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Whose Afraid of Secular Judaism? Not These Two Penn Professors

November 2, 2006 By:
Rachel Silverman, JE Staff
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For many Jews, secularism is a threat to Jewish continuity, a force that will drive religiosity from Jewish culture and peoplehood.

But, according to University of Pennsylvania professor Marion Kant, who teaches a course on the subject with her husband and fellow Penn professor, Jonathan Steinberg, such formulations are overly simplistic.

As the scholars demonstrate in their course, Jewish secularism is hardly a new concept, nor should it be seen as a threat to Jewish survival.

Their classes, which are held Tuesday evenings at the Gershman Y, examine the lives and works of various secular Jews throughout history.

"It's a choice not to live in a religious context," explained Kant, defining secularism. "We want to understand the social background, the history that compelled these people to make certain choices."

Kant said that their journey through history begins in the Enlightenment, a period that served not only as the dawn of reason in early modern society, but also became "the basis of an areligious existence."

She described philosopher Moses Mendelssohn as the first Jew to "engage in dialogue with the gentile world"; he translated the Torah into German in an attempt to infuse secular, enlightened thinking into Judaism.

Other Jewish figures grappled with secularism in a political sense. Theodor Herzl, the Viennese journalist and founder of Zionism, was an assimilated, secular Jew for whom the creation of a Jewish state had nothing to do with religion.

Kant said that for Herzl, and other like-minded Jews, the path to secularism rests on the idea that "religion cannot solve social problems."

Herzl's Zionist ideals were an attempt to create a new Jewish nationalist ideology, Kant added.

She noted that rabbis and scholars have long been concerned that "people pay their [synagogue] dues but don't actually think about theological problems -- they're not really engaging themselves in matters. It's like, what do people actually do with the religion -- do they live according to those ideals or do they only pay lip service?"

The course examines those who've sought an answer to such questions, said Kant.

For example, students discuss Mordecai Kaplan, the founding father of Reconstructionism. In this "fourth branch" of Judaism, Kaplan sought to bring the religion in line with American life and up to speed with advances in science, history and philosophy.

Center City resident Pat Wisch, who is currently enrolled in the course, said that studying such topics has made her contemplate her own Jewish affiliation.

"I think about how I say I'm Jewish if I don't attend synagogue regularly, and don't keep a kosher home," said Wisch. "So what does that mean?"

Her husband, Bill Yancey, said Wisch is not alone in her level of observance, citing evidence from a population study he wrote for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in 1984.

While some of those Yancey interviewed adhered to halachah, or Jewish law, others did not. Still, this didn't necessarily determine their level of Jewish engagement.

"There was a wide range of Jewishness among respondents to assert their identity," said Yancey.

The complete course will last through Nov. 28, and then will resume again in March. For more information, call the Gershman Y at 215-545-4400.

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