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  • Eliezer Schweid on the Religious Dimension of a Secular Jewish Renewal
  • Ari Ackerman (bio)

One of the most significant cultural trends in Israeli society is the resurgence of interest in Jewish texts among circles of secular Jews. The return of secular Jews to the Jewish bookshelf began in the mid-1970s as part of the cultural reconfiguration that followed the Yom Kippur War. It has accelerated, however, in the last fifteen years, particularly since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, producing numerous initiatives and institutions involving joint secular–religious study of Jewish texts and independent secular engagement with traditional sources.1 It has grown to the extent that it has been characterized as a fourth stream within the cultural and social constellation of Israeli society.2

The educational and cultural efforts of this movement are directed at counteracting the increasing alienation of segments of the secular Zionist population to Jewish sources and the growing divide between religious and secular Zionists, as each camp is increasingly identified with a conflicting political position. The secular educators, ideologues, and thinkers leading this cultural renaissance aver that a robust secular Zionism must be grounded in a renewed interest in Jewish cultural creativity and repairing religious-secular relations necessitates fostering a shared cultural language. On the one hand, this cultural-educational phenomenon has its roots in conventional Zionist assumptions: cultural Zionism since Ahad Haam has advocated secular engagement with the Jewish textual tradition and the forging of ties with religious Zionists. But, on the other hand, it breaks with classical patterns of secular Zionism. Unlike most previous manifestations of cultural Zionism, the current secular cultural renaissance attends to the religious dimensions of the tradition and not just its national and cultural aspects.

The innovative aspects of the secular return to the Jewish tradition has generated a host of educational and cultural dilemmas: What are the proper educational methods and hermeneutical strategies that can generate interest and commitment toward the Jewish tradition among [End Page 209] secular Jews who are alienated from Jewish culture?3 Should the secular cultural revival concern itself solely with interpreting texts or should it include additional norms and commitments? Does the engagement with the tradition—particularly if we see it as a form of Talmud torah–require any faith or behavioral commitment?4

Perhaps more than any other contemporary Israeli thinker, Eliezer Schweid has grappled extensively and innovatively with these aforementioned questions. Schweid has been intimately involved with this cultural trend since its onset, both in terms of practice and theory. Schweid was one of the founders of the Kerem institution for teacher training of humanistic Judaism and a member of the Shinhar Commission that examined means of reforming the teaching of Jewish Studies in the general public school system. But more importantly, Schweid provides a philosophy of Jewish education that justifies and encourages this cultural renaissance and renewed secular–religious dialog. In this article, I examine in particular his understanding of the relation between secularism, authority, and religion, which leads to his call for secular Judaism to reorient itself regarding the religious dimensions of the Jewish tradition, the possibility of faith, and the development and acceptance of a form of secular halacha.

Schweid on the Necessity of Culture

Schweid avers that the secular Jew's return to Jewish culture is motivated by a search for meaning. He depicts the secular Jew as seeking personal significance and authenticity, anguished by a sense of loneliness and anomie.5 Schweid acknowledges that the modern Jew has continued to enjoy associations with his or her family, nation and culture. Schweid explains, however, that "these relationships, at least on a perceived and conscious level, are external relations of dependency. They are perceived as determined by fate and not as derived from the inner state of the individual life."6 They lack the organic, natural, and authoritative nature of the previous moorings of Jews to their community and history. Consequently, they fail to provide modern Jews with a ground for personal and collective meaning.

By emphasizing the debilitating sense of loneliness that plagues secular Jews, Schweid can be considered part of the existential tradition, which diagnoses the modern human being as suffering from existential angst and places...


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