The Emergence of the Secular Jew in Russia

Yakov Rabkin

Emancipation of Jews in Western and Central Europe in the course of the nineteenth century made Jewish identity optional. Those who wanted to practice Judaism remained Jewish, others gradually assimilated and dissolved in the ambient society. But when adapted to the situation of the Jews of the Russian Empire, where the emancipation had been slow in coming and where Jews lived in relatively compact communities, the idea of an “optional Jewish religion” produced an entirely different effect. In Russia, secularization undermined the practice of Judaism without diluting the Jews’ sense of cultural belonging. Compared to Jews in France and Germany, the Jews of Russia had few opportunities to assimilate into the surrounding society: most of them were obliged to live within the Pale of Settlement.

Thus crystallized the concept of the “secular Jew.” The new concept, which quickly gained popularity in Eastern Europe, and particularly in the Russian Empire, eliminated the religious — and thus normative — dimension of the Jewish identity and retained only its biological and cultural dimensions. Jewishness would no longer depend on what one did, but on what one was.

It was a replica of the concept of the Jew promoted by the then nascent movement of racial anti-Semitism. Certain rabbinical thinkers have asserted that racial anti-Semitism raised its head in Europe a few years after the emergence of a secular Jewish identity, thereby intimating a cause-and-effect relationship between the two. It is beyond doubt that the idea of a secular Jew constituted the cornerstone of the Zionist project, and remains the pillar of Israeli society to this day.

The Zionist movement appeared at first as a paradox, incongruous and yet threatening. For, while it claimed to be a force for modernization against the dead weight of tradition and history, it idealized the biblical past, manipulated the traditional symbols of religion and proposed to transmute into reality the millennia-long dreams of the Jews. But above all, Zionism put forward a new definition of what it means to be Jewish. Israeli historian Yosef Salmon, explains why the Zionist idea continues to provoke opposition from traditional Jews: “Put briefly, the general rabbinical conception of Zionism was that of a secularizing force in Jewish society… Since its major programs were associated with the Holy Land — the object of traditional messianic hopes — it was infinitely more dangerous than any other secularizing force in Judaism and, accordingly, it had to be attacked.”

Indeed, the Zionists’ redefinition of the Jewish people, with pride of place accorded to the national dimension of Jewish identity, provoked an outcry among rabbinical thinkers. For them, the concept of nation must be based on allegiance to the Torah rather than identification with an ethnic group or a given territory. They viewed the nationalist approach as a contradiction in adjecto: one cannot be both Jewish and an atheist, that is to say, Jew and non-Jew, at the same time. The majority of Russian rabbis, closer to the reality that had fuelled Zionism’s popularity, relegated the Zionist movement to the same category as earlier efforts to eradicate the Torah.

Indeed, Jewish radical movements of Eastern Europe sought to eliminate every notion of religious responsibility. By the latter decades of the nineteenth century, they had come to see themselves as the first generation to have cast off any obligation stemming from the Torah.

A striking example of the way in which Jewish nationalism came to substitute for Judaism was the call issued by a young Jew to Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940), a Russian author and Zionist leader: “Our life is dull and our hearts are empty, for there is no God in our midst; give us a God, sir, worthy of dedication and sacrifice, and you will see what we can do”. The answer was swift and clear : “Iron, from which everything that the national machine requires should be made. Does it require a wheel? Here I am. A nail, a screw, a girder? Here I am. Police? Doctors? Actors? Water carriers? Here I am. I have no features, no feelings, no psychology, no name of my own. I am a servant of Zion, prepared for everything, bound to nothing, having one imperative: Build!” There is a utopian political flavour to this rhetoric: iron and steel were the Bolsheviks’ and later the Fascists’ metaphors of choice. Stalin’s nom de guerre means “man of steel”.

Russian Zionists formed the elite of the new society and their descendants have largely retained political power in Israel. Moreover, only in Russia did Jews participate in great numbers in terrorist movements, and some of them would later use this experience to conquer Palestine from the indigenous population. Albeit atheists, they used Biblical verses to legitimate the Zionist project, and this paradox did not escape the sharp wit of some observers. According to Professor Raz-Krokotzkin of the Ben Gurion University in Israel, the Zionists’ claim to this land can be put in a nutshell: “God does not exist, and he promised us this land”.

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The Emergence of the Secular Jew in Russia