What is it that identifies secular Jews as a people — be they Israeli or of the Diaspora, progressive or neo-con, early feminists or members of the Larry David fan club — across generations and throughout the world?
The answer, according to Israeli novelist Amos Oz is the question, or to put it differently, Jewish identity derives from investigating, challenging, differing and perfecting the art of verbal exchange. It’s an age-old interpretive process that shows no sign of abating. The key to identity, says Oz, is “our love affair with words.”
Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger have contributed a slim companion book, “Jews and Words” (Yale University Press) to the recently completed “Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization.” This ten volume series has collected more than 3000 years of cultural – as opposed to religious — texts, artifacts and visuals, including children’s literature and commercial art, all of which, applying liberal criteria, the editors have identified as Jewish.
The YIVO Institute’s one-day conference marking the publication of the inaugural volume is an exploration of secular Judaism. The first panel begins with a question: What after all is Jewish culture, once we eliminate the “essentialist” or “faith-powered” premises of divine revelation? Deborah Dash Moore, one of the volume’s editors, echoes the Ozes: “It is a process, involving those who listen, retell, rethink, read, create in any form.”
It all comes back to “leaving nothing undebated,” in the words of an Oz poem. Words form questions, these ranging from meta-ethics to minutia. From the iconic, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to the talmudic, “Why does a camel have a short tail?” through Woody Allen’s, “Is there an afterlife and if so, will I find parking?” our process is fluid, our boundaries are porous, our curiosity unrestrained.
But moderator and YIVO executive director Jonathan Brent wonders if by over-emphasizing questions and avoiding answers, secularists are “living off the accumulated capital of the past” without making a real contribution of their own. “Might we not be getting too far away from a certain set of prescribed values that has always defined us?” He worries that this emphasis on process and pluralism will leave the younger generation clamoring for certainty in the form of “a golden calf.”
An elderly gentleman gets up to loudly declare the discussion off the mark. He proclaims that we needn’t worry about self-definition as, even without religion, “the anti-Semites will do that for us”. The panel is ready at last to draw a line. They agree that we must not leave it to others to tell us who we are. Jews will continue to self-identify with intellectual rigor, artsy audacity and wordy debates.
To me, this is a Jewish moment if there ever was one. I think of the secularists’ blessing offered by the Oz book: May our arguments keep sizzling. May we all be locking horns to the end of time.
Susan Reimer Torn, a writer who lives in New York City, blogs at susanrtorn.wordpress.com