Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Yaakov Malkin: Secular Judaism: Faith, Values, and Spirituality

My review originaaly appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology 12:1:17-19, Feb. 2005.

Secular Judaism: Faith, Values, and Spirituality, Yaakov Malkin, London, Valentine Mitchell 2004 (0-85303-512-1), pp. x + 150, Hb £42.50/$62.50, Pb £17.50/$26.50

This book offers the Jewish public a detailed programmatic statement of its author’s vision of secular Judaism. Malkin is ideologically opposed to theism; he rejects the existence of God and the authority of God’s purported commands. He promotes a secular Judaism that replaces divine commandments with universal human values, which he explicitly identifies with Kantian ethics and liberal political ideals. Well aware that secular world-views risk the danger of leaving human spiritual cravings unfulfilled, Malkin suggests that love and concern for others, community-feeling, and the aesthetic enjoyment of the world’s great art should take the place of traditional theistic spirituality.

What then is particularly Jewish about this seemingly generic re-vamping of Enlightenment ideals? While Malkin rejects ‘nationalistic’ claims for the superiority of one culture or ethnicity over another, he considers it only natural for human beings to identify with and belong to a particular nationality. The Jewish People constitutes one such national community. During the past few hundred years the explicitly religious foundation of Jewish national identity has weakened, leaving room for the development of various options for secular Jewish identity based upon group solidarity, a homeland, a common language, and shared history and culture. In fact, he claims, Jewish national identity has never really hinged upon adherence to a particular religious creed. Thus, while many Jews have been critical of those biblical Israelites who had embraced Canaanite religion, none has ever questioned their membership in the Jewish People. Malkin goes so far as to claim that during biblical times, contemporary alternatives (e.g., Baal-worship) to the various forms of biblical monotheism constituted legitimate elements of a pluralistic Jewish culture.

Although Malkin appreciates the various options for secular Judaism that had developed in the Diaspora, he claims that all alternatives to Zionism ‘died (or, more precisely, were murdered) in the Shoah’ (pg.1). He views the creation of the State of Israel as the great historical triumph of the Jewish People. The state serves as the setting for the flourishing of a dynamic and pluralistic Jewish society while it continues to embrace democratic and humanistic ideals. Israel seeks to uncover and develop the foundations of those ideals within Jewish tradition and foster critical and creative encounters with all earlier forms of Judaism. These encounters bear fruit with the development of new modes for the observance of Jewish holidays and life-cycle events, and new ways to continue the tradition of Jewish learning.

While the Talmud has been of crucial importance for “normative” Judaism, the Hebrew scriptures are uniquely classic creations of Jewish culture; they constitute practically the only body of texts which have been universally treasured by all Jews since their canonization. Malkin celebrates the Hebrew Bible as the textual core of the Jewish cultural tradition and as an essential part of the world’s great literature. True to his secularist creed, he suggests that we view God of scripture as an ingenuous, yet morally ambiguous, invention of the Jewish literary imagination.

Although this book was translated from Hebrew by a team of three translators, it is clearly written and includes a glossary that explains terms that may be unfamiliar to the general reader. However, the translators must also bear partial responsibility for the book’s occasional lapses of scholarship, such as the idiosyncratic transliteration of some Hebrew terms. For example, it refers to the Lubavitcher Hassidic sect as Khabad instead of Chabad or Habad, a mistake that could not have been made by anyone familiar with the usual conventions of transliteration. More serious gaffs include listing the ‘philosophical…essay’ as a Biblical genre (in what must have been a reference to wisdom literature, which was left unmentioned) (pg. 116). One also finds the disturbingly anachronistic claim that, ‘the study of the literature of…Kabalah…[is] explicitly prohibited in the Bible’ (pg.120).

Malkin presents a somewhat distorted and ideologically charged picture of the contemporary Israeli scene. On the one hand, he seems to count just about every Israeli Jew who does not practice Orthodox Judaism as an adherent of secular Judaism. Surely there are many theists among those Israeli Jews who choose to drive their cars on the Sabbath, and, just as surely, there are many secular Israelis who simply do not devote much thought to their Jewish identity. On the other hand, Malkin caricatures the ideas and practices of contemporary Orthodoxy, largely truncating its wide variety of sects and movements into a single stereotype of stagnant and anti-Zionist Ultra-Orthodoxy. It would appear that he simply lacks first-hand acquaintance with the people he derides. He does not find a single contemporary Orthodox or even theistic Jewish thinker worthy of his attention. (Excluding Martin Buber, whose thought is drained of theistic content by Malkin’s interpretation). That having been said, Malkin deserves credit for giving his readers a useful picture of how the seemingly oxymoronic notion of “secular Judaism” may be fleshed-out as a genuine spiritual alternative for contemporary Jews.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee Academic College

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