David Biale Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought

Once upon a time, Jewish secularists wrote about creating a Jewish identity moving past the older religious versions. This included most Hebrew and Yiddish authors, most important Zionists, and the American Jewish establishment, think of Chaim Zhitlovsky, Theodore Herzl, and Louis Brandeis. There are famous essays by Irving Howe, and Yehuda Bauer advocating a Jewish humanism, ethics without the classic texts. Now we have a recent work by David Biale offering the opposite, a Jewish secularism that claims the classic texts including The Bible, Rabbi Meir, Maimonides, and Zohar as part of a dialectic that created Elisha ben Avuyah, Shabbati Zevi, Spinoza and modern Jewish secular identity.

The Posen Foundation has been giving money for courses and books on Jewish secularism. The creators of the foundation were tired of all the emphasis on Judaism as a religion. Most major universities have been recipients and now have major professors offering courses on Jewish secular thought. This volume is one of the first volumes coming out under this aegis.

My perspective is what would be the correct religious response. A sanctimonious answer about the need for God, revelation, mizvot is not what is needed. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, there many traditional and non traditional responses to Jewish secularism. In responding to secularists, Eliezer Berkovits and Heschel were at their finest. (However, the essays by Rabbis Lichtenstein and Wurzburger were not, they were better at delineating themselves from liberal Judaism.) Will Herberg and others argued the need for religion. Thoughts? How would you respond to Biale?

In this volume, Biale discusses those theories (Weber, Schmitt, Blumenberg) of how medieval Christianity served as a basis for modern secularism, he offers a Jewish version of these theories. A traditionalist on first reading would claim as Lowith describes, the illegitimacy of the modern age. But where does one go with that? John Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy as the the 21st century need to go back to medieval thought?

Biale shows how God, Torah, and Israel are reinterpreted for the modern age. He does include the secular Zionists and secular authors, but with the amount of weight he gives Kabbalah, Shababti Zevi and Ahad Haam this begins to feel more like a liberal theology, similar to Arthur Green. Would the two of them reject each other? Is the major difference between them Occam’s razor toward pantheism, the enjoyment of prayer and holidays, or something more? This seems like a theology of secular academic Jewish studies.
And what happened to the good old-fashioned humanism?

From the Blurb

Not in the Heavens traces the rise of Jewish secularism through the visionary writers and thinkers who led its development. Spanning the rich history of Judaism from the Bible to today, David Biale shows how the secular tradition these visionaries created is a uniquely Jewish one, and how the emergence of Jewish secularism was not merely a response to modernity but arose from forces long at play within Judaism itself.

Biale explores how ancient Hebrew books like Job, Song of Songs, and Esther downplay or even exclude God altogether, and how Spinoza, inspired by medieval Jewish philosophy, recast the biblical God in the role of nature and stripped the Torah of its revelatory status to instead read scripture as a historical and cultural text. Biale examines the influential Jewish thinkers who followed in Spinoza’s secularizing footsteps, such as Salomon Maimon, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. He tells the stories of those who also took their cues from medieval Jewish mysticism in their revolts against tradition, including Hayim Nahman Bialik, Gershom Scholem, and Franz Kafka. And he looks at Zionists like David Ben-Gurion and other secular political thinkers who recast Israel and the Bible in modern terms of race, nationalism, and the state.

Not in the Heavens demonstrates how these many Jewish paths to secularism were dependent, in complex and paradoxical ways, on the very religious traditions they were rejecting, and examines the legacy and meaning of Jewish secularism today.

“Although religious Jews have always anticipated spending ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ others have preferred to tarry, as it were, ‘this year in Tel Aviv,’ the symbolic capital of secular Jewry. This is their story, told by a master Jewish historian with erudition, sympathy, and full awareness of the ironies that tie both destinations–and the destinies of religious and secular Jews–inextricably together.”–Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley

Quotes from the Introduction available online:

I want to argue that Jewish secularism was a revolt grounded in the tradition it rejected. The relationship between the premodern and the modern, in which the first is associated with religion and the second with the secular, remains one of the most fraught for students of religion. According to a common master narrative of the Enlightenment, also sometimes called “the secularization theory,” modernity represented a total rupture with the past as innovation was privileged over tradition, science over superstition, rationalism over faith.

In recent years, this dichotomous break has come under new scrutiny, especially given the persistence of religion in the modern world.

Karl Löwith proposed that the secular idea of progress owes much to the secularization of Christian apocalypticism. And Carl Schmitt argued that modern “political theology” secularized the power of a transcendent God in the power of the state.If these scholars found the origins of modernity primarily in medieval Catholicism, Peter L. Berger, building on Max Weber, suggested that the roots of the secular lay rather in Protestantism, which had shrunk the medieval realm of the sacred and created a heaven empty of angels.11 Berger also observed that this Protestant move, in turn, had its roots in Old Testament monotheism, since the ancient Israelites had already banned the gods from the world: monotheism thus became the first step toward secularization.

In this book, I will argue that Jewish secularism is a tradition that has its own unique characteristics grounded in part in its premodern sources.

Jewish secularists typically reject the idea that Judaism has an essence. The past is no more harmonious or homogeneous than the present, and indeed, the secularist insistence on the pluralism of the past can serve as an argument for pluralism in the present. Nevertheless, I will argue that these three originally medieval categories provided the questions to which secular thinkers responded with new answers. To quote Hans Blumenberg, “the [modern] philosophy of history is an attempt to answer a medieval question with the means available to a post-medieval age.”

The chapters that follow are therefore organized around the categories of God, Torah, and Israel. Each chapter starts by examining how the traditional categories might have contained in a nutshell the source of their later secularizations. In chapter 1, we will see how the God of the Bible lost his personality in the philosophy of Moses Maimonides and then became nature in the renderings of Spinoza and his disciples. The medieval Kabbalah provided the source for another modern vision of God, as “nothingness” or “void.” And, finally, paganism suggested another alternative to the God of tradition. In chapter 2, we turn to secular readings of the Bible, but first pausing to observe how the Bible itself and some of its medieval interpreters already prepared the ground for such readings. Stripped of its status as revelation, the Bible now emerged as a historical, cultural, or nationalist text. Chapters 3 and 4 treat the final category, Israel. Chapter 3 concerns itself with the new definitions of Israel as a nation, a definition that has its roots in earlier Jewish history. But the way secular thinkers shaped this definition was equally grounded in modern ideas: race, nationality, and the state. Chapter 4 turns to another way of defining the traditional category of Israel: history, language, and culture. Culture in particular is a modern concept that, in the hands of Jewish secularists, comes to take the place of religion.

Jewish secularism may be seen as the attempt to fashion a countertradition, an alternative to Judaism as a religion that has its own intellectual lineage.
Read More Here

3 responses to “David Biale Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought

  1. “a theology of secular academic Jewish studies”

    Then would the response be the theology of religious academic Jewish studies? Unfortunately, to the extent that there is such a thing it speaks entirely to those who are committed to both already.

    If Biale’s project is essentially a continuation of what Yerushalmi termed “the faith of fallen Jews”, then is the faith of semi-fallen Jews an alternative really worth articulating?

    The real answer is that if Jewish secularism had found all the necessary components to serve as the functional cultural equivalents of religion then his book would be superfluous.

  2. Yerushalmi’s answer was the study of Jewish History without theological agendas. Biale seems close to a theological agenda like Green or Eisen. Concern for Zohar reading, Tzimtzum and Gershom Scholem seems more Green than Yerushalmi.
    A 92th street Y catalog seems closer to secular Jewish identity. This seems likes it for academics.
    On your first point, I guess that is my question.

  3. I found the Biale essay a big to-do about nothing. What follows from all these precursors? Are we going to follow Issac Deutscher and sign up with the Trotskyites, stick with George Steiner and reminisce of the great Central European –Jewish sensibility or follow Harold Bloom/F.R. Leavis and dream of Jews who spend their days reading only the very best books ? Each way has plenty of precursors.
    Suppose we could devise a common Jewish culture wide enough and interesting enough to create a commonality between Jews of all stripes, would it accomplish anything in practice? Imagine a sort of Jewish studies core curriculum, (Tanach, Talmud, Kabbalah understood in thick ways), that served as a common foundation for the secular, the Orthodox and the Reform branches of the Jewish people. And now in grand rabbinical style we decide everyone must know their way about these classic works, & everyone must be open to the secular readings, and the permutations of these classics in secular directions.
    Three problems. To achieve this you have to get almost the entire Jewish people in remedial adult education classes into the indefinite future. But suppose as if by magic this was accomplished. Would the ability to talk a common language based on the same education solve the culture wars in Israel? And would this solid training of all Diaspora Jews significantly reduce intermarriage? In both cases I think not, but who knows for sure what would result from such a radical change? I worry the idea of a Torah based Jewish culture that would be adequate for all the tribes of Israel might be something of a fantasy.

    I tried something along these lines in a post called “Geek Judaism.”
    http://evanstonjew.blogspot.com/2006_06_01_archive.html .

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