The Search for a Secular Jewish Identity
One Man's Opinion

The Search for a Secular Jewish Identity

Jewish identity in the Diaspora was a combination of faith, Jewish culture, the non-Jewish culture of the country of residence and historical experiences.

Eugen Schoenfeld

Eugen Schoenfeld was born November 8, 1925. He is the oldest son of a book store owner in a small town in Czechoslovakia and a holocaust survivor.

Jewish identity in the Diaspora was a complex phenomenon until the 19th century. It was a combination of faith, Jewish culture, the non-Jewish culture of the country of residence and historical experiences.

Even in my youth in a shtetl, being Jewish was defined as one born to a Jewish mother, a follower of the Jewish religion, an observer of the 613 religious laws.

Going back to the third century B.C.E., when Judaea was an independent Jewish kingdom, many Jews chose to live in other countries, to use languages other than Hebrew or Aramaic, and perhaps to dress like Greeks or Egyptians. Many indulged in different cuisines.

They nonetheless shared a common denominator with Jews in Judaea that gave them a common identity: the Jewish faith and religious customs, leading them to maintain their Jewish identity.

When Jews were driven out of their country and dispersed in many directions, they took along this common denominator. They all used Hebrew, the holy language in which they prayed; believed in the inerrancy of the Torah; observed common holidays and associated rituals; and lived by common religious laws that governed their daily lives while their historical consciousness also formed a substantial part of their identity.

Until about four centuries ago, Jews formed a homogeneous group sharing a sense of kinship believing in the adage “All Israelites are knitted together by friendship.”

Jews were never strangers to one another and, when they were visiting, would find that they were welcome. The last advice my father gave me before we were taken to the concentration camps: “If you survive this ordeal and find yourself in a different part of the world and you are lonely, go to the synagogue, and you’ll be at home.”

After the Holocaust, I attended services in many European countries, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. Once I entered a synagogue or temple, I was on familiar ground and felt a part of that community.

The 17th century brought a vast change to Jews’ previous homogeneity, which continued with the advent of the Napoleonic era and the onset of the Enlightenment (Jewish and Christian). Jews started to vary in their beliefs, in their political stances — in short, in their identity.

Change was in the air: Jews began to question their older beliefs, often rejecting what some considered archaic theology, and to commit themselves to secular perspectives, resulting in altered Jewish identities.

Jews, following the sciences and new philosophies, became more secular, and their identity reflected this change. The Enlightenment led Jews to challenge old beliefs.

Various countries began granting citizenship to Jews, leading to their integration into Christian and secular society. By 1829 the gates of the last German ghetto, the one in Frankfurt, were removed, and by 1860 Jews in all German territories were granted citizenship and were free to settle in most parts of the country.

In France the fate of Jews was affected by the spread of universalist ideals that advocated the moral beliefs — liberty, fraternity and equality — that led to the French Revolution. Napoleon not only spread these ideas to the countries he conquered, but also put these ideas into practice, granted citizenship to the French Jews. (I suppose this is why the gabaim in the Orthodox synagogue in Paris wear Napoleonic hats with tricolor attached.)

This did not mean that Jewish identity eroded, but it did change. Some Jews changed their traditional theology and assumed a more modern religious perspective. Others became secular Jews with an emphasis on politics in the countries where they lived. Others joined the Zionist movements. Still others became secular but maintained their ethnic and historical identity.

We became a heterogeneous people. This heterogeneity of Jewish identity began around 1860 and was eroding by 1960. Once again, we find an absence of institutional support that would help secular Jewish identity flourish.

The rise of liberal Judaism in Europe and America is a response to greater acceptance of Jews in society at large. This new Judaism, independent of its nationalistic roots and from its Eastern European culture, could, as Will Herberg argued, create an American religion to stand as part of the tri-American religions: Protestant, Catholic and Jew.

With this modern Judaism, one could be a Jew and a committed American.

In the midst of the 19th century, an early form of Zionism developed in Poland and Russia (the Pale of Settlement) known as the Biluyim, consisting of Jews who were tired of waiting for the messiah and began developing the idea of the Jewish return to Israel.

The Dreyfus affair in 1894 pushed this idea further and led to the first two Zionist Conferences in Basel, Switzerland, at the end of the 19th century and the establishment of an organized movement to develop a Jewish state.

This movement assumed a quasi-religious form and gave secular Jews a historical foundation to their identity. Zionism has often turned to the Bible and incorporated ancient rituals and thus Jewish identity — for instance, celebrating Shavuot with the ritual of the first fruit, bikurim.

Also affecting Jewish identity was the Yiddish cultural movement, a secular celebration of literature, music, theater and food. Writers such as I.L. Peretz, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Yaakov Fichman, Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer were this movement’s stars, and their work and ideas took root and flourished in the United States.

The development of Yiddish secular culture led to the proliferation of Jewish restaurants and theater and had a great impact in developing a secular Jewish cultural identity.

Shooting off from the Yiddish movement were various socialist organizations that provided roots for an often atheist Jewish identity. The members of the Jewish Arbeiterverein and the Bund developed Jewish labor unions, the most famous of which was the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, whose members swore allegiance in Yiddish.

The union was led by David Dubinsky, whose socialist perspective was derived from the Bible and Marx. He provided Jewish women the means for social association as well as two weeks’ vacation at union-owned resorts, health insurance and other benefits.

Those who sought membership in a secular association that advocated Jewish values and morals could find it in the Ethical Society. I remember a Jewish professor at Washington University who was an atheist. When seeking to adopt a child, he was required to declare his religion. He joined the Ethical Society and said it was his religion.

All this has disappeared from the American scene. Being a Jew today primarily is associated with membership in a synagogue. Even Zionism in the form that I knew it — committed to a utopian idealism representative of the spirit of Herzl, Weizmann, Ben-Gurion and Meir — no longer exists.

There are hardly any social, nonreligious Jewish institutions that serve the needs of secular Jews. It seems that religion, at least in America, is becoming the core of Jewish identity. The question that we most frequently ask of Jews who move to a new city: What synagogue do you belong to?

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in the United States, recognized American Jews’ search for a Jewish identity without religion and suggested they place the locus of their identity in Israel. He wrote, “Despite detachment (from Israel), Israel remains the best, perhaps the only hope for a durable American Jewish identity that is not exclusively religious.”

Unfortunately, the emotional and cultural attachment Jews had to Israel for 2,000 years is crumbling.

Putting all religious authority in an Orthodox rabbinate that denies the legitimacy of Conservative and Reform Judaism rejects equal religious rights to most American Jews. Moreover, the moral perspectives that were fundamental to Zionism — liberalism, humanism and rodef shalom, the seeking of peace — have given way to power politics that American Jews do not endorse.

We are American Jews whose roots are in historical Israel. Because of that, we will always maintain our dream of the ideal Israel and take pride in its achievement.

But we are also Jews committed to and with primary allegiance to America. For that reason we not only abide by the principle of dina d’malchuta dina (the law of the land is the law), but also are attached to its idealism and political interest.

In the first century C.E., the Jews of Alexandria, though they lived close to Israel, sought their own identity. Today, we also are bound to develop an identity that is intertwined in American culture and values, which means that we must develop not only the religious identity, but also a secular Jewish identity.

I hope that the relatively new academic endeavor of Jewish studies will develop leaders who can find a new passage, a new halacha, whose aim is to maintain many of principles that were central to the former Jewish movements in this country.

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