Tuesday, August 30, 2005

SJC: a Responsa (to Ben)

Ben Friedlander asks:
"SJC is the broad category of which 'religious Jewish culture' is the subset, albeit a subset which has, for some twenty centuries, seized most of the institutional power within the Jewish world"

I've been trying to make sense of this and cannot. Could you elaborate?

It would make sense, I think, if you were saying that Judaism is an ethnicity only partly determined by religious practice--but then, secular practice would also be a part only.

I will say this: the secular-religious or worldly-spiritual distinction seems predicated on a very un-Jewish notion of religion. Speaking solely for myself, and as an American of Ashkenazi descent: I consider myself a secular Jew only because I make my life in a society dominated by Christianity; I'm secular because of my acceptance of that society, not because of any rejection of religion.

But I would like to understand Rothenberg's point.
Good question, Ben. What was I trying to say?

You're right that the "secular / religious" distinction isn't a particularly Jewish one. It derives from medieval monasticism--"Of members of the clergy: Living ‘in the world’ and not in monastic seclusion, as distinguished from ‘regular’ and ‘religious,'" says the OED--and more broadly from the medieval church's distinction between the sphere belonging entirely to it, and the civil or civic world in which it also exercised power.

This goes back to Jesus's distinction between God and Caesar, perhaps; certainly it seems quite different from both a pagan notion of "civic religion" and an all-encompassing religious system like Judaism or (I gather) Islam, in which there is by rights no separate "secular" world. (It's a distinction I'm glad I've inherited, frankly: one of That Man's best, most enabling quips. But I digress.)

Thus although there certainly is a powerful distinction in Israel today between the "secular" (hiloni) and the "religious" (datti), the operative distinction in Judaism per se wouldn't be between "secular" and "religious," but between "ordinary" (khol) and "holy" (kadosh)--or maybe a threefold distinction between those two and the "forbidden" (assur). I gather from reading Maeera Shreiber and others (Grossman, especially) that poetry would fall into the "ordinary" category, along with everything else not actually within the "four cubits of halacha."

Anyone out there who knows more of this than I do, please weigh in!

Now, what I've suggested, following Rothenberg, would be a slightly different argument. "Secular Jewish Culture" would mean all of that culture which the Jews as a people (an ethnos, as you have it, or a civilization, as Kaplan puts it: a bunch of people living in any given time in this world) produce: art, literature, music, food, what-have-you. Among those products, as it happens, are the set of texts and practices that we call "Judaism: the Religion," including a literary character called "The Deity Formerly Known as El Shaddai" and a number of His former sidekicks, like "his Asherah," whoever or whatever that was, and "his Memra," who got traded to Christianity for 2000 years of tsuris and a messiah to be named later. (Cf. Daniel Boyarin's Border Lines for an account of that one.)

Rather than say that "Judaism is an ethnicity only partly determined by religious practice--but then, secular practice would also be a part only," then, I'm suggesting that we think of the Jews as a raggedly-defined people (or civilization) which is multiply and always partly determined by a wide range of practices. The whole range may be thought of, and perhaps even practiced, without reference to anything other than this-worldly, which is to say secular, forces, desires, or agents, as long as we include among those forces and agents the human imagination, or poesis itself.

Hmmm... I'm not sure whether this is all out of Jerry, or whether some of it is my own cocktail of William Blake and Mordechai Kaplan, with Ari Elon as the cherry on top. And it may simply amount to saying that "secular Jewish culture" means "Jewish culture, considered secularly." But it will do for now.

Oh, one last thing. When I say that the religious subset of those practices has long controlled institutional power, I mean that for a long swath of Jewish history, Jews let that set of practices define and determine membership in the community-of-the-whole. If you didn't buy the authority of the Two Torahs, Oral and Written, you could be written out of the community, and sometimes whole communites were. (Thinking of the Karaites here.) Now, however, that monopoly has collapsed, not just along denominational lines, but into a fracas of competing religious, political, and ethnic/geneological claims, the likes of which we haven't seen since Roman times. Which, as you know, I think is just grand!

Much more on this in Elon, pp. 28-34, more or less. If I have time, I'll type them up and post them. Does this make sense so far, though?


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