The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, Volume 10 1973-2005, (Yale University Press, 2012).
Anyone as devoted in spirit and pocket to the Jewish people as Felix Posen is, deserves praise and respect. He made his fortune and now he is a man with a mission; to encourage Jews to take pride in Jewish civilization through a secular perspective. To this end he has supported secular Judaism through courses in Jewish civilization at various universities throughout the world. I have met him and I think his aim is praiseworthy.
The fact is that many Jews cannot or will not either live a life of Jewish practice or want religion to play any part in their lives. And if they can be kept within the loosest definition of the Jewish world community by whatever means, I would encourage it. “All Jews are responsible for each other” says the Talmud but nowhere does the text require that we add a coda “provided they are religious, let alone orthodox.”
Once upon a time Jews were defined by their birth or conversion. But if they chose to abandon Judaism , whether by coercion or choice, their only options were to join another religion. Since ‘The enlightenment’ Jews can simply opt out religiously and so we can no longer agree who is Jewish. Some argue that Hitler’s definition of a Jew should be the standard. But the bitter irony that such an evil enemy of the Jews should be the one to define us, escapes them.
The Jewish religion as presently constituted with its denominations and sects and extremes of all sorts is a mess. The religion itself is far from the biblical dream of “ a light unto the nations” and in many respects its moral and religious positions attract ridicule rather than respect. To make matters even more complicated it is impossible to find any unanimity as to what constitutes the Jewish People, be it an ethnic, cultural or religious association. Some even want to define it genetically or racially. Given that probably every one of us has his own private definition I would rather be in the camp that is inclusive rather than exclusive. But that does not mean I think Posen is right in believing that a religion-less Judaism is sustainable. I think the evidence is increasingly indicating that it is not.
Nowhere is this more evident then in Israel today. The return of so many secular Israelis to studying our traditional sources, while not necessarily adhering to their authority, proves how compelling tradition is and to what extent the attempt of secular Zionists to create an alternative to the Jewish religious model, has failed. The alternative in Israel to the Jewish religion is not a culture of secular Judaism so much as Western, materialist, celebrity based trash culture. Secular culture exists and it is well represented but it has not provided any spiritual alternative.
We may argue about whether history, a shared experience of suffering has kept the Jewish people alive or whether the power of its religious tradition has been the mainstay of our continuity. Certainly many great men and women who were not religious have contributed massively to the Jewish people one way or another. You might think that Queen Esther, marrying a non-Jew and according to the Talmud at any rate, not eating kosher food, would be the first example of a secular heroine were it not for the fact that at that stage in our evolution there was no such thing as secular. You were either a Jew or a Pagan.
So I turned to volume 10 of the Posen Library of Jewish Life and Civilization (covering 1973 to 2005) with a mixture of intrigue, curiosity and a very heavy dose of skepticism. And I am afraid very little in the volume persuaded me otherwise. If for example a minor Israeli artist who has turned his back on Judaism, despises everything Israel stands for, is an example of Jewish Civilization, then I am a Left handed, knocked kneed, Hindu Tap Dancer. Or as my father might have said “a Yiddish speaking Cossack.” But I agree, there is no absolute definition that pleases everyone of what constitutes art in general, let alone Jewish art or Jewish music or Jewish photography. Is it enough that a Jew did it?
But then again what constitutes a Jew? Why would not George Eliot the writer of the most pro Jewish novel of the Nineteenth Century “Daniel Deronda” not be included? And if Spinoza is the poster boy of secular Judaism, was his philosophy Jewish? In which case how do you explain that he thought Christianity was the purest form of religion? Or is that most bitter hater of anything Jewish or Israeli, the jazz player Gilad Atzmon, an example of a Jewish musician? Should he be given a place in the secular roll call of great Jewish artists? Perhaps so, according to the criteria of the editors of this work. The collection of writers and artists, of filmmakers and musicians, of saints and sinners, is so Catholic, so arbitrary, it simply defies categorization.
But I could live with that. If only the volume had left religion out altogether. But there its biases and prejudices are so manifest as to discredit it. And here too its arbitrariness is astounding. Whatever one may say about Charedi Judaism it is one of, if not the most productive power house of religious ideas in Judaism today. Yet this volume can offer merely a snippet of a responsum of British Dayan Chanoch Ehrentrau on a way of using a light on Shabbat without offending traditional law, as the only example of an Ashkenazi Charedi thinker. And Rav Ovadia Yosef perhaps more plausibly, as the only Sephardi. The selections are so whimsical, the pieces often banal and trivial, I often wondered whether the whole thing was a Monty Python send up. Yes, so called Modern Orthodoxy is well represented, but that is a total misrepresentation of the creative religious dynamism in Judaism today. And it is not just that. How a compendium of Jewish thinking could not include the brilliance of Moshe Idel’s writing on the Kabbalah or Avishai Margalit on Jewish Philosophy, during this designated period, just defies logic. So does the omission of Marc Shapiro and of course I could go on and on. It calls the suitability of the editors into question. There is such a wealth of material being produced in Jewish academia nowadays and so little to be seen here.
I desperately want to say something positive about this heavy work. But I find it so difficult. Who will use this I wonder? Is it any more random than the lists the popular press loves to compile of the most influential Jews or rabbis, which uses the most non-Jewish of criteria to select them? Is it on any safer ground than lists of “The Most Important Books” which in itself is such a controversial issue and looking back, usually reflects fashion and peripheria ? Perhaps I was soured by being at university during the great debate between F. R. Leavis and C. P. Snow over English Literature that I have no patience for these arbitrary compendia of literature, music or art. Either you put it all in or inevitably you set yourself up for ridicule.
Will these books just gather dust on the shelves of those libraries which have the money to fork out on this vanity? They will certainly not be in as many Jewish homes as volumes of the Talmud. But as the Talmud itself says “Whoever saves one Jewish soul is compared to someone who saves the entire world” so if only one person picks up one volume and is drawn closer to the Jewish people it will have validated its existence. But is this really the best way to spend vast sums of charitable money?
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article included the following phrase, written about philanthropist Felix Posen: “He has helped maintain secular or humanist rabbis and synagogues and believes that this is the way to prevent Jews from assimilating.” Mr. Posen has informed The Algemeiner that the phrase is inaccurate and it has therefore been removed.