Itche Goldberg and “Secular Judaism”

There is a girl I fell in love with in the fifth grade. She was the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and already passionate about acting and the theater; she was tall and very feline; she had unmistakable mystique. We had deep conversations that awakened my soul and stirred the artist in me; I began hanging with her rather than playing ball after school. But she wouldn’t fall in love with me, never felt romantic about our relationship. She became my muse.

I met my muse again during this past Rosh Hashone season, after about a 30 year absence. We spent an afternoon catching up, evaluating our progress, and recapturing what we liked about each other. We may become friends again; we’re e-mailing, and we exchange artworks. I’d like to get her to stop smoking cigarettes.

Yesterday I got an e-mail from her asking: How did you became so deeply involved in Judaism the way you did?

At first, I thought to correct her: I’m involved in Jewishness, not Judaism. Morris Schappes, the long-time editor of Jewish Currents, used to make a big deal about this, editorially: every time someone wrote “secular Judaism” he’d change it to “secular Jewishness.” “Secular Judaism,” he believed, was an oxymoron.

Morris’ editorial injunction got into my brain, but I don’t buy its logic any longer. One reason for this is Itche Goldberg, the great Yiddish literary critic and teacher, who died at 102 last week. At his funeral, I read the following two passages from Itche. The first is from an interview with him that I conducted along with Yankl Stillman, early in 2004, when Itche turned 100:

The question of where we go from here is on my mind a lot. What’s happened to socialism? What is the future of Yiddishism? When I came, at age 21, into the Workmen’s Circle shule in Toronto, I had so much eagerness, energy, and faith in socialism and in Yiddishism. Now I have insecurity. But I am used to insecurity. For over forty years I have published Yidishe Kultur without ever being able to secure its existence!

. . . I sometimes feel that we were wrong in failing to incorporate more Jewish values in our yidishkayt. I’ve always enjoyed reading the Bible, particularly the prophets, and I wonder at times if we were a bit too dismissive, or ignorant, of our Jewishness. . . . I would not now permit so much to be brushed aside.

The second passage comes from an article Itche wrote for Jewish Currents in 1980, “A Jewish Agenda for the ’80s”:

There will . . . be a full ‘transfer of power’ to the new emerging generation. I stress emerging, because I do not anticipate a Venus-like birth of a new Jewish Homo Americanus flowing out of the foam of the Sea of History. It will be a slow process of continuity and change. . . . The historic challenge for us will be: can we carry over and implant our secular and humanist national values into the Jewish cultural patterns of the ‘80s?

. . . I am not going to define secularism here. However, I want to make a very broad statement: secularism is for us the only point of entry into Jewish life. We have ideologically and philosophically rejected for ourselves religion as the point of entry. Zionism — despite our positive stand on Israel — is not our link, either. National negation we eschew and reject. We therefore have no alternative whatsoever except a historic-cultural secular tie which binds us with the people. Realistically and historically we have no alternative. However, to influence others — yes, and to give identity to ourselves — we must raise secularism to a meaningful expression and link with the people. . . . Meaningful implies depth, knowledge, commitment, involvement, renewal and — yes, of course — tradition.

Secularism as the point of entry — but entry into the whole world of Jewishness, of what Mordecai Kaplan called “Judaism as a Civilization” — that is the perspective that Itche championed, especially in his later years, his years of doubt and reconsideration. In this, he was wholly consistent with his own mentor, Chaim Zhitlowsky (Itche’s main institutional seat was the Chaim Zhitlowsky Foundation), the Yiddish theorist who lived from 1865-1943. Zhitlowsky championed the idea that nothing Jewish should be foreign to the Jewish secularist — that “not everything is rotten in the old treasures of our people . . . A critical examination of our cultural heritage,” Zhitlowsky wrote, “will disclose immense treasures . . . They are valuable because of the deep generally humanistic elements they contain and not simply because they were developed by our forefathers.”

Both Zhitlowsky and Itche Goldberg were marvelous, expressive writers, but the great bulk of their output was in Yiddish, and has not been translated, and will therefore be closed off to me unless I devote a whole lot of time to studying Yiddish instead of blogging or e-mailing with my muse. What they’ve both provided me with, however, is a sense of continuity for my conviction that secular Jewishness can, indeed, be described as secular Judaism — or, at least, that secular Jewishness should include a full-bodied secular(ized) Judaism in its treasury.

And so I wrote back to my muse:

“Judaism, or Jewishness, has always worked for me as a counterculture — something insurgent and anti-establishment. Certain aspects of the tradition's spirit —- its call for communitarianism; its sense of restraint; its anti-idolatry sensibility —- these and other aspects seemed to constitute a really strikingly different worldview from that of mainstream America.

“Here's how I described it in the most recent issue of Jewish Currents: that the Jewish tradition is worth preserving 'because the historical experience of Jewish oppression has yielded a soulful commitment to social justice that makes the Jewish people a force to contend with. Because the international quality of Jewish life has always been a healthy counterpart to rabid nationalism (Zionism notwithstanding). Because Judaism purports to civilize human beings (especially men) by dissuading us from indulging our lusts destructively and persuading us to develop our intellects. Because Jews, as Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “can't sleep themselves and let nobody else sleep.” Because Jewish culture is deeply ironic and humorous. Because we are the children, as Chaim Weizmann once said, of old-clothes dealers, and the grandchildren of prophets.’

“You understand, I'm an atheist and a skeptic. A weird Jew. Never went to Israel until last year. Don't go to shul for the high holidays or any other days. Highly interpretive, highly intellectual about it all. Yet I find in the Jewish calendar and in Jewish texts a good deal of life-enhancing practice and a balanced, realistic, and very entertaining discussion, spanning the centuries, about how we can live together in community.”

I thank Itche for giving me permission to feel that way — and incentive to develop my intellect and body of Jewish knowledge so that I can be a worthy interpreter of “secular Judaism.”


Blogger Lao Qiao said...

What religion are Chinese people observing when they eat moon cakes on Autumn Festival (which usually coincides with Sukkot) or visit the graves of their ancestors on Chinese New Year? It is not Confucianism, which is not a religion. Confucius was a philosopher who did not describe ritual or talk about belief.

Judaism, unlike Confucianism, does involve belief, except for the fact that Jews who don't believe in it are still recognizably Jewish. Each religion defines the word "religion" in a different way.

Itche Goldberg understood this.

Lao Qiao

12:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As Zhitlovski Said…
Quotations from his works

On the 55th anniversary of his death
Selected by Itche Goldberg
yidishe kultur, Sept.-Oct., 1998
English: Hershl Hartman

(Translator’s note: The term “national” in late 19th, early 20th century Jewish ideological discourse does not mean “nationwide,” but refers to the then-new concept that Jews constituted a nation or ethnic national group, rather than a faith community.)

There are voices heard demanding a basic revision of all that we have been striving for. Again the demand is made that our culture be based on a specific religious belief, or on a specific religious text. And if not on a faith, which can’t after all be prescribed, then at least on certain religious or Jewish-type life styles that would be more or less in harmony with old Jewish traditions.
Upon closer analysis of the literature of these new moods and voices, we find that they are basically in conflict with our insistence that we are a people like all other peoples on earth, that among us, too, progressive thought demands that our culture be secular.


The definition of secularism is that religion is a private matter in which the state does not intrude. All religions have equal rights before the state.
The foundation, the most important cultural condition for the development of our new culture most be the absolute equality of rights of all tendencies. There must not be any prohibited paths nor any forbidden horizons in Jewish progressive-national life.


My belief in the folk-masses is great and strong. The milk of the breast from which I drank in my youth has not yet dried on my lips.


Free society certainly doesn’t seek to abolish all peoples, to mix them into one batch of dough and bake the batch into a single loaf called Humanity.


Yiddish culture is national, for all elements of the people. I want it to be rich, rich and multifaceted. I’ve talked out more than one pair of lungs arguing for this truth…and the response was that I was truly a good, a fine young man, but somehow not quite all there, a bit off-kilter. And when I said that Yiddish was as much a language as any other, I was ridiculed. I went further and insisted: “it is the categorical imperative of a national renaissance.”
But it was later spoken and repeated until it then appeared in the slogan—”The construction of Yiddish literature and culture” and it wasn’t that easy to express all of that at one time.


The Jewish intelligentsia must be Jewish, not Tatarish—internationalism does not mean cosmopolitanism.


May the progress of humanity go on continuously—may humanity consist of various language-and-culture spheres. I believe in the continuous progress of humanity, that is, of all peoples. I believe in the complete triumph of the sort of internationalism that strives to maintain the individuality of every people within the brotherhood of peoples.


The new education is a child of that tendency in our public thought that can be designated as Socialist Diaspora Nationalism…
During this very brief era, the modern Yiddish shule managed to sink such deep roots into Jewish life that only catastrophic events which no one can foresee may possibly be strong enough to uproot the entire tree…
The new shule is the most important result of the progressive-national epoch of our history. Its development would be much more normal were it not for outside interference and inner conflicts and frictions…


Well, you can come up to me and say, “Jew, give up being a Jew and become a human: jettison your Sholom Aleichem and enjoy Mark Twain!” How is Mark Twain more distinguished than Sholom Aleichem? They are both, in the best case—best for Twain—equally distinguished. Both of them expressed the same common, generally human characteristic of laughing through tears, but in both, as in Gogol and Dickens, that general-human ray of light was refracted in a distinct national atmosphere, in discreet national mores, and instead of a single humoristic style, humanity now has all of four.


As a Jew becomes more human, he grows to be more Jewish. As he becomes more Jewish, he grows to be more human.
Love for one’s own culture is a human love. It bathes in its warm, bright rays not only the present status of the people’s culture, but also its entire historical development, the entire treasury of spiritual values which the people has gathered from the time of its emergence as a people on this earth until today.


It is not the past that gives us our stubborn will to be, our courage and joy in the struggle—but the past reveals how we became that which we now are and the sources of our eagerness to live. It also strengthens our pride in and our respect for ourselves.


The creation of a new, progressive, secular cultural sphere in Yiddish, which unites as one the folk-masses and the creative spirits among our people, has brought about a tremendous revolution in our lives. Nothing like this has occured previously in the cultural history of our people. The development of this new cultural sphere emerges from the historic fate of our people and, conversely, the historic fate of our people depends to a very large degree on this revolution in our cultural life, on this new cultural sphere.


The writer of this account, who participated in developing the theory of Cultural Nationalism, was convinced even then—and has maintained his conviction to this very day—that not everything among the old treasures of our people is corrupt. He believes that a critical review of our cultural heritage will reveal an unheard-of wealth of such spiritual riches that not only need we not be ashamed of them, but they will impose on our intelligentsia the duty to develop them and make them the property of all humanity.
However, their value to us will rest not on the fact that our ancestors developed them, but on the presence in them of profoundly general-human foundations.


3:19 AM  
Blogger D. said...

a thoughtful and lovely piece, but i at least am in no way persuaded that morris schappes was wrong, or that itche goldberg's thinking, as you've cited it, in any way contradicts the notion that 'secular judaism' is oxymoronic. as i didn't have the honor of knowing either one in person, it is perhaps easier for me to see how they agree.

it is only by accepting the notion that all of jewish culture can be reduced to religion, it seems to me, that the call to
"incorporate more Jewish values in our yidishkayt" can be made to mean nothing more than 'incorporate more judaism in our jewishness'. and even that translation of goldberg's words rests entirely on the essential distinction between judaism (=religion) and jewishness (=culture). there is much in yidishkayt, and in other jewish cultures, which has nothing to do with or actively opposes religion. from folk traditions condemned by the rabonim as verging on idolatry, to anti-rabbinical proverbs, to comparatively modern explicitly secular movements, judaism is far from the sum of jewish cultures.

jewish secularism, if it means anything, means not subordinating these to the religious aspects of jewish culture. not considering the tanakh 'more jewish' than a yiddish folk song with a romanian melody and words shared with a ukrainian ballad; not making *any* version of 'ani maamin' the test for jewish authenticity.

'secular judaism' expresses a notion of jewishness centered on religion. which is no secularism at all.

adopting it is certainly a way of being unthreatening to many in these faith-based times, and of avoiding complicated conversations about what 'jewish' means, but it is a very deep way of being "dismissive, or ignorant, of our Jewishness".

1:23 PM  

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