- Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought
Two lines from one of Tchernikhovsky's poems, a poet referred to in Biale's book, state that a man is no more than a small piece of land, that a man is nothing but a form of the landscape of his homeland. Taken figuratively, the poet implies that our identity is molded in the pattern of our cultures. The landscape which Biale's profound text looks at is the origin of Jewish secular thought, its developments, varieties, and outlook. While Josephus Flavius (Against Apion, book II, §17) states that theocracy is the appropriate rule for the Jews, Biale examines the intellectual roots of Jewish secular statehood and identity. Although looking at some pre-modern sources, Biale's argument is that largely secular Judaism crystallized at the turn of the twentieth century, and in some significant aspects most Jews living today are secular. I gladly confess that I enjoyed reading this enlightening book. Very much so.
Judaism presents a diversity of alternatives: ultra orthodoxy, orthodoxy, reform, conservative, liberal and, of course, secular. Each of these types hides an impressive variability. While Biale's book tends to reduce this continuum into contrasting secular vs. religious Judaism, he is also aware of the complexity and does not forget to note it where relevant. For example, there are many Jews who view themselves as secular and yet believe in the existence of God (p. 10). In fact, the attitude of Israeli Jewish seculars toward religion is complicated by their view of religion as forming the basis of the state's culture.
Not in the Heavens examines a dazzling selection of figures, presenting their ideas, sometimes critically, and charting the way Jewish secularism developed. . Going from some biblical and Talmudic references, it ends up focusing on a few key intellectuals, past and present.
Biale's characterization of secularism follows Talal Asad's emphasis on rejection of the supernatural in favor of a materialistic view and the separation of state from religion. He notes that secular Judaism tends to adopt a constructivist position—that is, rejecting essentialism (p. 12)—but insists, following Kant, that removing religion from the state leaves humans "in full command of their political fate" (p. 10). However, from a constructivist perspective, religion and politics are both socially constructed. The book begins with a lengthy discussion about beliefs in God, a natural path if one is to deal with secularism [End Page 164] that—for some—may mean the negation of God. Chapter One traces impressively, persuasively, and in detail the many formulations, twistings, and turnings of such an amazing group of intellectuals as Maimonides, Spinoza, Graetz, Mendelssohn, Heine, Freud, Einstein, Bialik, Nachman from Breslav, Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Tchernikhovsky (my preferred poet, together with Rachel . . .). This chapter classifies this group of launchers of secularist thought into Pantheists, Kabbalists, and Pagans. While in the first chapter Biale shows how the biblical God was first stripped of personality and transformed into nature before He vanished into nothingness and was replaced by an alternative, the second chapter focuses on secular readings of the Bible (e.g., Ben-Gurion) that transformed this sacred text into something cultural, historical, or political (national). Chapter Three delves into a captivating discussion of how some secular intellectuals envisioned the state of the Jews—Israel, concentrating on such concepts as a state, race, and nationalism. The following chapter attempts to construct Israel in a narrative that uses culture, language, and history. The last chapters focus on both Israel and the U.S.A.
As a sociologist, a few critical comments come to mind. Much of this book is about the nature and formation of Jewish identities. The history of Jewish secular thought is thus only part of the picture. For secular Judaism to become popular, accepted, and practiced, both cultural and political processes must be at work. Biale's characterization of "culture" is somehow ambiguous. One gets the impression that he tends to equate it with history. But culture is the sum total of...