James S. Diamond
The dominant sensibility of our time, in intellectual and spiritual terms, is one of “coming after.” In Western discourse, at least, we are clearly in an age of “post”s: post-modern, post-colonial, post-Communist, post-Christian. In Jewish circles it is fairly de rigueur to speak of this time as post-Holocaust, post-Zionist, post-denominational. Of late we are hearing in our culture a less familiar but no less important permutation of this “coming after” syndrome”: the post-secular.
Post-secular? In my rabbinic and academic training it was axiomatic that the secular and secularity were and would always remain the order of the day— certainly in the West (and who seriously thought of anywhere else?) The idea was that the Enlightenment was the non plus ultra in human affairs and the Enlightenment had installed the secular as the irrevocable discursive foundation on which all human endeavor would henceforth rest, the grand narrative of the West. Religion, to the extent that it could be credible and flourish, would only do so if it were grounded in Enlightenment assumptions and principles. That was the understanding, however tacit. Yet consider the following phenomena and events that have established themselves as part and parcel of early 21st century reality:
The significant appeal of non-liberal religion. We see this clearly now in diverse ways in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam: Opus Dei, the so-called Evangelicals, Chabad Chasidism and other varieties of ultra-Orthodoxy, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The ascendancy of the conservative Christian right in American culture and government. We have today a President and an administration that are decidedly faith-based in their approach to policy both domestic and foreign as the boundaries between religion and state look more and more porous.1 A case in point is the recent debate over the presence/removal of the Ten Commandments monument.
The post-9/11 context. On the world stage we continue to unpack the meaning of 9/11, and in the West are beginning to understand it as the excrescence of a global conflict of ideas and ideologies, a power struggle between the values of the liberal Western secular state and the vision of a radical Islam. In the former, in line with the 18th century thinking that underlies its approach to polity, religion and state are separated either de facto or de jure; in the latter the politically enfranchised religious leaders seek to re-affirm and restore the hegemony of the umma (the world-wide community of Islamic believers) and its eternal values over what is seen as the spiritual emptiness of the Western nations corrupted by the tawdry values of Enlightenment secularism.
Clearly, in the words of one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, “something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is . . . do you, Mr. Jones.”2
What exactly is the post-secular? What might it imply? What range of meanings does it carry? How does it relate to the post-modern? How useful a term is it? How does it relate to the contemporary Jewish situation? These are the questions that underlie the following discussion.
These questions interest me because dealing with them, if not answering them fully, helps me in my ongoing effort to make sense of the current cultural moment, which feels so transitional. (I say transitional, not transitory. Because time is a plastic and not a solid dimension, all cultural moments are perforce transitional even if they are of varying duration. But in some of them, certainly this one, one can fairly feel the ground shifting under one’s feet.) The questions interest me as a Jew who understands Judaism and its Torah tradition to have a claim on me and yet at the same time is implicated and invested in Western culture and many of its values. That is the perspective from which I address the issues here.
In doing so I hold no particular brief for the post-secular, nor is what follows a critique of it. I see it as one of names some cultural critics have assigned to the post-modern reality we in the West are seen to inhabit at this time. The locution “post-secular” strikes me as offering a fresher insight into our time than “post- modern,” which by now is a rather tired and overly contested cultural signifier.
On the surface there should not be much for me to discuss here. One could argue that the binary opposition of the sacred and the secular is not a Jewish one and therefore in a Jewish context questions about the post-secular are non- starters. There really is no word in Biblical or rabbinic Hebrew that denotes the secular. The Hebrew words for the sacred or the holy are kadosh (adjective) or kodesh (substantive.) The antonym for kodesh is hol which the revised Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translates as “profane.” We see this is Leviticus 10: 8-11 where it is given in apposition with another binary opposition tahor “clean” and tamay “impure.”
The sacred and the profane here are cultic distinctions and criteria, not cultural or worldview or lifestyle signifiers. Likewise, the appropriation of the kodesh and hol binary by the rabbis for the liturgy of the Havdalah ceremony that marks the termination of Shabbat on Saturday night at dusk does not point to hol as denoting or connoting the secular but rather the “ordinary” or the “weekday.”
What, then, do we mean by “secular”? The word is a staple of contemporary parlance, bandied about almost without thinking as something opposed to or different from “religious.” But what really does it denote or connote? As we shall see, there is no consensus among scholars on this question. In fact there is a substantial body of opinion that holds that there is no such thing as the secular, that it is an empty signifier.
Moreover, if we want to hone in on the subject more precisely we need to note the difference between secularization and secularism. “Secularization implies a historical process, almost certainly irreversible [sic] . . . [whereas] secularism . . . is the name for an ideology, a new closed world-view which functions very much like a new religion.”3 The ideology was a consequence of the process, but it is important not to confuse the one for the other. In this discussion I shall consider both.
The widely held view is that secularization arises out of discrete developments that transpired within the specific historical and political context of late medieval Christianity. The Israeli cultural critic Eliezer Schweid names these developments and succinctly defines “secularization” as
Harvey Cox, in his short-lived celebration of the secular, amplified this and put a Platonic or neo-Platonic spin on its origins:
These definitions, while historically correct, refer mostly to developments in the external world, the world of politics, governance, and inter-human affairs. What is more relevant in my view is the inner transformation such changes catalyzed in human consciousness, in the Husserlian lebenswelt. It is the secularization of consciousness that is of paramount importance in pointing the way to finding satisfying answers to questions under discussion here.
How do we document epistemic changes and the resulting transformations of consciousness? They are less empirically observable. Daniel Philpott’s method is helpful. He begins not with a frontal examination of secularism but with a phenomenological definition of religion.
This definition does not satisfy Philpott because it fails adequately to embrace non-Western religions or, at the same time, to exclude “Marxism, Nazism, nationalism, and witchcraft, all of which . . . have also inspired feverish belief, ritual, and devotion.” Accordingly, Philpott offers, however tentatively, the following formulation:
This definition leads him to the following conclusion:
Philpott’s last point is noteworthy. One of the significant consequences of the secularization process was the shift in common life from privileging the collective toward enfranchising the individual. I am wondering whether, when all the theorizing about the nature of the secular is said and done, a decisive aspect of what we call “the secular” involves the transfer of authority from the community to the enfranchised individual. It is true that the initial transfer of authority and control was from one collective entity to another: from the Church to the sovereign state, but Philpott reminds us that after the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 (which ended the great international religious conflict we call the Thirty Years War and which effectively laid the groundwork for the separation of religion from state, a foundational event in the secularization process) “within the state . . . religious freedom for the individual was still rare” (73.) It is also true that human beings and the various legal systems they created have always understood and assumed the individual person to have agency. Indeed, since antiquity theologians and philosophers, in our time bioethicists, have acknowledged the existence of free will even as they debated its extent. All this notwithstanding, the issue I hold up here is authority. The Enlightenment established that without necessarily denying their respective existence and power, it is not the heteronomous community or a transcendent God that hold the balance of power in life but the autonomous self.9
Seen in this light the secular would appear to be essentially a Christian category, secularization a process indigenous to the Christian experience. My hesitation at the outset of this discussion about its relevance in a Jewish context would seem to be well founded.
It is not. The secular as I have briefly outlined it here may have no purchase in Biblical or rabbinic Judaisms but it certainly can be problematized when we apprehend and try to comprehend the modern Jewish experience. It is one thing to (try to) relate the secular to Torah or to Judaism theologically considered; it is quite another to examine it with respect to the Jews. Ben Halpern observed that “the history of Jewish secularism (unlike secularism in Occidental Christendom, which is a native growth maturing over the whole extent of European history) is the application to Jewish matters of standards carried over from the outside..”10 All that has been noted about secularization as the result of the state wresting control from the Church can be transposed in Jewish terms to the European Jewish situation.
When authority passed from rabbis to the lay leadership of the Jewish community—and the passage was, and in Israel still is, not uncontested—thus did the historic and fateful sundering of Jewish religion from the Jewish polity take place. Judaism was now confined to the synagogue and the home, and matters that pertained to the public sphere—governance, fundraising, social services, combating anti-Semitism, even education—all came under the purview of the community, i.e., lay and not rabbinic leadership. While a lay leadership and a non-sacerdotal communal structure were not unknown in earlier times—there was the office of the Exilarch (Resh Galuta) in early medieval Babylonia and the Council of the Four Lands (Va’ad Arba’ Aratzot) in late medieval and early modern Eastern Europe—this post-Emancipation situation paved the way for a novum in Jewish history. Now, for the first time, Jews could, if they so chose, reject the authority of Jewish law (halachah) and its commandments yet still maintain a tie to the Jewish community and its institutions and a sense of solidarity with their fellow Jews. Authority now resided in the institutions of the community on the collective level and, in the final analysis, in the autonomous person on the individual level. Thus did what would have in earlier times been regarded as an oxymoron—a secular Jewish identity—become possible.12 Not only possible but, as the nineteenth century progressed, increasingly prevalent. The purest manifestation of authentic secular Judaism was the General Jewish Workers Union in Lithuania, Poland and Russia (in the Yiddish original Algemeyner Yiddisher Arbeter Bund in Lita, Poyln, un Rusland.) The Bund, as it was conventionally known, was founded in 1897, and sought to develop an autonomous Jewish community and culture predicated on a humanistic, socialist, non-sacral basis. The better known attempt to construct a new Jewish identity on this new foundation—better known because it was, for reasons that are outside the scope of this discussion, more successful—was Zionism, founded in the very same year as the Bund by Theodore Herzl under the rubric of The World Zionist Organization. Although “Zionism was from the start an unstable combination of religious (dati) and secular (hiloni—a term invented by modern Hebraists) Jewishness”13 we can appreciate the sincerity of the Enlightenment values we hear in Herzl’s famous lines in his Der Judenstaat in which he outlines the nature of the new Jewish society he envisions:
Herzl knew more than he realized. That neither of the aspirations he expressed here has (yet) come to pass in Israel and the possible reasons for it is a whole other story.
Now, as I noted above, the politico-historical process of secularization became in time a full-fledged worldview and an ideology. This reification of the secular transformed it into a construct, and this opens the door to what happens to it in the postmodern world. Secularization may have occurred and, as Cox thinks or, more precisely, thought, it might be, maybe even should be, irreversible. But the worldview it engendered, secularism, is eminently assailable.
If there is any one distinguishing feature of the Hydra-like phenomenon or movement or whatever it is that we call post-modernism, it is its searching and relentless interrogation of the verities of the Enlightenment. What was deemed certain is no longer a sure thing. What was assumed as given has been shown to be contingent—contingent on the given, on who postulated that particular given, and on the historical, economic, political, social, racial, and/or gender context in which the postulator or postulators did his or her or their postulating.
Integral to postmodernism’s critique of the legacy of the Enlightenment is its calling into question how we know and signify, how we make meaning. Whatever else it may be—and it is surely multifarious and variegated—postmodernism grows out of an acute awareness of the linguisticality of the human reality. Consciousness and meaning are structured by language, and language, it turns out, is a slippery foundation on which to found our understanding of reality. Language is humanly and culturally determined, and therefore it is shifting, contingent, arbitrary. Signification is not nearly as determinate as we would think or like. It is not only language and meaning that are constructed; it is all of reality. I will acknowledge the epistemological debate over whether an objective reality exists, but that is not for now. The fact is that what we know, or think we know, is largely, if not exclusively, constructed out of human perception and memory.
Postmodern sociologists of religion, therefore, have performed a wholesale deconstruction of the interpretation of secularization which I have above only summarized. They have noted that the major proponents of secularization theory, figures such as Bryan Wilson, Thomas Luckmann and Peter Berger, may have been playing out a particular cultural bias. Swatos and Cristiano note that many of these men “were products of a European Christian intellectual heritage and educational system that, we might now say, romanticized the religious past of their nations.”14 This is what enabled them to advance the notion of a pious past that has given way to a Godless present. When these biases are identified and corrected for, the picture changes. At the end of their deconstruction of secularization Swatos and Cristiano reach the following conclusion:
Rodney Stark’s meticulously detailed historical and sociological analysis of patterns of belief and piety in Europe and the United States over centuries arrives at the same place: the “conception of a pious past is mere nostalgia; most prominent historians of medieval religion now agree that there never was an Age of Faith.”16 His analysis of diverse evidence persuades him that people in the past were no more or no less religious or church-going than they are now. He cites Andrew Greeley: “There could be no de-Christianization of Europe . . . because there never was any Christianization in the first place. Christian Europe never existed.”17 Stark concludes that
Now what is true for the goose is true for the gander. Not only can secularization be called into question. So, too, can secularism. It is not only the theorists of the phenomenon of secularization that can be smoked out but, strangely enough, many of the major architects of postmodern cultural analysis as well.
If the former can be said to have romanticized religion, the latter have idealized Reason. This is what John McLure, in his assessment of the new directions American narrative fiction has taken recently, finds. Fredric Jameson, for example, blithely describes the postmodern spirit as “effortlessly secular” and he is one among many.19
To be sure, as McLure notes, Jameson does have a sense of the sublime, which I will not detail here, and so, too, does Lyotard. Both “speak of a post- modern sublime” albeit in a different ways. But
McLure thus hoists these theorists of the postmodern condition by their own petard. He shows that that their own thinking too, like all human intellection, floats in a discrete conceptual fluidum. That fluidum is the ideology that resulted from the process of secularization, secularism, which functions for them as a master narrative to which they still cling.
McLure advances a less constricted reading of the postmodern temper, one that “gets” (my emphasis) what he calls “the scandal of continued artistic engagement with non-secular constructions of reality” and celebrates it.22 This leads him to discern a kind of fiction that is not only resolutely post-modern but also post-secular in tenor. Writers who he finds embody this sensibility are Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Ishmael Reed, “the mostly Latin American works of ‘magical realism’ and the novels of Afro-American and Native American novelists such as Toni Morrison, Michele Cliff, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich.”23
The post-secular is thus a consequence of the post-modern or an aspect of it, though the two are by no means coterminous. Both are part of the larger project of undoing the legacy of the Enlightenment. If modernity and the secular represent the retreat or the containment or even the banishing of the sacred from both public life and individual consciousness, the post-secular involves its return, the re-sacralization of human reality.
What might this mean? The answer given will depend on the social and political context in which the post-secular phenomenon is viewed. In non-Western societies, for example, where secularization as it occurred in the West did not take place, or has not yet taken place, it may be inappropriate to speak of the post-secular. We in the West need to be sensitive to the fact that what is unfolding in those societies is intrinsic to their respective histories and collective memory, not to ours. The power and influence of religion there may not signify a recuperation or a resurgence of the sacred at all. The Islamization of some countries that we are witnessing today may more than anything involve the use of religion for political ends and not a repudiation of secular values. It is important to remember that Islam, like Judaism, understands itself as something more than a religion. The Islamic umma represents the total world-wide Moslem community of believers, the Islamic analogue to the Jewish ‘am Yisra’el.
That said, it is still possible to see the post-secular turn as a development international in scope. I am thinking here of the many manifestations all over the world now of a vigorous fideistic fervor that is often named as fundamentalism. Both in the West and elsewhere this involves an embracing, whether by retention or by adoption, of earlier epistemic modes, modes in which the authority of the transcendent and received tradition are affirmed and privileged, either out of a self-abnegating heteronomy or by a choosing autonomous self (which stances may be two sides of the same existential coin.) It is in this light in which I think the appeal of “fundamentalist” religion can best be understood.24
But in other respects the post-secular is something quite new, the consequence of the post-modern discrediting the hegemony of Enlightenment discourse. Questions of value, questions that were considered closed or answered definitively are now up for grabs. Those who embrace this post-secular stance go in different, even diverging directions.
Some seize the moment as a welcome opportunity to rehabilitate theology or ontotheology.25 Metaphysics and metaphysical discourse are once again possible. The cosmos can be re-sacralized. The sacred and the transcendental can be re-discovered. Others hold that after Heidegger metaphysics and theology are impossible. They insist that the post-secular mandates or involves a phenomenological move, the eidetic reduction of Being that Heidegger tried to exposit. This could lead to a recognition of the limits of subjectivity and to a new openness to the numinous, to an intimation of the wholly Other.
This is where deconstruction, at least as articulated by John D. Caputo, goes.
But, he cautions, “let there be no mistake: ‘early on’ deconstruction does delimit the metaphysical side of theology. [And that, he says is] an honorable and hoary religious project.” But something valuable accrues from this. In liberating the Biblical text
On this view to arrive at the post-secular by this route is to arrive at a place of absence, a place where absence is a palpable sensibility. For such souls, and I use the word advisedly, this absence involves a hunger for meaning. Here, for example, is Charles Winquist, a philosopher who, near the end of his life, understood the need for new spiritual horizons:
How reflective of the professoriate and academe is the sensibility Winquist articulates? I think not very. With the exception of schools that are rooted in an explicitly religious mission of one kind or another, the contemporary (North) American university is still the high temple of secularism, the last great bastion of the Enlightenment worldview and values. Religion still treads lightly there, if it treads at all. In the place where critical inquiry is the first order of business, perhaps the only order of business, the hermeneutics of faith can only be seen as non-critical inquiry. What is taught in departments of religion is the history, sociology, and phenomenology of religion, not the hermeneutics of faith, and certainly not religious praxis. The latter matters, if they are accorded any place at all in the life of the university, are left to such chaplaincies as there may be, entities that the university really does not know what to do with.
The perplexities, ambivalences, and tacit discomfort of many reputedly brilliant academicians and academic administrators with religion, the religious dimension of human existence, and religious praxis, though occasionally amusing, are not hard to understand. They are part and parcel of the legacy of positivism, the intellectual foundation upon which the modern university rests. They are nicely accounted for by Pascal in his doctrine of the three orders of the human enterprise (in Pensées): the order of the body or “the carnal order”, the intellectual order, and the order of the spirit, termed by Pascal “charité.” Meskin calls them “three distinct ontological orders.” Just as “to champions in . . . the ‘carnal order,’ the glory of the intellectual order is invisible,” so too “those in the intellectual order are similarly (if not even more) incapable of recognizing the glory of those who triumph in the order of the spirit. . . . “28 As Meskin points out, to Pascal there is a hierarchy in these orders, spiritual being the highest, but the orders are not mutually exclusive.
The problem with academe is that, having forged its identity solely within the intellectual order, it has put all its eggs into one epistemological basket. In its heart of hearts religion, on one side, is as foreign an element as, on the other side, athletics. It would prefer that both go away quietly. Since they don’t and won’t, the professoriate—and yes, there are exceptions—is uncomfortable and ambivalent about the manifestations on campus of both these other two orders. It seems largely unconcerned about the dessication of spirit that is almost endemic to graduate students today. It is geared to replicate the paradigms in which it was trained.
Will the turn to the post-secular change all that? The assessments of post- modernism that McLure and Winquist offer, however differently they are oriented, do not suggest an optimistic prognosis. The postmodern alone, a critique of Enlightenment thinking alone, does not automatically lead to a latter-day transvaluation of values. The question is: what will be the relation between truth and meaning? Are they mutually exclusive or inclusive, compatible or incompatible? Is one to be privileged over the other? If so, which one?
I hear Winquist privileging meaning, and in his desire for meaning a yearning for the transcendent. The post-secular stance—dilemma is a better word—is to recognize the essential subjectivity of human experience on the one hand and the need to break out of it, to get beyond it on the other. The question, the problem, is transcendence—the nub of the whole matter here. What is the transcendent after the Absolute has been called into question and the interrogation of the Absolute has itself been interrogated? To point the way to the beginnings of an answer—and I think that is all we can presume to attain—I want to hold up in the following little excursus two writers who, to my mind, limn the post-secular in important ways: Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924), who anticipates it, and Edmond Jabès (1912-1991), who articulates it. Kafka and Jabès are Europeans and the post-secular sensibility or stance is manifest in their work in ways quite different from the American writers McLure discusses. I read them in a context wider than the particular geographic and linguistic ones in which they wrote: as children of the West—Kafka in its modernist moment,30 Jabès as a quintessential postmodern. The fact that they are both Jews is not incidental or coincidental.
We have to be careful with Kafka. He is so brilliantly indeterminate that he can be made to refract almost whatever a given reader chooses to see in him. So we try mightily to look not at but through the amazingly transparent textual surface he presents. But what is it that we see? A sense of transcendence? A despair of transcendence?
Eric Heller a generation ago situated Kafka in the very same spiritual context as this discussion. He notes that by the time Kafka appears on the scene in the early part of the 20th century, “reality has been all but completely sealed off against any transcendental intrusion. . . . Kafka writes at the point where the world, having become too heavy with spiritual emptiness, begins to sink into the unsuspected demon-ridden depths of unbelief.”31 We should never lose sight of the fact that Kafka is writing after Nietzsche and I think it is clear that he understands Nietzsche’s point about the death of God. Except that with Kafka we get the sense that he is not quite convinced that that is really so, or, perhaps more accurately, he doesn’t want to be convinced.
A good place to see this is near the climax of the classic parable “Before the Law” that comes near the end of The Trial. The man from the country, having waited in front of the door to the Law for years, now begins to question his perception.
”A radiance that streams inextinguishably from the door of the Law.” That is such a tantalizing and vexed vision. Or is it an illusion? Politzer notes that the radiance the man sees he sees when his eyes are failing him and his end is near. Politzer reminds us that the parable is told to Joseph K. by the priest in the dimly lit cathedral, where the candle Joseph sees “actually increased the darkness.”33 Politzer writes: “the light shines to reveal the depth of the darkness. Hope is there for man to fathom his despair.”34
A reading of this parable and of The Trial that understands Kafka to be rejecting the possibility of transcendence is certainly defensible. But it is also possible that Kafka is holding out the notion there is a realm of the transcendent, even if it is only glimpsed or intimated or imagined. He holds this out not only to the man from the country but, by implication, also to the reader, who is as clueless as the man about the nature of the reality into which he or she has been cast. I take the transcendent here to be coeval with a sense of the numinous.
What in fact is the objective reality that the parable holds up? In Kafka’s scheme that may not be so important. Let’s remember the interpretative upshot of the parable that Kafka stages as the narrative progresses: “The right perception of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.”35 Kafka here anticipates the whole thrust of post-modern hermeneutics. And with it the possibility that the secular may not be the only way to construe reality.
The Castle seems to present the same epistemological or ontological question. In both these respects K. reprises the situation of the man from the country.36 He is uncertain about the reality into which he has arrived. If Kafka is proceeding allegorically here, the castle and its bureaucratic retinue would be an intimation of a higher realm or authority.
These short but crucial takes from Kafka show us that the apparently solid secular construction of reality can be cracked. The fissures that are visible, if not gaping, to many in our time were already anticipated by him.
Kafka presciently prefigures the particular post-secular situation to which I am pointing. He wants to believe, but he can’t. As a Jew in modernity he stands outside the Law, i.e, the halachic tradition, but—this is where he anticipates what is to come—he doesn’t leave; he remains standing at the door, contemplating what might be behind it, and figuring out when and and how he might enter. He is a latter-day Spinoza who has not been and will not be excommunicated by his community (though had he lived and stayed in Prague he most certainly would have been exterminated.)
In Edmond Jabès we have one of the most consummate renderings in literary terms of the post-modern sensibility, as Derrida saw early on. Jabès is not a philosopher or a theologian. If anything he is a poet, though what he writes cannot technically be called poetry. Indeed his texts defy generic classification. Yet we can say of him what Frank Kermode has said of Wallace Stevens: “He has a kind of peripheral awareness of the important issues in philosophy [and, I would add, theology JSD], which is more impressive in a poet than actually getting down and working them out.”38
I shall confine my discussion of Jabès to volume one of The Book of Questions.
Jabès inhabits the spiritual terrain to which Kafka pointed. Kafka was a deracinated Jew in and of central Europe before the Holocaust. Jabès was a deracinated Jew of Cairo and Paris in the post-War years. The dessication of spirit was Kafka’s inner landscape. For Jabès in his formative years the desert was literally right on his doorstep.
The trope of the desert as Jabès develops it is a key element in all his thinking and writing. As he explained “The experience of the desert is both the place of the Word—where it is supremely word—and the non-place where it loses itself in the infinite.”39 *
Being in the desert is being with no center, no fixed reference point which imposes a sense of coherence on the space or on the time spent in it. One who tries to navigate the expanse has great difficulty progressing in any linear way. There is only wandering within a vast emptiness. The steps of those who came before, the directions they took, the destinations for which they were headed, the markers they left—all are either invisible, covered over by the drifting sand, or are seen as traces, traces of questionable reliability. The ear strains here, too, for what voice is audible in the silence? What is real here and what is mirage? Nothingness pervades all. What is real here, immediate, and constant, is absence.
Jabès takes the idea of the extraterritoriality of the Biblical God and turns it on its head. “Being nowhere or everywhere nearly comes to the same thing.”41 In this statement he is pointing to one of the key affects of the post-secular consciousness: a pervading sense of God’s absence. And yet, paradoxical or even oxymoronic as it may sound, to postmodern man God is most present in God’s absence.
Anyone who knows Jabès, or I should say thinks he knows Jabès, can hear many of the key tropes that are interwoven in his writing: not only the desert but sand, the trace, silence, and absence. Jabès gives us the poetics of ontological absence. The desert is the objective correlative of the postmodern condition. In this it was prefigured in modern terms by Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” which showed the physical and spiritual stasis of its two protagonists Vladimir and Estragon on the arid and sterile Vauclose plateau of southern France. Jabès, writing out of his own Egyptian-Jewish experience, re-situates the notion of waiting in a silent universe to the desert and thereby evokes historical and cultural resonances from his own cultural tradition. Jabès stands where Kafka stood, except that now the door to the Law has opened, opened onto a sunlight, barren desert. Jabès wanders in the same landscape his ancestors traversed in Biblical times, except that now there is no Promised Land on the horizon.
Jabès, then, gives us an expression of what the post-secular, at least one strand of it, implies. But if nothing else is clear from this discussion it is that post-secular is a multi-vocal term. If in the wake of secularization we were hedgehogs pace Isaiah Berlin, knowing one big thing, today, in the postmodern reality, we have become foxes, knowing many things. East is East and West is West, but East and West are themselves composites and diverse. The post-secular may look reactionary in one context, avant-garde in another. How it manifests itself in Muslim societies will be different from its expression in Christian societies. So in determining what the post-secular signifies and assessing what it might portend, the beginning of wisdom is to say that one size does not fit all.
Even within the Jewish world in which I live we must contextualize. The Jewish landscape in Israel is different from that of Diaspora, and I speak primarily of the North American Diaspora, and therefore how the post-secular plays out in each and what it might mean will vary. Nevertheless, before proceeding to look at each of these sites or modes of contemporary Jewish existence, there is one over-arching fact to be noted about both, one feature that, in spite of the profound qualitative sociopolitical and geopolitical differences between them, they have in common. That is the fact that while the process of secularization may be over in both, secularism is by no means a spent force, neither in Israel nor in the Jewish Diaspora. A significant majority of Israeli Jews are secular not only in lifestyle but in worldview.
As for American Jews, it has been documented that
What these data suggest is that we should be wary of jumping to quick or definitive conclusions about what the post-secular means in the Jewish context, whatever the context is. On the surface the data could mean that the Jewish experience with the Enlightenment is deep and has not run its course. Or these findings could be telling us that that the dynamics of Jewish life are intrinsically different from that of Christianity or Islam. It could be that the Jews are an anomaly in this regard, and “as we have learned many years ago from historian of science Thomas Kuhn, anomalies point to the presence of dominant paradigms that often serve as blinders to possible sources of new knowledge.”45 It may be that the the sacred/secular binary and the post-secular are concepts of limited or even no utility in mapping contemporary religious and spiritual life.
I once heard Avraham Burg, one of the more thoughtful figures on the Israeli political scene, opine that there is today not one but two Jewish home- lands: the United States, which he called the homeland of the Enlightenment, and Israel, which he termed the homeland of Jewish myth. To say that Israel is the homeland of Jewish myth is to acknowledge what many students of the latter-day Jewish experience with statehood have come to realize: that the Jewish national enterprise, though founded on Enlightenment principles, has been overtaken by pre-Enlightenment Judaism. In a sovereign Jewish state the abstraction of a secular national polity from out of the matrix of a pre-modern faith community has proved to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The fact that there is no separation of religion and state in Israel tells us that secular Zionism, for all its early vigor and for all its hold upon the Israeli body politic, has been defeated by Orthodox, more precisely ultra-Orthodox, Judaism. This would argue not for (further) interrogation of the Enlightenment legacy but, in fact, for its re-affirmation in the evolving life of the Israeli polity and the policies by which it will live. The state of Israel may be more than a half century old but the ideological foundation upon which it rests is still as mushy as ever. The tension between its identity as a Jewish state on the one hand and as a secular democracy on the other has not been resolved and in my view is not likely to be, certainly not in the foreseeable future. Appealing to the exigencies of regional and global geopolitics as the reason for this ongoing postponement is less and less convincing. It is not clear that Israel will yet evolve beyond the current Jewish ethnocracy into a true liberal Western democracy. I myself think that it is too late now for this to happen. In defining itself as a Jewish state I fear the die is cast. I hope I am wrong.
This does not mean that in the American Diaspora a Judaism grounded in post-Enlightenment principles is secure, Burg’s appellation notwithstanding. More and more the post-secular turn here leads to two dominant antipodal positions among Jews: either the kind of unreconstructed secularism the American Jewish Identity Survey finds so prevalent or a Judaism that for whatever reason pays no heed to how the Enlightenment has modified our understanding of religion in general and the Jewish religion in particular. Examples of this are the varieties of a vibrant and flourishing Orthodoxy, the functional equivalent in Jewish terms of Christian evangelical religion, on the one hand, and, on the other, the appropriation of New Age-style religion by enthusiasts of Jewish Renewal. In the face of these vigorous expressions of the post-secular, the varieties of non-Orthodoxy—Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaisms— which are rooted in post-Enlightenment thinking, seem now to be variously beset by a tacit self-abnegation in the face of a growingly self-assured Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy and the more unabashedly celebratory style of Jewish Renewal.
In this climate some specific cardinal principles and values that the Enlightenment put in place need immediate and explicit shoring up.46 I will identify two.
A first desideratum is a renewed asseveration of the historicity of Judaism and, along with this, a re-affirmation of reading the tradition out of the interpretive canons of religious naturalism. The former was the great achievement of Reform and Conservative Judaisms in the 19th century, the latter the irrevocable contribution of Mordecai Kaplan’s project of reconstructing Judaism in the light of modernity. A generation ago these principles were self-evident and de rigueur; today the post-secular sensibility puts them at risk.
One could ask: what’s the big deal here? Why make these an issue? The following anecdote shows what’s at stake. Some years ago a prominent rabbinical figure from the ultra-Orthodox world was to give a major public lecture in the community where I lived at the time. I was eager to attend to hear this illustrious teacher but at the last minute was unable to do so. A Conservative rabbinical colleague, with whom I had hoped to go to the event, did make it. Later that evening I called him to find out how it went. “Oh,” he said, “it was very interesting.” When I asked why he explained, “Rabbi X asked a question [about some aspect of Jewish law and practice] raised by a 16th century rabbi and then showed how the answer was given by a 12th century figure.”
Now it’s true that within the codes of contemporary hermeneutical theory, this is a perfectly legitimate interpretive procedure. But it is legitimate only as a new historicist move, undertaken in full awareness that the limitations of diachrony come into play only after an acceptance of its irrevocable reality. My guess is that the rabbi in question was proceeding in a pre-modern manner, uniting all the generations of Israel under one historically undifferentiated interpretive horizon. What’s at stake, then, is to foreground the difference between these two apparently similar but actually antithetical hermeneutical approaches, something best done by re-affirming the foundational nature of history and human experience in how we read and process Jewish tradition (and not only Jewish tradition.) At some point the epistemological and ethical price we will pay for overlooking this difference will be exacted. History matters.
The other hobbyhorse I would ride, that needs riding, is foreswearing once and for all the pre-modern ethnocentrism that comes with holding on to the Chosen Peoples doctrine. In the post-modern reality this is an atavism. Why not ground our Jewish commitments on the proposition that we are, all of us—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Confucians, Buddhists, etc.—all of us—God’s chosen people? That we may be chosen to live out our respective religious and communal identities in different ways and for the sake of different, and often conflicting, ideas and values does not negate our election by the God to whom we all relate. The human family has enough problems with religion; retaining the ethnocentric baggage we have all inherited from antiquity and the Middle Ages does not serve us any better than perpetuating the sexism that also has been passed down. We have made some progress addressing the latter and have not refused the attendant challenges to theology and praxis, whether Jewish or Christian. Now we need to do the same in regard to the former. Ethnocentrism matters.
In his instructive study of the inter-relationship between the modern and the secular and between the post-modern and the post-secular, Graham Ward usefully observes of these terms, as well as of the word “religion” itself, that
Ward’s insight points to the end result of the itinerary of concerns I have been following here. From a Jewish perspective it is quite possible that each of these words has little or no valence. It is not clear that the word “religion” adequately denotes what Judaism, i.e., Torah, is. It is not clear that the categories “religious” and “secular” have any purchase in a Jewish context. All the more so with the “post-secular.”48
We can, therefore, appreciate the wisdom of the Havdalah liturgy, to which I alluded near the outset of this discussion. Recited at the close of the Sabbath, it declares not only that it is God who “makes the distinction between the holy and the ordinary” but, by implication, it is we humans who, in imitatio Dei, are called upon to use the powers bestowed uniquely upon us, to do the same. This distinction is not a given; it is something we discover, or have to discover as we apprehend and seek to comprehend this world and our place in it. That is why the original, determinative place for a Jew to recite the formula of havdalah, of making this critical distinction, is not in the Sabbath-ending ritual that is accompanied by wine, spices, and fire, but in the Amidah prayer that is recited in the dusky silence just before the ceremony, in the evening service on Saturday night. In that Amidah prayer, the formula is inserted into the fourth blessing, which is the blessing where we thank God for the gifts of intellect and knowledge.49 To live as Jew in the world means to live with the challenge, the intellectual challenge, to know what is holy and what is not, where it is manifest and where it is not. The advent of the post-secular does not mitigate the size or the scope of this challenge.
1. See “The Secular Society Gets Religion: Experts Differ About
the Re-emergence of Faith in Politics,” in The New York Times
front page of the “Arts & Ideas” section, Saturday, August
24, 2002. 2. ”Ballad of a Thin Man.”
Ben Halpern. “Secularism.” Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, Arthur A. Cohen & Paul Mendes- Flohr, Eds. New York: Free, 1987. 863-66.
Charles E. Winquist. Desiring Theology. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Daniel Philpott. “The Challenge of September 11 to Secularism in International Relations.” World Politics 55 (Oct 2002): 66 - 95.
Edmond Jabes. The Book of Questions, Vol 1. Rosemary
Waldrop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1976. Egon Mayer, Barry A.
Kosmin & Ariela Keysar. American Jewish Identity Survey 2001.
Report originally published by the Graduate Center of the City
University of New York in 2001
Eliezer Schweid. “The ‘Post-Secular’ Era,” 2000. The Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints. Eric Heller. “The World of Franz Kafka.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Castle, Ed. Peter F. Neumeyer. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969. 57-82.
Franz Kafka. The Trial. Revised E.M. Butler trans. Willa & Edwin Muir. N.Y.: Schocken, 1925. Graham Ward. True Religion. N.p.: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
Harvey Cox. The Secular City. N.Y.: The Macmillan co., 1965.
Heinz Politzer. Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1962. Henry Ruf, ed. Religion, Ontotheology, and Deconstruction. New York: Paragon House, 1989. Jacob Meskin. “Secular Self-Confidence, Postmodernism, and Beyond: Recovering the Religious Dimension of Pascal’s Pensees.” The Journal of Religion (1995).
John D. Caputo. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1997.
Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum, Noam J. Zohar. The Jewish Political Tradition. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 2003.
Rodney Stark. “Secularization, R.I.P.” Sociology of Religion 60.No. 3: 249-73. William H. Swatos Jr. & Kevin J. Christiano. “Introduction - Secularization Theory: The Course of a Concept.” Sociology of Religion 60:3 (1999 Fall): 209-28.
This essay was developed from a paper given in April 2003 in San Diego at the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association, in a seminar on “Literature and the Post-Secular.”
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