Secularism and Its Discontents: Rethinking an Organizing Principle of Modern Jewish Life



Post-Doctoral Fellowships 2009–2010

The notions of secularization, the secular, and secularism-and their intersection with the great narratives of modernity-have become subject to new and productive scrutiny. This fellowship year invites scholars from a broad range of disciplines to engage in a critical analysis of these overlapping concepts and their effects on religious, intellectual, and political life. Such an analysis will deepen our understanding of modern Jewish history and culture, as well as of the relationship between Jews and non-Jews from antiquity onward. At the same time, it will contribute to ongoing discussions that interrogate the theological aspects of secularism and their impact on modern interpretations of the idea of religion.

We propose to study the Jewish role in the "formation of the secular" from a wide-angled, comparative outlook. By studying diverse Jewish communities in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, we seek to encourage projects that bring Christian, Muslim, and other experiences into comparative perspective.

During the course of the year, fellows focused on the topic through many methodological and historical lenses, asking such questions as:

  • How have Jews and Jewish communities defined themselves vis-à-vis "the secular"? How are Jewish approaches to "secularization" tied to the Christian, Muslim, or multi-religious societies in which Jews have lived and continue to live?
  • How do Jews respond to the theological dimensions of discourse often deemed secular, such as in the ideas of science, toleration, and the state? How do we understand the lives of conversos, converts, and sceptics in the face of established religious boundaries?
  • Does the advent of modern Israel challenge the categories of "the religious" and "the secular"? How might a reevaluation of these categories contribute to understanding Zionism, Orientalism, the relations between European and Mizrahi or Arab Jews, and the attitudes of Jews and Arabs in Israel and beyond toward one another?
  • How is our understanding of "the secular" and "the religious" complicated when we study traditionalist groups that make use of the very instrumentalities of modern liberal institutions such as the media and the courts either to promote or protect their communities?
  • Does the current European debate on minority cultures, citizenship, and national values hark back to an older European Jewish encounter with secular nationalism?



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