An Intellectual History of Secularism


Gregory Kaplan is Anna Smith Fine Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. He directs the program on Jewish secularization, and teaches “Secularizing Jewry/Judaizing Secularity” and other courses.

Until recently, a generic “theory of secularization” held sway. It was inspired by Max Weber, who believed that in the wake of scientific and technical achievement, religious values diminish. That was one prong of Weber’s three-pronged theory; Weber also believed that once a society became stratified, religion becomes cut off from other cultural activities, and that in an individualistic society, religion becomes a private matter.

Weber’s theory has been questioned by scholars. But in at least one way, it’s still useful. In theorizing secularization, Weber raises a deceptively complex question: What do we mean when we talk about secularism? What do we mean, in fact, by secular?

Most simply, the secular denotes an orientation toward this world, this life.  The secular is a status (of life), just as secularization is a process (in life) and secularism is an ideology/attitude (towards life). Secular describes the space in which religious values are negligible or neutralized; in this space, religious differences in belief, practice, or feeling are unimportant. In metaphysical terms, the secular naturalizes the supernatural; in social terms, it humanizes the divine.

But that definition, broad as it may seem, is really just a starting point. It remains debated, for instance, whether secularization is a process ensuing from religion or the opposite: a reaction to, a rebellion against, religion. Put slightly differently, does secularization enact a new era, or transfer old wine into new bottles?[i]

On the one hand, secularization could be seen to grow from the inaccessibility of God in the Hebrew Bible or, more directly, Christian sources (Matthew 22:21, Manicheans, Augustine’s civitas, etc).[ii] In this conception, secularization is the religious engagement of worldly interests. 

On the other hand, secularization could be said to incite (indeed, Francis Bacon dubbed it the “Great Instauration”) a “rupture,” or a “break,” between human interest and divine will, natural evidence and supernatural magic. In this conception, secularization confirms or justifies the “self assertion” of human being.[iii] Of course, self-assertion risks taking on a new religious import, such as the deification of the Romantic genius, or the Führerprinzip; but that would not diminish the legitimacy of its struggle for expression, what Jürgen Habermas names “the unfinished project of modernity.”[iv]

Can a “pure” secularism also be “Jewish”? That is, does the universal (secular) clash with the particular (Jewish)? Or can the two be compatible?

In fact, there is ample precedent for combining the two—in streams of Jewish literature and history. Secular ideology could even draw on sources of the tradition for its own image of the future. Has not the Exodus story come to incite multiple acts of revolution?  Did not late biblical social prophets bring sacrifice outside the Temple, rendering justice effectively pro-fane (before the Temple)? Did not the Davidic Empire loosen Israel’s contingent dependence on God’s will, leaving the Hebrews to make their own way, in part at least?[v]  But, nevertheless, revolution, justice, and empire also suggest a kind of rupture or disruption—a break in the continuum of orders, mores, and territories.

Other parts of the Jewish religious tradition seem to contain, or subsume, the secular. For instance, rabbinic culture in late antiquity itself commonly situated the secular between the sacred and the profane—or beyond that very distinction. The period of chol ha-moed is the duration of time that stands between the first and last days of a multi-day holiday such as Passover, during which business proceeds as usual for the weekday. That seems to contain the secular within the limits of the sacred. By comparison, a lively argument in the ancient and contemporary literature animates the discussion of whether the rabbinic category of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din means to extend the spirit of the law beyond a “religious” application of the letter. In Judaism, it would seem, "secular means that which is there to be sanctified”—whether in time or out of time, locally or globally.[vi]  Indeed, many scholars have underscored the worldly preoccupations of rabbinic law and lore. 

By the 18th century, "secular" meant any epoch breaking off the past from the future in the present, redistributing authority, property, and purpose in new configurations throughout the sciences, nation-states, and segmented, industrialized societies (with burgeoning bourgeoisie and bureaucracy). Later on, Jewish secularism advanced the social and symbolic over legal and theological qualities. And so we have Heinrich Heine's 1823 plaint: "the baptismal is the ticket of admission to European culture." Theology concerns also became sublimated into economic concerns, according to Karl Marx, who criticized both secular and religious Jews for trading (as he more or less put it) God for money.

If much is debatable about secularism, one thing is clear: Jewish secularism has many forms, many dimensions.  Some of its ideological proponents advised a public-private split personality, as in J. Leib Gordon's 1862 verse: "Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home." Middle Eastern Jewry varied geographically, but by mid-20th century, Jews in Iran and Iraq were overwhelmingly secular. Before their decimation, Central and Eastern European Jewry had concentrated political and literary secularisms in urban Vienna, Prague, Odessa, and Warsaw. And  Hanukah, celebrating a story of hope amidst devastation, has become a popular Jewish holiday replete with secularized ceremonial trappings of Christmas. 

If we’ve failed to settle upon a single definition of secularism, it may be because “secular” is less a word than a concept. Concepts are slippery; they depend heavily on context; and contexts not only vary (as we’ve seen)—they also evolve.

[i] See Jean-Claude Monod, La querelle de la secularization de Hegel à Blemenberg (J. Vrin, 2002), 23.

[ii] See Karl Löwith, Meaning in History, and Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World. Peter Berger writes, “the ‘disenchantment of the world’ begins in the Old Testament” and its iconoclastic destruction of idols (Sacred Canopy, 107, 113).

[iii] Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age.

[iv] Blumenberg, Legitimacy 65.  The study of Jewish historiography has witnessed a parallel debate between those who claim that Jewish history is a modern rupture from Jewish memory (e.g. Yosef Yerushalmi, Zakhor) and those who argue that history-writing itself derives from apocalyptic writers’ calculating calendars (e.g. Amos Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History).

[v] See Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution; Israel Knohl, The Sanctuary of Silence; Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion.

[vi] Thus given the ample and abiding “resources with which Judaism confronts the olam ha-zeh” or the “saeculum,” Werblowsky adds, “after centuries of seclusion … [the Jews] needed a re-entry into the larger ‘world’ but no discovery of it, let alone conversion to it.” R. J. Z. Werblowsky, Beyond Tradition and Modernity (The Athlone Press, 1976), 40-60.