Jewish secularism – Secular judaism (New Media) (Knowing Where/How to Look)

(Frank Stella, Avicenna [1960])

I saw the interview with Dov Elbaum in Haaretz last week,  and then he popped up to speak at Ansche Chesed. Elbaum runs a “secular yeshiva” in Israel called Binah and runs a television program on channel 1 dissecting the week’s Torah portion. He grew up haredi and now wants to find a middle way between secularism and religion –it’s called liberal Judaism.

What I found interesting in the Haaretz article was the attempt by Elbaum and others like him in Israel to find new language.

“I’m comfortable living in both worlds,” he says. “A lot of people feel the same way these days. Look, 80 percent of the [Israeli] Jewish public believes in God [according to recent survey in Haaretz]. These are people whose connection with Jewish culture is a voluntary one. And the problem is that this culture has no language of its own. It’s still thought of as something that’s not serious enough to have words devoted to it, to have a philosophy and theology created for it. I am currently working on building this cultural language.” 

The problem in Elbaum’s conception, picked up by interviewer Tamar Rotem, has to do with his grasp of secularism. About this, he says,

“I know I’m presenting an extreme view here. The general idea, though, is that secular Israeli culture has failed to fill itself with meaningful content. At its core, secularism is about emptying the world of holiness. But as soon as you empty out your culture, if you don’t fill it with other content, you have a problem.

It’s the recourse to clichés about secularism and secular culture being all about atomized individualism and hedonism that Elbaum and his followers are going to need to confront. The problem with thinkers who critiique secularism from ethier a conservative standpoint or with thinkers like Elbaum who leave the orthodox and especially Haredi world for the secular world is that they don’t seem to understand that secular world from within. I just don’t see how far this kind of conception is going to go.

At AC, I asked him about the impact of television on his understanding of Torah, and he warmed to that topic. He talked about the more compressed character of Torah discourse on television versus the more in-depth quality that can happen in face-to-face study groups. This I don’t think he meant in a disparaging way, but there was insufficient time for follow through.

At issue, perhaps, is maybe not the need for new “language.” The language has pretty much been developed in modern Jewish thought for some 200 years. There’s plenty of language –rational, mystical, aesthetic, ethical, sociological, political. Something other than language is at work, about which we have…no lanuage.

Not television per se, or not television alone, but all sorts of new media have the potential to transform Judaism and Torah content in new and perhaps revolutionary ways. Or maybe it doesn’t. This remains to be seen. But I think what comes now is not new “language” as much as a new set of images, new ways to imagine what contemporary Judaism and contemporary religion look like in a new century.

Is secular Judaism and Jewishness the dead dog or as mute as its critics, eulogizers, or would be saviors say it is? The confusion is not knowing where to look, but the trick is knowing how to assess different forms of expression.

It seems pretty obvious that My the old ideologically doctrinaire forms of secular Jewish culture and politics from the late 19th and 20th century are dead in a post-ideological age. And I’m also not sure about the new atheism, which I don’t think is going to get “the last word,” whatever that means. My guess is that, by definition, religion almost always insinuates itself into secular expression.

So here’s where to look for the new secular-religious Judaism-hybrid –in arts and literature, at the movies, online, on campus, in the synagogue. It will be interesting to see how it all sifts out, wheat from chaff, and how it all comes together in real-time and physical space.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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4 Responses to Jewish secularism – Secular judaism (New Media) (Knowing Where/How to Look)

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    personally, i think that the best place to start is by dissolving the dichotomy between secularism and religion. this division impoverishes both the religious and the secular and already sets the stage for an unnecessary antagonism. religion (jewish, at least) is always already secular and the secular is always already religious. by adopting and working from this basic division one has already imported a mode of thinking which is, i think, foreign to judaism. and if that is the case, then there is no point in further conversation because judaism is what we were supposed to be talking about. but this is, perhaps, what you were already saying – in part.

    for my part, I am skeptical about the role of new media in the development of jewish ideas. i dont know where, or if, exactly, its truth ends and its vulgarity begins. perhaps a trivial reflection, but fearful nonetheless: when i heard about tupac shakur’s hologram-performance with snoop-dog at coachella this year i immediately thought to myself that i can easily imagine people i know in chabad “resurrecting” the rebbe in this way.

    There is something vulgar about our new technological capacities; its not about content, and i dont know that it is just about how they are used, it is also about the media themselves.

    this is not to say that its irredeemable, i don’t think that at all. but i do think that circumspection is required if all this is going to be a good development within jewish culture

  2. zjb says:

    Hi Hayyim:

    I used to think this too, that the distinction between religion and secularism in general and in Judaism is a bogus one. I’m not so sure, nowadays. We need to think much more carefully, historically, about the relation and non-relation between the rabbis in vis-a-vis popular Jewish practice and custom. Lorberbaum’s book on the secular nature of Jewish Law versus Halakhah made a strong impression on me. And then I read in Katz, Tradition and Crisis, that the law by which pre-emancipation Jewish society was governed in Poland was not halakhic. Richard Kalmin was also helpful for me to think about the rabbis, at least in the Bavli, as inhabiting an isolated hothouse academic world, very much separate from the political life of the community (controlled by the Reish Galutah).

    About vulgarity and the new media and new technologies, I just don’t know what to say. Let’s say we can quantify this and say most of it is vulgar. But so much isn’t. I think in general, the new media is a lot like “life” in this respect. I’m not so interested in “redeeming” this aspect of it.

  3. hayyim rothman says:

    that’s interesting. i will have to look into these books. but in general, what you are getting at is that, actually, by pre-emancipation jewish life was essentially secular and “religious discourse” was restricted to the elite? but even so, for this to apply to the discussion of religion and secularity we would have to say that the distinction between “jewish law” and “halacha” is analogous to the distinction btwn secular and religious, which would mean that “jewish law” in the pre-emancipation sense is secular. but simply b/c something lies outside the realm of rabbinic discourse on halacha per se does not make it secular, it makes it un-official. it could be un-official and religious in character.

    E.g. the practice of worship at the graves of tzadikim was vociferously opposed by many N. African rabbis over the centuries but it persisted nonetheless. I think it would be a strange conception of the “secular” to claim that because this practice ran afoul of official rabbinic categories it was secular.

    so, perhaps, part of this is defining more clearly what is meant by religious and secular?

    • zjb says:

      lorberbaum’s point relates more to the way by which matters of civil law, internal to Jewish society, was decided by the lay-elite of the community based on precedent and custom. this is not to say that aspects of folk judaism that you mention were “secular,” although they do say something perhaps about the limits of rabbinic-halakhic authority.

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