David Biale. Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. xiii + 229 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-14723-9.
Reviewed by Steven Frankel (Xavier University)
Published on H-Judaic (March, 2011)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
Spinoza’s Children: The History of Jewish Secularism
Throughout his long and distinguished career as a scholar of Jewish thought, David Biale’s essays and books have consistently enriched our understanding of the major development in Jewish life and thought, on topics as diverse as power, culture, and eros. In his most recent book, Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought, Biale argues that secularism should not be seen as a radical break from religious tradition, but rather the continuation of certain themes in Jewish thought. Moreover, the book offers a comprehensive survey of the various strands of modern Jewish secularism to show the diverse range of secular Jewish views of God, Torah, and Israel.
Many scholars of secularism, including Karl Löwith and Marcel Gauchet, have argued that secularism emerges dialectically from religious tradition. Others, including Biale’s teacher Amos Funkenstein, have shown how “secular theology” in Jewish thought emerges specifically out of the context of early modern philosophy. Biale combines these views and offers in addition that modern Jewish secularism (including the denial of a transcendent God) is grounded in the very tradition that it rejects. Such a thesis is controversial, not to say shocking. But the strength of Biale’s work is that he carefully describes and catalogs this process in the thought of more than a dozen of the most important Jewish secular thinkers. In selecting this group, Biale avoided intellectuals who “happened to be Jewish or who came from Jewish origins” (p. xii). Rather, he includes only those thinkers whose sustained and explicit intellectual work made a significant contribution to secular Jewish culture and identity. By this standard, it is difficult to quarrel with Biale’s choices.
There are not many contemporary Jewish scholars who could offer such succinct and at the same time penetrating analysis of such a variety of secular Jewish thinkers, writers, and artists. Biale admits that Jewish secularism is not easy to define, particularly because Judaism does not insist on adherence to dogma. To tease out the meaning of secularism, therefore, he allows it to emerge “phenomenologically from the sources,” that is, from the thought of important secular Jewish thinkers (p. 10). As a framework for these case studies, Biale uses Mordechai Kaplan’s assertion in Judaism as a Civilization (1934) regarding “the well-known trilogy, God, Israel, and Torah” (p. 12). Jewish secularism describes the process in which each of these categories is transformed to exclude reference to the divine (p. 177). He explains, for example, how Freud secularizes the notion of chosenness, explaining it in terms of an intellectual and emotional identity which is receptive to modern science and psychology (pp. 41,77). He shows how Moses Mendelssohn establishes a “Jewish identity devoid of politics” in order to present Jews as ideal citizens in the modern liberal state. Later, Biale explains how Zionism emerged in part as a response whereby Jewish identity is understood in terms of political power as opposed to religious belief. The book concludes with an insightful report on the current state of the American Jewish community.
The main thread that connects the various parts of Biale’s argument is the thought of the seventeenth-century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza consciously rebelled against the rabbinical authorities of his community in Amsterdam, and was subsequently excommunicated. In Spinoza, Biale finds “the first secular Jew” and he describes the subsequent secular Jewish thinkers as the “Spinoza’s children” (pp. 10, 15, 57, 177). On historical grounds alone, Biale makes a convincing case by showing that nearly every subsequent secular Jewish thinker, whatever their particular position, cites Spinoza with reverence. What is the legacy that Spinoza bequeathed, and which subsequent thinkers found so irresistible? It is, Biale suggests, “a certain mentality, a willingness to stake out an independence from scripture, even in the thick of a traditional culture” (p. 8). This intellectual and spiritual rebelliousness is supported even in the very scriptural and rabbinic texts of the tradition.
But Biale pushes his case further. Borrowing from Freud, who argued that Judaism emerges when the sons or Israelites collectively revolt against their father, Moses, Biale argues that Jewish secularism emerges when modern Jews like Spinoza revolt against their “uncles”--in this case, Maimonides. So Spinoza plays the central role in the “secular versions of collective Jewish memory” (p. 11) and secularism not only destroys the tradition of Judaism as a religion, but creates an alternative version of Judaism.
We cannot, in truth, blame Maimonides for ushering in the downfall of the tradition. The rabbis themselves were less interested in theology than in law. The result was that Judaism was ill-prepared to confront philosophical challenges since it had “no prescribed theology” (pp. 18, 39). Maimonides simply tried to remedy this problem by offering a profession of faith consistent with reason and Jewish practice. The problem, according to Biale, is that “Maimonides’ God was utterly transcendent, so removed from the world as to have nothing in common with it” (p. 19). This was certainly not consistent with the God of the Bible, and “cleared the way for an autonomous realm of nature” (p. 20). Spinoza--whom Biale refers to as “Maimonides’ stepson”--did not so much have to attack Maimonides, as to build on the foundations that he had already laid (p. 29). In working out the logic of Maimonides’ account, Spinoza thought he was breaking radically from the Jewish tradition. In hindsight, we can see what Spinoza did not, namely that his “arguments are squarely in the Maimonidean tradition” (p. 25).
Biale’s account of Spinoza suggests that despite his “radical philosophy,” Spinoza was unable to escape history and could not himself see clearly the debt he owed to Maimonides (and other Jewish thinkers, especially Ibn Ezra). More generally, this explains why secularism is closely related to the religious tradition, even though it resists seeing itself in such terms. This provocative account is thoroughly historicist, and raises a host of important questions about the relation between philosophy and history. One way to approach such questions is to ask how Spinoza himself viewed Maimonides, and more broadly, how Spinoza viewed his critique of the Bible. To his credit, Biale does not shy away from such difficult questions, and in his chapter on the secularization of scripture, offers an account of Spinoza’s project.
Biale argues that “the Bible teaches the exact opposite of [Spinoza’s] philosophy” and that therefore it “no longer had any relevance” to modern life (pp. 72-73). “Spinoza’s goal was to create a state safe for philosophers” (p. 70). Such radical claims seem consistent with what Jonathan Israel has described as “the radical enlightenment,” but are they consistent with Spinoza’s account? Biale hedges his bets: even though, according to Spinoza, the Bible does not teach a true metaphysics, it does teach “eternal moral truths” that can be “pressed into the service of a liberal republic” (p. 74). In Biale’s account, Spinoza seems to think that true and eternal moral teachings are consistent with or can be derived from false metaphysical claims. Nor is Spinoza very clear about the ultimate status of the Bible in modern society. If the goal is freedom for philosophers, why should we tolerate any metaphysical superstitions?
Biale’s argument is that such ambiguities are precisely why secularism developed into so many varied and interesting currents. As historical claims, he may well be correct. But some readers will not be satisfied that Biale has done full justice to Spinoza’s account, or that he has identified problems that Spinoza somehow did not see. Part of the problem is that Biale does not read Spinoza on his own terms, but rather from the point of view of subsequent secular Jewish thinkers, who borrow from Spinoza sporadically and for particularly ends.
David Biale’s Not in the Heavens is a useful and fascinating account of the development of modern, secular alternatives. In demonstrating the variety and depth of modern secular thought, Biale has no doubt advanced our appreciation of this formidable tradition. As an introduction to modern Jewish thought in general, and Jewish secularism in particular, his book is likely to be required reading for the foreseeable future.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Steven Frankel. Review of Biale, David, Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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