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Secular Societies, Religious Followers: Opportunities? Challenges?

Published December 18, 2020 by Sophia Bor

Sophia Bor is joint winner of the first William Kessler Essay Prize Competition 2020. This is her submission.

The challenges faced by modern Jewish communities living in secular societies are not dissimilar to those faced by their ancient and medieval predecessors. How does one remain Jewish and fully integrated in the wider society? Every Jewish society facing this predicament must work through which values of the wider culture it wishes to adopt and which it feels compelled to reject. The literature produced by such societies forms part of the process of acculturation, a framing of this balance, but also serves a polemical function by encouraging Jews to become English or German or Greek and/or to prove to the wider society that Jews belong.

As a Jewish woman attending university, I experience this predicament daily. I was born into a traditional Jewish family and attended Yeshiva (Jewish seminary) in Israel. The Yeshiva I attended is Modern Orthodox in outlook. Modern Orthodoxy distinguishes itself from Ultra-Orthodoxy by seeking to find an accommodation between religion and modernity. The outlook has its roots in the thought of Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (1820–1899) and Rabbi Samson R Hirsh (1808–1888), who lived in Europe, and later Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–1993) in the US. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a contemporary theologian, also follows in that tradition.

While such an outlook encourages full engagement with the wider society, it presents a challenge for everyone born into it in that it is inherently conflicted, espousing uncompromising practice of tradition on the one hand, while respecting personal autonomy on the other. I only really experienced the conflict on entering university. Suddenly choices needed to be made. Will I be prepared to keep laws such as Shabbat, Sukkot, and Chanukah, which demand acting or refraining from action in a very public way?[1] Will I attend Church services to broaden my cultural horizons, even if this is not sanctioned by strict Jewish law? How do I square modern views of homosexuality and women with less tolerant traditional treatments?

I see these challenges as opportunities to keep religion fresh, and innovative. Tradition gives shape to this task, rather like form in the writing of a sonnet. As a classicist, I see literature as an important space where such ideas are worked through and tested. Jonathan Sacks' works, for example, are apologetic, but they also invite young traditionalists to engage by showing how faith can contribute to secular society and visa vera. They are not overtly prescriptive. Other, perhaps less devout, modern Jewish literature also grapples with themes of faith, doubt and identity such as novels by Naomi Alderman and Jonathan Safran Foer or Dolly Alderton's Everything I Know About Love.

There are parallels here with ancient Jewish writing, including 1st Century Alexandrian Jewish Greek literature which I would like to explore as a test case. My basic thesis is that writers use literature more as a way of working through their predicament than advocating a particular path for an external audience. In so doing, they invariably create something new, a blend of cultures and values, which cannot be judged by prior standards. A focus on polemics has led us to overlook the dialogic quality of such literature, and its relevance to contemporary religious followers navigating a secular world.

In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered and Hellenised the Middle East. Alexandria, an Egyptian port town with a large Jewish population, became an important centre of Greek culture, religion, and language. From the 3rd Century BCE, Greek became the lingua franca. This opened up the entire empire to those who embraced it. Jewish works began to appear in Greek, the most famous being the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek. The Septuagint gave Greek speakers access to biblical modes of thinking, and Jewish writers a vocabulary with which to engage with Greek ideas.

Such Jewish writers were not only attempting to mimic their non-Jewish counterparts, but were finding a place for their own tradition within Hellenistic culture. The Second Book of Maccabees and the Songs of Solomon, for example, served to integrate Greek ideas of heroism and wisdom respectively into Hebraic culture. The era also produced Ezekiel, a Jewish tragedian. His Exagoge (Exodus) depicts the life of Moses but is in Greek literary form and uses the metre typical of Greek tragedy. At about the same time, Philo Epicus wrote an epic on Jerusalem in the mode of the Greek tradition, suffused with epic language, and unusual vocabulary.

The Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in the 1st Century, grappled head-on with the challenges posed by Greek thinking to the biblical tradition. One important issue at this time was the descriptions of God in the Bible, which to some appeared all too human. Philo argued for an allegorical approach to such descriptions, using a blend of Midrash and Greek thinking such as Platonism, Neo-Platonism, and Stoicism. The Stoics had applied allegory to their interpretation of Homer.

It is all too easy to dismiss Philo's efforts as apology. However, a more fruitful approach is to see his writing as an attempt to integrate the learning of the day, which he accepted, with his own tradition which he considered to hold profound truths. What resulted was innovation, a new way of looking at the texts. In the Sifra; Avot of Rabbi Natan 37, Hillel describes seven approaches to interpreting scripture. Allegory is not among them. In fact, allegory was met with disapproval by the Rabbis because it tends to move too far from the plain meaning of the text. Philo set Jewish exegesis on a new course, and although his influence was more direct on Christian thinkers, Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed (12th Century) deals with allegory philosophically at great length and therefore can be seen as following a similar approach.

Some academics have judged Jewish Greek authors harshly. In Greek Grammar 26, Winer describes Jewish Greek writing as being unintelligible to Greeks. Holladay too seems unimpressed by the "simple" and "unadorned" writings of Jewish Greek historian, Demetrius, although he recognises his lack of pretention (Holladay, Historians 52). He further says of Eupolemus, another Jewish Greek historian, that his work has a "quality of Greek inferior" to other Greek writers (Holladay, Historians 95).

But to take such a critical approach is to ignore the challenge facing such Jewish Greek writers. They not only had to learn the linguistic and literary tools of their trade, but how to swim in the depths of a culture which was foreign to, or in apparent conflict with, the tradition in which they were born.

And it is this observation which has direct relevance to contemporary religious societies. When such societies view themselves or are viewed by others as being in a battle with secularism, lines are drawn in the sand, and innovation is stifled. But when the project of such societies is viewed more as one of engagement and dialogue, a working out and testing of values, new worlds come to be. This leads to experiment, trial and error, not perfection. Progress is possible when we are careful to judge what is produced in this context. It is only then that challenges become opportunities.


Adam Kamesar, The Cambridge companion to Philo, 2009

Neil, Dreams, virtue, and divine knowledge in early Christian Egypt, 2019

Tcherikover, Jewish Apologetics, 1956

[1] Shabbat requires refraining from creative work on Saturday, which includes going in cars, writing or spending money. Sukkot requires living in a booth outside one's home for 7 days. And Chanukah requires lighting candles in public.

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