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The Paradox of Secular Judaism

Secular Jews, from Ber Borochov to ‘Broad City,’ lambast tradition but never stray far from the source

Liel Leibovitz
April 28, 2016
Comedy Central
Comedy Central
Comedy Central
Comedy Central

Ber Borochov loved Passover. Ordinarily, the Marxist, Zionist, and Yiddishist had no patience for the superstitions of his forefathers, but in the haggadah he found a hero for his time: the Wicked Son. The Passover story’s obdurate loner, Borochov wrote enthusiastically, rejects collective destiny for individual liberation, and is therefore no less than “the foundation for the construction of new Jewish life.”

It’s a curious line for many reasons, its jagged provocation the least among them. Why would Borochov, for whom that sphere of spiritual stirring frequently referred to as religion was occupied by nothing but dreams of universalist socialism, bother with a bit of ancient liturgy?

Call it the Apikores paradox, after the derogatory term for a nonbeliever: For all of his staunch rejection of Judaism’s theological underpinnings, Borochov, educated in a Russian public high school and taken with revolutionary politics from an early age, could most comfortably refuse his faith only by embracing its ideas and terminology. He was hardly alone among Zionism’s founding fathers in embodying this strange predicament: A popular song in the yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, stressed the same self-reliance theme as Borochov by declaring that “No miracle happened to us/ We found no can of oil.” The song—it’s played to this day in Israel as Yom Hazikaron, or Memorial Day, turns to Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day—means to set the modern-day Zionists apart from those old and quivering Jews who needed divine intervention to secure their victories. But to express this sentiment it had to remain firmly in conversation with the story of Hanukkah. Just when you thought you were out, religion pulls you back in.

It’s an old story, and it goes on still; ask Abbi and Ilana, the stars and creators of Broad City, the funniest TV show in recent memory. On the third season’s two-part finale, which aired last week, the two found themselves on a Birthmark trip to Israel, modeled after you-know-what. It was, quite possibly, the Jewiest hour ever aired on popular American television, with wordplay and quips that would delight all Hebrew school graduates and, quite possibly, no one else. (Sample: Ilana, pledging her discretion after having fellated a gentleman in the airplane’s bathroom: “Don’t worry, I won’t Tel Aviv”; the gentleman, slightly panicked: “You know Aviv?”) But the jokes, like all the best of their kind, delivered more than just chuckles: Listen to these two embodiments of young, hip, urban, educated, secular American Judaism trading punchlines, and you’ll hear, veiled in puns and profanities, a surprising testament of faith.

Consider the show’s comic centerpiece. Introducing herself to her fellow Birthmarkers—they’re wearing Star of David T-shirts and chanting “Jews! Jews! Jews!”—Ilana says that her goal for the all-expenses-paid trip to the Motherland is to join the Mohel Chai Club. It’s a good line: Ilana is a sexual adventurer, and it’s natural that on a flight to Israel the Mile High Club, reserved for those who have unleashed their libidos in the skies, will receive an amusing Hebrew twist. But returning to her seat, Ilana explains to Abbi the deeper meaning behind her desire: Mohel Chai is no play on Mile High; rather, it’s an allusion to metzizah b’peh, the controversial custom some mohels practice of sucking the newborn’s penis after the ritual circumcision. Basically, Ilana explains to an increasingly troubled Abbi, she’s just in the mood for some oral loving—not with babies, of course, but with a fellow member of the Abrahamic covenant.

Are you troubled by these vulgarities? Read the exchange once again. Here are two of our generation’s most prodigious comics, reaching deep down for joke material and coming up with the intricacies of an ancient religious ceremony. Sure, the laugh they go for is on the easy side, making our ancient tribal customs seem absurdly incongruous with modernity. But that’s where the Apikores paradox kicks in: To show how irreligious they are, the two sophisticated comedians reached inside and grasped, well, religion.

It shouldn’t necessarily be so. We are now five or six decades into what could, without too much hyperbole, be called the Golden Age of American Jewish secularism. Three generations of writers, maybe four, have stretched out at their keyboards since Philip Roth examined his anxieties with the old traditions. Hundreds of comics have taken the stage after Lenny Bruce. You would think that the passage of time and the powers of assimilation would’ve forged some other sensibility, a line more refined. You would think that laughing at the musty squares who seriously believed all that silly stuff about divine election and golden calves would’ve faded with the generations, even more so as most young American Jews kicking about today were raised by parents and grandparents who’ve already cast off the yoke of tradition. But here are the best and brightest among the Millennials, tearing into tradition like it was 1959 and there was a graying establishment of small-minded shul-going bubbies and zaydes to scandalize.

The reason for that is sad as it is simple. It’s because secular Judaism was always a mood, never an ideology. It had no ideas of its own to promote beyond the ripe fruit of universal humanism, and no real rewards to offer beyond the momentary thrill of a pat on the back from the Smiths and the Joneses. That was all good and well for the first and second generations of American Jews who delighted in their newfound deracinated Americanism; the third and fourth generations, however, mine and that of Abbi and Ilana, began asking what else this Jewish American dream entailed, and the answer, tragically, was this: nothing much.

Hence jokes about mohels. Say what you will about the old virtues, but at least they offer a coherent vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of holiness. They’re easy to embrace, reject, or negotiate with because they are, like those iconic tablets on which they were delivered, present and concrete. Try grappling with Jewish secularism and I doubt you’ll achieve anything more meaningful than a Freudian analysis of Woody Allen’s early work.

I say all this not as a eulogy but as an invitation. For decades, too many of the sharpest among us maintained that there were, at the very least, two ways of being Jewish: The zealots could go on with their amulets and their groupthink and their suspicion of any and all outside their closed circuits, while the enlightened could pursue a form of Judaism that was more worldly, that contained multitudes, that was sophisticated and modern and eminently more suitable to the way we live now. But pay attention to the uneasy snickering around you, and you may begin to suspect that it’s not true, and that enlightened Judaism defines itself mainly by arm wrestling with the other kind. What if we rejected this rejection? What if we agreed that we were all orbiting the same sun, and as that’s the case, might as well learn a thing or two about it? What if instead of slow-clapping Marx or the Marx Brothers those liberated Jews took up Maimonides or the Mishnah? Not that they would have to believe every word; that has never been the point, neither for observant Jews nor for anyone else. But instead of fashioning their own mythology and their own pantheon and their own scriptures and reveling in their ignorance of the old sources, what if secular Jews conceded that secularism was, at best, a state of mind, and focused instead on having a serious, mature, and meaningful discussion with the Mother Faith?

Hannah Arendt, of all people, was hinting at something like this reckoning when she wrote that the thrust toward modernity robbed those Jews eager to get to the other side of their essence. “Without chosenness,” she wrote, “which charged one specific people with the redemption of the world, Messianic hope evaporated into the dim cloud of general philanthropy and universalism which became so characteristic of specifically Jewish political enthusiasm.” From that dim cloud to dick jokes it’s but a short step; both, like the best of sound and fury, signify nothing.

Instead of clowning with or clawing at Judaism, then—like Abbi and Ilana, like Ber Borochov—why not really grapple with it? Pick up a Bible and read a few chapters; if you fail to be moved by the moral transformation of Abraham or the wise stoicism of Kohelet you would, at the very least, find more than your share of amusing anecdotes involving genitalia. And if you go even further and read a page of Talmud, you’ll find that much of it is the account of arguments, of points and counter-points, of divergent answers to the same questions, the ones that truly matter.

This coming together in learning shouldn’t be too hard to pull off. Our denominations, for the most part, are already dead or dying, in part because the distinctions that they offer no longer hold up, if they ever did in the first place. And even our most young and prodigious and rebellious are telling us that they care enough about our traditions to mock them in hilarious two-part season finales. Let’s do something, anything, with this energy, and live up to the most profound of history’s directives to the Jews: Argue better.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.