(Frank Stella, Avicenna )
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.