Jewish Secularism

Is Jewish secularism possible?

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Secularism Itself?

But surely, secular Jewishness can't be grounding its distinctive normativity, its insistence on the perpetuation of Jews qua Jews, on that flagrantly non-secular claim of normative Judaism. But on what then? Can it be grounded on the claims of secularism itself?

This last question, of course, leads me to the question of what, precisely, secularism is, and here, too, I'm afraid that I'm going to have to resort to drawing some conceptual distinctions, since the term "secularism" contains enough ambiguity to unsettle a recovering analytic philosopher like me.

Bearing in mind the warnings of the conference organizers, I'm going to keep my distinction-making as coarsely grained as possible, confining myself to distinguishing between three independent forms of secularism. All involve a rejection of appeals to the transcendent (another obscure term; "God" will do almost as well) but the rejection of the transcendent occurs in different spheres of human concern: the political, the metaphysical, and the normative.

So first of all secularism in its political form. Theoretically, political secularism means a rejection of "political theology," which makes use of appealing to notions of God and His alleged designs and purposes in trying to figure out the best ways for men and women to organize themselves into the best-functioning society.

Political theology used to be par for the course throughout human society and it still holds sway in various parts of the world, almost all of them located in the Middle East. In more practical terms political secularism means the separation of church and state, legislating laws that keep religion out of that abstract "public space" that citizens inhabit.

If it's political secularism we're talking about, then Jews, religious and irreligious alike, are likely to be enthusiastic supporters. But then the entire Western world has been in agreement for some time that it's a good idea to keep appeals to the transcendent out of political theory. It can be argued that what we mean by the modern age is the rejection of political theology, a rejection we associate with the European Enlightenment, which had a profound influence on the founders of this country.
stillborn god
Mark Lilla has recently argued in his book The Stillborn God that what I'm here calling political secularism, and what he calls the Great Separation, is by no means an inevitable, or even a natural conclusion, to draw. "When looking to explain the conditions of political life and political judgment, the unconstrained mind seems compelled to travel up and out: up toward those things that transcend human existence, and outward to encompass the whole of that existence."

Lilla argues that it was only because Christian theology is so fundamentally ambiguous--torn as it is between a picture of God as both present and absent from the temporal realm, an ambivalence powerfully represented by the paradoxes of the Trinity--that it led to a profusion of interpretations, which became institutionalized in sectarianism, leading to several centuries' worth of theological-political upheaval so devastating that eventually, round about the seventeenth century, the conclusion of political secularism was drawn, wrenching religion and politics asunder, at least in the countries in which Christianity dominated.

Lilla draws the contentious and, I think, erroneous conclusion that because political secularism was a response to the unique instability of Christian political theology we shouldn't expect it to be applicable to other non-Christian societies, for example Moslem societies. "Time and again," he writes, "we must remind ourselves that we are living an experiment, that we are the exceptions. We have little reason to expect other civilizations to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique theological-political crisis within Christendom."

I happen to think that this is quite wrong and that a quite opposite conclusion can be drawn from history, namely that the West's experimental testing and retesting of political theology, trying to see if there is any safe way of mixing politics and religion, has delivered an answer from which all may learn. Separating church and state works; mixing them tends toward disaster.

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Rebecca Goldstein

Rebecca Goldstein is a novelist and professor of philosophy. She has written five novels, a number of short stories and essays, and biographical studies of mathematician Kurt G?del and philosopher Baruch Spinoza.