Friday, February 19, 2010

Does Secular Jewry contribute to Jewish Culture?

At the Herzliya Conference, former Shas leader Aryeh Deri took part in a panel on education toward Jewish identity, and two of his points made it into the headlines. He said that until two centuries ago, religion simply was the Jewish culture. Since then, he says, secular Jewry has given us education but no culture, and he basically equated Jewish secular culture with reality TV. As a result, he thinks that the only common denominator for a dialogue on Jewish identity needs to be that God created the world and that the Torah was given to us by God. Everything else for him is barren.

So goes the opening paragraph of a Ha’aretz editorial. The point that writer Carlo Strenger is trying to make is that Aryeh Deri has unfairly characterized secular culture. He says, that it is unfair for Deri to say that secular Jewry has not contributed to Jewish culture. He calls Deri’s approach a Charedi one which fails to recognize the over 200 years of contribution that secular Jewry has given to Jewish culture - citing as examples:

160 Nobel laureates… the rich traditions of Jewish-American literature and music, as well as the enormously vital Israeli cultural scene.

Does he have a point? I don’t think so. What is it that makes anything Jewish? Without Torah and Mitzvos can there even be Judaism - let alone a Jewish culture?

Secular Jews have had many great achievements that the Charedi world should recognize. But they are not particularly Jewish. Which is fine. But let us recognize it for what it is - and what it is not - by examining Strenger’s examples and see whether they are particularly Jewish or even positive.

Is winning the Nobel Prize in physics a culturally Jewish achievement? It is an amazing achievement and even a Kiddush HaShem when it happens. It shows Jews in a very positive light and says a lot about our values as a people. Values that contribute to the betterment of the world – Tikun Olam. But winning a prize in Physics or any other discipline does not contribute to Jewish culture. There is nothing particularly Jewish about physics.

As for secular Jewish contributions to literature - at best I would say that most Jewish writers say nothing about Judaism. I would argue that those who do – in most cases write counter to Jewish values and have thereby devalued Judaism. There have been some pretty sorry novels about Jewish culture. How many books written by secular Jews have made observant Judaism look particularly good? It is rare if it ever happens at all.

I would say the same thing about secular Jewish composers of music and Jewish singers. The secular music they have written spans the entire spectrum of ‘good to bad’ taste. But it has absolutely no Jewish value to it. Is there anyone who think that the most popular song ever written - a song written by a Jew named Irving Berlin called ‘White Christmas’ has added anything to Jewish culture? I don’t. Neither has any other song that a secular Jew has written. None of them have added anything to Jewish culture. Attempts by secular Jews to write Jewish music has been at best an embarrassment! Think - Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights (Of Chanukah). I see no positive contribution to Jewish culture in that song.

The secular Jewish culture in Israel is not one that I am particularly familiar with, But from what I’ve seen it is not particularly flattering to Torah values. The Treif restaurants, and low levels of Tznius one sees on the streets in a secular area like Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv (pictured above) are hardly assets to our culture.

But Strenger’s views are not entirely without merit. He just focused on the wrong thing. Secular Jewry has not contributed anything particularly Jewish to Jewish culture. But they do value secular education. Deri in fact conceded that point: “Secular Jewry has given us education”. As an adherent of Torah U’Mada I strongly agree that it has a high value. But it is not an exclusively Jewish one. And that is something that Charedim in Israel do not appreciate. In fact they are opposed to studying it!

When Strenger speaks about the value of education and the lack of value given to it by Charedim he is right. And there he gets back on message:

If Deri were to bother picking up some secular knowledge, he might learn that modernity has brought about new identities everywhere, and that all cultures needed to deal with secularization. In particular he would notice that the Haredi movement is itself a quintessentially modern movement that is only 200 years old and in no way represents "authentic" Judaism. Its raison d'etre, to this day, is to be a reaction against the power of the Enlightenment - a phenomenon to be found in the other monotheistic religions, too. Before that, from Maimonides and Ibn Ezra to the Gaon of Vilna, the greatest Jewish thinkers were open to knowledge from other sources...

He is right about that.

Aryeh Deri has advocated that Charedim become integrated into Israel's higher education system. As a protégé of Rav Ovadia Yosef I assume that statement has his blessing. I certainly cannot argue with it. (Fat chance of that happening any time soon, though.) Nonetheless perhaps he sees what I see. If the growing Charedi population doesn’t get out of its collective seat and change their paradigm from one of learning Torah full time while rejecting any secular knowledge to one where secular knowledge is also embraced, the entire state’s existence may come to an end - and a lot sooner than anyone expects.