The Lure of Heresy: A Philosophical Typology of Hebrew Secularism in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy
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Contemporary study of Jewish secularism in the Modern era has yielded a nuanced picture of Hebrew secularism. This article analyzes the emergence of a rich and diverse cultural infrastructure of Hebrew secularism in the first half of the twentieth century from a philosophical perspective, proposing a typology of models of Hebrew secularism. These models are characterized by their attitudes to what, following Charles Taylor, can be referred to as the “fragmentary character” of religious existence in the secular age. The conclusion reflects on the limitations of the proposed typology and identifies further avenues for the philosophical study of Hebrew secularism.




See, among many others, Benjamin Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Dan Miron, When Loners Come Together: A Portrait of Hebrew Literature at the Turn of the Twentieth Century [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: ʿAm ʿoved, 1987); Uzi Ornan, “Hebrew as the Creator of a National Society” [Hebrew], Cathedra 2 (1976): 98–101; Itamar Even-Zohar, “The Emergence and Crystallization of Local and Native Hebrew Culture in Eretz Israel, 1882–1948” [Hebrew], Cathedra 16 (1980): 165–189; Yaacov Shavit, The New Hebrew Nation: A Study in Israeli Heresy and Fantasy (London: Frank Cass, 1987); and Boaz Neumann, Land and Desire in Early Zionism (Waltham, ma: Brandeis University Press, 2011), 150–180.


See Zohar Shavit, “The Main Stages in the Development of the Center in Eretz-Israel and Its Rise to Hegemony,” in The History of the Jewish Community in Eretz-Israel since 1882: The Construction of Hebrew Culture in Eretz-Israel [Hebrew], ed. Zohar Shavit (Jerusalem: The Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities and Bialik Institute, 1998), 87–92.


Freddie Rokem, “Hebrew Theatre from 1889 to 1948,” in Theater in Israel, ed. Linda Ben-Zvi (Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 1996), 67–70.


See Moti Zeira, Rural Collective Settlement and Jewish Culture in Eretz Israel during the 1920s (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 2002), 75–105, 149–183.


See, for instance, José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Hans Joas and Klaus Wiegandt, eds., Secularization and the World Religions (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009); Linell E. Cady and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, eds., Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); and Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, eds., Secularisms (Durham, nc: Duke University Press, 2008).


Biale, Not in the Heavens, 4.


C. John Somerville, “Secular Society/Religious Population: Our Tacit Rules for Using the Term ‘Secularization,’ ” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998): 252–253.


Casanova, Public Religions, 13. For a detailed discussion of this term and its various Christian uses, see ibid., 12–17.


Katz, To the Core of Secularism, 42.


In this context, as Ron Margolin argues, “Europe and Western culture as a whole have seen an increasing interest in the connection between religion and the individual’s inner-psychological life. The uncovering of the subjective mental content of the religious individual enables the modern person to connect intimately with the religious life while disregarding its institutional and social aspects.” The Inner Religion: The Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation in Jewish Sources [Hebrew] (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2011), 19. See also Margolin’s critique of the narrow meaning of Taylor’s concept of internalization (25n28).


Somerville, “Rules,” 250.


Taylor, A Secular Age, 3.


R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, Beyond Tradition and Modernity: Changing Religions in a Changing World (London: Athlone Press, 1976), 48–49. See also Mendes-Flohr, “Secular Forms of Jewishness,” 5–7.


Yovel, “General Introduction,” in New Jewish Time, 1:xvii.


As Jacob Katz succinctly puts it, “The equation of tradition-bound and traditionalist Judaism is, however, a form of optical illusion. The claim of the Orthodox to be no more than the guardians of the pure Judaism of old is a fiction. In fact, Orthodoxy was a method of confronting deviant trends, and of responding to the very same stimuli which produced those trends, albeit with a conscious effort to deny such extrinsic motivations.” “Orthodoxy in Historical Perspective,” in Studies in Contemporary Jewry, vol. 2., The Challenge of Modernity and Jewish Orthodoxy, ed. Peter Medding (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 4–5. For a comprehensive discussion, see Orthodox Judaism: New Perspectives [Hebrew], ed. Yosef Salmon, Aviezer Ravitzky, and Adam S. Ferziger (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2006).


See also Ohad Nachtomy, ed., Examining Multiculturalism in Israel (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2003), which explores how well Taylor’s definitions of multiculturalism fit Israeli society. That project, however, is different than looking at how well Taylor’s definition of secularism fits Hebrew culture, which is my focus here.


Yonathan Ratosh, “Letter to the Hebrew Youth,” in The Beginning of Days, 35.


Hofmann, “Canaanism,” 276.


Diamond, Homeland or Holy Land?, 5.


Baruch Kurzweil, “The Essence and Origins of the Young Hebrews Movement (the Canaanites),” in Our New Literature—Continuity or Revolution? [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1965), 270–300.


Laor, “Kurzweil and the Canaanites,” 295.


According to Sagi, “Brenner assumes that the existence of the individual is primary and the people’s secondary—a people is built through the actions of individuals who shape a concrete network of communication between them. ʾAḥad ha-ʿAm, by contrast, assumes that the primal element is the people, and individuals find themselves within a people that provides them with the initial network of meanings.” To Be a Jew, 180.


ʾAḥad ha-ʿAm, “On Two Chapters,” in Collected Writings, 367.


Katz, To the Core of Secularism, 80.


Hevlin, A Double Commitment, 50–51. See also Zvi Zameret, “ ʾAḥad ha-ʿAm and the Shaping of Secular Education” [Hebrew], Iyunim Bitkumat Israel 16 (2006): 171–194.


ʾAḥad ha-ʿAm, “Teʿudat ha-Shiloaḥ,” Collected Writings, 127–128.


See Steven J. Zipperstein, Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha’am and the Origins of Zionism (London: Halban, 1993), 113–115. More than a century separates the Treasure of Judaism and New Jewish Time. These encyclopedic projects are grounded in two different approaches to Jewish culture. ʾAḥad ha-ʿAm believed that the understanding of secular Jewish culture is very much intertwined with the understanding of religious Jewish culture, and therefore his project was supposed to present religious culture and secular culture side by side. Unlike ʾAḥad ha-ʿAm, the editors of New Jewish Time seem to present secular Jewish culture as an independent culture. As such, they take it as a culture that can be understood on its own terms, even if it maintains different interactions with external cultures, including religious Jewish culture. Hence, their project’s documentation of religious Jewish culture is limited to those cases in which it interacts with secular Jewish culture.


Kurzweil, “Judaism as a Manifestation of the National-critical Life-will,” in Our New Literature, 212–213.


See Katz, To the Core of Secularism, 81–92.


Gordon, Man and Nature, 68.


Ibid., 69.


Ibid., 122.


Ramon, A New Life, 149. Katz disputes Ramon’s religious interpretation of Gordon, offering an alternative presentation of Gordon as one who sought to secularize Judaism by means of radical subjectivity. See Gideon Katz, “The Secular Element in A. D. Gordon’s Thought” [Hebrew], Iyunim Bitkumat Israel 11 (2001): 465–485. For Gordon’s attitude toward halakhah, see also Yuval Jobani, “Critique of the Political, Ecological, and Gender Oppression in Early 20th Century Palestine” [Hebrew], in Zmanim: A Historical Quarterly 101 (Winter 2008): 124–125, reviewing Ramon, A New Life. See also Yuval Jobani, “The True Teacher: Jewish Secularism in the Philosophy of A. D. Gordon,” in Jewish and Polish Philosophy, ed. Jan Woleński, Yaron M. Senderowicz, and Józef Bremer (Kraków: Austeria Publishing House, 2013), 198–216.


Gordon, Man and Nature, 50–51. As Margolin argues, the religious experience according to Gordon transcends the dichotomy between subjectivization and objectivization. See Ron Margolin, Inner Religion: The Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestations in Jewish Sources (From the Bible to Hasidic Texts) [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Bar-Ilan University and Shalom Hartman Institute, 2012), 444–445.


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