Can Judaism exist without the religion? Are there secular Jews? Is it possible for people to consider themselves to be Jewish without any formal affiliation with either a religious or other specifically Jewish institution? If so, what sort of Jews are they? These questions trouble all those interested in the history, present position and future prospect of the Jews as a people. There have been many answers: Zionist, non-Zionist, cultural, ethnic, sociological, theological (both Christian and Jewish) and others less respectable. We have no answers but we have a different way to put the question, a biographical way, which may help to define the parameters of a possible answer. We ask how have individual Jews defined themselves and how have they chosen to live their lives. Such choices only became possible in the Western world after the Enlightenment, the American and the French Revolutions had created the category of “citizen”, a new, free, universal, abstract person, who had the right to be what he or she chose. Some Jews thought that they could simply shed their old identities and become members of the new community of citizens. In many countries, whatever Jews thought they were, the host populations saw them as Jews. The most violent and terrible of those rejections ended in the Holocaust, which made “Jews” of Catholic priests and nuns, Protestant pastors, communists, socialists, believers and non-believers, rich and poor, assimilated and orthodox. A national home for the Jews arose out of the ashes but it could not agree on a definition of Jewish identity to ground its Law of Return and the “Jewish” identity of many groups of immigrants to Israel remains contested. In the USA and Western Europe, inter-marriage rates have risen. In what sense can mixed couples or their children still be “Jewish”? This course will try to address these questions in a strictly historical way, following a selection of lives of important Jews who at different times and places attempted their own answers to these questions. These lives will be drawn mainly from Western Europe, where until the Second World War, the majority of Jews lived. We shall also consider some American lives since during the Twentieth Century the American Jewish community became the place where choice of identity became an unusually important issue. We shall also look at the lives of some who chose Israel as the “national” answer to the question of Jewish identity and some who chose socialism or communism as the way to “solve the Jewish Question” and find a new identity.
Day and Time: 
T 0130PM-0430PM
Cross Listings: 
  • JWST230401
  • RELS230401