of Judaism (notably in the legally privileged understanding of the Orthodox Rabbinate), and those who daily experience themselves in a very different, secular way. Actually the Jewish question of identity, in Israel or in the diaspora, is a special case of a much wider phenomenon: the tension between what one is and what one chooses to be.
This struck me strongly soon after I came to America as a young man, in a context that had nothing to do with Jewish issues. I had a conversation with a young woman of Armenian heritage, born in America and speaking unaccented American English. She mentioned that she was taking an introductory course in the Armenian language, which she did not know beyond a few phrases. I asked her why she was taking this course. She replied: “I want to find out who I am.” Already then I thought that this was odd: If she was something, she would know it. If she had to find out, she as yet was not it. The assumption behind this woman’s rationale was peculiarly American: Life, including identity, as a long series of choices. Against this, for most of history, most of life and identity was a matter of fate. That was certainly true for Armenians and Jews. However, as I have argued in my recent work on pluralism, identity as a matter of choice rather than destiny has become a global phenomenon—not because of the triumph of American ideology, but because traditional notions of destined identity have become weakened because pluralism generates available choices.
Back to Judaism: One can occasionally find Reform rabbis in America who will tell you, perhaps proudly, that it is possible to be a good Jew without believing in God. Those who like philosophical language may also describe themselves as “ontological Jews”. (By the way, I have heard the same adjective used by a Hindu in New Delhi and a Mormon in Utah.) A less sophisticated formulation would be: “That’s who I am. I can’t help it.” That was true through most of Jewish history.
Today many individuals (including in Israel, see our opening story) can choose different options of being Jewish. A sophisticated version of an elective Judaism, emancipated from creedal affirmations, is represented by the writings of Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionism, yet another (small but interesting) branch of American Judaism. Kaplan proposed that Judaism, beyond being a religion, could be understood as a civilization. Needless to say, a Judaism divorced from belief in God and in Torah as revealed by him is anathema to Orthodox Jews. Actually, an anathema was solemnly pronounced in 1945, when the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in America excommunicated Kaplan.
Can one be a Jew without believing in God and the commandments of Torah? Evidently one can, especially in a society in which there is freedom of religion or belief. An outsider is not in a position to judge whether this is an authentic Jewish identity. But is the term “civilization” empirically plausible? If one substitutes the term “culture”, it is clearly plausible. In America as in Israel there is a Jewish culture that ranges from culinary tastes to a very distinctive form of humor. The students in the aforementioned secular yeshiva have grown up in such a culture and identify with it, even admire its cognitive style. One can say “the ancient sages were incredibly smart”—without sharing their overall worldview. Non-Jews can participate in this culture, without becoming Jews.
Comparisons often help. An open-minded person can appreciate a foreign culture without identifying with it. One can appreciate the wonderful English language of the Book of Common Prayer without becoming an Anglican. English has become a world language, but I doubt whether one can speak of a global English civilization, let alone an Anglican one.
Some religions have indeed created civilizations, distinct from their truth claims. Two clear cases are Roman Catholicism and Islam. Of course both propose religious truths, but they have also created distinctive features of civilizations spread over vast areas of the globe. These features are instantly recognized in architecture, music, forms of government and of course in a sacred language—respectively Latin and Arabic—which everywhere has penetrated the vernacular. I doubt whether Buddhism has created a civilization in this sense: It has had enormous influence on a number of cultures, in different countries—China, Japan, Tibet, Thailand—with no common Buddhist language even if Sanskrit sutras are chanted far from India (where Buddhism has virtually disappeared). And Judaism? Culture, yes—possibly divorced from its traditional truth claims, yes—a transnational civilization, probably not.
The experience of wonder may or may not have religious implications. It can simply consist of being deeply moved by, for instance, the beauty of a landscape. A convinced atheist can have this experience. I have a number of times asserted that the landscape of the Lago di Como, in northern Italy, is an argument for the existence of God—the wonder of creation intuiting the hand of the creator. At that point, intentionally or not, I have made a truth claim, moving from mystical contemplation to theology. Put differently, I have switched to the realm of what the Greeks called the theoretical life, where reason reflects on experience. Back once more to the Jewish example: It is clearly possible to have a Jewish identity or participate in this or that component of Jewish culture, without accepting the cognitive assumptions on which originally both the identity and the culture were based. Every page of the Hebrew Bible and even of the most technical tractates of the Talmud is throbbing with the looming presence of the God whose terrible name may not be pronounced. It is possible (and, I would say, not objectionable) to approach these texts without affirming the truth claims they imply. However, to do so has a price—the loss of their deepest meaning. As one may celebrate Christmas because one enjoys the exchange of gifts, or to practice yoga in order to lose weight.