It can hardly be denied that modernity brought with it, alongside other momentous changes, the rapid and widespread secularization of Jewish communities, producing both signiﬁcant percentages of secular Jews and, at various historical junctures, self-consciously secular or ideologically secularist political and cultural movements. While it is clear that Jewish secularization emerged from the larger context of European trends of secularization, it is nevertheless distinct from it. The progression traced by Max Weber from Renaissance Humanism to the Protestant Reformation and post-Calvinist capitalism, for instance, only partly correlates with the historical and cultural conditions that gave rise to Jewish secularization (Weber 1904). In recent years, the Protestant biases of what has been called “the secularization thesis” have been revised to account for the secularizing experiences of other groups, from post-Catholic European societies to Europe’s former colonies throughout the world. It is now clear to most critics that no single “secularism” exists (including in the Jewish world), despite the universalist claims and aspirations of some varieties of secularism. Under the inﬂuence of postcolonialism, the philosophical understandings of an earlier era of scholarship have given way to new political, economic, and cultural perspectives on the secularization process. With these resources, critics have called into question the empirical truth and underlying value judgments of the secularization thesis: it no longer seems obvious that the exemplary feature of modernity is the narrowing, privatizing, or “subtraction” of the religious sphere under the salutary pressure of rational thought and religious tolerance. For many observers, including some who had earlier asserted the inevitability of global secularization, it has become increasingly clear that we are living in a “desecularized” or “post-secular” age (Berger 1999). The pioneering proponents of the secularization thesis focused their attention on secularization
as a gradual transformation of traditional metaphysical worldviews. Peter Berger, borrowing Weber’s famous phrase, described secularization as “the disenchantment of the world,” emblematized by an “immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred” (Berger 1991: 107). As Weber had argued, this “shrinkage” begins in the pre-modern world, in particular in Protestant revisions of Catholic worldviews. The Reformation left a channel between “fallen” humanity and transcendent divinity in its conception of God’s grace, but this channel was so ethereal and narrow as to be easily severed. “A sky empty of angels,” Berger writes, “becomes open to the intervention of the astronomer and, eventually, of the astronaut” (Berger 1991: 112-13). If
Protestantism carried within its own religious teachings the seeds of the rationalism that would leave the sky “empty,” these seeds themselves were sown with the Biblical revolution, which much earlier had winnowed the pagan pantheons. It is true, Berger writes, that medieval Catholicism had repopulated the cosmos with angels and saints; nevertheless, “‘the disenchantment of the world’ begins in the Old Testament.” If Berger is correct that the “Old Testament” and, as he adds elsewhere, the rabbinic Judaism
that emerged from it oﬀer an already-disenchanted world, then Jewish monotheism represents earlier and more purely than Protestantism a religious rationalism that could mature into fullblown secularism. Such a proto-secularism, if it worked as the Protestant model ostensibly did, should have paved the way early on for the “disenchantment of the world” among Jews. While the conceptualization of Judaism as (proto-rational) monotheism is not entirely wrong, it fails to do justice to the rich variety of traditional Jewish cosmologies, some of which featured heavens as crowded as any imagined elsewhere. The demythologized monotheism Berger sees as quintessentially Judaic is, for most of Jewish history, the rareﬁed property of the philosophical elite. It could be argued, in fact, that Berger’s notion of Judaism as biblical monotheism represents not its essence and ground but rather a modern-even secular-construct, arising as it does most clearly in the nineteenth-century theology (or apologetics) of Wissenschaft des Judentums and Reform Judaism; Judaism as monotheism is thus not the seed of Jewish secularity but rather the byproduct of Jewish modernity in its Europeanizing mode. There is no reason to dismiss entirely the project of tracing “proto-secular” trends in tradi-
tional Jewish thought, given the crucial question of how Jews broke with their religion, if religion was as all-encompassing in the pre-modern world as scholars have assumed. In tracing the hidden roots of Jewish secularity, scholars have argued that secular Jewish thought arose in dialectical relation to religious trends, as, for instance, in the connection between Maimonides’ puriﬁed and rationalized transcendentalist monotheism and Spinoza’s rational, radically imminent pan(en)theism. Gershom Scholem followed a diﬀerent and decidedly non-rational subterranean route from religion to Jewish secularism in the antinomian messianic forces unleashed by Sabbatianism, which Scholem believed found secular expression in the Berlin Haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment] and political expression in Zionism (Scholem 1971: 140-41). Shmuel Feiner sees the essentially theological phenomenon of Sabbatianism as feeding into the broader and more diﬀuse anti-theological culture of deism, libertinism, and antinomianism, far beyond the elites on whom Scholem focuses (Feiner 2011: 22). Among the more complex genealogies of Jewish metaphysical secularism is Yirmiyahu Yovel’s tracing of Spinoza’s freedom from received notions of God and the Bible not to a submerged tendency within Jewish tradition but rather to the phenomenology of the converso, in which the co-presence of conﬂicting religious systems gives rise to, among other eﬀects, worldliness and philosophical relativism (Yovel 1992: 26). The most ambitious recent attempt to narrate a history of Jewish secular thought is David
Biale’s Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought, which responds to the question of the emergence of the secular-of how “the new is always incubated in the old”—by reaching back not to the Bible, where Berger begins, but rather to the Talmud, where Biale explores (and partially rejects) the notion that rabbinic thought championed human autonomy over divine revelation. Taking as illustration the famous story of the Oven of Akhnai, in which the rabbis override a heavenly voice in favor of majority rule, Biale acknowledges that rabbinic proto-humanism “neither leads to nor causes the revolt by later secularists against the tradition.” A relationship might nevertheless be suggested:
One might argue that [the story of the Oven of Akhnai] is a symptom of a certain mentality, a willingness to stake out an independence from scripture, even in the thick
of a traditional culture. It is this mentality that may have predisposed certain Jews, once they became infected with modernity, to break from the religion. And the text is also available to those moderns who would use it to give their philosophies a historical pedigree.