Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Not in the Heavens

Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought

David Biale
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 272
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Not in the Heavens
    Book Description:

    Not in the Heavenstraces the rise of Jewish secularism through the visionary writers and thinkers who led its development. Spanning the rich history of Judaism from the Bible to today, David Biale shows how the secular tradition these visionaries created is a uniquely Jewish one, and how the emergence of Jewish secularism was not merely a response to modernity but arose from forces long at play within Judaism itself.

    Biale explores how ancient Hebrew books like Job, Song of Songs, and Esther downplay or even exclude God altogether, and how Spinoza, inspired by medieval Jewish philosophy, recast the biblical God in the role of nature and stripped the Torah of its revelatory status to instead read scripture as a historical and cultural text. Biale examines the influential Jewish thinkers who followed in Spinoza's secularizing footsteps, such as Salomon Maimon, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. He tells the stories of those who also took their cues from medieval Jewish mysticism in their revolts against tradition, including Hayim Nahman Bialik, Gershom Scholem, and Franz Kafka. And he looks at Zionists like David Ben-Gurion and other secular political thinkers who recast Israel and the Bible in modern terms of race, nationalism, and the state.

    Not in the Heavensdemonstrates how these many Jewish paths to secularism were dependent, in complex and paradoxical ways, on the very religious traditions they were rejecting, and examines the legacy and meaning of Jewish secularism today.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3664-2
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Introduction: Origins
    (pp. 1-14)

    In “The Non-Jewish Jew,” the Polish social revolutionary Isaac Deutscher, who began his education as a yeshiva student, argued that those who rejected their ancestral religion and their people in favor of secular universalism had historical precursors. In a paradoxical formulation that captured something of his own identity, Deutscher wrote: “The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition.”¹ This “Jewry” is Judaism—not only the religion but all of the traditions built up over nearly three millennia. Yet, in transcending Judaism, the heretic finds himself or herself in a different Jewish tradition, a tradition no less Jewish...

  5. Chapter 1 God: Pantheists, Kabbalists, and Pagans
    (pp. 15-58)

    It is often said that Judaism has no orthodoxy (correct belief), only orthopraxis (correct practice). The commandments, as spelled out in the Bible, elaborated by the rabbis, and codified by medieval sages, were the foundation for the Jewish religion to a far greater extent than theology. Belief in God as the source of these laws was, of course, a given, but without the elaborate dogma and its attendant heresies that one finds in Christianity. One might argue that this theological reticence provided part of the mentality in the modern period for those secular Jews who denied God’s existence altogether. If...

  6. Chapter 2 Torah: The Secular Jewish Bible
    (pp. 59-91)

    In his 1883 iconoclastic diatribe,The Conventional Lies of Our Civilization, the Jewish physician, writer, and later Zionist Max Nordau devoted a chapter to a wholesale attack on religion as a form of primitive thinking. Among his many targets, Nordau also took on the Bible, about which he had this to say:

    We detect in this wasteland (Wust) the superstitious beliefs of the ancient inhabitants of Palestine, dim echoes of Indian and Persian fables, mistaken imitations of Egyptian teachings and practices, historical chronicles as dry as they are unreliable and poems, some typically human, erotic as well as Jewish nationalist-patriotic,...

  7. Chapter 3 Israel: Race, Nation, or State
    (pp. 92-134)

    The premodern definition of Judaism—God, Torah, and Israel—presumed that theology and scripture were meaningless without a people to believe in and enact them. Biblical Israel was constituted through a covenant between God and the descendents of Jacob. Israel thus presupposed Torah, which in turn presupposed God. After biblical times, Israel was understood by the Jews themselves as well as by others to be both the follower of a scriptural religion—a “people of the book” to use the Muslim phrase—and a nation that had lost its land. With the modern age, the unified meaning of Judaism came...

  8. Chapter 4 Israel: History, Language, and Culture
    (pp. 135-175)

    In 1824, Heinrich Heine began writing a never-to-be-completed historical novel titledThe Rabbi of Bacherach.¹ This was one of the first in what would become a genre of Jewish historical fiction, often based on actual figures such as Uriel da Costa or Baruch Spinoza. Heine was evidently influenced by the medieval romances of Sir Walter Scott, who also, at times, featured Jewish characters. Although deeply flawed from a literary point of view, Heine’sRabbiis notable for what its author was trying to accomplish. The work starts out in the Rhineland town of Bacherach (the correct spelling is actually Bacharach)...

  9. Conclusion: God, Torah, and Israel
    (pp. 176-180)

    This book is based on a contrarian argument: that many of the most avowed critics of religion, those we call secularists, could never escape the tradition they overturn. At times, this debt to the past was conscious and explicit, as was certainly the case for Hayim Nahman Bialik or Gershom Scholem. At other times, it requires archaeological excavation to unearth, as with Theodor Herzl or Hannah Arendt. Others fall in between. Salomon Maimon, for example, adopted Maimonides as his namesake but often tried to hide the traces of his traditional education by ridiculing the world of his origins. Unraveling these...

  10. Epilogue: Legacy
    (pp. 181-194)

    The rise of Jewish secularism was largely a story of the turn of the twentieth century. This secular “moment” in Jewish history had its precursors, as this book has argued, and it is by no means entirely over. But for all of the Jewish communities in which secular political, cultural, and philosophical movements flourished, the great ideological struggles of a century ago have been transformed and, in many cases, vanquished. Yet their legacy in the form of cultural memory remains alive and not only within memory. On the contrary, the concept oflegacysuggests a memory that continues to haunt...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 195-220)
  12. Index
    (pp. 221-229)