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Eliezer Schweid on the Relation between Halakhah and Secularism

One of the most significant cultural trends in Israeli society is the resurgence of interest in Jewish texts among circles of secular Jews. The return of secular Jews to the Jewish bookshelf began in the mid 1970s as part of the cultural reconfiguration that followed the Yom Kippur War. It has accelerated, however, in the last fifteen years, particularly since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, producing numerous initiatives and institutions involving joint secular-religious study of Jewish texts and independent secular engagement with traditional sources. It has grown to the extent that it has been characterized as a fourth stream within the cultural and social constellation of Israeli society.

The innovative aspects of the secular return to the Jewish bookshelf and the religious-secular dialogue that it has spawned have generated a host of educational and cultural dilemmas: Should the secular cultural revival concern itself solely with interpreting texts or should it include additional norms and commitments? Does the engagement with the tradition-particularly if we see it as a form of Talmud torah-require any faith or behavioral commitment? One of the most innovative thinkers who has grappled with these questions is Eliezer Schweid, the most important contemporary Israeli philosopher. In this brief article I will only relate to only one aspect of his extensive and comprehensive vision for the renewed cultural and religious commitment of secular Jews, namely his understanding of the relation between Halakhah and Secularism.

Schweid recognizes that even more so than faith, halakhah is foreign and perhaps even taboo to many secular Jews. He must therefore show them that the logic of their renewed cultural dedication points to an additional commitment, namely the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments. Moreover, the secular Jew in affirming a secular halakhah is not required to abandon his or her cherished humanistic beliefs. Rather the reorientation is grounded in the acquisitions of new insights that pave the way for the recognition of a liberal, humanistic, non-Orthodox yet authoritative halakhah. Schweid’s approach to the nature of halakhah for the secular Jew is grounded in a number of principles:

1. There is a need to create a normative framework for a viable and vibrant Jewish community. A halakhic way of life culminates the secular Jew’s gradual realization that secularism must be grounded in the acceptance of authority and the rejection of egotistical, anarchistic tendencies. It represents the completion of a cultural reorientation that must be translated into a binding way of life. As a result, Schweid opposes the rejection of halakhah of Buber and Gordon, whose approach to culture and faith deeply impacted upon his own understanding of these issues. According to Schweid, they failed to realize that without stable normative institutions that must be criticized and updated at times, there is no possibility of achieving real change (Schweid, “God, Man and Nature in the Teachings of Martin Buber,” [Hebrew] Daat 57-59 (2006) p. 284, note 17).

2. Continuity must be maintained between the traditional framework and the secular cultural creations. Halakhah, particularly in its secular guise, must continuously incorporate new elements. But tradition must be the matrix from which these new practices emerge. Hence, the continuity cannot be achieved if the religious elements of the mitzvot are neutralized (Schweid, Zionism After Zionism, (Hebrew) p. 245). In this vein, Schweid criticizes earlier Zionistic efforts who attempted to integrated elements of Jewish law into their cultural efforts (Schweid, Towards a Modern Jewish Culture, (Hebrew) pp. 306-311). Although they realized the need to achieve continuity, they related to halakhah as folklore and merely secular cultural norms. Like Ahad Haam’s exegesis of the Jewish textual tradition, they attempted to strip Jewish law of its religious character. Schweid, in contrast, calls for secular halakhic creations that retain their character as divine commandments.

3. Sensitivity must be displayed regarding the particular existential state of the secular community in forging a normative framework. Schweid’s existential journey for the secular Jew addresses the secular Jew from the state at which he or she stands. It leads the individual to cultural and religious commitment in an incremental process that never demands of him or her a step that he or she is unable to take. Likewise, secular halakhah must gradually bring the Jew to a renewed dedication, attentive to the current spiritual state of the modern Jew.

4. The Jewish way of life must be integrated into a humanistic outlook that relates to social and national issues. For Schweid, halakhah has continuously taken form in the context of Jewish civilization and it must continue to address contemporary issues that challenge the Jewish people and the State of Israel. While relating to the existential needs of individual Jews, it must resist the modern impulse to shorn it of its social character, relegating it to the narrow confines of the individual’s relation with God.

These four principles can be distilled into one defining characteristic: secular halakhah must preserve the humanistic and nationalistic values of secular Jews and be sensitive to their existential state, particularly to their sense of autonomy, while preserving the authoritative and religious nature of traditional halakhah. This definition underscores the complexity and difficulty of Schweid’s task. In his halakhic philosophy, Schweid tethers diverse world views that are generally recognized as irreconcilable. What is more, he attempts to forge together these conflicting systems without negating or even down playing their core values. In particular, Schweid endeavors to bridge the gap between the autonomy of secular humanism and the theonomy of traditional halakhah, on the one hand, and the individualism of existentialism and the collectivism of nationalism, on the other hand. That is, secular halakhah should respect the freedom of the individual in the spirit of secular humanism as well as command him or her as dictated by traditional halakhah. Likewise, it should address the existential needs of the individuals as well as taking into account the corporate requirements of the nation.

Although the formulation of a detailed code of Jewish law for the secular Jew requires further guidelines for implementing these principles, Schweid believes that these principles provide a necessary foundation for such an effort. He claims that this normative framework will allow for a deepening of the cultural roots of the secular Jew and can be an authentic expression of secular Judaism. While these claims are certainly controversial within secular Zionism, it has certain precedents among previous Jewish thinkers. Schweid’s thinking on this issue incorporates elements of the philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig, A.D. Gordon and Yechzkial Kaufmann. What is more, there are many secular thinkers and educators who have begun to recognize the need to formulate a more authoritative and demanding form of secular Judaism. Indeed, one can view the phenomena of secular prayer groups as a partial implementation of Schweid’s ambitious agenda for secular Judaism.

Dr. Ari Ackerman is a lecturer in Jewish Education and Jewish Thought at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Photo: Prof. Eliezer Schweid

Prof. Ari Ackerman is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

President Ackerman is Associate Professor for Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Education. Prior to his elevation to president, Ackerman held the (David) Golinkin Professor of TALI Jewish Education.  He received his PhD in Jewish thought from Hebrew University and was a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton University. His most recent book is a Critical Edition of the Sermons of Zerahia Halevi Saladin (Beer Sheva University Press, 2013). Prof. Ackerman’s new book on creation and codification in the philosophy of Hasdai Crescas – Hasdai Crescas on Codification, Cosmology and Creation (Brill Press, 2022) is newly published. President Ackerman lives with his family in Jerusalem.

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