Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Can Secularism Save Jewish Religion?

Thinking about "secular Jewish culture," I stumbled on a useful little essay by Rabbi Richard Hirsch, formerly the rabbi of my own synagogue, JRC, and now the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which sounds big-wiggish and official enough, I trust. It's called "Can Secularism Save Jewish Religion?"--you can find it here. Money quotes:
Reconstructionist Judaism, based on the teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the first half of the 20th century, shares with Jewish secularism many assumptions (and denials) about the origins of Judaism. It is, in many ways, a secular form of religious Jewish affirmation. Kaplan’s essential insight was that Judaism is not a religion, but rather a civilizational culture — a perspective secular Jews would readily embrace. Yet while secular Jews might have difficulty embracing or even tolerating religious practice within that civilization, Kaplan believed one could reconstruct Jewish religion and keep a central place for it in Jewish life — on contemporary terms.

Kaplan’s “heresy” was in seeing Jewish culture, including Jewish religion, as growing from the ground up, rather than as revealed from the (mountain-) top down. While traditional Jewish religion posits that there is a supernatural “God” who “gave the Torah” and “chose the Jews,” Reconstructionist Judaism posits that whatever we have inherited as Jewish religion is the product of the natural experience of the Jewish people throughout history. “God,” “revelation” and “chosen-ness,” to pick just a few traditional categories, are cultural constructs of the Jewish people, not objective realities to be found “out there.”


To avoid the word “God” entirely is to avoid the meanings our ancestors poured into it — some with which we might agree and many from which we would dissent. Therefore, while a secular Jew might typically ask, “If I have no belief in God, at least in any of the traditional senses of that term, why should I bother retaining a problematic and misleading word?” — I would argue that we needlessly deprive ourselves of a rich and complex category of discourse if we excise God from our conversation. “God” is a prism through which Jewish struggles about ultimate issues are refracted. To me, the really interesting questions about God are: Why and how have Jews used that word? What kind of imagery and associations have they attached to it? At what times in earlier Jewish history and under what circumstances did certain ideas of God advance and others recede? As the late scholar Paul van Buren argued in his important book, The Edges of Language, when we use the word “God,” we are talking about the things that really matter — from our subjective, human viewpoint. No other word has the same power to animate such conversations.


Secular Jews, as well as religious Jews, often share the erroneous assumption that in order to recite or sing traditional Hebrew prayers, one must believe the words one is saying. This is not at all obvious to me. We manage to recite poetry, popular song lyrics, greeting card messages, and the Pledge of Allegiance without feeling morally compromised. Why does prayer have to be judged like philosophy, as true or false? Why can’t it be thought of as poetry, provoking reflection and invoking emotion? I do not require art, literature, poetry and music to conform to a consistent and rational standard of truth, and I do not understand why my secular friends have such a hard time applying this type of aesthetic analysis to prayer and to the study of traditional Jewish texts.

Hebrew prayers can be seen as a form of quotation: I am saying (preferably singing) the words my ancestors said. It is rather like being in a theater production: the prayerbook is a script, the tallit and kippah are the costume, the shul is the stage. I don’t have to believe in the character I am playing or in the words I am saying in order to participate.

The English side of the prayerbook — now, that is a different matter. I will agree with my secular friends that too few prayerbooks take the time to explain that what is printed is poetry, quotation, archaic imagery and myth, and need not be believed. (The current Reconstructionist Haggadah and High Holy Day prayerbooks are notable exceptions.) Why can’t the English side of the page be expanded to include probing and ambiguous poetry and prose (the writings of Yehuda Amichai and Leon Wieseltier come to mind), and edited to avoid the patronizing paraphrases and translations that alienate the intelligent synagogue participant?
The longer I live with this SJC / RP project, the more it strikes me that the intersections of these two make most sense in light of the broader Reconstructionist project. So, everyone: what say we draft ourselves a heretical siddur? Leaving the original liturgy in place, more or less, in the Hebrew, what are your picks for the English side of the page? Not that I have anything against Amichai (what, he's not on the Hebrew side?) and Wieseltier, but I think we could come up with some fresher selections--and certainly some more probing and ambiguous ones!


myshkin2 said...

Glad that you've come back! I've truly missed your blog these past months. I'm following your project closely, eagerly & with great interest,

E. M. Selinger said...

Thanks, Myshkin2! I have a lot (too much) to say, and the coming season should give me some chances to move the discussion along. Thanks for sticking with me over the hiatus!

Norman Finkelstein said...

Great to have you blogging again on both sites, Eric. Modesty forbids me from saying anything about your previous post, except "thank you" and "looking forward." But the material you've quoted from Rabbi Hirsch is something else again. As someone in the thick of these issues, let me say that I was both excited and dismayed, and often over the same passages. My first thought was of the famously nasty Spicer poem addressed to Duncan, from the "Love Poems" section of Language, the one that begins "If you don’t believe in a god, don’t quote him." But then, I tread on this thin ice all the time, and I have to agree with Hirsch when he writes that "“God” is a prism through which Jewish struggles about ultimate issues are refracted." This reminds of various writings by figures like Derrida and Levinas too.

But I part company with Hirsch regarding his theatricalizing of Jewish ritual and prayer. I no longer know if I'm a secular or religious Jew, but I don't attend synagogue much at all. Still, I love the rituals too much to think of them as theater or the prayers as mere quotation. Jews died rather than give up those practices. I could never go to shul thinking that what I was doing was anything like a play, regardless of any outward similarities to performance.

Maybe this is a clue to why my Jewishness is embedded in my poetry, and vice versa. Or why my true faith is in a certain order of poetry, which from time to time takes on a Jewish inflection. But enough for now.

Anonymous said...

We manage to recite poetry, popular song lyrics, greeting card messages, and the Pledge of Allegiance without feeling morally compromised. Why does prayer have to be judged like philosophy, as true or false? Why can’t it be thought of as poetry, provoking reflection and invoking emotion?

What an excellent point.

This is quite thought-provoking; I'd like to take some time to consider your challenge. (I think my haggadah for Pesach is created in the spirit of what you describe -- preserving the Hebrew, for the most part, but going some creative places with the English...)

Have you seen the pre-publication proofs of "Mishkan Tefilah," the forthcoming Reform prayerbook, btw? Would be very curious to hear what you think...