About the Author, and CHAPTER ONE

by AL KUTZIK, edited by Mitchel Cohen

About the Author

Dr. Alfred J. Kutzik (1923-1994) was until January 1992 chair of the national Jewish Commission of the Communist Party USA and associate editor of Jewish Affairs. Before that he had been director of the NY State CP’s Reference Center for Marxist Studies and People’s School for Marxist Studies.

From 1980 to 1984 Dr. Kutzik was on the faculty of Coppin State College in Baltimore where he taught social science including the sociology of ethnic groups. From 1974 to 1979 he was at the University of Maryland where he taught his specialty of social policy before being fired for ideological reasons. He had formerly taught social policy at the University of Pennsylvania where he originated the course, “Class, Ethnicity and Social Welfare,” which pioneered in dealing with European origin as well as Third World ethnic groups.

In addition to his familiarity with the social science literature on the Jews, Dr. Kutzik has extensive first-hand knowledge of the subject from having worked in the Jewish community center and Jewish community relations fields and participated in the Jewish communities of Baltimore, Boston, Hartford, New York and Philadelphia. His doctoral dissertation (Brandeis University, 1967) is a study of the development of the welfare institutions of these and other Jewish communities. Dr. Kutzik has also had broad experience as a Jewish educator, from teaching children in secular and religious Jewish schools — and serving as principal of a congregational school — to teaching Jewish history at Baltimore Hebrew University and most recently at the New School for Social Research.

Dr. Kutzik has been a consultant to major Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Committee and the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds. In 1973 he conducted the national study, “The Structure and Functions of the Organized Jewish Community,” for the Conference of Jewish Communal Service and in 1980 co-edited its encyclopedic publication, The Turbulent Decades: Jewish Communal Service in America 1958-78. Several of the six books he has authored, co-authored or co-edited deal with Jewish history, sociology and contemporary developments. Articles by him have appeared in publications ranging from Jewish Affairs and Jewish Currents to the Journal of Jewish Communal Service and the YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Studies.

Chapter One

The subject of this book raises substantial ideological questions. For those who consider Jews a religious group, who understand “Jewish” as referring to Judaism just as Catholic refers to Catholicism and Protestant to Protestantism, a secular Jewish tradition is an impossible contradiction in terms. But for those who — like myself — consider the Jews an ethnic group or people, who understand Jewish as referring to the Jews just as Polish and Kurdish refer to Poles and Kurds, just as with these and other nationalities the Jewish people has a secular as well as religious dimension. However, even those who hold this view would question whether the Jewish people has a secular tradition.

The almost universal belief, even among secular Jews, is that the Jewish tradition is religious and that Jewish secularism is non-traditional if not anti-traditional. A few hold that the secularization of a large part of the Jews of Europe and the secular movements that developed among them from the late 1700s on — Haskalah, Yiddishism, Bundism and Zionism — constitute a modern secular Jewish tradition. But even doctrinaire secularist Jews would find it difficult to accept the thesis of this book that there is a millennial secular Jewish tradition coeval with the religious Jewish tradition from biblical to modern times.

Like all traditions, the Jewish secular and religious traditions consist of legends and history that transmit from generation to generation the experience, ideas and values of those who established and maintained the tradition. Having few legends, the secular Jewish tradition must primarily rely on history — which poses a serious problem. For the understanding that most, including secular, Jews have of the early history of the Jewish people on which the Jewish traditions are based is derived from the Bible’s religious interpretation — and, to some extent, invention — of this history. Since the Bible’s religionized version of the first 1,500 years of Jewish history is central to Judaism and reiterated in the equally sacred Talmud and the writings of later Judaic authorities who, like Christian and Moslem ones, regarded post-biblical Jewish experience as an ahistorical fulfillment of God’s plan, there were no other Jewish histories written until the 19th century.(1) But even the scientific research-based historical studies of Christian Bible scholars and Jewish historians — notably Leopold Zunz (1794-1886) and Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891) — that date from the mid-1800s only elaborated the biblical account whose essential historicity was unquestioned.

There has been some serious questioning and significant revision of the sacred history of the biblical period and the quasi-theological history of the post-biblical periods principally by Simon Dubnow (1860-1941) and Salo W. Baron (1895-1989) and their students. However, the few objective historical works are far outweighed by the many apologetic ones and the influence of the Bible itself in forming the notion of ancient Jewish history that nearly all contemporary Jews have. This is not a problem for religionists, since the biblical account and the pious or apologetic recounting of its ideological history of the ancient Jewish people propound and support the Jewish religious tradition as do the religiously-biased histories of post-biblical Jewry. However, it is most problematical for secularists, since this religionized history diminishes and disparages the secular dimension of Jewish life and secular components of Jewish culture. The danger of reliance of Jewish secularism on the accepted history is not sufficiently understood by even the most consistent Jewish secularists, whose attention is focused on making secular adaptations of traditional religious holiday observances and practices like the bar mitzvah. But this was recognized by two of the foremost proponents and theoreticians of Jewish secularism, Simon Dubnow and Ahad Ha-am (1856-1927).

In the introduction to his World History of the Jewish People (1925) Dubnow wrote:

“Until quite recently there were great obstacles in the way of … a scientific conception of the history of the [Jewish] people. With regard to the most ancient part of Jewish history, the part which occupies the exceptional position of sacred history, the theological conception still dominates the minds not only of the orthodox, who accept the religious pragmatism of the historical books of the bible without reservations, but also the advocates of free biblical criticism, who substitute their own, no less theological pragmatism, for that of the Bible. In the treatment of the medieval and modern history of the Jews, we likewise find the dominance of a one-sided spiritualistic conception. … Scientific Jewish historiography originated in western Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the dogma of assimilation held complete sway there. This dogma asserted that Jewry is not a nation, but religious community. Jewish his-toriography was also carried away by the general current and therefore concerned itself more with the religion of Judaism than with its living creator, the Jewish people.”(3)

Dubnow devoted his life to producing a scientific history of the Jewish people that, while focusing on the primary social and national-ethnic factors, exclude[d] neither the religious nor the ideological elements, i.e., dealt with both the secular and religious dimensions of Jewish life.

Ahad Ha-am also considered Judaism a creation of the Jewish people and recognized the need for a scientific historical reinterpretation of the religious Jewish tradition to show its natural origin.

“In the day when there has been born and developed in us a new kind of need, a need to understand the rise and growth of traditional practices as a natural process; when we have to have a new Maimonides, gifted with the historical sense, to rearrange the whole law [the Torah], not in an artificial, logical order, but according to the historical evolution of each prescription; when … we have commentators of a new kind who shall try to discover its [the Torah’s] ordinances in the mental life of the people, to show how and why they grew up from within, or were imported and naturalized through stress or favor of circumstances: in that day … we shall be able to love and respect the spirit of our people perhaps even more than we do now, to feel in every nerve the intense tragedy that lurks beneath even the most barbarous relics of our past, without being compelled to regard our tradition, in all its details, as a body of [divinely ordained] laws and ordinances superior to time and place.”(3)

These views of Dubnow and Ahad Ha-am explain why so much of this book is devoted to Jewish history and historical interpretation. For the secular Jewish tradition must be unearthed from under three millennia of ideological sediment. How deeply it is buried is evident in this last quotation which shows that even one of the principal advocates of Jewish secularism believed that there is a single Jewish tradition (“our tradition”) and that it is religious.

Among the few who do not share this belief are those who have read and been convinced by some of my publications that appeared as far back as three-and-a-half decades ago.(4) Documented with historical and contemporary data, these argued that there is a democratic Jewish tradition and an anti-democratic Jewish tradition. In addition to demonstrating that Jewish tradition is not monolithic, they brought out that both the democratic and anti-democratic traditions have secular and religious components. This, of course, simultaneously demonstrated that both Jewish secularism and Judaism have democratic and anti-democratic components — to the dismay of those who tend to equate secularism with progressivism and religion with conservativism, if not reaction.

While focusing on the democratic and anti-democratic traditions, the existence of two other Jewish traditions was noted:

“ [A] secular naturalistic tradition has always existed … co-extensive with the Jewish religious one, and, though most of its monuments have been destroyed or shattered, enough remains to form a foundation on which to build.”(5)

The 1959 book in which this appeared presented a three-page historical sketch of the secular naturalistic tradition. The present book at long last takes up the task of constructing the foundation of this tradition.

Why take up this difficult task at this time? Because of my concern as a Jewish survivalist that the U.S. Jewish community has now reached a point where its continued existence is threatened, due to the growing conviction of non-religious Jews — who are the overwhelming majority — that there is no place for them within a putatively religious group and exclusively religious tradition. This longstanding trend has recently intensified as evidenced by the dramatic increase in intermarriage and steady decrease in Jewish affiliations and religious practices since the 1960s.

These developments will be discussed in detail towards the end of this book. Here we will only cite two typical acknowledgements of the situation. One is the conclusion of a 400-page study by a rabbi-scholar. Noting the high rate of intermarriage and low rate of religious observance — as well as the decreasing support for Israel — he writes:

“After nearly four centuries, the momentum of Jewish experience in America is essentially spent. … The need for … a spiritual revival [is] clear. If it does not happen, American Jewish history will soon end.”(6)

The other is an editorial in a Jewish newspaper, which, after reviewing the intermarriage and other statistics — and stressing that the majority of U.S. Jewish children receive no Jewish education — concludes that the future of Jewish life is in jeopardy.(7) Just as typically, these authors contend that the only way to reverse this trend is to return to the Jewish religious tradition.

“Jews who cared about being Jewish knew, if only in their bones, that they had to turn to religion — and most did not know how to begin. They were not heirs to a religious past. Their ancestors who had come to America had brought little learning in Bible and Talmud, and they imparted still less to their descendants.”(8)

“We are losing the battle for our Jewish future. Our legacy to future generations will be our fundamental disregard for our rich spiritual heritage. …”(9)

Practically all other Jews, secular and religious, also believe that the key to Jewish identification and group survival is learning about the Jewish religious heritage — which they believe to be the Jewish tradition. In addition to being rationalized by mistaken notions concerning the efficacy of education and Jewish education in particular in instilling sociocultural identity, this belief is itself one of the few dogmas of the Judaic tradition, i.e., that study of the Torah is what has preserved the Jewish people throughout its history. While Jewish education may have seemed to have preserved the Jewish people in the past when Jewish communities and social conditions kept Jews Jewish, since the 1970s the first reliable studies have found that religious education has no positive influence on Jewish identification.(10) No studies have examined its negative influence although it is common knowledge that most adult Jews unaffiliated with synagogues and minimally if at all involved in Jewish life once attended synagogue schools. It can be argued that this is because they did not receive a good Jewish education. I contend that, whatever its quality, it is the content of such Jewish education that largely disidentified them from the Jewish people. For teaching the Jewish religious tradition to secular Jews as the Jewish tradition forces them to view the Jews as a religious group in which they cannot participate.

On the other hand, knowledge of the secular Jewish tradition affords a basis for their identifying with the Jewish people. This does not mean that secular Jews should not learn about the religious Jewish tradition. Knowledge of the religious Jewish tradition is essential to understanding the secular Jewish tradition. As a Yiddish folk-saying puts it: “A Yid an apikoyros muss zein a gelerenter mensh: A Jewish atheist must be a learned [in the Torah] person.” This is in the first place due to the two traditions’ responsive development and the need to differentiate their approaches to certain issues. But it is also due to the fact that the Jewish religious and secular traditions have similar approaches to many issues since they are both humanistic and this-worldly.xi Consequently, much of the religious Jewish tradition is also part of the secular Jewish tradition.

Further, the secularist position expressed above by Dubnow and Ahad Ha-am — that Judaism is a natural creation of the Jewish people — implies that the Jewish religion as a whole can be considered part of the secular Jewish heritage. This apparently absurd — but perfectly valid — position does not seem so absurd when juxtaposed to traditional Judaism’s religionization of all secular aspects of life. So total is its sanctification and regulation of everything from business to sex that some writers have mistakenly concluded that Judaism does not distinguish between the sacred and the secular. Despite their substantial commonalities, however, to enable comparative analysis of the secular and religious Jewish traditions they are here considered separate traditions both of which are part of the Jewish people’s overall cultural tradition. This follows the lead of Dubnow, who held: “By aspiring to secularism … we aim only to negate the supremacy of religion, but not to eliminate it from the storehouse of national cultural treasures.”(12)

While primarily concerned with helping secular Jews identify with the Jewish people, this book is also intended to help secular Jews who are so identified to live a more satisfying Jewish life. Without knowledge of the secular Jewish tradition non-religious Jews have been forced to live as second-class members of the religiously-dominated U.S. Jewish community. For at least half a century they have been lorded over by rabbis and synagogue-centered laity who have controlled the knowledge and rituals supposedly required to be Jewish. In large measure the power of the religionist establishment has been based on the virtual monopolization of Jewish education by the synagogue and the belief of most Jews that synagogally-administered Jewish education and bar or bas mitzvah is the key to the Jewish identification of their children.

To enroll children in synagogue schools families have generally been forced to affiliate with a congregation. Often non-religious Jews, especially in smaller Jewish communities, have been socially pressured to attend synagogue services and observe the sabbath and religious holidays. As soon as their children were bar or bas mitzvah, most such families disaffiliated from the congregation, but they could not disaffiliate from the Jewish community, whose lay and rabbinical leaders constantly defined Jewish life in religious terms and spoke to the general public on behalf of adherents of the Jewish faith. Coupled with the insistence of Christians that the Jews are a religious group and the increased religionization of U.S. society after World War II, when all ethnic groups were supposed to have been transformed into Catholics, Protestants or Jews and atheism was practically equated with Communism and unAmericanism, most non-religious Jews have had to lead a Marrano-like existence as professing religionists. Knowing that they are heirs to a secular Jewish tradition as old and authentic as the religious one should help secular Jews to be free to be themselves.

While primarily concerned with the survival of the U.S. Jewish community, this book’s demonstration of the existence of a secular Jewish tradition is important for the survival of the Jewish people everywhere, including Israel. The continuation of Jewish communities throughout the diaspora obviously depends upon the non-religious majority finding a viable secular rationale for Jewish identity now that Zionism — more exactly, Israelism — is on the wane. Paradoxically, the survival of the Jewish people in the Jewish State of Israel is similarly threatened.(13) This is apparent from the following statements by Golda Meir and Manachem Begin that reveal these secularists believe the Jewish tradition is religious and it is the basis of Jewish survival:

“ I am not a person observing religious injunctions. But no one will uproot this from my heart and consciousness: for generations, but for religion, we would have been like all other nations, which once existed and disappeared.”(14)

“And now we face the question whether — for Jews — one can separate nation from religion. I state my conviction: there can be no separation of religion for Jews. It is impossible to separate them, it is forbidden to separate them. … Who can decide who is a Jew? … I say: the Almighty decided who is a Jew. Thus began the history of our people.”(15)

An informed observer’s comments on the last-quoted statement indicate that such views are widely held in Israel:

“This may sound plausible to those who assume that Mr. Begin, who became Prime Minister in 1977, is a religious Jew. He is not. He does not obey the Mitsvot [divine commandments of the Torah], and it is doubtful whether he really believes in the existence of God, any God. Yet his insistence that it is impossible, and forbidden, to separate Jewish nationality from the Jewish religion is common to a large part of atheist Jewry everywhere. Such people are haunted by a latent anxiety: “My national identity is inseparable from my religious identity.” If two components of an identity are inseparable and one becomes meaningless, what happens to the other? This is the latent dilemma which haunts the majority of atheist Jews who insist on their Jewish identity. This weakness enables the religious minority to win every cultural confrontation with the secular majority.”(16)

This belief has indeed enabled the religious minority, no more than 30 percent of the Israeli population, to win every political struggle over cultural issues. But it is also why the secular majority has not been able to instill and strengthen Jewish identity among the new generations of secular Israelis. For it has only one strategy: inculcating the religious Jewish tradition. Among the few public challenges to this self-defeating strategy is that of Israel’s then Minister for Education and Culture in 1972.

After citing the findings of a study in which most non-religious Israeli youths identified themselves as Israelis rather than Jews, he concluded:

“Following these results, I wish to discuss the problem of how to strengthen the [sic] Jewish identity. I think there is a danger in the simplistic answer which says that Jewish consciousness should be strengthened by increasing religious education. We have to remember that the majority of Israel’s young people are non-religious and live in an Israeli society which, due to historical proceses, is mainly secular. Therefore, we must avoid creating the impression that to be a Jew means only to be religious.”

But how to avoid creating this impression was something Israel’s Minister of Education and Culture could not explain. His final words were: “What is Judaism? To this I have no answer, and I doubt whether our generation must give an answer.”xvii The proper question is, What is Jewishness? and the answer, which the present generation must give, is that it is the historically-evolved culture of the Jewish people based on both a religious tradition that weakens the Jewish identity of secular Jews and a secular tradition that can strengthen it.

Before proceeding to discuss the secular Jewish tradition some attention must be given to the fact that this is complicated by several terminological unclarities. As already noted, the adjective “Jewish” can refer to either the Jewish people or the Jewish religion. To avoid confusion, except where the meaning is clear as in “the Jewish religion,” we will follow the philosopher Horace M. Kallen’s usage of Jewish to refer to the people and Judaic to refer to the religion.

Similarly, secular is generally used to refer to both secularity and secularism. It need hardly be noted that secular means non-religious and this-worldly. However, it is not generally understood that secularity is the state of being non-religious and this-worldly, while secularism is the viewpoint and movement that advocates being non-religious and this-worldly. When distinguishing between them, secularity and secularism will be used in the above-stated senses with secular to refer to the former and secularist to refer to the latter. When no distinction between them is required, we will follow accepted usage in referring to both secularism and secularity by secularism as in “the secularism of the time” and referring to both secular and secularist by secular as in “the secular Jewish tradition.”

Finally, this largely historical discussion will use BC and AD rather than BCE and CE, standing for “before the common era” and the “common era,” which are used by Judaic scholars to avoid accepting the supposedly christological implications of the conventional usage. But practically no one other than scholars and theologians is aware that BC and AD stand for “before Christ” and “in the year of the Lord” (anno Domini). These idioms have as little religious significance as goodbye (a contraction of “God be with ye”) and adieu (“to God”). On the other hand, the use of BCE and CE is based on religious considerations.

NOTES to Chapter One

1. The single partial exception is the works of Flavius Josephus (c.37-120 AD). In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus relied on various Jewish and non-Jewish documentary sources for the post-biblical period, i.e., after 150 BC, but conformed to the Bible’s account of earlier history. His Jewish War, dealing with the Judean Roman war of 67-73 AD was based on personal experience and notes, Roman reports and other non-Jewish sources, but references to the history of Jerusalem are derived from the Bible whose accuracy is assumed.

2. “The Sociological View of Jewish History” in Koppel S. Pinson, ed., Nationalism and History: Essays in Old and New Judaism (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1958), pp. 337-339.

3. “Ancestor Worship” (1897) in Leon Simon, ed. and trans. Selected Essays of Ahad Ha-am (New York: Atheneum, 1970 [orig. 1912]) pp. 215-216.

4. Alfred J. Kutzik, Social Work and Jewish Values (Public Affairs Press: Washington, D.C., 1959); “Jewish Values and Jewish Social Service,” Journal of Jewish Communal Service, v. XXXVI, n. 1 (September, 1959); “Jewish Values and Social Crises: The Two Traditions,” Jewish Currents (November, 1970).

5. Social Work and Jewish Values, op cit., pp. 82-23.

6. Arthur Hertzberg, The Jews in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), pp. 386, 388.

7. Sheldon Engelmayer, “American Jewry faces a Spiritual Holocaust,” Sentinel, (Chicago), July 25, 1991.

8. Hertzberg, op. cit. , p. 387.

9. Engelmayer, ibid.

10. Charles S. Liebman, “American Jewry: Identity and Affiliation,” in David Sidorsky, ed., The Future of the Jewish Community in America (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

11. This is so widely recognized that the foremost Jewish historian of our time refers to the “this-worldly orientation of Judaism” without explanation. Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), v. 2, p. 306. The secular orientation and components of Judaism are discussed below in Chapters 2, 3 and 4.

12. In Pinson, op. cit., p. 91. Italics in the original.

13. Akiva Orr, The UnJewish State (London: Ithaca Press, 1983).

14. Golda Meir, Knesset Debates, quoted in Orr, op. cit., p. 175, Feb. 10, 1970.

15. Menachem Begin, Knesset Debates, quoted in Orr, op. cit., pp. 46, 48, July 8, 1958.

16. Orr, idem

17. Aaron Yadin, The Israeli as a Jew (Tel Aviv: Am-Oved, 1977), v. I, p. 146, quoted in Orr, op. cit., pp. 217-218.