One of America’s leading historians of the Jewish people, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932-2009) trained numerous scholars, and shaped the thought of many more with his works on Jewish memory, Marranism, and Sigmund Freud. In conversation with Sylvie Anne Goldberg, he reflected on the state of Judaism in his day:
One movement that is quite active right now calls itself “secular Judaism.” I have nothing against these people, who include many American and Israeli academics and intellectuals, nor against their movement or this trend. I support any action taken in the name of affirming Jewish identity. The one thing that annoys me, and I don’t think it’s a sign of purism, is the name itself, “secular Judaism.” Historically speaking, I find it distorting, misleading, and contradictory. Judaism is a religion, or at least it was. We can’t artificially cancel this aspect.
Above all, Judaism is a religion. By definition, every specifically Jewish way of life is anchored in one form or another to a religious connection to life.
And although Yerushalmi admitted sometimes thinking that “the condition of the Jewish people . . . isn’t anything to be proud of,” he urged reflection on the situation immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
The state of mind expressed in the Apocalypse of Baruch, [a religious work from that period], is, “let’s stop sowing, plowing, getting married, and everything else, because it’s all over.” And yet, nothing’s over, since we’re here today to talk about it. The other example comes from a poem by Yehudah Leib Gordon, . . . “L’mi ani amel” (“For Whom Do I Toil?”). . . . I quote from memory—the end of the poem states: “Who knows? Perhaps I’m the last Hebrew language poet and you are the last readers.” This poem was written in 1870, I believe. That’s how Gordon felt at the time, with good reason. There was no way to predict that less than a century later, a Jewish state would be restored, in which Hebrew would become the daily language.