Commentary Magazine

Jewish Culture in This Time and Place: Creating a Cultural Atmosphere

Culture, as we understand it today, made its appearance rather recently and grew out of the secularization of religion and the dissolution of traditional values. When we talk about the Christian culture of the Middle Ages, we are using the term loosely and in a sense that would have been almost incomprehensible to medieval man. The process of secularization may or may not have undermined the foundations of religious faith—I am inclined to think that this undermining has been less decisive than we sometimes assume; in any event secularization transformed religious concepts and the results of religious speculation in such a way that they received new meaning and new relevance independent of faith. This transformation marked the beginning of culture as we know it—that is, from then on religion became an important part of culture, but it no longer dominated all spiritual achievements.

Even more important for the establishment of culture than the mere dissolution of traditional values, was that great fear of oblivion which followed close upon the 18th century’s Enlightenment and which pervaded the whole 19th century. The danger of losing historical continuity as such, along with the treasures of the past, was obvious; the fear of being robbed of the specifically human background of a past, of becoming an abstract ghost like the man without a shadow, was the driving power behind that new passion for impartiality and for the collecting of historical curiosities that gave birth to our present historical and philological sciences as well as to the 19th century’s monstrosities of taste. Just because the old traditions were no longer alive, culture was stimulated into being, with all its good and all its ridiculous aspects. The stylelessness of the last century in architecture, its insane attempts to imitate all styles of the past, was only one aspect of what was really a new phenomenon called culture.



Culture is by definition secular. It requires a kind of broadmindedness of which no religion will ever be capable. It can be thoroughly perverted through ideologies and Weltanschauungen which share, though on a lower and more vulgar level, religion’s contempt for tolerance and claim to “possess” the truth. Although culture is “hospitable,” we should not forget that neither religion nor ideologies will, nor ever can, resign themselves to being only parts of a whole. The historian, though hardly ever the theologian, knows that secularization is not the ending of religion.

It so happened that the Jewish people not only did not share in the slow process of secularization that started in Western Europe with the Renaissance, and out of which modern culture was born, but that the Jews, when confronted with and attracted by Enlightenment and culture, had just emerged from a period in which their own secular learning had sunk to an all-time low. The consequences of this lack of spiritual links between Jews and non-Jewish civilization were as natural as they were unfortunate: Jews who wanted “culture” left Judaism at once, and completely, even though most of them remained conscious of their Jewish origin. Secularization and even secular learning became identified exclusively with non-Jewish culture, so that it never occurred to these Jews that they could have started a process of secularization with regard to their own heritage. Their abandonment of Judaism resulted in a situation within Judaism in which the Jewish spiritual heritage became more than ever before the monopoly of rabbis. The German Wissenschaft des Judentums, though it was aware of the danger of a complete loss of all the past’s spiritual achievements, took refuge from the real problem in a rather dry scholarship concerned only with preservation, the results of which were at best a collection of museum objects.

While this sudden and radical escape by Jewish intellectuals from everything Jewish prevented the growth of a cultural atmosphere in the Jewish community, it was very favorable for the development of individual creativity. What had been done by the members of other nations as part and parcel of a more collective effort and in the span of several generations, was achieved by individual Jews within the narrow and concentrated framework of a single human lifetime and by the sheer force of personal imagination. It was as individuals, strictly, that the Jews started their emancipation from tradition.

It is true that a unique and impassioned intensity possessed only the few and was paid for by the fact that a particularly high percentage of Jews occupied themselves as pseudo-cultural busybodies and succumbed to mass culture and the mere love of fame. But it still brought forth a remarkably great number of authentic Jewish writers, artists, and thinkers who did not break under the extraordinary effort required of them, and whom this sudden empty freedom of spirit did not debase but on the contrary made creative.

Since, however, their individual achievements did not find reception by a prepared and cultured Jewish audience, they could not found a specifically Jewish tradition in secular writing and thinking—though these Jewish writers, thinkers, and artists had more than one trait in common. Whatever tradition the historian may be able to detect remained tacit and latent, its continuance automatic and unconscious, springing as it did from the basically identical conditions that each of these individuals had to confront all over again for himself, and master by himself without help from his predecessors.

There is no doubt that no blueprint and no program will ever make sense in cultural matters. If there is such a thing as a cultural policy it can aim only at the creation of a cultural atmosphere—that is, in Elliot Cohen’s words, a “culture for Jews,” but not a Jewish culture. The emergence of talent or genius is independent of such an atmosphere, but whether we shall continue to lose Jewish talent to others, or whether we will become able to keep it within our own community to the same extent that the others do, will be decided by the existence or non-existence of this atmosphere. It is this that seems to me to be the problem. One may give a few suggestions on how to approach it.

There is first of all that great religious and metaphysical post-Biblical tradition which we will have to win back from the theologians and scholars—to both of whom we owe, however, a large debt of gratitude for having preserved it at all. But we shall have to discover and deal with this tradition anew in our own terms, for the sake of people to whom it no longer constitutes a holy past or an untouchable heritage.

There is on the other hand the much smaller body of Jewish secular writings—dating from all periods, but particularly from the 19th century in Eastern Europe; this writing grew out of secular folk life and only the absence of a cultural atmosphere has prevented a portion of it from assuming the status of great literature; instead it was condemned to the doubtful category of folklore. The cultural value of every author or artist really begins to make itself felt when he transcends the boundaries of his own nationality, when he no longer remains significant only to his fellow-Jews, fellow-Frenchmen or fellow-Englishmen. The lack of Jewish culture and the prevalence of folklore in secular Jewish life has denied this transcendence to all Jewish talent that did not simply desert the Jewish community. The rescue of the Yiddish writers of Eastern Europe is of great importance; otherwise they will remain lost to culture generally.

Last but not least, we shall have to make room for all those who either came, and come, into conflict with Jewish orthodoxy or turned their backs on Judaism for the reasons mentioned above. These figures will be of special significance for the whole endeavor; they may even become the supreme test of its success or failure. Not only because creative talent has been especially frequent among them in recent times, but also because they, in their individual efforts towards secularization, offer the first models for that new amalgamation of older traditions with new impulses and awareness without which a specifically Jewish cultural atmosphere is hardly conceivable. These talents do not need us, they achieve culture on their own responsibility. We, on the other hand, do need them since they form the only basis, however small, of culture that we have got; a basis we shall have to extend gradually in both directions: the secularization of religious tradition and rescue from folklore of the great artists (mostly Yiddish) of secular folk life.



Whether such a development will be realized nobody can possibly foretell. COMMENTARY looks to me like a good beginning and it certainly is a novum in Jewish cultural life. The reason for some optimism, however, is in the last analysis a political one.

The Yishuv in Palestine is the first Jewish achievement brought about by an entirely secular movement. There is no doubt that whatever may happen to Hebrew literature in the future, Hebrew writers and artists will not need to confine themselves to either folk life or religion in order to remain Jews. They are the first Jews who as Jews are free to start from more than a pre-cultural level.

The Jewish people of America, on the other hand, live a reasonably safe and reasonably free life that permits them to do, relatively, what they please. The central and strongest part of diaspora Jewry no longer exists under the conditions of a nation-state but in a country that would annul its own constitution if ever it demanded homogeneity of population and an ethnic foundation for its state. In America one does not have to pretend that Judaism is nothing but a denomination and resort to all those desperate and crippling disguises that were common among the rich and educated Jews of Europe.

The development of a Jewish culture, in other words, or the lack of it, will from now on not depend upon circumstances beyond the control of the Jewish people, but upon their own will.



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