Monday, 14 July 2008

Judaism without God

Philanthropist Felix Posen is not a non-believer. He doesn’t like negative adjectives but thinks religion hampers creativity. He talks to Ori Golan.

"Secularism is a serious conviction for some Jews, as well as an existential condition for a great many more. Judaism is a culture and civilisation which must be appreciated and supported as a potent source of motivation and identification" says Posen, 74, who is rallying for the recognition of secular Judaism. He underwrote a comprehensive study titled American Religious Jewish Identification Survey. The results of the study show that, of those Jewish persons surveyed, 49 percent define themselves as secular, celebrating the Jewish lifecycles but not in a religious manner.

In Israel, he asserts, the situation is clearer. "More than 70 percent of school-age Israeli children go to secular (mamlachti) schools and roughly 75 percent of adult Israelis are secular. They form the largest single portion of the population, and it behoves us to study it and learn about it."
"Secular Judaism," he continues, "has never been studied as a discipline. Certainly, certain aspects have been studied, and few books and papers have been written, but no one has bothered to teach it as a subject in its own right. It’s our culture, history and our immense literature; Ashkenazi, Sephardic…whatever."

Channelling his energy and resources to this end, Posen has sponsored academic programs at BA, MA and PhD levels in three universities in Israel, to teach secular Judaism: Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, and Bar Ilan University.

In 1992 he established two colleges in Israel: Alma Hebrew College in Tel Aviv, and Meitar, the College of Pluralistic Judaism in Jerusalem. Both institutions aim to make Judaism meaningful and accessible to modern Jews in Israel and the Jewish world, by emphasizing the democratic, moral and pluralistic foundations of Jewish tradition.

This October, Bar-Ilan university, Israel's traditionally religious university, is gearing up to offer its students a course focusing on a secular perspective of Judaism. The initiative for the course at Bar-Ilan was the result of a meeting between Posen and the university’s president, Prof. Moshe Kaveh, an Orthodox Jew.

Speaking at a conference on the Balance of National Strength and Security in December last year Kaveh made a passionate plea for recognition of the legitimacy of ‘secular Jewishness’ and called on secular Jews to reclaim their Jewish identity. "As an Orthodox Jew and the president of the largest university in Israel, I recognize that there are areas of life, especially in matters of public policy, in which religion has left a vacuum. We have failed to introduce Jewish cultural content that will maintain the Jewish identity of secular Jews and bring about a more unified Jewish people'' said Kaveh.

"We owe so much to the achievement of secular Judaism" says Posen. "With the exception of Agnon, Jewish recipients of Nobel prizes have all been secular,; the State of Israel was the product of secular Jews. There is Yiddish literature and prodigious modern Hebrew writings produced by secular writers such as AB Yehoshua or Amos Oz. Not to study them would be abandoning the most creative part of Judaism.

"Being religious hampers creativity," states Posen matter-of-factly. "As a secular Jew, you learn more to interpret rather than to think out of box. These kind of things do not go with religiosity. The Arabs, too, are learning that once they move out of the Arabian parts of the world and become citizens of the West they thrive. They do much better outside of a country where they are stifled by lack of democracy and freedom."

So, is religion at odds with democracy and freedom?

"We do not know a country which lives according to Halachic – or Sharia – law which is democratic. It doesn’t exist. Therefore we can assume that there’s a problem. There are most certainly orthodox Jews and devout Muslims who happily live in democratic societies. But then they have to agree to a separation of power between church and state."

Asked whether in his view, this separation exists in Israel, he answers resolutely: "It’s coming. I am optimistic. There is the Supreme Court which defends democracy. Of course there are people who are disenchanted and I acknowledge that this is not a negligible group, but I am confident that the High Court will regulate these tensions. Israel has serious social problems unique to Israel which it has not solved, nor is it likely to solve it so quickly. In a democracy it is the larger group which sets the rules, but," he adds, "in a true democracy, the different streams need to accommodate each other."

So how does he account for the current situation in Israel, where religious groups wield inordinate political clout?

"Mistakes were made, that’s clear. Big mistakes. But we will be able to remedy the situation. It’s part of Israel’s peculiarity. Each side thought the other would disappear. The secular majority will be able to correct the injustice, no question about it: provided they get their act together and not allow themselves to be divided by politics."

"I cannot believe that Israel will ever become a theocracy. It will not happen. I am confident that Israel’s democracy is strong enough to weather all these storms. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to work on it. You must never take democracy for granted: you must fight for it all your life always. There will always be those who wish to attack democracy."
And he knows about non-democratic regimes.

A German national, he left Germany following Kristallnacht. He has a home in the Britain and the US and is a regular visitor to Israel. His Bibliographical project on Anti-Semitism, under the auspices of the International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University, is an immense tool for the study of Antisemitism, which is available on-line.

According to the Jewish Agency, the main threat to world Jewry today is that so many people are voluntarily opting out of Judaism. Assimilation is rampant: Fifty percent of Jews in the US and Europe marry non-Jews and, out of these marriages, only 18% of offspring retain a Jewish identity. Will secular Judaism be able to sustain itself over the years?

"Nobody knows that." replies Posen. "Secular Judaism has existed for a couple of hundred of years. Since the time of Spinoza and then Moses Mendelson, but it’s really over the last 30-40 years that the term is used and looked at. You must remember that secular Judaism evolved by itself: it never had a leader; never had an address; it’s a phenomenon like none other. My gut feeling is that secular Judaism will sustain itself over time.

"A Jew who lives outside Israel has a choice: to identify as British, American or Welsh, or as Jewish. I am trying to make secular Judaism attractive in its own right; so that they don’t go and adopt another religion or culture."

Posen is an incorrigible optimist. He even sees the end of the Israeli -Palestinian conflict. "Of course it will be resolved" he says, as though stating the obvious. "Maybe not in our lifetime, but it will happen. It cannot continue forever. I remain very optimistic.

Much of his optimism stems from the events of September 11th, which he sees as a turning point. "That attacks on the mainland of America means that the US will go into those countries that have attacked it. I support them to the hilt in their attempt to topple Iraq and other non-democratic countries - not to conquer those countries but to instil a sense of democracy. The march of democracy is on its way; it’s irreversible. We will succeed, we may have some setbacks, but we’ll get there."

While voicing these sentiments, Posen stresses that he steers clear of politics wherever secular Judaism is discussed. It is, he says, above and beyond politics. In the same vein, he does not associate with people who are anti-religious and eschews anti-religious commentary. "In the US, early last century, the Bundists, [Marxist Jews who were very secular], would hold a ‘Yom Kippur Ball’ in Madison Square on Kol Nidrei night and have a feast. It’s not a very nice thing to do and it’s unnecessary."

"In our history, there has never been only one Judaism or one form of Orthodoxy, one form of Hasidism, one form of Reform, one form of anything related to Judaism. We Jews have always specialized in diversity and debate. In fact, diversity might be a condition of our 'unity' - characterized more by disunity than unity. Indeed, one of the most important traditions of our culture is a non-conformity which is a great step towards creativity."

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