As a left-wing, secular Jew it comes as no surprise that Jewish religion is a complicated topic for me. My mother, who took me to temple as a young person, is an atheist. So were her father and mother, both Jewish leftists who would have us over every year for Passover and Hanukkah. So was our rabbi, who frequently proclaimed from the bima that he did not believe in God. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I actually met a Jewish person in my progressive circles who said they believed in HaShem, whatever or whoever that entity may be (we could not even agree on this).
There is an old joke that goes something like this: Shlomo, an avowed Communist, was seen exiting temple on a Saturday afternoon much to the surprise and wonder of his comrade who spotted him while crossing the street. “I go to temple,” Shlomo explained, “because my best friend Moishe goes to temple, and if I want to talk to Moishe, that is the only place to find him.”
The joke gets at the idea that Jewish religion is not separable from Jewish community, from Jewish ideas of peoplehood. Religion for Jews is a collective affair; one needs a minyan – ten Jews, religious or not – to have a service, suggesting that individual relationships to HaShem are, if not frowned upon, beside the point. Even the question of “faith” is a dodgy concept for practitioners of Judaism. “We are an orthopraxy,” one religious studies scholar explained to me. You just need to follow the rules; what is in your heart is of little concern. Similarly, how one might feel about community service is also beside the point: you put on your safety jacket, your hat (tallis and yarmulke), and you just go and make the world a little cleaner.
There are number of literary examples that fuse Jewish religious practice with the secular, even atheist politics on the left. Perhaps one of the most famous is the conclusion of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, in which Babel wants us to think of a jarring and haunting mess of broken Jewish symbols and a defeated revolution as coincident, simultaneous, inextricably bound up together:
I threw everything together in a jumble, the mandates of the political agitator and the mementos of a Jewish poet. Portraits of Lenin and Maimonides lay side by side — the gnarled steel of Lenin’s skull and the listless silk of the Mainmonides portrait. A lock of woman’s hair lay in a book of the resolutions of the Sixth Party Congress, and crooked lines of Ancient Hebrew verse huddled in the margins of Communist pamphlets. Pages of the Song of Songs and revolver cartridges drizzled on me in a sad, sparse rain. The sad rain of the sunset washed the dust from my hair, and I said to the young man, who was dying on a ripped mattress in the corner, “Four months ago, on a Friday evening, Gedali the junk dealer took me to your father, Rabbi Motale, but back then Bratslavsky, you were not in the Party”…..He died before we reached Rovno. He died the last prince, amid poems, phylacteries, and foot bindings. We buried him at a desolate train station. And I, who can barely harness the storms of fantasy raging through my ancient body, I received my brother’s last breath.
For Babel, the portraits of Lenin and Maimonides are side-by-side, steel and silk, weapon and garment, much like the tefillin and foot-bindings, the Song of Songs and bullet casings. As Jewish studies scholar Michael Rom said with reference to the Jewish left in 1960s Brazil, they studied the “Torah of Che Guevara,” fusing the ancient communal and religious texts with the global revolution. For Babel, they are not separable.
Perhaps my favorite example is from Howard Fast’s 1947 short story “Epitaph for Sydney,” published in the Jewish Communist magazine Jewish Life. It tells the story of a Jewish Communist, Sidney, who first organized with Black sharecroppers in the Deep South before joining the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight fascists in Spain, and who finally died under a hail of German bullets fighting with the Allies in Italy, during the final months of the Second World War.
They buried Sidney Greenspan in Italian soil, good soil, and the soil of Spain is good, too, and the soil of America, and the soil of the Soviet Union, and of China – and if he had his choice, I don’t think there is any place he wouldn’t have been at home, fully and completely at home…
…In the personal columns of the paper he read and loved, there were many boxes with heavy black lines to bind them in, and whatever the name, there was a reference to the struggle against fascism. That is how we came to put together what we knew and remembered of Sidney; but nothing we could tell and nothing we could compile and no reasons we could give were enough to explain the fabric of him. So we gathered it into a word and wrote: “To the memory of Sidney Greenspan, anti-fascist, who fell in the people’s struggle, from his comrades.”
It is impossible not to read Sidney’s elegy as an elegant rendering of the meaning of diaspora. Sydney was a de-territorialized subject, someone who could be “at home” anywhere, the U.S., the Soviet Union, China. The focus on soil roots Sydney, as someone that exists within nations but across nations, in the earth at the same time as it links him to peoples across the globe. And yet what binds this diaspora together is not the nation state but rather the radical newspapers he read, bound with “heavy black lines,” much like tefillin themselves. The Torah of antifascism is a religious cause to Sidney, and his revolutionary zeal is connected implicitly with his portable literacy, his book of prayers — the Daily Worker. As Judith Butler articulates in her intellectual history of anti-Zionism, “Jewish values of cohabitation with the non-Jew…are part of the very ethical substance of diasporic Jewishness” — and perhaps its religious substance as well.
Of course, it’s necessary to point out that this is not an essential nature of the Jewish religion, which takes as many forms as does the Jewish people – even if, I would argue, there are elements to Jewish culture and Jewish observance which lend it a more flexible and secular articulation than Christianity. As Jewish studies scholar Tony Michels points out, Jewish socialist politics only began in the 1880s and 1890s to think there might be something about Jewish identity worth preserving, or at least organizing around. The notion that one might, say, go to a radical seder is, historically speaking, quite new – perhaps a century and a half old. But then again, so is the idea of secularism, or the novel itself: a form that lends itself to making sacred the secular.