Someone turned me on to a new journal – Secular Culture & Ideas – covering cultural (secular) Judaism. There’s an interview with science journalist Natalie Angier, an essay on secular thought in American politics, and several articles on Jewish feminism. Douglas Rushkoff’s essay on how secular voices can redefine Judaism is especially interesting in light of our previous discussions of the Overton Window. Rushkoff begins:
Can we talk? Why aren’t I surprised that none other than Joan Rivers is responsible for one of the most accurate condensations of the core values of a three thousand year old tradition. It was the Jews’ struggle for self-preservation, after all, as well as their deeply held humanist beliefs, that made them promoters of open discussion—so much that third century Romans purchased memberships in Jewish synagogues just so they could take part in intellectual conversations.
Sadly, for many Jews today, Judaism is a closed book. Jewish texts are not open for scrutiny; they are intentionally left closed. In many synagogues, community is either forgone or leveraged in the name of fundraising for a besieged Israel. …
The good news is that Judaism has faced such crises before and survived. In each instance, a small minority of the Jewish population adopted a radically recontextualized understanding of its fundamental tenets. And in each instance, only that small minority flourished, carrying into the next era what would from then on be called “Judaism.” Each successful shift involved experiencing, or reexperiencing, Judaism’s most essential insights of basic humanism and iconoclasm.
Those shifts are shifts of the Overton window. You stake out new ground, and attract support around the new position until you’ve shifted the terms of the debate. Then you do it again, progressively moving the debate until it’s reached the point you were seeking.
“New atheists” like Dawkins and Harris (presumably Hitchens, too) tend to argue that such rethinking cannot happen in religious settings. Rushkoff disagrees for clear historical reasons, and describes how that change could be put into practice:
The challenge to Jews, and to all thinking people, is to resist the temptation to fall into yet another polarized, nationalist, or God forbid, holy posture. Instead we must resolve ourselves to reaching back to Judaism’s core beliefs. The prophets stressed social ideals and compassion; the Jewish holidays are meant to instill a sense of compassion on behalf of Jews and strangers alike. … It is high time these core values were exhumed and revived.
Just as the definition of social justice had to evolve over time, so must the definition of what it means to be Jewish. Fortunately, Judaism is open to discussion. It can be questioned and reinterpreted; indeed, it is supposed to be reinterpreted, for the paramount Jewish tradition is to question and break with tradition itself.
This attitude might be attacked as “appeasement” by some, but I think it presents a much more accurate account of moderate faith than what, for instance, Sam Harris describes.
In The End of Faith, Sam Harris argues:
Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would be a total ignoramus except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. … There are two explanations for this [if it were true ‑TfK]: either we perfected our religious understanding of the world a millennium ago– while our knowledge on all other fronts was hopelessly inchoate– or religion, being the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress.
I inserted “if it were true” above because Harris’s statement is historically illiterate, and similar sentiments in other books on the same theme only serve to undermine the authors’ claims to intellectual integrity. Martin Luther inspired the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and the Counter-Reformation followed within the Catholic Church. A 14th century Christian would not recognize Protestantism in any form, nor would he recognize modern Catholicism. Hasidism is an 18th century phenomenon, so even the most visibly observant strain of modern Judaism would be unfamiliar to a 14th century Jew, let alone a Christian of that era.
The Immaculate Conception (the idea that Mary was born without original sin) was first formalized in the 15th century, and wasn’t established as Catholic dogma until the 19th century. We can argue about the epistemology involved in a papal statement of dogma, but to the extent that such statements reflect an era’s knowledge of God, the 14th century Christian’s knowledge would unquestionably be different from a modern Christian’s (even if he belongs to a church which does not hold to the Immaculate Conception).
Modern process theology, a widely accepted view within academic theology, would be utterly unfamiliar to 14th century theologians or worshippers of any sort. Reform Judaism is a modern phenomenon, one which laid the groundwork for the shift that Rushkoff calls for within secular Judaism. I think there’s a lot of room for a “secular Christianity” modeled on the cultural form of Judaism that is most common in America. I think that would connect with a lot of people, and would shift the discussion about what religion means in a way that would be productive in a lot of ways.