One of the hallmarks of the secular ideologies that grew out of the Jewish encounter with modernity is the open renunciation of rabbinic authority. For Zionist visionaries and assimilated European cosmopolitans alike, the institution of rabbinic law often served as a negative backdrop to the iconoclastic self-fashioning of modern Jewish identity. Yet as David Biale claims in Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Secular Jewish Thought, those who deviate from tradition remain in close dialogue with canonical Jewish thought.
Biale tries to reclaim the heretics and apostates of Jewish history and bring them back into the fold, under the claim that theirs is an antinomian relationship to tradition; that is, their rebellion against the Torah expresses innate tendencies within tradition. In his reading of Jewish secularity, which he understands not as a clean break with the past, but as a dialectical response to it, heretics such as Baruch Spinoza, Heinrich Heine, and Salomon Maimon become the intellectual descendants of Maimonides, the Amoraim (the doctors of the Talmud), and other Jewish commentators throughout history.
Biale astutely weaves together Talmudic citations and contemporary secular Jewish sources to show how the modern subversions of Halakhic Judaism hearken back to traditional origins. Of the many thinkers that inform Biale's thesis, two stand out as its intellectual and inspirational progenitors: Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) and Isaac Deutscher (1907-1967.) In the spirit of his earlier book, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History (1982), Biale relies on Scholem's "counter-historical" approach, which seeks to recuperate the anti-rabbinic and anti-institutional tendencies silenced throughout Jewish history. By recovering the antinomian-anarchistic movements as vital and regenerative turning points in Jewish history, Scholem reclaimed these transgressors' place in a dynamic Jewish tradition.
The Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher, whom Biale mentions in his book's opening pages, is another such protagonist of Jewish secularity. In his essay "The Non-Jewish Jew," Deutscher claims Marx, Freud, and Spinoza as the intellectual descendents of the renowned Talmudic heretic Elisha Ben Abuya (referred to as "The Other" by his rabbinic counterparts, who sought to blot out his name.) According to Deutscher, these Jews were able to transcend their immediate social and political circumstances and make universally significant contributes to modern European culture by rejecting tradition. Deutscher attributes their secular humanism to an anti-traditional reception of Judaism, which preserves Judaism's ethical vocation while abandoning its ritual laws. Although they transgressed the bounds of institutional Judaism, their heresy was a dialectical outgrowth grounded in tradition itself.
Biale's survey of secular Jewish thought borrows this dialectical-antinomian starting point from Scholem and Deutscher to tell the story of how Judaism has been transmitted, refashioned, and renewed in a world where religious identity is no longer a matter of fate, but of personal choice. Whether the rejection of religion took on the form of Zionism, Yiddishism, or assimilation, Biale [End Page 99] explores how the secular revolts of post-Enlightenment Europe express the fluidity of Jewish identity in the modern era.
This exploration of Jewish secularity points out the continuities that paradoxically manifest themselves through the ruptures with Halakhic tradition. In the vein of sociologists Peter Berger and Marcel Gauchet, whose work shows how traditional categories of religious thought carry the kernel of their own secularization, Biale traces the resurgence of premodern religious ideas in the secular projects of Jewish modernity. It is in attempting to overthrow religious doctrine that the fathers of Zionism, Yosef Haim Brenner, Ahad Ha'am, and David Ben-Gurion, turn to tradition to refashion modern Jewish identity. By wrenching scripture from its original context and reinterpreting it to address contemporary concerns, the secular revolt against rabbinic Judaism becomes another layer of inter-textual engagement with the Jewish canon, a Midrash of the present framed through a dialogue with the past.
In Biale's dialogic scheme, Rabbi Isaac Luria's doctrine of tzimtzum (the mystical theory of God's contraction as the origin of creation) and Maimonides' negative theology (God as wholly other) become harbingers of...